NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Known in recent years for a vibrant basement scene, there remains a pervading sense among present New Brunswick musicians that the scene isn’t set up the way it should be – the way it once was.
The way it once was, when Brower Commons was plastered in show flyers, when countless clubs and bars hosted live bands every night of the week, and when the specter of a costly noise violation didn’t haunt every basement drum fill, was not so long ago, though much has changed in the Hub City.
“This is gonna sound crazy but when I drive through New Brunswick now, I can’t even find my way around the place,” says Little Dipper guitarist Mike Nagy. “Everything is so different.”
Little Dipper features two mid-1990’s Rutgers grads on guitar, Mike Nagy and Carlos Alonso, along with bassist Tony Kroposky and drummer Dave Posluszny.
All four played throughout the scene in the years leading into Little Dipper’s formation in 2001, and all four can rattle off with reverie the names of the 90’s clubs the way “90’s kids” can with Nickelodeon cartoons.
The Melody. The Roxy. The Budapest. Plum Street. Doll’s Place. Of course, the Court Tavern.
“Little Dipper really caught the tail end of when the scene was happening in New Brunswick, for the most part,” Nagy says. “We kind of lucked out, because it was booming more before we showed up. We at least caught the end.”
The band did not play any New Brunswick basement shows when things started moving underground in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
“We weren’t a part of that,” says Kroposky. “Always wanted to, never managed to swing it.”
Instead, they played just about every venue in town that was above ground.
“The bottom line was, once you got into one of those places, it kind of evolved and you would mostly play them all,” Posluszny says.
“‘Cause it was a tight scene back then. Once one guy knew that you could draw, you were pretty much going around in circles with it,” Posluszny says. “It was a good scene, man.”
“It was,” Nagy says.
“It was a great scene,” Alonso says.
In a December interview with New Brunswick Today, the members of Little Dipper discussed the old venues, the band’s history and their new EP, “The Lines That Divide Us,” released on March 31.
All four members had been floating around 1990’s New Brunswick in different groups before forming Little Dipper in 2001. Nagy and Alonso were in a band together called Penelope, Kroposky played for A Halo Called Fred, The Number Theory, Akasha, and Buddha Tribe, and Posluszny was a couple years older and drumming all over.
French Street was then the main drag for music in the Hub City. The Melody, the Roxy and Doll’s Place were all on French Street.
Of the former clubs, the Melody Bar is perhaps the most fabled.
The Melody’s “problem” was that it was always crazy crowded, Nagy says.
A DJ worked the dance floor on the lower level, and bands played upstairs.
“The staircase, the fire escape to the Melody, was the most horrible thing on the planet, and that was how they always wanted you to bring your stuff in and out of the place,” Nagy says.
It was treacherous, Alonso says: “They didn’t want you cutting through everybody, so they would try to get you to go up the back.”
Bands would start up on the second floor, and if there was a good amount of people, the whole place would shake.
“Every time I played there, I always thought, ‘This is the time that this thing breaks loose and we die,’” Kroposky says. “One night I was just hanging out, and I saw somebody fall through the drywall. It was nuts.”
“Is that the place where the bathroom had no doors?” Alonso asks.
“The bathroom had no doors, and the stall had no door,” Nagy says. “So you can kind of put that together if you really want to.”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Kropsky. “Hope your dinner doesn’t disagree with you when you’re at the Melody.”
“It was fun though. I mean it was a good time,” Alonso says.
“It was great, I loved being there,” Kroposky adds.
At 106 French Street, the Melody of the 1940’s was a neighborhood tavern on the first floor with an apartment upstairs. As far back as 1930, the site was home to a radio store called Spad.
The century-old building was the last on its block to be demolished, in January 2004, and the site is now a patch of grass between a parking garage and the Health Sciences & Technology High School.
Also stricken from the map, across from the Melody at the corner of French Street and Prospect Street, was the Melody’s fraternal twin: the Roxy.
The Roxy, at 95 French Street, was a shot and a beer joint, a biker bar, that originated in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s. Rock and roll shows began in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s.
Posluszny remembers the Roxy as a smoky, smoky bar.
And while the Melody had a house drum kit, with drummers only bringing their own cymbals and accessories, the Roxy did not, and it was just as mobbed as the Melody.
