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Under-the-radar “goth” scene thrives in Highlands County

SEBRING – They prefer the darker side of life, clinging to the fringe of fanaticism through dress, music, attitude and lifestyles.
From the decadent deviance of The Court of Lazarus at the Madame X club in New York City, to sensory-pinnacle Perversion nightclub in Los Angeles, to the internationally-noted Castle in Ybor City, Tampa, the gothic fashion-music scene flourishes.
But tucked away in the sociological off-centered creases of small town societies, the “goth-industrial” music and style scene flourishes mostly undetected by the masses - and that’s even the case in Highlands County.
Although a potpourri of orange groves, pastures, lakes, subdivisions, shopping centers and a gamut of generalized demographics, squirming in the underbelly of a burgeoning alternative beast is a small-but-thriving Highlands County music, fashion and “goth” scene. It’s a peculiar juxtaposition of lifestyle choices among the commonality of a county more attune to senior centers, citrus pickers and hunting than it is to club dungeons, fetish nights, androgynous stage dancers and piercing.
For the layman, “Goth” is a movement that began in England during the early 1980s in the gothic rock scene, which was a divergent, more fashion-minded switch from the disdainful fixation of the late-1970s punk rock movement. Its look and cultural preferences are often influenced from 19th century gothic literature and the classic horror movies.
The music of this subculture includes a host of sub-genres of music, including deathrock, post-punk, darkwave, ethereal wave, dark ambient, industrial and even neoclassical. Fashion within the subculture range from death-rock, punk, and 19th century Victorian styles, usually with dark attire, somber, unisex makeup and dyed jet-black or bleached hair.
In Highlands County – from Avon Park to Lake Placid - unbeknownst to most of the mainstream, there is an oddly-significant goth scene which teeters from role-playing motifs, to punk, to an industrial-edged side: music and fashion which focuses on the future and is heavily reliant on synthesized beats, fashion and sound.
The majority of this population, contrary to popular imagery and connotations, are hardworking students, careered professionals, blue-collar workers and self-employed entrepreneurs. But come sundown - or in some cases, sunrise – the workaday world evolves into a sometimes sensuous, sometimes sinister-like camaraderie of normative cohesion.
“There are really all types around here but it’s spotty and sporadic. The real goth people here are kind of exclusive and we do our own thing,” said Ian Lockwood, 21, his long, untamed hair jutting from a medieval-like black-and-grey shirt, black jeans and black, leather boots. “Basically, when we’re here (Highlands County), we just get together for music, to talk.”
Getting together in gothic modus operandi around Sebring usually means heading to someone’s house, having a party or going to one of the few area pubs that somewhat cater to the clientele. However, some local alternative types have found refuge at a Sebring Regional Airport hangar-bar.
Randomly opened with no set hours, the “Barnstormers” bottle club often hosts bands and deejays, complete with an in-house public address system. There, music sometimes blasts from early evening into the wee hours of the morning, churning out a range of goth-industrial subgenres of music so select it’s sometimes hard for bar-goers to know which is which, including deathrock, ethereal, dark cabaret, darkwave, post-punk, industrial, electronic dance music, dubstep, cyberpunk and gothic rock.
There, using an iPod or laptop, the designated deejay for the night – usually Lockwood under the moniker “DJ Syn” - spins a series of sound esoteric to the purveyors of mainstream pop, rock and country – VNV Nation, Front 242, Knife Party, Rammstein, Lana Del Rey, Gary Numan, Wolfsheim, Skinny Puppy and others.
Daniel Santiago, 22, a Sebring interior designer, stood outside a recent gathering at Barnstormer’s. He said the scene is somewhat unexpectedly on the edge.
“You’d be surprised at some of the clientele I work with when they come in the door,” said Santiago, who cites Rammstein and even 1980s rockers Def Leppard as some of his favorite bands. “You do get the older rockers but there are a few edgier people, too.”
