Before there was karaoke at the VFW, there was Roger Shack, aka "Country Rog." He played a version of "Ring of Fire" where he'd say "And it burns, burns, burns. Preparation H. It comes in a tube!" That was the late 1990s, and it was an older crowd then—a veteran crowd. When our motley crew of undergrads and budding writers showed up to drink and dance, they always called us "the kids." With the addition of karaoke in the early 2000s, younger and younger patrons started quenching their thirst there, though it never really blew up into a college bar. By the time musicians Colin Johnson and Tom Helgerson arrived in Missoula a few years ago from Minneapolis and started hitting the VFW barstools, it was, most nights, still a place unmarred by the masses.
"We became regulars," says Johnson. "It was our favorite karaoke spot, like the dive bars in Minneapolis. Really cheap drinks, a really great time. And it was not uncommon for Friday night to be just us and Dustin [the KJ] and the bartenders."
Helgerson has been hosting karaoke at the VFW since the previous KJ left, and sometimes Johnson pitches in. Now they're taking it a step further by starting a series of free live shows in the back room of the bar. The monthly event will feature disparate acts picked to complement and clash with one another in a mix-tape sort of way. The VFW has a PA system, but there's no overhead cost as there is at so many other venues in town. And it gives the hesitant show-goer a good deal. It's free and, if you don't like what you hear, you can always sit in the main bar and let it all become background noise.
"Not every kind of music is for everyone," says Johnson. "But if we can kind of level the playing field and people aren't intimidated going into it, or have an expectation going into it, and it's free, then there's no buyer's remorse. That's one of the things about doing these free shows, that ability to expose people to new stuff where they don't feel like they're ripped off."
Johnson and Helgerson met on a Catholic hayride during middle school and have been friends ever since. They both started bands in 2006. Helgerson started Shahs, which was mostly just him and a revolving crew of musicians. Johnson was in a band called Vampire Hands, tagged as a mixture of psychedelic, glam, pop and noise, and which blew up for awhile in the Twin Cities. Despite his band's popularity, Johnson says he needed a break from touring and what he saw as personal stagnation. "We toured a lot," says Johnson, who now studies writing at UM. "I love it, but at a certain point either something needs to happen or it needs to move on. I was ready to move on, so I moved here to Missoula."
Now that both buddies have been in Missoula for almost two years, they've been working on projects together that fit their shared passions. Shahs has played numerous Missoula shows as a solo act and with other musicians. Johnson recently joined the band along with local musician JT Baker (of Sick Kids XOXO). Shahs make experimental music in that it doesn't seem to adhere to strict traditional songmaking rules. But it's easy to listen to with its mix of synth punctuated by pop hooks, infused with vibrations and easy-pleasing drumbeats, and it employs noises that evoke whirring machines and electronic whale calls. It's lounge-y and cool, the kind of music you might hear at an arty party full of low lighting and colorful drinks, where people murmur on the fire escape overlooking a twinkling cityscape.
Johnson and Helgerson say they like traditional music and they like experimental music. Like all music geeks, they enjoy philosophizing about what makes some music popular and why some people are drawn to or repelled by noise and other difficult-to-define genres.
One of their other endeavors is a new blog, mostly run by Helgerson, called Weird Missoula, which sports the tagline "Occasional dispatches (mostly about music) from a little town in the mountains that time forgot."
Johnson and Helgerson make fun of the word "weird"—as in "Keep Missoula Weird"—because it's like so many words that people use when they can't think of something else to say. "I don't really believe in the whole concept of 'weird,'" says Johnson. "What the idea really comes down to is nuance or idiosyncrasies. But the word 'weird" is just a placeholder."
The blog is meant as a way to explore music that might be obscure and that might be weird but that's interesting all the same.
It's true that some noise bands can come off as so cerebral they just seem pretentious. And some noise bands are cacophonous in a way that's difficult to embrace. But "noise" and "weird" mean a lot of things, and those terms can be unnecessary deterrents.
"That word 'noise,' too, means less and less,'" says Helgerson. "It's kind of a broad general term, like 'punk.' It's the idea that the ugly or atonality or asymmetry comes into the writing from a compositional standpoint. There are fewer rules."
Even in the indie rock scene, noise/experimental bands don't always get a chance to disprove misconceptions. Johnson and Helgerson say they hope to make the VFW show a place for that—where people can have a dialog about music, minus pretension, plus fun.
There have been occasional shows there since Roger Shack, but this will be a new endeavor for the veterans bar. The first show features longtime noise/experimental connoisseur Bryan Ramirez (Ex-Cocaine, Killertree Records); Robust Worlds, a one-man "futurist-folk-rock" act from former Vampire Hands guitarist Chris Rose; local singer-songwriter Ali Satterlee, who will debut of her Best Coast-styled, lo-fi bedroom pop; local rockers Fiancee; and Shahs.
Johnson and Helgerson say they hope the free night will introduce listeners to bands they wouldn't otherwise go see.
"I can't imagine a better feeling than having no expectation going into something," says Johnson, "and then walking away with the feeling of, "I really found some music that I love.'"
The Weird Missoula launch party and showcase kicks off at the VFW Saturday, Nov. 12, at 9 PM. Free.