Hardcore Architecture: Punk bands and underground culture rise from often unremarkable homes

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

Hardcore Architecture is a project by Chicago artist Marc Fischer exploring the relationship between domestic spaces, urban and suburban neighborhoods, and underground hardcore and punk bands of the 1980s. For the project, Fischer pulls the street addresses from contact listings for bands both reasonably well-known and impossibly arcane, as listed in back issues of the punk magazine Maximumrocknroll from the 1980s. He then looks the addresses up on Google Street View, taking screengrabs of the houses as they currently appear (or as they appeared in 2011 or whenever the Google camera car was last by). The images are posted to a Tumblr along with the band’s name, ZIP code, and a snippet of the original review. Fischer has just published a limited-edition booklet with 68 of the images.

The results of his media archaelogy are a funny, ironic and intriguing snapshot of American vernacular architecture in the 1980s. It’s also a fascinating alternative vision of the places where underground culture has been created and nurtured – not necessarily in dimly lit rock clubs and dive bars, but in tidy ranch houses and suburban bungalows. The project includes four images of Twin Cities addresses – two in Minneapolis (an Uptown apartment and what could be some vintage Dinkytown student housing), and two in St. Paul (a stately Mac-Groveland residence and an east side cottage). 

I spoke to Fischer this week about a number of topics related to the project, including the logistics of rehearsing in an apartment building vs. a suburban garage, the underappreciated role of your parents’ basements in fostering underground culture, and the dangers of making unfounded assumptions about the socioeconomic life of a neighborhood based on how it appears on Google Street View. 

MinnPost: Do you remember a point where you were reading Maximumrocknroll and ordering records, and realizing, wait, these are just kids like me who live in regular houses? This package isn’t coming from a processing plant in an industrial park somewhere, it’s coming from some kid’s parents’ house.

Marc Fischer: I started reading Maximumrocknroll in 1987. My family took a trip to Arizona and I found a copy at Tower Records, and it was sort of right on time. There were records I mail-ordered, and I definitely wrote directly to bands. And so you would often get this handwritten note back, and I recognized I was sending money to a person, to their house. Around the same time, I was writing away to people for their zines. It immediately clicked that writing to people through the mail was going to be a point of contact for certain types of music I was interested in.

MP: Yeah, when you realize it’s a peer-to-peer network, it can be very surprising and very exciting.

MF: I always imagined that all these people were a little further along or older than me. But in many cases, people were exactly same age. Or even younger, in some cases.

MP: You’ve looked at a lot different types of houses in a lot of different parts of the country. Have you noticed any regional variations in the types of housing? I noticed half of the featured Twin Cities addresses are little stucco cottages, which is about right for this part of the country.

MF: I notice it a lot more with plants than buildings. Like, oh, they have palm trees. Or there are different kinds of attitudes towards landscaping. There’s the sort of mentality in much of America still where no matter how hot and dry it is, you try to preserve having a lawn, no matter how absurd that might be for the climate where you live. 

And there are definitely sorts of trends in the building styles. If you’re looking at a gigantic, long brick building in Syracuse, New York, in all likelihood it’s student housing for Syracuse University if it’s not a house. And certainly the homes in Chicago that I found all look pretty normal variations on Chicago types of homes – like brick two-flat buildings. Or in New York, of course, it’s predictably either really tight row homes, or giant high-rise buildings.

The address given for their “Gun At My Head” cassette in Minneapolis
Iron Fist. The address given for their “Gun At My Head” cassette in Minneapolis, MN 55408. Source: MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL, issue no. 67, December, 1988. Street view date: Sept, 2014. Sample quote from the review: “P.U.N.K. Rock, buddy, no, not thrash, just raw gutteral snarly-ass punk with snotty vocals.” (WG).

MP: A lot of the project for me demonstrates to what degree hardcore specifically – and rock generally – is shaped by a need for an urban or suburban geography that includes basements and garages.

MF: Yeah. Certain areas, you can start thinking more easily about, OK, this looks like the kind of place where the band could practice in their garage or their basement, and the closest home is 100 yards away. Or, OK, the logistics of how this band had to operate were defined by the city where they live, because there’s no way anyone is practicing full-force in that apartment complex.

MP: What does the viewer bring to the experience, in terms of his or her own background and prejudices? Do you find when you look at Chicago addresses, you have preconceived notions of those group members’ lives based on the neighborhoods? That Iron Fist address [a typical Minneapolis two-story ’60s apartment in Lyn-Lake], for example – the 55408 ZIP code is so full of apartments that look just like that, and it’s also historically full of musicians and artists, because it used to be really cheap. And so as a Minneapolis person, it’s easy for me to say, “Ah, sure, that was a bunch of 22-year-old kids living in an apartment in the old Uptown, I get it.” Whereas if I’m looking at house in Milwaukee or Chicago, I don’t have that background.

MF: Chicago’s a pretty large city, and things are quite scattered, in terms of the locations. I mean, if you’ve got an address in Hyde Park, there’s the likelihood you’re a student at the University of Chicago, or perhaps one of your parents works at the university. And in some neighborhoods, it depends on the permissiveness of neighbors to allow for that kind of thing. But that’s all kind of speculative.

The address given for their “Restless Nights” EP, in St. Paul
Blind Approach. The address given for their “Restless Nights” EP, in St. Paul, MN 55105. Source: MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL, issue no. 64, September, 1988. Street view date: Aug., 2014. Sample quote from the review: “Unlike many contemporary hardcore groups, this band adds some interesting flourishes to the basic song structures… .” (JB).

