By Evan Pratt and Siler Stein/CU News Corps
Deep in the belly of southwest Denver, past any of the concrete throughways and looming overpasses of the I-25 corridor, the 20-mile stretch of road known as Federal Avenue is alive with taco trucks, tattoo parlors, and fast food joints lining the corners of the street. On the south end, near W. 7th Avenue and Barnum Park, life seems to taper off. The old Comfort Inn, offering perpetual vacancy, stands on one end of W. 7th, and a school bus depot for Denver Public Schools rests on the other.
Nestled between the two lies an unlikely addition to the community: Seventh Circle Music Collective, a local legend of Denver’s underground music scene. Though it stands vacant and still for most of the day, Seventh Circle stirs at dusk and rages blindly through the night. It is one of the few remaining vestiges of the Denver Do-It-Yourself music scene, an aspect of local culture which has faced numerous challenges over the last decade, many of which are the result of issues innate to punk communities.
The olive-green exterior peels badly and the patchy shingles cling desperately to the roof. A neon-green open sign hangs from the single cloudy window on the front of the building. Beneath the peak of the roof hangs a stainless steel metalwork announcing the namesake, a jagged-edged number “7” with a half-moon crescent enveloping its figure. Stickers and hand-tagged graffiti occupy any vacant space on the building’s sides, and the red trim of the gutters seems to emit a dull glow in the fading light of the late evening.
Aaron Saye, the owner of the business and the man formerly responsible for nearly every facet of the venue’s existence, is often the first on the scene. Though at one point he managed everything from booking to sound to lighting to gear loading, he’s taken a step back from the stress-inducing limelight of general management, since the venue shut down during the pandemic, and now enjoys a more backseat role.
“I was the guy at Seventh Circle from its inception in 2012 until the pandemic. It got to the point where it was a huge ball of stress,” he says. Now, there is no head man, the venue is run by a collective of volunteers dedicated to keeping the spirit of local underground music alive.
The shaky shape of these venues comes down to them being more passion projects than businesses. Those who attend and help operate the venues do so out of dedication to the culture rather than a desire to profit. Given the lack of outsourced advertising and the preference for in-the-know, word of mouth publicity, the audience generally knows what they’re getting into. The meager upkeep of the venue is unlikely to alienate.
DIY shows typically consist of a recommended but optional fee to enter. These recommended donations vary based on the bands playing any given night. A touring act with a more recognizable name may request $15-20, while a local lineup may only ask for $10. On a concert date, three or four bands play a set in an evening and their durations range from minutes to hours. Due to the spontaneous nature of the scene and the occurrence of mosh pits, age limits are strictly enforced and typically range from 16 to 18 and up.
The community of fans and musicians that make up the DIY scene is as diverse and inclusive as they come. For many, these venues offer a refuge, a home away from home, where they know they will be accepted by a like-minded group of peers. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism are staunchly repudiated, and most DIY venues have a set of rules disavowing this behavior.
“It brings the freaks together in a beautiful way.”
“The people that come together because they feel a connection will foster that connection with others,” says Saye. “We make a point to be an inclusive community because that’s the way the world needs to be, and that’s the way most of the world is not. We feel a responsibility to be that place for so many marginalized people that don’t find that elsewhere.”
Zac Grice, a second timer at Seventh Circle but a longtime fan of local punk music, echoes the sentiment. “It brings the freaks together in a beautiful way. I remember when I was a kid, I would hang around my brother’s punk friends, with the spiked vests and the mohawks, and I was so scared. But they were all so nice.”
The last decade has put massive strains on the DIY music venues across the country, a wave that began following safety concerns after a deadly fire in Oakland, California claimed the lives of 36 local fans and musicians at the Ghost Ship DIY venue.
The DIY scene, made up of genre-bending like-minded musicians who stick to the mantra of complete independence, rely heavily on venues to get their art out into the world. These venues across the country felt the fallout from the tragedy, and the Denver punk community mourned as the beloved Rhinoceropolis venue was closed in 2016, in light of fire hazard concerns, leaving a hole in the Downtown Denver RiNo District. Glob, another RiNo venue, was forced to close as well, and Flux Capacitor, a DIY spot in Colorado Springs, met the same fate shortly after.
Colorado was hit especially hard. Not only did this hurt the local music scene, but also the members of the community, some of whom had taken up residence in the Rhinoceropolis. Eleven people were evicted from the premises when the order to comply was issued, leaving local musicians unhoused and unable to perform.
Adam Croft, the head of local label Convulse Records, who signs and promotes numerous DIY acts from Colorado’s front range, believes the Ghost Ship tragedy offered cities an opportunity to rid themselves of these independent venues, which offer little in terms of real estate development and profits.
“It gave them a reason to shut down our spaces, and move towards making these neighborhoods more profitable for the city,” Croft says. “When every DIY spot is a potential dispensary or set of condos, it really lights the powder keg. We do these things because they’re good in and of themselves, not because they make a ton of money.”
Seventh Circle managed to stay afloat through the tumultuous period thanks to its adjustment of occupancy policies and its cooperation with local inspectors, but it seemed undeniable that the so-called golden age of the movement had come to an end.
The inclusive nature of the culture has also brought on challenges from those with conflicting political agendas, according to Saye. “Some people on the far-right side of things take that as an opportunity to rat out places they see as the anarchist and communist breeding grounds. We kind of got some false reports sent to the fire department about us but I’m not sure who it was. When the fire marshall did show up he looked around and said ‘fine, this place looks great.’”
