Note: This piece was originally written last year after Cataracts, with hopes that we would get it published in VICE. That didn't happen. There are certain inconsistencies and inaccuracies in this article, but for the most part I have tried to preserve its original state (composed nearly a year ago) as much as possible. As both a preservation of a place and time, and as a celebration of this year's Cataracts (tomorrow!), I think it still stands up ok. I'm not going to take the time to add links to all the bands today, but I assume you can all use Google (or the new MFT search bar!) to hear music from any of these bands. And you should.
Anyway, everybody knows that Cataracts will be different this year. And I predict the lifespan of this article will be about one day, since tomorrow is likely to change the way previous years are viewed, even in our memories. So uh, ok, here we go. Enjoy!
Cataracts 2012 Flashbacks:
How a Psychedelic House Show Fest Transformed the Midwest
By Jon Rogers
(Photo credit given where known)
(photo: Zach Bell)
At a fenced-in front yard in Indianapolis’s Fountain Square district, just south of downtown, The 2150s are setting up to play their debut show. It is 1:00 in the afternoon on an August Saturday. This will be the first performance in a day that will feature 40 local and national acts playing outdoors at four different houses, all within about a block of each other.
A steady stream of people trickles through the gate to watch the band. No one is collecting money. The 2150s launch into fuzz-and-reverb soaked punk ballads with a Phil Spector-meets-John Waters vibe. The drummer, Mitch, has shoulder-length hair and a teen idol’s good looks, complimented by his wardrobe of a plastic gold crown and sparkly white singlet. He, like the other two dudes in the band, looks like he’s been wasted since last year’s Cataracts, although it could just be the gnarly hangover that seems to be running through this whole crowd. This neighborhood generally goes to sleep when the sun comes up, so there are yawns, red eyes, morning hair. A few people look like they never went to bed.
The lead singer of the 2150s, Cinnamon, has a voice and demeanor that lands somewhere between a much sweeter Roseanne and a more sinister Shirley Temple. She belts out Sam the Sham’s “Little Red Riding Hood” in a brassy tone that would be hard for anyone on the block to ignore. Her husband Jared, on guitar, is bopping behind one of two tiny trees in this front yard. Behind the band, there’s a giant wooden cutout of a four-eyed cat with “up” arrows for pupils. On the cat’s protruding tongue is a small white square, and behind the cat is a large heap of what looks like melting ice cream. Behind that is a wooden fence, and behind the fence is Morris Street.
This cat image, something of a Cataracts Festival mascot, was conceived and created by Jacob Gardner, like just about everything about the event. Gardner is a 25-year-old musician who lives at this house where the 2150s are playing, AKA “Debbie’s Palace of Noise and Laundry”. With the help of like-minded friends, neighbors, roommates, and pals in the local underground psychedelic rock scene, Gardner started Cataracts last summer as a way to create the thing he wanted the most in the world (a super badass psych festival) right in his own back (or this year, front) yard. Behind Jake’s house, his garage has been painted with large letters spelling “FSDC,” which stands for “Fountain Square Don’t Care,” a sort of scene motto, or, perhaps more accurately, a mantra.
(photo: Zach Bell)
Down the street at “Jasona Beach,” named after Jason Arnold, a Fountain Square conceptual artist and one of the residents of the house, Hen are midway through their performance. Two absurdly dressed women sing and dance to carefully choreographed moves on a makeshift beach: store-bought sand, handmade plywood palm trees with upside down marijuana leaves as fronds, reclining beach chairs, another banner with a four-eyed cat. Hen is a performance art girl group that incorporates elements of avant-garde poetry, synchronized dance, stand-up comedy, post-feminist social criticism, and lots of ludicrous fashion. Today, as they sing an eerie tune with the repeated lyric “don’t sweat the sweater” over minimalist backing on a miniature boombox, Aimee Brown and Lisa Berlin are wearing large white gloves, berets with cat ears, drawn-on whiskers, improvised tutus, and overalls cut from wavy-patterned drapes.
As bizarre as they can sometimes be, Hen have become a genuine crowd-pleaser at local shows in recent months. Songs like “Two Hot Guys Hugging Together,” in which the two riff on this increasingly hilarious concept for four minutes, are witty, interesting, weird, and enjoyable for many types of concertgoer. Like the 2150s, Hen are a great act to put on early in the day at Cataracts: their show is fun, but they’re also respected members of the local scene, and their art feels unique to the current moment in Indianapolis music.
