Open door policy

Mahamawaldi and co. rekindle The Roxy theater in Hamilton

| January 12, 2012

The Roxy is the perfect place for mad scientists to go wild. Remember how romantic Edward Scissorhands's castle was in all its glorious dilapidation and old-meets-new technology? The Hamilton theater has a similar charm, though instead of gothic, the 1930s style combined with 1970s renovations makes it both glamorous and coolly retro. Narrow stairwells lead to projection rooms full of metal marquee letters, piles of old reels, old speakers and enormous projectors—dinosaur-like machines that drive the energy bill up into the thousands when turned on. Scattered across the floors are modern artifacts: motherboards and computer equipment in the process of being fixed or mined for parts.

The mad scientists? Matt and Marc Swafford of metal band Mahamawaldi. Over the last few months, the brothers—along with help from family, friends and their newest bassist Jesse Johnson—have taken over the lease for the old second-run movie house after hearing about it from a local band, and have worked a deal with the owners and manager, Foss Realty. They've installed high-end sound equipment, satellite television and Wi-Fi, but the look of the theater remains vintage.

Missoula news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Matt Swafford, pictured, and his brother Marc Swafford, both of the band Mahamawaldi, took over The Roxy in Hamilton two months ago and are now booking shows and events there with the help of their family and friends.

Close to the brothers' hearts is the idea of having a place for live music unencumbered by booze sales or genre constrictions, and in that spirit they've already had wide-ranging shows—everything from bluegrass to metal, punk to Christian rock. But the Swaffords's policy of expanding the possibilities for the venue goes beyond live music—after all, they have a whole movie theater to run with. They showed the recent Griz semifinal game and the ball drop on New Year's Eve. A gamers guild recently set up to play on the dueling twin screens.

"We're trying to do everything," says Matt, "which is crazy, but we have the equipment to do it. We can do video gaming. We can do birthday parties. If somebody wants to come in from the school and do a PowerPoint presentation, we're open to anything."

That also includes community events for youth or non-profits. For instance, on open mic jam nights people are asked to bring in canned food that will go to the Haven House emergency shelter.

"We're trying to let the community decide what would be best suited," says Matt. "And giving back feels good too."

If you've been to Missoula's independent music festival Total Fest, you might have seen Mahamawaldi deliver crushing metal with a Viking's fury. Matt batters the drums and Marc shreds—with just one arm—by hammering on the guitar neck to produce a fortress of wicked notes. They played the first Total Fest back in 2001 at Jay's Upstairs, three years after the band's inception and have played it three times since. The brothers grew up in Hamilton. Marc recalls going to the Roxy to see Never Cry Wolf and both of them saw Disorganized Crime, the movie filmed in Hamilton about a bank robbery gone wrong, starring Lou Diamond Phillips and several of the Swaffords's friends.

From bikes to bands

They were skaters and BMX bikers. They come from a musical family, so it wasn't a far leap to playing in a band. They got to record and manage country singer Hoyt Axton's recording studio in Victor. And though there was music to be heard—mostly bar bands—the Swaffords, like all youth growing up in small towns, had to be clever to find their entertainment.

"You had to make it up," says Marc. "You had to get really creative."

Mahamawaldi started out with low-end gear, as so many beginning bands do. "And it seemed like every time we tried to practice or play, we were just running into the same audio issues," Matt says. "That's when I started to get interested in audio."

The band went on hiatus a few years ago, and Matt built a sound system and packed it around the state doing sound for shows. He started building gear and studying gear—figuring out the nit-picky tweaks that push sound systems from good to great. Along with one of his friends, he experimented with old parts to make new sounds that could be added to a computer program.

"We were hitting the best frequencies using lots of measurement tools and math," Matt says. "Finally we came up with what we wanted." He outgrew his little van and upgraded to a big box van.

But making a great sound system didn't always equal getting the best sound.

"These bars I'd go set up in, the acoustics were awful," he says. "I'm not gonna name any names, but...You can have the nicest sound system in the world but if the room is wrong you're kind of wasting your time. People are like, 'It's too loud, it's too loud!' Well yeah, it's like playing in a shower."

All this has changed with having The Roxy. Matt and Marc built a large sound system inspired by the theater's vintage speakers. Instead of being behind the screen, however, they're in front so that when bands play—or movies or any mic'd entertainment—it's loud and clear, powerfully engulfing the room.

There are still tweaks to be made. The brothers are trying to track down electrical buzzes that erupt from the old building and interfere with the system, but you get the sense that when they're done, the venue will put out a seamless sound. In the next few months, they have a plethora of music booked, including Aran Buzzas, Cold Hard Cash, Undun, Joan Zen, Tonsofun, Dan Dubuque, Voodoo Horseshoes and Walking Corpse Syndrome. The Swaffords have started recording bands in one room of the theater and plan to get a record cutter. They want touring bands to see Hamilton as a destination. And they want to rev the engine on Mahamawaldi, which will make the fans happy.

"We were laughing the other day about having so much space," says Marc. "We used to practice in an old meat locker for a while, just face-to-face, no air space whatsoever. When it was wintertime, it was like you were on fire. So being here, we're feeling spoiled."

Go to theroxybitterroot.com for more info on events.

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