With our Isolation Drills series, MAGNET has been checking in with Philadelphia-area musicians to see how and what they’re doing during the pandemic. Now, we’re also shining a light on our beloved local venues, hoping their stages will be saved. Photos by Chris Sikich.
MAGNET: How is Underground Arts currently holding up?
Kevin R. Horn (talent buyer): We’re hanging in! Early on we started focusing on bringing in guest chefs to do weekly pop-ups in our kitchen space, as well as being a staging area for local food-donation organizations. Throughout the summer we opened our (lobby) doors to provide a safe space for protestors nearby. We’ve done a round of limited-edition staff fundraising T-shirts and hoodies with all proceeds to our wonderful crew. Some amazing bands have come and recorded some live shows from our stage. And we just wrapped up a successful charity kitchen pop-up event with our friends House Cat Presents for the Feminist Flea Market, with proceeds going to the many wonderful free food fridges across the city. Our main goal is not only to survive, but to help carry our employees through these trying times, while continuing to serve the community.
What was the last show you had at UA?
What does the future look like for UA?
We’re now operating a pop-up restaurant weekly featuring our wonderful chef Jennifer Zavala! We have a number of great events in the works, too, for spring that will be rolling out shortly.
How can the public support UA right now?
We will be launching another round of limited-edition merch—and we still have a few beanies left as the cold weather rolls in!—so keep your eyes peeled. Please come on by, check out our menu and get some amazing birria tacos and tamales to help keep us going!
Jason Kourkounis (Hot Snakes, Bardo Pond) on Underground Arts
I’m gonna guess that it’s late night in the summer of ’98 when John Reis—in underwear an a Mexican poncho—and myself—I think fully clothed—begin talking about what would eventually become Hot Snakes. This was in the Old City loft where Bryan Dilworth*, Kristin Thomson, Wayne Hamilton and I had lived, about 12 blocks from what would become Underground Arts. A 1,000 square-foot floor nightly covered by the bodies of friends and touring bands.
That space, filled with Bryan and Kristin’s generosity and love of music, brought so many people together. So many that have been a part of the music world we know today. Booking shows and tour managing Rocket From The Crypt, both he and Kristin ran record labels in what I’m beginning to look back on as a glorious time for the DIY world. A brief moment when a worldwide indie network thrived largely without the now near-ubiquitous presence of some mega-corporate interest.
Kind of a free-for-all when we still relied on pay phones, maps and the postal service for too much to grasp in a world where a digital narrator will now direct me, step-by-step, to some tiny club in Las Ramblas that took a band four hours to find in 1994. A time when we relied almost entirely on our friends and soon-to-be friends in the bands and clubs of the world.
These days, it seems to me, we’re a bit more self-reliant. Armed with our trusty search engines, we can choose to be more do-it-yourself in most every aspect of our lives. I suppose that what I’ve always preferred is more specifically, a do-it-yourselves approach. I’ve always wanted that community that I needed, and that may have needed me, to survive and prosper. A community that often felt like a family.
For Hot Snakes, playing Underground Arts was as much a reunion of that family as a performance. Everywhere we looked, there was an old friend. And they were as close as can be, given the semi-in-the-round stage, free of barricades and looming security gents. There are so many great clubs around the world these days, but many tend toward the overly professional, rendering them a wee-bit sterile.
I can’t say I’ve noticed much in the way of sterility at UArts. Run by pros who might be insulted to be called such, they still seem to be music lovers first and foremost. Friends, music lovers and music-loving friends, so many of whom crossed paths because of Bryan, filled the place. There’s nothing like playing a room full of that much love. As if we’re somehow flailing away in the comfort of the biggest, bestest bearhug imaginable.
Followed, of course, by a friendly dice game for the 50 or so who were happy to keep the good times rolling ‘til dawn. Someone else can tell those stories.
*Gone too soon (March 9, 2020), Bryan led, and we happily followed. Khyber Pass, Upstages, Upstairs At Nick’s, UArts, etc.—all magical spaces. Well maybe not magical. Special, in a shortbus kinda way. Largely due to Bryan. Such a loss for so many.
MAGNET’s Chris Sikich on Underground Arts
My second-ever opportunity to take portraits of a band happened at Underground Arts: Le Butcherettes, July 1, 2015. It was my first of many experiences photographing the sublime talent of Teresa Suarez (a.k.a. Terri Gender Bender) behind the scenes.
Intense and creative on a level seen in few performers, Suarez and Co. were a stunning match for the odd scenery of electric chairs and random flora found in the catacombs of Underground Arts. A venue where sound expands from the curved space to excited patrons in all corners of the room, Underground Art is one of Philly’s best live-music settings.
And to experience the ferocity of Le Butcherettes followed by the amazing intensity of headliners the Melvins (who had the crushing crowd undulating like an organism toward Buzz Osborne’s cutting riffs) was a thrill.
Each subsequent Le Butcherettes encounter I’ve had—live and/or with the band members behind the scenes—has been seemingly more electric and hypnotic than the previous one. But it’s the first one that’s burned itself brightest into my memory.