Tom Murphy and Denver's Changing Underground Music Scene

Tom Murphy is a Denver historian, artist, Westword contributor, and underground music enthusiast. The Ross-Broadway Branch Library is hosting a talk with Tom on Denver's Underground Music Scene on Saturday, July 28, 2-3:30 p.m. as part of The UMS. We had a chance to talk with Tom and get an inside look on his views on the current state of underground music in Denver, with a healthy dose of nostalgia of what it used to be like.

What are your thoughts on Denver’s recent growth explosion, and how has that changed Denver’s music scene?

I struggled with answering this question about how the recent growth explosion in Denver has affected the music scene because I have nothing positive to say. As someone born in Aurora, I've seen the metro area go through various changes and shifts in fortune and so on. When a city becomes unaffordable to the poor and creative people it also becomes inhospitable to genuine local culture entirely. I lived in a warehouse beginning in 2005 and it was very affordable. By 2012 the rent hadn't risen much but also by then we had to move out because of zoning issues. After that there were no truly affordable places to live that were anything like that. That was not a reality in the first decade of the 2000s but now it's an issue for anyone trying to do what DIY venues did (and which some still do) up to now—provide a space for ideas that aren't immediately commercial or not able to presented in a way that gave the kind of immediate and intimate experience that makes shows (art, music, film etc.) in those space special and which create a truly unique local creative world viable for anyone of any age. At most other places to experience music (outside of schools, libraries and more above ground art galleries and the like) it's either about alcohol sales and/or being connected to the music industry with publicists, managers and visibility to a more general audience. The growth has disrupted the natural growth of the local music scene by making the city way less affordable to anyone that isn't making a lot of money and by all but putting off the natural, rotating urban decay that used to be a feature of Denver metro for decades from access to creative entrepreneurs. 

What is the best thing that could happen for local musicians?

To be able to freely create their music in a space they can afford and make as much noise as they want connected to a larger creative community across all disciplines, with people in positions of civic power to foster and encourage that community with funds, public works and events designed to raise not just awareness of those musicians but of the creative ecosystem in general. Noone's really done a label that has put Denver on the map like has happened in DC, Seattle, Olympia, Portland, Chicago and other places. If someone could do that with the ability to operate within how the music industry has changed and not be exploitative, that would be helpful too. So long as that label would focus on artists that aren't basically clones of what's popular. 

What is your favorite current venue, and current unconventional place, to see shows and why?

I don't have a favorite venue, per se. They all have their place in our community. But one that is above ground and caters to all sorts of music, comedy, political events, literature and art is Mutiny Information Café. Jim Norris and Matt Megyesi are old Denver guys who embrace the new and that attitude is what makes it a special place.

What’s your favorite venue/music space that is no longer around in Denver?

For an older place, I'd say Monkey Mania. It was the first DIY space I went to in the late 90s and it had a vibe and an energy that was both welcoming and mysterious run by some very cool, decent people. A newer space? Mouth House. They had all sorts of music there and even did a massive festival regularly. They had a recording studio there and ran their Mouthbomb Records imprint out of there too. It, too, had that kind of energy that felt like anyone could go there and you weren't uncool enough to be there. Honorable mention to Fort Collins' GNU: Experience Gallery which curated amazing shows reaching out to artists all along the front range because Brandton Manshel was/is a benevolent visionary. And Colorado Springs, the old Flux Capacitor. Nothing like it. Run by guys in the metal scene who also loved pop, hip-hop and experimental music and who created a perfect environment that made me think of all the great older places in Denver. It re-manifested in a downtown Colorado Springs library but it won't be quite the same. Rhinoceropolis is coming back, so I hear, but it and Glob would be on par with Monkey Mania.

Describe Denver’s music scene in one sentence?

A very loosely affiliated association of creative constellations that occasionally come together to do good things but too separated by ego, insecurity and ignorance to do many great things. 

If you could see any musical act, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Dead—Jimi Hendrix because he was a playful rock and roll mystic whose rich imagination and inventive guitar playing has yet to be bested. Living—there's a lot but I've seen most of the living people I consider amazing. So something rare like Boards of Canada. Those guys have tapped into the media zeitgeist of a generation with their use of vintage imagery and sounds to create an immersive collage of daydreams and half-remembered childhood experiences. Yet they take it beyond that. Their album Tomorrow's Harvest is like a science fiction tale told by Andrei Tarkovsky through music, a big leap in their creative output even if it has yet to be acknowledged as such.

Is there a Denver band you’re really excited about right now?

I try not to get excited because it invites disappointment. But I would say everyone should see R A R E B Y R D $. It's a hip-hop group with a deep yet unpretentious experimental aspect to their creation of music. It's street yet avant-garde, irreverent yet tender. Fans of cLOUDDEAD and Janelle Monae should seek them out for sure but their music to me has a universal appeal.

What shows are you looking forward to this summer?

7/16 Marisa Anderson at Lost Lake
7/18 Neurosis at The Ogden
7/21 The Boss 302 reunion at Mutiny for Mile High Parley
7/29 Tarmints reunion at the Hi-Dive for UMS
8/07 Dentist at Lost Lake
8/10 Meet the Giant album release with Church Fire and The Patient Zeros at Syntax
8/10 and 8/11 Melvins at The Gothic and The Aggie respectively
8/30 A.M. Pleasure Assassins and C.J. Boyd at Downtown Artery

Thank you Tom for taking time to share your thoughts and all your rich knowledge of Denver's music scene.

Interview by Brad Wedig. All photos by Tom Murphy.

Written by Jennifer D on July 10, 2018

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w on July 10, 2018

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Thank you!

Cory on July 13, 2018

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This was an awesome article. He nails the extremely negative and detrimental affect gentrification and the 'growth boom' has had on the DIY music and art culture here in Denver, very well said.

James Freeman on July 18, 2018

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Very nice. Been reading his interviews with bands for years. Cool to see some one interview him.

Veronica on July 18, 2018

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Tom Murphy for mayor!

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