Vivid and virile memories of the Inferno

As the Madison club prepares to close, a few of its fixtures share what the place meant to them.

Dahlia Fatale performs at the 2015 Fire Ball pre-party at Inferno in January. Photo by Emily Mills.

Dahlia Fatale performs at the 2015 Fire Ball pre-party at Inferno in January. Photo by Emily Mills.

We here at Tone Madison were pretty gutted to hear that Club Inferno owner Apollo Marquez will be permanently shutting the beloved counter-culture institution's doors after its final Leather & Lace dance night on Saturday, May 2. Marquez opened the club in 1996 and cites its problematic Maple Bluff location—from the township's unwillingness to give Marquez a license to host 18-plus shows to the club's distance from downtown, which made it tougher to compete with other venues when wrangling national artists for shows—as a primary reason for the sudden closure announcement.

Well, at least it seemed sudden. But when we reached out to Marquez, he tersely remarked, “Ah, it seems sudden, this was actually two years in the making, though." We pressed Marquez for more details, but he was likely catching floods of questions from all angles and kept it pretty short with us, so we took the alternate route of speaking with a few Inferno mainstays—past and present—in Caustic frontman Matt Fanale, Null Device's Eric Oehler, and Michelle Ward, a former employee who worked at Inferno from its opening in 1996 until 2001.

As it turns out, while many of the Inferno crowd were horribly disappointed by the news, few of them were all that shocked. Eric Oehler, a Madison synth-pop stalwart who fronts the long-running Null Device project, definitely wasn't all that surprised. “There'd been rumors about closings and buyouts and redevelopment for a decade, so I guess I expected it to happen," Oehler says. “All good things come to an end and all that shit, but still it was melancholy. This fixture on the local—and even national—scene was disappearing. This club where I'd seen some of my favorite bands play, where my band played some of our first—and later some of our best—gigs, and where I'd met a lot of the people who are important in my life, this little community nexus, it was going away."

Upgrades to the old building, which formerly housed a Mexican restaurant, were often made in-house by the staff. Ward recalls: “I remember when we renovated the bathrooms to how they are today. I put a message inside one of those walls before we hung the drywall. When they tear the place down, I hope someone reads it and smiles." Fanale adds, “There was a lot of hard work and pride put into it and it didn't feel like a standard club, as they did all the renovations and metal work themselves."

Marquez worked tirelessly to consistently keep everything fully functional and the artwork and design of the club fresh. “A lot of clubs never make repairs or upgrades unless they're forced to or they're reopening under new management, but I can distinctly remember being at the New Year's party and seeing what Apollo and whoever was helping him out—me included at times—did in the week Inferno was closed after the anniversary party," Fanale says. “If someone walked into the Inferno the first day it was open and then came back on May 2 [the night of the final Leather & Lace party and the club's last night open], they'd barely recognize the place."

One thing the Inferno did better than almost anyone in town was creating its own internal universe and aesthetic atmosphere where you could watch someone get flogged with paddles and whips on a stage in comfort (or be flogged yourself, if you fancy that). Sure, knee-high military boots, leather pants, fishnet shirts, kitschy lingerie, and neon hair extensions aren't everyone's preferred look, but Inferno's aesthetic presence busted the doors wide open to goth-industrial freaks, cyberpunk weirdos, and bondage lovers from all walks of life that sought shelter in a fun, post-Barker fetishist's utopia. The Inferno took the aesthetic shit seriously too, and if you showed up to one of the venue's most popular parties, Leather & Lace, without bothering to dress up, you'd either have to desperately rip your shirt off, throw it back in your car, and return to get the discount (I once saw someone do this) or pay an extra seven bucks to get in (which I had to do a couple times because I'm a self-conscious putz).

“I used to bring up cases of beer from the cooler downstairs in 5-inch platform heels," recalls Ward. “I should've broken my neck a thousand times."

Fanale, who would not only perform at the Inferno with his band Caustic, but was also a regular DJ and talent booker for the venue, adds, “I'm going to miss the place where I first saw my wife, a place where weirdos could go and not get judged." He continues, “As a DJ and promoter, I'll miss the nights when the floor was packed and we were all partying in the DJ booth—someone on lights and fogging the place up and the rest of us just having a damn good time." Fanale's not the only one to meet a life partner at the Inferno—Ward used to serve drinks there to the man who eventually became her husband.