Across the street at Skull Manor, ornamented with painted cardboard to form a gaping monster mouth behind the porch/stage, swamp-funk master DMA (David Moose Adamson) is experiencing technical difficulties. Recently expanding his act into a full-band lineup, DMA’s one-of-a-kind blend of pitch-shifted vocal loops, electronic grooves, and grimy hip hop influence has been taken to a whole new level - when the amps are working. I leave and come back to find that their set has gotten rolling, but band member Romeo “Childeyez” Madsen has had to opt out of playing bass or sampler in favor of a small red maraca. That said, he does look fucking great rocking that little shaker and grinning at the crowd, and the dark, thumping music adds a much-needed party feel to the thick afternoon air.
(photo: Zach Bell)
I wander over to The Dave Cave, the fourth Cataracts venue and the home of Dave Jablonski, musician, engineer, and longtime Morris Street resident. This stage has been decorated with a splatter-painted, plywood pyramid, large enough for a couple people to sit inside it at once, and vented at the top. Chris Barth, AKA Normanoak, formerly of Bloomington indie heroes The Impossible Shapes, is in front of the pyramid, performing his playful acoustic psych-folk songs to a sedated crowd. Near the end of his set, Barth urges the audience to come in closer because the final piece will have a physical element. “We are going to create life,” he states calmly.
While running feedback through a sub-woofer with a plastic plate over the speaker, Barth mixes together water, cornstarch, and food coloring, and he describes the primordial ooze from which all life originates. The tale and its telling increase in energy and intensity, and eventually, strange forms emerge from the slime he has created on the plate. Barth manipulates the bass frequency, and these oddly-colored creatures dance their tiny dance. They skip around and climb upwards, curling into themselves and dissolving back into muck. It’s interesting enough to hold the crowd’s attention, and when he is done, we quietly disperse. There are at least two other bands playing at that exact moment, and we all have to decide which to check out next.
Now Creeping Pink, the solo project of Learner Dancer’s Landon Caldwell, is playing their Syd Barrett-influenced, folky psychedelia out front at Debbie’s. Soon, oldies-and-surf-rock enthusiasts The Mutations, who have come from Knoxville to play this house show fest, will blow minds with the power of catchy hooks and traditional chord changes back at The Dave Cave. Still to come are Milwaukee’s riff-rocking bubblegum punks, Ramma Lamma, the doom-drone-meets-garage-pop of local heavies Teenage Strange, Ancient Slang’s post-punk anthems, and the deliciously reverbed-out powerpop of Chicago’s Slushy. All this and more before 5 PM.
AGAINST THE DAY
(photo: Jeremy Tubbs)
Only a decade ago, there was a somewhat thriving indie rock scene in Indianapolis, largely present on the North side of the city in a music-and-arts-friendly district by the White River called Broad Ripple. The bands that frequently played Broad Ripple were, in general, more listener-friendly than the current crop, but they still shared a lo-fi aesthetic and disdain for the “mainstream music” of the day. As the nearby Butler University grew, so did Broad Ripple business; but as it grew, the style of the area underwent a radical transformation. Clientele got less hip and more frat, and the businesses found themselves following suit. Slowly but surely, although plenty of head shops and restaurants were opening, many rock venues and record stores either closed down or migrated out of the Broad Ripple area.
Today, Broad Ripple still has plenty of popular bars, but bars that don’t tend to offer live music. When they’re not focused on Top 40 hits, “dance club” atmosphere, or the occasional local hip hop show, these bars tend to neglect local rock bands because other business opportunities are obviously more lucrative and/or relevant to their customers. So, fittingly, many post-college-age musicians began to move out of the area. Rent seemed to keep getting higher the farther north you tried to go, so they migrated south, where plenty of other musicians and artists had been living comfortably for years.
But musicians are a funny bunch. Whenever they seem to have disappeared or hibernated for a season, they generally come back stronger, and they’ve multiplied. This is the case with the Fountain Square district in the last few years. Even with a comparatively superior atmosphere for underground music, the venues in Fountain Square have sometimes struggled to fully integrate with the artists and musicians living in the neighborhood. Thwarted by nearly every venue in town except for DIY house shows, these kids became experts of self-promotion, word-of-mouth networking, and getting seriously fucked up in the comfort of a friend’s home. Sure, sometimes cops show up and “venues” shut down, but usually two will pop up whenever one has vanished.
(photo: Jeremy Tubbs)
And suddenly, without anyone really intending for it to happen, there were tons of creative, weird, idealistic artists and musicians all in the same place, ingesting substances dangerous and exciting in rustic, largely neglected rental houses, right between Interstate 65 and a bunch of venues, bars, and restaurants. Call these kids hipsters if you want; many of them have lived and worked in this dingy corner of the city for years, or they ride their bikes downtown to deliver sandwiches, or they don’t hold much of a job other than whatever pays between shows and tours. They’re not usually the ones throwing down $20+ for a popular indie act at one of the schmaltzed-up nearby concert venues. That tends to be for the gentrification squad, or just older people, or the moderately wealthy. These Fountain Square kids are preserving the true rock and roll spirit, born and bred in a poverty-stricken and crime-ridden (but still pretty-fucking-hip) area of town, and it happens like this all over the Midwest. You can hope to relocate them from time to time, but good luck if you think you can stop them.
