Sounds With Substance: Bushwick

Neighborhoods change rapidly in 21st century New York. That was always a factor here, but it’s quicker now — scenes rise, end, become more diffuse as young artists chase whatever semi-affordable neighborhood is still somewhere on the horizon. After the last gasp of Lower East Side cool that came with the early ’00s New York rock resurgence, the idea of lower Manhattan as any sort of incubator for a tangible, tight-knit community of artists seems foreign; to a whole generation now, it’s always been Brooklyn. For years, that meant Williamsburg — the neighborhood that served as the scene for an era of ’00s NYC indie, before the accelerated pace of gentrification lead to it becoming essentially an extension of Manhattan, populated by the rich and with new, plastic high-rises on the waterfront. A series of beloved venues numbered amongst development’s casualties — Glasslands, 285 Kent, and Death By Audio, once a pillar of New York’s DIY scene. As all of that occurred, people started to move deeper into Brooklyn along the L train. Somewhere around the time where you could realize just how much Williamsburg had irrevocably changed when you weren’t paying close enough attention, Bushwick had become the new epicenter of New York’s music scene.

It goes without saying, but New York looms large in American culture. It’s one of the great cities of the world, and has long been the primary icon of culture in the States. What’s going on in Bushwick is small in comparison to the weight of history here, but it’s still a continuation in a long story of New York being, in many ways, the city everything emanates from or passes through. As Williamsburg and the Lower East Side were markers for whole eras and movements in indie that spread out through the country, so too is Bushwick a signifier for another generation of young and up-and-coming artists. The scene there fosters local talent in New York, but it’s also the place that young bands play as well. It’s at Bushwick’s homegrown venues that artists from other burgeoning scenes — like Nashville, or Philadelphia — also play, and interact with a growing network of DIY bands in various cities. As it’s always been in New York, the music and arts scenes in Bushwick thrives on the arrival of newly transplanted citizens, as well as visitors frequently passing through town. In turn, Bushwick is a place that helps New York remain a city that all artists need to make it in, meaning this particular Brooklyn neighborhood is a major contributor in setting the tone of what’s happening in indie music right now.

Like Williamsburg once was, Bushwick is an industrial section of Brooklyn, with warehouses taking up huge chunks of the area, especially around the Morgan L stop. (Many of these were converted to loft apartments; many remain functioning warehouses.) Also like Williamsburg, Bushwick has changed, a lot, and is changing very quickly. Who knows how fast the next migration will take place. Already, young musicians and artists and writers have spread out to neighboring Ridgewood, Queens, or to Bedford-Stuyvesant, even down to Crown Heights. But it’s Bushwick that’s currently the booming focal point of the local music scene.

Crowd surfer palisades
CREDIT: Crowd surfin’ at Palisades. Photo by Daniel Topete

The DIY scene now revolves around a series of venues in Bushwick. Situated right at the border of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, there’s the cluster of Palisades, Silent Barn (originally located in Ridgewood), and the newly-reopened Market Hotel. After the occasional one-off event during renovations, like Sleater-Kinney’s final show in their five-night NYC barrage last December, it officially reopened in January. There are groups of young musicians who are always playing at one of these venues or another. You have situations like the Epoch, a collective of artists — amongst which are Eskimeaux, Bellows, Told Slant, and Stereogum “Band to Watch” Sharpless — who play in each other’s bands, and who have ties to the local DIY venues like Silent Barn. (Eskimeaux’s Gabrielle Smith also plays with Frankie Cosmos, another beloved mainstay in Brooklyn DIY circles. Eskimeaux also made one of our favorite albums of last year, by the way.)

