Why destruction is the new American pastime

Monday, January 20, 2020 - 11:15pm

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Photo Courtesy of Verity Sturm

“We don’t wanna just throw the axe at the board. We wanna throw through the board. Whatever it takes.”

Anthony Taylor, the bearded and tattooed co-owner of Axe Ventura, Ann Arbor’s newest and only axe throwing venue, is giving me a pep talk. My friend Emily and I have been chucking axes at the wall for the past 15 minutes, and I can’t land a stick (Emily, for the record, stuck her second throw). 

I assume position: toes on the line, axe in front, left hand over right. I raise the weapon above my head, arching it backward until the butt of the blade kisses my spine, and try to think the sort of thoughts that might send my axe not at but through a solid wall of wood. I take a step and release, hoping I’m right. 

The axe hits the bullseye, but with the wrong end — the flat one — which I didn’t know was possible. It clatters to the floor, where I retrieve it timidly.

Anthony indicates for me to try again by pointing to a blue line on the floor with his right crutch. He recently tore his ACL and meniscus playing flag football. When I walked in half-an-hour earlier, he was throwing on crutches, single-handedly.

“Okay, good. Again.”

***

The evolution of axe throwing from a noun-verb pair to a continental pastime spans back to Toronto, 2006. According to an interview with Red Bull’s lifestyle magazine, Matt Wilson was “crushing beers at (his) friend’s cottage … kind of bored,” when someone pulled out a hatchet and taught him how to throw it. Wilson “just thought it was a lot of fun” and started a backyard axe throwing league among his buddies to keep the vibe alive. Sprinkled with a little entrepreneurial fervor, Wilson’s hobby leveled up to the Backyard Axe Throwing League, otherwise known as BATL, Canada’s premier axe throwing franchise and a founding member of the International Axe Throwing Federation. Wilson himself never replied to my emails or LinkedIn DMs — perhaps he was too busy drumming for his basement rock band

The most unprecedented element of Wilson’s story, though, is in its wake. Over the past decade, axe throwing has swept through the urban continent like a recreational contagion. Canadian chains like BATL and Bad Axe brought the pastime to the U.S. around the mid-to-late-2010s, spurring the rise of rivaling domestic franchises like Urban Axes as well as local independent ranges.

Axe throwing venues tend to aggregate and thrive in the usual suspects — New York, Chicago, Denver, Atlanta — as well as any municipality that mildly gentrifies in the Midwest or mid-Atlantic. This includes Louisville, the inspiration for Ann Arbor’s own Axe Ventura. Shannon Kozyra, Axe Ventura’s co-owner and former high school classmate of Anthonys, managed to give me the origin story over the fond din of clanging and banging that characterizes her new venue. 

“We went to Louisville last New Year’s, and this one guy we talked to was like, ‘There’s this new axe throwing venue,’ and you have to understand this, he...” 

She paused to point accusingly at Anthony. They were wearing identical t-shirts emblazoned with the title “AXE MASTER.”

“... is good at anything you put in front of him. … So, in my mind’s eye I was like, ‘Great, another thing I’m gonna lose at, just gotta have a good attitude about it.’ … But we go and do this, and I stick my first one, and I was like,” she stepped back, her mouth making an ecstatic “O.”

I turned to Anthony.

“Did you stick your first one?”

“I did not.”

“In fact, I beat him, the first time we ever played,” Shannon continued, adjusting her blond curls under a Nike ball cap. “But it’s kind of like one of those beginner’s luck things, because I haven’t since.”

The two were hooked and began bouncing ideas around for Axe Ventura on the drive back from Kentucky.

“Because we loved it, we looked into doing it here and noticed that the closest place was Novi and we're like, ‘That won’t do.’ So, then we just spent the next 11 months making it happen,” Anthony explained.

Making it happen turned out to be quite the feat. Axe Ventura took over the lease of Gold Bond Cleaners, a family-owned dry cleaner that operated on Maynard between Frank’s Restaurant and Madras Masala for 40 years. Anthony, Shannon and co-owner Connor Duggan “Shark-Tank-pitched” the owners for the rights to the space then labored for months to get it up to code. They had to figure out the whole process, “from commercial real estate to business to funding.” It took a bit longer than expected because Anthony and Connor are students at the University of Michigan.

