Welcome to Hell's Lobby

Although he doesn't claim to know everything about the Denton music scene, Wanz Dover likes to say he's trying.

Clad in a well-worn My Bloody Valentine shirt and dark jeans, the tousle-haired leader of newly formed band Mazinga Phaser talks eagerly about the Denton underground and its emerging space-rock trend. According to him, it's the "fastest rising scene around here," built around a core of bands that includes MK Ultra, Comet, Thorazine Dreams, and, of course, Mazinga Phaser--all relatively young groups tinkering with psychedelia and experimental sounds, making music that's dense and dreamy all at once. Then Dover speaks the praises of two more not-so-familiar names: Sure Toss, a likable punk-pop trio, and the Oddfellows, Denton's lone surf-rock act.

Talk to anyone in Denton's flourishing extended punk-rock family, and sooner or later they will mention Wanz Dover. What they say about him--that no one knows what's going on in Denton better than he, that no one supports and encourages the up-and-coming bands better than he--indicates that Dover is their community's most militant booster. The young bands voice their thanks to a friend who has given them a much-needed stage at the venue he books, the Kharma Cafe. Scene veterans who haven't been keeping up defer to Dover, aware of what he is trying to do.

A native of Wichita Falls, Dover moved to Denton a little more than two years ago at the invitation of punk-rockers Brutal Juice and Caulk after his old band, Bush Hog, had shared a couple of dates with the hardcore heroes. Unlike so many of the musicians who attend the University of North Texas as they pursue musical projects, Dover relocated solely to become part of a scene of which he was enamored.

"I'm here for no other reason," Dover explains. "This is pretty much what I do full-time."

Dover is currently unemployed, scraping by on food stamps and occasional proceeds from the door at Kharma shows and living with any friend who's got a space where he can crash. As such, it's difficult to locate Dover on any given day. Yet the living conditions aren't enough to persuade him to leave Denton and check out another stop on the indie touring circuit. While he admits he has mulled over that thought and claims most bands would leave if only offered the occasion to do so, Dover remains for the same reason he came to Denton in the first place--the vibrant scene's tight-knit nature.

"I have four reasons for staying," he says. "First reason--MK Ultra. Second reason--Comet. Third reason--Thorazine Dreams. And the fourth reason is, as far as bands go, there is a camaraderie. It's not so much our band against the world. It's our bands against everybody else. That's a camaraderie you don't find in many scenes. It's one that I'm not going to give up on easily."

Not long ago, Denton was known musically merely as home to a famed jazz program, a handful of funk bands, a lone concert venue, and, forever and always, Brave Combo. It was regarded as Dallas' bastard stepchild, just another place to be from until you could land a show somewhere else.

But over the past few years, an underground has slowly begun bubbling toward the surface, and from it, an honest-to-God scene has begun to take root. It's one that embraces the warhorses and the newcomers, an environment that fosters eclecticism whether it comes bearing an accordion, a harmonium, or an electric guitar.

Those who live and perform there like to refer to their hometown as "laid-back" and "open." To what? Everything. Denton, with its population of fewer than 70,000, is the sort of town in which polka enthusiasts and punk rockers comfortably co-exist for the same reasons; the sort of town in which bands are content, if not downright happy at times, to perform in relative obscurity, not necessarily burdened by the need to make it in, say, Dallas.

Even if you had directions and a compass, it would be easy to overlook Denton's thriving music scene. It exists in a part of town that's a street-width away from the University of North Texas campus, on a concentrated single block of Fry Street. It's the natural gathering place for the college's disillusioned and starry-eyed, famous around the area for the annual street fair-cum-daylong concert that packs thousands within its tiny confines.

Fry Street is also home to the only two rock and roll clubs in town--the Kharma Cafe and Rick's Place. Both places unassumingly blend in with the street's storefronts, as do the anonymous performers who fade in with the other participants in the laid-back crowd.

Look closer and the scene reveals itself on the most basic grassroots level. Flyers paper the Fry Street landscape, from shop windows to a streetside bulletin board to giant electrical boxes. An announcement for a Rick's Place show featuring Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks and Dooms U.K. is pinned next to one for Dallas' Apartment 213 (which has since become Transoma Five) over at the Kharma that same night. Below them are flyers for two Slobberbone shows that weekend--one of which will take place at a Mr. Gatti's pizzeria, the other at someone's house.

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Arnold Pan