Marilyn Thunderhorse Interview: Sacramento Punk House Axewave By Lory Gil

Sep 18, 2014
I met Marilyn Thunderhorse three years ago when my band, RAD, played in her basement. But I'd actually watched her grow up, seeing her at shows throughout the Sacramento area. Marilyn, or “Mare,” as her friends call her, is a spunky sprite of a woman with platinum blonde hair that’s usually streaked with a bright color, like hot pink or electric blue (or both). She’s always dressed to the nines and always has a smile on her face. Mare and her twin sister Jen are easily recognizable when they walk into any room. Their picture-perfect style and enigmatic personalities are hard to miss.

Mare and I have since become friends and I've come to realize this woman is a force to be reckoned with. I look up to her independence, creative aspirations, and willingness to do what it takes to make shit happen. 

She’s an artist specializing in screen-printing, as well as a musician. Mare was the singer of a German-language hardcore band, Verräterisch, for nearly two years, and the Darkwave 8-big band, Bad Dudez, for about a year. She and her sister ran a brick-and-mortar vintage clothing store in Sacramento for five years (which still exists online).

In 2009, Mare founded one of Sacramento’s punk houses, “Axewave” and managed to keep the house alive for nearly five years—no small feat considering the trials and hardships people face when running a punk house. 

Axewave is now defunct, having had its last show on May 28, 2014,but not because cops shut it down or neighbors complained too much. The only reason Axewave isn’t still going strong is that Mare moved out of Sacramento to pursue a different dream. I spoke with her on the phone recently about her experience with Axewave and how it changed her life.

Lory: So you own the house that became Axewave, right?


Lory: How old were you when you bought it?


Lory: Describe the house.

 It’s a 1914 high-water bungalow craftsman, so it has its own peculiarities for being around a hundred years old. It has two bedrooms upstairs with a Jack and Jill bathroom between them. There’s a giant living room and family room with a landing space that goes down below to the basement, which has its own little bedroom that you have to walk through to get to the dryer. There were a couple of little additional rooms in the bathroom. One of them we called the “gimp room,” which was this space behind the shower that was really weird. Then there was this hallway that connected the bedroom and the basement to the show space. Down that hallway there was another room that perpetually flooded. We thought, “Well, fuck it, we’ll do art there.” That’s where we set up all of our silkscreen stuff and did our silk-screening projects.

People would describe the basement as a maze because there were all of these different rooms with hallways that had all of these little secret rooms where I used to store stuff from the shop. 

Lory: Talk about why you bought it.

 Well, my sister Jen and I had just opened up the retail shop, “Thunderhorse Vintage,” and it’s really hard to pay rent on a retail property and home rent. I was looking around town to see if there were any really cool houses I could buy instead of paying rent on two places. 

My grandma had just passed away and left me and my sister some money.My sister was able to go to graduate school at Cornell in Upstate New York and I was able to buy a house in Sacramento. 

Venues at the time were really few and far between with only a couple of people booking DIY music. I had the opportunity and means to buy a house and the scene was really dry at that point in time in terms of shows and places to play. There were only a couple of people in town providing and booking shows. I was thinking, “Fuck. We’re going to need a place to practice. Why don’t we make sure that the house that I buy has a cool basement?” I knew I needed space to silk-screen and paint and also rehearse. The house happened to be perfect for all of those needs. We really lucked out. It took like, a year to properly soundproof it. 

Lory: What did you do to soundproof it?

Marilyn: The basement was divided up into four weird rooms with a hallway in-between. There was a big room that I thought would be great for practices and having shows in. That room was only partially framed and the frames were all exposed and open. We just shoved a bunch of cotton bedsheets that I’d been collecting, old clothes from the shop, and other non-flammable stuff that was soft. 

We added foam pads and egg crates. We just packed all of these walls between the studs of two-by-fours and basically just shoved it full of DIY soundproofing materials. We covered that up with boards and then covered that with giant black rugs and blankets. Then we covered that with black sheets and decorated on top of it. It worked pretty well.

Lory: Are you talking about you and your twin sister, Jen?

 Oh no. I’m talking about the people who I moved into the house with at first. That was the people in Verräterisch—our drummer Kyle, our bassist Jason, and me. Plus, we invited friends over to help us out. 

Lory: You said that took about a year?

 Yeah. It was a series of trials and errors where we were trying to figure out where we needed to soundproof the most and what we could do to minimize the sound from going directly into our neighbors’ houses and pissing them off.

Lory: It sounds like originally you were focused on making the basement a practice space for your band, but somewhere along the line you decided to start actually doing shows. When did that happen?

