At 7 p.m. on a 30–degree winter night, the bundled up masses of high school and college students could only be going to one place. No, not a frat, a BYO, or a date night, but a house show. Similar to '90s Riot grrrl movement in Olympia or the early 2000s alternative scene in NYC, the house show scene is characteristic of what it means to listen to music in Philly. The scene is underground, and the people who inhabit it are much like me and you, except cooler. They smoke Marlboros, have mullets, and wear tight muscle shirts with wide–legged pants.
We’re surrounded by house shows, but you wouldn’t know it until you go looking for them. You’re either in the know—your roommate’s in a band and their friend is a venue coordinator—or you’re stuck DMing venues for addresses.
Taking SEPTA and then walking the rest, my friends and I find ourselves in a neighborhood that seems devoid of activity. You almost can’t tell which house it is, except for some teenagers taking a smoke out front. Unintelligible lyrics with a deafening beat rattle the unassuming house.
This is The Pouch, a venue in West Philly, a little too early in the night for it to be fashionable. I strike up a conversation with someone who seems like a seasoned house show attendee. I ask whose house we’re in. “I don’t know,” they say.“I’ve never been here before.”
It’s a typical house, pretty big actually for someone who’s been stuck in the confines of a tiny dorm room all year. But walking inside, I’m immediately transported to an era pre–internet. Wall decorations include a Hyundai car logo on the wall and posters of various avant–garde art. “Guts, guts, guts!” accompanied by “Time is the word of God,” is splayed across the walls. VCR tapes of SLC Punk and The Craft are ostentatiously set out, beckoning you to take note of the hosts’ appreciation for the alt culture that preceded them.
The Philly DIY scene is vibrant and innovative—so much so that bands from New York come here to play their music. Noise rock band Venus Twins, a pair of identical twins based in Brooklyn, are frequent fixtures of Philly house shows. I talk to Jake and Matt Derting, the 24–year–old members of the band, before their set. Jake, wearing a red Victoria’s Secret lace long–sleeve shirt under a trenchcoat with an Andy Kaufman pin on his lapel, plays the drums. Matt has fading dyed red hair and safety pin jewelry, both the product of an ex. He also has a tattoo of a name tag, name included.
“If we have solo careers, we can become Venus Twin One and Venus Twin Two,” says Matt with a cheeky grin. The twins babble over each other and respond to questions at the same time with a matching blank look in their eyes. No one calls them by their names, but at least “Mom knows now,” they joke.
Their merch consists of shirts that say “Meat is Murder,” an obvious Smiths reference, or so I think. But really, they’re just vegan. A “Fuck Money” sticker is ironically stuck to the merch briefcase. Matt plays bass. “I sing,” he says. Jake corrects him: “Yells.”
Venus Twins dropped out of University of North Texas and moved to New York with the hope of starting a band. The twins come to Philly at least once a month, or is it three times a month? They argue with each other, until they come to a compromising consensus of twice a month.
“I’m at a low percentage right now, you know. But I get super high energy before. Crazy and jittery, but not nervous. Just excited,” Matt says. For a band who describes their sound as “audible ADHD,” they’re surprisingly relaxed before their set. Upstairs in the living room, people are playing cards, eating snacks, and talking, while the sounds of the first band’s soundcheck funnel up from the basement.
Walking down the narrow set of stairs, I arrive at a dingy basement that smells of stale piss, beer, and peach watermelon vape. The washer–dryer combo is the most normal thing in the room, surrounded by exposed pipes, hanging wires, and multiple holes in the wall. The only illumination comes from string fairy lights and a fully lit traffic light. Crowds of people stand in cliques, all sporting similarly unique outfits cobbled together from Depop or Second Mile Thrift, pants held together by makeshift shoelace belts. Mullets and long–dyed hair—hopefully not with Splat—add to the noxious environment. “Breaking is fun” is sprawled across the wall, along with other graffiti. I add my own signature to the collection of “___ was here.”
Ruth and Jack, both 17 years old, come to house shows for “the music, which creates the energy of the crowd.” High school students come to these shows as a proclamation of freedom, even though they can’t help but talk about the new dress they got for homecoming or the algebra homework they still have to finish.