At some point, people like Jacob Gardner decide to dedicate everything to their craft. He doesn’t only want to be a musician, or a show promoter, or even the coolest kid on the block; he just wants to elevate local culture, whether he would articulate it that way or not. And fortunately, he’s not alone. An anonymous neighborhood business owner decided this year to help fund Cataracts because he appreciated what Gardner was doing. Neighborhood friends helped with constructing the art pieces, printing flyers, playing the fest, running sound at the shows, etc. And so, without adding a “sponsored by” tag to every fucking poster (of which there were admittedly few anyway), without seeking dozens of local sponsors who would almost certainly want some sort of return on any investment, and without charging any money to attendees, Gardner was able to pay many of the out of town bands, some of whom have a considerable national following and a long drive to Indianapolis.
Cataracts has been at the heart of a cultural shift in Indy’s Fountain Square district. In the year since the first Cataracts was held, a superb house show venue called Mediumship popped up and presented some of the best shows the city has ever witnessed (Vulgar Boatmen, Cave, Gary War). Countless new bands emerged in Fountain Square, many of which share a damaged, tripped-out, fuck-all sensibility. And they’re a dedicated bunch. A lot of kids here work service jobs almost every day at local businesses, party nearly every night at shows, and gladly support the musical and artistic pursuits of their friends in the scene. They are a crucial part of the cultural improvements Indianapolis has seen in recent years, and other than the dedication of the fest’s organizers, these people are the biggest reason Cataracts is a success.
There is a police station located right behind Gardner’s house on Morris Street (and the Dave Cave, and Jasona Beach), but the cops here are mostly friendly to the kids who come out to party at these house shows. Maybe they have more pressing things to worry about than some punks drinking beers and smoking joints in friends’ yards while bands kick out the loudest jams imaginable – but it’s still pretty surprising people here get hassled as rarely as they do. A few of the neighbors complain about the noise, but Gardner secured permits in advance, so it would be difficult to shut him down. Besides, the show will be over by 11 anyway, and for this area, on a Saturday, that’s not too bad. Mainly, this neighborhood seems eager for something to happen here, and if that thing involves a bunch of 20-somethings smiling a lot and having a good time, it doesn’t seem to bother many people.
Everything has gotten blurrier, and the streets crawl with tattooed kids grasping cans and bottles. Sometimes cop cars creep through the crowd just to keep the alleys clear. The beer sloshes inside you. The sun has receded a bit, as has the heat. Trashcans are filling up, but the porto-johns are still relatively clean. Clouds of weed smoke waft by, and Marmoset, local legends for their twisted take on indie rock since the mid-90s, just played a pretty solid set at Skull Manor. It’s a rare treat; they don’t play too often these days.
Hundreds of people now, drifting up the street to the Family Dollar for bottled water or snacks, waiting in a patient line at the nearby liquor store, which has quickly run out of certain brands of beer, starting with the cheapest (Hamm’s) and getting progressively more expensive as they vanish (Did they just say they’re out of Pabst? Fuck it, Bud Light then). The girls at Cataracts are mostly cute, and fashionably dressed, but they also seem tough, no bullshit. The dudes tend to have long hair, or facial hair. Lots of them wear sleeveless shirts, or unbuttoned shirts, or no shirt. There are a lot of fixed-gear-bike kids, tight jeans, sunglasses, Burger Records buttons. There’s a very peaceful vibe here, accepting and inviting, but there’s also plenty of punk attitude. Some kids go into the houses only to emerge from an upstairs window moments later, climbing out onto the sagging roof, where there are already way too many people for anyone to feel safe. But they don’t look worried. Somebody keeps trying to throw a liquor bottle to a guy on the roof. There is a giant stuffed Homer Simpson doll up there. On the ground, people dance and laugh. There are a shit ton of people with cameras taking pictures of bands, of friends, of the surprisingly large crowd.
Cataracts is in full swing, and it’s starting to feel like things could fall apart at any minute. My panicked mind sees potential weak spots everywhere. How will we know when too many people have shown up? Are the cops going to shut this thing down? Will people be able to save themselves if one of these roofs collapses?
