Home / Most Recent / Culture / River Town Sound: Part one of a series exploring Louisville’s evolving music culture

River Town Sound: Part one of a series exploring Louisville’s evolving music culture

It is a Saturday night at Spinelli’s and the venue is stirring with anticipation; the first band on the bill is about to begin. The small, dimly lit, basement restaurant is filled to capacity.

No one sitting seems to notice the band of three college kids crammed in the corner tuning and finishing their soundcheck. But, suddenly, a man approaches the microphone. He quickly introduces the trio as The Ego Trippers, with Zack Anderson on lead guitar and vocals, Izak Cirillo on bass, and Donnie Haines on drums, promotes the venue and the headlining band, and steps out of the way.

To break the pre-show tension, Anderson quickly steps up to the mic and gives a faint hello. Then, out of nowhere Anderson screams “Kick it,” sending the band into the popular Beastie Boys song “You Gotta Fight For Your Right.”

As Anderson’s feet fly across the guitar pedals to recover from the distortion in the beginning of the song and Cirillo and Haines start locking in time, listeners begin to experience the unique drive and ambience of Louisville indie-rock that has been molded from decades of local innovation and creation.

Louisville is known around the country for the Kentucky Derby, bourbon, and bluegrass music, but in the last few decades Louisville has greatly impacted the national and international punk/indie rock culture. Because of several local musicians and groups breaking out nationally, Louisville has made a name for itself as a city with influences that reach across generations.

The earliest example of one of these bands is the Babylon Dance Band of the late-‘70s, formed by Tara Key, Sean Mulhall, Tim Harris and Chip Nold.

“That was one of Louisville’s first early punk bands having influence beyond the city,” Elizabeth Reilly said. Reilly works on the Louisville Underground Music Archive (LUMA) project, which documents Louisville’s independent music from the ‘70s to the present.

The Babylon Dance Band was one of Louisville’s first local bands to be covered by national media. In the ‘80s they were written-up in the Village Voice and received a spot in the New York Rocker’s readers’ poll of favorite bands yet to release an album.

While Babylon Dance Band impacted the nation, the group would set the precedent for generations of Louisville punk bands.

“They were ground zero for punk in Louisville,” said Jeffrey Lee Puckett, a music writer for the Courier Journal.

Babylon Dance Band and another group called No Fun were the first in Louisville to embrace the nationally popular punk movement, and in order to enlist musicians for this new movement, they resorted to establishments like 1069 Bardstown Road.

In the ‘90s, 1069 Bardstown Road was Louisville’s first punk rock house. Musicians and bands would gather at the house to hang out, rehearse, and jam with one another, improving their skills while simultaneously networking with other individuals in the music scene.

“Young people from the south end came to visit and became the next wave of punk bands,” Puckett said. These bands included Malignant Growth and Kinghorse.  

Carrie Neumayer concurs.

Neumayer is the co-founder of the Louisville Outskirts Festival, which is a “not-for-profit, volunteer-run festival that seeks to encourage, support, inspire, and highlight the music made by women* of Louisville’s independent music scene as well as showcase influential and inspiring musicians selected from other parts of the country and world.”

Neumayer said the past scene of that era had much more of the younger generations involved.

“In 1993, Louisville’s underground scene had been alive and well for a long time, but between 1993-98 shows would have hundreds of kids who would show up,” Neumayer explained. “Everything was very youth-driven and there was a storm of energy. Shows were mostly organized and performed by people under 20,” Neumayer said.

1069 Bardstown Road “was a catalyst for a lot of people who sort of didn’t feel like they fit into corporate rock… They found a place where they could feel home,” Puckett said.

Now, if one were to try to visit 1069 Bardstown Road, all they would find is a Taco Bell. But, despite the house’s destruction, its legacy lives on through the music of a few kids who used it as inspiration to create their own home within music history.

In the late-‘80s, teenagers Ethan Buckler, David Pajo, Brian McMahan, and Britt Walford decided to start a band that would later come to shape the country’s post-rock scene: Slint.

After releasing their first album, “Tweeze,” and receiving no significant feedback, Slint released their second album, “Spiderland,” with a success story that furthers the band’s repertoire.

Because of poor album sales, a band breakup, and consequently no tour or marketing behind the album, “Spiderland” did not have an immediate impact. But years later, the underground scene got a hold of the album and people soon began to namedrop Slint.

Puckett said the publicity started with musicians from Chicago who would come to Louisville and cite Slint as one of their major influences. Then, young local musicians would hear that, pick up the album, and use it as a template for what they wanted to do.

Paul Curry, writer of “Burt the Cat,” a ‘90s zine that documented and reviewed Louisville music, said, “The influence of Slint’s ‘Spiderland’ can’t be overstated on an international level.”

Because “Spiderland” became what critics say was one of the most influential albums of the ‘90s, Slint is now known around the world for defining what is known as “math rock” or post-rock/hardcore — a calculated, rhythmic, and experimental type of indie rock. Additionally, the band is credited with inspiring a whole new wave of local, national, and international bands.

Along with bringing national attention to Louisville’s music scene, Slint created an identity for Louisvillians.