MP: But speculation’s the really fun part! That’s the part that seems truest to the experience of looking through a mail order catalog in the ’80s or ’90s, and seeing these disembodied street addresses, and wondering, “What kinds of buildings are these? What’s the part of town where this address is located like?”

MF: It’s a little dangerous to go too far with that, though. There’s a funny moment on the Tumblr where one of the first houses I found was the house of Les Evans of Cryptic Slaughter’s parents. Someone re-blogged the photo and said, like, “I knew they were rich kids growing up in Santa Monica.” And Les chimed in and said, Well, actually, Santa Monica had rent control. It was a different place back then. Part of why it was so diverse compared to other parts of Los Angeles was that there was a real attempt to preserve a wider economic possibility of living there. With that group, they practiced in their drummer’s parents’ garage. They were right by the Santa Monica airport. So they had some advantage of soundproofing. It was loud enough that you couldn’t have a conversation with the person next to you because of the planes flying overhead.

MP: Right, you couldn’t know those details simply by looking at the photograph. Have you heard from many other people affiliated with these bands?

MF: People check in occasionally, sometimes to just say, “Yeah, good work, you found the right house!” More commonly, a lot of these bands – whether active or not – someone maintains a Facebook page for them, and someone would share the band’s house, and there’d be a whole discussion that would follow. The thing that’s been consistent is that people seem really happy and quite amused to find themselves included. When I look for addresses, it’s whatever I can find. I don’t exclude anyone because no one’s heard of their band, or because they only made a demo tape. 

MPL: Yeah, the obscure ones are the best part. That’s where you see the really interesting houses.

MF: Right. So for for some groups to have someone acknowledge 25 years later that they did this thing is very delightful and pleasing. My initial concerns about whether their privacy is being invaded – I remove every street name and number from the listings – that hasn’t been borne out at all. Even if they still live there, or their parents still live there.

The address given for their “Gun Control” EP, in St. Paul
Civil Defense. The address given for their “Gun Control” EP, in St. Paul, MN 55119. Address source: MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL, issue no. 16, August, 1984. Street view date: Aug., 2014. Sample quote from the review: “An uneven debut but C.D. have potential.” (JB)

MP: That’s another interesting facet of the project, this sense of a loss of anonymity. Punk rock generally, and hardcore in particular, seemed to encourage a narrative where you could grow up in a nice, middle-class house – a lot like this one in St. Paul, for example – and you could change your identity and appearance and adopt this persona that rejected all that, and no one would know where you came from. So you have these bands with extreme names coming from tidy, well-manicured suburbs. It would be so easy now to look up an address on Google Street View, see the nice house that some band went back to, and make assumptions about them. Like, “Oh, they’re rich kids from a nice neighborhood, they’re not legit.”

MF: Right, right. But if people are being honest with themselves, there’s a lot of groups where maybe only member has that reality, but without that person you have don’t have access to a van to tour in. A lot of groups, and also record labels, have been kept afloat by having one person who can give a little more money to keep the record pressed, and it goes back to their address later on. There are all sorts of fairly extreme cultural things that have been helped greatly by that. There’s not always this perfect economic equality within a group of people.

I wrote about this in the booklet, but there are very few hardcore songs that celebrate people’s parents! There’s the song “I Love My Mom,” by the Ugly Americans, which really rings as absolutely not ironic, this very unusually sincere song. 

It’s just very, very obvious that in order to have such a huge number of people operating out of what were clearly their parents’ homes, you know, mom and dad are not horrible. Or maybe they are in some ways, but they’re clearly allowing their kid to run this little mail order enterprise out of their homes, and probably letting them practice there. Some groups have been quite forthcoming about this: “Mom was great about letting us practice in the basement.”

These are things that are sort of taboos in that scene, like talking about money and especially economic advantage, and talking about the fact that your parents actually are nice people who like that you’re trying to do something with your friends, no matter how much it might be to their distaste. 

The new question is that, now that this is stuff is so old – now there’s more likelihood that the kids making this kind of music now have parents who actually like it. Which is really uncool. They’re going to have to figure out how to make this stuff aesthetically noxious again, because it’s not like people who grew up on Elvis anymore taking offense at their kids’ expression.

The address given for their “Lights Out” cassette, in Minneapolis
Chapter 23. The address given for their “Lights Out” cassette, in Minneapolis, MN 55414. Source: MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL, issue no. 13, April-May, 1984. Street view date: July, 2011.

MP: Twenty-five years have passed since these groups lived in these places. How do you get the sense the landscapes have changed? Have you gotten the sense that, “Oh, this place looks upscale now, but it was a dump in 1984”? Or the opposite, where it’s like, “This used to be a middle-class neighborhood, but it got hit hard by the recession”?

MF: Certainly there are a few homes that are boarded up, and obviously, wouldn’t have been, one would think, when people were living there. One of those is in Michigan, which we can make all kinds of assumptions based on how Michigan has been for the last couple decades. And other things, where the landscape is extraordinary, and looks extremely extravagant, and it’s hard to know what it looked 25 years ago. It’s purely speculative.

Maybe a third of the addresses that I go looking for don’t work out for some reason, and definitely some of that is because a house is no longer there. And in some cases, it’s a parking lot, and in other cases there’s obviously a shopping center here that used to be housing. It’s like, “OK, I’m pretty sure that group didn’t live inside a Wendy’s.”

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