Cleveland’s Unlikely Queer Electronic Music Renaissance

The history of music in Cleveland is a long and storied one, even if the city is more known for a burning river and Lebron James than any sort of musical tradition. Classic rock bands like Nine Inch Nails, Devo, and the Pretenders are all from the area, while the hip-hop side of things is repped by legends like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and the new generation’s Kid Cudi. But while these artists have all garnered mainstream attention and acclaim, one cluster of interconnected musicians have been creating their own wave, of electronic music, that has not taken hold in decades prior. For the new blood, Cleveland is a midwestern shithole, but also a wealth of possibility, and their efforts reflect a larger initiative to change perceptions of Cleveland culturally, despite the fact that the city itself has not given them the recognition they deserve.

This is a mobilization characterized by a desire to help queer artists and friends gain ground in a place that has never been kind to them. There is no de-facto leader, and it’s more of a community than a formal organization or collective, but having a tacit agreement to be there for one another goes further than any label or doctrine. Ghost Noises and ADAB of Heaven Is In You, Fana فناء of Disco Paradiso, and Father of Two, Mx. Silkman, and Kiernan Laveaux of In Training have all committed to something that’s bigger than them. Electronic music in Cleveland was dormant for a long time, but because of these artists, and others like them, the reinvigoration of the scene has been brilliant in its blossoming of something new and exciting here.

The stories of these events and their creators compound from one another. In Training was formed after Brian Bohan (aka Father of Two) and Aerin Ercolea (aka Mx. Silkman) had the realization that Cleveland had nothing that was queer and electronic-focused. Aerin lived with Shane Christian (aka Kiernan Laveaux) at the time, and the three of them went to work detoxifying the lameness that had pervaded Cleveland beginning with their first event, October Confession, featuring a mix of DJing and power electronics/industrial punk. By summer 2015, Miah Benton (aka ADAB) and Eric Sarley (aka Ghost Noises) had taken notice of this burgeoning event and at the same venue In Training occupied, Now That’s Class, started their own hybrid of techno and hip-hop, Heaven Is In You, to complement the overarching queer electronic environment that was taking hold. A third party rounded out the cast of players, with Aynur Giannini (aka Fana) creating Disco Paradiso, dedicated to the traditions of disco, Italo disco, electro, and other retroist subgenres. Their chief artist, Matthew Goik, has a pivotal role through which he brought a debauched and truthful face to the acts and art coming from all over into Cleveland.

These functions were started to get away from the traditional ground of music Cleveland had cultivated from their history of punk and DIY communities. While there was some queer music, and at the same time, EDM audiences in the city, the disinterest in the former and the heteromasculinity of the latter dissuaded each of these individuals from trying to breach scenes that didn’t want them. Bohan and Ercolea had been at the same shows before, utilizing elder influences like Voices From the Lake, Jose Luna, and Interdimensional Transmissions to form an ethos by which Cleveland techno could thrive. From talking to all of the showrunners, it’s clear their passions and enthusiasm led them to do something new, even if they didn’t have the money or prior experience to immediately pull it off.

The venue of these shows is Now That’s Class, a dingy dive bar on Cleveland’s west side that seems like the last place an event catered towards the freaks and outcasts among us could thrive in. Yet the punk ethos that the bar was founded on echoes well into the night for all three of the parties, creating a symbiotic ecosystem (even if some winos may get unruly at times). This mirrors nearby Columbus’ ingenuity in using spaces like houses and warehouses to run shows, as Ercolea describes it “When you take these spaces that aren’t designed for something, sometimes it’ll fail, but when it works, it’s a portal to another world.” Bohan, Ercolea, and Christian maintained that while their problems were unique compared to other concert organizers, having a different set of rules in Cleveland creates an environment that is less about commodification and more about being free and liberation from oppressive systems.