At these shows, dancing means something different, namely moshing and head–banging, but the spatial awareness of the teens and young adults in attendance is greater than expected. Amid the moshers, I realize I have much more personal space than I’ve been granted at a typical indie concert like Mitski or Faye Webster, where the music is much milder.
After the first band, Venus Twins are on, and it’s almost like they pride themselves on being loud. Some people put in earplugs, while others risk tinnitus. The crowd grows louder, until the amp is turned up, and Matt starts screaming, drowning them out. They’re like the Shear twins if The Garden was noise rock and you couldn’t understand a single thing they were singing. Matt beckons the nervous crowd closer, demanding our attention.
A few times during the set, Matt comes into the mob with his bass, wielding it like a machete. He hands a random guy in the audience a mic stand—the guy shrugs and holds onto it all night. He crashes into the drums while Jake is playing, which must be a regular part of their set: There’s what looks like a bite mark taken out of the cymbals. Venus Twins finishes their set by putting the type of inspirational stickers that you would get from a Kindergarten teacher that say “You’re #1!” on various audience members, who inevitably swoon and profess their love.
“There’s more to say about performing than just the music. It’s a spectacle,” Matt says after the set. He talks about the dynamic quality of music and how it’s a way of interacting with the crowd unique to house shows. “I’m in the drumset; then I’m in the crowd, then behind the mic. Being in the drumset is like a metaphor for being in it.” He abruptly steers the conversation to talk about how a cat looks like a grandfather clock. “Philly has a great scene. You guys are so lucky,” he concludes and then disappears.
Ryan, 26 years old, is a seasoned house show attendee. He looks like a deranged pirate. Before meeting him, I called him “dangerous legs guy”—guy’s got some dangerous legs (could kill a small child). During the show, rather than regular head–banging, his dance moves start—and end—with his legs. The rest of his body stays in place, except his flailing legs, kicking dust everywhere. This seemingly eccentric dance move is planned and long practiced. “I’ve been in the scene since I was 16 years old,” Ryan says.
He can get more “erratic and violent” to fit the music. “You just have to know the genre. People are punching other people at the more hardcore shows,” Ryan says in one of his few stationary moments. He took up kicking because he knows how to kick and has more control over his body. This way, he won’t accidentally knock over the “less kinetic people,” as he describes them. Ryan doesn’t boot anyone here, but rather, protects people who occasionally disappear to the ground to tie their shoes or find a dropped phone, so they won’t be trampled.
Unto is an indie rock band based in Philly. I talk to the frontman Sam Reeves—who’s turning 27 that Sunday—after his set. As a frequent performer, Sam has several strategies to help calm his nerves when he’s onstage. “I have no thoughts while performing, if everything’s going good. But I’m always nervous,” he says.
Sam will do just about anything to perform. “I’d like to grow the band beyond the DIY scene; it feels like my last musical endeavor.” He started in jazz school but realized it wasn’t for him. Although he’s now an indie rockstar and not a performer in a hotel lobby, his music is influenced by Black musicians of the '40s through the '60s.
Unto’s other band members are all almost a decade younger than Sam. It’s hard organizing young people in a band, and they’ve already cycled through seven people who quit. Nevertheless, Sam’s grateful for the Philly house scene. “It’s very accessible. I’m newer in the community, but I’ve met a lot of people,” he says, adding that Unto has a new single on the way, which is coming out “uhh March something.”
As I’m talking to the bands, the last set wraps up. A girl climbing up the stairs proudly proclaims, “I think I have tinnitus!”
For my next house show adventure, I find myself in Luigi’s Mansion—a house with stolen menus featuring Saxbys and some burger joints plastered on the walls. A fee of five to ten dollars is required for entry. “Let maybe five or so more people in after them. This is getting packed,” says the person handling the money. I discover “packed” means less than 20 people.
This basement is just like The Pouch—low ceilings with pipes that you can hear when someone flushes. Stacks of beer cans, Monsters, and Arizonas sit on the vents. Five electric guitars lay across on couches like people, next to a washer and dryer, of course.
