Winter's in an especially sadistic mood on this February night. The sidewalk ice could make any stumble fatal, and the wind cuts like a switchblade through a leather jacket's smallest gaps. Undeterred, the Cities' collection of punks and weirdos flock like moths to the eerie, bug-zapper-green glow of exterior lights at the Hexagon Bar in south Minneapolis.
The Seward neighborhood business dates back to the repeal of Prohibition, but the current Hex is a sports bar by day and a 21+ punk hovel by night. No cover, but you'd better buy your Stag tallboy from the dead-eyed bartender on the side where the bands play if you'd like the night's entertainment to see a sorry dollar.
Instead of plugging into the lovably abused and ale-infused PA system, the post-hardcore five-piece Mute Swan have clogged the floor in front of the stage with their massive amp cabinets. Led by menacing frontwoman Jessica Katz's banshee screams and gloomy, haunted croons, the band spews a moody, leering blend of driving dissonance.
Night after night, the dingy, beloved Hex is a rare above-ground site for heavier, freakier collisions of art school and art damage like Mute Swan. It's also a shining reminder that the Twin Cities music scene is a hell of a lot more than lumbersexual folkies, backpack rap, and Purple fucking Rain.
Katz paces the floor near the stage's right side with palpable menace, and mostly ignores the building crowd. She glares at guitarist Gibson, who finishes his vocal passage and begins a searing, feedback-laced lead. Pivoting like Kevin Garnett in the post, Gibson lets his back absorb a spray of beer and elbows from the crowd, and returns to the mic with an aggressive half-spin. After pinballing off of a denim-vested heavy, the guitarist collides with a bespectacled, pompadoured man gripping his smartphone in one hand and a g&t in the other.
Mr. Pompadour keeps hold of his phone, but his plastic cup's contents end up all over Gibson's forearm. He smiles like a kid at Disneyworld, and keeps capturing the chaos unfolding around him with his phone. This is Manny; he's one-third of UnderCurrentMPLS, and he does this at least four nights a week.
Compared to the Hex's Bud signs and blue-collar grime, Dinkytown's Kitty Cat Klub feels like a labyrinthine opium den, with a photo booth in back. Manny and his two UnderCurrent associates — his wife, Jennifer, and the site's founder, nicknamed Gravey — have agreed to meet City Pages amid the mash of potted ferns, tapestries, and faux-luxe furniture for an interview. (Like several characters in this story, they've asked that their full names be omitted.)
In 2013, Manny and Gravey first bonded over their obsession with live music footage during a show at Memory Lanes. "I told him I had done a bunch of video recording myself, but not at the same level he had been doing," Manny says. "I did national acts when they were cool with me recording. I'd just sit on the videos, and very few of them were posted. But I asked Gravey if he could edit video, and he said, 'Yeah, I do that kind of shit,' so I said, 'Well, why don't we try two angles of this band we both really like?'"
"It happened once, and then we saw each other probably three days later at the next show," Gravey adds with a laugh. "We have very similar music tastes, so we were just at the same shows all the time, so we were like, 'Hey, wanna do that again?' and pretty soon we were just doing it all the time."
This particular evening's meet-up at Kitty Cat Klub coincides with their filming of vulnerable yet aloof pop-punks We/Ours. Despite a thin, indifferent Tuesday crowd, the band soldiers through admirably with irresistibly barbed melodies and a healthy dose of fuck-it.
Even in a near-empty room, the film crew's presence is indistinguishable. There's no giant lens or steadicam harness, and the lighting is decidedly un-staged. The only equipment is two standard-issue smartphones and a point-and-shoot digital camera.
While the average film-school wonk would scoff at the idea, the smartphone is the perfect tool for what UnderCurrent does. It's incredibly portable, discreet, and an utterly generic part of the live music experience in 2015. A bulky DSLR or even a tech-y GoPro would immediately change the dynamic of what makes UnderCurrent so vital. By sticking with their phones, UnderCurrent can blend into the background of any scene and step into the role of documentarian for a fleeting, precisely timed moment.
"I was at a Tom Petty concert, and all 15 of the people directly around me were holding cell phones," says Manny. "So maybe one-third of the people around me were doing it. That's kind of what we're doing too, is what everyone else would be doing if they had the opportunity. It's a real bootstraps way to do it."[page]
From the Woodstock movie to the Stones' Gimme Shelter to Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz — profiling the Band's star-studded final performance — concert documentation has a rich tradition. Such films mix the urge to preserve a moment for posterity with a grand, auteurial statement. With thinly veiled contempt, director D.A. Pennebaker showed a portrait of Bob Dylan amid his transition from earnest folk singer to iconoclastic rogue in the 1967 feature Don't Look Back that still stands up as required viewing. As for Scorsese, his cocaine-fueled enthusiasm for the Band is palpable as he stammers questions to Robbie Robertson from behind the camera.