At the forefront of all this has been the queer identity manifested in each of the showrunners’ art and mindset. Places like Traxx and the Leather Stallion show that Cleveland has always been a home for non-hetero music and culture, in contrast to the macho Midwestern stereotypes that can dominate society here. But even then, regardless of any inclusive gay thread that tied people together, the space for the weirdos in the midst of a highly glamorized and luxury-based craft was nonexistent, and the history behind their stories have been largely whitewashed in favor of more common queer stereotypes and narratives. Sarley described it well, saying “Freaks didn’t have a home in Cleveland. We had to do it ourselves. People have heard of the queer scene here because of us.” It’s by this credo that In Training, Heaven Is In You, and Disco Paradiso all crafted an identity from nothing, the product of honest labor and a hefty helping of Middle-American freakiness.

The crew has hosted many a revered figure in the electronic music world. From Cleveland legends like Galcher Lustwerk and Mourning [A] BLKStar and Midwest icons like Bill Converse and Aaron Dilloway, to those coming from overseas such as Debonair and I/Y, Cleveland’s showrunners have proven themselves to be adept at showcasing a plethora of different personalities and regions to a previously cloistered town that lacked the cultural nous of more respected cities. You can tell that this group of people doesn’t use known names to generate some sort of resume to move onto bigger things. Rather, their focus is providing something special to the community. Something that only techno and house and darkwave and italo disco can provide.

One of the wondrous things about Cleveland’s electronic scene is that it hasn’t been confined to their local area either. Electronic music has provided a traveling outlet, a pathway to show that Cleveland isn’t just some fucked-up Rust Belt town, and that it has culture. Over the course of the past few years, these individuals have played in megalopolises like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Dallas, and Berlin, taking their singular brand of Midwestern mysticism all over the United States and Europe. Even Giannini is originally from New York City, crossing over from the endless opportunity of a sprawling metropolis to a much more isolated city and creating something that lives and breathes the previously suppressed potential of a queer Cleveland subculture.

Regardless of all the accolades coming in from associates in other cities and countries, everyone in Cleveland wants you to know that this was definitely not easy. Ercolea describes it as a “Plateaued post-industrial capitalism without money or youth”, and that “Cleveland has a resolute and aging population. Figuring out how to reach new people without changing, understanding what spaces people want to be in and want to attend, making spaces outside of bar culture, seeking out spaces that will be the medicine for people in their day-to-day, bar culture is the kryptonite of this music. We’re pushing back against that, wanting total liberation and autonomy. It’s about existing in a corporatized music world and being a “diverse guest”, versus maintaining integrity and fitting in the landscape by yourself.” For the runners of In Training, Heaven Is In You, and Disco Paradiso, they stand side by side, booking each other in their own acts and providing different outlets for musical and social collaboration. When you see the same people on the bills at Now That’s Class or Guide to Kulchur (another weird Cleveland mainstay), it proves how tightly-knit the community is, depending on one another in a creatively organic and healthy way without kowtowing to any outside or corporate pressures.

After a few event-filled years in which these parties have brought figures to Cleveland who would’ve never seen fit to come previously, it feels like the Cleveland electronic scene is at a crossroads. However much love one has for Cleveland, you can only go so long in a city catered mostly for families before it becomes too mundane. This is the case for Bohan, who emigrated from Cleveland to Pittsburgh recently, citing “I hit a point where I felt I had to leave in order to continue, even though I love In Training, that whole thing of ‘5 hours once a month’ to justify my existence was really hard.” Most everyone else is settled here, with Giannini confirming that they don’t have a desire to stay in Cleveland for too long, most likely journeying out of the country to continue their electronic exploration. Benton and Sarley have an interest in what’s next but they acknowledge that the future of anything in the region is fleeting, while Christian and Ercolea are tied to their hometown in a way that is self-reflexive, beckoning a brighter tomorrow for Cleveland whilst knowing it may be too tough for them to stay.

Even if the majority of the new Cleveland trailblazers leave or go on to do something different, they’ve sparked the path for a new generation of techno connoisseurs and noise freaks to purchase their own Roland’s and Juno’s, experiment with their gender, and get flagged by the corrupt cops of the city. To quote Bohan, “Cleveland’s a hard place that’s been marred by infrastructure and wealth inequality, so it’s difficult to make things relevant and open to people. All we can really do is ask questions and do what we do, because we did this we’ve met the best people of our lives and had unforgettable times due to the trials and tribulations — not having answers to these questions is sort of the point.”