In a storage garage at Browning High School, The Romantic Let Down sets up for practice. Band members and a handful of young kids carry amps, guitars and sections of a drum kit into the large room packed with school supplies. They clear a small space for instruments at the front of the room, moving aside stacks of easels, multi-colored chairs, desks, paint cans, wooden planks and other odds and ends. When asked if he’s in the band one of the kids moving equipment shakes his head, grins and says, “Groupie.”
Guitarist Trevor Spotted Eagle and bassist Aaron Paterson, both underclassmen at the high school, formed their emo garage band in just two weeks so they could play a show at the Browning Skatepark earlier this year. Anthony “Muffin” Mad Plume plays bass and their current drummer, Michael “Booster” Bustamante, has enough character to have picked up several other nicknames, including King Happy, Sir Awesome and Action Bastard. Sometimes Joey Running Crane, 19, fills in on drums for The Romantic Let Down, but he’s usually more consumed with his own punk rock band, Goddammitboyhowdy. Running Crane’s here to practice, along with Eddie Tailfeathers, 23, the vocalist for another Browning-based thrash metal band called Nothing Survives. Although Running Crane and Tailfeathers are only a few years older than the members of The Romantic Let Down, they’re considered mentors for the young band and leaders of a resurgence in the local DIY music scene’s resurgence.
In Browning, the hub of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation located just east of Glacier National Park, these teenage musicians are rock stars. At least, that’s how they’re treated by the reservation’s younger generation; some fans even loiter around the garage during practice.
“These kids have no idea what being a DIY unsigned band is,” says Running Crane. “I remember our first show—I’m pretty sure some of them were expecting a big spectacle with lasers and pyrotechnics. But we’re not big rock stars. We all hold down day jobs or go to school.”
Running Crane says that he once got a message on his Goddammitboyhowdy MySpace page that said, “Please read this. Please take the time to read this.”
“It’s ridiculous,” he laughs. “We only have 200 friends on there but this kid must have thought we were big stars.” He puts on a mock star-struck fan voice and says: “Oh, the huge amounts of mail you must get on a daily basis.”
Running Crane and the other musicians have embraced their position of influence in the community. They all grew up on the reservation, they’re all members of Blackfeet Nation and they’ve already witnessed the challenges of growing up in Browning. It’s a place that works hard to maintain tradition, build community and, as Tailfeathers says, serve as a refuge for Indian culture. But the boys talk of major problems.
The town is full of old government housing, stray dogs and garbage strewn on a stretch of dry, tough plains. The Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s Research and Analysis Bureau counts unemployment between 50 and 70 percent, depending on the report, and more than 25 percent of those employed are considered below the poverty level. When the musicians pointedly ask strangers: “So, what do you think of Browning?” you know they’re testing you for the truth.
In many ways, Browning’s problems provide the perfect backdrop for the emergence of a DIY music community led by this new group of rockers. Punk may have emerged from the streets of England and New York, and it may have been cultivated and dominated by defiant white kids both poor and privileged, but no one group has cornered the market on restless angst.
“As an Indian I’ve been pretty much brought up my whole life to question authority,” says Running Crane. “The things I was hearing on the radio didn’t speak to me at all—you know, standard pop stuff. But it seemed like punk spoke to me a lot more. It’s the whole questioning authority that I can really relate to, and at the same time [music] connects me to my friends. It connects me to something else too, something outside of here.”
At practice inside the storage garage, the amps are turned up loud. Paterson wears his checkered Vans and tight purple jeans, and Spotted Eagle sports a dark knit cap and hair hanging coolly over his eyes. The duo take turns screaming vocals into the microphone, running through their playlist.
After The Romantic Let Down finishes, Running Crane plays a few of his Goddammitboyhowdy songs, plus an Against Me cover. The session sounds like any other garage band practice, save for the content.
For instance, one of The Romantic Let Down’s song, “Ka Ka Yeah,” is about breaking free of the reservation. The chorus goes: “For every night we hold inside/One more life gets wasted/And I try to think about how we get lost.”
And Running Crane, whose musical style is more a product of classic punk influences like The Queers, Descendents and Ramones, has a song called “Nowhere to Hide,” which is about forced assimilation. He sings, “Bloody and bruised for a name in the dirt/crawling through mud for a used piece of earth/Sleeping in the doghouse/ while they sleep inside/Rushed into gates while the ground is aflame/ taking our clothing and taking our name/Sleeping in the doghouse/ while my skin grows pale.”
That song was part of Goddammitboyhowdy’s set list at last August’s Total Fest, Missoula’s annual three-day music showcase of more than 40 DIY bands from around the country. Part of the reason the festival’s selection committee chose the Browning band out of hundreds of applications was because of its distinct message.
