The rise of house parties

During the biggest house party I ever threw, I was sitting in the bathroom when the crazy people started filing out of the closet.

My bathroom was a narrow space, with the toilet on one end, one door in the middle and a tall closet on the opposite end. So you can imagine my surprise when this woman opened the door from inside the closet, gave me a little wave and wandered out the door as if she had just materialized inside my bathroom. This was alarming enough. More disturbing still was when it opened AGAIN and someone else popped out. Partygoers enjoy the atmosphere at Joseph Lehner's Wine Wednesday.

Turned out that the one entrance to the insulation attic was in the top of the closet and there was another party going on up there that I didn't even know about - and it was my house.

Ha ha, crazy people in the attic, how very amusing. But it nicely illustrates my point: When you have a house party, you're opening up your most intimate spaces to a large group of people, sometimes close friends, sometimes complete strangers. Your home is an extension of yourself and you're putting yourself on display. Sometimes literally.

House parties are nothing new. The idea extends from the Old Testament to royalty hosting grand events in their castles and European philosophers opening up salons for civilized conversation and the occasional sip of absinthe.

The primary elements of the house party have been in place all along: storytelling, entertainment, philosophy, mind-altering substances.

Indianapolis has seen its share of legendary party sites. Nellie Meyer hosted the likes of Albert Einstein, Walt Disney and Eleanor Roosevelt in elegant salons. More recently, there have been brash escapades thrown by the likes of Greg Brenner and Bill Levin.

Today in Indianapolis you can still find plenty of house party action - if you know the right people and you know where to look.

Nearing midnight at the Mardi Gras party at Empress Alyda Stoica's place, the room is filled with smoke and gargoyles, candles and spooky ethereal music. On command, Mr. Bones, a top-hatted, life-size skeleton, dances a jig of death.

Alyda is famous within the gothic-industrial scene for her electronica dance parties, which involve clearing out large portions of her house and converting them into a dance zone, complete with disco ball and professional-class DJ rig.

Chris Pureka performs for a crowd in the living room of the IndyIndie site.

It's fascinating to watch Mr. Bones dance like John Travolta. Even creepier is the DJ playing some kind of emo bagpipe retro version of "God Gave Rock N Roll To You."

Sometimes you have to decorate with what you have, which in Alyda's case is creepy stuff and DJ gear. Her collection of lights and rigging, usually filling up her main room, looks like bizarrely cubist modern sculpture lined up flat against the wall and arranged with the precision of a Piet Mondrian painting.

Mardi Gras is actually kind of quiet this time around. Most everyone is gathered in the kitchen because, like most parties, the true key element is alcohol. But I'm here in the living room on a very comfortable couch enjoying myself, thank you very much, and am only interrupted when people slip in speaking in conspiratorial whispers about the latest gossip.

It was at a party much like this where then-newcomer to the goth scene Megan Duckworth told me, "They're not critical; you just do your own thing. Nobody judges. There's a sense of camaraderie. You make friends here. There are meaningful relationships to be had."

House parties evolved for a simple and practical reason: Pre-Edison, there was no such thing as recorded music. The only way you picked it up was live: traveling minstrels, perhaps, or orchestras, or the intimate atmosphere of the salon performance, instruments and players in a personal space so close the audience could reach out and touch them.

Indy Hostel, Feb. 26. Chain Caste Proxy is performing - and really, what better band to illustrate this very idea? This is punk rock with violins and a full-sized cello. And the people are just sitting there, inches away, as the cellist works the bow and strings. It's so insane it appears to be completely sane. But there they are, performing in a tradition older than the great-grandparents of anybody here. This is music. This is the way it's supposed to work.

Jackie Palmer, a former resident of the secret location, was around when they first started throwing parties there.

The hostel, run by John Newton, is a newcomer to the Indianapolis scene, a combination overnight hotel for traveling performers and party central for a wide variety of acts. A hotel set up to look like a house. Sometimes he hosts screamingly loud punk bands; other times it's classical harp.

"These house parties, it's really a different scene," Newton says. "It's more relaxed, people have a good time. I don't make a lot of money out of them, sometimes I lose money, but it gets the place's name out there."

And watching this scene with its comfortable and relaxed conversation going on in numerous rooms, with screamy punk rock in the living room and people sitting on chairs, couches, stairs, laps, whatever, I can't help but be reminded of another house party long ago, of a band called Milkbaby and a singer named Tracee Westmoreland: "You've got to reach out and find people who are of a common mind. You've got to find your own personal ritual space, because big business sure ain't doing it for you."

Ritual spaces. Common minds. The places change. Tradition remains the same.

