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Reflection: Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center is a community of like minds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 6, 2012 - The old townhouse at 3301 Lemp Ave. is indistinguishable from the many that line the street, save for a slight, hand-painted sign next to the door: “Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center.” It is tough to see even that, half-covered as it is by creeping ivy.

One should note that it does not say “this is the venue in St. Louis that’s unlike any others” or even just “punk rock lives here.” So walking in through the door can be a surprise. Especially if you can discern muted music from within.

The Lemp (as it is referred to by frequenters) specializes in alternative St. Louis music and serves as a home to fans and performers of Experimental, DIY and Noise music. Yes, those are actually established genres. Walking through the door is to enter a different world: A half dozen couches and easy chairs are strewn about the large, off-white room in loose association. Scrap sheet music is scattered about the floor, and a haphazard ensemble of musical instruments crowd the corners.

There is no stage, no coat check, no bar. Drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited. But the Lemp has a sense of purpose: As its website explains, it is a nonprofit organization and music venue dedicated to supporting “intellectual, creative, and emotional growth of young people in the greater St. Louis area.”

As I walk in, I see the Lemp’s founder, Mark Sarich, sprawled across a tattered maroon diner booth at the back of the room. He is dimly illuminated by several exposed light bulbs. Four bands are slated to perform in less than an hour. Yet, his feet are still bare. A sense of quietude permeates the air.

Sarich starts talking before I can even ask a question. He explains that the Lemp is designed to be about community and connections, fostered through music and performance. His vision has to do with earnest sentiment and passionate drive, not the chords.

“You get suckered by the system to believing style has everything to do with it. Style has nothing to do with it. It’s about: ‘I’m a human, I’ve got something to say. I wanna tell you.’ Now we have a musical experience that is at a peak.” For Sarich, the key to a good music experience is the conversation it gives rise to and the community it creates. When bands come to perform at the Lemp, they’re treated to a home-cooked meal made in a small kitchen in the back. They often sleep inside the venue. 

And though this approach may seem revolutionary to young music fans, it’s an ethic rooted in Sarich’s generation of DIY punk rock from the early ’80s. Though the Lemp's environment is safer and more welcoming than what Hardcore became later on -- a scarred and violent scene.

Do-it-yourself mentality

Sarich launched the Lemp in 1994 in opposition to what that scene had evolved into. “I don’t want my head bashed in by some guy in a pair of boots and a shaved head," Sarich said. "This it not what punk rock is supposed to be about.”

In his view, the ethic should focus on a do-it-yourself mentality when it comes to creating and performing music. Sarich isn’t interested in commercially minded bands, because he thinks commerce can warp free expression. "The musicians are the absolute authority on what happens and no one else can tell them, ‘No don’t do that, it’s not gonna sell’.”

Yet as I see shortly, it does sell – or at least it generates a crowd. As youths from middle school to college begin to filter in, it’s impossible to tell who’s performing and who’s a fan. Most are adorned with tattoos and wear obscure T-shirts and creative hairstyles. More than a few Converse hi-tops tromp around.

Everyone seems to be on a first name basis with everybody else. Conversations range smoothly between sunbathing, graphic novels, dogs, and Choirs, the Texas band that played the night before. The mood is animated, casual. Kids are here to forget about summer reading lists and impending college applications.

Sarich exalts in the community he offers these creative, curious young people of St. Louis, noting that “kids who find this kind of connection valuable cling to this place. … They do shows in their garages, they set things up themselves, and then they flock here.”

And a short time into the sets, it’s clear why they do. The performances are  engaged and refreshingly off-the-cuff.

The first band, Britches, performs from within a curtained box, their erratic movements only visible as strobe-light silhouettes. They lace their own throbbing baselines through gauzy, fuzzed-out samples. (No doubt they are interrogating the authenticity of music, or something along those lines).

The second band – Sleepy and the Bedtimes – is a trio of garage-rockers whose average age is maybe 17. One of their best songs, a noisy, thumping thing, reportedly has no name. Snarky comments are made about the bassist’s recent loss of employment, and his subsequent peanut-butter survival diet. He announces he’s leaving the band. A song later, he has rescinded, “but getting to play that song is the only reason I’m in this band.”

Emphasis on community

It becomes easy to see why Sarich emphasizes community in music and at his venue: There’s a collective energy and cheer in the room. Instead, there's a devotion to the craft of music that is reaffirming when radio waves are swamped with synthetic pop-driven music. As soon as bands start playing, everyone stands up, walks to the middle of the floor, and begins to sway and dance without a shred of self-conscience. Most are within an arms reach of the mic stand, and looking the guitarist right in the eyes.

In an age when bands often do little to engage with the audience beyond a few mumbled comments (before playing the big hit they were brought here for, followed by a perfunctory encore, all the while seeming out-of-reach onstage) I’m remembering what a live show can be. What it should be, maybe.

So is the Lemp the place to go in St. Louis for an ’80s punk-rock revivalist vibe? Or simply the place where young kids can find an engaging music community filled with the like-minded? In some ways, it feels distinctively anti-millennial, this emphasis on ethic, tradition, even the obvious real-life brand of community it affords seems almost outdated. It has been overpowered by ease of how the younger generations encounter music.

The digital switch has made music available to anyone who wants it, through services like Spotify or simply illegal downloading. Brad Schumacher, a local musician, comments glumly, saying, “When you have so much music that people have access to uninhibitedly, there’s no filter in place anymore.”

Sarich adds that, today, “our ears get flooded with an inundation of music, much of which is just not worth listening to. So, in a way, [the internet] made it worse. It made a glut.” These people seem to think the Lemp exists in spite of, or in repudiation of, today’s reality.

But perhaps it’s best not to think of the experience the Lemp offers as an opposition against sites like Pitchfork or music forum pages. What the Lemp provides radiates beyond soundwaves; there’s human quotient of community and connection that exists only for those kids who are hungry for it.

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