Underground Stars, Literally
Local college music scenes often struggle to survive in the undergrounds of their respective towns, but these days New Brunswick, N.J. takes the concept one step further.
When you cram thousands of young adults together just as theyíre discovering their creative potentials, itís hard not to end up with a hell of a lot of bands. And while a good number of those bands will never be ready for prime time, those that do create worthwhile art need places to play in order to win fans and refine their craft.
But what if there is no there there? With the demise of the legendary dance club The Melody a few years ago, and the disappearance of The Budapest Lounge as a cool venue after a late-'90s heyday that surprised Rutgers alums who knew the Buda as a townie bar to be avoided, the last club standing is The Court Tavern. The Court is now the only legitimate rock venue booking indie bands in this college mini-city. It's a far cry from the days when the Court operated alongside The Melody as well as hipster enclaves like The Roxy and Bowl-O-Drome in the early '90s and Patrick's in the '80s.
With just one club paying attention to local indie talent, and no dance clubs or record stores within walking distance of campus, the New Brunswick rock scene has transformed itself by going underground. Literally. In the rundown pre-war houses rented by students, basements have blossomed into miniature rock clubs. It is in these tiny spaces where burgeoning hardcore, emo, electronic, and indie rock talent can be found in the shadow of a state university with tens of thousands of students.
Huma is one of the brightest spots in the current Brunswick rock universe. With dreamy keyboard-guitar songs that bring to mind bands like The Postal Service and Stars, this sister-brother-girlfriend trio has put smiles on the faces of the kinds of kids who crowd into those makeshift basement venues. Brian (guitar/vocals/brother), Laura (keyboards/vocals/sister), and Jess (guitar/vocals/girlfriend) hit The Goldhawk this Thursday for their Hoboken debut on a bill with their friends and fellow lo-fi Brunswick talents Crayon Rosary. In advance of that show, the three Humas gathered around a speakerphone and I called them for a quick chat.
Mike: When did the band start up?
Brian: Maybe two years ago we started messing around, writing songs. Nothing serious at first. March 2003 was our first show, at CBís Gallery. It was just acoustic. And then we started adding the electronics.
Mike: When did you make the first six-song CD?
Brian: That was a year ago. Weíve all been so collectively busy with school and everything, but weíve written a lot of stuff. Now weíve finally planned out a new EP weíre going to do. Itís going to be more mellow, I guess. Weíre getting more into the use of sound. Weíre concentrating more on parts and layers. I think weíre becoming better and more confident at singing. And weíre trying not to be as lazy with production. Once this semester is done, over the winter break weíre going to get everything done. Otherwise itís too hectic. By the time we get everything set up, weíre all ready to go to bed. [laughs] Hopefully weíll find the funding to get it mixed and mastered. There are two or three little labels with the potential to release it, so hopefully one of them will have the funding to make it a slightly more professional release. Itís not going to be poppy, dancey, upbeat like the other stuff. Itís spacey, and acoustic, and pretty.
Mike: So all three of you are students?
Brian, Laura, and Jess: Yeah.
Brian: Iím the perpetual student.
Mike: What is the New Brunswick music scene like at this point?
Jess: Thereís a lot of hardcore.
Laura: Thereís a variety of different bands. There are some up-and-coming indie rock bands, definitely. We play shows together all the time. And thereís a couple basements and little venues that are always supportive of local bands.
Mike: Whatís up with these basement venues? I lived in New Brunswick from í90 to Ď95, and thatís something that wasnít there then. When did that culture of houses and basements being used as indie rock venues spring up?
Laura: Probably after The Melody closed.
Brian: Aside from The Court Tavern, thereís nothing else in New Brunswick. There are six to ten of these houses in town now, maybe up to a dozen. There are about four staple houses that have more than one show a week. People find out about them through myspace.com, thenjscene.com, mailing lists, and obviously word of mouth. Some charge a $3 cover. They soundproof the basements, and the cops hardly ever break them up. Shows have only been busted a couple times in the last year and a half. Some of these shows are packed.
Mike: Thereís nowhere else for indie rock bands to play in town?
Jess: Just the college.
Brian: The college shows are never very smooth. Unless an organization is sponsoring a show, you are stuck playing in a dorm basement or a student center lounge that tends to have no decent PA system. That was a big problem for Palomar, for example, when they came to New Brunswick last year. When the organizations put on shows, then they get great sound people.
Laura: Also, usually itís not about the music, itís about some sort of cause that theyíre having it for. Itís like some random variety show. Theyíre not necessarily focused on a cohesive sound, but rather getting people out for the cause, which is still great.
Mike: Plus you donít have the club vibe.
Brian: Yeah. But overall, I think New Brunswick is really diverse. Thereís one house here that puts on a lot of electronic shows, a lot of noise shows, and breakcore. And a couple houses that do a lot of hardcore and emo. Thatís really popular. And thereís a lot of people who play indie rock. Crayon Rosary, Pineapple, Television Down, Brian Bond.
Laura: Thereís a lot of solo acoustic guitarists too.
Brian: Yeah, a lot of people influenced by Jeff Mangum [Neutral Milk Hotel] and Iron & Wine. I think the biggest problem with New Brunswick is that thereís not really any big bands that come through, so youíre always playing for the same people. Weíll be playing, and weíll be talking to our friends from the mic while weíre playing. Like, "Hey, nice of you to show up." [laughs] When The Melody used to be around, Le Tigre used to play, and there were big bands that would come through. And that helped other bands. But I think itís growing again.
Mike: When The Melody closed a few years ago, I had heard rumors at one point that it was going to reopen somewhere else, or there would be another similar club to take its place. But I guess that just kind of died.
Laura: Itís all Johnson & Johnson and Robert Wood Johnson [Hospital]. Downtown is all being bought up by the hospital.
Mike: Is there a good record store in New Brunswick anymore?
Brian: There arenít any. There are no record stores in New Brunswick.
Laura: Tunes closed about four years ago.
Brian: Thereís not even a Sam Goody anymore. Vintage Vinyl [in Fords] is the only thing. And Princeton Record Exchange.
Laura: And thereís Curmudgeon in Hillsborough.
Mike: In the early Ď90s, New Brunswick had some great record stores, especially Cheap Thrills and Music In A Different Kitchen. The Sam Goody opened my senior year, I think. It sucked, but at least it was an option. Itís weird that if youíre a student living in the dorms now, and you donít have a car on campus, there is nowhere to go to buy a CD. But how much does that even matter todayódoes everyone just download like crazy?
Jess: I would say in the dorms they all download.
Brian: They have Direct Connect. Itís beyond the grasp of the RIAA. So they canít get in trouble, because itís through the university. So I know a lot of kids download a lot. But I think a lot of kids really support a lot of the music. There are so many vinyl freaks. And people always buy every bandís merch when they play a show.
Laura: A lot of kids get music at shows.
Brian: The kids that support the scene definitely buy a lot and support it financially, as well as showing up for shows and the social atmosphere. Plus you can buy so much stuff online.
Mike: So Thursday night will be your first gig in Hoboken, but you've spent time in town before. What are your impressions of Hoboken?
Brian: I wish I could afford to live there. [laughs] Itís definitely cool. The restaurants, the cafes, I like the atmosphere of Hoboken. I love Maxwell's. I like that itís outside of New York City. I donít think I could ever live in New York City, particularly. Thatís why Hoboken is nice, because itís a little smaller.
HOBOKEN ROCK CITY, 2004