Ten Years of Music – A Williamsburg Oral History: 2002-2012
Tod Seelie, 33, moved to Brooklyn in 1998 to go to Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill because it was the least expensive school that accepted him. And that says a lot considering the annual tuition was $30,000.
“People comment on that period of Pratt, the late 90s, early 2000s,” says Tod Seelie. “All these really motivated and impressive people came out of that time – Swoon, Japanther, Matt and Kim – and everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, there must have been something in the water,’ I think it was something in the financial aid office.” Tod smiles. “They brought in a lot of people who had a lot of potential and were able to realize that because they were able to go to a good art school and grow.”
And I think he’s right. I enrolled at Pratt in the fall of 2000. I had never been to New York, never visited Brooklyn and suddenly I was left to my own in this new place, this massive city. I remember that first night, after college orientation, a group of my newly found friends and I braved the subway into Manhattan to see a Pedro The Lion show at The Knitting Factory on Leonard Street.
Just a year later, not long after 9-11, living in Bed-Stuy and collaborating with all these incredible creative people at Pratt… it felt like something bigger than the “college experience” I had expected or learned about from the movies.
In the wake of 9-11 we were free to do whatever the hell we wanted. The paranoia and overreaching authority hadn’t settled in yet. Everyone sort of walked around like a celebrated survivor, like the little things didn’t really matter because at any moment a true and massive tragedy could occur. Those first years after 9-11 really felt like we could do anything.
Ian Vanek, and Matt Reilly, of the performance band Japanther, also attended Pratt Institute in the early 2000s. “We traded music with each other, “Vanek says. “Mix tapes we bought on the street from bootleggers. And we made our own tapes and traded those and just started making music. We were playing, like joking around, like how children play – that’s what we were doing, just staying in that mindset. Making a joke because we were supposed to be doing our homework. Going to college we were supposed to be making pictures but we were making songs because it wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing. “
Brooklyn was our stomping ground, at least that small section of Brooklyn, seeping slowly towards Bed-Stuy, Ft. Greene, and eventually Williamsburg. But even then, Williamsburg was much different than it is today. And certainly even more so earlier on.
Pat Noecker moved to New York in 1997. One of 12 children on a farm in Nebraska, Pat grew up to play in bands out of Omaha and eventually toured the USA before moving to New York. Seeking out collaborators, Pat answered a flyer’s call for a band mate and met Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill. And so they bought a van for $600 and started a band named Liars, playing their first show for a small circle of friends at a dive bar in Midtown Manhattan called Siberia.
Around the same time, other bands were beginning to play in Manhattan and parts of Williamsburg, bands like Lightning Bolt, !!!, Les Savy Fav, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
“We were at this gay bar on Grand Street called Luxx, now Trash Bar,” says Seva Granik, 37, co-founder of MyOpenBar.com. Born and raised in Bensonhearst, Brooklyn, Granik first started exploring Williamsburg in the late nineties, early 2000 after a friend from college moved to Greenpoint. “Suddenly Luxx gets completely packed – this was a weeknight I think,” Seva says. “And we get pushed to the back where there’s this scrawny guy on stage setting up all these pedals and he’s looking confident but he has a really complicated set-up with loops and pedals… then he starts playing and the drummer comes out and he starts playing – you could tell the drummer was amazing – and then this girl just blows onto the stage, naked with pieces of tape on her nipples, maybe a bikini or something and just goes wild: pouring beer on herself, breaking bottles, bleeding… The whole place is going insane, and she’s amazing. And that was a band I’d never heard of, called Yeah Yeah Yeahs.”
Pat Noecker remembers this time very well. “By the summer of 2000,” Pat says, “everybody knew that shit was happening in New York City. And there weren’t a lot of alternative spaces in Manhattan so everyone started playing shows in Brooklyn for Fitz. This guy John ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, living in South Williamsburg, saw the potential of music in alternative spaces – taking it out of the bar and doing it for the music, for the art, getting musicians money and putting them in front of audiences that didn’t consider it entertainment, they saw it as art. And it started working.”