Up near in the murkily-defined East Williamsburg/Bushwick border areas, the sardonically-named Shea Stadium is hidden away on the second floor of an old warehouse, in an area that’s otherwise predominantly desolate at night. That venue was co-founded by Titus Andronicus guitarist Adam Reich alongside the So So Glos, his childhood friends from growing up down in Bay Ridge. Though Titus is known as a New Jersey band, frontman Patrick Stickles now lives in Ridgewood, and used to work the door at Shea all the time. It’s also the site where Titus had their furious, exhilarating (and swelteringly hot) five-night celebration of their latest album The Most Lamentable Tragedy (and Stickles’ 30th birthday) last July. There are also more standard venues popping up, like Alphaville or Gold Sounds — bars that host shows in the back room. But the core experience is still in the DIY venues, or with oddities like apartment shows and unmarked and unofficial club spaces hidden away in warehouses behind metal doors marked with just a number, where parties can stretch on well past the 4 A.M. closing time for most bars and clubs in New York.

Our Wicked Lady
CREDIT: Fans gather for Mac DeMarco at Our Wicked Lady. Photo by Daniel Topete

That’s part of the nature of being young and interested in the arts in Bushwick right now — there is always too much happening, and much of it is stuff you’ll just stumble across by chance. On any given walk, you could hear music throbbing from some unmarked and shadowy building, the distant echoes of a party hidden within. Maybe Mac DeMarco will set up his ’87 Volvo station wagon, which is the color of old diners, and throw a barbecue outside Our Wicked Lady, a bar a few blocks from Shea Stadium. (DeMarco is a Canadian musician who currently lives in Far Rockaway, Queens, but is a fixture in Bushwick, often playing shows at DIY venues, or just popping up for events and shows held by his label, the New York-based Captured Tracks, who also count the Brooklyn-based DIIV amongst their roster.) You’ll catch Meredith Graves — singer of Perfect Pussy, anchor for MTV News — DJ’ing at the bar Alaska on a random Friday.

The connective tissue between any of these young artists in or around Bushwick today is the way they go about things, the way they exist and create. Even if the music landscape allowed for this sort of thing anymore, these aren’t the kinds of rock bands who were destined to headline arenas. It’s a smaller, scrappier thing than that, and the way young musicians operate in Brooklyn today is an extension of these circumstances. In addition to playing the local venues, some artists live and work at them, too. They rehearse and write in apartments and houses, and collaborate with each other. The whole thing is a fertile and intimate scene, close-knit and inter-connected, but with ties to similar scenes across the country. The current crop of bands based in Brooklyn are the sort of artists working on their own terms. There aren’t a whole lot of other options anymore. But they’re doing that in Bushwick, finding in its industrial corridors an opportunity to refine something out of nothing, writing and playing raw music for what remain — for the moment, at least — more rugged streets.

Along with the establishment of this scene, naturally plenty of bars and restaurants have thrived. Happyfun Hideaway and Birdie’s provide hangout spots after shows at Palisades or Silent Barn, while otherwise the Jefferson L stop is surrounded by bars like Cobra Club, the Johnson’s, Montana’s, or Three Diamond Door and restaurants like Hi Hello or Los Hermanos, the tortilla factory that has some of the best Mexican food in the neighborhood. There’s also the (deservedly) famous pizza place Roberta’s closer to the Morgan stop, and Syndicated, one of those movie theaters where you can order food and drinks while watching an old movie like Boogie Nights or Vertigo, recently opened up down the street. Some of these places remain dive-y and dusty in accordance with the surrounding atmosphere. Some are harbingers of a different kind of boom hitting Bushwick.

In many ways, Bushwick is an ideal landscape for a New York artist — a little removed from Manhattan, but bustling on its own. Full of activity, but maintaining the grittier aesthetic that Williamsburg and the Lower East Side once had. With everything that’s happening there right now, Bushwick’s established itself as the latest entry in the lineage of great artistic neighborhoods in the big complicated mess of New York City. It’s become an iconic neighborhood for young artists from across the country, and beyond.

DIIV at Market Hotel
CREDIT: DIIV at Our Wicked Lady. Photo by Daniel Topete

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