Ten Pound Snail sold out their recent show on Dec. 1, wrapping up their residency at The Camel. Photography by Kobi McCray.
In the autumn of 2021, everyone has something to mourn and something to get back to. Quarantine is stuttering to as much of a close as it can. The sidewalks around the city are starting to breathe again; school is back, and places are opening up for the first time in 18 months. Through the wind, a name is being floated. A place with no address, just excited whispers and a name attached – Spiral Mansion.
It functions like clockwork – every month a show is announced via DIY Instagram flier coupled with a few grainy seconds of an electric guitarist waxing high-pitched psychedelic and poetic; a bassist sinking into an anxious funk-aligned groove and a drummer setting a ceiling-high skeleton with their cymbals. Every month there’s a collective pilgrimage to the furthest end of South Randolph Street, opposite to VCU’s campus.
For a few bucks – and a vaccine card – you’d be welcomed into the music scene’s budding nexus.
Before you’re in, you have to fight a bush that juts out into the sidewalk along the fence; it’s an inconvenience that becomes iconic. Walking through the front door, you’re warped to a realm bathing you in the smell of skin-damp and a swirling iridescent glow. The living room orbits around a tie-dyed spiral tapestry on the wall, beckoning you to lose yourself in the shuffle of the crowd. The house venue was a community effort spearheaded by Richmond’s premier band, Ten Pound Snail, consisting of Holden Wilson on guitar, Yusuf Goulmamine on bass and Josh Akerley on drums.
The trio has always had a profound chemistry, jamming together all the time during their high school years. Yusuf and Josh, who were a grade or two older, made a break for the river city from their suburb. Holden joined them at VCU in 2019 with some new sounds up their sleeve. Now, with all the pieces in place, it was time to see what those songs sounded like with a full band behind them.
Holden: I remember our first single “Belladonna” was the first time we played, and after the first run we kind of looked at each other like, “alright, this can be a thing!” Then we played four or five gigs, mostly small little house shows, and then, COVID hit.
That was the year the Richmond music scene went the way of the Waffle House across from the Siegel Center – it disappeared. A lot of spots faded during that time, like Animal House, the venue where Snail first made their mark. Yellow House, Crystal Palace, Lucy Lane, Strange Matter – all decomposed into the dirt. However, underneath the bedrock, Snail was shaping up, polishing their shell.
Yusuf: That was when we started working on songs that ended up on “Tabula Rasa,” putting them together with a full band. Josh and I were even adding our own twists to stuff. It was our chance to figure out what sat, how we work together well, in a greater context than just messing around.
Snail released their dark-psychedelic debut album “Tabula Rasa” in January 2023. The acid-worthy, all-encompassing project creates a seemingly never-ending world shrouded in angst; a world that twists and turns at the whim of its suburban Richmond masterminds.
Holden: It was kind of a blessing in disguise, having all that free time. Every day I would try and write a song for as long as I could stay inspired. “Spare Lungs” and “FCW” are our oldest songs from “Tabula Rasa.” We played those at our very first show, in December 2019. A lot of those songs are like two, three years delayed from when they were written. More often these days, we’ll fast track something if we think it fits with what we’re going for, but “Overgrowth” was written the night I came home from that show.
With over 8000 listens on Spotify,“Overgrowth,” which served as the lead single on “Tabula Rasa,” is the band’s most popular song. Before “Tabula Rasa,” however, there was the May 2021 EP “Parlor Tricks.” On the edge of summer heat and life returning to the outdoors, it was the perfect launchpad for when the music scene sprouted back up. Plus, it didn’t hurt that VCU was about to bring in fresh blood too.
Yusuf: We recorded “Parlor Tricks” in Spiral Mansion – in what became my bedroom. It was just like, “Damn. We put in all this time and effort – blood, sweat and tears – into this little package and people resonate with it very deeply.”
Holden: People were definitely trying to scratch their itch for local music without shows as an avenue, so the fact that it was a well received release, and one that was shortly before shows would start coming back, was perfect to keep our name in people’s heads. Our strategy became: “play as much as we can when shows come back, cast a wide net and then dial it back once we get some traction.” That led us to where we are now; our once-a-month shows adding that element of scarcity.
Spiral Mansion’s first show featured Midnite Taxi, Nancy Raygun, Controlled Emergency, Spacemere, and of course, Ten Pound Snail. With casual energy and open doors, the debut was low stakes for everyone, whether they were playing or partying. In the living room there was only space for throwing yourself around; the backyard, bordered by chain link, hosted a single couch – a hub for conversation. Snail, with the help of their network, was able to kit Spiral Mansion out with a lighting rig, a full sound system and someone to run it during performances. The venue was equipped to become a lighthouse for the scene, attracting attention immediately – even outside Virginia.
Yusuf: The DIY bands that you think of as really big – bands that have gotten signed, going on tour all the time – they avoid Richmond. There’s so many shows that it’s really hard for a touring band, that would normally do really well in Richmond with their sound, to do that. I think the challenge is that there’s plenty of tours that go over well, but they have to be planned pretty far ahead. With somewhere like The Camel, you have to be thinking four or five months out, especially if you want to get a weekend. It’s usually the local stuff that comes together in impromptu ways. Without places like Strange Matter, or the old house venues that would regularly throw shows with touring in mind, it gets tricky.
Spiral’s light beamed up and down the coast, illuminating a path of mutual connection through word-of-mouth – the warmhearted Randolph venue was able to grow into a consistent half-local, half-touring structure with their lineups.
