It seems to be on everyone’s tongue around here lately, our city’s most recent news item of national note: Through a mysteriously tabulated statistical aggregation provided by an online service called neighborhoodscout.com, a small sliver of Over-the-Rhine has been “officially” named the Worst Neighborhood in the United States.
When I ask the members of The Read (pronounced “red”), who all live together in Bike Haus on Clay Street one block away from Main in OTR, about their close residential proximity to such supposed clear and present danger, to say they shrug it off would be an understatement.
“I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s perfect,” drummer David Huster says.
“I’ve never been part of a community until I lived here,” singer and guitarist Jerome Westerkamp says.
With bassist Mitch Watson, they are three — a gangly, motley trio of socially aware suburban transplants who grew weary of the atrocities perpetrated by this past presidential administration and the general cultural malaise of our modern world.
With a chip firmly planted on their collective shoulder, the band members chose to trade a comfortably numb existence in a subdivision for a full-scale bohemian life of revelry and the provocation of critical thought.
Their artistic medium? The liberating, visceral form known as Punk Rock, Post-Punk style. The Read makes party music for the revolution. The trio bangs out impassioned, warp-speed manifestos, desperate pleas that boil the blood with huge drums, rumbling bass, a skittish blur of Gang of Four-tuned guitars and barely contained, breathy shouts. The band’s songs are catchy, viral even. And, yeah, they do it all in Over-the-Rhine.
Bike Haus is The Read’s command center, practice pad and venue for bi-monthly shows featuring bands both local and regional. It’s a colorful, open and really quite welcoming space a couple flights of stairs up a crumbling, warehouse-sized building on Clay Street. Neighborhood kids come and hang out, watch The Read play and eat veggie dogs. One wall overflows with Franken-bikes, mutant cycles made up of salvaged scrap pieces. An array of gears, pedals and tire treads fill egg crates and hang from the ceiling, waiting to be employed in future experiments. Let your eye wander across the black-and-white-tiled floor to the opposite wall, and you’ll see a drum set and two big amps. This is The Read’s raison d’tre.
“As soon as we started playing more houses and non-bar venues — playing on the floor and stuff — we were like, ‘Yeah, this is it.’ Songs became faster and people watching appreciated it more. It’s cool. We met tons of people from there,” Westerkamp says.
Working the bar scene is the obvious and often the easiest promotional method for countless bands in countless cities. But taking the high road by helping nurture a network of privately established art and music venues in what are seen as decaying parts of town — a network that has recently expanded to include not only Bike Haus but also Bunk Space, the newly founded CS13 and countless hereand-gone CUF party houses — was a natural choice for The Read. They’re a band of rabid do-it-yourselfers. But it isn’t necessarily for political reasons that they’ve chosen to travel this route; these dudes could party, drink and play any band under any bar’s table and probably pack the place doing so. It’s just that for The Read, house shows are way more inclusive, in your face and fun.
Or as Huster puts it in a surprisingly fitting sports analogy: “I can love basketball and still think that going to an NBA game is boring because I’m 500 feet away from somebody who’s doing something that I think is fun. I’d rather just go play basketball myself.”
The attitude is inspired in part by 1980s underground trailblazers like Black Flag. That band dealt with a nonexistent infrastructure for Indie Rock, crushing poverty, police surveillance, draining legal problems and an increasingly hostile fan base. But somehow they only got better.
“They made it work through worse conditions than any of us will ever see,” Huster says. “They made it work and still were amazing.”
Listen to The Read, and you probably won’t hear an excessive — maybe not even evident — Flag influence. In likening The Read to Black Flag, Huster reduces the similarity to one simple idea: “We’re really, really mad, but we’re having a good time because we’re a band.”
So no matter what’s tumbling out of Westerkamp’s mouth as far as politics, lifestyles and social awareness are concerned, the point is one of surrendering to the power of the music, not the ideology.
“When you can get a room of people dancing on each other, feeling up on each other or, if the mood calls for it, pushing each other, I think that connection is something you can’t get anywhere else,” he says.
It might come as a surprise to some, but you can get it on The Read’s turf, right here at home in Over-the-Rhine.
THE READ (myspace.com/readlikered) embarks on an extensive U.S. tour this weekend.