NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Known for its fat sandwiches, Rutgers University, and a slew of healthcare institutions, the Hub City another unique claim to fame: one of the best DIY (do-it-yourself) music scenes in state.
Known as the “basement scene,” most shows are played in the basements of people who organize both local and touring bands to play shows together.
NJSpotlight’s Hank Kalet listed “The New Brunswick Basements” as the #4 best place to see indie bands in New Jersey in a recent article, that also included the city’s famous Court Tavern atop the list.
The tight-knit community of musicians eager for any opportunity to perform and the city’s die-hard music fans has helped foster the strong DIY scene despite the closure of most of the city’s historic rock clubs.
“The basement scene, which is housed in more than a dozen houses usually rented by college students from Rutgers University, features both full-band and acoustic shows and gets rave reviews from bands who say the crowds are as energetic and engaged as any in the state,” wrote Kalet.
The large difference between New Brunswick’s music scene, and some of the larger cities such as Hoboken or New York, is the do-it-yourself ethic and mentality. Nowadays, instead of solely relying on traditional venues such as bars or theaters, New Brunswick’s music scene is largely concentrated in residential homes.
Musicians and fans alike are proud of this basement aesthetic calling it “punk” and “more real than most shows.”
The basements, also known as “show houses,” all have creative nicknames used in lieu of addresses. Nick Rapon, who runs a show house and is part of the band Semiotics, says that the names are a “way to brand yourself.”
His house is named after a reference to the television show Arrested Development.
These names also serve as a buffer from police intervention. Worried about noise violations and unnecessary police involvement, the music scene uses code names for their houses and almost never publicizes their addresses.
Police can give tickets that cost up to $1,250 for noise violations alone. On top of those tickets, infractions for underage drinking and other charges can also make shows prohibitively expensive.
“Why aren’t the police OK with [shows]?” asks Lucas, a New Brunswick musician. “It’s just people playing music for friends. But it’s lucrative for cops to shut down shows,” he says. “It would be nice if the public were more supportive.”
Mitch Gollub, a fellow musician, reiterates the precautions taken against the police and recommends, “messaging a host [online] for the address.” He says that people are very friendly and open once you speak to them directly.
Another reason for keeping the locations private is the fear of eviction. Several people who run show houses do not tell their landlords of their property’s dual purpose. These issues cause show houses to move locations every year and force the community to be very transient.
Despite the hard to find locations, the community prides itself on being very open.
MK, another operator of a show house, states that the music scene is a “very important and serious thing [both] artistically and culturally.” Because New Brunswick has a “fluid music scene,” there is “always new blood and excitement.”
Sal Fenix, a folk musician breaking into the New Brunswick basement scene, says that it is “very different from everywhere else in the tri-state area” and that entering the scene is “like being a foreigner.”
Despite the challenging transition, he says that the community has been welcoming and open to him and his music.
As for finding that initial contact to bring you into the world of basement shows, Rapon recommends the common adage of “asking a punk.”
David Pressler, of the band Osaka says that there’s a “friendly vibe in New Brunswick.”
Since the scene is DIY, all activity is run on a volunteer basis. Although money is occasionally collected at the doors of a show, MK says “all the money we collect goes straight to the bands.”
When asked why they dedicate so much time to music, Lucas responds, “art is tight.”
His band, ROMP, describes itself as “melodic indie punk,” and has the noble goal of “hav[ing] fun and creat[ing] good music,” says fellow band member Gollub.
No one mentioned fame or money as a reason for involvement.
Despite their keyboard player, Madison, saying that she “wants to become the next Beyoncé,” all of the members agree it’s for the fun rather than the end goal of being wealthy.
“We’re not trying to be famous, we just like to play music in basements,” Rapon said.