Santiago, a 2010 Sebring High School graduate, is in the process of turning his Vicki Drive house into a miniature medieval-themed, blood-red, black, white and grey chamber complete with self-customized ornamented tables, gloss candle holders, sanctuary side tables, sculptural wall shelves and gothic revival furniture.
He said about four times per month, he and his friends head 90 miles northwest to visit The Castle, one of Florida and the United States’ most noted venerable “goth” bars located in Ybor City. There, they often go for masquerade balls, fetish nights, military-themed domination events and a host of other select sideshow-like occasions.
“We love The Castle, especially when they have the annual masquerade balls; we have so many outfits for that,” he said. “We don’t look down on each other. We all express ourselves differently, but in Sebring, it can get tiresome being looked at for your choice of style.”
Tommy Barnett, a Tampa-based deejay known as “DJ Nemesis” who specializes in goth, old wave and futurepop music, said it’s not uncommon to find goth club patrons from more rural communities and counties, such as Sebring and Highlands, driving several hours to get out to underground music venues. He said he often meets club goers from Avon Park, Port Charlotte, North Port, Arcadia and even Lake Wales, who drive long distances making their ways to Tampa or Orlando’s Independent Bar to get their club fixes. Over the 20 years he’s spent behind the turntables, he said some of the more rural communities and counties, like Highlands, are often home to some of the most diehard underground scenesters .
“Many of them don’t get out to the city and big clubs often, so when they do make it out, it’s that much more special,” he said. “They have to make an effort to get to the big clubs so that usually means they’re more genuine.”
Another fixture in Highlands County’s underground music-scene culture, Caitlin Ryen, agreed with Barnett. She said she often finds some of the goth types who come from more conservative areas are the most true-to-form and honest with the lifestyle.
Ryen, a Sebring bartender, said she likes the “slower, more depressing” style and music side of the scene. She said although she grew up listening to “all sorts of music” despite the cultural isolation of Highlands County, she thinks the alternative music scene thrives here, although somewhat under the radar.
“I kind of live out in the middle of nowhere so we get together at my house and listen to different music, even Hawaiian glam metal,” said Ryen, decked out in a black skirt, flowing blouse and dark eyeliner and standing near a candle in Santiago’s dining room.
Living the goth lifestyle can be socially trying in Highlands County, added Santiago, despite being regular, working-class folks who may look a little different. He said it gets “tiresome” being looked at oddly for his choice of lifestyle and particularly glances from seniors, who were born and raised long before the movement became popular.
“I was on the job one time and a lady didn’t understand why I ‘do that to my body.’ I said, ‘It’s just an earring.’ I thought that was pretty funny,” he said.
The alternative scene is expanding in Highlands County, for better or worse, said Jessie Vega of Almighty Ink tattoos. The owner of the award-winning tattoo parlor said he regularly tattoos men and women who are considered “goth,” often designing tattoos on the “darker” side, like pentagrams. He said over the past 10 years, the underground scene has stayed on the fringes of the area but is a steady presence.
“There is an underground scene here, sometimes, you just have to seek it out,” he said.
Vega said more bars, pubs and even coffeehouses in Highlands County are catering to the alternative music crowds. For example, Lockwood’s band, “Severance,” regularly plays at a gathering venue in Sebring dubbed the “Warlock Clubhouse.” In addition, El Bravo Nightclub, 723 N. Ridgewood Ave., has begun hosting monthly live band nights, featuring acts ranging from metal and punk rock to even industrial and electronic bands, said bartender Miguel Martinez.
When Lockwood, Santiago, Ryen or others in the scene said they hear folks from the “big cities” say there isn’t any kind of underground music-style following in Highlands County, they said they know there is, but it’s a matter of seeking it out.
“Unlike what people may think, we all have actual lives, responsible jobs; we’re not weird freaks, this is just the way we like to have fun,” said Lockwood, who works as a plane fabricator for Lockwood Aviation. “It is a challenge to have fun doing what we like in this area, but we figure out things to do – we just make our own events.”
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