“Wait, what? You guys are undergrads?” I interrupted. “How do you have time for this?”

“Right,” Anthony replied, deadpan.

They’re military veterans, too. Anthony, who studies kinesiology and was in the Coast Guard, and Connor, who studies economics and was in the Air Force, would attend classes Monday to Friday then put in 40 hours each weekend building the place: the bathrooms, the throwing stalls, the soundproofing panels spray-painted with their custom logo and Instagram handle (@Axe.Ventura). 

“Yeah, it’s not for the faint of heart,” Shannon added, regarding the process.

But the effort is evident. The likes of 332 Maynard have been transformed into full post-industrial chic: corrugated sheet metal lines the throwing stalls, massive LED lights hang from the ceiling by wires and minimalist metal stools wait by bars constructed of unfinished wood (liquor license ETA: three weeks). When we walked in on Saturday afternoon, “Loser” by Beck was blaring from a Bluetooth speaker zip-tied to a galvanized chain-link fence. The only trace of the dry cleaner remaining is an unfathomably heavy, authentically industrial safe behind the front counter, now used to store axes. 

So far, the space has mostly attracted clientele of similar chic — think bachelorette parties, corporate events and team-building forays. But they’re working on student outreach.

“We might run a student league, give students a chance to come in here for a different rate,” said Shannon. Renting a stall for an hour currently runs at $35 a person.

“I want to start an axe throwing club at the University,” added Connor. “I think it would be cool … to get people into it younger, because I feel like the demographic right now is, like, 30 and up.”

I asked Connor why he thought that was.

“Because they have time, you know.” He explained. “They have time, they have money. They have time for hobbies. We don’t have time for hobbies.”

***

I eventually got my stick. You have to realize, a first stick in the axe throwing world is like a first communion, a first menstrual period. It’s an initiation rite. I could hear it in my audio recording — an unceremonious thud recontextualized by immediate whooping and hollering. I think someone clapped me on the back.

“You see how that felt. Now you understand,” Anthony told me. “The first time I stuck one, I was like — ” he clenched his fists and mouthed “FUCK YEAH.”

This euphoric first stick phenomenon seems to be the lifeblood of the axe throwing industry. It’s a hot, instant nostalgia that, once tasted, keeps the interest — and its capital — flowing through business doors.

“The biggest thing I hear people saying is, ‘I can see it as a novelty, do it once, just to see what it was like, then I come and do it, and I just want to do it all the time.’ They just want to come back and do it again, do it again and do it again. It’s just that much fun,” Anthony told me.

You may recognize this as the logic of a gateway drug. And there’s certainly an abstract element of addiction going on here, a hyper-focused and wholly competitive striving for exactness in repetition, again, again, again, goddammit.

But I don’t think I have it. Maybe it’s because I was technically on assignment, or because my friends were watching me flounder, or because I was dead sober, but I didn’t share Anthony’s “FUCK YEAH.” I looked at my axe, wedged in the second or third ring from the target’s center, and felt blank relief. 

That being said, I’m also not the type of person who would return from the Air Force and decide that the thing to do is to plan, build and operate an independent axe throwing venue while simultaneously pursuing an economics degree and prepping for both the civil service exam and the LSAT (Connor, you inhuman beast, I salute you). There’s a certain sort of extreme that this activity self-selects for, it seems, and to get down to the bottom of it, I decided to start at the top.

***

Sam Carter is the current IATF axe throwing world champion.

“I was an arborist before doing all this, and my girlfriend saw (a venue) was opening up in Charlotte, where I was living at the time, so I was instantly like, ‘Well, hell yeah, let’s do that,’” Carter said in a recent Facebook phone call with The Daily. After returning to the Charlotte venue two to three times a week, Carter responded to a hiring notice and began working for the franchise. This was in 2017. Today, Carter is the general manager at their Winston-Salem location. 

“Wait … so you’re telling me that in two years you became the world champion?” I interrupted.

Sam paused.