These events occurred during the advent and rise of the Internet. These early shows, shows in the early 2000s, were not covered in the media. These shows didn’t have photographers with digital cameras in the audience. To put it into a larger context, it was January 2001 when iTunes launched. And it would be another 10 months before we had iPods. This was not only the beginning of a new era of music, music out of Brooklyn, but also the beginning of the end of the music industry as it existed then.
That year, 2001, also brought us albums like “This Is It” and “White Blood Cells” by The Strokes and The White Stripes, respectively. Not to mention other breaking bands like Interpol, Radio 4, We Are Scientists… the list goes on and on.
As a 19-year-old art school student in 2001, discovering these great bands, experiencing new technologies, going to these raw concerts in loft spaces and house parties in Brooklyn, I was absolutely blown away. It was incredible. And while every corner seemed new and fresh to me, I certainly wasn’t first to the scene. And to be frank, I feel like I tuned in just around the same time that mainstream media had taken notice and began broadcasting these bands throughout the country.
Suddenly, this entire generation of “Brooklyn Bands”, which hadn’t existed before then, was thrust into the public eye, and the public ear, and, in more ways than one, put Brooklyn on the map.
There was a show in 2002 called The Junkyard Show, organized by a group of people called The Twisted Ones (Fitz and Arthur) across the street from the DIY venue Mighty Robot. Liars played. “It was jammed,” Pat Noecker says. “People all around, people in the loft, people on buildings, on rooftops, decks, fire escapes, 360-degrees, and the Williamsburg Bridge is right there and the catwalk is packed with people watching from the bridge. MTV was there. Everybody. It was the apex of that time.”
And then things really got cooking.
Enter Todd Patrick. Having moved to NYC from Austin and previously Portland, Oregon where he operated an all-ages venue, Todd P first began throwing shows in lofts and bars in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn in October 2001.
“Todd P took what the twisted ones did and expanded on that idea,” says Pat Noecker. “He got interns, paid cops to do security and built an infrastructure that allowed it to get bigger but keep its purity. And every band in the country that had any sense of a punk aesthetic, no matter what the music was, wanted to play a show with Todd because the idea was the most pure.”
Todd P threw shows in the tiniest back rooms of dusty dive bars in Greenpoint. He threw shows in strange basements and cafes in Queens, places that some would remember by name, like Uncle Paulie’s, and other places that maybe never even had a name. Needless to say Todd P booked hundreds of shows with thousands of bands over the years, including bands that would grow and tour and reach larger and large audiences. Matt and Kim is probably the most popular of these bands.
“The first Todd P. show I was a part of was with the Amanda Noa dudes playing with Japanther at a space on Kent and Broadway?” recalls Matt Johnson of Matt and Kim. “Remember there was that space there, that was upstairs – the something café? – I can’t remember the name of that space, it didn’t last, but that was the first time I met Todd.”
Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino came from that generation of Pratt alumni in those early 2000s. “Kim wanted to learn how to play drums,” says Matt. “I was just trying to learn how to play this cool keyboard I found in my neighbor’s garage when I was younger and then… Ian from Japanther found out we were playing music and he said, ‘You have to do a show with me.’ And we said, “We’re not a real band. We don’t have a name, we don’t have any songs,’ and he said, ‘I don’t care you’re gonna play this show.’”
And this particular show, in a basement space in Long Island City, Queens, was indeed organized and promoted by Todd P. Listed on the flyer, along with Japanther, was “Matthew and Kimberly.”
“We shortened the name,” Matt says. “But we thought, ‘Yeah that works, that’s fine.’ So, in a way, Todd P did kind of name our band.”
That was in the fall of 2004.
Meanwhile, another community of young Brooklynites had formed in parallel with the performance bands from Pratt or bands booked by Todd P. One year earlier, 2003, brought us the first Bike Kill, a sanctioned block party on a dead-end street in Bedford-Stuyvesant organized by a tight-knit group of people who were calling themselves The Black Label Bicycle Club (BLBC).
The story of Black Label extends back beyond New York and this timeframe, all the way back to 1992 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2000 a Black Label member named Leo moved to New York and ultimately met enough like-minded people that he founded a Brooklyn chapter of Black Label.
