The Dunbar House sits along a line of suburban, cookie-cutter houses in south Tempe. It's an unassuming and humble backdrop for an emerging mecca of Phoenix’s revived underground music scene.
Guided by the moon and the occasional streetlight, I walked up to the driveway on an early Saturday night. The stench of weed wafted through a sea of mullets, liberty spikes and neon hair under the gaze of blue LED lights.
Around 30 people crammed into the house's modestly sized dining room, already buzzing for live music and a night of partying.
Paul Quiñones, the drummer for the local bands A Continent Named Coma and Malaise, established the Tempe-based DIY venue at the beginning of 2022. He started going to underground shows over a decade ago when he was a freshman in high school, and playing in bands inspired him to open up his home on select weekends throughout the month for shows.
"I started with my roommate Matt," he said. "We both have bands and we wanted a place — because we practice here anyway — a place to also throw shows when there's not stuff happening."
Taking the stage
For a band that's just starting out, getting booked at The Rebel Lounge or The Nile Underground — ideal venues for local Phoenix bands — is a lofty goal, Quiñones said.
Venues like these can offer local bands a larger platform, but they also have high barriers to entry, like requiring significant experience, having the right gear or having enough money to book a show.
This is when DIY venues come into play. If a band can’t get started playing at an established venue, they need to make a space for themselves. All that's required is some basic musical equipment, a flier and a location.
Locations like The Trunk Space, a local nonprofit arts organization, have been helping to fill that gap for young artists for years, and it's not uncommon for a band to host a show at their own house every now and again.
READ MORE: The Phoenix music scene in a nutshell
"There isn't as much red tape to cut through doing a house show compared to trying to get a show at a venue," said Bryan Vouga, the bassist for the three-piece indie-rock band Alibi.
An ASU alumnus who graduated with a degree in mathematics in 2019, Vouga runs the Alibi House, another popular location for house shows.
When it comes to house shows, there's no need to go through the trouble of reaching out to promoters trying to get a spot on the bill. For a band, the process is usually as quick and easy as simply reaching out to a house and asking to play.
No matter the state of the economy, the standard cover charge for a house show rarely exceeds $10. Since there are no tickets, and the only payment is at the door, there’s no need for excessive Ticketmaster fees.
For Vouga, his pricing is a point of pride.
"I always charged $5," he said. "That's kind of my philosophy."
The affordability of these shows is a selling point. It doesn’t matter if you’re a high schooler who is just getting into the scene or a broke college student; if you've got at least $5, you can come party with the hottest local bands in the Phoenix area.
Vouga uses the funds to pay the bands after their set and come home with a little bit of a profit himself.
"We're not really thinking about the money," he said. "The money's mainly so I’m making just a little bit so I'm not resentful at the end of the night, just cleaning up and everything."
Worth the trouble
Vouga wasn't performing with his band the Saturday night I dropped by the Alibi House. Instead, he was busy preparing his living room for three other bands and around 60 people to pack into his tiny East Mesa home.
By day, Vouga works for an insurance company. By night, he runs the DIY venue out of his rental home for veteran bands and up-and-coming artists looking for their start.
A lot of preparation goes into throwing a house show — booking the bands, promoting the show, and clearing the space for dozens of people to party in your house. Running a live venue out of your home, with up to 60 people in it at a time, can get unpredictable.
He's just hoping he can get through the night without too much damage.
"We're setting up for a show. It's in July and we get an email from them (the landlord) saying they're gonna come for an inspection," he said, recalling the story with a laugh.
"It was one of those shows where like a bunch of people showed up, and then there was a giant hole in the wall after," he said. "It was like, really bad."
That Sunday, Vouga and his roommates spent the entire day cleaning and becoming drywall experts, anxiously awaiting the inspection company’s arrival the following day.
When the time came, all the inspector needed was a picture of their sinks.
"The carpet was glowing, and she didn't even comment on how clean the place was," he said.
Giving out your address can also be a little anxiety-inducing, Quiñones said, but it's still rewarding to give new bands the opportunity to get started.
"There's a show that A Continent Named Coma played with a few other bands ... It was a killer show, a lot of people showed up. We jumped off the roof afterwards and everything," he said. "I just had such a good time at that show, that I was like, 'Oh yeah, this is something I want to keep doing,' you know it’s worth the trouble that you go through."
What I learned after a night at the Dunbar House was that, at a house show, it's about more than the music coursing through your veins — it's about the community found at these shows.
"There's a community that has grown around the house and it definitely has its life of its own, apart from our band," Vouga said.
In the moment
After watching the first band's set, I decided to survey the scene in the backyard, where a small crowd was beginning to form.
The warm night and the smell of cigarettes lay thick in the air. A steady crowd continued to roll in while pockets of people formed around the wooden half-pipe and pool that occupied the yard.
"You missed the best band," someone said to me after the second set ended. Dripping with sweat and exhilarated from listening to the prior band, he echoed the phrase to anyone and everyone within earshot for the next few minutes.
"It was an environment that I just hadn't seen before, you know, so it was really, really cool," said Dean Cheney, a freshman studying popular music. "And it's an environment that I felt was just awesome being a part of."
Cheney, who plays in venues around the Valley with his band The Joeys, finds something special and freeing in DIY venues.
"We just usually play a little looser at those places, have a little more fun," he said. "I think that's kind of where we feel the most comfortable."
For audiences, part of the charm of a house show is how up-close and personal the experience can be.
"You get to stand right in front of the band. You get to be almost inches away from the mic," said Alton Chaney, a sophomore studying popular music.
But when the music is blasting and people are pushing each other around inside the house, the scene outdoors is surprisingly low-key. Some people are testing out the half pipe, while others are making new friends. The music from inside bleeds outdoors, adding to the house’s casual and enveloping ambience.
Jaden Jones, singer and guitarist for the band Bethany Home, as well as Chaney’s bandmate, also finds there are more opportunities to interact with the crowd during and after sets.
"With venues, like a lot of the time bands will be walking around, but also a lot of the time you see them just kind of go into the back and disappear," Jones said. "House shows are just a lot more social."
"I feel so lucky to be in a place where there's such a prominent scene for so many different genres."
Edited by Alexis Moulton, Camila Pedrosa, Sam Ellefson and Greta Forslund.
This story is part of The Affect Issue, which was released on Nov. 2, 2022. See the entire publication here.
Sophia Balasubramanian currently serves as the Diversity Officer for the State Press. She previously worked on the Echo as an editor and reporter.