“There were so many people who would refer to Slint, and by extension Louisville, as being the scene where you could find something different. That became our identity for sometime: ‘There’s something weird going on in Louisville,’” Puckett said.

Two Slint members, McMahan and Pajo, eventually began to work with a new band: Palace Flophouse, after which many bands began using the Palace name. But the most impactful member of the Palace legacy was Will Oldham.

Oldham, better known by his stage name, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is one of Louisville’s staple artists.

Under the name Palace Brothers, Oldham released an album that Puckett described as being reminiscent of early Appalachian mountain ballads. And, although Puckett thought the album was “eccentric and really weird,” locally, people connected to it because of its strange folk roots.

People also connected to Oldham’s work ethic.

Even though he was playing his own version of folk, he could not let go of his “do it yourself” punk attitude. While on tour, Oldham was basically a one man corporation, booking and promoting his own shows himself. And, in the end, “he turned out to be one of the most prolific musicians ever to come out of Louisville,” Puckett said.

“I’ve definitely heard a lot of singers writing songs that are in the style of Will Oldham,” Puckett said. “But, I think it might be more that he brought back the idea of acoustic music being something that can be really vital and part of the current scene.”

Oldham’s legacy is supported by accolades such as MOJO Magazine’s Ultimate Music Collection, featuring two of his solo albums, and Pitchfork’s 100 Top Albums of the ‘90s, which included one of his albums.

When talking about crucial local artists in the ‘90s, a band called My Morning Jacket (MMJ) is now considered to be on the same level as Oldham.

Founded in 1998 by local musicians Jim James, John McQuade, Tom Blankenship, and J. Roberts, MMJ has since evolved into Louisville’s premier local band, according to LEO Weekly. MMJ is also considered to be the 10th best live band today by Rolling Stone, which Puckett has seen firsthand.

“It was just one of those shows where you get chill bumps, and you think to yourself, ‘Oh man, there is something amazing going on here.’ Then the thing is, they just kept getting better,” Puckett said of the first time he saw MMJ.

The band still features local frontman and guitarist James and bassist Blankenship, but the current lineup has evolved to include local drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel, and keyboardist Bo Koster. These new members’ versatility and skill skyrocketed the band’s recording and live performances at the perfect time.

“When they hit the Headliners stage of their career … that version of the band was at it’s peak, and those shows were just out of control they were so good,” Puckett said.

While MMJ has brought national and international attention to Louisville through its diverse albums and electrifying live shows, perhaps their biggest contribution to Louisville is how they conduct themselves within the community.

Instead of “making it” and setting off for music hubs such as Nashville, Los Angeles, and New York, members of MMJ continue to actively support Louisville, specifically Hallahan and James.

Both men still live in Louisville and continually talk about how much Louisville’s scene meant to them growing up and now. These simple actions are what keep the local, national, and international media and public engaged in the happenings of Louisville’s scene.

“People see that they aren’t just giving lip service; they really do like Louisville and they like giving back, which makes a big difference I think,” Puckett said.

And this is no accident. For James, it is a conscience decision to support Louisville outright.

“It is very important that artists support each other and keep a dialogue going in their hometown community,” James said. This perspective can be due to James’ optimistic belief in the power human beings.

“Anyone that gets up in the morning and spends time on their craft deeply impacts the music scene in Louisville, or Earth, or in realms beyond our wildest dreams,” James said.

In order to foster this change in the world, James and MMJ try to collaborate with local acts, such as the Louisville Leopard Percussionists and the Louisville Orchestra. This draws awareness and pays homage to local institutions and acts that have made, and are currently making, a difference.

“If you love it, you always get love in return — so, if we know we are all in this together, we can be of support to each other, spread the word about each other’s’ music, and go see each other play and also play together … It’s all so good,” James said.

A recent addition to the indie-rock scene that has been making waves nationally and internationally is the local band White Reaper.

The band consists of singer and guitarist Tony Esposito, keyboardist Ryan Hater, bassist Sam Wilkerson, and drummer Nick Wilkerson, and has quickly risen to fame over the last year because of their praised debut album “White Reaper Does it Again.”

Puckett attributes the band’s surge up the social ladder to their unique sound and song structures.

“Their whole style is basically late-‘70s power-pop and pop-punk, and there is a little bit of late-‘70s, early-‘80s new wave, but they do it with just balls-out energy that makes it seem super fresh,” Puckett said.

Puckett said White Reaper has used the same three chords over the release of an EP and an album, which he found impressive.

“Because they aren’t working with a huge palette, they have this real locked-in style that they’re coming up with new ways to exploit,” Puckett said.

Local bands with national recognition, such as White Reaper and MMJ, have molded Louisville’s indie-rock scene into what it is today, and their influences are seen throughout — especially in young, original artists such as Zack Anderson.

Anderson, who is the frontman and guitarist for the band The Ego Trippers, studies jazz guitar at the University of Louisville and began playing guitar when he was in sixth grade.

Back when he first started guitar, Anderson would only listen to bands such as ACDC; however, now that he has broadened his listening range, he said that local legends create the most impactful music.

“When I think of My Morning Jacket and White Reaper, I think of one thing: energy,” Anderson said.