“The Bike Club brought us together,” says BLBC member Conrad Carlson aka DJ Dirty Finger. “But that summer there were also other groups I was around that all came together… Toy Shop Collective, the Madagascar Institute, Black Label, and Critical Mass, which pre-RNC Critical Mass was insane.”
Many things changed in 2004.
In February 2004, at a Greenpoint, Brooklyn venue called The Warsaw, there was a passing of the torch moment during a gig the included Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, and relative newcomers TV On The Radio. And in many ways, this closed one chapter in the Williamsburg history books and opened yet another.
For me personally, I graduated from college that summer and traveled the USA interviewing leaders and inspirational figures for a documentary television show called Roadtrip Nation. Having had a very politically charged road trip that summer, traversing the USA while Bush and Kerry made their own campaign trips, I returned to Brooklyn just before the Republican National Convention.
The presence of the RNC and the actions taken by the authorities during the RNC very much permanently changed the atmosphere of New York City. Thousands were arrested that week. “The Critical Mass just before the RNC was the first time the police used kettling,” says Tod Seelie. “What’s kettling? Sealing off two ends of a block and just arresting everyone inside… Detaining people for three days on a greasy floor in a concrete warehouse throwing bologna sandwiches at them once in a while.”
It was a dark time for New York City and for our country. And yet somehow Williamsburg and areas of North Brooklyn seemed to be operating under a different paradigm.
Not long after Seva Granik first saw Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Luxx in 2000, he moved to Williamsburg. Working as VP of Intranet at Morgan Stanley, Granik saved most of his large salary. And after 9-11 he quit his job to pursue music.
Cut to 2005: having spent five years living in Williamsburg, playing in bands (Like Yesterday) and spending the savings he earned working at Morgan Stanley, Seva was suddenly broke and bored.
His roommate at the time was running in this scene of open bars, “mostly promotional vehicles for beers and liquors, mostly in the Lower East Side,” says Seva. “And so we would just go get wasted for free.”
Seva maintained a blog about his misadventures in NYC and started including information about upcoming open bars. He then noticed an increase in traffic to his site. So he published more open bar information and saw more traffic. And so then he built a very rudimentary website, included an email list, called it MyOpenBar.com (his roommate’s idea) and overnight 1,000 people signed up.
“For some reason people just loved it,” says Seva. “The NY Times did an article, every major newspaper and magazine in town was calling to figure out what the fuck was going on.”
And the website continued to garner more and more traffic and collect more and more subscribers to their weekly newsletter listing open bar events all over New York City. Slowly at first, but eventually it became a go-to resource and guide for nightlife, particularly free events.
“Somehow it evolved into this business with a marketing component and an events arm that made a ton of money and managed to hold people’s attention for a little while, a couple of years. But Becky [Smeyne] and I fucked it up. We just wanted to do this “DIY thing” and we have a very DIY attitude and we wanted everything to be cool. But. Business and cool don’t really mix.”
Seva and Becky wanted to make “happenings,” something more than just a show. At the time, events and parties were reaching well beyond this idea of a “show” where bands play and everyone watches and listens.
Seva and Becky hosted some of the craziest events I’ve ever experienced, namely a Halloween party in 2007 at a warehouse on Wythe Avenue with DJs from the Black Label Bicycle Club including DJ Dirty Finger.
And of course, the Bike Kill events in Bed-Stuy, hosted by Black Label will be forever burned into my mind as the most chaotic community celebrations I’ve ever witnessed neigh participated in. Those events, those happenings were inspirational and resonate with me now still because of the pure freedom those events granted me and everyone there.
“You pay to be everywhere you go in New York,” says Conrad aka DJ Dirty Finger. “Because it’s expensive, you spend your whole life in New York trying to pay for life. Anytime you can go somewhere and not feel that… There’s a freedom. The best are house parties.”
And if you’ve been to parties at The Chicken Hut in Bed-Stuy, you know that those were absolutely the best house parties. In many ways that’s what it seems to be about, looking back on it now: this group of people, these groups of people throwing some of the biggest, craziest “house parties” in Brooklyn. Often times, these parties weren’t even at houses but rather multiple story warehouses, vacant lots, dead-end streets, rooftops, subways, Chinese buffets, and twice even on the middle of the bike path on the Williamsburg Bridge.
