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Reflection: Learning about DIY music and heavy listeners

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2013: I got a crash course in DIY music at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center this weekend. Home to the incredible Orchestrating Diversity program, my only experience with LNAC had been listening to the young participants rehearsing classical pieces for their Spring Concert.

I had no idea what to expect from an evening that was scheduled to include several bands as well as a screening of the short film, “Dither: The DIY Sound.” I showed up early to talk to Mark Sarich, founder and director of LNAC while he and others prepared dinner for the members of Native, a band whose members had traveled in that day from Indiana and Chicago.

As he chopped vegetables, Sarich gave me a brief, simple  history and explanation of the DIY:

From its roots in D.C. as a reaction against the ban of all-ages shows, the DIY movement was started and is continued predominantly by the young – the under 21 set. The music that came out of it was largely unpolished and experimental in the beginning, bands performing in basements or houses - where their age and that of their audience isn’t a factor. To allow the participants total creative control and ability to follow their process at their own pace, they avoided commercial dependency, focusing instead on the reaction of the community around them.

Started by Sarich almost 20 years ago, the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center is a volunteer run not for profit and a slice of DIY heaven. It offers a welcoming (smoke and alcohol-free) atmosphere, simple furnishings, excellent acoustics and open audience - hosting bands from all over the country and world – from Tokyo, Beirut, Tel Aviv and Milan (to name a few).

Ed O’Neil and Dan Evans of Native talked about their connection to LNAC – how they had been refreshed and encouraged by their initial visit as a newly formed band and how over the years it has come to feel like a second home.

“Mark has something that’s lacking in the music industry these days: complete empathy. I doesn’t matter if it benefits him,” said O’Neil. “He won’t let people fall by the wayside.”

Evans noted that Sarich – and LNAC audiences - also provide an honest reaction; and that has helped to guide and ground Native as it maneuvered through its recent success.

“Mark’s opinion is something we hold in high regard,” Evans said. “There’s nothing like LNAC anywhere. The people who come out are heavy listeners. They’re here to experience an expression. “

Hearing local bands Anodes and Laika was my first live DIY experience. There is little or no separation between audience and musicians, the bands encouraging the growing crowd to step closer and absorb everything – maybe even contribute. The music is aggressive and at times chaotic – but somehow not exclusive.

The “heavy listeners” are totally involved: moshing, crowd-surfing or simply moving their heads to the music. The no-alcohol rule suddenly makes even more sense than LNAC’s mostly under-aged crowd: it preserves the good-natured aggression that inundates the room as the more active participants are careful to respect the space of others who merely there to listen.

As “Dither: The DIY Sound” was shown on the back wall, every single person sat down on the floor, cross-legged and watched in respectful silence. Sarich and Native are both prominently featured in the film, which focuses primarily on the history, philosophy and key players behind the movement.

One of the most interesting revelations in the film was that this subculture was created by and for “The Other” – in other words, the kids who - for one reason or another - were marginalized or ostracized. One film’s directors, Sam Geneser, was there and I expressed to my surprise that such seemingly (and oftentimes labeled) violent music actually has an unrelentingly positive attitude behind it.

Geneser said that, for many, the music is an outlet: that it doesn’t promote negative aggression but can give those with a tendency toward it a safe place to go and be able to express themselves.

As Native began to play, I realized that everyone was there to alternately celebrate, grieve and explore their “otherness” – whatever that meant to them as an individual - together. 

“This isn’t a place where you come to ‘make it’” I remembered O’Neil saying earlier. “But you’ll be remembered here. You’ll feel complete.”

As I staggered out to my car around midnight, legs still vibrating, I realized that the simple act of Sarich making dinner for Native demonstrated two defining components of the DIY lifestyle: community and humility. The offering and acceptance of a home cooked meal is so far removed from the insane demands and resources of the commercial music industry that it immediately set a tone to the evening that I would have never associated with the type of music that followed - and yet, somehow, now made sense to me.

As I turned the key in the ignition, a syrupy pop song came on the radio, sounding tinny and hollow and I turned it down as I looped back past LNAC, not quite ready to stop being a heavy listener.

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