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Universe City trades stage, couch to musicians, artists



Underground music venues may have gone the way of the vinyl LP over the last few decades, but as any record store clerk will tell you, there's something to be said for tradition. Luckily, Oklahomans don't have to go as far as New York or even Austin to get their obscure venue fix; they need only look to Norman's Universe City, home of an underground music scene that is gradually bubbling to the surface.


Located just north of Campus Corner in a home at 783 Debarr, Universe City is a co-op residence, live music venue and community center where artists, musicians and progressive thinkers of all stripes congregate.

Universe City was established in December 2007, after one of the state's trademark ice storms left many residents without power. Among those in the dark was a group of friends who had founded an informal art school out of a small apartment dubbed "The Salon." To escape boredom and the cold, the group gathered in a creepy abandoned house down the street, an 8,000-square-foot, two-story behemoth that formerly housed the University of Oklahoma's RUF/NEKS pep crew.

"It had no water or power at the time," said Chase Spivey, 26, founder of the experimental indie band Ghost of Monkshood and co-founder of the PFC performing arts troupe. "We huddled together in one room drinking whiskey and singing songs."

Recognizing the potential for the house as a community hub with a central location, several Salon members decided to rent the home together and build on their group's foundation.

"We kept The Salon's ideas of a community art studio and gallery space alive and added the element of an underground music venue, literally " open-mic nights were in the basement for the first year," Spivey said.

The pun-intended name Universe City was chosen to reflect the group's loosely defined mission statement.

"We discussed starting a free school where anyone in the community with a skill they'd like to share could hold a class at the house, and anyone who wanted to learn could sign up," Spivey said.

Although many residents have come and gone, the inhabitant's dedication to creating an environment conducive to learning and creativity has never wavered. Current amenities inside the vast, 30-room home include a fully stocked communal art studio that holds everything from paints and pencils to sewing machines and knitting yarn. Most of the first floor also serves as a lending library, with poetry books, classic literature and do-it-yourself texts lining the walls. All materials are donated and are available for public use seven days a week.

Universe City " known locally as the "UC" " is steadily gaining recognition as a proving ground for fledgling musicians in the Norman area and has become a way station for unsigned touring acts from all corners of the country.

Stephen Tyler Holman, 24, Universe City's resident event coordinator, said that many bands and musicians passing through the metro are willing to ply their trade in exchange for a place to crash and a receptive audience. Bands essentially book themselves by contacting UC via Facebook and MySpace.

"A lot of bands ask us to find local acts to open shows for them," Holman said. "If they happen to like what they hear, there's no telling what opportunities can come from that exposure."

For the last year, the UC has enjoyed a partnership with The Deli, hosting an open-mic night at the bar the first Monday of every month (the event is held at the house the third Monday of the month). The UC also has its own house band, Psychotic Reaction, and regularly holds art shows and free concerts that range from front-porch acoustic acts to rave-tastic midnight dance parties with live DJs.

Universe City is often likened to a hippie commune, and the comparison is understandable, albeit inexact. A typical event unites hippies, hipsters, punks, metal-heads and scene kids of all ages, without discrimination, and while the atmosphere is politically progressive, it certainly isn't anti-establishment.

Holman, an OU political science student, has been instrumental in starting a dialogue with Norman's city officials in an attempt to promote the UC as a community asset and to dispel negative misconceptions about the goings-on inside.

"We've openly invited the police to come by," he said. "We're trying to build a strong community, and that means having very open lines of communication with the City of Norman."

In June, his efforts paid off when the city collaborated with the UC for a community block party. The venue provided live music and displayed art, while the city blocked off the street and provided refreshments. Attendees included City Council members, law enforcement officials and even the mayor.

Holman hopes that working within the system will give Norman's underground arts scene a voice, and he hopes to engage the neighborhood in discussions about sustainability, community involvement and regional development, starting with the UC itself.

"We want to eventually buy the house," he said. "We're working on soundproofing the basement, and we'd like to get a mixed-use zoning permit so that we can have a legitimate music venue."

While some believe the UC's underground credibility has been diminished by the group's cooperation with city officials and appeals to the public at large, those closely involved see it differently.

"I'm very proud of Universe City's current direction," Spivey said. "If underground cred means you have to go down in a ball of flames, then count me out." "Jake Adamson

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