In Sparrows Point, the sky is filled with the sound of a steady stream of planes making their way to and from BWI Airport, and there are white picket fences amid a sea of evenly mowed lawns—many of which flaunt signs supporting Donald J. Trump as the next president of the United States.
It's a strange place for a trans punk show and benefit for the Pulse Tragedy Community Fund—or maybe it's the perfect location. Who knows what anything is supposed to be anymore. It's 2016.
"Our songs aren't very political, but at the same time, they're super political," says Chaz Monroe Atkinson, lead vocalist and guitar player for Imaginary Hockey League, on the front steps of the house before the show. "I half-write songs because I just want to get it out, like express myself, but the other reason I write songs is because I feel that in some bizarre way, me writing music might somehow help somebody else out."
Over the next half hour or so, the members of Imaginary Hockey League talk about their latest record, "We'll Get Better One Day. I Promise," touring the country as a queer band, and the ways in which we can take care of ourselves and each other. Bassist and occasional vocalist Lexi Walmsley hovers mostly silent and drummer Kieran Dollemore hasn't yet arrived—making it apparent that Imaginary Hockey League remains Atkinson's one-person project, though it is morphing into a full-fledged band.
This current incarnation is relatively new. Imaginary Hockey League began as Atkinson's solo project a few years ago. Dollemore, a music major at Goucher College, linked up with Atkinson and started playing and recording with them late last year. Walmsley met Atkinson when they both participated in the UMBC musical production of "The Addams Family." Atkinson and Dollemore had already started working on the new record when Walmsley joined, and though her vocals and bass playing only make a few appearances on the album, she's become a crucial part of the group's live show. And after the Sparrows Point show, the band added bass player Nat Jones, putting Walmsley on guitar.
"We'll Get Better One Day. I Promise." was released in May and Imaginary Hockey League have been touring since, mostly playing house shows. The album is an ambitious blend of pop-punk, emo, and hardcore, with Wagnerian-style shifts in tone, encompassing many different attitudes within each song—more than half of the songs push past the five-minute mark, uncharacteristically ambitious for punk, which has returned to its two-minute super-fast origins over the past few years.
The opening track, 'Anime or Success,' begins with an Explosions in the Sky-esque build-up of drums, bass, and guitar before sprawling out into a The Anniversary-style early 2000s peppy indie, while Atkinson's vocals grapple with the parameters that the world imposes for success, "growing up," and how often those things make it hard to do what actually makes life worth living. In a tough guy, hardcore-crew vocal style, the bands shouts, "I just wanna watch 'Sailor Moon!'/ Alone in my room!"
The band just returned to Maryland after touring for most of June—24 days through 30 states—at a particularly tumultuous time to be traveling across the country and back.
"Anyone who does something to put themselves out there in art or whatever knows there's always some inherent risk," Atkinson says. "And especially anyone who is not cis and/or straight and/or white also just understands that there's just an everyday risk you take by existing."
After the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Atkinson contemplated ending the tour early but decided against it: "It's OK to want to hide, to want to be alone, but I felt that I wasn't going to be doing myself any good by doing that, and that maybe if I just got out there and did my thing, that could be some sort of coping mechanism for the ills of our world."
This is the second benefit show on this tour for the victims of the shooting at Pulse, a club where Atkinson had celebrated their birthday earlier this year.
In the basement, a low-ceilinged cave-like spot made even more cramped thanks to air ducts and water pipes popping out, the sweaty crowd anticipates Imaginary Hockey League's set while a standing fan blows cool air, mostly in vain. During 'Blood//Moon//Sacrifice,' which is about being a gay vampire, someone in the audience starts messing with the lights in the basement, flashing them off and on while kids hurtle themselves against each other in front of the band. It's fun but a bit scary, too, adding to the chaos. The song has an "old school, My Chemical Romance feel" to it, Atkinson says to the crowd, meaning it sounds menacing, theatrical, and poppy, and it fucking rules. The chorus is as catchy as it is meaningful: "My body is cool, I don't play by the rules, which don't exist so you stay pissed, you just look like a tool/ Gender isn't real so do whatever you feel/ We are beautiful, so powerful, valid and real."
With the light flickering, Atkinson declares, "Please be safe" to the crowd, concerned about the bodies flying about in occasional darkness. Then the band moves into the song's breakdown, a moment of calm before Walmsley answers with a harsh, more metal-influenced vocal growl/scream. Then it's back to Atkinson, and everyone in the room singing along to the peak of pop-punkiness, a chorus of "na nas" and "whoa-ohs."
House shows like this one are part of a long tradition of punk rock—inexplicable, important, off-to-the-side spaces where weird kids like me and everyone else here come to sweat and scream about our feelings until the cops are called. And also just places to chill out: While bands load their equipment and sound check in the basement, people sit in the living room of this Sparrows Point spot playing "Super Smash Brothers"; the line for the bathroom is a place to meet new friends as like-minded strangers bond over how bad they've gotta pee and what band they're here to see tonight.
These shows have also taken on greater urgency in our current political climate, when the aforementioned possibility of a Trump presidency looms large along with the ridiculous and terrifying "bathroom bills" being passed in parts of the country, the police killings of black men, and the massacre of the LGBTQ community at Pulse. And most importantly, house shows like this have adjusted and corrected the bad habits of punk. Too often when punks speak of the "community" or "scene," they're referring to white cis boys, while anybody that isn't labeled as such is welcome but secondary. This house show creates something that feels much more inclusive.
Each band on the bill tonight takes a moment to say something about the reason for the benefit, condemn violence, express gratitude for the space to be together, and appeal to the crowd to take care of each other. And at the end of each show on this tour, Atkinson says they have a "closing spiel" that hits on key points of everything a show like this is about. Each time it has gone roughly something like this:
"Your life has meaning and you have value as a person, and no matter what anyone says to you or what doubts you may feel about yourself, you can do anything that you put your heart to, and your dreams are absolutely achievable. Some days it's hard to want to get out of bed or accomplish anything at all, but I promise you that it's worth it to just try. And you should learn to love yourself and love everyone around you, because if we can build love inside ourselves and spread that to other people, that's how you truly make the world a better place."
"I think its good for people to hear that sometimes," Atkinson says of the speech. "And I think its good to tell it to myself a lot."
After Atkinson concludes, the band launches into 'Chaz's Bizarre Adventure,' (which takes its name from the manga "Jojo's Bizarre Adventure," about a family with super powers) a song about struggling to love yourself in a world that doesn't want you to exist, and ends on the twice-repeated chant "We won't be defeated by this/ We'll get better one day, I promise."
The crowd demands an encore. Word has spread that on this tour, the band plays a cover of the extended version of 'We Are the Crystal Gems,' the theme song for the Cartoon Network's "Steven Universe," a show about a team of three female-presenting super heroes and a young boy. It's the first Cartoon Network show to be created solely by a woman and it is celebrated for its diverse representation, specifically in relation to race and sexuality. There is a kind of heartening queerness and embrace of the non-binary on the show.
The show's theme song echoes the same sentiments as 'Chaz's Bizarre Adventure,' namely resilience and compassion: "The odds are against us, this wont be easy but we're not going to do it alone."
If you're up in the front, cathartically bouncing, pounding, and screaming along, you can spot in front of Dollemore's bass drum a cardboard sign that reads: "DEFEND TRANS PUNK."
This is the cause that brought everybody together in Sparrows Point this night. Kids dance and scream along to the Crystal Gems credo: "We are the crystal gems, we always save the day/ And if you think we can't, we'll always find a way."