BEHIND THE IMPROBABLE DEAD LEAF: Rise of a Boulder Arts Warehouse


Dead Leaf Is Among Colorado’s Most Exciting New Venues, But Time May Be Running Out

by Adam Perry for Westword

One of Boulder’s most promising new art spaces is Dead Leaf, founded by Tom Abraham and Colin Wilcox.

Abraham is soft-spoken, every careful word seeming to come from an organized mind that, in the case of setting up events at Dead Leaf, is focused on smoothness and detail. In contrast, Wilcox gives great talks before Dead Leaf’s “Silent But…” weekly silent-film series and is a bilingual intellectual who projects a haphazard, fun-loving attitude. He has also proven skilled at coordinating events and drawing young people to Dead Leaf, which opened in January. Despite their success, however, Wilcox and Abraham aren’t sure whether their venue will survive the one-year mark.

“We had a house together in Boulder called Shrimp Sandwich when [Wilcox] came back from studying in Berlin a couple years ago,” says Abraham, who met Wilcox in the sixth grade at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock. They later reunited at the University of Colorado. “We’d have music, and sometimes about fifty people would come. We’d go ’til 3 a.m. and the cops would never come, which now I find strange. When [Wilcox] went to Europe again and came back [last fall], we started looking at places [to hold events], and it felt like a sort of continuation [of Shrimp Sandwich].”

Dead Leaf is housed in a 1,500-square-foot, two-room industrial space on Boulder’s northern edge. Even in the below-zero temperatures that were present when Dead Leaf opened, Boulder hipsters, having really nowhere else to see cutting-edge local music or art since the demise of Astroland three years ago, boldly trudged through snow in droves all winter to be a part of Abraham and Wilcox’s vision.

The first “real event” at Dead Leaf was a Male Blonding show; hearing even vaguely punk music in Boulder was a breath of fresh air, despite the cigarettes. “That was maybe the one political thing when we opened,” says Wilcox. “I wanted people to be able to smoke inside. Somehow that seemed important.”

From the start, it was obvious that the duo was trying to book music that it’s not possible to see anywhere else in Boulder. But starting an underground arts warehouse — which presents film, art installations of all kinds, poetry readings and concerts — in a town long notorious for lacking a venue with edge (Dead Leaf has so far brought in acts like Total Slacker, Paleo and David Dondero) wasn’t as intentionally political as you’d think.

“It’s not because of that that we’re doing it,” Wilcox explains. “Everything [musical] that we’ve booked, with the exception of a few acts, were just bands I really like. The ulterior motive is obviously there, but the point is just to book good music, or a good whatever, no matter how that comes.”

Even deciding what kind of events Dead Leaf will hold is a work in progress, says Abraham. “Initially we were trying to just invite people to check out the space so that people would want to bring in their art, whatever it is. It’s kind of hokey, but I just enjoy creating a space for people to interact and relate with each other on a totally different level than at a bar or even just a normal venue, where there’s more separation between the audience and the performers.”

Irene Joyce, a former Naropa student who is a fixture at Dead Leaf events and sometimes volunteers at the door — where the charge is generally $7 to $10 — says, “It’s such a haven for so many people, which is really incredible.”

Wilcox and Abraham took a lot of pointers from the now-defunct warehouse Astroland, which put on some great shows, including a late-night set by DJ Spooky, but had problems with noise and alcohol violations that were eventually the venue’s demise.

“[Astroland] did a lot of cool shit,” says Wilcox. “We talked to them a lot. We read all the write-ups on what went down; we really did our research. We learned a lot about what flies and doesn’t fly, and got input from a lot of people. We were meticulous about that.”

Keeping promotion to word-of-mouth invites, texts and stealth action on Facebook was part of Dead Leaf’s effort to survive this long, and (according to Wilcox) a big reason that the audience has such great energy.

“At the beginning you just don’t want to get shut down, so you don’t want to talk to [media],” he says. “And it’s incredible what that does to the crowd, in that they come because they heard about it from someone, not because they read about it. If someone says, ‘Come with me to this weird warehouse because there’s a show going on there,’ you’ll probably just say yes, and that tends to make a good crowd. Whereas someone who reads about it in a newspaper — no disrespect — it might be a lazier crowd, without the same sense of adventurousness.”

“We don’t have drug issues. We don’t have fights. We don’t have really have anyone getting too belligerent.”

Dead Leaf also doesn’t have a lease past January 15, 2015, and the two Douglas County High graduates are unsure whether they’ll continue. The highly anticipated concert there on November 13 featuring Denver indie darlings Inner Oceans is likely to attract more people on one night than Dead Leaf has seen so far; that could be a test of viability — or just the first in a series of going-away celebrations.

“I think we’re pretty solidly not renewing,” Abraham says, “although it’s nice, now that we’re saying that we’re stopping, that people who’ve never even been there are asking us not to. But I could imagine [continuing], especially if we’re at least breaking even.”

Wilcox is a little more pessimistic, which is surprising from a guy who says his main goal with Dead Leaf is “having a good party and not getting arrested.”

“It hurts my heart to say it, but there’s not a good chance we’ll renew the lease in January. It’s sad, because I’m gonna be depressed as fuck in January. I see it coming, but there are other things I want to do.”

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