“Same kind of thing, you had to walk through everybody,” Posluszny says. “And you were like an inconvenience until you got up there, you know? Everybody thought you were a jamoke until you got up to play. You’re hitting people [with gear]… Especially if you’re a drummer man, you hit everybody with drums.
“It was packed all the time,” he says. “Everybody would flip flop from the Roxy to the Melody man, cause it was right across the street. You just went back and forth.”
“There were so many venues,” Alonso adds after a pause.
“Ones I can’t even remember,” says Kroposky.
There was the Bowl O Drome, at 89 Jersey Avenue, where Kroposky played with The Number Theory. It hosted live bands and DJ’s from 1993 until 2006 when it burned down.
There was the infamous Patrix, at 109-111 Throop Avenue, across from Feaster Park. Patrix passed in the late 1980’s before the Little Dipper crew made the scene, and they don’t recall it, but the building still stands.
Little Dipper also played at Doll’s Place.
“There’s a hidden gem,” Nagy says.
“It’s no gem,” says Alonso.
“Well it was certainly hidden,” Kroposky says.
“I think it’s a parking garage now,” Nagy says. “Am I wrong?”
“Everything’s a parking garage,” Alonso says.
“Yeah in New Brunswick today, everything is a parking garage,” says Kroposky.
They’re close – the Doll’s Place site is now a huge hospital building that is primarily used for parking.
Another old-timey New Brunswick bar, Doll’s Place operated at 27 French Street from 1933 through 2005. It then moved to 101 Paterson Street through 2013, when it closed and Destination Dogs took over the location.
Destination Dogs, a Hub City institution in its own right, is owned by Rutgers graduates and former Clydz bartenders and displays an original Doll’s Place sign in its barroom.
Back in 1990’s New Brunswick, there was music playing every night of the week.
Like the Melody and Roxy, the Plum Street Pub and the Budapest Cocktail Lounge were kin, a couple minutes walk from each other at 210 Hamilton Street and 234 Somerset Street, respectively. Only a few blocks away from the French Street clubs.
“I loved playing at Plum Street,” Kroposky says, “Because it was a shithole. It didn’t matter how many people you brought but you always brought a lot anyway, and you could do whatever you wanted. You could be loud, you could tell people to fuck themselves, it was great.”
Plum Street had a shuffleboard and a pool table. “The problem was when you had to tell the guys playing pool to move, you know what I mean?” Alonso says. “When you had to move that pool table out of the way? They were upset.”
“You know how pool players are,” says Posluszny.
The band also remembered a certain “guy” who was always selling “dope” at the door of the pub.
“It’s true man, it’s true,” Alonso says.
“That’s how they stayed open all those years,” Alonso says.
“It’s how they stayed open and it’s how they got shut down,” Kroposky says. “One of the bartenders wrote a play about it.”
The Budapest had cheap drinks and music five or six nights a week, Kroposky recalls. That’s what kept the crowds and musicians coming back, despite it being a weird place to perform.
“The bar was right in the middle,” Alonso says.
“Ninety percent of it was bar,” says Nagy.
“There was a door right out, there was a parking lot on the side we used to hang out back there and smoke,” Kroposky says. “I played at Budapest a lot with Buddha Tribe. We played there probably every couple of weeks.”
“I saw Buddha Tribe there and I saw Halo there, and Penelope played there,” Nagy says. “Dave what about the Budapest, did you ever play there? Do you remember that place?”
“Noo, no. I got thrown out of there,” says Posluszny.
“How’d you get thrown out?” Kroposky asks.
“I told the doorman to go fuck himself.”
“Well that’ll do it,” Kroposky says.
The premiere venue for Little Dipper, and for generations of New Brunswick bands before and after, and for anyone seeking out the best indie bands in the state, was always the Court Tavern.
Located at 124 Church Street, the Court Tavern still stands today, like a defiant, stubby middle finger flipped by ghosts of the former scene. It is surrounded on all sides by parking garages and development.
The Court has grown dark again, its future unclear. Construction equipment litters the inside.
Whether this present Court shutdown is just another inning in the back and forth game it’s played or is more permanent, the club’s stature in the New Brunswick music scene is unmatched.
