Meet the Players Behind SWFL’s thriving underground music scene

Musician and writer Angela Page explores the budding underground scene, where young artists foster spaces for innovation and expression.

BY August 1, 2023
Local musicians
Local musicians often collaborate for dynamic performances and blended sounds. (Photo by Sway International)

Nothing compares to performing live. As we’re setting up drums and plugging in amps at our home venue, Ollie’s Pub Records and Beer in Cape Coral, each member of my thrash punk band, Except You, feels it: a pulse of vitality surging through us like electricity as we surrender to the power of the stage.

We play to a packed house, and the crowd matches our energy. Young and old, dressed in spiked vests and band tees or sandals and baseball caps, they come to hear new riffs and sounds emerging from this gritty underworld and to experience the raw, sweaty pleasures of the audience. Some enjoy the music safely from the outskirts, while others slam into each other as they headbang to the beat. Weekend after weekend, the scene comes together like a diverse, very frenetic family.

“It’s like an ecosystem,” Roxx Barrios says. The Venezuelan singer immigrated to the United States to Naples eight years ago and formed her electrifying band, Roxx Revolt and The Velvets, in 2018. We met when I was working as a stage manager for a Creative Minds Records competition at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers, where her band was one of the contestants. Her stage presence is captivating, with powerful, punchy vocals and an androgynous, glam-punk style—complete with studded jackets and shiny mesh tops. With current members Jake Shockley, Dan Heath and Chris Campo, the band has leveled up from local shows to opening for touring acts like viral heavy metal parody band Mac Sabbath. Roxx Revolt also headlines regional tours, and they recently released their first full-length album, Turn Your Head This Way, on SSK Records—which has represented Phil Collins, Snoop Dogg and Electric Light Orchestra— this year.

Roxx sees the support from the local music community as crucial to her band’s success—and it’s worth noting that they are still laying the framework for a fruitful career. It’s a rare success story in an industry where the more common trajectory includes long nights, day jobs, no sleep, little money, sacrifice and rejection. But there’s also camaraderie: The underground music scene is a collection of symbiotic parts, with musicians, venues, promoters, visual artists and audiences fostering a breeding ground for originality and innovation.

“It’s three parts, and they’re all equally important: the artist, the audience and the venue,” says Palace Pub & Wine Bar owner Ryan Lay, also known around Cape Coral as producer Ryan Layzer. “You can have two of the three—an artist and a venue—but nobody there to consume the art.” Known for his lo-fi approach, Ryan has worked as a producer or consultant on nearly all of New York-born, Fort Myers-based rapper André DeSaint’s projects. Recently, he and newcomer Rios, who cleverly modernizes classic hip-hop sampling, helped produce Count the Bodies, André’s 2023 release with another NYC transplant, rapper Hellz OWN.

Over the last decade, André has made a name for himself with his New York sound, inspired by GOATs like Nas and Wu-Tang Clan. After moving to Southwest Florida, André spent a decade looking for the community he had left up north as a teen. “It took a perspective shift to realize either I am going to complain about the lack of a music community, or I’m gonna create it,” he says. Now, André curates music events, such as the DJ-centric Trap Caviar, which he launched six years ago and hosts periodically at Nice Guys Beer & Pizza Lounge in Cape Coral to showcase the best of classic and new hip-hop. “I realized there’s a market for this,” he says. “I just have to make it and get to those people.”

Like André, many local artists bridge the gap between event producer and performer, recognizing the best way to build an audience is to create one. Love Your Rebellion (LYR), the nonprofit I founded to amplify marginalized voices, was instrumental in helping build Except You’s audience. Since 2018, our music events, such as diversity-focused Babefest, have brought national touring acts to local stages. And the network we’ve cultivated through LYR has opened the door for us to record with industry veterans, such as Howard “Merlin” Wulkan at Farmadelica Sound on Pine Island, and to open for international touring bands like Subhumans.

Of course, none of it’s possible without venues. Whether a living room, an art center or a restaurant, musicians need places to perform. When Nice Guys opened its original location in 2013, there was a serious lack of venues in Southwest Florida for local bands playing original punk and hip-hop. With only 800 square feet, owners Greg Gebhard and Jovana Batkovic would close two hours early, take out all the tables and chairs, and charge a $5 cover for each show. “We were trying to do every single show because there was nowhere else for these bands to play,” Greg says. “Now there are multiple spots to play and each venue has its purpose. You need smaller venues, like Ollie’s, to bridge the gap between the house shows and a bigger venue, like the current Nice Guys location.”

That’s been the case for most memorable music scenes. Like the legendary musicians at New York City’s 1973-founded biker bar-turned-punk club CBGB, we know it’s a boots-on-the-ground feat. “I know it’s a very small microcosm of culture, but it felt like we were trying to produce good art locally,” musician Mike Cosden says. Local musicians have been fostering performance spaces for decades. Mike is grandfathered into the scene for playing in bands, such as swingin’ rock group Exploding Pages; promoting shows throughout the late ’90s and mid 2000s; and being a part of Hoople House, one of the most infamous regional DIY punk collectives.

In the early 2000s, a group of Southwest Florida punks rented a house on Hoople Street near downtown Fort Myers to form an underground collective of musicians, record labels, sound engineers and promoters. Local label IFB Records was pumping out recordings for punk bands and throwing shows in the living room. “It spread to almost all of Hoople Street,” Mike recalls. “I rented an apartment down the road with some friends of mine, and we took over this apartment building. We had this little street of DIY music culture.” While the collective was defunct by 2013, its spirit lives on. A two-day, sold-out reunion show at Nice Guys in May featured some of Hoople’s most beloved bands, including Exploding Pages. 

Today, creatives turn to Fort Myers’ arts collective Gulf Coast Leisure (GCL), run by Brian Franklin Jr. (known as BFrank) and Marco Espina—who operates a production company under the moniker M.Stilo Production. GCL is best known for its monthly Art & Poetry (Networking Event) at Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, where they connect musicians, visual artists and writers with the community. “When we started 11 years ago, there weren’t enough spaces for creatives in this area,” Brian says.

Events like those organized by GCL are crucial to a flourishing creative scene, and many local artists had their first performances on the collective’s stage. R&B group Billie Rose is a frequent act at the monthly networking event, and they often collaborate with solo acts, such as singer Ashley “A$H” Hernandez or Anthony Leto. Formed in 2019 by Bill Suave and Delarose, the group emerged out of another collective, Backhouse Music, which dissolved when former member Dominic Fike (known for his role on HBO hit series Euphoria) signed with Columbia Records. Frontman Daniel Noelizaire (Bill Suave is his stage name) started performing in Naples when he was 19. “I put my first record out on SoundCloud, and I was like, ‘This is what I’m going to do. Music is my thing,’” he recalls. “For the past 10 years, I have been trying to live out this dream. It doesn’t matter about a Grammy. To be surrounded by musicians all the time, go to recording studios and everybody knows me—that’s the dream.”   

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