The closer you get to Dave Payne's Federal Heights mansion, the easier it gets to compare the Salt Lake City nerdcore musician and his peer Mark Dago to the 1985 film Revenge of the Nerds. It's quite close to the University of Utah campus. There's a frat house nearby. My inner Booger points out a neighboring home numbered 69. And Payne's home, incidentally, resembles the one that Lewis, Gilbert, Booger, et al., renovated in a montage, causing the percolating synthesizers from Bone Symphony's "One Foot in Front of the Other" to auto-play on my cerebral radio. You've got to put one foot in front of the other ...
The sidewalk chalk on the porch snaps you out of it. Payne's no college kid. He's 40-something, a family man, the former principal of the Rock & Roll Academy and one of Salt Lake City's most prolific musicians, leading one of the city's longest-running—and best—bands, Red Bennies and playing in tons more. Dago's also in his 40s, a family man and a high-volume creative. He's one of the great minds behind two of Salt Lake's best hip-hop acts, Numbs and Rotten Musicians, and respected under his own name (Kill Screen—woot!).
Well, the chalk art isn't from Payne's kids, but other cool local musicians for whom Payne's home is a creativity nexus. They've drawn geometric shapes that look like Photoshop warp grids, and scribbled colorful tags proclaiming, "Mañanero is Emperor" and "Dicks Out 4 Harambe!" (Dago: "Why would you do that?" Payne: "I didn't write this!") Then again, the 3-D design, the ironic expression of band-pride, the political dick-joke referencing the slain gorilla reveal the intelligence and puerility of, as Ogre bellows in the film, "NEEEEERRRRDS!"
Also, this isn't the '80s. Nowadays, "nerds" are "geeks" and geek culture is pop culture. Any way you slice it, Payne and Dago are the cool kids—but with solid geek cred. Guitars hang on Payne's living room wall, and a sitar sits near his fireplace. Some of these, he built—or at least modded in some fashion, like the extra-dorky white keytar. "I found a way to run it through my iPhone," he says, proudly pointing out the Jobs-ian device serving as the instrument's brain. Throughout the place are 15 vintage cabinet video games (like Ghosts 'N Goblins), seven repurposed as multi-game emulators.
Dago, being a rapper, is a wordsmith, having penned 281 columns for Big Shiny Robot, including heady think-pieces on superheroes and interviews with folks like novelist Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club). He's also writing three novels of his own and learning to play a Stylophone retro pocket synth. "I'm trying to get good at it so I can rock it live," he says.
They exemplify what the nerds did in the film when they fixed up that house, and ultimately conquered the jocks: hard work, perseverance, creativity, critical thinking and aiming for excellence in everything they do. As you can see, they do a lot.
Currently, they're focused on their Nerdcore Summer Concert Series at Blue Copper Coffee Room. Funded by a grant from Salt Lake City's ZAP (Zoo, Arts and Parks) program, the three-show series debuted in late June with performances by Jade Knight/Lord British (Red Bennies drummer Halee Jean, Payne), Dago, Timechimp (Greg Midgely of Bronco, The Rubes) and DJ Shanty (Numbs, Rotten Musicians).
To explain, Payne says he and Dago's careers are like a video game where "somethin' special and crazy happens on every level." "Special" and "crazy" definitely apply to nerdcore, a subgenre of hip-hop, where the rhymes are all about nerd stuff (sci-fi, video games), and the beats and bloops are generated with all kinds of gadgets. Dago performs solo, rhyming over retro video game-inspired beats created by his Rotten/Numbs bandmate, Fisch Loops. Most of his local peers specialize in instrumental nerdcore. Jade Knight/Lord British use iPhones with MIDI controllers (the keytar) and loop pedals. Timechimp does computer DJ-ing and sampling with synthesizers. VCR5 uses homemade DVD menus and audio compressors to generate glitchy techno. Other nerdcore artists play entire sets on a single modified Game Boy. "I describe it as a Level 10, artsy, synthesizer show," Payne says, "besides Mark's thing, which is like Level 10, fresh hip-hop that no one's ever done."
They say, in spite of how Salt Lake City is deeply into geek culture (see our massive Comic Con), that the genre doesn't have as much of a foothold as it perhaps should. The shows draw decent crowds, and the reaction is overwhelmingly positive, but it so far hasn't translated to meaningful traction—unlike in Seattle, where Dago and Payne perform to larger crowds at the annual PAX West gaming festival. Hence, the series, which has two shows left (July and August). Their hope is that it'll cause local nerdcore to blow up.
To that end, they produced the 55-minute documentary Salt Lake City Nerdcore. While it's no celluloid marvel like Revenge of the Nerds, it conveys the dedication of the musicians who continue to put one foot in front of the other. So clap your hands, everybody, and everybody clap your hands for Mark Dago, Lord British, et al.—our next nerdcore superstars. With their track record, it won't be long. Mark my words.