“We did a bunch of shows at the Court Tavern,” Nagy says. “We did our first CD release there. That was the main place that we played, through the 2000’s… The place has just been a mainstay in New Brunswick for I don’t know how long.”
“I counted it up one time, I think we played there like two dozen times,” says Kroposky. “That was the diamond, if you played there.”
The Court Tavern is the only New Brunswick venue discussed that’s still in place, though like many venues in 2021, it is out of service with an uncertain future.
Similar fates had already begun to flatten the scene when Little Dipper formed in 2001.
Established in the 1940’s at 149 Church Street, the Court moved across the street to number 124 around 1980, to make way for a parking deck. It began hosting live music at its current site in August 1981.
The shows there were usually pretty energetic, Alonso says. “It was always the best venue for sound. And it has a stage, which is, you know, unheard of.”
“It had somewhat of a built in crowd, which was nice,” Kroposky says. “You knew that you were rarely going to play to an empty house at the Court Tavern.”
“And of course, the cranky ass door guy,” Nagy says.
“Oh, the door guy was historic!” Alonso says. “Door Guy. Nobody knew his name. He never uttered a word I think, the whole time.”
“He didn’t. He was cranky,” Kroposky says. “You know, interesting story. Bruce [Meyers, from A Halo Called Fred] got to know him. He worked at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. He wasn’t maintenance, he wasn’t like a nurse or medical assistant, but he did something where he helped out the nurses in some capacity. He worked mostly in the kids ward. So he worked with a lot of terminal kids, believe it or not, for like 35 years he worked there.”
“With that cheery disposition? Oh my god, man,” Alonso says.
“Yea well I think that’s kind of what made him cranky. Bruce was talking to him one time and he asked him, why are you always so grumpy? And he told him, ‘Look man, I hear the music that goes on down there and these bands are awesome, and they don’t get the respect they deserve, so I don’t take any shit from anybody coming down here. I want everybody to pay their money so the bands get paid.’”
“So he was on our side even though he was grumpy about it,” Nagy says.
“Yeah. I don’t know if that’s true though,” Kroposky says.
“If you didn’t have exact change, he got so pissed. If you didn’t have like the exact $5 to give him, if he had to make change, holy shit dude, he was so pissed at you,” Alonso says laughing. “Good times.”
The name comes to Kroposky later. “Oh, the guy that worked the door at the Court Tavern, his name was Mark. And he played in a band called the Punsters.”
Little Dipper’s first EP release, “Counting Backwards,” was staged at the Court Tavern in 2006.
One of the songs from that album is called “Astronaut.” The band purchased dozens of inflatable astronauts and spent the night before the show writing and drawing faces on them.
“We got to the Court Tavern, and just threw a bunch of inflatable astronauts all over the place,” Alonso says. “That was our gimmick.”
“That was pretty clever,” Nagy says. “We’re out of those ideas, but we used to have good ones in our youth.”
“I have a whole box of them that are still untouched,” Alonso says. “If anybody wants one.”
“I’ll take one,” says Nagy. “Send Ben one, send Ben an astronaut. Everybody wants an inflatable astronaut.”
Little Dipper was performing live, at local New Jersey clubs like the Roxy & Dukes Roadhouse in Dunellen, until the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down.
“Early on, we did a lot of live playing,” Nagy says. “Over the last few years, we’ve done less live performing because… it’s not available, at least not as much as it was 10, 15 years ago. And we’ve been more into writing and recording.”
“We were really trying to play as many shows as we could,” Alonso says.
“Four, five times a month,” Kroposky says.
“We were hitting up everywhere. New York, we were going to New York,” says Alonso, “Playing a bunch of places.”
“Lots of New York gigs,” Kroposky says, including the famed CBGB.
“We did a lot of New York venues, we even did a little of Philadelphia,” Nagy says. “I wouldn’t recommend that, that was a nightmare.”
The band’s four corners were New Brunswick, North Jersey, New York City and the Jersey Shore – including the Wonder Bar and the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, and the Brighton Bar in Long Branch.
“Let’s not forget our big accomplishment,” Alonso says. “The Starland Ballroom.”
