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Big Music Feature

Youth Gone Mild

Punk-Rock Promoting Machine Ben Valis Contemplates Life After Baltimore

Sam Holden

Big Music Issue 2003

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Youth Gone Mild Punk-Rock Promoting Machine Ben Valis Contemplates Life After Baltimore | By Tom Breihan

By Tom Breihan | Posted 7/16/2003

"Invert was total performance art craziness," says local indie-rock impresario Ben Valis, describing one of his previous bands. "We'd pull up to shows we weren't booked at, play in the back of the van, and then drive away. We had this fog machine and we'd fill the back up with fog, and when we opened the door all the fog would come out, and I'd jump out in my underwear."

The guerrilla van attack of Invert is just one of many attention-grabbing stunts from a man who, at 22, has been a fixture on the local independent music scene for almost 10 years. Driven by a tireless, even obsessive work ethic and an irreverent sensibility, Valis has performed with an estimated eight bands, booked more than a hundred of shows, and helped shape Baltimore's local rock community since the mid-1990s by providing spaces for upcoming local bands to perform, bringing touring bands to town, and exposing fledgling young musicians to new music.

His era may be coming to a close, though. After spending his entire life here, Valis is moving to San Francisco, citing burnout in a city where he has had such a visible impact, and that may be much less interesting without him. ("I've lived here so long," he sighs.) Timing his move near a long-planned trip to Japan to visit an old friend teaching English there, Valis is driving to Los Angeles in his 1992 Chevrolet Cavalier station wagon with two friends. He'll leave his car there during his Japan trip, return to L.A., then drive up to San Francisco to try to restart his life in a different place.

"I have no apartment, I have no job, I don't know what is going to happen," Valis says. "Well, I have a place to stay with a friend and a couple thousand dollars and I'm subletting my apartment until October in case something happens, so I guess it's not a 'move' in true the sense of the word. Nothing is set in stone right now."

His decision to go for it happened recently, but getting out of Baltimore has been on his mind for some time. "I've been thinking about it seriously for over a year now," Valis says. "Living in one place your whole life gives you this really interesting perspective on a place, but I'd like to see what life is like elsewhere, where people don't know me. This is going to sound egotistical, but I'm really going to enjoy the feeling of being anonymous."

His road to local notoriety started in 1994, when a 13-year-old Valis promoted his first fortuitous show in his parents' Hamilton basement. "Mike Apichella was there," Valis remembers (Apichella later formed Baltimore's beloved noise-punk band Charm City Suicides). After putting on several small-scale shows there, Valis began to search for a new venue. "The shows in my parents' basement started getting really packed," he explains.

In the spring of 1995, he convinced the owners of Hot Dog City USA, a short-lived Harford Road restaurant, to allow bands to play on the premises. "[The first Hot Dog City show] drew, like, 70 or 80 kids," Valis says. "That was when I realized that this [staging shows] was something that could really go down."

Hot Dog City, however, soon closed, and Valis booked a show for Washington postpunk band the Dismemberment Plan at an American Legion Hall in Hamilton later that summer. "I was 14, and I think my mom put up the money for the hall," he says. "I totally made money off the show. I was able to pay the Dismemberment Plan $100 and I've been friends with them ever since." Energized by the success of the show, Valis and his then-girlfriend, Ellen Madigan, went looking for a new, more permanent performance space.

"One day we were going down Belair Road and saw in permanent marker on a paper towel in the window for rent," Valis remembers. He and Madigan scraped together the money to rent the space in June 1997 and named it the Small Intestine. Valis' father helped him clean the space, and a friend built the stage. "I didn't think I was going to book shows for out-of-town bands," says Valis, who was in high school at the time. But local rock club Memory Lane shut down within two weeks of the Small Intestine's opening, leaving touring underground bands without a Baltimore venue. Bands started calling Valis.

During the Small Intestine's 15-month life span, a laundry list of future indie-rock notables played there, including Arab on Radar, Joan of Arc, Songs: Ohia, and Les Savy Fav. "Rainer Maria played there like six times," Valis says. "They played there like twice in two weeks. They were just so all about this place." Though Valis booked all the shows, he is quick to point out that Gary Barrett and Guy Blakeslee, other local teenagers, steered many out-of-town acts his way.

But more than a mere venue, the part-club-part-clubhouse served as the crucible for a new generation of the local music scene. Celebrated local bands such as Sonna and Charm City Suicides played their first shows at the Small Intestine, and many of the pre-legal hangers-on who frequented the space would go on to make significant noise in Baltimore and beyond, including City Paper contributor Rjyan "Cex" Kidwell and members of bands such as Oxes. The anything-goes ethos Valis promoted made a deep impression on a certain segment of young Baltimoreans, not to mention some folks who were just passing through.

"Actually, I would say that Ben fostered the development of who we eventually came to be," writes the Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison via e-mail from Chapel Hill, N.C., on the band's final tour. "We had a hard time breaking into urban art cliques in the mid-'90s--for reasons that I think would be fairly evident upon listening to our catalog--and we had to find refuge in these weird suburban punk spaces that were just making it up as they went along. The Small Intestine was one of the places we played again and again and could try any old idea and get an enthusiastic response; the more we pushed the funny, vulnerable, weird, uncool stuff, the more they loved it."