(photo: Rachel Enneking)
At Skull Manor, Chicago’s exquisite lo-fi psych kings Big Colour are playing, and parts of the stage design do fall apart, but there’s no disaster, no roof collapse. The “monster mouth” behind the stage looks a little dilapidated, until somebody tapes a piece of it back where it belongs. Next on this stage, Magic Milk, another top-notch minimal Chicago garage band, howl through a set of echoing psych-blues-punk while the inebriated crowd parties along, tongues lolling and arms in the air. The singer has taken his pants off, revealing maroon skivvies. The drummer is an attractive young woman with long, bright yellow hair, and she’s kicking the ass of just about every drummer that played so far today.
Over at Debbie’s Palace, Bloomington’s magical guitar army, Thee Open Sex, are whipping the hyper crowd into a drone-fueled frenzy. Kids are thrashing around as this psychedelic collective (sometimes featuring as many as 8 or 9 people at once) pummels their ears with trance-inducing, euphoric waves of pure noise, highlighted by their singer Rachel’s otherworldly groaning and shouting. They were one of my favorite new acts at last year’s Cataracts, and they don’t disappoint this time either. The pathetic little trees in the front yard don’t seem to be faring as well, however. The yard, packed with moving bodies, feels a bit like a pen that we have been trapped in with Thee Open Sex, and whoever survives, it probably won’t be those baby maples.
The stage at Debbie’s remains one of the night’s best lineups, featuring excellent locals like Learner Dancer, Crys (Jacob Gardner’s primary band, very popular with this crowd), the bratty garage punk of Vacation Club, and Burnt Ones, a trio of fuzz gods whose national popularity has increased considerably since they relocated to San Francisco from Indiana a couple years ago. By the time Burnt Ones go on at 10, the crowd has turned into a vast seething organism of denim, smoke, bodily fluids, booze, and pure energy.
At The Dave Cave, Knoxville’s Three Man Band power through a riff-heavy set of their aggressive-but-fun stoner rock, followed by a jaw-dropping show by TV Ghost, from nearby Lafayette, IN. When you think about it, the prestige and appeal Gardner’s fest has managed to build in just over a year is pretty amazing. Other uber-hip national and regional acts like Natural Child, White Mystery, Tammar, Pomegranates, and Gap Dream are also headlining this year for a seemingly small gathering of misfits and burnouts in the Midwest. But the fest also easily transcends a mere “house show” vibe or even that of a “proper” music fest.
(photo: Rachel Enneking)
Standing in the middle of Morris Street, the sound from four stages blends into a cacophonous sludge, but the ambience is sublime. Lights from the Cataracts houses seem to emanate warmth and goodwill, or maybe that’s the collective buzz, a pleasant contrast to the hangover that began the day. The mood is pretty calm, even with this many people swarming the alleys and sidewalks in excitement. On this night, in the middle of all this noise, joy, and confusion, it’s hard to remember why this kind of thing can’t happen all the time.
Cataracts is definitely about the music. But it’s also about a feeling, one which we might as well call “constructive anarchy.” It’s about the knowledge that this is the right place to be and the right time to be here. It’s about young people enjoying one another’s company and having fun together, important elements of a happy life that may seem trivial to the joyless and bureaucratic. The mood in the streets whispers: despite the forces beyond this immediate area, where we are huddled together watching ear-splittingly loud psych bands; despite the expensive clubs that don’t care much about any particular scene or sub-scene; despite the gluttonous businesses, clawing for every last inch of the city that can be turned into a profit; despite a poisonous and gridlocked political system and the enormous forces of entropy embedded in what seems like every single pursuit we take on, we are here. We are making something happen. It almost doesn’t matter what it is. It only matters that we did it, together. And whether it makes any larger difference, whether it will change anything or “say” anything about our generation, who the fuck really cares?
Gardner tells me he’s not sure if he’ll be able to pull Cataracts off like this again, with the houses as such. In the days that follow, there is talk of his landlord fining him or trying to kick him out after seeing some pictures from the event. Some neighbors grumbled and complained about the noise or the drug use, sure, but more than anything, Cataracts just seems to be getting too big for the old neighborhood. More recently, Gardner has been working more closely with nearby venues to hold “Cataracts Presents” shows, many of which have featured touring acts every bit as noteworthy as those at the festival. Maybe the ancient serpent is still swallowing its tail. Maybe Jacob Gardner and his Cataracts brand will turn out to be another cog in the machinery of local-shows-as-corporate-entertainment. The burgeoning scene that he has helped to build could easily implode in on itself when attempting to spread into the more conventional local nightclub scene.
Then again, Gardner wasn’t the only attendee at Cataracts. And he wasn’t the only artist that played. He knows how to involve people, how to make them feel like part of the process. He’s a damn fine musician with lots of good ideas and he’s enthusiastic about playing with new people whenever he can. He knows what bands his friends will like, and he never stops working to make his visions into reality. And that tells me that whatever he does next, and most likely whatever he does after that, and after that, it will be worth paying attention to.