Marilyn: That actually happened immediately. That was one of the goals of buying the house. Not only did I want a place to practice, but I also wanted a place where we could possibly have intimate, cool shows if we needed to. Of course, it turned out that we did need to, because there weren’t enough resources to have all of these out-of-town touring bands play in Sacramento.

From the start it was meant to be an intimate venue. The first show we had was like, ten days after we moved in or something crazy like that. There was literally no food in the house. We had just gotten the fridge the day before. That was actually Verräterisch’s first show and about sixty people came.

Lory: That’s a lot of people for that basement. If I were to describe the size of that basement, I’d say that it comfortably fits thirty and anything after that is packed.

 Yeah. It was definitely a huge house party.

Lory: Did you put on that first show because there was a touring band coming through, or did you just want to put on a show with your band and test out the place, so you just threw something together?

 Both. The timing worked out. Our friends, Perdition, were touring at that time. I had just gotten the house and we were just starting to soundproof it. Our band was coming together. It just worked out to be our first show while they were touring and we had a really packed first show in the basement.

Lory: Why did you name it Axewave?

 One of our biggest influences in Verräterisch was a Polish band called Siekiera who were a really great hardcore band. Then they switched gears and became this really amazing post-punk darkwave band. Both periods of music they do are so great. It’s one of the best transitions of a punk band going new wave and totally killing it. Siekiera means “Axe” in English. One of the compilations that they were on was this new wave of hardcore punk and alternative music album that was called Fala, which means wave. We were like, “Holy shit, that’s rad!” 

Lory: Talk about what it was like running a punk house. This was your house. You owned it. You were leading the charge to make that happen. How did it feel to do something like that? 

 I was really stoked to have that. I was thinking, “Fuck, of course I’m going to do something. I have all of these resources that just landed in my lap.” I had the means to put on shows for my friends that were coming through. I was like, “Fuck yeah. We’ll do that.” 

The timing was right. We had all of these friends coming though who didn’t have strong connections in Sacramento. They didn’t really want to invest in going away from their tour route to visit Sacramento because they didn’t really ever have a positive experience there before. I just said, “Hey, come stay at my house and play. You can stay here. I’ll make you food. We’ll go to the river the next day.” It just worked out like that.

Lory: So the way you’d get your friends to come to Sacramento when they’d previously said “No thanks” was to offer them a place to stay and a fun time to be had, basically?

 Well, at the time there were people who would do shows that were too ambitious. There were people who would do shows at their house, like, three times per week and then they would get shut down. The cops would show up. A couple of venues would try to do ambitious things by having shows all of the time. 

Either people would get bored from too many shows happening all of the time and take it for granted, or they would get shut down by the cops. 

I never had to convince people that they should come play Sacramento. It was mostly our friends saying, “Sweet. Now we have a place to stop and a place to stay,” because the drive from Portland to San Francisco can be kind of gnarly for a touring band.

Lory: What was the reason that you decided to start Axewave?

 One of the motivations behind having a venue in the basement was due to the shows that I grew up going to in Sacramento. I listened to a lot of ‘80s hardcore and international punk. The shows in Sacramento left a lot to be desired. They weren’t inclusive or friendly. A lot of times, they were just really macho and really bro-y. It really bummed me out. 

There was a pretty noticeable absence of women in a lot of these scenes. All of these dudes would crowd to the front and elbow and push their way there. The pits were unfriendly and there was no way to get around them. It seemed like no one gave a shit who showed up as long as they made money, so there were all of these asshole bros just being drunk, wasted idiots. It was like going to a lame bro frat house for so many shows and it made me so bummed out. I thought, “It’s no wonder that no band I like that has played Sacramento once ever comes back.” 

I had this opportunity to change that around. I could show people that Sacramento is special. It does have a lot to offer. It was definitely during a time when there was a chance to do a lot of cool things, but the shows were all just bro-y and lame. We didn’t even want to go to them. There weren’t a lot of women. I was like, “Fuck that.” Sacramento needs a myriad of options. It needs ten people with their own houses doing shows so there’s something for everyone. There was nothing speaking to us, and we live here. How the hell is anyone outside of Sacramento going to have a chance to see how diverse and special Sacramento punk can be if there aren’t enough diverse people there representing it?

Lory: Did you ever have any situations with bands or people coming to Axewave—that you didn’t know very well—that had any sort of sexist attitude toward you?

