profile: Cropped Out
It's late summer in Louisville, and I’m part of the small crowd listening to a sweaty set by the tightest noise-punk outfit I’ve seen in years. A tireless, hard- hitting drummer fuels the band’s spastic pace under dissociated, echoing vocals. The pounding drums sync perfectly with guitar and bass, punctuated by only a few seconds of silence between songs. This makes each short track feel like a small bomb going off. The three-piece, Running, is regarded highly in Chicago’s punk scene, but they’re likely to slide under the radar of those unfamiliar with the city’s staple basement venues.
Thirty or so others in jeans and T-shirts gather around on all sides of the concrete stage. A five-foot-tall inflatable skull’s eyeballs rotate mechanically just behind the bass player. The band plays against a backdrop of the Ohio River, an unlikely place for a noise- punk microcosm. Big, irreverent banner art hangs on the walls of the outdoor enclosure. In one, a guy moons next to a bootleg Snoopy. In another, a hallmark look of concern stares out from the eyes of the X-files agent for whom the stage is named: “Scully Alley.”
The set has the intimate, satisfied air of a secret basement show, only afterward, I’m sipping cheap beer to the slow lapping of the river instead of squeezed into someone’s subterranean garden apartment. Such is the scene at Cropped Out, a weekend festival of the obscure, experimental, and avant-garde fringes of the underground.
Cropped Out is held in Louisville, Kentucky. Every year, a nearly 50-band bill is amassed from the city, the surrounding Midwest, and both coasts. The past decade has seen a resurgence of independent record labels and the promotion of self-released music, and the founders of Cropped Out subscribe to a similar do-it-yourself ethos. This prompted them to organize the first festival nearly five years ago. Like Chicago’s Blackout Fest or Orange County’s Burgerama, Cropped Out was started by two old friends with similar taste and an interest in exposing others to music they cared about. While the lineups at those festivals tend to collect under one genre, such as gritty punk or garage pop, in agreement with releases from their adjoining record labels (Hozac Records and Burger Records, respectively), the lineup at Cropped Out centers on the many forms of punk rock amidst a jumble of weirder, more esoteric genres. This isn’t to say that every act at Cropped Out is obscure; past bills have featured Austin post-hardcore innovators Scratch Acid, contemptuous character- comedian Neil Hamburger, and social media wizard and #BasedGod Lil B. The result is an atmosphere where like-minded people coalesce around intimate stages to move at the same cool pace for one weekend.
By late afternoon, I’ve settled into a comfortable routine. When I’m not seeing bands play on one of the three stages, I wander about, taking in the scene. Between sets, I take a seat on some bleachers in front of an old baseball diamond. A touring musician standing next to me seems to be having the time of his life, in spite of or perhaps in acknowledgement of the blood covering both his jean jacket and guitar. A nearby vendor tent contains all the necessary tools for an afternoon of DIY tattoos; a cardboard sign in front reads “Shitty Tattoos: Tattoos by Charlie are pretty safe, but who knows?” One cohort of dudes is busy bonding over their new acquisitions: matching foot tattoos of a spider smoking a joint. From my bleacher seat, I watch as my friend rides by on a motorbike wearing a Jason mask and briefly fantasize about buying a moped. While I’m daydreaming, I spot Ryan Davis, standing in back, off to the side of the main stage. Davis is of average build and unassuming, with a kind face and a wry wit. In a T-shirt and jeans, he blends in with the rest of the crowd, save for a look of intense concentration. This is likely because he and his partner are responsible for every administrative detail of the chaos going on around me, from coordinating notoriously unreliable musicians and managing stage and sound to liaising with food and drink vendors, managing the Louisville police on noise, and dealing with the odd guy in the pickup truck expressing his good mood by doing doughnuts in the parking lot.
When Louisville native Ryan Davis moved back after a half-decade stint in Chicago, he was used to being an integral part of an artistic community. This meant seeing new music every other night, booking shows, and racking up miles touring with the folk- punk band State Champion. Moving back to Louisville, Davis found himself feeling isolated, eager to join the community of people doing similar things with underground music in his hometown. Not knowing anyone, the Louisville network seemed impenetrable to Davis, and he began thinking of ways to break in and meet a lot of people all at once. To start, he partnered with Brooklyn-based musician and childhood friend James Ardery, who had earned his own set of contacts booking shows in New York and playing in post-rock two-piece Lushes. Davis wagered a festival would be a sort of “big bang” implement to break into the Louisville underground music scene, which was less busy and varied than the one he’d left in Chicago. A festival was an impetus to meet others playing music and future collaborators. Planning began with an idea and not much more. “The first year we did it we had no clue what we were doing,” Davis says. “There was no set of rules, no precedent.”
