Rock & roll has always been youth music. But what are young fans to do when they're stuck in the Midwest, where few national acts come through town at all and the ones that do must play in 21-and-over bars? The punk movement taught them to do it themselves. Anyone can start a band or a venue or a record label. Here and now in St. Louis, a group of young hardcore punks is doing all these things.
2 Keys Industries (www.2keysindustries.com) started in a big house at the end of a dead-end street in suburban St. Louis. Over the last eight months, it has become the premier local purveyor of all-ages shows. Because of its success, it's now facing its toughest challenge yet.
Flash back to a Wednesday night in June: Five bands are playing, four of them from out of town. While Ben Sova of Dead Set and Keanu Reeves Reeveau [sic] sets up the drum kit and a rudimentary sound system in the basement, Rob Ruzicka puts a large donation jar in the middle of the kitchen table, which is covered with fliers for upcoming shows. In the living room, a band member sits on the floor, stringing his bass. A dozen other high-school kids sit on couches around an unheeded TV. The dining room is almost filled by card tables displaying CDs by obscure hardcore bands from around the country.
About 30 more people chat and smoke on the back porch. Ben Smith, co-founder of the Compound label, scans the crowd, approaching each unfamiliar face with an extended hand. The heart of 2 Keys Industries is networking.
"What keeps 2 Keys going is all of our friends," Ruzicka says. He and Sova book the shows. Matt Furlong, who also plays in Keanu Reeves Reeveau, rents the house with three others. The basement has been modified by carpentry-savvy friends, with the permission of the landlord. Smith runs sound and records the shows for possible release. Various people put up fliers and borrow PAs for each show.
"On a bad night, we only have ten or fifteen kids here, so I'll get on the phone and tell people it's a party and free just to get them down here," Ruzicka says. And it works: Those kids tell others, who in turn tell others. Plenty of kids who aren't old enough to drink are anxious to get out to see live music and meet new people like themselves. On most nights, the basement is packed.
According to Ruzicka, St. Louis kids are just catching onto the ever faster and louder "powerviolence" sound, which was spearheaded by bands such as Spazz and Charles Bronson. "It's great to see kids still discovering hardcore punk," he says. He sees the music -- and the 2 Keys house in particular -- as providing a positive outlet for them.
The first 2 Keys show featuring an out-of-town band was on December 1. The band was Punch in the Face, featuring former members of Charles Bronson. Once Punch in the Face discovered that a hardcore punk scene exists in St. Louis, the group stopped skipping from Chicago to parts west -- and also spread the word that St. Louis is worth a visit. Punk bands have always relied on such word of mouth, not just to promote shows to fans but to inform bands where they can play (and often sleep) in other towns. By providing a well-known point of contact for these services, 2 Keys has revitalized the St. Louis punk scene.
Touring bands from as far away as Sweden have stopped off at 2 Keys. Tonight, My Luck has traveled from Texas and Final Plan from Cleveland. They treat the locals like old friends, and the crowd responds in kind. As a matter of fact, there's never been a fistfight at a 2 Keys show -- probably at least partly a result of the strict no-alcohol policy. But the kids are generally friendly. Police have only shown up once, and they left after making no arrests. Until recently, occasional litter was the gravest problem 2 Keys Industries had encountered.
But in early July, Furlong received an unfortunate phone call. The cops had been grilling neighbors about "all the parties" taking place on their street. Although no one ever approached the 2 Keys residents with a complaint, enough people were silently harboring disapproval that the property manager was contacted. Furlong and his roommates haven't been threatened with eviction, but shows at the house must be suspended indefinitely.
The organizers are frantically trying to find alternate venues for upcoming scheduled shows -- the American Czech Center, VFW halls and YMCAs are being considered. Meanwhile, they're also searching for a club to rent where they can put on all-ages shows that will attract even larger audiences. The people who have worked hard to make this project successful are undeterred by the setback. They don't seem to consider it a business venture so much as a moral imperative.
Ruzicka says of the loose group of organizers, "We're all around 22. We're doing this and letting the kids know where all the money's going, so when we're 30, others will pick up the work and pass it on to the next generation."
The Compound (thecompound.org) is a recording organization that works closely with 2 Keys. Smith, who records the bands himself, is adamant about maintaining this same DIY attitude: "We just want to get records into people's hands. These bands should be able to create a quality release, from recording to packaging, even if they have no money." Don Beasley, who handles graphic design for the Compound and plays in Corbeta Corbata with Smith, is setting up a screen printer in his basement. The Compound will handle all of the production, from mastering recordings to printing sleeves.
They're about to release a double seven-inch featuring two St. Louis bands, Kill Me Kate and Keanu Reeves Reeveau, as well as two Kansas City bands, When Good Robots Go Bad and Dick Cheney's Dick. Smith calculated the approximate total cost of the project -- including printing, pressing and duplication -- then split it five ways. Each band, as well as the Compound, paid an equal part. Any profit from sales will be distributed the same way. With this financial arrangement, each band who records there is helping other bands do the same as cheaply as possible.
Smith makes a point of keeping all of this accounting public on the Web site. He thinks this will appeal to young punk fans: "It feels like you're part of something. 'The $4 I paid for this record went toward this specific part of the process of making the record.'"
The four bands on this release sound similar -- thrashy, blast-beat-driven hardcore with jolting tempo changes into slower mosh riffs. The songs all run together, occasionally punctuated by TV and movie samples. Vocals range from grindcore growling to falsetto screeching. Just as jarring as the musical changes are the lyrical ones: A song about hate-crime martyr Matthew Shepard is followed by one about PlayStation. Most listeners won't be able to pick out any of these lyrics, but that's hardly the point. This is hardcore thrash at its fastest and noisiest, and energy is the main concern.
Despite the current focus on hardcore, 2 Keys and the Compound welcome all styles. Kit Gusmundo of Keanu Reeves Reeveau also plays in the Fugazi-like In Medias Res. Acts as diverse as the electronic band the Rise and street punks Nineteen have played at 2 Keys. Smith stresses that they are no clique -- he's thrilled to see new kids appear at shows.
The founders of 2 Keys Industries and the Compound believe they're providing something important -- a nurturing community for kids. They won't let something as surmountable as a location change stop them. The trappings and styles of punk may mutate and fade, but 2 Keys and the Compound have latched onto its most important tenet: If the existing system isn't helping you, build your own.