“With Spiraling,” says Kroposky.
“Yeah. That was awesome,” says Alonso.
These are all venues befitting of a rock band that plays one way: loud.
“For the most part, our options were a little more limited because we couldn’t go into a coffee house and play. We were just too loud,” Nagy says.
Little Dipper is a rock band of the 90’s. They aren’t grunge, but acoustic sets make them cringe.
Queens of the Stone Age and the Foo Fighters are acknowledged, but Little Dipper takes its name from the opening track of a 1995 album by American rock band Hum, called “You’d Prefer an Astronaut.”
The band name and “Astronaut” connection were intentional: “We listened to that record on repeat when it came out,” Alonso says.
“That was kind of the inspiration for me,” he adds. “Kind of the main reason I started playing was from listening to Hum. But along the way, I think we have a lot of other influences too.”
“When we started doing this as a group,” Nagy says, “One of the things we talked about is we wanted to be a rock band. We just wanted to play rock and roll and we didn’t feel like we needed to even categorize it more than that.”
Bookers liked Little Dipper because they would play first billing whenever they could.
“We just want to go up and play and be done,” Kroposky says. “Dave, do you remember ‘Tough Act to Follow’?”
“That’s right,” Posluszny says. “We were a tough act to follow, there’s no doubt about it.”
“We were fine with playing early and hanging out for the night with everybody,” says Nagy. “That worked for us.”
“Yea and we were like, ‘Put us on first, tough act to follow,’” Kroposky says. “Set the bar. We’re gonna be this loud!”
“We’re a pretty loud, aggressive band,” Nagy says.
“We didn’t think we were rock stars,” Posluszny says. “We just wanted to play, unlike all these other jamokes that just want to be posers. We’re not posers, man, whatsoever.”
“We just want to play and have a good time,” says Nagy.
“For me personally, it was a competition,” says Posluszny. “We gotta wipe every band out. Then after we’re done, we make friends. They come up to us, they know we’re having a good time. We could have a good time in a frickin’ pool of mud man, you know what I mean? No matter what.”
They say they never got into any fights with other bands. “You’re getting the wrong impression from Dave,” Nagy says laughing.
“Actually, I think more than anything, we were friends with, we had a good rapport with a lot of those bands.”
“They were pretty cool to us, man cause we drank a lot,” Posluszny says.
“Everyone liked us cause we drank a lot,” Nagy says.
“I sometimes feel that they would book us, knowing that even if we didn’t bring anyone we would still spend like $300,” says Kroposky.
The ethos was to make it a night out – play first, stay till the end, see every band.
“We were the only band that would stay and watch every band til the end,” Posluszny says. “Whereas everybody else, the crowd would come, and everybody would leave as soon as they were done. They would just leave.”
“If we were gonna play the show, we were there from start to finish. Always,” Nagy says.
“We got there before it started and we stayed til it was over,” says Kroposky.
On stage, they were all about their business.
“No ballads,” Kroposky says.
“That’s not true,” Alonso says.
“Not many,” says Nagy. “You might get one every other show.”
“But even our version of a ballad wasn’t so ballad-y,” says Kroposky.
“No, nothing was quiet,” says Nagy.
“It was heavy, it was just down-tempo,” says Kroposky.
“We’re about business, man. We like to bang ‘em out,” says Alonso.
“We didn’t leave a lot of space in between songs,” Nagy says. “It’s one song after another. We don’t want to hear people clap, we don’t want to hear people boo.”
“Yea, we’re not one of those bands,” says Alonso.
“We would just keep playing and playing and playing,” Nagy says.
“All business, man. All business,” says Posluszny.
There’s no Court Tavern release party stacked with inflatable astronauts this time around, but Little Dipper released their six-track EP, The Lines That Divide Us, on March 31.
The songs are mostly Nagy and Alonso’s creations. “That’s Lennon and McCartney, you know,” Posluszny says.
“Yeah, we’re Lennon and McCartney, according to Dave,” says Nagy.
Their songs skew more towards ‘Helter Skelter’ than ‘Honey Pie.’
The EP includes a re-worked ‘Fall.’
