Around midnight, in a cozy living room in Missoula’s University District, a couple dozen young people sit cross-legged in a semicircle in the dark. It’s pitch black because the power has gone out across the neighborhood, preventing local musicians Mossmouth — who were supposed to be playing — from plugging into their amps. Instead, the small audience is listening to a bearded man named Dan (of the band The Kitchen) playing an impromptu acoustic cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The King of Carrot Flowers.” One of the audience members has activated her phone to cast a spotlight on him as fire truck sirens wail through the dark streets.
The house, known as the 6th Street House, is one of a handful of spaces in Missoula that hosts underground music on a semiregular basis. Others in recent years have included the Hockey House, the Eel Pit and the Yellow House. The 6th Street House in particular is known for its eclectic lineups: hip-hop, punk, hillbilly hardcore and psychedelic, the latter a genre that has blown up in Missoula over the past two years. But all the house shows have something in common: They’re breeding grounds for experimentation by bands that might not get shows at the better-known venues in town. The shows themselves are intimate and sometimes wild, and they have a sort of looseness and versatility that more “legitimate” venues can’t provide — like impromptu shows in the dark.
The prevalence of house shows comes and goes in Missoula. In the 1990s, there was the Badlander House (before that name attached to a downtown venue), the White Birch and the Volumen House (now the Hockey House). These underground spaces pop up when there is a dearth of commercial music venues for musicians — especially local bands — to play. Last year, while big venues such as the KettleHouse and Big Sky amphitheaters emerged to host major touring acts, Stage 112 and the Palace, both venues friendly to local and touring DIY bands, closed their doors. The VFW, a longtime host of local musician residencies and alternative acts, fired their bookers and started hosting DJ nights and more mainstream acts. (The bar has since returned to hosting more alternative lineups, but its reputation in the DIY scene is still being repaired.) As those venues closed or shifted focus, more house shows popped up to fill the void. The off-the-radar approach has fueled a thriving underground music scene including bands such as Charcoal Squids, Tiny Plastic Stars and Go Hibiki, which have gained higher local profiles and now play some of the big (Top Hat) but mostly smaller downtown venues.
In the past year, new commercial spaces have emerged as well (though promoters will tell you it’s still a challenge to find the right room at the right time for any given show). The ZACC Below and the Union Ballroom, both of which have hosted shows sporadically for several years, have become more regular in their booking. Free Cycles, the community bicycle shop, has also become a regular music space — one that combines the vibe of a house show with an actual stage. And Ten Spoon Winery, which often hosts folk or jazz musicians, has recently opened its doors to more experimental acts. Underground musicians have also latched onto alternative spaces, like breweries, coffeehouses and public spaces including the MAM’s Art Park. But house shows are still where the seeds of grassroots music culture are planted in Missoula.
The photos on the following pages were taken by Dónal Lakatua, a photojournalist for the University of Montana’s Kaimin and a fan of underground music. Lakatua has been documenting the scene for close to a year.
Q&A with Ghost Carrot Records’ Joshua Bacha
by Erika Fredrickson
One measure of the vitality of Missoula’s underground music scene is the emergence of promoters, basement studios and labels that support these bands. Newer examples include Levitation Recording & Tapes, which calls itself “Missoula’s subterranean laboratory for music and sound,” and Ghost Carrot Records, a DIY record label and music, art and booking collective.
Joshua Bacha, who runs Ghost Carrot Records with input from the bands he works with, came to Missoula two years ago and has established himself as a booker, promoter and musician playing in bands such as Tomb Toad, Charcoal Squids and Tiny Plastic Stars — a band he left but still sometimes performs with.
Through Ghost Carrot, Bacha has started two festivals, Missoula Psych Fest and Ghost Carrot Festival, that gather local and touring underground bands. And he regularly books small venues and house shows, often on a weekly basis, developing a high-profile reputation in a low-profile scene. The Indy spoke with Bacha about the impetus behind Ghost Carrot Records and what it takes to book DIY shows in an arts- and music-loving town.
How have you seen Missoula’s underground music scene change in the two years you’ve been here, especially in terms of venues?
JB: I moved here, and places like the Palace and the VFW, they just got lost. And Stage 112 was another one. But people who want to make shows happen are going to make them happen, and people who really care about the art that they create and the art that their friends create are going to make a way for it to happen.
It is harder to book bands, though. Right now there’s a lot of really cool bands that are hitting me up, and I honestly have so many shows that I have to find venues for. It just becomes this really stressful thing.
Tell me about some of the bands that you’ve brought to your festivals that were especially interesting to you.
JB: Black Water Profit was super awesome. I don’t think they’re any longer a band, but they put out a few albums that are super influential on us, and it was really cool that we got to book them. And then this band called Geist and the Sacred Ensemble from Seattle — a six- or seven-piece band that’s almost like world music mixed with really heavy Pink Floyd. The first time I saw them, they were playing at the VFW, and it was two in the morning, and I was the only person there. And there was so much sound and dynamics.
And Ghost Carrot Records Fest, is that more diverse as far as genre goes?
JB: Yeah. With Psych Fest, we primarily try to focus on experimental and psychedelic and weird art that deserves to be seen. With Ghost Carrot Records Fest, I just want it to be something for everybody — more broad. Often with the [Ghost Carrot Record Fest] bookings, I’ll just post online a call to artists, and we kind of sort through the artists from there.
Why do you think psych music is so popular right now, and why do you like it?
JB: All things are cyclical. Every style of art comes and goes, and then it comes back. But I guess when I was first starting to get into music, some of the people around me who were big influences on my life showed me a lot of good ’60s music. I grew up in a very conservative, right-wing, radical Christian household. My dad would go through my iTunes and delete stuff that was not holy, and I only started to listen to music as an escapist thing when I was in high school, and then when I was in college.
What were some of the groups you were listening to?
JB: 13th Floor Elevators are super awesome. And there’s this band called the West Coast Experimental Art Pop Group. They have a lot of songs that you’d probably recognize that are just songs that you hear in movies on soundtracks. A lot of the stuff from that time was protest music, and that’s what psychedelic drugs were part of — this revolution of political change and the youth counterculture movement.
How much is drug culture part of this current scene?
JB: I think in this day and age a lot of people are very concerned about their health, as they should be. But there’s some of that. I think you have to be smart about being stupid, and I think that everybody has a different limit. I’ve never put on a show where people are just really fucked up. Obviously, with house shows, some people go there to party, but it wasn’t us that brought them there. Psychedelics help me heal from a lot of childhood trauma. But I don’t think people should be constantly losing their minds.
After you moved to Missoula, did you notice an explosion of house shows at some point?
JB: Yeah. I don’t know the exact dates of when it happened, but with the lack of venues, I just think the occasion was right. There’s so many factors going into hosting a house venue, and I think that house venues and house shows are super positive. I think that’s how you can get some of the most genuine, meaningful culture.
There’s some concern among musicians in Missoula about not being able to get shows at larger venues, but doesn’t the underground scene, by definition, thrive in DIY venues?
JB: I think it does. And it’s like with everything — if you do it for a long time and you get good at it, there is upward growth. Eventually, if you get big enough, you won’t be playing in basements anymore. You still can, but different opportunities open up. Regular venues are easier to promote. You can put an address on there, put a time, put the amount of money and not be afraid of cops coming down and shutting down the thing. That’s why small to mid venues that still have the DIY mentality are important.
But honestly, it’s a whole lot easier to connect with people in a DIY setting, and there’s a strong sense of community. It’s not that big venues don’t have that, it’s just a different type of community. I think it’s good to have all kinds of venues. The more music that’s happening here, the better.