Out of nowhere and suddenly, as he fiddles with the knobs and switches on the soundboard at theElement, Josh Martin turns to me and tells me he's in love. He nods toward the three guys tweaking their instruments on the slightly raised platform no more than 15 feet away from where he's sitting.
"I love this band," says Martin, the venue manager, flashing his pearly whites. "I love them so much."
"Them" is a three-piece alternative emo-pop band called Brighten. Its sound's not that unique, and neither is its look the guys could be Red Jumpsuit Apparatus or The Academy Is ... or any number of interchangeable bands currently littering the modern "rock" landscape. More specifically: Brighten's just like every other band theElement has been booking.
Around the room, a handful of teenagers mill about, pretending to not be at least semi-starstruck. They're a trendy-looking set, these teenagers, in their too-tight jeans and their almost-but-not-quite-covering-their-eyes haircuts. They're moping and, worse, it looks forced, like they're doing it because that's what they think they're supposed to be doing at the moment. Later, when the music starts, their faces will light up like morning.
That's just the way it is with theElement: It's all so stereotypically hip. The nine-month-old venue feels and looks like it could have been ripped off of the set of The O.C. , except for the fact that, well, you know, this particular plotline takes place in a church basement.
'We don't preach here'
At the building shared by Ivywild Community Church and Christ Church of Colorado Springs at 1626 S. Tejon St., Martin is pulling double duty.
The 24-year-old serves as both the youth pastor at Christ Church and the manager of theElement, which also happens to be the name of the Christ Church youth group he runs. In fact, most of his volunteer employees at the venue are also youth group members; two of them actually are lead pastor Mark Phillips' kids.
Maybe it's not surprising, then, that when Martin extols the value of his music venue, the line between his two job titles can blur. It could be a little disconcerting to the nonreligious general public in a community rife with church outreach efforts.
Martin, who often rambles on with excitement about the venue, actually sounds a tad annoyed when he explains he understands this.
"We don't preach here," he says. "We're trying to build a community. I want to see kids informed and appreciating art. A lot of these kids haven't been exposed to that."
For his part, Brighten's drummer, Jimmy Richards, says he's been impressed since the moment his band arrived.
"I like it a lot," he says. "It surprised me. It's cool, dark, kind of artsy. I'd recommend it if other bands wanted to play here."
Of course he'd say that. Tonight, instead of another Taco Bell value meal, he and his bandmates are being treated to a pasta dinner prepared by two of Martin's volunteers. It's just one of the ways Martin tries to create a "culture" and a "family" at theElement.
It's worked, too: Moros Eros, an alternative rock outfit from Georgia that played the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, earlier this year, has performed three shows at theElement since the venue first opened its doors in September.
But the buzz, Martin admits, is only so big. In a room with a 300-person capacity, he says his venue draws between 80 and 120 people per show. There's never been a sellout, although once, Martin says, and he can't remember when, his venue hosted 260 people.
The lack of a crowd is a bit of a mystery to Martin. He points out that tickets for shows at theElement range from $5 to $7, almost half of what other local venues, (like, specifically, The Black Sheep) charge for shows with similar acts.
Still, though, he says he's not disappointed; in his nine short months, he says, the venue has reached success in sales and booking that the original business plan didn't anticipate until two years in.
A 'church ministry'?
At 7:35 p.m., when Jared Kocka, a member of the local group We Want a Forest, takes to the stage to perform an opening solo set, he plays to a crowd of about 60.
It's a bit of an unusual crowd. Behind the groups of kids crowding the stage sits a row of parents, most of whom are out-of-towners. They came to town for the New Life School of Worship graduation that took place on the other side of town earlier in the day. Kocka and a number of his audience members took part in those ceremonies. Martin graduated from the same program.
A religious crowd isn't wholly unusual at theElement. After all, Christ Church's lead pastor Phillips calls the venue a "church ministry." And, though he says recruitment isn't the goal of the venue, Phillips admits he'd like to see some returns on the investment he has made in Martin's stage.
"If we've been running it for two years, and we haven't seen one person come over [to the church] because of it, I'd be disappointed," he says over the phone.
Whether Martin feels similarly is difficult to say. He repeatedly swears that he's simply trying to provide a safe environment for young people to see some live entertainment. And, along with Phillips, he promises there's no underlying bait-and-switch strategy here. To prove his point, Martin points out that, since opening, only a handful of Christian acts have actually graced his stage.
If anything, Martin's almost excessively concerned about beating down the Christian stigma that surrounds his venue. Fortunately for him, booking bands to theElement hasn't been a problem; none of them seem too aware of the Christian overtones.
Last week, as Umbrellas frontman Scott Windsor drove through the New Mexico desert, he said he wasn't worried about the band's Wednesday night gig at theElement. He said he trusts his label to make fair judgment calls on booking the venues his band plays.
"They wouldn't book us to play anyplace weird."