Thinking Inside the Box 

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There's really no such thing as a garage band anymore. Anyone who's ever fled a raucous college party, ejected by police, can tell you: They don't like noise in residential areas. So you can imagine the difficulty in practicing your latest metal masterpiece with the landlady asleep in the apartment upstairs.

Yet Richmond has a long and celebrated history of live music. It's not the bands that are hard to come by; it's the practice venues.

So where are all these musicians practicing? These are Richmond bands we're talking about here — they improvise. It turns out many of them are setting up shop amid all the junk you can't fit into your garage.

If you've ever walked through a mini-storage place and wondered what could possibly be behind all those metal doors, it might come as a shock that it's not all old furniture and broken lawnmowers. In the never-ending quest to find stable practice spaces, local bands have turned to renting mini-storage units as a kind of mini-studio.

It's up in the air as to whether that's actually legal. But considering their options, bands say they have few alternatives.

By day, Jon Piper is a quality-control documents analyst at Philip Morris. In his spare time, he sings lead vocals and plays guitar for a band called Dugout. The five-piece outfit also includes Jeff Benford on lead guitar, Sam Giacco on bass, Mark Henderson on drums and Jim Noonan on the congos, bongos and percussion. None of the band members has a rehearsal space the group can use for practice sessions.

Though they count themselves as being officially together only since January, the members of Dugout have extensive musical backgrounds. They know that good practice space may seem like a sure thing one day and be gone the next.

To start honing their fledgling project, Dugout turned to an innovative band solution: renting storage space.

"We were calling all over the place," Piper says. "We were calling every storage facility in Richmond." Finally, he says, they found one place in Henrico County that would rent to his band.

On their first visit, they discovered the place was much more than band-friendly — it was practically a recording studio unto itself. In all, the facility has 11 bands that have set up practice space in rooms no larger than 10 feet by 30 feet.

Their first practice session was a bust, Piper says. After Dugout moved in and set up shop, it was quickly overpowered by the band next door. "It sounded like a jet engine was turning on over there," Noonan says.

Dugout has a very mellow sound, described by bassist Giacco as a blend of jam band and country rock mixed in with jazz and blues. Its practice venue, however, is heavily favored by Richmond's burgeoning metal-rock scene.

The "jet engine" next door, for example, turned out to be Pyne, a metal band that's been playing at the mini-storage for more than four years. The quintet is almost the polar opposite of Dugout on the decibel scale.

"When they're next door, they're so loud it's like everything below 2,000 hertz is all a big wash," Noonan says. "I can't hear the bass, the drums. The songs take on these weird, evil inflections."

Pyne seems to take pride in being able to reach levels that may sometimes drown out the other patrons of the mini-storage.

"We come here 'cause its close to home and you can make as much noise as you want all the time, says Lyle, one of the guitarists with Pyne. "It's not hard with all the bands around here once we start playing. We just can't hear everybody else because we got it all soundproofed and everything. If we drown them out next door sometimes, I don't doubt it."

In the one-sided battle between a lone jam band and its heavy-metal neighbors, Dugout has employed some creative scheduling. It tries to practice Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — the slow nights at the mini-storage. Tuesdays and Thursdays have become metal nights.

Other bands have taken matters into their own hands and built mini-studios inside their cramped practice space. Egg-carton foam sheets and heavy blankets line the walls of some units, helping drown out the noise that leaks through the walls. One band built a wooden wall with a door at the entryway and a cutout for a window air-conditioning unit to combat the blistering summer heat inside the building.

"In the beginning, we had some electricity issues," says Piper, the lead singer. "If there was too many bands on one side of the building, the power would blow."

The daisy chain of amplifiers and speakers crammed into one row proved to be too much for a wiring system designed to power a solitary light bulb in each unit. But the owner, James Payne, was willing to work with the bands, eventually fixing the electrical problem. Then there was the time he raised their rent by $5 to buy a portable toilet for the mini-storage, the renters say. Apparently, someone had been filmed defecating on a neighboring property.

"When I first went over to talk to him," Noonan says, referring to Payne, "he was telling me about all the different bands that were there. He was like, 'You know, I've played music all my life and I don't know what the hell they're playing.' He doesn't really appreciate the more modern styles of music."

Payne also didn't seem to appreciate being asked about his mini-music city. When approached by Style, he cursed at a reporter and refused an interview for this story, claiming that Henrico County would come down on him for violating building codes and allowing bands to rent and practice in his storage space. He then threatened to evict all the bands from their units if a story was published.

There is some question as to whether he's allowed to operate his mini-storage this way. But Henrico County downplays any serious violation against building codes that this type of rental may pose. The Department of Building Construction and Inspections said it is aware that some storage facilities rent out units as practice spaces for bands, and that any zoning violations it may cause are usually small.

"It depends on the specific unit in question," says Greg Revels, the official with the Department of Building Construction and Inspection. "It's possible that what they want to do could work, but we'd have to evaluate it to see if it's up to the building code."

Calls to other Richmond storage facilities were similarly ignored or declined, though it seems to be an open secret that there are bands within many of the walls. Richmond's musical acts need a place to practice and with much to lose on either side of the amplifier — whether that loss is a steady paycheck from your rental units, or a place for you and a band to set up shop — it's no secret that practice space is a well-protected and sometimes rare commodity in the city. S

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