 Not too much. I was always very much participating at the shows and making sure there weren’t any asshole bro attitudes or druggie wastedness. There’s an impulse to keep rad people around who are there to support the scene and not creepy jerks, or those guys who always show up to house shows and say they don’t have any money when they have a forty and Doritos in their backpack.
Of course, there’s always that moment when someone would show up at the house and they didn’t know who I was and would be dismissive. Then I’d introduce myself, and their whole tone would change. Having the house was a really good experience in watching how people change when they figure out that you can do something that will benefit them. That was very interesting. 

Lory: Do you have any memorable moments at Axewave that made you think, “This is why I do it all”?

 Yeah, of course. The good far outweighed the bad. Every show that you guys played, RAD, was super special and memorable. I knew that I could count on there being at least ten people at the show who were going to make a good impression on bands from out of town, or out of state, or out of the country and show them that Sacramento was full of good, hard-working, talented sweethearts. It’s not like what they’d heard of—with nothing but bros or a sausage fest. 

There’s a group of hard-working, special people that are giving a lot of their personal freedoms up in order to make it work. There were people who were coming straight from work or had to get off work early. Everyone contributed to something. There was a lot of heart and a lot of dedication to doing something positive while showing these out-of-towners a good time. There were a lot of nights when the out-of-town or out-of-state bands would be like, “Wow, I never knew that Sacramento was so rad. How could I have been missing out for so long?” It was really fulfilling in that regard. There were a lot of times during shows when I thought, “Fuck yeah. This is why we’re doing this. So that people will know that Sacramento is awesome and they’ll come back.”

Lory: I know that running a punk house is almost impossible to run by yourself, even though I can say from experience that you did most of the work all by yourself. What are some of the things that the punk community would do to help make Axewave work?

 There were a lot of times when shows would be very difficult, or assholes would show up and I didn’t have enough help to discourage them from staying there, or I was too busy to get money from them for the bands. The biggest un-fun chore is to get door money from people. So my friends would show up and help bounce the shows or be the door person and hold open this little lunch box to take money from people. They would make sure there was no one smoking inside. My friends were the ones making these shows possible. Without them, it was just too much responsibility and not enough fun. People would randomly show up and bring food sometimes. It was great. It was a total community effort.

Lory: I think the Axewave door money lunch box is fairly iconic. Describe that for us.

 We would just grab what ever lunch box was on top of the cupboard in the living room where I had all of the ‘80s toys that I like. I’d usually grab the He-Man or theDark Crystal lunch box. It was something super recognizable so people would know that’s where the money goes. It’s not just a bowl or a hat.

Lory: Did you have any negative issues at Axewave where you had to forcibly eject anyone or kick anyone out?

 Yeah. Luckily that wasn’t too frequently, but it did happen. It was pretty great. I never had to physically do anything. There was never any violence. It was just like, “Alright, you’re not cool to be here,” or “You’re being way to disrespectful and way too drunk and you need to not behave like that. If you come in here and behave, then you can stay, but if you can’t be respectful, then you need to find some other party to crash.” 

It was definitely a learning experience of how to kick someone out and minimize drunken bro behavior at the shows.

Lory: It sounds like you were very diplomatic about it. In a bar, that would’ve been some big guy manhandling someone to get him out of the venue, whereas you were able to get them out of your house without causing a ruckus.

 Yeah. I learned early on that you can’t reason with a two-year-old and you can’t reason with a drunk person. They have no ability to reason. At the first couple of shows, I’d be yelling at a person and it didn’t work. If you start screaming at a drunk person, they start screaming back. They’re not going to respect your wishes and just leave and go be a danger to themselves and others somewhere else. They’re just going to be like, “Fuck you bitch.”

So I thought, “Well, if I were drunk and being an asshole, I would probably get even more belligerent, too.” I started using some other tactics. I’d say, “Hey, you really need to behave yourself in here and if you can’t, you need to take it someplace else.” 

Lory: If I recall, you and your roommates have always been very artistic.

 Yeah. That was one of the great things about the house. We weren’t just trying to have a punk house and do shows all of the time. We only did shows about once per month so we could last longer. We did shows for four-and-a-half months, up until I left because I didn’t oversaturate with shows and didn’t piss off the neighbors. We only did shows once per month to be respectful to our neighbors, so it would be more consistent and our neighbors wouldn’t call the cops.

I knew that I couldn’t just rely on that as a source of creativity and entertainment. We had a silk-screening room down stairs and a giant sewing room upstairs. When my roommate Ryan moved in—he’s a professional photographer in the Bay—he was able to jerry-rig a dark room and photography room in the basement just by using an old door as his table. He would transform the show space into his own dark room. He’d hang up a couple of strings and hang his wet prints from it. It was really neat. There were a couple of times when I was getting ready for a show and he was processing film. These two things were just about to overlap. He was getting all of these amazing photographs processed and printed and ready to go for his new book, and then a show would happen two hours later.

