February 22, 2022
Off Campus is a new series tracing the histories of college town music scenes, and taking the pulse of current happenings.
“The sun had already sunk beneath the hilly horizon as we drove through the quaint college village. There was a strange aura about this town, an aura that made the air more breathable and alive. I inhaled its vitality with ease and comfort. I knew at that moment that I would like Lawrence.” –Charles Romalotti, Salad Days (2000)
Set in 1980s Kansas, Charles Romalotti’s punk rock coming-of-age memoir opens with its teenage narrator making his first-ever pilgrimage from his rural hometown to the storied Lawrence venue The Outhouse for a show. The events of that night would change his worldview forever.
Lawrence has that effect on young people. Just west of Kansas City, Missouri on Interstate 70, the home to the University of Kansas is a beacon of freedom of expression and progressive politics in this stiflingly conservative state. “I’ve lived in Kansas all my life,” says Danny Pound, frontman for recently-reunited power-pop eccentrics Vitreous Humor. “Two-thirds of this state is a wasteland. But Lawrence is where the weirdos land.”
At the turn of the millennium, the pop crossover success of hometown heroes The Get Up Kids brought Lawrence national attention. The emo punks’s 1999 breakthrough Something To Write Home About was a rising tide that lifted all ships, signal-boosting contemporaries like The Anniversary and Appleseed Cast. But TGUK didn’t develop in a vacuum.
From 1985 to ’97, The Outhouse—a clapboard shack off a gravel road four miles east of Massachusetts Street, Lawrence’s main north-south thoroughfare—hosted, among others, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Hüsker Dü, and a Nirvana show “that probably 7,000 people claim they went to,” booker-about-town Jacki Becker remembers with a laugh. Author-artist William S. Burroughs, who called East Lawrence home in the twilight of his life, would spend afternoons in the yard at The Outhouse creating his trademark abstract “shotgun art.” It was a venue “unlike anyplace else,” says Becker. The 2019 documentary The Outhouse: The Film by Brad Norman, who passed away in January ’22, tells its story.
In the 1990s, Lawrence was one of many so-called “Next Seattles.” With their pastoral take on the era’s metallic, distorted sound, Paw, who opened for Nirvana at K.U. just after Nevermind’s release, scored a deal with A&M Records. Paw never went platinum, but the four “scumbags from Kansas in ripped jeans” (as they called themselves in a 1992 Newsweek feature titled “Searching for Nirvana II”) moved a respectable 80,000 units of their ’93 debut Dragline—which, in 2020, came in at #35 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 50 Greatest Grunge Albums” listicle.
Lawrence also fostered mid-‘90s alt-rockers like Pound’s band Vitreous Humor and the knotty, noisy Zoom. Along with cerebral, melodic Kansas Citians like Shiner and Giants Chair, who played Lawrence often, these acts laid the groundwork for a trademark regional hard rock style. The Missouri groups reigned on the technical end, but coveted their Kansas counterparts’ intellect. Says Shiner singer-guitarist Allen Epley: “Compared to bands like Vitreous Humor, the K.C. scene often felt like a few guitarists standing around, jerking off around a drummer.”
The 2000s saw indie music in Lawrence expand and evolve with songwriting-forward groups like Fourth of July, a raucous folk rock foursome made up of two sets of brothers, and Ghosty, whose 2005 debut Grow Up Or Sleep In thoughtfully and catchily articulated post-grad reluctance to quitting punk rock and joining the 9-to-5 rat race (and included a cameo from Flaming Lips’s Wayne Coyne).
That same era witnessed the emergence of formidable hip-hop acts like Approach, who is still active, and the Archetype posse, a Midwestern analogue to the Bay Area’s Anticon collective. (To learn more about Aughts Lawrence rap, look up longtime LawrenceHipHop.com webmaster Miles Bonny’s 2003 documentary Looking For Today on YouTube.)
COVID-19 threw a wrench into the 96,000-person city’s live-music landscape, but as downtown venues like The Bottleneck, Replay Lounge, and Granada Theater softly (or loudly) reopen, and all-ages spaces like The White Schoolhouse in North Lawrence sort out their futures, a cross-genre cast of new faces, and familiar ones in new contexts, are ramping up activity.
