When Death by Audio opened in March 2007 on an otherwise deserted block of South 2nd Street, the Williamsburg music scene was a different beast. (So was the neighborhood.) Condos have risen, Williamsburg now rivals the Lower East Side as a music destination, and Death by Audio is neighbor to high end sushi, Italian and tapas restaurants (and a movie theater), but the space — an outgrowth of the guitar effects pedal company run by A Place to Bury Strangers Oliver Ackermann — remains a vital all-ages venue for indie, punk and metal. With Death by Audio's 5th Anniversary Party this Saturday (featuring Grooms, Neckbeard Telecaster, Tim Harrington and more), we talked to DBA duo Matt Conboy and Edan Wilber about the changes in the neighborhood over the last five years, some of the venue's highlights, and the impossibility of keeping the bathrooms clean.
Please explain what you do at Death by Audio
Matt Conboy: Um, I help make things work at Death By Audio.
Edan Wilber: I'm more of the day-to-day... I do most all the booking and run all the shows to a certain extent. The tedium.
When I heard it was the fifth anniversary, I thought it had been longer. There were shows there before it was called Death by Audio, right?
MC: Part of our warehouse is a recording studio and the effects pedals workshop. When that was getting built out there were random parties to help finance their construction. That was 2006, 2005?
EW: That's when there was still roof access right?
I seem to remember going there during CMJ 2005, some show that was supposed to be a roof party. Dirty on Purpose and Vaz?
MC: I think Vietnam also played? I wasn't at that show. I knew some of the guys but I didnít actually go over there till 2006.
At what point were you involved?
MC: In 2007 with three other people, I leased half the warehouse space and that's when we started doing shows, to help pay for building materials.
Do you remember who played that first show?
MC: Totally. It was March 31. There were seven bands. Growing and Thrones.
EW: Child Abuse, Vaz. And Mick Barr, maybe one other? We did front room, back room, before anything was really set up. Raw space.
MC: We didnít know what we were doing, but I already knew Todd P. It kind of happened accidentally. The show was originally supposed to be at The Woodser but they didn't want to do it for some reason...
EW: A good reason. It was a huge fucking show. I worked the door, actually. It was soon after I'd become friends with Todd and they needed somebody. So, I was there, I just not in any administrative capacity.
MC: Nobody was. Though as we started, through the first year and a half or so, I had another partner, this guy Jason Amos, who now lives in LA I think. He was instrumental in helping running everything, getting it off the ground.
There wasn't even a stage back then, right?
MC: For the first few months there was no stage, but then Todd brought in a stage that was originally for something else.
EW: It was mobile stage. He was moving it back and forth between Silent Barn, DBA and maybe on other spot. It was in three sections and Todd had that big green van at the time and he could disassemble the thing, it fit pretty perfectly in the van.
MC: It was a big day when we bought our own PA. It was about six months of saving money to do that. But until that point, Todd would just bring in a PA for every show. Which was a nightmare for him, I think. At that time, I was saying 'Hey let's have a venue here and have bands play and it'll be fun.' But the other guys who rented the space with me were like, 'Let's put in an office and a photo studio.' It was all this pipe dream shit that was never going to happen.
EW: There was a green screen set up in there for a while, behind the band.
MC: But that other stuff didn't work.
So at what point did it stop being this multi-use space and a real venue?
MC: It happened slowly. It was still tenuous, but having rock shows was paying the rent for the space. So it was like, 'This thing is working.' It justified itself and was something I believed was good to do. And I still do. I think, for me, it became real when we got our non-profit status. The thing that we do, historically, has a shelf life. There are probably five continuing DIY spaces in the world. I always had the idea that this was a really great thing to do: it's fun, it's important and we'll do it as long as we can. We've been really lucky that we've been able to keep doing it.
What's the most difficult thing at this point about running the space?
