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Queer Punk Band Space Camp Carving Out Its Own Scene

One night the members of Space Camp — drummer Sam Usifer, bassist Cameron Lovett and keyboard player June Violet Aino — were booked to play at an American Legion in Connecticut.

They loaded in. “This dude from the bar was basically heckling us,” Usifer says. “We usually dress like freaks at the show. He was kind of giving us a hard time for it.”

Space Camp is a queer, punk-leaning, heavy band from South Windsor. “Force Femmed” (Howling Frequency Records), the band’s second full-length album, came out last summer. The whole thing is a little more than 17 minutes long.

Part of the bar-dude’s strategy involved getting Lovett to join in — to ridicule his own bandmates for wearing weird clothes.

“He was trying to get Cameron to make fun of us with him,” Usifer says. “Cameron was just wearing pants and a t-shirt.”

Kiss My Spurs,” which falls four songs into “Force Femmed,” seals the event in stoner-doom-sludge rock amber. Lovett sings — growls, really, in a fear-inducing, subterranean rumble — over a repeating, five-note bass/keyboard riff and a lumbering groove.

hey old man don’t confide in me

with your seven layers of masculinity

if you think you got the same lens as me

that’ll be your fault if that’s what you think

“Force Femmed” does a lot of reporting. “One crooked stare away from screaming,” Aino howls on “Bazooka the Venue, “one snarky comment away from attacking / The Space’s last show, I hope you enjoyed it.”

“We showed up [to a gig] and there was no PA,” Usifer says. “They asked to use our PA. They made us play first, even though we were the band on tour, and then the person after us read poetry.”

Shows often fall short of the band’s expectations, Usifer adds, especially on tour. “It’s like, ‘We drove five hours to get here, and it’s super disappointing.’ As a band, we thought we should buy a bazooka.”

Space Camp opens for Screaming Females at the Space Ballroom in Hamden on April 7. Thou and HIRS are also on the bill.

Space Camp’s first show took place at a church, when band members were still in high school.

“We had to book it ourselves, because no one would book us,” Usifer says.

The instrumentation — keyboards, drums and baritone sax — shifted slightly; Aino plays keys and trombone, and Lovett plays bass. The original vocalist left.

“We had some lineup changes based on who was into it,” Usifer says. “We were playing more shows, more often, and we were writing heavily.”

The band’s first tour, in 2015, took them south, to Georgia and back. Space Camp takes two-week jaunts each summer; this year, that will expand to four weeks, and will include gigs in the U.S. and Canada. Most shows take place in houses and DIY spaces.

Live sets generally don't exceed 15 minutes.

“We go to a lot of punk shows and stuff,” Usifer says. “If a band plays for more than 20 minutes, I've walked out.”

Usifer lives in Amherst, Mass. “We play Western Mass. pretty frequently,” they say. (Both Aino and Usifer use the gender-neutral pronoun “they.”) “We try to space out how often we play certain spaces. When we play, we want it to be a special thing, and there aren’t a lot of spaces in Connecticut.”

On tour, Space Camp sticks close to “Force Femmed” songs, to sell records. Closer to home, you don’t know what you’ll get — new songs, tracks from “Emasculation Suite,” which came out in 2016.

Aino studies music composition at Central Connecticut State University. “They do a lot of actual writing,” Usifer says. “Sometimes they’ll come up and say they have this riff, and it’ll be really weird and complicated.”

Aino funded their new song cycle, “How To Ripen a Peach,” for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, contrabassoon and piano, through an IndieGoGo campaign. It was composed for Clara Zornado, a Rhode Island-based trans and queer mezzo-soprano, on texts by Peach Gallant. (Zornado sings on “Space Camp Face Tattoo,” the last track on “Force Femmed.”)

Lovett also contributes riffs. “The two things compliment each other,” Usifer says. “A lot of our songs are simple, with a groovy bassline, and a weird piano riff over it.”

All three members sing. “We didn't want one single person to take over when our old vocalist left,” Usifer says. “When we write a release, we try to keep the vocals evenly distributed. Each of our voices are particularly unique.”

Howling Frequency, a label run by Paul DeGrandpre, funded a limited edition, pink-vinyl release “Force Femmed.” It’s available on Bandcamp. (DeGrandpre and Usifer perform together in the black metal band Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean.)

“He basically started the label because he wanted to start supporting his friends’ bands,” Usifer says. “We couldn't fund a vinyl release ourselves. Honestly, we wouldn’t even consider it to be a great use of our money.”

Locally, Usifer doesn’t feel Space Camp fits in with any particular scene.

“The two scenes that we’re a part of in Connecticut and Western Mass. are a bunch of bands that aren’t necessarily similar in sound,” they say. “There’s a similar ideology binding everyone together.”

But out on tour, the band strikes up relationships with like-minded musicians.

“There are places we’ll go where we'll be like, ‘There's a queercore band from here that we should hit up,’ that we know they’d want to play with us, or they would be good people to know. …

“We don’t meet a lot of people who do what we do. I feel that in a greater sense, not geographically, we do have a community.”

Press Play is a column by music writer Michael Hamad exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to him at mhamad@courant.com.

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