“In every college town, you’re going to have ups and downs, and obviously there was a lengthy pause in live music,” says Becker, who has promoted shows in Lawrence and K.C. under the moniker Up to Eleven for over 20 years and previously hosted the local-music program Plow The Fields on KJHK, K.U. ‘s student radio station. “But our scene is coming back. I’m actually finding it easier to find bands than I have in several years. We’ve got good stuff brewing again in Lawrence, with creative young people making things that are very unexpected and can hopefully be supported.”
A deep dive into Lawrence music lore reveals a treasure trove of sounds and stories. Below is a list of vital albums, EPs, and singles from the 1990s to the present—collected in loose chronological order—with commentary from those who made and love them.
“Vitreous Humor was the most important band in Lawrence, by a long shot,” says Nick Bergwell of late-2000s noise-pop foursome Dactyls, whose rotating cast of drummers included Vitreous’s Dan Benson. “Danny Pound, whatever he did, everyone from The Get Up Kids to Bright Eyes ripped it off constantly.”
Pound, Benson, and bassist Brad Allen started playing music together at 13 and would come out to Lawrence from their nearby hometown of Topeka for shows as soon as they could drive. Vitreous Humor’s members began as Beatles-worshipping rugrats, but their music got denser and more emotionally charged as it tightened up, absorbing sonic aspects of peers like Kansas City’s Boys Life, with whom they released a split seven-inch in 1994 on Crank! A Record Company.
Major labels sought to poach Vitreous Humor from Crank!, but the group stuck with the Santa Monica, California, indie for their best and unfortunately last release. Recorded by Shellac‘s Bob Weston, 1995’s The Vitreous Humor Self-Titled EP is as flawless a ten-inch as any ever made, capturing the band’s dual-six-string attack at the height of an 18-month phase with Allen on second guitar and bassist Brooks Rice joining the fold.
New Directions: Results Beat Boasts
The core trio disbanded in ’96, regrouping two years later with a new name and retooled tonal language. The Regrets’s sole Crank! LP New Directions: Results Beat Boasts traded out Vitreous’s fuzz and feedback for treble-heavy, Minutemen-inspired speak-singing songs that highlighted the rhythm section’s contribution. No matter the band name, nothing could obscure Pound’s gift for warped, whimsical songcraft. But once the Regrets also imploded, the frontman, suddenly band-less at 25, was shell-shocked at how quickly the ride ended.
“In your 20s you think you’re just going to keep going, marking new steps on the ladder to success,” Pound says. “When it dries up, rebuilding that momentum starts to feel like the hardest thing. Do I really want to roll this rock up the hill again? Maybe I’ll just sit here and get stoned.”
Pound spent the next decade distancing himself from his career’s first act, obsessing over Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, forming the more traditionalist Danny Pound Band with a gang of local veteran rockers, and issuing a succession of downtempo solo records including 2013’s Hobby Howl, which Pound calls “like Vitreous Humor on painkillers.” But there wasn’t much touring, nor pushing for notoriety beyond Lawrence’s 35 square miles.
Fast forward to April 2020: Pound had started livestreaming sets from his Lawrence living room semi-regularly from his Facebook page “mostly out of boredom” and, one evening, on a lark, performed Vitreous Humor’s self-titled EP in its entirety—playing both his and Allen’s parts on acoustic guitar—for the first time since ’95. The ecstatic response in the comment thread “made me emotional,” says Pound. “I had no idea how many people actually cared.”
The experience ended up a catalyst for a 2021 reissue of the odds-and-sods comp Posthumous and a forthcoming vinyl re-press of the fabled EP, both via New Jersey’s Ernest Jenning Record Co.—and for Vitreous’s first full-band dates since the 1990s, including a March headlining gig at downtown Lawrence club The Bottleneck set up by Becker.
“We’d regret it if we didn’t do a performance before we all perish,” Pound says. “There was a brief period after Regrets split where we weren’t talking, but it wasn’t long before we were all friends again. This is how it’ll always be, as long as we’re alive.”
The hype sticker and liner notes for Lotuspool Records’s 2018 reissue of Zoom‘s Helium Octipede include all sorts of tall tales, from a supposed Swiss label affiliation to fawning quotes from esteemed (fictitious) French rock critics. But the true story—that a band from the middle of Kansas in the early ’90s, in their early 20s, made an album this accomplished and enduring—is even better.