The first band starts with a simple yet effective acknowledgment: “That’s for my grandmother.” While they play you can feel the bass through the ground. The lights are engineered to turn on and off, as if powered by a real crew. For a DIY band venue, a lot of work goes into the performance. Someone operates a full sound board all night.
Eventually, I go upstairs to take a breather. The ceiling of the basement is vibrating violently, as if it’s going to crash in on itself. I decide I need to get out of there, quickly. Lucky for me, I already have an interview lined up for tomorrow.
Running In Circles just finished their first EP, which they began recording in April 2022. The indie pop band is a duo of Zac Pacuraru, a first–year student at Temple, and Aden Dubin, also a first–year, from Drexel. They grew up together and started the band in the beginning of their senior year. Between house shows and gigs at Drexel, the two “love performing in the city,” Aden says. Living in Philly together makes it easier to find time to write music.
“We were both pretty musical people growing up from our families. So it all started with us when we would hang out, just over the weekend, we would play music together and then that sort of evolved into what it is today: writing songs and making music,” Zac says.
Being able to perform with other bands and their peers at their respective colleges is one of the best parts of playing in house shows. The scene is huge, and there are friend groups within it—split between Drexel and Temple—that connect a lot of people to the shows. “It’s absolutely accessible, especially for college students. Every weekend there’s a bunch of venues, a bunch of lineups, bunch of bands, and the amount of music that’s just at the collegiate level is ridiculous,” says Zac.
As a DIY band, Running in Circles are their own managers and producers. They describe the process of booking a show, which involves agreeing to fill a slot for a show or reaching out to venues themselves. “It's not really like anything business,” Aden says.
The community is welcoming and carries less pressure than a typical concert, the duo explains. “The house show scene is super DIY. A lot of the time you're just setting up a bunch of equipment in someone's basement, so sound quality is not always where we'd want it to be. But it's a lot of fun nonetheless, and you get to scream your face off if you want to,” says Zac.
Finding these shows is easier than you’d think, but for regulars, it’s as much about the scene itself as it is about the entertainment value. “Going to house shows, you sort of know locations and people who own them. But there's also Instagrams and communities on social media that advertise these shows all the time,” Aden says.
House shows are advertised on Instagram, like on the @houseshowphilly account, updated every Wednesday. With multiple venues across Philly catering to several subgenres, there’s an abundance of shows—all you have to do is DM the venue for an address.
As per the @houseshowphilly highlight reel, there’s a clear sign of respect to maintain this core community. “NO HOMOPHOBIA NO RACISM NO SEXISM NO ABUSERS…” the list goes on, “The ppl who attend will only be ppl who contribute to a loving, inclusive and safe community.” Caring for each other is a priority among the bands, venues, and audience.
For bands like Running In Circles, getting people to shows is important, as it’s often their main source of revenue. Making money “is still a work in progress. You know, the occasional 38 cents over the past two years from Spotify,” jokes Zac. When performing at a show with an entrance fee, bands receive part of the revenue, split amongst the acts on the bill and the venue itself.
“I mean, ideally this picks up in the next couple of years and then my dream is to drop out of college because [the band] becomes so successful,” says Zac. “I want to do this for as long as I can. It's a good hobby to have.” Aden responds with “Facts.”
Across the shows I attended, there was a palpable sense of togetherness. Venues espouse inclusivity and there’s the unified yet unique aesthetic of the concertgoers that lets game recognize game. People don’t use their phones or record—there’s an emphasis on being in the moment. Despite the lack of house show culture at Penn, these venues exist close to campus for a cheaper fee than some clubs and a more gratifying experience than frats. The music scene in Philly is burgeoning and also a means of transition for many bands before reaching the elusive tier of indie success, like becoming the next Mannequin Pussy. It’s proven possible. Philly has birthed some of the dominant names in the genre today, from Temple’s own Alex G, to Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast who worked her way up from coat check at Union Transfer.
Supporting these bands by going to their shows is a way to get in on the ground floor of new culture as it develops, right below the streets of Philly.