“Yeah … I mean, it’s just for fun, I mean, it sounds like a lot, but it’s not. I mean, it’s axe throwing. It’s just, like, a bar sport,” he replied in staccato, slightly flustered. The status of axe throwing as a sport is an evolving story, but ESPN3 did broadcast the 2019 championships live. 

Official recognition as the best in the world is exceptional, whether it’s for checkers, steeplechase, quiz bowl or axe throwing. It implies years of diligence, a childhood prodigy story or some ungodly combination of the two. Sam Carter, on the other hand, good-naturedly rolled into a “hell yeah” and casually popped out number one. I was drawing another blank, feeling on the outside of some larger understanding, not unlike the experience of my bathetic first stick. 

I asked Carter what had hooked him about it in the first place.

“I don't know, it’s just fun to throw a sharp object,” he said. “You get to do it all the time, and people let you do it. ‘Cause when I was a kid, I used to go steal my dad’s axe and throw it at a tree and then put it back after two throws because I thought I was gonna break it. Now I do it for a living.” 

When you stick the word “venue” on it, axe throwing becomes more than the simple indulgence of a primal thrill. It’s suddenly organized, perhaps professional. Instead of throwing at a tree for the hell of it, you’re aiming at a target. The thing you snuck out to do as a child is sanctioned with the three concentric circles of a bullseye. You’ve paid to do it. As Sam said to me, “people let you do it.”

The space to openly engage with taboo is a heady permission, but is it enough to spawn a world championship trajectory? It seemed too simple to me. But fascination with the forbidden appears to be an affecting entry point to the sport for world champions and weekend enthusiasts alike. An activity that requires you to sign a waiver is kind of sexy. University seniors Ryley Verde and AJ Arons frequently go axe throwing as a partners’ activity and talked to me about their comparable affinity for the sport over coffee last week.

“It’s so satisfying when you split a board and then you have to literally replace the board because you destroyed it,” said Ryley. Both she and AJ have split multiple boards in their throwing careers.

“Have you ever used an axe for anything besides axe throwing?” I asked.

Ryley thought for a moment.

“Like camping axes, but not like for splitting wood. Other than that, I don’t really have a use for an axe in my daily life.”

“I think that’s part of the fun, though,” AJ added, “because it is a weapon. It’s not just throwing something and hitting it well. Tennis is great, hitting overhead is fun, but you’re throwing a weapon at something, and that is so satisfying.”

My ears perked at AJ’s response. They used the word “weapon” with the same mysticism as “first stick.”

***

There is a place where you are permitted to use weapons without the pretense of a bullseye. It’s called the rage room, and its history as a pay-to-participate pastime runs near-parallel to that of axe throwing: The first rage room opened in Japan in 2008 before spreading to Europe and the United States with gusto, becoming a burgeoning urban industry and cultural fad.

But its premise is even more basic. There is a wall of weapons and a room of junk. Upon payment, the application of the former to the latter is sanctioned. Be free. 

Since everybody else in this story seems to have touched the sublime via recreational destruction, I decided the rage room was worth a shot. The “first stick” exactness game was a bust, but maybe I’m just more into the weapon side of things. I’ve always been a theory girl.

So last Saturday, my boyfriend Jacob, roommate Sophie and hungover-friend-in-the-kitchen Gibby all piled into a sedan and drove 20 minutes north to Destruction Depot in Whitmore Lake, one of the three rage rooms in the state of Michigan. It was one of those cold, drizzly afternoons where the sun sets at 4 p.m. When we pulled into the parking lot, Jacob pointed out a correctional facility across the street.

The imagery was grim indeed, but it brightened substantially with the warm welcome and stylish shoes of Rachel Crawford, former school counselor and current co-owner of Destruction Depot alongside her husband, Matt.

“This business is my husband’s baby,” Rachel told us on a tour of the Depot. Her t-shirt, along with a variety of signage and merchandise throughout the business, proudly displayed their slogan: “ALL ABOARD THE RAGE TRAIN.”

“He’s an army veteran, he was blowing stuff up for a living when he was with the army and thought he wanted to have a place to go to where he could destroy things when he got out.”

The four of us nodded. We could picture it.

“So, when we went on our first date, six years ago … he talked about building a rage room, and I was like, ‘well, that’s crazy, but okay,’ so here we are.”