In January, 2006 there was a show at warehouse on Ingraham Street in Bushwick. It was a Todd P show called Brooklyn Vs. Baltimore, which featured musicians “battling” against each other. That night Dan Deacon, USA IS A MONSTER, Future Islands, Double Dagger and These Are Powers (Pat Noecker’s band after Liars) played in front of 2,000 people in what almost everyone remembers as a highlight and a turning point for this community.
“At this point, the music industry really starts to sink its teeth into it,” says Pat Noecker. “And with any scene that gets bum rushed or commodified… shit starts to get weird.”
Things did get weird. In 2006, Japanther participated in The Whitney Biennial. A feature-length docu-drama about The Black Label Bicycle Club was released. Creative center 3rd Ward opens on Morgan Avenue. And Google buys YouTube for $1.65 billion.
Gentrification continues throughout Brooklyn while rezoning of the Williamsburg waterfront promises to change the neighborhood forever.
In July, 2007, Matt and Kim play the first ever show at The Music Hall of Williamsburg. “It was supposed to be Patti Smith,” says Matt Johnson. “And we were supposed to be the second show. But they were still assembling things on the night of the Patti Smith show so they had to move venues. And I remember going in for sound check, that official first show, and there were still guys welding in the railing as we were sound checking, getting everything done last minute.”
Also that summer the DIY venue Death By Audio opens on S.2nd in Williamsburg. Similarly, Silent Barn opens in Ridgewood, Queens. And the first issue of Showpaper, a free all ages events listing newspaper, is published through the efforts of a small team of people including Todd P and Joe Ahearn.
Joe Ahearn grew up in New York City, not far from where the former all ages venue Wetlands was in TriBeCa. Having left New York after high school to travel the USA, Joe returned to the city in 2006 and got a job bartending in DUMBO. Soon he began booking shows there for friends and bands he met while traveling who were now touring through New York City. But it wasn’t quite a good fit. Because of management and neighbor’s complaints, Joe was often forced to be the bad guy and ask bands to lower their volume or shorten their sets.
Right around then Joe went to a Todd P show at Uncle Paulie’s in Greenpoint in the midst of a tumultuous downpour. “I get there and the venue is literally flooded,” says Joe. “No one was there and one band was setting up and Todd was there with a broom trying to sweep the water out of the venue. And I was totally in love with the whole situation; I thought it was the coolest most mysterious thing. So I interviewed Todd and wrote this article for my school newspaper about the experience and I started helping him out. I stopped working at the bar and I started helping Todd with shows, and I started helping Todd answer emails, and I sort of just did that and nothing else for about a year.”
Ultimately, Joe believes this may be why going back to college didn’t work out.
“I just thought this guy can do anything he wants, so I’m gonna do whatever it is he needs so that I can figure out how to do whatever it is I want.”
And Joe was not alone in this thinking. Other young kids were eager to help Todd P and hungry to learn the tricks of the trade, including Edan Wilbur, an NYU graduate.
“I had loved music forever,” says Edan, “But through school I got into film and I was doing that for a while but I just hated that world because it was such an ass-kissing world and it was such a world where you don’t get anything done unless you have a shit load of money. And I think I just clung to shows because you start with zero dollars. And people just get there and were like, ‘Alright we’ll see what we can do,’ and everybody involved was down for that. We’re not going to make any guarantees but we’ll ask everyone to donate some money and then you’re gonna make some money and you’re gonna get to your next spot. And I just thought that was so pure, and such a better world.”
After having gone to Todd P’s 2007 showcase at Ms.Bea’s in Austin during the SXSW Music Festival, Edan, a shy guy, found the courage to approach Todd at a show and complimented him on his Austin showcase. That night, Todd P invited Edan to return to Austin with him to help with the 2008 showcase.
“This was right at the point when you could tell something was about to happen,” says Carlos Valpeoz, a Pratt graduate who has been organizing shows under the moniker Bikes In The Kitchen since 2006. “This was about to be a part of popular culture.”
It was that 2008 SXSW showcase that Carlos partnered with Todd P to host a slue of Brooklyn bands once again at Ms.Bea’s. The lineup that year included Matt and Kim, Ninjasonik, Team Robespierre, The Death Set, Best Fwends, Juiceboxxx, The So So Glos and The Vivian Girls.
