This article first appeared in The Alt on July 11, 2018.
Above: Crank Sturgeon at the Super Dark Halloween Prom, Desperate Annie’s. Photos by Bryan Lasky
There’s a local music collective wrangling in performers that hang from the rafters, hide behind masks, dribble paint through their teeth and roll their eyes deep into their skulls. Some come from neighboring cities of the Capital Region, others from as far as Japan, Russia, Mexico and Canada. Nationally touring bands are reaching out for gigs, putting Capital Region cities on the map. They want to work with Super Dark Collective.
On top of their weekly shows—in Saratoga Springs on Mondays and Troy on Thursdays—the music collective is known for their well-documented stream of content supporting the creative efforts of local musicians whose work, more often than not, teeter on the edge of cranked out performance art. Essentially, it’s a wellspring of gritty, avant-garde magic.
Their Super Dark Radio show with Gary Ziroli (WSPN 88.1 FM from noon to 2 PM every Thursday) features band interviews, show announcements and playlists featuring Super Dark acts that have either played through the region in the past or will do so in the coming months. Each show is available via Soundcloud. Their public access show Super Dark Home Video is the very root of what sent founders Shane Michael Sanchez and Christopher Brown on this rollercoaster back in 2013. It’s an elaborate compilation of music videos, experimental short films, live performance footage, skits and commentaries taken over the years by the co-owners and their Super Dark compatriots. Plus, more than a dozen local bands and soloists have their projects umbrellaed under Super Dark Records and Lo Fi Kabuki Records.
The collective’s power comes with their ability to draw in under the radar and off the wall performers the region has been itching for.
Back when Sanchez took over music booking at Saratoga’s now defunct jazz and blues bar One Caroline, it was more of a trial run. Sanchez’s music taste was directly opposite from the usual lineup and he jokingly threatened to bring in some experimental, punk and electronic acts. It was gonna be loud. “Wanna try it on Mondays, just to see if there will be a draw?” he remembers being asked. Super Dark Monday took off running.
“It’s an off day and instantly it was a huge success,” he said. “I feel like we’ve created a space to make people comfortable to be themselves, express themselves and feel safe. There was really no place like that in Saratoga for people who are into alternative culture, but we’re all here.”
Thanks to their start there, Super Dark was able to build a steady audience. Sometimes the thrashing punk shows would even rope in the unexpected, in the form of suit-and-hat-clad track visitors.
“That was a special moment because it felt like I was throwing a party in someone else’s house,” Sanchez laughs, recalling their last summer at the jazz and blues bar.
They made such an impact on the area that major venues like Caffe Lena offered to take on the Super Dark Monday series when One Caroline closed in February. Sanchez had booked acts throughout the summer and he needed a place to move everyone, quickly. In the end it was their neighbor across the street at Desperate Annie’s that won the gig.
“What’s awesome is pretty much every business in Saratoga came at me and gave me offers, but it just didn’t really make sense in a lot of the places and there are some places that would make sense but I didn’t want to be associated with them,” he said. “There were some places that were overly excited about it and wanted it, I could tell they wanted to make it their own sort of thing with their bands.”
Desperate Annie’s has the punk rock vibe, and more importantly, they didn’t want to touch Super Dark Monday. The bar has given Sanchez and the crew the ability to continue to crack open Saratoga’s scene to a more diverse and exciting lineup of artists, to really let it all out. Their featured artists can feel more at home here. Events like their new annual Halloween Prom, which most recently featured the crazed, noise artist Crank Sturgeon and dark pop Shana Falana, thrive in the wild heaviness of it all.
Members of the collective include artists, videographers and musicians who help operate each show. Sound engineer John Olander is their mobile PA system, bringing in all of the lighting and other equipment to help Desperate Annie’s shine. Brown is a careful documentarian of the collective’s work, filming every show. A backlog of clips available on YouTube documents gigs as far back as a decade, featuring long-lost venues like Valentine’s and 51 3rd.
Bobby Carlton of the Saratoga rock band Dryer has joined recently as well, using his music connections to help with booking. “He’s a big part of networking and managing because I literally do everything,” said Sanchez, who is responsible for booking, promoting, and being the face of each show as the bartender or bar back. “Bobby has ideas of doing bigger things, to grow.”
And they are growing from a pretty solid base. Super Dark Monday has become a pumping heart of Saratoga’s music scene, which Sanchez said was a tough one to break into, both musically and culturally. Now, he’s flooded with artists looking to visit and play a Super Dark show.
“We’ve ended up on the tour circuit for bands and booking agents and labels are taking notice of what we’re doing. There are bands coming here who have never been to Saratoga and had no idea what it was, they’re always weirded out by it,” he grins. “We had Sloppy Jane—they’re so awesome and whacked out—she’s in high socks, cowboy boots, shorts, just a big men’s blazer. Her hair is all crazy and her face is stained blue but she’s just walking around Saratoga, getting a coffee. Just to see everyone looking around like, ‘What the fuck?’ It warms my heart.”
Despite the clash, more likely because of it, the collective packs out Desperate Annie’s for major acts like Sloppy Jane or Boy Harsher as much as they do for regional punk, indie and experimental bands.
“Whenever we do local punk shows, those are always the best, turnout wise. There’s such a want for it, especially in Saratoga because Albany gets it all the time. When the Albany punk bands come to Saratoga it’s such a big deal, people go totally crazy and break shit. People don’t do that in Albany.”
In Troy, where the collective has been putting on Thursday shows at the River Street Pub, the community is more comfortable with the oddities that may shock Saratogians on the street. It’s a city that can bring in acts like Machine Girl—eyes rolled back, crawling around on the floor as the audience flails. It’s the hometown of the region’s most popular garage rock bands and a stone’s throw from Albany’s punk and hardcore scene. Where Saratoga is barren, Albany and Troy are blossoming, scattered, nearly overgrown.
“People in Saratoga will come to every show, they won’t know what it is, they won’t care what it is, they’ll just show up. They know it’s good and they’ll have a good time… Troy is tricky,” Sanchez says. “People are used to it, it’s a little bigger here and there are patches of different people.”
He holds out hope for the city, which he calls a “gold mine” for music and art, to come together in a more collaborative way. It’s the reason he and Brown packed up their life in Saratoga and moved there. Troy was more supportive of the artistic style of Super Dark, it’s somewhere the team saw they could thrive. And financially, he says, Saratoga has pushed them out.
“Saratoga is too expensive for me and my friends. It’s not worth it to live there in terms of creative endeavors, other than what we’re doing now. That’s really the only thing and it’s only happening because we’re doing it,” he said of their Super Dark Monday gigs. “Now I’m in Troy because there’s so many opportunities here to live by our means. I’m making money doing the things I care about which is so inspiring and life changing.”
It’s where he sees Super Dark setting up a real home base in the future. A “Super Dark Clubhouse” where they can really let it all out in their own space, throwing more shows and bigger events like their Halloween Prom or Summer Festival, which had its first run at River Street Pub in early July. For now, they’ll keep building their community, one which had been starving for something new, something different.
“My whole life I’ve been surrounded by people who just complain that there’s nothing to do. It’s never gonna happen if someone doesn’t do it,” Sanchez says. “Before this was happening, I put flyers around if my bands were playing at the Putnam [Place] or something and they wouldn’t pay attention to it, but now, it’s everywhere.”