Similarly, the punk community has embraced concert videos since the 1970s. The Clash and the Ramones bolstered their rock 'n' roll mythology via cinema, and the cheap-and-dirty Super 8 cameras of the '80s allowed the nascent hardcore and indie scenes to create regionally diverse bootlegs of themselves. In Los Angeles skateboarding merged with performances by groups like Suicidal Tendencies, New York filmmakers incorporated elements of art-house flicks, and D.C. bootleggers reached for socio-political significance.
None of UnderCurrent's core members work within the broadcast or film industry, but they cop to some art filmmaking and scene photography experience. Mostly self-taught, they use techniques that fall in with standard practice for documenting live performance. When filming, two people position themselves on opposite ends of the stage and hide in each other's blind spots — just like every major sitcom since I Love Lucy.
"You can use some zoom capabilities on these cellphones, but when it comes down to it, dual angle is best," Manny says. "We try to set up strategically and be artistic about what we're doing. We all understand what's happening on stage pretty well, how we relate to it and what makes that attractive, but it's all just random really."
The randomness he's referring to comes from the blood 'n' beer-drenched scene itself. A good chunk of the shows that Manny, Jennifer, and Gravey frequent are rowdy enough to require a guerilla approach.
"If we know that a band has a singer that likes to go on the floor, like [Minneapolis arty pop-noise four-piece] the Miami Dolphins, maybe one of us will be more in tune with that, or at least more aware," Jennifer says.
The endemic challenges of the basement show scene — where quality stages, lighting, and sometimes even vocal PAs are nonexistent — make these events some of UnderCurrent's favorites to attend and film. Hundreds of obscure, but often essential, Twin Cities bands with handles like Cool Dog and Constant Insult eschew the "real" local venues for ideological or logistical reasons, so venturing underground is a must.
"It's usually darker, and the sound is usually shittier," Gravey adds. "But it's usually so much more fun."
During a two-week span in February, UnderCurrent uploaded roughly 30 live videos filmed around the Twin Cities to youtube.com/UnderCurrentMPLS. They'll create twice as many during the summer while venue-hopping on bikes before some 2 a.m. tacos on East Lake.
UnderCurrent recently cracked 1,700 total video uploads. To put that into perspective, the completely nonprofit DIY project has more performance clips than 89.3 the Current, NPR Music, and Austin City Limits combined.
Don't expect to find documentation of indie heavies like the National and or even a local darling like Jeremy Messersmith in UnderCurrent's grainy, dark archives. Do expect a friend's band's first show, the side project of a side project of a side project, and outright offensive experimental shit at punk houses whose occupants don't want the cops reading about them in City Pages.
They document bands that often make a huge creative splash for a few months and then break up — or go on a never-ending hiatus. The Uranium Club and Sunbelt Chemical Corporation, eventually known as just Uranium Club, is one such group. After forming sometime in late 2013, the Devo-on-PCP band turned the scene on its ear with legendary house shows. UnderCurrent was there, and four or so videos are all that remain after the group disappeared as mysteriously as they formed.
Gravey started UnderCurrent by himself in 2011. His first video was an admittedly amateurish recording of one of those side project-type groups called Fetch the Warden. Shot outdoors completely at eye level, the clip's visuals are reminiscent of a half-hearted filming of a friend. The music is something else entirely — complex, bizarre guitar-heroism that's as fascinating as the video is unflattering.
"The reason that I filmed it was because they didn't have any recordings, and I wanted to hear the songs when I wasn't at the show," UnderCurrent's founder explains. "Basically, the easiest way to kind of have them hear it too was to put it on YouTube. So I started a YouTube channel, and it just snowballed from there."
Some 5,000 minutes of video and four years later, UnderCurrent has aligned with auxiliary video and audio contributors, such as prolific bootleg taper John Empty and Kitty Cat Klub sound wizard Ryan Olcott. The weekly show listings at facebook.com/UnderCurrentMPLS have become the de facto scene calendar for the DIY community with exuberant daily reminders.
(This article hits stands midway through UnderCurrent's March residency at Triple Rock Social Club, which features bands they love to film like the Miami Dolphins, Animal Lover, Disasteratti, and STNNNG, as well as newer groups like Catbath, and one total wild card that even Gravey had never heard of named Goldenrod.)
"[UnderCurrent] is basically a media outlet now," says musician and Ecstattic Studio owner Ali Jaafar. "On a basic level, it's cool that someone is documenting the scene and providing people with a way to check out new bands that haven't recorded yet, but on a deeper level, it's nice that there's another way for people to get music out and find kindred spirits."