“It just seemed like Brooklyn owned Austin for that one night, at least in my eyes,” says Carlos. “And it felt pretty special.”
For me, looking back on that weekend in Austin, Texas…. It was the validation that we needed. To take all of this talent out of NYC and showcase it before a new audience in a completely alien environment gave us all the validation and approval that I think we’d been seeking. It gave us the confidence to return to Brooklyn and continue to wholeheartedly pursue our passions for music and events.
It was that summer, the summer of 2008, that myself and my then business partner, Ed Zipco, leased an old grocery store on Broadway in Bushwick and opened the DIY venue Bodega.
“Bodega was completely renegade,” says Tod Seelie. “Market Hotel was kind of like that too.”
The summer of 2008 really opened the floodgates for a lot of DIY venues. At it’s height: Market Hotel, Bodega, Silent Barn, Death By Audio, Glasslands, and more.
And people loved it, going out almost every night because there were suddenly shows happening at easily accessible locations where you could truly, freely enjoy yourself.
“They’re not legit,” says Tod Seelie. “They don’t have all the restrictions and concerns and the bullshit. It’s a double-edged sword but you can’t go to the Bowery Ballroom and have those experiences because the Bowery Ballroom has security and insurance and bartenders who don’t give a fuck and have a bottom line to meet.”
Running a music venue and/or a bar is a massive undertaking that requires a team of hardworking individuals. For me, running Bodega, ostensibly an illegal music venue with an illegal bar, came with the both the demands of legal establishments as well as the innumerable obstacles and problems of an illegal establishment: remaining under the radar, maintaining community relations, even something as simple as disposing of trash because a clandestine activity.
It was dangerous and exciting. Looking back on it today, I cannot see it as anything more or less than exactly that: dangerous and exciting.
“I just remember thinking this was such a cool, big space with so much potential,” says Matt Johnson about Bodega. “It had multiple floors and high ceilings, but it came to this point with that sort of no rules atmosphere where someone wants to be, but where it clashes with it actually being sustainable, while I’m watching people piss in the corner on the floor and fights were breaking out and it sort of felt like this great no rules situation but it felt like nothing that could continue. It couldn’t be sustained; you can’t just have a place where it’s ok to piss on the floor anywhere… I remember beer just getting poured on the PA and it keep getting unplugged and I was just a show-goer and I ended up being the one trying to keep it plugged in, trying to keep the beer whipped off it, just trying to keep it going. It was great in its chaos but it won’t be able to last.”
2009 brought with it the demise of many of these ideas as well as the physical venues. Studio B closed after numerous battles with the community and the community board. Additionally, Ed and I decided to close Bodega, the result of nearly equal parts fatigue, creative differences and police enforcement. We aimed to continue to work towards legalizing the space and, remembering it now, that didn’t seem like the end. It felt like we were taking a moment to regroup and that we would come back bigger and better. But ultimately, it was over.
“We were all the beneficiaries of a more lax enforcement structure that previously existed,” says Todd P. “Clearly Bloomberg has pushed the whole city towards a more compliant, more orderly, more law-driven system. A system very arbitrarily enforced, in my opinion. The idea is that it’s across the board enforcement. In practice it’s completely arbitrary, spotty enforcement based on tattletales calling 311.”
It was not long after Bodega closed that the NYPD shut down a show at Market Hotel and so Todd P and crew decided to close the venue. The eviction of the events space Rubulad followed soon after.
In 2011, Cinders Gallery, a staple of art and creativity in Williamsburg is forced to leave its home on Grand Street where it’d been for over six years due to rent increases. Manhattan promoter and show organizer Ariel Panero passes away and a concert in memoriam is organized at Death By Audio where These Are Powers performs the last show of their 6-year legacy.
And it seemed to only get worse: the four residents of Silent Barn are evicted by the New York City Department of Buildings and then immediately robbed of all their possessions and equipment. Not even a month later the venue Glasslands is also robbed of thousands of dollars in equipment. Nearby, Monster Island closes, denied the opportunity to renew their lease.
