At Home with: Paperhaus
stephanie | Jeff Martin | Jan 29, 2014 | 9:00AM |

DO YOU KNOW ANYONE (including yourself) WHOSE HOUSE WE SHOULD VISIT? email us at [email protected]

All words: Stephanie Breijo
All photos: Jeff Martin

It’s difficult to say how many people live in The Paperhaus, which is to say it’s only difficult if you limit yourself to the conventional definition of cohabitation.

“There’s four [people] on the lease, how ’bout that. We’ll leave it at that.” Alex Tebeleff smiles. He’s both a founding member of Paperhaus the band and The Paperhaus, the popular D.C. group house cum music venue, and he has no qualms with a haus full of people. Why should he?

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We are standing in The Paperhaus’s kitchen, surrounded by roommates, friends, significant others and frequent crashers at the Petworth row house. It’s taco night and the kitchen is buzzing with laughter and small talk while everyone eats. Alex leans against the kitchen counter picking at some sushi. Someone grabs a mandolin and starts plucking. Kenny, a roommate, does a sound check to prepare for tonight’s show.

“There are lots of places doing this stuff, there were lots of places before,” Alex says of the house show scene. “Luckily D.C. has been doing this forever.” He pauses and turns to the room. “I’ve got an apple. Anyone want an apple?” The communal spirit is so deeply ingrained it’s almost startling.

“So… how many people live here, again?” I ask.

“Five to seven. Sometimes twelve,” Paperhaus friend Dave tells me, though it should be noted that a friend at Paperhaus is more akin to family.

I get a quick rundown of its inhabitants: there’s Alex (the sole remaining member of Paperhaus still living in The Paperhaus), Kenny, James, and Jess–the only housemate not involved in the arts–and from there it gets a bit more confusing. James is in the basement, soon to move out, and Rick is moving in. John used to live here and Simone, James’s girlfriend, is here every day. Adriana, a sometimes-roommate, is here in an unofficial capacity. Throw in a rotating cast of touring bands and you’ve got one full house, though Alex says he wouldn’t have it any other way. It breeds creativity.

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And the space is, above all else, somewhat of a creative community. Lined with art and show posters, the home serves as an artistic, comfortable meeting ground for musicians; one roommate, Kenny Pirog, runs sound for local venues and The Paperhaus shows while photojournalist James Cullum, the roommate occupying the basement, started The DC Standard and photographs every act that comes through The Paperhaus. Alex books the bands and orchestrates accommodations and donations, and serves in essence as house manager in every sense of the title. Even Chris Olson, a member of extended Paperhaus family, controls the lights live during the show. Everyone is somehow involved in the process.

“It’s a place where we can have space to be creative and everyone’s open to it, even the people who aren’t musicians,” Alex tells me over a cup of tea.

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The living room and show space–guarded by General Bing, a large statue brought back from China–is the center of this home. As you walk through the front door, the first thing you’ll notice (General Bing aside) is a large lighting rig to your right. This marks the stage, a living room turned venue designated by kick drum on a rug. Tonight there are three mics and a piano, whose bench has been converted into a makeshift soundboard.

Tonight’s line-up is stellar, Alex tells me, and it’s one of the best he’s ever booked. While we wait for Greenland, Sleepy Kitty, Son Step, and Lies About, I look at the fridge. It’s dotted with thank-you notes and postcards from friends and bands who’ve stopped by. “Paperhaus! Thank you for your hospitality!” accompanied by a smiling stick figure, all written in pink marker on lined paper.

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“Part of the point of this place was giving a sustainable show to touring bands because, you know, it can be pretty fuckin’ tough out there,” Alex says. “I’m really proud of the diversity that these shows bring. It blows my mind sometimes you couldn’t have a more culturally or ethnically diverse show that’s consistent.”

The Paperhaus, while just one row house, has been able to accomplish all of this and more. It’s hosted roughly 150 shows over the last three-or-so years, with little sign of slowing down albeit new focus moving forward. By the end of the year, The Paperhaus as D.C. knows it will throw an average of one show a month and open its doors as a space for writing and recording. It’s the natural progression, Kenny tells me.

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“Do you wanna see the brain of what it’s gonna be?”

I follow Kenny down the stairs and lay my eyes on a large analogue recording console leaning against the basement wall. This mixer, he says, combines everything that’s coming through in the recordings they’ll be doing, which they’ll be recording to both tape and digital. “Our policy on recording is to not eliminate any options,” he smiles proudly. “I love shows but they just kind of end. It’d be nice to turn the space into someplace where [musicians] can walk out of here with a recording.”

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By now the bands are trickling in. It’s not uncommon to hear a “Let’s get some fuckin’ food” through the pre-show Motown music wafting through the house.

At 8:06pm, in mid-setup, one of the bands knocks on the front door, which has unwittingly been barricaded by a mountain of gear from the inside. “Hello?” Alex calls out in mock surprise. We all laugh and tell them to go around the back, where musicians walk in from the cold holding carry-out and six packs of beer. They hug and shake hands punctuated with “Hey how are yous” and “Happy New Years” as they strip off their heavy coats.

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There are bands setting up, bands sitting on the rug eating Chinese takeout, bands and friends and Paperhaus family sitting in the back room talking, having a beer.

How many people can you fit in here? James laughs. “You know, I don’t really know.” Adriana just extends her arms in a wide shrug and smiles.

Come 9:00pm there are people milling; you might catch Alex occasionally walking through the room with the donation box–a testament to The Paperhaus’s DIY ethos: no covers, BYOB, and all donation proceeds benefit the bands. There are people crammed onto the couches all making conversation.

The lights dim, save Chris’s setup.

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I stand through set after energetic set watching acts that range everywhere from lo-fi garage pop to dancey post punk and back again. Sleepy Kitty tells me between acts that while they almost never play house shows, they always make an exception for The Paperhaus. I think about a conversation I had with Alex, before the crowd and the light show.

“Really I just saw an niche and I filled it,” he said. “It was something I was passionate about and any time you add passion to something, that’s it. There’s no better way to grow community than through music and art.”

Watching this show here and now, I think he might be onto something.

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