Making Cropped Out happen in 2010 took months of constant e-mailing, asking bands to play, and trying to raise money in an era before Kickstarter became as ubiquitous in artistic communities as bake sales in elementary school. Davis recalls drawn-out drives around Louisville negotiating a venue that would house his guitar-toting affiliates while retaining some character. While there’s nothing wrong with dive bars, he didn’t see attendees wanting to spend an entire weekend standing around in one. An unpretentious riverside country club called American Turners fit the bill, and it was used for the first festival and nearly every year after. Davis considered the outdoor venue a logistical victory, celebrating the idea of having bands and attendees camp on the country club grounds off the Ohio River. The camping, added later, was a gamble, he says, but ended up working well compared to the first couple of years, when touring bands would pitch tents and overtake his parents’ lawn.
The ever-evolving process of running Cropped Out is a bit of an empirical guess- and-check. Some things have worked and stuck while others have not. After flying blind in 2010, Davis and Ardery have learned how to best use their “budget,” or, as is the case with most DIY endeavors, their limited personal cash reserves. “The first was a total mess... everything from how to budget, how to get insurance, how to advance, how to schedule 50 bands in three days was unknown to us. The formula evolved from years of mistakes and advice from close friends,” says Ardery. This includes fine-tuning a method of booking bands sure to draw in a substantial crowd while maintaining artistic integrity. Davis elaborates: “There’s a specific way you need to think about your money and get a responsive crowd from your community without just pissing it all away. But you don’t want to sacrifice so much that you’re only booking bands people want to see. Then it’s like, why do it? We’ve learned to use our budget more accurately and intelligently.”
Davis expounds on how it feels to beresponsible for administrating a festival. “Past years I’ve been like, I can tell everyone’s having fun and I see everyone smiling and listening to music, but in my mind I’m stressed out... and counting the dollars falling out of my pocket.” Over time, Davis and Ardery have improved their method of delegating different tasks, owing to what they describe as a stalwart group of volunteers. “We’ve been lucky to have volunteers who make sure every little aspect sticks to the plan as much as possible. We’ve had enough force to be able to delegate: ‘Sabrina—you’re going to make sure everyone gets paid. Joel —you’re going to be managing sound,’” Davis says. “This past year we were able to finally sit back a bit and be part of it, which was huge.”
The American Turners Club allows for a good amount of meandering, and this is what I do between sets as late afternoon turns to evening. The venue has the rustic, halcyon charm of a summer camp. I lazily toss a tennis ball high in the air for a friend to catch on the balcony of the upstairs indoor stage, while across the grounds a dozen musicians play a game of pick-up basketball—skins versus the typical tour uniform of tattered rags. As it gets dark, the club’s empty pool is lit on both sides by old televisions showing static snow. On the side near the river, a roaring bonfire goes up behind bands playing the outdoor stages. I’ve seen acts ranging from Austin no-wave trio Spray Paint, Chicago’s psychedelic outfit Cave, and Mote, spacey local shoe gaze from Louisville. Cropped Out’s attendance grows as the day goes by, and the place is packed and buzzing by the time experimental noisemakers Wolf Eyes finish their set, giving the main stage over to headliner Superwolf, a collaboration between Matt Sweeney and Louisville son Will Oldham, or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Oldham performs in a baseball cap, stark white shorts and flip-flops. Meanwhile, my friend Sal rollerskates in circles around the stage in a blonde wig.
Ardery and Davis intend for Cropped Out to be a bastion of underappreciated art, and keep this in mind when choosing a lineup. Though the musical center of gravity rests on punk rock, past bills have run the gamut. Avant-garde folk, throaty experimental electronic, scratchy garage, ardent post-punk, and psychedelic drone collect under the umbrella of the unsung, or those “cropped out” of the larger underground conversation. After nearly 10 years touring and booking, both Davis and Ardery have developed a particular taste for talent across genres. Of course, Scratch Acid’s David Yow was exposing himself, literally and artistically, in front of audiences before Ryan Davis was born.
“Just seeing David Yow walk through the garage door... I’ve been listening to the Jesus Lizard since high school. That was huge,” says Davis. This feeling reached its apogee when he booked idiosyncratic outsider musician Jandek after taking a chance on a number found in the Houston Yellow Pages. The unique character of Jandek’s self-released folk had garnered the reclusive artist a cult following, of which Davis was part. “On a whim, making that phone call, I thought, ‘Why not?’ I left him this long, awkward phone call about how I’d love for him to come to Louisville, just super weird.
Then, five minutes later, he called me back. It was surreal because as soon as I picked up the phone I recognized him from the one interview that existed with him.” Soon, Davis was consumed with preparations, including finding the cult figure a proper band. Weeks later, his original whim had paid dividends. “We finally find this band, and we’re all just over at a house where they’re going to rehearse, and he walks in. That was one of the most surreal moments for me. This guy’s standing here in a room because of us, because we brought him here. That was pretty heavy.”