After attending six White Reaper concerts and a couple of MMJ concerts, Anderson said the biggest thing about these bands is how the atmosphere of the shows makes him feel, including the people in the audience.

“Punk music is about the environment in which you listen to it, and at White Reaper’s Forecastle gig, the audience was blind to them,” Anderson said.

Anderson attributes the audience’s “blindness” to their unfamiliarity with White Reaper.

“Nowadays, people aren’t forcing themselves out and about, and out of their shells,” Anderson said.

With this said, there still exists that haven of a venue that allows for artists to get their chance to play live, along with attracting and motivating younger generations to get involved.

Chris Lenhart organizes events for the Spinelli’s pizza restaurant downtown, a venue known around Louisville for their diverse, all-ages shows.

“We’ve provided an all-ages space that isn’t influenced by bar sales, and the whole company is ran by people who grew up going to shows…As a makeshift restaurant/venue, it’s a space that can remain DIY yet not be hassled by cops or noise ordinances,” Lenhart said.

Spinelli’s as a venue was created this way based off of Lenhart’s own experience in the music scene when he was first starting to play music.

“DIY punk/hardcore community ethics was more prominent and kids seemed more aware of social issues. People were still really excited about buying music. A lot of people who weren’t in bands still participated in what was going on,” Lenhart said.

Throughout the last few decades, Louisville’s local musicians have given kids, teens, and adults the inspiration to be themselves and the courage to find what they can call home.

“It was very tough growing up in the Louisville music ‘scene’ back then because we felt like we did not fit in and that the largely popular scene was very snobby,” James said. But through the underground scene, James was able to flourish and find himself.

“Music gave me a sense of purpose… It made life feel like it made sense, at least in some small way, because life can be so confusing!” James admitted. “Music was one thing I at least thought I partially understood.”

And within the confusion of the music industry, local breakout artists bring clarity to what young musicians, such as Anderson, consider their purpose.

“It makes everything seem tangible,” Anderson said. “Like it’s not some impossible feat to make it.”

In an era of pop culture and music, where the Internet and radio reign supreme in deciding who is seen and unseen, the spark given to Anderson by local bands may just be what keeps Louisville’s punk scene alive.

The music scene from the ‘70s to the ‘90s was extremely narrow and fertile, and there were only a handful of live venues where people could play; therefore, Louisville was unable to compete with other cities for major artists, which Puckett said was both a blessing and a curse.

But, what Louisville lacked in popular touring artists, it made up for locally.

“It wasn’t like we were being inundated with outside musicians,” Puckett said. “All of the musicians in Louisville were on their own. They would hear some records and think, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty cool, but I think I’ll do it this way.’”

According to Puckett, because the Louisville music culture was free from outside influences, many musicians in the ‘90s developed an attitude of innovation rather than imitation, which created a sense of identity as a local musician and a reason for people to seek Louisville for music: it’s different from anything else.

“For me, Louisville feels special in the pleasantness, accommodation, and beauty of its environment,” said Britt Walford, Slint’s drummer.

Fast forward to Louisville’s music scene today.

Louisville still has few adequate live venues where indie bands can play, and although the city has added some venues, many are more focused on attracting mainstream artists. And, even though there are just as many bands in Louisville today as there were in the punk era, Puckett said the bands today are more niche-y and probably will not have impacts nationally.

“I think there are more people now who just like making music and they don’t necessarily look at it like, ‘I’m going to do this and go out and be a star.’ They just like having bands. And in that sense, Louisville’s scene is probably as artistically fertile as ever,” Puckett said.

James agrees and attributes this fertility to the new attitude within the local music scene.

“It has grown a lot more accepting and people have dropped a lot of the b——-,” James said. “Anyone with half a heart knows that playing music can be tough and that we should all support each other and cheer each other on.”

And James has one simple reason as to why: “Music was made to heal and spread love, and I believe that eventually it will — even if it takes some time.”

Time is everything in music. It determines who plays, what plays, and and who gets paid. In other words, timing determines who and what is relevant, and about four decades ago, the stars aligned and time decided it was punk’s turn to be pop-culture. After several decades of innovation and inspiration, time plucked the genre from popularity. The times changed, and with this change came a new wave of music and artists that encapsulated the minds of newer generations and pushed punk and indie-rock off to the side. Now, after years spent in the shadow of modernism, time has once again breathed life into the very genre that first put Louisville on the map.

For the grand finale, The Ego Trippers end their set the way they started: with distortion. Anderson takes off his guitar, places it gently on the ground, and repeatedly steps on the neck, creating a cacophony of noise. As he continues to step on the guitar, he stares out into the crowd and asks, “Is this edgy enough,” to which the crowd replies with screams of adoration — yes, it was edgy enough.

Words By: Chris Roussell and Olivia Millar 

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About Chris Roussell

Chris Roussell is a senior in J&C and a writer for On the Record. Chris plays varsity football and soccer for Manual, has played drums since he was ten, and is in a band called Pocket Change. Chris recently won the Mr. Manual award, as well as the NSPA’s Story of the Year in the feature category and the Brasler Prize. He likes cute animals, all types of music, and the opposite gender.

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