I call it the Revolution House, mostly because it's the home base of Julie Chambers and her Revolutionary Clothing design line.

It is, in fact, quite a low-key affair with folding chairs lined up neatly for partygoers to listen to the singer-songwriter stylings of Ripley Caine and Denise Dill. It's a small group, maybe 20 people, but a good time is had by all nonetheless. This was put together in a matter of days by Chambers, when she heard Caine and Dill were coming through and had no place to play. Well, hell, she thought, why not just host them at my place? Many phone calls and not a little improvisation later, here we are, listening to Caine lambaste the corporatization of music while praising the party itself.

"All these twats are making a mess of it all," Caine says. "If you're in MTV, you'll have 10 people telling you, 'You can't do something like this.'"

"I totally understand what you're talking about," DJ Shiva, another familiar face on the local scene, tells Caine. "I'm a DJ and I just put together an album, and it's completely DIY. I come from a punk background, so that's just the way we do things."

On her way out, Caine makes the circuit of the house, hugging everyone. That's what's nice about this kind of thing: up close and personal, all access.

"I love playing this kind of show," Caine says. "It's really gratifying."

The apartment of Joyce Walker and Cathy Schneider, masterminds of IndyIndie.com, is right on the edge of the river. You can hear Eagle Creek trickling. Sometimes during the spring there's a guy who plays bagpipes on the edge of the creek and Walker and Schneider will sit in their lawn chairs and drink wine and listen. A two person house party.

Today is a bit larger than that, as nearly 50 people crowd into the living room to listen to Chris Pureka perform.

They've been holding musical events and parties at their place and the nearby clubhouse for several years as IndyIndie.com. Walker and Schneider have a broad background in working with musicians, especially their five years doing performer care for the National Women's Music Festival. It was there that they learned about the ongoing plight of performers who want to play someplace other than a smoky bar.

They set up a painter's canvas in the back of the room and encourage people to sign, draw, whatever. There's one for every event since they started in August 2002. Canvasses are sitting all over the house and the clubhouse.

"This is our way to graffiti the walls of our permanent space," Walker says. "Everybody can mark their space and time right now and we can keep that, a record of how they felt about it."

Like many things that grew out of control, IndyIndie did not start with grand ambitions.

"It just kind of happened and it just keeps getting bigger," Walker says. "A woman's house burnt down and she was able to talk to the people who worked through IndyIndie and their place was completely refurbished. It's community. We like to be a woman's service group and lots of other things. If we were just about music we wouldn't feed everybody and make sure everything is in place."

Though I get the feeling you'd probably cook either way, I say, taking note of the enormous food spread Walker has prepared.

She smiles. "Yeah, I'd probably cook either way!"

The heart of any house party is how you use the space, and what the people bring to it.

"A small living room can be a good concert space," Walker says. "It's not about how big the room is. It's about how it's decorated. It's about someone who just loves the music so much that you have to share it. It's all about the live music. We could play CDs in here but it wouldn't be the same. There's a lot of really good little groups out there and no stage for them to be on."

"Artists call us all the time," Schneider says. "We get submissions. We never ask for them. People just send them. The intent is to give a stage to female artists. And it's really about women's community. We can't seem to sustain a meeting place. We had Utopia, we had a few places in the past, and they just go by the wayside. We want it to be a comfortable spot where people come and hang out and meet people and network. All kinds of stuff comes out of it. Painters, sculptors, photographers come in and show their stuff. We have spoken word as a warm-up. We have all kinds of different arts."

Plus, as with the other parties, it's a unique opportunity to interact with the performers.

"Everybody's at home and these people who are usually treated as untouchables, entertainers, are right there on the couch with them, sharing their art, and it's so different," Schneider says. "It's like being at home and you get to take a piece of that art. It's a much better relationship with the artist. When they're up on a stage they're performing."

The whole idea is beginning to expand; every year they run "The Big Ta Do" at Eagle Creek.

"Our dream is to have like a huge house we can live in and has a big enough area for concerts," Walker says. "Cathy's been working with all these groups around the Midwest that do house concerts. We're kind of creating a network so there's a circuit they can do."

"Women's services and housing for passing entertainers," Schneider adds. "It's the Mom House!"

And in a city - hell, a country - that does not strongly encourage such outlandish displays of entertainment, it's all the more important to keep it going.

"It's to keep the culture alive, keep the art alive," Schneider says. "We're in a Republican situation right now, and art is the first thing that suffers. This is our way of supporting art and keeping it alive. I want people 30 years younger than me to understand."

Like Dick Cheney in his undisclosed location or Saddam Hussein in his spider hole, I can't tell you where I am or exactly what I'm doing. The place I'm at tonight is known as The Secret Location. It's the kind of place where you only know about it if you're in the know or, barring that, clever enough with Google to figure it out. I can't say more. I've told you enough already. Spy code.