It’s nightfall, and the bands are done. Upstairs near the indoor stage, things have gotten pretty weird in the best sense of the word. People are shooting the shit on the balcony and around the bonfire, and a dance floor forms as Wolf Eyes starts DJing an impromptu reggae set. The bar staff at Turners, surprisingly unphased by the rock ’n’ roll antics of Cropped Out’s patrons, sling drinks and laugh while patiently cleaning each beer spilled on the dance floor like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill. After Wolf Eyes departs, a DJ spins dance classics and Davis and Ardery look relieved, surrounded by family and friends after a long day. The indoor stage-turned-dance party has a happy collective effervescence reminiscent of a wedding reception. Out on the dance floor, a guy with long, curly hair in a cool Hawaiian button-up is dancing in a comically large straw sunhat. This is the man responsible for the banners and sculptures that compose Cropped Out’s visual landscape.
Totems have collected over the years to forge an artistic environment greater than the sum of its parts. The grounds are peppered with large-scale paintings and sculptures that form a sort of whacked-out, subversive Americana. Most pieces are the work of Davis’s bandmate, long-time collaborator and nomadic touring machine Mikie Poland. “He always has some big, new thing he’s working out... we have James’s mom’s garage basically filled with Mikie’s artwork to be dusted off each year and put back up. I don’t think people would like Cropped Out as much as they do without the quirky visual aspect,” says Davis. The synergy of these images, the musical landscape, and Kentucky backdrop produces a singular space, the type that makes you friendly by sheer virtue of shared experience: you’re here, you get this, we’ll probably get along.
Poland and Davis started making visual art and playing music together after meeting at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, making designs under the moniker AETHLETICS for their bands and those of friends. “The music influences the visual work. The visual work influences the music. One is an excuse to make the other... the subject matter comes from the different origins, inspirations, and effects of rock ’n’ roll. Things like discovery, getting your mind blown, partying, crushing on babes, giving the middle finger, cults, the occult, trying to freak out, freak yourself out, freak someone else out, be the freak you are,” Poland explains. The piece Poland wants to talk about most is a sculpture Ardery’s mom dubbed “The Great Man” that hangs above the main stage. The Great Man, as Poland describes it, is “a giant, genderless, ghoulie- looking, studded jacket wearing, long-haired punk with metal patches all over.”
“Personally,” he says, “this guy is what I feel my heart and spirit look like when I’m being blown away by a band. It’s really incredible to have this headbanger be the audience’s entry point or point of reference for the gnarly performances going on underneath, whether it’s something as light and beautiful as Catherine Irwin or Lambchop or as energetic and aggressive as Globsters, New England Patriots, or Wolf Eyes. Maybe it’s a totem of a rock ’n’ roll ghostly guardian or something. It’s definitely incredible to have my aesthetic be part of the visual, performative, and auditory dialogue.” As Poland tours constantly and attends the festival every year, he shouldn’t suffer for lack of content for his artwork. When prompted, James Ardery recalls a Cropped Out memory reel straight out of the artist’s book. “Bloody heads from broken bottles, motorcycles on the dance floor, cops, having a conversation with Lil B and Neil Hamburger in a horseshoe pit...” A few more years and Ardery’s mom may need a bigger garage.
James Ardery is a little bit shorter than Davis, with longer hair and a somehow more mischievous glint in his eye. Both founders have an easy manner and sense of humor, but become very earnest when it comes to music or building Louisville’s underground scene. While the event may have been originally devised as a way to break in, it’s now a vehicle to breathe new life into the Louisville music community. Ardery explains, “While there are many talented artists in town who come out almost every year... there really aren’t enough, and there, for sure, are not enough people appreciating and supporting those artists.” Cropped Out provides infrastructure to unite local artists, and, in turn, fosters new music. When prompted on his vision for the future of the festival, Davis elaborates, “I don’t know if it’s even really worked this way, but in my mind I’ve always thought that if we get some high school kid who comes out, and he sees a band from, say, Philadelphia at Cropped Out that blows his mind, and he starts a new band, then maybe next year or the year after his band will play the festival. In that way, we’re generating talent, bands, and artists in our hometown, which is the main idea.”
While Davis intends for Cropped Out to serve Louisville in this capacity, he knows this won’t happen overnight. “We want to strengthen connections... it really is like a big spider web of underground music, which is the most exciting thing about it for me. I don’t know if it will stick. I hope it does... but it’s a long, slow process.” For Cropped Out’s founders, this is a goal worthy of the endless stream of money out of their pockets and the thankless hours required of a labor of love.
The two Kentucky natives are trying to foster a sustainable and self-perpetuating artistic community, to plant something in Louisville that will affect the shape of punk to come.
Profile by Sarah Jane Quillin.
Photography by Mark Ciarleglio.
Artwork by Mikie Poland.