On Tuesday, August 20, 2003, the Lemp Arts Center was completely packed, wall-to-wall. The space had yet to acquire an air conditioner, and the heat of the sweltering St. Louis summer combined with heat from the 150 or so bodies in the small space made for an atmosphere so thick, you felt as if you could lean up against the air itself. Forty minutes into the last-ever show by beloved St. Louis punk band Nineteen, every human being in the building was drenched from head to toe and bordering on heat stroke. Even the building's support beams were wet, dripping.
When Stephen Inman, Nineteen's bassist, approached a microphone, asking the obviously exhausted crowd what they wanted to do, a voice shouted, "Intermission! Who wants an intermission?!"
"Do you guys want to go sit outside for five minutes?" Inman replied. "How about we all meet back here in five to ten minutes? Let's go!"
The entire audience filed outside. August in St. Louis is not often described as "refreshing," but compared to the sweat-soaked nightmare inside, the courtyard behind the space felt like a jump into a pool.
After about fifteen minutes, the show resumed. Nineteen's mohawked guitarist and lead vocalist Mat Wilson, then known primarily as "Doormat," stepped up to the mic.
"OK everybody, I have one last crusty speech for you," he began, but the crowd had no interest in parting thoughts and no mercy. Before Wilson could go any further, someone in the crowd shouted out, "Play already!" With nary another word, the band launched into its next song. Twenty minutes later, Nineteen — arguably the most promising and most vital punk band to exist in St. Louis around the turn of the century — was relegated to the past tense.
The night was one of the best-attended shows in Lemp Arts Center history, with many people actually turned away at the door — a rarity. It made sense. The band had a unique sound: one part '90s East Bay punk a la Operation Ivy or Rancid and one part '80s hardcore à la Black Flag or Minor Threat, or as venerated punk zine Maximum Rock and Roll put it, "punk as fuck Midwestern hardcore with Filth-esque vocals and enough melody to keep things interesting." It earned a considerable following in the St. Louis area after the release of its 2002 album Tearing Me Apart!, with members of national punk bands the U.S. Bombs and the Distillers counting themselves as fans. At one point it seemed reasonable to think that the band might soon be signed to Hellcat Records, founded by Rancid's Tim Armstrong. The only other band of that era to pack Lemp this full was Gainesville's Against Me!, touring on its breakout album Reinventing Axl Rose.
To this day, fifteen years later, Inman finds the huge turnout nothing short of bewildering.
"I booked the last Nineteen show on a Tuesday at the Lemp Arts Center," he says. "That was the only day available in August. I was like, 'I dunno, maybe 50 people will come.'"
Wilson and Inman are now 33 and 34, respectively, and contemplating the band's reunion as part of this year's Pü Fest, closing out day one of the two-day affair. They were supposed to meet a reporter in a Cherokee Street practice space, but since Inman neglected to bring his keys, the conversation takes place on the sidewalk. Luckily, unlike fifteen years ago, this particular August evening is blessedly mild.
In the years since disbanding, the members of Nineteen — Inman and Wilson, plus drummer Tim Ridlin, who all met in middle school — have found considerable success. Wilson is a working musician best-known today as guitarist of the pre-war blues band the Rum Drum Ramblers, which shares members with Pokey LaFarge's band (and actually pre-dates it), as well as his work with the Loot Rock Gang and with his new band, Devil's Elbow. Inman, who has been politically minded since he was a teen, moved to the north side, got involved in urban farming and gardening projects and started doing social justice work in matters of race and homelessness, as well as playing in post-punk act Blight Future and dance-punk band So Many Dynamos.
Ridlin is the only member of the group who hasn't continued to play music over the years. His 2003 move to Chicago for school served as the impetus for Nineteen's final show; today, he has a Ph.D in art history and lives in San Diego after spending time in New York, Canada and even the West Bank, where he taught. He's opted not to be a part of the reunion, making way for longtime St. Louis punk drummer Tom Valli to sit in his stead.