“When original—especially punk or metal—protest music comes from really small towns, you know these folks are sticking their necks out way more than the people from Missoula have to in order to be in a band,” says Total Fest founder Josh Vanek. “Small towns are, I think, in some ways really tough places to be a punk. It was definitely a special thing for us to hear [Goddammitboyhowdy’s application CD]. We had some Montana applicants, but they definitely stood out and that was exciting to hear stuff that we unanimously were like, ‘Oh yeah! All right! This is it!’”
Tailfeathers’ band, Nothing Survives, plays more progressive metal, meaning they avoid the classic verse-chorus-verse arrangement and instead write songs that progress like a storyline from beginning to end. Guitarist Vaylon Calica, bassist Louis Pollock and drummer Emerald Grant had already built a playlist of prog metal songs, and with Tailfeathers’ vocal ability, they were able to experiment—sometimes with a sense of humor.
“A lot of songs are meant to confuse the audience and kind of let them down or surprise them,” Tailfeathers says. “We have one song called ‘The Big Let Down’ and we do a four count and then we all do one little short note, and then it’s over.”
But even Nothing Survives pulls from its Browning roots. “Stab City 338,” for instance, refers to the local phone code and is steeped in political and personal issues from the town.
“I just wrote about how the tribal government is really, really flawed,” says Tailfeathers, “and not the fact that we shouldn’t have one, it’s just that the people on it right now are kind of driving us into the ground.”
The song illustrates how Tailfeathers uses music as a way to voice frustration with his surroundings. Tribal government is one common target, but the end of “Stab City 338” turns even more personal. One of Tailfeathers’ friends was stabbed and killed about a year ago.
“The last part of the song is just about how there should be no more wasted sacrifices,” he says. “People shouldn’t be dying…We have an inept government, you know. There’s no real justice.”
Carl McLean, a retired probation officer, knew what to expect when he hosted a May rock concert at the Blackfeet Skatepark.
“It was something I was used to as far as loud music goes,” he says, “because [of the time] when I first took my daughters to Rob Zombie in Great Falls. I just wanted to see if it was something the kids were into in this area.”
They were. McLean, who founded and currently manages the skatepark, says close to 150 kids turned out for the first concert. But while they loved it, some of the adults were a little less enthusiastic.
“A lot of the local [adults] didn’t really understand the music,” he says. “And when they had the mosh pit and stuff like that one of the parents who had come in as a chaperone thought there was a fight going on. I told him, ‘No, no.’ I told him, ‘Just watch.’ And he kind of got used to it.”
McLean’s interest in the music isn’t so much about style, but about community. He keeps referring to Tailfeathers, Running Crane and the others as “kids” and then corrects himself saying, “Well, they’re young men now.” He knows that they have added responsibility in Browning as role models.
“The local bands are local celebrities to a lot of the younger kids, including a lot of the high school kids,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, they’ve had a real positive impact on a lot of our youth on our reservation because when they come in to do a concert they not only do the music, but the kids can relate to them here because they’re from here.”
Pete Shea, the choral music teacher at Browning High School, agrees. While he’s admittedly not a fan of punk and metal, he recognizes how hard his students have worked to create a local scene and takes pride in how music has helped give them direction.
“They try to make do with what they’ve got,” he says of the bands’ storage garage practice space. “And it’s all because they’re really motivated and they really want to work. I’m impressed with their ability. Aaron Paterson is just a freshman this year, but he’s got phenomenal skill on an electric guitar, he’s got a gift for it. This style of music is not my favorite, which might not surprise you, but I do respect what these kids do and their ability to perform this music.”
McLean takes it a step further. He’s tired of seeing Browning misrepresented as a dangerous place and believes these bands represent a chance to showcase promising new talent. He says he’d like to collect enough resources so that Browning bands can tour to other reservations around Montana and take part in larger shows.
“There’s other bands on the other reservations but a lot of times they don’t have the chance to get out and play,” he says. “This is a way for the bands from Browning to not only send their music out to other kids but to let them know that just ’cause you’re from a small community doesn’t mean you have to be isolated.”
It’s happened in the past. For instance, an older band from the Flathead reservation, War Cry, has been an inspiration for the bands in Browning. But Tailfeathers says other role models are few and far between.
“When I was growing up, if I wanted to see a band I had to travel two hours to Great Falls,” he says. “So for bands to play the music kids like and to have them be in Browning, it shows the strides we’ve taken. I hope it inspires more people to start up bands here.”
Tailfeathers may be in a metal band, but his vocal talents extend far beyond that genre. He’s currently in his fourth year working toward a vocal performance degree at the University of Montana and recently played a large role with the university’s Opera Theatre.
Shea, Tailfeathers’ former teacher in Browning, remembers the first time his student stepped into the music room as a sophomore.