There was nothing superficial about the deep sense of community for the Inferno's regular customers, performers, and employees alike. Fanale recalls the community's response when Leather & Lace founder and longtime Madison DJ (and MC Audio owner) Mike Carlson's house tragically burned down in 2010. “Carlson and his family are beloved by anyone who knows them, so when we all heard about the fire, we wanted to do anything to help them," Fanale says. “The next night we got a bunch of DJs together at the Inferno and did a fundraiser for them, just through word of mouth, with people donating everything from clothes to food to a drum set and guitar for Mike's daughter. We raised thousands of dollars for them with little notice, just because one of our own needed help. That's how the people who attend the Inferno are—we're a family. We look out for each other. Inferno was never just a club, it was always way more than that to us." Ward adds, “This place gave me a new family, as I met or became closer to most of my long time friends here. I danced and laughed and felt like I belonged. The memories I have of these amazing, virile, and talented people are my favorite."

Diverse programming was one of the club's most reliable assets, with the monthly calendar reading like an island of misfit toys, and sometimes beautifully so. The Inferno opened its doors to a massively diverse range of international outsider artists, ranging from Legowelt to My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult to D.R.I. Fanale reflects upon his days as the booking guy: “I booked close to a hundred bands there over the years from all over the world and I was a regular DJ for over a decade." Oehler adds, “I'm seeing bands I know from Seattle, DC, and NY lamenting the closing. They remember it as a great venue with a friendly staff and patrons with an abiding enthusiasm for music that they wouldn't always get the opportunity to see. It had a reputation in many circles as the place to play in the Midwest, even though Chicago and Milwaukee were ostensibly bigger markets."

The Inferno also acted as an incubator for fringe local music. “I forced more local artists than I can count into doing their first shows at Inferno just by saying I would announce it regardless of what they said and that they'd look like assholes if they didn't show," Fanale says. Oehler's band Null Device played its first show there. “We could reliably book whenever the band lineup would change or we would come up with some crazy idea for a show," Oehler remembers. “They were never averse to booking something offbeat, weird, or risky and the crowd was loyal. We could play on a Wednesday night in the dead of winter and still know that it wouldn't be to an empty house."

Fanale and Oehler both cite the Reverence Festival, which ran from 2003 to 2009, as a definite highlight. “We'd open the doors at like 4 or 5 p.m. and have an outdoor patio with food," says Fanale, the primary organizer. “Industrial and goth bands played until bar time. All the bands were picked because we knew they'd just add to the party. The festival got up to three days at one point, even using other venues in town, and it always ended at the Inferno because that was where the biggest party had to be. Looking back, I don't know how in the hell I had the energy to pull it off—bringing in bands from all over the country to play a gig that didn't pay huge—but Inferno always had an amazing reputation as a venue."

From an admitted outsider's perspective, the Inferno—for every bit of aesthetic catering it did, for every weird concert or performance it held, and for every patron that willingly suspended themselves via hooks in their skin before an audience—was a refreshingly unpretentious outlet of unhomogenized counter-culture that seemed to welcome the underdressed and uninitiated as much as the regulars without compromising or breaking form. It was a reliable staple and now, like so many other venues that weren't in business with Madison's larger promoters (the now-closed Project Lodge, the recently pretty dormant Dragonfly Lounge, and for its first few years The Frequency, which is still open and still books local shows but has put more emphasis lately on national shows booked by Majestic Live), it's going away and it's really sad. Marquez doesn't currently have any plans to start a new club, but isn't closed off to what the future may bring. As far as the property is concerned, Marquez speculates that “It will be a strip mall before the end of the year."

Ward has been away for a long time. “The last time I was in town I ran into old friends who I hadn't seen in 10 years," she says. “For me, I've been missing the Inferno for a long time. There's no place like home. No one understands how much work it is to run a club and all the hours it takes."

“Most of the people I know from the early days of the Inferno have families, jobs, and responsibilities that they didn't have back when we were all 25 and many of us no longer have the resilience to stay out at a club until bartime on a Wednesday and still make it to work the next morning," laments Oehler. “Nonetheless, it was reassuring to know that when I got the itch to go dance, I could call up a few friends and say 'hey, you wanna go to the Inferno?' and we'd go. The door guys would still recognize us and Apollo would be behind the bar. We'd suddenly be goofy twenty-somethings in ridiculous clothing again, dancing to loud obscure European music. I'll miss that. “

Fanale adds, “I'm really going to miss Apollo smiling at my dumb ass from behind that bar."