“‘Fall’ is maybe the first or second song I ever wrote,” Alonso says. “This was on our 2006 album, and then we decided to re-work it for this new release. And we did it for a benefit that we submitted a few months ago.”
“Every year, Lazlo at BlowUpRadio does a benefit for the Spondylitis Association of America. We’ve done a lot of live shows for it, we’ve recorded for it, we’ve done covers for it. We used this version for his compilation this year,” said Nagy.
“Mike came up with this reworked version,” Alonso says. “It has some really cool guitar work on it, really sort of-”
“Shoegaze, baby! I love shoegaze,” Nagy says.
“Yea shoegaze-y, atmospheric kind of stuff,” Alonso says. They also put a twist on the vocals. “It’s really different from the original version, which was pretty up tempo and had loud guitars and stuff. So I think it’s a nice take on it. I’m pretty happy about the way it turned out.”
“Four” is Nagy’s tribute to the four-stroke engine, he says. An homage in the digital age to old-fashioned machinery.
“I put ‘Four’ together with that almost mechanical sounding, machine sounding riff, and we built the song around that,” Nagy says. “Then really what drove it home was the rhythm section with Dave and Tony. Because if you listen to the song, it sounds like grinding gears.
“I bet Dave didn’t even know that song was about a four-stroke engine,” Nagy adds, after a pause.
“Uh, I probably don’t know what half of them are about!” says Posluszny.
“I didn’t know that,” Kroposky says. “I didn’t know it was about the four-stroke engine.”
“I don’t think anybody knew that until now,” says Alonso.
“Yea, we don’t have a lot of intimate discussions about what the songs are about,” Nagy says. “We just play them.”
They’re fond of the guitar work on ‘Dividing Lines’ and ‘Sacred Cows,’ especially the opening riff on ‘Sacred Cows,’ which opens the EP and drives the whole song, Alonso says.
But he’s coy about the lyrical meaning. Nobody buys his diversion that ‘Sacred Cows’ is about farm animals or eating organic.
“I don’t want to say too much,” Alonso says laughing.
“Keep it cryptic, that’s what you normally do,” Nagy says.
They move on. “‘Dividing Lines’ is a little bit more aggressive,” says Nagy. “We felt like we needed a heavier, faster song for the album.”
“The lyrical meaning behind ‘Dividing Lines,’ a lot of it is about polarization, how people are so split today and divided,” Alonso says. “I think that’s pretty obvious, pretty straightforward. There’s not a lot of hidden meanings in there.”
There’s also an instrumental track, “Instruments” – the idea being space instruments, like in a cockpit.
The track has long been a staple of their live sets, sometimes as an introduction or segue between songs. For the recorded version, Little Dipper spliced in some interstellar sound bytes.
“Mike had the idea of putting NASA audio in the background,” Alonso says, so he and Nagy went digging through shuttle mission archives.
“I’m so tired of NASA archives at this point,” Nagy says. “I’ve listened to like three hours of spaceship noises and ground control missions, and I’ve had enough.
Little Dipper had planned to release a full album in 2020, before the pandemic got in the way.
The four friends haven’t been together in person since last March.
But the six songs that made the EP were in a good place by then.
Little Dipper finished the job with some self-recording and a final mix from Nagy, and they partnered again with record label Lump’n’Loaf Records for their third record together.
The Lines That Divide Us was released on Amazon, Apple Music and Bandcamp as well as streaming services Spotify and Soundcloud on March 31.
CD’s are available by contacting Little Dipper on Facebook.
Inflatable astronauts might be available too, though stock is limited.
Little Dipper would like to get back to performing. But the immediate future of live performances remains hazy.
It’s started coming back in bits – for diners under the George Street tents, and even indoors for socially-distanced patrons of Chamber 43, which opened in February.
But far before the Covid-19 pandemic, New Brunswick’s veteran music venues were shuttered by the scattering forces of development and progress.
The pandemic only punctuated the Hub City’s long descent from seven nights of live music each week to zero. And it will take more than a Johnson & Johnson vaccine to build that back up.
And yet, proof abounds that the pluck of local musicians will continue finding its way out of the basements and onto the airwaves.
The former scene may be a tough act to follow, but the music is still coming.
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today.
In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists for his coverage of the music scene in New Brunswick, past and present.