Zoom’s penchant for bending strings and shifting time signatures garnered frequent Polvo comparisons when they were active. Octipede’s slashing opening salvo “Balboa’s Cannon” and jangly closer “Cycle of Fifths” share their Chapel Hill counterparts’s crooked pop sensibilities. But that’s the tip of the iceberg for a band that gobbled up influences and came up with ideas so rapidly they’d sometimes hurry to finish one to get to the next—like how the maniacal surf rock of “Ephedrine Breakfast” careens straight into the tension-and-release exercise “Extrano.”
Known to spend hours on end in their shared house writing riffs and constructing progressions, Zoom’s dedication to perfecting a particularly repetitive part (sounding somewhere between a cat’s insistent meow and a car alarm going off) once drove a grad-student neighbor to tape an irate note to their door. That message, the legend goes, became the lyrics to said song, “Letter From Allan,” delivered verbatim in as flat an effect as possible by guitarist-vocalist Mark Henning. (Excerpt: “I’ve asked you before to stop making so much noise/ A residential neighborhood is not the place to practice for a band.”)
On an otherwise-forgettable tour, The Wipers’s Greg Sage happened to catch Zoom’s Phoenix show and took a liking to the band, appreciating how they gave it their all despite him being literally the only one in the audience. The reclusive Sage ended up producing Helium Octipede at his studio, Zeno Recording Sound, promising—and delivering—a timeless recording unmoored from its 1992 origins.
In 2015, Zoom bassist Jeremy Sidener re-emerged with another face-melter, Major Games‘s tremendous self-titled debut. Moody, majestic, and complex yet beguilingly accessible, the sounds conjured by Sidener and guitarist Doug McKinney (who both sing) and drummer-producer Steve Squire are disparate yet flow seamlessly, with Travis Milliard’s hyper-colorful artwork creating a synesthetic effect.
The trio had begun work on a follow-up, but “things got hectic during the writing process and we had to halt all production—typical band stuff,” explains Squire, who co-owns Coil Audio, a manufacturer of tube-based audio products. “Right now we’re too inundated with our own career paths to do much, but we’ll probably make another Major Games record in the future once COVID is in the rearview.”
What’s Happening Here
Lawrence/Kansas City combo Proudentall emerged in the back half of the ’90s, releasing its lone album What’s Happening Here posthumously in 2000. The foursome inhabited a middle ground between its Fugazi-fixated predecessors and poppier contemporaries, with ’70s prog trappings and an avant-garde streak. Matt Dunehoo’s melodious singing contrasted sharply with his gravelly-voiced foil Billy Ning, giving intense material like What’s Happening‘s in medias res opener “Kill Myslef” [sic] and seething “1002” a pleasing friction.
Dunehoo recalls intra-band relations being as tumultuous as the tunes. “Proudentall was a lot of anxiety, not getting along, not feeling understood—but those songs meant everything to me.” He recently uploaded a collection of Proudentall rarities, including heretofore-unheard tracks including “When Washed Ashore,” a quintessential K.C. post-hardcore corker, to Bandcamp. Proceeds benefit the Midwest Music Foundation, a non-profit aimed at providing area musicians with resources like healthcare assistance, career guidance, and educational opportunities.
A decade later, ex-Proudentall bassist Ning and guitarist Sean Bergman (also the longtime axeman for post-emo long-haulers The Appleseed Cast) resurfaced in Müscle Wörship. Rounded out by drummer Nathan Wilder, MW’s live ranks have swelled to include a second and sometimes even a third bass. A master class in progressive punk sorcery, the band’s self-titled 2013 LP’s hypnotic centerpiece “A Firebreather Carefully Sobs” sails past the eight-minute mark practically unnoticed, while shorter rippers like “Hans Christian Terrorist” and “Psychonaut’s Prayer” serve up gnarled, warbling hooks in surprisingly digestible packages.
Lawrence isn’t the Sunflower State’s only college town. Eighty minutes north-west lies Manhattan, home to Kansas State University, the Fort Riley military base—and the Church of Swole. With a gym in the garage and a subterranean venue below its living quarters, Church of Swole is home base for punk-pop trio Headlight Rivals: singer-guitarist Eric Kleiner, his brother Kris on drums, and Seven Black on bass.
As the house band, Rivals typically either open or close shows at the Church, summoning a motley mix of Manhattanites to the basement to check out indie-rock heroes like Sebadoh‘s Lou Barlow, up-and-comers like Providence, Rhode Island neo-no-wavers Downtown Boys, and others touring through the “Little Apple.”
