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HEAVEN AND HELL
J.J. Keller passes around a bottle of Jägermeister at Universal Choke Sign's practice room. It's a spacious garage, located on Missoula's Westside, with a clubhouse feel: cigarette smoke curling through the air, a large drum set in the corner, a weathered leather couch and a refrigerator stocked with Coors and Clamato for red beers.
The band members are reflecting on Jay's Upstairs. Keller and Justin Tribble, both guitarists for Universal Choke Sign (UCS), played in a metal band called Tower back in the late 1990s. Per Carlson, UCS's bassist, also played at Jay's in a metal band called St. Rage. Together they made up a small metal scene—with other groups like War Cry and Die Sister Die—among Jay's much more prominent, full-swing punk and garage rock scene. And though none of the metalheads say they were completely alienated, they all certainly noticed a division—some nights more than others.
"There were some real confrontational points in the late 1990s when we first started playing at Jay's," says Tribble. "One night, we got into it. We were playing, and we had a whole bunch of metalheads there, but all of those punk guys are pretty relentless—respect for them, they're tough as nails. It was a rough night. Fists got thrown. But we were able to continue playing there."
They persevered in part, he says, because of support from soundman and Kiss fanatic Justin Lawrence, who loves metal but had his foot in the punk scene playing for punk band Humpy. "Justin had our back," adds Tribble.
When Jay's Upstairs was shut down in 2003, the music scene dispersed. House parties sprung up, temporary warehouse venues popped up, and then disintegrated. Metal bands started getting gigs at Buck's Club, a remote venue off Brooks Street, while punk, garage and other indie rock shows stayed in the heart of downtown.
Cheryl Fullerton, UCS's band manager, was drowning in a corporate job at the time. She'd grown up in Missoula listening to tapes of thrash bands like Nuclear Assault and Exodus.
"I've always been drawn to that form of music and its angst," she says. "We used to pull over when we had to go hang out with people who weren't really into metal and get all of our headbanging out in the car back when we were young. You almost have a need for it. I was getting frustrated because there weren't any shows to go to. It came down to the point where, if nobody else was going to do it, I was."
Fullerton started booking shows in Buck's Club's adjacent room, called The Other Side (formerly the Cowboy Bar). The 450-person space worked well for popular, national acts, but on nights when only a handful of people showed up, the emptiness was glaring—and costly.
"My first show was bad," she says. "You think that you're going to do something and that automatically people are going to show up. It was the beginning of an education."
But Fullerton gradually began to turn the metal scene around. She started up a production company, Demonlily Entertainment, focused exclusively on metal shows. She began brokering national metal acts to hit Missoula, including Primer 55, Straightline Stitch and Psychostick, while slotting local bands to open. Some shows flopped and some scored, filling the venue from stage front to the back wall.
Local bands got another boost when, in 2005, 96.3 The Blaze began promoting metal songs on the radio, in particular The Local 406 Show. UCS admits the arrangement began with a few inside connections at the station willing to help them out. Those connections led to radio play, and listeners eventually began requesting the band's songs.
Then metal reached an even wider audience with the arrival of a new local event. The Other Side hosted The Pabst Blue Ribbon Band of the Year contest, which pitted bands of every kind against each other, including the inHUMANS (absurdist hip-hop), Black Velvet Elvis (post-punk), Corn Mash (Americana) and metal. In 2008, metal bands Blessiddoom, Walking Corpse Syndrome and Lazerwolfs all advanced to the final round thanks to support of fans and voting from the judges' panel. None won the final competition, but the event provided the kind of exposure that metal bands rarely received in Missoula.
"The PBR thing helped us out because we were just starting out," UCS's Carlson says. "There were hippies out there digging that shit. A lot of different people saw us. And that helped us immensely."
In May 2009, Tom Reed, owner of Bucks Club and The Other Side, died suddenly, and the club closed. Fullerton was caught off guard by the tragedy. Reed had become a close friend and supporter of the shows she promoted. The days following his death she scrambled to find new venues for national bands she'd already booked. Places like the Elks, the Palace and the Badlander helped at the last minute. Meanwhile, rumors that The Other Side might sell and open again fizzled as months passed and the bar remained boarded up.
"Everybody felt comfortable there," says Fullerton. "Everybody knew everybody—kind of how Jay's was for the punk scene, The Other Side was for the metal scene. Its closing has left a hole."
And, with that, right when the metal scene was beginning to find traction, it found itself virtually homeless again.