The Dojo: An above-ground basement space 

click to enlarge Step Dads perform at The Dojo in February 2011. Photo by Sara Baldwin.
  • Step Dads perform at The Dojo in February 2011. Photo by Sara Baldwin.

It's a Saturday night at The Dojo, and it's pretty much packed for a show headlined by Minneapolis punk band Dear Landlord. Not that it takes more than 30 sweaty, moshing punks to fill the intimate, strip-mall space, located on a somewhat-depressed drag of College Avenue.

"It smells like a fish tank in here!" one guy screams before launching his body into the fray. The small building doesn't have air conditioning (hence the fish tank smell), and there really isn't much space to move without running into someone else watching the show or the band itself. But no one seems to mind. Even Pat M., who's been collecting the cover charge at the door, takes a break to jump around and sing along with the rest of the crowd.

It all started with a pleasant little drive. One day on his way to work last summer, local hardcore veteran Jon Suiters drove by a vacant building that just plain caught his eye. Suiters had been booking shows at his house, which was known as 1511, for about three years but was getting burnt out running the operation himself. Meanwhile, a near-Eastside venue called The Dojo had just been shut down due to noise complaints.

At the time, Suiters figured that what Indy really needed was a venue that booked house shows but that wasn't an actual house. With this idea in mind, Suiters decided to reopen The Dojo, relocating the venue from its defunct location near the Emerson Theatre to its current home.

"We've had basement venues come and go," Suiters said. "People live in a house for a year, and they have basement shows. It's always rentals. They have basement shows and trash the place. And then they move out, and we're without a venue for a while. So my idea with the Dojo is kind of to have a basement-show environment specifically for that. I don't have to worry about people sneaking into my room and stealing my cassette tapes or whatever."

Suiters then had a callout among his friends to try to get some Indy punk and hardcore vets involved. He found about 10 people interested in volunteering and it took off from there.

"The previous iteration of [the Dojo] was all kind of on the backs of like one or two people," said Ian Phillips, a Dojo volunteer and member of the hardcore band Chaotic Neutral. "Going to all these shows all the time makes it so you can't have a personal life. After a certain amount of time, you just get totally burnt out. So we try to incorporate enough new people into it and keep the volunteer pool big enough."

Suiters said he doesn't know why the previous owners named the venue the Dojo or what it means, but he decided to stick with it because of name recognition. He was hoping that it would save him some hassle with paperwork and licenses, and a website (www.diydojo.com) and Facebook account under that name were already in existence.

"I think I could've called it 'Jon's Wacky Clubhouse of Fun,' and it would be doing about the same because we kind of started over," Suiters said.

Although Suiters claims that the Dojo is open to just about any band, the venue usually hosts bands that fall under the punk and hardcore umbrellas.

"We're not going to book like a cover band or like bar rock bands," Suiters said. "We keep it independent: punk, hardcore, indie, folk. We've had Christian bands, we've had satanic bands; none of that really matters to us as long as it's independent music and people are doing it their own way."

But they do draw a line in a few cases.

"We do have a semi-strict band policy that if a band's homophobic or if a band's overly racist or if you say really sexist and demeaning stuff, we're probably not going to let you play," Phillips said. "Or we're not going to let you play again."

Beyond this policy, Phillips said they try to keep politics out of The Dojo as much as possible. They do, however, host the occasional benefit show for local charities. Last November, the guys at The Dojo raised money and collected materials during a month-long donation drive for Coburn Place, an apartment building that houses domestic abuse victims and their children.

They capped off the fundraiser with a final benefit show at the beginning of December andin all raised a total of about $300 and another $400-$500 in materials. Suiters said they plan to do the same this coming holiday season.

"That's probably the most memorable show," Suiters said. "It wasn't just some shitty band from Ohio playing for their girlfriends or something; it actually meant something."

There are a few key differences between The Dojo and a house. For starters, The Dojo is a private venue, and patrons must purchase an annual, one-dollar membership card to attend shows.

"There's something about being a private club that affords us certain niceties that doesn't come with being a public club," said Pat Mitchell, resident pop-punk promoter and former proprietor of the house venue Halloween House.

And unlike most house venues, The Dojo has a strict no-drugs-or-alcohol policy.

"It's different for sure," Mitchell said. "I feel like the Dojo is more of definitively just a music venue where people go to watch bands. Whereas at the Halloween House specifically, it was more like a place where people went to party and then happened to enjoy bands as a byproduct of them coming over."

But the guys agree that maintaining a no-alcohol policy at the venue has been worthwhile because it allows The Dojo to be all-ages.

"I remember when I was 15, I was in a punk band, and if it weren't for DIY, all-ages spaces that allowed kind of goofy, 15-year-old punk bands to play, then I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now," Phillips said.

In addition to the all-ages benefit, Suiters said he thinks this policy promotes his idea that music and alcohol don't have to go together.

"I'd like to say it keeps people away from drugs and alcohol and stuff," Suiters said. "We don't allow that in our venue. However, I mean, punks drink and punks do drugs, just like the normal teenager. But I still think it's good for these people to have a place to go. For there to be somewhere to see new bands and discover independent music so we don't have a generation of people listening to Disturbed and all that X-103, 'Down With the Sickness' bullshit."

The Dojo consists of two rooms: the front room is the larger of the two, where the stage itself takes up more than half of the area; and the back room is reserved for a merch table (and it's where the bathroom can be found if you have the guts to brave it).

"[Bands] could go play at the Emerson Theater, which holds 400 people, and if there's nobody there, it's awful," Phillips said. "Or you could come play at the Dojo, and we're a lot cheaper to rent, and if there's 20 people there, it feels kind of full."

Although the Dojo generally runs pretty smoothly, the guys have had their fair share of weird experiences. Between a local (and seemingly homeless) artist who wanted to draw a picture of some of the volunteers (Suiters said the picture doesn't really resemble anyone, but they gave him $10 for his effort) and the lead singer of a punk band tap dancing on stage for extra credit, the DIY venue is anything but boring. Even the tight-knit volunteers have their share of conflict and have no problem calling each other out on being an "asshole" at times.

But when it comes down to it, the Dojo has is a very laid-back environment, and volunteer Micah Jenkins, another member of Chaotic Neutral, said that they have their regulars to thank for that.

"I think most of our typical crowd knows what we're about and what we're trying to do, and they don't want to see the place shut down either," Jenkins said. "And I think they're typically pretty smart about what they do here."

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