Yusuf: I vividly remember, like our fourth show, it was Raavi and Dino Gala. My first memory of when they both walked in, Dino Gala freaked out. They were like, ‘Oh my God, this house venue has a monitor!’ We’d talk with people and become genuine buddies, and when it was time for us to go on tour, it was a lot easier because we made those connections. Then, our DMs were just like, flooded.
Snail kicked off their artist residency at The Camel in January 2023, which meant that every first Friday of the month, they’d headline a show with a varying supporting lineup of local bands. These were the only shows they played throughout the year, with a few exceptions here and there.
On June 10, 2023, Spiral Mansion joined its fallen contemporaries in the earth; with one final show, the last bastion of a generation was gone.
Holden: It was really fun to watch everything grow so rapidly – to be facilitating such fun events. But, it was also kind of stressful because of how nasty the floor would get, with shoe prints up the wall – just all the crazy stuff that comes with a house show. It was fun and very worth it, but I don’t really miss that experience now that we have other avenues. With live sound, a monitor and A/C, it’s hard to go back after you’re accustomed to that, especially considering our crowd has followed us and not lost their dedication.
These days, Snail sells out nearly every venue they touch, morphing into a larger creature each time.
Holden: We’ve started playing more new stuff that hasn’t been released – and it’s all over the map in temperament, mood and energy level. Some of it is the craziest stuff we’ve ever done, and some of it is very introspective or melancholic. I feel like that was kind of one of our founding ideas – to just do whatever. We’ve become known for that artistic range. It makes me feel like the songwriting process isn’t shoved in one direction
When it comes to songwriting, Holden holds the pen. Drawing inspiration from the sentiments of songs like Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” the electric guitarist prefers to really “chew” on words and deliveries – focusing on imagery over message. “Steam Brain,” which closes out “Tabula Rasa,” sounds like a manifestation of those ideas – painting pictures of miscellaneous mechanical imagery clouded by fog.
Just before igniting an absolutely killer solo, “Steam Brain” calls the album by its name with the lyric, “Tabula Rasa now, once again.”
Yusuf: From my perspective, sometimes I don’t know what the lyrics are until I’m literally reading the sheet. Holden will write a song, I’ll hear it for the first time, and it’s the imagery or delivery behind a specific line and what it conjures. I’m connected to it because it has meaning to me in some way. Then I read the whole thing and it’s like, ‘I might not have had that original connection or feeling with this part of this song if I knew the full context.’
You won’t hear a lot of stage banter at a Ten Pound Snail show, and their social media presence is equally minimal. It only takes two flicks to scroll to the band’s first post on Instagram.
Holden: It’s two equal parts: A very close and personal relationship [with the audience]. I love to talk to people at or after shows. I also like to keep you wanting more – wanting to go out to the shows or listen to our latest single… We don’t always need to say more than ‘hey, we got a show coming up, we would love to see you there.’
Ten Pound Snail wasn’t the first to do what they do, and they won’t be the last; they’re another beloved link in a long line of artists platforming each other.
Yusuf: We did our 50th show with the Deli Kings at The Camel – and that was big for us. It was crazy because their singer and drummer used to be in a band called The Hoodoos, and when we were in high school we would go see them play – they had a house on China St. called Chinatown. So when they asked us to play that show, it was full circle. We were so honored.
The band’s August 2023 show with NO BS! Brass at The Broadberry was their biggest yet – a cherry on top of what seems to be the year of the snail. Going into 2024, playing new songs and finding time to record them, Ten Pound Snail is on the other side of a tunnel – and in the wake of COVID, they’ve helped fertilize the soil for an eager new generation of talent. With Spiral Mansion in the rearview and having played their last first Friday at The Camel on December 1, what has all of this done for them?
Yusuf: Fostering community. When we started, there weren’t consistent house venues. Crystal Palace came back, but they were doing hardcore shows. It took Lucy Lane a year before they came back. Now, people who run house venues come up to me – people whose experiences were at Spiral Mansion – The Rabbit Hole being a prime example. That inspired some of them to start their own houses. By the time we started our last run of shows, it was more about having fun and sharing music. We had less of a responsibility, y’know? That only happened because someone else did that for us. Being able to pass the torch in that sense was really important.
Holden: I figured out how to keep things tight and roll with the punches. If your monitor turns off, or a mic hits you in the face from the mosh pit, or somebody starts a fight, or you have to kick somebody out – whatever it is, all of the things that could potentially happen did happen. By the time we moved on to the residency, things felt more automatic. If you can do well at a house show where it’s hard to hear yourself, then a venue with the right [sound] is a breath of fresh air.
Yusuf: We’re ridiculously thankful for everyone who comes to the shows and listens to our music. This is exactly what we would be doing anyway. Whether it just be in the basement forever, or Tuesdays to five people forever, this is what we love. I’m a socially anxious person in general, so meeting people who connect with something that I’ve done lets me let my guard down… Our friends are our biggest supporters – and so many people I’ve become friends with, we bonded at Spiral Mansion.
Holden: My main thing is this: If there’s anybody who has their eye on starting a band, or even a solo project, whatever it is, don’t wait for the perfect moment to begin. Everybody is capable of making excellent art, and that’s something I like to mention because there seems to be a dialogue around “natural talent.” Maybe some people will progress quicker if they’re learning guitar, but everybody has innate artistic excellence that they just have to find. I want people, if they’re interested in music, to see how it can change their life… Writing in particular, that took me years to get to where I really liked the stuff I was making. But, once you hit that point, it’s just… I don’t know. It’s the meaning of life.
You can find Ten Pound Snail’s new single “Dizzy at the Park,” along with everything else relating to the band, on their Bandcamp.
Photography by: Kobi McCray