"This is for all you adults who like your house parties like a John Hughes film," proclaimed one of the promoters online, and really, with a pitch like that, who can resist?

Alyda Stocia specializes in doom-and-gloom decorations at her parties.

When I drop by nearing midnight after a show from America Owns the Moon and the awesomely-named E = MC Hammer, among others, it's a full house with an eclectic crowd: lots of 1990s grunge looks and post-millennial emo, but also a share of 1970s polyester skirts and 1980s fashions. Truly, this is some sort of post-modernist statement.

It's as traditional a house party as you can ask for. Good old-school "this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part" stuff that you thought only happens in movies. The keyboardist for E = MC Hammer has spoons duct-taped to his nipples.

The Secret Location is as busy a musical venue as any in the city, hosting a party and a show at least once a month, usually more often. In the summer they sometimes have three parties.

The promoter who made the John Hughes crack goes by the name of Blank, and that's the only one you're getting. They call it secret for a reason.

"We all know so many bands that are on tour who would fit in nowhere else in this city," Blank says. "They'd rather be here on a Friday playing in a house for friends instead of a Tuesday night at Birdy's. They could probably make more money on a Tuesday night at Birdy's, but they like it more here."

Several of them are in bands that frequently tour, and they make contacts all across the nation, keeping up with touring acts and going from there. Sometimes house members will get phone calls from bands coming through and they'll end up assembling a show in a day or two.

Blank bumps into Jackie Palmer, a former resident of the house. "Which room is yours?" she asks him. "Really? That's the exact same one I lived in!"

Misty watercolored memories of the way we were. But important memories, as Palmer and company were the original residents in 1997 who kicked off the whole nonstop party atmosphere that has not slacked its pace in eight years. They were an eclectic group even then - hippies, punk rockers, indie kids, computer geeks, Herron art students. Several of them were members of a collective called the Sitcom, who threw parties, shows and events at a location in South Broad Ripple before getting kicked out.

"There was nowhere to do shows like this anymore, so we just did them in our house," Palmer says.

Entertainment deplores a vacuum. People find a way to create their spaces. The collective of The Secret Location was an ever-rotating group, with as many as 14 people in the house at the same time. Thirty-five people came in and out in that first year alone. For a while the original drummer for the Ataris lived here, or so I'm told. "A lot of different people have lived in the house, but there's an underlying counterculture feeling about it," Palmer continues. "Whatever you're into, it's not mainstream, so it's all good."

And they got things done. They ran Food Not Bombs out of this place for two years. Art shows, punk rock, whatever came to mind or whoever came to their door.

It's a desolate place, far away from nowhere, yet in the heart of the city. Empty lots sit on either side and abandoned buildings fill the rest of the nearby space. Which means nobody to complain about the noise, nobody to make a fuss. Just a bunch of kids and their own space.

"In the alternative or whatever you want to call it scene of Indy, it's a small city," Palmer says. "And a house like this is rare. Word gets around that there's a cool house that you could live in, and it's cheap. I'm happy that it's stayed in the hands of the indie kids. When I moved out, I never expected it to keep going, but it has, and that's awesome. It's always been in kids' hands. No one else has tried to take it over. There was a time when it was dormant, but for some reason, I don't know why, it's always come back around to indie kids doing shows."

"It's really based off of what Greg Brenner wanted to do," Blank says. "To create a societal nightlife, something to do besides going to a bar. Societal nightlife, something from the '20s. Just think the Great Gatsby. We throw these amazing parties, just without a tennis court."

So what's the whole idea behind this, then?

"Idea? There IS no idea behind it," he says. "It's a place in Indianapolis where the bands who don't want to play the bars can play to a very selective audience. If anything, I could say I'm the most pretentious person in the city, because I have the say as to who plays my fucking living room."

But there is some idea behind it, as he notes when taking me on a top-to-bottom tour of the house.

"We can make this place better," he says, looking around the basement as he plans renovations in his mind. "We can make this city better. You want an idea? There's the idea behind it. Making Indianapolis better."

It ends where it began. Late night at Empress Alyda's place; nearly everybody's gone. Alyda and DJ Copper Top are having some kind of discussion or argument about the future of goth music. Same discussion I've been hearing in one form or another since 1998, which is yet another element of the house party: a certain comfortable familiarity.

By the time the sun comes up, Copper Top is DJing. Alyda, denied a partner, does the lambada with her life-size standup of Princess Leia, swirling in the mist to Copper Top's tune, two different drummers following their own beat. Two people or 200, a house party is still a house party.

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