Though the struggles have been significant, Seventh’s legacy and status is undeniable. The venue enjoyed a steady stream of popularity and success in the years leading up to the pandemic, which became a challenge in and of itself.
“Keeping the demand at bay was hard, because as we became known worldwide as the DIY place to play in Denver, the emails were impossible to stay on top of,” says Saye.
The venue was bringing in five shows a week for nearly eight years, and the savings they accrued from this consistency allowed them to coast through the COVID-19 shutdowns without needing to fundraise, unlike many other venues. “We had a year and half’s worth of expenses sitting in the bank, so we said hey, it can stay shut and locked and we will be ok,” says Saye.
Now, on the other side of the pandemic shutdowns, Seventh is back to hosting multiple shows a week and drawing in a crowd big enough to line the street with cars each night, despite it appearing near lifeless during the day.
“I feel like it’s a very accepting place where you can be yourself and also escape from normal reality…”
“Even when the forces of finance and capital and development are marshalled against the DIY community, it still couldn’t kill us, because you can’t ever kill this community,” says Adam Croft.
Not too far away in Boulder, burgeoning DIY venue Blue House stands hidden among the student housing trying to nurture the faltering music scene under the university’s shadow. A few times a month, students and locals alike, through word of mouth, make their way to the unassuming venue to watch artists burn through loud and riotous sets.
Though the venue has only existed since late 2021, they’ve garnered a loyal following amongst local bands and fans alike. Over the summer, touring acts Weatherday (Sweden – 120,154 monthly listeners) and Michael Cera Palin (Atlanta, GA – 131,345 monthly listeners) attracted some of the venue’s biggest crowds yet, and the co-headlining show sold out before it even began.
Blue House has managed to avoid complications with the Boulder noise code standards by employing early call times, which allow the shows to conclude before the 11 p.m. noise restrictions are put into effect. Their strict adherence to vaccine card checks and ID scans allows them to avoid further potential legal complications.
Nate Lott, a senior at CU Boulder, frequents Blue House whenever a show occurs. “I feel like it’s a very accepting place where you can be yourself and also escape from normal reality,” Lott says. “I think that it has a very positive effect on the community because DIY in Boulder is a pretty small scene and it brings people together who wouldn’t normally be in the same circles.”
“If you love what you make, other people will too, and to me loving what you make is the only true success.”
Jeremy Baxter, a DIY musician, photographer, and co-founder of Blue House, says that despite the setbacks and challenges, the scene is on the rise in the Front Range.
“I have found, for the first time in my life, a community that loves me and appreciates me for me, and one that encourages me to create the art I love to make,” Baxter said. “I have been able to come to terms with my gender fluid identity and it has helped me to shed some of the internalized homophobia I have about my pansexual orientation.”
According to Baxter, these back alleys of society are defined by an active and engaged fan base. He learned the intricacies of the business by helping to run Blue House. His firsthand experience in all facets of the scene as a musician, showrunner, and sound engineer have brought him to the conclusion of what defines success.
“Success in this scene, on a surface level, is playing shows to decent sized crowds that are active and engaged,” Baxter said. “If you love what you make, other people will too, and to me loving what you make is the only true success.”
The artists that comprise the bands in the DIY sphere are a tight-knit group, with much overlap. It’s not unusual for a drummer to play in 5-10 different bands in the scene, or for a guitarist to finish his set with one band only to reveal himself as the vocalist for the next. Baxter, for example, plays in four bands in the scene. Though he’s most excited about his project MESHES right now, for whom he plays guitar, his new band Sqerm recently played their first show at Blue House and the crowd was more than enthused. Between those residing in Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins, the bands that convene in the metropolitan center almost guarantee some overlap on a given night.
“There’s lots of people who care about the past, present, and future of this. So I couldn’t be more optimistic.”
Growing local legends like Militarie Gun, Raw Breed, and Destiny Bond unite under the Convulse label, which is locally run and subscribes to the mantra of DIY religiously, often releasing demo tapes for their signees on cassette tapes recorded on a 8-track, or even a cell phone.
On November 10th, Convulse hosted a show at Seventh celebrating some of their label veterans like those aforementioned, with Miltitarie Gun, Destiny Bond, MSPaint, and Public Opinion in attendance. Militarie Gun, who boast over 64,000 monthly listeners, are one of the label’s biggest success stories, and the crowd was ecstatic.
“This has to be one of the biggest shows that’s ever happened here on a weeknight,” remarked Croft, who volunteered at Seventh the night of the show.
“There’s always a place here where you’re not alone. And most people don’t go through life with that guarantee.”
Fans congregate in small circles and their voices fill the yard, only drowned out by the distant sound of feedback emanating from the garage where the bands prepare for their sets. Once they begin, the lights flash on and off from inside the doorframe and people march mechanically into the dark room to witness the bedlam. Dissonant guitar chords reverberate off the concrete walls as the sweat-drenched floor is transformed into a thresher of convulsing bodies, their vacant faces lost in the trance of the music.
Wet spilled beer on your arms and the smell of cigarette-licked hair in your face become the only sensations you can feel as your body is tossed throughout the crowd and the snare drum beats a steady pulse into your skull. To some, this is heaven, and to others it may sound like hell. Regardless, this is DIY music, and the sound of tuning guitars and a drum kit soundcheck will continue to draw in misfit kids and old school punks alike despite any challenge the venues may face.
“DIY scenes ebb and flow, people get jaded, they break up. But there’s new kids coming in right behind them. There’s lots of people who care about the past, present, and future of this. So I couldn’t be more optimistic,” says Croft. “There’s always a place here where you’re not alone. And most people don’t go through life with that guarantee.”