Patrick Larkin of the Miami Dolphins agrees. The guitarist says UnderCurrent's traction outside of the navel-gazing Twin Cities has helped with booking. "On the last couple Miami Dolphins tours, people had checked out their videos and were very curious about it," he explains. "It gave these people in other cities the impression that there's a buttload of live music of all varieties going on in the city, which is accurate."[page]
Back at the Hex, Mute Swan conclude their shambolic set and the back room empties as punks brave the cold for cigarettes and slam beers furtively in the parking lot. Manny finds Jennifer, and the palpable, playful chemistry between them speaks volumes.
At a bar-side table, they pore over just-obtained smartphone footage. Jennifer captured Katz's dynamic movements and presence best, but her video is hampered by low light and blown-out sound. They decide to upload Manny's footage to the UnderCurrent blog immediately, and resolve to edit both angles together for future use. Even after hundreds of conversations just like this one, there's a breathless, giddy quality in this moment — like a couple of teenagers reeling after their first punk show.
Watch the finished product on YouTube later, and it's easy to get swept up. Gravey edited the final product in black and white, and the diffused lighting in front of the Hexagon's stage lends a shadowy, retro-horror mystique to Katz and Gibson's impenetrable presence.
Both Manny and Jennifer shoot their subjects kinetically, circling their targets and pushing in for details — displaying an intimate knowledge of pace, rhythm, and movement, no doubt born from a lifetime of shows just like this one. The remarkably pristine audio, captured by Tom Michaels, is the closest thing to a Mute Swan demo tape that exists.
Out on the Hex's smoking patio, Manny and Jennifer run into longtime friends Jim and Erica, who play dark, gothic, and industrial music as Oaks. When the topic of Chicago touring comes up, Manny and Jennifer effusively spool out tips for venues and bands to partner with, and promise to promote Oaks' show to their Windy City friends.
The conversation ends abruptly when the pulse of bass resumes inside. The show's back on. Before heading in, Manny teases a reporter caught yawning. How does he catch up on sleep after late shows with an early downtown office job? Manny laughs. "There's no catching up on sleep," he says, opening the door to the noise and warmth inside the Hex. "You've gotta be out here for this shit every night."
Outside of UnderCurrent, the rest of life for the trio is carefully guarded. Gravey is reluctant to discuss his professional gig, and his cohorts aren't any more forthright. Compared to the immediately recognizable Manny, the affably handsome Gravey could throw on a Twins cap and chinos and disappear into a crowd — excepting his mischievous, Cheshire Cat grin.
Near anonymity suits the UnderCurrent founder just fine, though. Their website intentionally omits their identities, and calls their collective a "fart sponsored-for-profit-LLC Conglomerate based out of Hollywood California that exploits local music of the Twin Cities." The gags about being endorsed by Pepsi never wane.
"Obviously, all these bands that I'm filming all the time see me and know that I do this," Gravey states. "But I never wanted the page to be about the people that were filming it. I want it to be about the bands themselves. It's not necessarily that I think it's cool to have any kind of cryptic quality to it, but I like things to have a little bit of a mystery."
"That's something that I decided right away, was to make this thing kind of a joke page," he continues. "But it's serious in the way that I take the musicians and their art seriously. I have a strong passion about seeing these bands and documenting whatever I can of the stuff that I love."
In actuality, Gravey's not getting the Pepsi lucre or any YouTube earnings whatsoever. Even hipper nonprofits like MPR and Radio K are, at some level, beholden to seeking mass appeal to shore up yearly pledge drives. UnderCurrent has no such masters. In this way, the website mirrors DIY zine culture as a product of the community created simply for the pure unadulterated joy of doing so.
Manny puts it best when describing just missing an epic moment at a Blind Shake show with his camera. "I'd love to have video of Mike Blaha throwing his guitar 30 feet in the air and then catching it," he says. "But I'm there to see the show, too."
"I actually have a severe editing problem," Jennifer says, describing her work before UnderCurrent dating back to 2007. "I'll take like 150 photos of a band and then not know how to condense it down. So for this it's super easy, I pick one. I can take as many pictures as I want, but I pick one and post it online and it's done."
Diminutive in stature and blessed with a sweet disposition, UnderCurrent's photographer sometimes endures more shoves than her teammates, especially in shows at basement venues. But the jostling for position just comes with the territory for a scene lifer.
"The videos and the photos end up like, 'Okay, well, I'm smushed up against the bass player trying not to get hit in the head, how can I make this interesting,'" she says.
The possibilities for UnderCurrent's production output are wide open. Jennifer is responsible for the majority of the Facebook page stills, Manny's gift of gab maintains relationships with bands, and Gravey's skills made him into the back-end editor.
Once the raw footage is obtained, it's funneled via email or flash drive to Gravey, who does the editing on his home computer when he gets a few spare hours. As a result, UnderCurrent's output comes in spurts, with the occasional flood of content when footage piles up. Some videos require extra tweaking and can stay in the can for months, while others are uploaded moments after a set via a smartphone's data connection.