“He walked in with his head hung over like he wasn’t sure he was in the right place—you know, real shy about it,” says Shea. “But he blossomed quickly and he ended up having the lead role in two musicals here at the high school. He sang the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof, which is a really demanding musical—a three-hour production—and the male lead for that is just phenomenal. And he did it.”
Metal and opera may seem a strange combination, but Tailfeathers says his formal training helps him keep a wide vocal range for some of the elaborate screaming he does for Nothing Survives.
And while he’s committed to the band, his sights are set on professional singing in a large city like Seattle or, perhaps, at an opera company in Europe.
Part of what makes the new crop of Browning rockers notable is their musical tastes stretch well beyond just punk. Such diversity allows the musicians to tap into other parts of the community.
Running Crane recently discovered an old sepia photo of the Holy Family Mission on the wall of the Browning library. The Catholic-run boarding school founded in 1890, is still located 15 miles east of Browning on the Two Medicine River and was used to “educate” American Indians. To Blackfeet, that meant discouraging their traditional views and instituting forceful assimilation. Running Crane’s sister made a print of the photo, which shows two white nuns, a priest and a sea of young American Indian faces in uniforms, their hair cut Western style. She inscribed a quote from Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, along the bottom:
“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
Running Crane used the photo to inspire his latest side project, a gospel/country outfit called The Holy Family Mission Band. Although he’s passionate about punk, Running Crane’s also drawn to the likes of Uncle Tupelo. He says that Browning is full of country bands, mostly made up of older people from his parents’ generation who play classic standards like Johnny Cash. He likes the style, but he calls those groups “funeral bands,” because they’re always playing at gatherings after someone has died.
“I’m not trying to emulate funeral bands per se,” he says. “I’m trying to emulate the feeling that I get from them. Whereas Goddammitboyhowdy is more a product of the Missoula punk scene, Holy Family Mission Band is definitely a product of living here.”
Tailfeathers plays keyboards in the Holy Family Mission Band and says there are a lot of funeral bands in Browning because there are a lot of deaths.
“Sometimes it’s kind of quiet for awhile,” he says, “and then whenever a death happens there’s usually four or five more within a week of each other.”
Regardless of their sometimes bleak surroundings, both Tailfeathers and Running Crane believe The Holy Family Mission Band will be a part of their personal—and the reservation’s—future.
“You’ll probably see my bands around for years to come,” says Running Crane. “I’ll be involved with music until I die.”
The story in Browning, like many small towns, is that the young people leave. Although Tailfeathers returns often, his time is mostly spent in Missoula as he focuses on finishing at UM. Running Crane is in the process of moving to Missoula as well, in hopes of enrolling at UM in the spring and double majoring in Native American studies and music education. Both are committed to keeping their Browning bands together.
“People come from here and they go to Missoula, they get their degree and they go somewhere else and they never come here again,” Running Crane says. “And that’s why this place is like this because it doesn’t have the resources it deserves.”
Running Crane and Tailfeathers hope to break the trend. They’re trying to promote more shows on the reservation and help younger bands travel down to Missoula. Tailfeathers even started recording Browning bands under the name Big Indian Records, which he admits is a misnomer. At the moment, the studio is nothing more than his laptop and a USB interface. But he hopes to get something more sophisticated next year. Someday, he says, he wants to start up a real studio in Browning.
In the meantime, younger bands like The Romantic Let Down at least has peers willing to help bolster the music scene. And Bustamante, Spotted Eagle and Paterson are excited about their future.
“Actually, now that I’m in a band I’m starting to see more of the good in people,” admits Bustamante. “Before I was in a band I’d just look at Browning and just think it was a dirty, bad town. When I’m in the band it opens my eyes not just to outside, but how good it is here.”
That’s the message Tailfeathers and Running Crane ultimately hope to foster. While Browning isn’t perfect, the music at least offers the younger generation a voice for change. And some elders have embraced that. In fact, Running Crane says his grandfather is a fan. He was a part of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1960s, got his master’s at Harvard and was the Dean at the Blackfeet Community College before his controversial ousting.
“He’s really supportive of what we’re doing,” says Running Crane. “He told me once, ‘I wish you guys were around back in the AIM day. We would’ve blasted it from the speakers when we did our protests.’”
If nothing else, Running Crane’s proud of how far the DIY music scene has come. He says his band’s legacy will only be as strong as the next Browning band. It’s about offering teenagers in Browning an opportunity to play music, to tour and to be heard.
“I think a lot of people get the wrong idea about this place,” he says. “They think it’s just a really violent-terrible, terrible place. It’s not paradise, but it could be worse. What I think people should see is that there is something going on here and it has potential. I feel like we are inspiring kids to really do something.”