Destruction Depot is fitted with three rage rooms — two doubles and one party-sized — built by Matt, Rachel and her father in 2018. Clients pay $20 per person for room access and safety equipment, without a time cap. They are then escorted to the “inventory room,” where “breakables” — random electronics, collectibles and glassware of varying size, design and quality — are hand-selected, labeled and priced by Rachel herself. She sources them from a local e-waste company and then, weeks later returns their destroyed debris.

“This is my creative outlet,” Rachel told us while we perused her wares, which included a large milk crate of wine bottles labeled “Mommy is ‘TIRED.’” Clients may purchase as many of the Depot’s “breakables” as they wish and/or bring up to three of their own, free of charge. While every client has their own personal taste, Rachel told us that overhead projectors, guitars and printers tend to get snatched from the inventory room as soon as they arrive.

“And obviously glass, people love glass,” Rachel added. “Mugs are my personal favorite, so I put some of those in your room, too.” We thanked her.

Destruction Depot attracts a similar group clientele as Axe Ventura — birthday parties, corporate events and student groups, for the most part — although Rachel found herself surprised by the demographics of her individual clients.

“I thought that we’d have a bunch of angry men in here a lot of the time, and it is not … we are primarily women. Women are by far our number one customers,” she told us.

Destruction Depot is also happy to arrange custom room setups if clients have something special in mind.

“We had a woman who wanted to surprise her husband, an accountant, at the end of tax season. She wanted his room set up like an office, so we sourced a desk, a computer and all of that kind of stuff. At the end of tax season, he came in and went crazy and loved it.”

The four of us, seniors about to graduate and enter the workforce, moved our winces into smiles. In an attempt to either change the subject or make a connection between motivations, Jacob asked her if people ever get political in the rage room. Rachel laughed.

“Elissa Slotkin is our congresswoman, when she was getting elected a year or two ago some of her campaign workers would come in, and they …”

She paused to laugh again.

“They would just, like, scream.”

***

Rachel escorted us to the gear room, instructing us to suit up in full-length coveralls and plastic face shields. We emerged resembling a very skinny third of BROCKHAMPTON and met her by the weapons, a towering wall of recycled compressed wood hung with baseball bats, crowbars, frying pans, sledgehammers, wrenches, golf clubs, hammers, hockey sticks and mallets. Gibby grabbed a large wrench, Sophie an orange mallet. Jacob took his time choosing a baseball bat and I selected a long yellow crowbar.

After taking our picture in front of a large marquee sign, she made to spell out “DESTRUCTION DEPOT WELCOMES THE MICHIGAN DAILY,” Rachel led us to the party room. In it, she had graciously pre-arranged a printer, television, car door, stack of plate ware and collection of aforementioned coffee mugs for our smashing pleasure. She ran us through the two rules — don’t purposefully destroy the room and don’t smash with the door open — and respectfully left us to our literal devices.

I will never be sure about what happened in the rage room. But I had left my pocket voice recorder on from the interview with Rachel, and thus happened to capture our experience in the party room on audio. A few days after our visit I listened through the whole thing, curious about exactly when and how the four of us ended up on the rage train, full swing. 

Turns out we boarded almost immediately upon Rachel’s departure. After a few shy wisecracks about “The Purge” and the chorus of Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” playing on the loudspeaker, someone made the first smash, inviting all hell to break loose. At this point in my recording, the conversation between the four of us fragmented into brief, robotically inexpressive remarks about the destruction we were inflicting or planning to inflict, erratically punctuated by ear-splitting shatters, cracks, bangs and blasts. Eventually, we all began to sound the same.

I want to try the bat / I want to smash this / I love the bat / Just toss it up and I’ll smash down / The sledgehammer is so powerful / Wait can I do something really destructive / Is that really what the inside of a TV looks like / Maybe a different weapon / I want the case to pop open / We should all get bats / Can someone push down on that / Okay we’ll get more bats.

We were operating on pure instinct, each of our individual characters dissolving in the simple adrenaline of the task at hand. At one point, without any discussion or stated agreement, the four of us converged on the stubborn inner machinery of a TV that refused to yield to our crowbar and began to methodically pull it apart by hand. It felt good, then, to be an animal. It feels more complicated now.