For Inman and Wilson, even as their lives have changed, Nineteen has never been all that far from their minds. But Wilson says he's been saying "no" to a reunion for years.
"I've been trying to do a reunion since like 2004," Inman says with a laugh.
"Yeah he's been trying, working on me and working on me," Wilson says. "I've been saying 'no never, no never,' just because [punk] just isn't my medium of expression anymore. But I backed Bob Reuter for a long time, so a lot of the old Doormat came out in that. To me, when I got into blues, it was punk rock to me. It was punk as fuck to me. So anything that has that aesthetic, that ethic, that feeling — I go for it, because I consider it all the same shit, whatever it is."
Fifteen being a relatively round number and all, some nostalgia for the old days has started to creep in, Wilson says. Maybe that's why when Pü Fest organizer Luc Michalski reached out to ask if Nineteen would play this year's fest, he encountered little in the way of resistance.
"I sent Stephen this long text, like, 'Hey maybe, I know it's silly, sorry, but if you would consider it, let's talk about the possibility,'" Michalski says. "And then right away he was like, 'Yeah we're in.' And I kinda didn't know what to do, because I really thought he would at least wanna think about it for a while. But I guess he and Mat had already loosely discussed it, just being fifteen years later."
Michalski, 30, never managed to see Nineteen while it was active — he was a high school kid, and his relatively strict parents wouldn't allow him to attend their shows. He was supposed to make it to the last one, at Lemp, but his folks changed their minds at the last minute.
"So this is kind of my way of cheating my parents," he explains. "That's what it's all about."
A musician himself and one of the most prominent bookers of DIY shows in St. Louis, Michalski says Nineteen was the group that first made him understand the idea of "doing it yourself" as a band.
"They were the band that showed me that you really can just do it," he explains. "You don't have to be some big rich person. You can just be some person, and you can go out and have a band and do it. They were the first local band that had an influence on me. They were the first band that really showed me the accessibility and energy of punk, if you will, and of making music yourself."
And so it makes sense that Nineteen's reunion would take place at Pü Fest. Now in its fifth year, the annual event brings together dozens of acts from across St. Louis and the country who are dedicated to that DIY mindset, including Pryss, Bib, 18andCounting, Dead Rider and the Conformists. Nineteen will headline the show's first night and is slated to hit the stage at 12:30 a.m.
Told of Michalski's remarks, Inman says he feels the same way about the band. Growing up in St. Charles, he and Wilson started playing music together when they were just twelve. Their shared musical experiences helped mold the people they became.
"Meeting Mat and Tim and joining the band, and then finding out about punk rock, it was totally the first time where it was like, you could make a life of your own creation," he explains. "You don't just have to follow the trajectory that your parents and suburbia and your very limited white suburban lifestyle allowed you. And that's why, punk rock, I just latched onto it. Because we could just do it ourselves, and then we'd go play shows and there would be other people my age who are also making their life themselves. And we would make our lives together."
"It's not like we started a rock & roll band to get chicks," Wilson adds. "This was a totally different thing."
Asked what they would tell their seventeen-year-old selves if given the opportunity, Inman and Wilson each make clear that they have no regrets.
"Whenever I want to look into the parallel dimension where we stayed together or got a different drummer and got on Hellcat and put an album out, toured, you know, I really think our lives would be very similar to what they are right now," Inman says. "I'm painting houses with an old punk rock buddy and Mat's in a great blues band and we're playing together, you know? I think things might have landed in a similar spot. The thing about punk rock — [to my] seventeen-year-old self, I would just be like, 'Let this lead you where it wants to take you. And it can take lots of forms. You're right, keep at it, go harder. Be more radical.'"
Wilson's advice for his younger self is simpler.
"I definitely would have told my seventeen-year-old self that Pom-Aid will expedite hair loss," he says with a laugh. "But I can't think of anything else."