Eric Kleiner, who is 30, describes the scene in Manhattan as smaller, less artsy, and more blue-collar compared to Lawrence’s. “We’ve always been tight with people there, but we don’t have that indie-rock, weirdo element,” he says. “People around here, they go hard. We have a door guy for a reason—the military jarheads; that’s always a factor in Manhattan.”
Truck Stop Love
Can’t Hear It: 1991-1994
In the ’90s, Seven Black co-founded Truck Stop Love, one of a handful of Kansas acts to land major-label deals when the A&R buzzards came circling. The Replacements- and Uncle Tupelo-indebted foursome’s brief, explosive run was immortalized on the 2017 vinyl compilation Can’t Hear It: 1991-1994.
A multi-generational meeting of the minds—Black and Kris Kleiner both have 20 years on Eric—Rivals’s 2019 debut Mattson testifies to the timelessness of this uniquely Midwestern strain of pop-rock. It’s got a knack for Elvis Costello-esque hooks, as well as exceptional slow jams like “The End” that hearken back sonically and spiritually to “Townie,” a signature Truck Stop tune. Affirms Kleiner: “We hold it down for the pre-emo explosion.”
Hannah Norris & The Band
Hailing from the even-smaller town of Hays, two hours southwest of Manhattan, teenage folkie Hannah Norris stayed up late one night in the spring of 2015, taping five arrestingly mature acoustic originals at K-State’s KSDB-FM. The next day, she went to her high school senior prom.
Now on the other side of 21, Norris wields a sunburst Les Paul and fronts a veteran band that includes TSL alum Matt Mozier on bass. Their Steve Squire-recorded 2018 single “Ego Death,” with its heavy-duty riffs, nonchalant vocals and electric interplay between instruments, is a promising trailer for the blues rock phenom’s future exploits.
You’re Lucky I Like You
Those who carry a torch for when The Get Up Kids & Co., in tandem with Omaha’s Saddle Creek crew, momentarily made the middle of the map the center of the universe, must hear Chess Club‘s You’re Lucky I Like You. Labelmates of Headlight Rivals on Black Site (run by members of K.C. capital-P punks Red Kate), if you walked into a basement and saw Chess Club playing, you’d swear you’d traveled back in time to the year 2000 as their ferocious, absurdly catchy originals hold their own with any band from that era.
The unrelentingly somber self-titled debut from Flooding—singer-guitarist Rose Brown, bassist Cole Billings and drummer Zach Cunningham—is catnip for fans of slowcore legends Codeine or Texan stone-gazers True Widow. The trio is the crown jewel of an incestuous consortium of young Lawrence musicians that also includes Brown’s unplugged side project Window Seat—which exists in the same sonic universe as Big Thief frontwoman Adrianne Lenker’s solo work—and the mercurial rock combos Guest Service and That’s It, It’s Over, both with Cunningham drumming, Billings strumming while singing, and Matt Brittain handling low-end.
Come Back, Come Here
Though perennially a rock town, bands no longer monopolize Lawrence’s musical landscape. One solo act making moves in recent years is Alex Williams, who records as Bad Alaskan. The synthesizer virtuoso has just two tracks up, but makes them count—a mesmerizing instrumental called “Come Back, Come Here,” plus a Krautrock reinterpretation of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” A Bandcamp search of music tagged “lawrence” also yields gems like the aggro scream-rap of Pipedream, manic horror-core of Lady Ehepr; and, from longtime Lawrence denizen Carlos Ransom, alias Mad Awkward, an emotive instrumental tribute to Isaac Diehl from the Archetype hip-hop collective, who died last year at 41.
For the psych rock heads, there’s Pale Tongue, whose absolute beast of a bass player, Tanner Spreer, is also a prolific local show-poster designer. If it’s chill indie vibes you’re after, try the co-ed “dream wave” five-piece Lesser Pleasures, whose ethereal vocals and crystalline twin guitars recall mellower ‘gazers like New Jersey’s Real Estate and San Francisco’s elusive LSD and the Search For God. TUN is a new long-form stoner-doom trio led by Craig Comstock, whose previous project, the one-man noise-rock extravaganza This Is My Condition, had to be seen to be believed. A studio recording is imminent, promises Comstock. And definitely don’t sleep on LK Ultra!—a Girls Rock Camp-schooled, post-genre power trio whose parents include members of, among others, The Get Up Kids.