I stepped into the hallway for a moment to take some photos of the rampage through the party room’s single window. With each click of the shutter, each second away from the room, I became more aware of what I was looking at: Through the plexiglass of the window through the lens of my camera, my boyfriend and my roommate were systematically smashing a car door with baseball bats, back and forth, thud THUD, thud THUD. I lowered my camera, confused. I’m still confused. Were they mad? Was I mad? Am I mad now? And … why?

Time worked strangely in the rage room, the way an inopportune nap can leave you paranoid that you’ve slept the day away. After what felt like hours, we-in-singularity decided the deed was done and retreated to the gear room to become ourselves again. My pulse was high, hands trembling slightly. Rachel arrived with complimentary bottles of water. I asked her how long we had been in there. She said 30 minutes.

***

“It’s a bad thing. Our research shows that people feel good after venting, and because venting feels good, they assume that it must be working. But it feels good to take street drugs, too, or eat chocolate.”

This is the input of Dr. Brad Bushman, Social Psychology Ph.D. and Professor of Communication at Ohio State University. Dr. Bushman has spent the majority of his career researching aggression and spoke to The Daily in a recent phone interview about the rise and impact of recreational destruction — specifically, axe throwing and rage rooms.

“It’s like using gasoline to put out a fire, it just feeds the flame,” Bushman said. “How do you become an angry, aggressive person? Practice, practice, practice. And what do you do in these rooms? You practice how to behave aggressively. You throw axes, bash, break things, hit, kick, scream, shout, whatever.”

Initially, I was with Dr. Bushman. The morning after the rage room I picked up an empty mug at Sweetwaters and had an involuntary impulse to hurl it across the cafe. Objects became contextually unfixed. Jacob went home and immediately noticed the arena that was his home: piano, television, speakers, Xbox. “My brain doesn’t usually work in units of breakable or not breakable, you know,” he told me.

But after some time, the academic perspective seemed more and more myopic. The coffee mug ceased to feel like a projectile after 36 hours, and I began to think a little more about what was sending people to these establishments in the first place versus what was happening in their heads upon arrival.

During our coffee chat, AJ emphasized the accessibility of the activity — how anybody can do it, and how improvement is only a simple adjustment away. In two years, maybe you will be the axe throwing world champion. The primal thrill of a first stick or weapon-in-hand is basic enough to satisfy virtually anyone to some extent. We are human, after all. And in a world of increasingly complex algorithms, politics, barriers-to-entry and interpersonal interactions, where else is success so simple? So physical? So clear?

And then Ryley hit upon the social element, describing it as “a really great way to connect physically” with those around you. I’ve seen this firsthand, in the friendly and generative competition between Shannon and Anthony and the singularity achieved between myself, Gibby, Sophie and Jacob in the rage room. In an age of Tinder alienation, the idea of throwing an axe or smashing a television with someone seems, somehow, more profound. There’s a desperation in there, maybe, but it checks out. We are desperate.

I didn’t share the exact euphoria of all the first sticks and weapon-wielding of my peers, sure, but I have also never served in the armed forces or worked tax season as an accountant. I was thinking about this at yoga the other day, then realized what I was doing in yoga: paying a dumb amount of money to do something totally primal and taboo — roll around like an animal in a pool of my own sweat — in a dark, hot room washed in a shade of red light I describe to my friends as “feeding frenzy crimson.” I started going to yoga when my work and my studies began to intensify in a way that gave me somatic anxiety. I often describe it with the adjective “cathartic.”

The rage train has been shuttling between money, stress and serotonin for years, speeding up every time you have to learn a new programming language or explain what you really want to do with your life. The recreational slinging of weapons did not arise in a vacuum, and looks more to me like a symptom than a cause. There are enough interest and capital right now for physical rage to be having a moment as its own enterprise. Let’s cash in. All aboard.

So long as we are stressed and have bank accounts, we will pay to cope. And the harder we work, the harder we cope. Whose fault is that?

Back in Axe Ventura, I had asked Anthony why he thought axe throwing was so trendy right now.

“It’s different, something new,” he told me.

“Other than that, I don’t really know. I didn’t invent it, I just kind of got on board.”