Admittedly, UnderCurrent's most viewed videos on YouTube aren't always production-value gems. A well-timed Facebook share often sees to that more than any sort of grand democratic upswell. A video of surf punks Waveless at a DIY space called White Page succumbed to technical limitations brilliantly. Its frames are blown-out, lag oddly, and are full of digital snowflakes as pitiful cellphone cameras attempt to keep up with brutal high-contrast lighting. But the warts fit the ethereal, ghostly qualities of the music.
Gravey's private playlist of favorites, however, shows a pattern of up-close and personal shooting — no farther than three feet from the performance unless absolutely necessary. Constant motion and rapid cuts between angles creates a hyperactive, dynamic perspective.
As the chemistry within the trio has grown, so have UnderCurrent's production values. While the three friends remain firmly committed to smartphone videography, their technique has become more intentional, eventually settling into a signature strategy that they half-ironically refer to as the "Classic Two."
"We were doing this so often that sometimes we would forget to communicate which song we were going to record," explains Gravey, "So we'd have to kind of make eye contact, and it was always an awkward thing to do, so we started deciding ahead of time."
As musicians themselves, Gravey and Manny understand crafting a live set, and observed that the groups they were filming regularly stick gems right around their second or third songs. Take the torrential punk act Animal Lover. The song "Plasme," which rips open their debut LP, is in at the second slot of the band's sets so often that UnderCurrent began breaking the "Classic Two" rule to capture a more varied output.
"First one? Nah, they might not have the sound right," Gravey elaborates. "Sixth one? I don't know if I can count to six right now. So that's the secret of the 'Classic Two.' We usually get the second song because that's the easiest thing to keep track of."
"Then you can relax for the rest of the set and just watch the music," Jennifer cracks.
Another Friday rolls around. While Manny and Jennifer take in an experimental music showcase in St. Paul's North End, Gravey beats back business-trip exhaustion to hit a house venue, affectionately dubbed something like "Fork Ave."
Fork's inspired decor includes a backdrop of blue-green streamers against the far wall of the basement music area. A handful of dish-sized portraits of early U.S. presidents are affixed in haphazard fashion between the streamers, each one with its eyes obscured by a black censor box. A red, pulsing light sits atop the PA in honor of Valentine's Day.
Most shows here start on "punk time," anywhere from one to four hours behind schedule, but Minneapolis's reigning riot grrrls Kitten Forever hit the stage promptly at 7:30 p.m. The trio rapidly swap instruments between songs to give each member a turn rocking their trademark telephone receiver microphone. Next are locals Diver Dress, who meld the best parts of pop-punk sounds from the Pacific Northwest and our scene's own brand of the subgenre.
Even though Fork Ave recently knocked out a wall to allow for more elbow room, the music space itself is still extremely intimate, creating a dense forest of bodies that's nearly impossible to navigate. The UnderCurrent founder posts up in a corner near the PA and tries to hold on. (Viewed later, his uploads look downright professional. Or at least they do after a few beers.)
The camera's steadiness goes to shit when the Mr. Dad from Minot, North Dakota, roll in. They look like mild-mannered nerds until the set starts. Right away, their frontman, Charlie, rams into the audience like a goat with a death wish. Their blisteringly fast, bizzaro hardcore is like the musical version of a soda-fountain suicide cocktail. Before three songs have been finished, Charlie is three-quarters naked, nearly strangling himself with the semi-functional microphone cable, and rolling on the ground with guitarist Alvin in a soup of spilled beer and crushed Hamm's cans.
In the midst of all this chaos, Gravey calmly sports that Cheshire grin and keeps recording.
The resulting footage is best viewed on an empty stomach, and not just because of Charlie's gnarly back hair. The first-person viewpoint rolls, dips, and stumbles while the stuttering editing gives the seizure-inducing ADHD effect of a fight scene from a bad action movie. Caught up in the utter fucking madness, Charlie half-tackles the cameraman, sending the shot skyward.
No one warns Gravey, who's still transfixed by his phone like it was the briefcase filled with golden light in Pulp Fiction. Soon he is lost in the push of bodies. Dread begins to creep in. A few seconds pass. Then he emerges, unscathed and against a wall across the room, still smiling, phone held aloft.
UnderCurrent Mpls at the Triple Rock 2015 Residency
Wednesday, March 4: Gay Witch Abortion, the Miami Dolphins, Waveless, Goldenrod
Wednesday, March 11: Animal Lover, Hollow Boys, Mute Swan
Wednesday, March 18: STNNNG, Hardcore Crayons, Disasteratti
Wednesday, March 25: Kitten Forever, B.O.Y.F., Catbath
18+, $5, 8 p.m., Great Job!
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