Todd P, having stepped back from the scene, moves to Ridgewood, Queens and has a baby boy named Alyosha Kai.
“Whether or not you can say that Williamsburg 1995-2005 was a historical art movement,” says Todd, “It certainly had that sprit and that potential that you think about for SoHo in the late 70s, or the Lower East Side in the 80s, or Greenwich Village in the 60s. That spirit is what has made New York City an attractive place to live for a lot of folks who have talent. It’s an exciting place to live because exciting things happen here.”
Ultimately, we all want to be a part of something important. We all want to inspire others and leave our mark in someway. And perhaps it hasn’t been long enough to be able to fully understand our influence. Only time can confirm or deny that.
Today, some of these figures are still working towards the freedom of alternative spaces, DIY venues, all ages shows and loft parties. Edan Wilber books shows at Death By Audio as much as seven nights a week. Joe Ahearn, after years of managing rehearsal spaces at Secret Project Robot and living at and booking shows in Silent Barn, now works at The Clocktower Gallery in lower Manhattan as the Curator of Performance and Installation. Pat Noecker currently plays gigs under the moniker RAFT. Seva Granik works as a event coordinator under the moniker ABRACADABRA. And Michelle Cable of Panache Booking works steadily to provide gigs for local and touring bands in venues that appreciate the experience, often Death By Audio. It’s these people that younger musicians and emerging bands can truly rely on today and hopefully for days and years to come.
For most of my life, I’ve been able to rely on the music I was listening to in order to place moments and happenings in my life. But for most of the last decade, it all blends together. I imagine it’s like what most 30-somethings experience: a blurred remembrance, the highest of the highs leave no room for anything else and you find yourself softly packing it all together into something like a time capsule, something not for you but for future strangers. You compartmentalize the decade, as the media has done for all the decades before… but yours is not easily pronounced, not agreeably defined: the aughts? The 00’s?
Today, as I write this now, today is my 30th birthday. And I welcome the self-reflection and nostalgia that I’ve encountered as a result of reaching this milestone. I’m not as wild and rambunctious as I used to be. I’m ok with that. I’m ok with changing, though I can’t help but feel old.
“To me,” says Ian Vanek of Japanther, “Being 30 years old is really young for an artist. Maybe it’s old for a rock n roller or old for our Internet social media life that we have going on now, but for me it’s a very young time for an artist.”
And I think Ian is right. It’s all about perspective.
What is the current state of DIY? Is it now worse or less important than it was in 2008 or 2006 or 2002? Has another era of Brooklyn DIY come and gone and with it, my twenties?
“Nightlife in America is still as interesting,” says Ian. “There’s a lot of speakeasy restaurants and speakeasy bars going on in NYC all the time. It’s the responsibility of the viewer to find these places and enjoy them. I think you have to stay dancing, ya know? Stay on your toes.”
Yes indeed, Ian. I still love going to see Japanther; I’l be at your next gig, like I was at the one before that and the one before that. May your next show be someplace I’ve never been before, someplace in a strange neighborhood, far from the subway, on the third floor of a rotten warehouse where a new community of artists and musicians are beginning a new wave of shows and parties… may your next show be part of the most glorious house party of a new decade, a new decade for all of us.
I can only hope the great Robert Earl Keen was right when he sang, “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.” In Brooklyn, and beyond.
This is an ongoing project. I hope to continue to meet with people who have stories to tell of Brooklyn in the 2000s, or before, and possibly beyond. And I hope to expand on the stories outlined here in this article. I consider this to be an oral history, an archiving of events paired with not only my own personal anecdotes but also those of anyone else who was there.
The initial concept for this project came out of a long conversation I had with the musician Pat Noecker (Liars, These Are Powers), just reminiscing about shows that still stuck out in our mind as memorable and perhaps important. And having spent the last two weeks meeting with people and friends and discussing our own personal histories, it seems that maybe it is worth exploring, and documenting, preserving and sharing.
A.P. Smith is the author of a collection of essays and interviews titled Welcome to the Land of Cannibalistic Horses. His writing has been published in The Village Voice, Vice, and Colors Magazine. He has a BFA in Writing from Pratt Institute, and a MS in Publishing from NYU. He lives in Greenpoint. http://apsmith.net/