“Shit… I don’t own enough black,” I find myself thinking. Gotta fit in for my first trip to Rhinoceropolis, especially when it’s essentially Pictureplane‘s going-away party. Preparations are being made for a historic night. Even though I’m headed to a place where judgment is extremely low, I’m still nervous about fitting in.
Travis Egedy (Pictureplane) was a long-time Rhino resident (both artistically and literally), and days after he opened for Rusko, DJ Shadow and Paper Diamond at the mega-sized 1st Bank Center, he’s playing his last show at Rhino before relocating to New York. I imagine that every Pictureplane fan in Denver will be there for the send-off.
About half as many cars as we expected are parked up and down the street of this mostly deserted commercial block in north Denver. The building across the street is for sale, and the auto garage we park in front of may or may not be in business. It’s okay to bring our drinks with us, but still we hang out by our car to sip malt liquor. A tow truck does donuts in the street like a puppy chasing its tail, choosing which car it will grab next from outside the junkyard. We watch, and talk lightly about Obama’s speech at CU and what we all plan to do with useless college degrees.
Rhinoceropolis is an acclaimed underground venue and often pops up in Westword, but it’s a well-decorated turd. It’s a commercial space converted into a home with plywood and curtains for walls, and though the floors and furniture seem clean enough and the décor more pleasant than most college housing in Boulder, the place reeks of dilapidation.
Each “room” is a home-made bunk, and I only counted one bathroom. The eight-or-so Rhino residents put up with the squalid accommodations so they can take ownership of the common areas, where they can make art and party and flourish. Any common space can become the center of something, and by that token, they warrant the best fake plants and dumpster-diving treasures that could be found.
It’s something like a hipster frat house, where little law enforcement and low expectations of hygiene pave the way for uninhibited existence.
The front room is where everything goes down, where white walls are filled with trippy projected colors and DIY images of kids in masks waving gold capes. We walk inside and offer cash to the girl sitting by the door, and don’t bother to hide our half-empty 40’s from her.
I don’t know the name of the person performing: they are muttering things into a mic and drenching it with reverb. It’s dark, but between the Mohawk and tank top, I honestly can’t tell if it’s a girl or a guy. A folding chair loudly crashes to the floor at the end of the set, and I smile because I can’t tell if it’s an accident or part of the performance.
The backyard – what probably used to be a loading dock – is fenced off and full of items stuck in limbo between art and garbage. There’s an old motorcycle missing its right grip, and its snuggled under several layers of garbage bags and tarps. A shopping cart is bolted high up on a cement wall, and it hangs over a makeshift fire pit where a circle of people burn plywood and speak politely to one another.
We spot Mr. Pictureplane among the backyard crowd almost right away. He’s hard to miss on his own, but he’s also the center of attention wherever he stands to chat. He was a resident of Rhinoceropolis for some time, and among many other things, he was the main point of contact for Crystal Castles when they played here a couple years back. He would likely disagree about his actual authority over the place, but at one point he held the reins here.
Among being one of Rhino’s most well-known alum, Travis is also the inventor of “witch house,” a genre that isn’t really about witches or house music. It was actually a joke, but witch house surged in the Portland area anyway for a while, where S∆LEM and other triangle-phile groups made bass-heavy music for brooding snobs. Pictureplane, on the other hand, was more about making music that was enchanted rather than completely possessed. The video for “Goth Star” had the same proportions of spookiness and fun as a Ouija board, and I think Travis took himself just about as seriously.
MC ASiEL took the stage later on, a gaunt and flamboyant rapper with the energy of an aerobics instructor. More than any other kind of performer, MC’s demand eye contact from a crowd, and in a place the size of a living room there was no escaping some kind of emotional contact with him or his shiny, purple pants. The beats were danceable, but the energy he brought was the cause of smiles around the room: his rhymes were full of positivity and self-expression, basically letting loose into happiness. I learned later that he performed at last year’s Pridefest parade in Denver, and though I’m not sure the typical Boulder crowd is ready for this kind of creature, there’s no doubt he turned the modest venue into a legitimate rager.
The people here weren’t in it for crystalline stage lights and stupidly large sound systems. Warm projections and modest speakers did well enough, because the real treasure was the closeness felt within the people around you and a performer inseparable from their audience.
The power went out at least five times. It was either the makeshift strobe light blowing out a circuit, or it was the weak cable connection that was kicked several times. More than anything else, the reaction was how I knew this was a dance party with a community sensibility. Travis would appear each time to follow cords back to a wall and fiddle with this or that, and people waited as long as needed to get back to it.
At any major venue, a poorly-timed drop or a momentary loss of control sends a shockwave of repulsion into the crowd. At Rhinoceropolis, these setbacks were a common struggle, because the battle belonged to everyone and the reward similarly reaped.
“Do you want to hear a song about teenage vampires in space who want to cut class?” Travis says to cheers all around. “That isn’t what this song is about…”
This was a true rave environment, where egos disappeared and no one was there simply to be seen (I don’t think). It didn’t matter how close or far you were from the “front,” because either way you couldn’t escape the feeling of being drawn in. It’s easy to lose yourself in big crowds, and just as easy to find yourself in small ones. Big progressive house tunes are cheesy, but stacked against this they seem incredibly insincere as well.
I wish Pictureplane the best as the project branches out. There may not be any place in the world quite like Rhinoceropolis, but we like to think that the embrace of an underground party can be found anywhere in the world.