Then Kepi, our other roommate, is this world-traveling, awesome musician, but he’s also a classical artist who paints and draws every single day. When he was home, he was always painting and drawing and getting ready for his trips to Europe. He would paint these little mementos that people could buy at his shows. He published his own book while living at the house. At the time, both him and my other roommate had two books that they published while living at Axewave. I thought that was just the coolest thing ever.

Lory: You’ve moved on from Axewave and relocated to Portland, Oregon. Why did you leave Sacramento?

 At the beginning, Axewave was only possible because my sister and I owned and ran our own business. I would work these long, crazy weeks of sixty to eighty hours per week, every week, and never make much money because that’s the way it is when you run your own business in California. Axewave was, like, a creative release from all of the stress of retail hell. 

We opened the shop basically at the beginning of the recession, which got worse—I would argue it was more of a depression than a recession. From the outset, I said that the shop would be a five-year project. If it didn’t turn around, make us money, and start becoming profitable in Sacramento after five years, I would move to where I really wanted to live, which was Portland. 

I felt very strongly that the town doesn’t give back to their community enough. They don’t give Sacramento a chance. They go to shows, then become bored because there aren’t enough shows. So they take off and go to Portland or Oakland to do creative stuff there. Jen and I always felt that it was kind of a bummer. If you’re trying to participate and support a really small scene, where’s your sense of community? Where’s your sense of like, “This is my time to volunteer and do what I can to help make this scene grow?” 

I started the house with my bandmates, but the band broke up and most of the people that had gone to the shows in the very beginning were college students. They all graduated and moved away. Shows would go from being really packed to being really dry. 

Ultimately, the business was way too much stress and not enough money to keep me in Sacramento. I felt like five years was way longer than most people would give Sacramento. I felt like I did what I could. After five years, I felt like I had done everything in Sacramento that I wanted to do and there wasn’t a high enough turnover of people moving in to make up for people moving away. There wasn’t a lot of fresh stuff going on.

About a year or so ago, I started thinking that I really wanted to get inspired again by the city that I live in. Sacramento, unfortunately, is stagnating for me. I’ve already played in a punk band and a minimal eight-bit band. I’d already been on tour and played all over. I’d done all of the stuff I wanted to do and couldn’t grow any more. Sacramento just wasn’t sustainable for me any more.

Lory: You’ve moved into a new house in Portland that’s potentially a punk house. Would you ever do it again?

 Yeah. That’s something we’re talking about and working on. We haven’t even been here a month and we’ve already had three out-of-town bands stay with us. It’s exactly like Axewave. 

Lory: How has your experience with Axewave affected the way you think about running a punk house in the future?

Marilyn: It has definitely changed the way I attend other people’s shows. How I behave at shows. I’m a lot more aware that some of the typical things people do at shows, they don’t realize can be hard for the people who are putting on the show. Like, going outside and peeing in the alley because they don’t want to use the bathroom, or if there’s a line. Simple stuff like that. Oh god, I used to do that all of the time. 

A simple act like that, or tossing your empty bottle or cigarette into the yard next door creates really angry, bitter neighbors. Then those neighbors will come back to the person who organized the show, who wasn’t even aware that someone was putting trash onto the neighbor’s lawn. From the neighbor’s standpoint, it’s like these idiot punk kids are having these parties, people are parking in front of their house, or peeing in front of their house, or throwing garbage in their yard. How does that benefit them, at all, to have these punk neighbors? It definitely taught me how to be a good neighbor, how to try to mitigate those obvious bummers for them, and try to make it up to them.

We’re still trying to figure it out, but we’re definitely looking at it from our neighbor’s perspective than someone who maybe has never tried to put on shows at their house before.

Lory: Now that you’ve left Sacramento, you still own Axewave. What’s happened to it?

 I’m renting the house out to this really rad couple in Sacramento. It makes me really happy because they’re perfect for the house and the house is perfect for them. They’re super inspiring. They’re a total, great, creative force in Sacramento. Hopefully, they’ll be doing a lot of cool things and the house can aid them in accomplishing their goals and efforts.

Lory: Have they expressed any interest in carrying on the legacy and having shows there?

 I’m not sure. I know that they’re definitely both successful, world-traveling musicians. I’m sure that once they get settled in, they’re going to be doing a lot of stuff.

Lory: Even though you’re gone, your inspiration lives on at Axewave.

Marilyn: Yeah. That makes me really happy.