The Dojo: An above-ground basement space

 

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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