Music venue closes
On Missoula’s north side, in a garage on the last dirt alley next to the railroad, rock ‘n’ roll is about to lose another home. The carseat beds will be moved out of the building. The drawings of Yoshi smoking a joint will be painted over. The Hammer will come down.
The garage is rented by Mark Swafford, a weathered, older man who wouldn’t give his age, saying he was “old enough to know better.” He cranks up the volume on the sound console. Led Zeppelin booms from the speakers inside two 10-foot-tall enclosures made by Swafford and his brothers, Randy and Matthew.
Instruments sat strewn throughout the garage, underneath dozens of band posters covered with inscrutable letters.
It will all be packed up and moved. After a year and a half, Swafford is closing the Hammer Haus, one of Missoula’s few remaining all-ages music venues, after multiple run-ins with the police. It is the latest in a long history of shuttered DIY music spots.
“I’m shutting down at the end of the month simply because we’ve had half a dozen visits from the cops,” Swafford said. “They have our number now.”
Swafford opened the Hammer Haus as a place for music fans to watch shows and support the DIY music scene. They hosted metal bands, punk, grind and a Russian Orthodox Gypsy duo, among others.
Missoula’s music scene gathers around 21-plus bars and headliner shows at the Wilma, but younger fans of alternative music are left with no place to see live music. Swafford took it upon himself to provide that alternative.
“Bars are about booze first, music second,” he said. “We built a venue that was really aimed at taking care of our bands.”
Chris Johnson, co-founder of Zoo City Apparel said the model doesn’t work.
“They can’t really stand on their own,” he said “You can’t really get an all-ages venue to make enough money to pay the rent.”
Zoo City Apparel hosted shows out of their retail space on Main Street before moving out in March and transitioning to a non-retail screen printing business. Similar to the Hammer Haus, Zoo City charged a nominal cover and allowed people to bring their own beer. Johnson said they paid out of pocket to put on shows, but it was successful for the community. When Zoo City moved out, the venue was lost.
Music venues that are open to all ages have seen varied success in Missoula. Years ago, the Boys and Girls Club invited bands to its stage. House shows have popped up here and there. But maintaining a long-term music space without the help of beer sales or expensive tickets can be difficult.
The Hammer Haus relied on donations to pay the acts. Food and beer were common currencies, but Swafford said that he made $150 on a good night, all of which went to the bands.
“I’ve tried to make a little bit of money,” Swafford said. “It wasn’t the main intent, but I wanted the place to perpetuate itself.”
It costs around $600 per month to keep the Haus open, Swafford said. He relied mainly on his Supplemental Security Income checks for disability to pay rent. He also made money by renting out the Hammer Haus as a practice space and playing around town with Mahamawaldi, a heavy metal band that Swafford described with a string of adjectives.
“Heavy. Grind. Lots of boogie. Fast,” he said.
Those living near the Hammer Haus didn’t always appreciate the boogie. The tipping point came in August during Total Fest, a yearly carnival of around 50 touring bands. The Hammer Haus set up a satellite show as an unofficial addition to the festival.
“We had over 100 people here, 40 of which were in bands,” Swafford said. “This place was hammer-packed. People were loving it.”
After three noise complaints, Missoula police intervened.
Swafford received a disorderly conduct ticket that carried a $250 fine. He decided that it was unreasonable to keep pushing his luck, and relented.
'BARS ARE ABOUT BOOZE FIRST, MUSIC SECOND. WE BUILT A VENUE THAT WAS REALLY AIMED AT TAKING CARE OF OUR BANDS.'
- MARK SWAFFORD, FOUNDER OF HAMMER HAUS
What sustains the bar music business is the very thing that can’t flow freely at an all-ages venue: alcohol. Swafford and Johnson said they had relatively few incidents with underage drinking and their BYOB policy.
Some venues, like the Boys and Girls Club, banned alcohol to ensure that drinks stay out of the bellies of minors. But that can deter the crowd and hurt profits.
“People don’t like the fact that they can’t drink at the (all-ages) shows,” said Marty Hill, a local show organizer.
For eight years, Hill has put on shows all around Missoula, at places including the Hammer Haus, Zoo City and area bars. A supporter of all-ages shows, he said that one key to success is enforcing an alcohol ban to avoid underage drinking and legal problems.
“If you go back through history, rock n’ roll and booze go hand in hand,” Hill said. “It’s just a matter of separating that and having fun without getting wasted.”
Hill often works with Missoula’s last all-ages music site, the ZACC Below, which is supported by the Zootown Arts Community Center and located in its basement. The idea started six months ago under the management of Kia Liszak, executive director of the ZACC. She said the music shows barely make enough money to keep the lights on, but by keeping overhead costs low, the ZACC Below hopes to create a lasting, safe music environment.
“I think that we are taking the steps to making it sustainable by implementing a good volunteer team and enforcing the no drinking,” Liszak said. “Also, we want it to be fun.”
Liszak said she has seen many venues go because of underage drinking, but she and Hill agree that the endeavor is necessary to give the younger crowd a chance to see good, affordable live music.
“I think above all else, all-ages venues are more important than any venue, because that’s where it all starts,” Hill said. “To try and get a younger crowd out, you need to have a place to go.”
Swafford said he’s going to take a break and go camping for a month, but don’t count him out.
“It’s not over yet. I don’t give up easy,” he said. “I just have to move it.”