The Small Intestine held shows three nights a week during the school year, and five nights a week during vacations. The 16-year-old Valis soon became used to having touring bands sleep on his floor. "I booked a show for this band from L.A. called Glasscraft," he remembers. "They showed up on the back of a tow truck, and they ended up staying with my mom for two weeks. There were three people in the band and three roadies. They didn't know what they were going to do. They were talking about getting jobs in Baltimore and looking for an apartment because they had no money. My dad had a minivan, so he drove them up to play a show in Philadelphia with the Locust."

The summer after he graduated from high school in 1998, Valis decided to close the Small Intestine in order to concentrate on a cultural anthropology major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I thought going into college that I really wanted to focus on college," Valis says. "I wasn't even thinking that when you're in college you have tons more time. You're not scheduled to be somewhere 40 hours a week, and that was probably a bad decision, but I can't imagine what would've happened if the Small Intestine kept going. Eventually, it would've gotten shut down--none of these spaces last forever. I'm glad I shut it down on my terms, rather than having it get shut down."

But even before he began booking shows, Valis had begun his own musical projects. His first band, a Nirvana cover band named Fizzhead, formed in 1993, when Valis was 12. He would take part in a number of other bands during high school and college, including the aforementioned Invert, Mr. Belvedere (which Valis describes as "a straight-up pop-punk band, but we did really weird conceptual stuff"), and Xibalba ("total Satanic metal").

After Invert and Xibalba broke up in 1999, Valis put together a project called Nigel Winston. "Nigel Winston was where I would pretend to be a sociologist and lecture on obscure anthropological and sociological topics," he says. He enlisted two local musicians, Corey Allender and Brian Dubin, to play behind him as he lectured. After a few shows, the three tired of the act and decided to become an actual band. "You get three competent musicians together in a group, and it's hard to keep lecturing after a while," Valis explains. The new band, Stars of the Dogon, lasted two years and toured the country before breaking up last year.

Though Stars of the Dogon was Valis' longest-lasting and most successful musical project, the group was plagued by internal tensions. "I probably controlled too many aspects of the band," he says. "I owned all the equipment, and there was a certain sound that I wanted. Brian left the band because I was playing drums, and I was trying to tell him how to make his bass sound." After Dubin's departure in 2001, Valis and Allender carried on as a two-piece, releasing a self-titled album in 2002.

After the album's release, the band moved from a frantic, Lightning Bolt-esque noise-rock style to a quieter, more expansive sound. While its music became more and more powerful, the band was on the verge of implosion. "We were really writing good stuff," Valis says. "In a two piece band it's really easy to write songs, but it's really hard to function. There are finances, and booking shows is always a lot of work. I guess there was tension because of that."

The tension came to a head at a November 2002 Ottobar show. After playing two songs, Allender and Valis played a game of paper-rock-scissors onstage to decide whether the band would break up. If Valis won, the band would remain together. Valis lost, and Stars of the Dogon was history.

Now Valis has a new band, T.R.O.P.I.C.A.L. Warrior, a hardcore band with four singers. "I'm all about the singers, because the singers can go out in the audience and get crazy," he says. "T.R.O.P.I.C.A.L. Warrior has two boys and two girls, so we can play on gender. We can pair up in gendered pairs and create this antagonism, and I really like doing that."

Though many of Valis' bands have been conceptually exciting and musically inventive, none has had the same kind of impact on the local music community as the shows that he booked as a teenager. "I don't think I've ever been in a really interesting band," he acknowledges.

Ultimately, Valis' local legacy will probably be more as an event organizer than as a musician. "Punk pretends to have egalitarian qualities, but in the end old-fashioned leadership skills carry the day, and Ben Valis had mystifyingly good leadership skills for a 19-year-old," Morrison writes. "[The Small Intestine] was his vision, and he could whip up astonishing levels of excitement and energy from people to execute it. I mean, his divorced mother and father were working at the club. You know someone is a good leader when he gets his divorced parents to sweep floors and sell sodas at a punk art space."

Valis has turned his tireless energies to his Dude, She Was Watching the Clock Records label. The label's first release was the Stars of the Dogon CD, but Valis plans to release vinyl exclusively in the future. "You lose more money on vinyl, but there's just something about a record," he says. "You put a lot of love in it. I really like the way it feels in my hands." Among the label's planned releases are a split seven-inch by Stars of the Dogon and Day of Man as Man (the local 1998 group featuring Barrett, Blakeslee, and Kidwell), an LP from local instrumentalists Cutter-Hammer, and an EP from the North Dakota band Seawhores.

Valis graduated from UMBC in May and has put any career plans on hold to focus on the label. "I do want to go to graduate school at some point, but I really want to try my hand at doing this record label," he says. "As soon as I start to settle in and live a normal life of grocery shopping and cleaning my room, I freak out and decide to take on some huge project."

Valis used a small inheritance from his grandmother to begin the label, and he's hoping to take out a small-business loan to keep it going. "If possible, I'd like to have one of my releases sustain itself [financially]," he says. "I really just want to work hard on [the label] even though I don't have any financial resources." he now supports himself and his label by working two jobs, as a mover and a restaurant host.

Regardless, Valis feels the time is right for him to leave. "There's no energy or real creativity [in Baltimore] anymore," he says. "I go out now, and I see a lot of people who were just totally over the top and amazing just drinking and being complacent. The older you get, the smaller your circle becomes as people start dropping out and getting careers.

"Personally, the way I'm justifying it to my parents is that my grandparents are in good health," he continues. "My parents had me when they were really young--like 20 and 21--so my grandparents basically raised me. So I'd like to get out there and see some more of life while they're OK, before somebody needs to be here to take care of them.

"And if it doesn't work out I'll be back in Baltimore in a few months, like so many that have come before me."

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