EW: I've made so many relationships over the years, people have come and gone. For the most part, people who I've done shows with I continue to do shows with. But now you somewhat have to think about the show more. I have to worry about paying the rent, which has risen and risen over the years. I could do a show with where only six or seven people came because I wanted to see it. Now I have to say no to those people and they get mad sometimes. That is hard.
MC: And the balancing of the politics of doing shows with bands...
EW: A band who used to email you directly now has some intermediary who never writes me back because they don't think I'm worth their time, even though their band wasn't worth their time three years ago. But they were definitely worth my time and I had them play over and over and over. Now it's like 'Yeah weíd love to do it. Talk to our manager.' It's a pretty thankless job. You hear it from the bands when they play, but it's not like people are coming to DBA randomly just to see what we've curated.
MC: I dunno. Some people come to Death By Audio who don't know the bands. People have told me they do, or tell other people new to New York to do that to check out what's going on. But that was something Todd definitely had for a couple years that was cool. 'This is going to be eclectic. It's going to be weird. But it's going to be good and you should just go.'
EW: That's what I did. I went to Todd's shows for two years before I ever said a word to him. And the first conversation we had, he invited me to do sound for some of his shows at SXSW. I didn't know him, he didn't know I was a sound guy, but after a 20 minute conversation he was like 'I see you all the time at shows, you love this stuff.' He saw something in me, decided to nurture it and he totally did. I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for him. Sometimes I wonder where's the next me, and I don't really see it. A lot of the stuff that goes on is more buzz-related. 'If this band is cool or somebody writes about it, I'll go see it.'
There are a lot more options too. Even on your corner. When Death by Audio started, there was nothing on that block of South 2nd. Now there's three high-end restaurants.
EW: And a movie theater. That's almost never open.
And two more venues around the corner.
MC: Well, Glasslands was already there, actually. Five years ago, when there weren't any condos on our street and it was just empty lots, we'd have races in the street and yell and scream at four in the morning and no one could hear you. You weren't near anything. And you used to be able to see the bridge. Now there's a nice big condo in the way.
EW: You can still see a sliver of the bridge.
MC: We had an incident recently where Edan got an email from a woman who just moved in a condominium across the street. Her email was from like Morgan Stanley or something and that's just surreal that someone who works at Morgan Stanley lives on the same block as DBA. She was writing to complain about our 'dance club that's open till four in the morning,' and it was awesome because... it was not us. So we wrote her back and said, 'that's not actually us, but if we ever do anything that upsets you let us know.' That's always been our attitude.
EW: We've also made an effort to have shows end earlier. We talked to them and asked what's a reasonable time. So now it's generally midnight on weekdays, 1AM on the weekends. If we end up going over, nobody's been on the phone right away or anything. The first emails were very.. .harsh, authoritative. They expected us to be these jerks but weíve always been 'hey, let's all exist here.' It's not about 'we were here first.'
MC: There is something funny about that, our role in the gentrification of Williamsburg. We're creating our own obsolescence by bringing art and culture to an abandoned neighborhood.
EW: Especially on that street. Nobody got pushed out of living there, nobody lived there.
MC: No businesses on that street, apart from a used police car depot. And a very weird bar called Fire & Ice that is where Williamsburger is now. Artists and musicians have been in Williamsburg for 20 years, but I do feel good that we didnít displace anyone. The Domino Sugar factory went bankrupt and that's where our shit is.
How did you end up at Death by Audio?
EW: I'm from St. Petersburg, Florida, originally and moved here in 2000 to go to college which wasn't really for me. Had a girlfriend and a dead-end job and started seeing Todd's shows pop up on the radar with a few bands I already liked and then you'd go and see other bands. That made me end up at Tommy's Tavern all the time, seeing shows. I hated my job and then my girlfriend left me to move to Boston for grad school. She told me 'Iíve gotta do something and you're just stagnant and work at a shitty job.' Which I was.
'Look at me now baby!'
EW: Yeah, I'm on IMDB!
EW: For Todd P Goes to Austin. Anyway, I worked at this call center for tourists who wanted Broadway tickets. So that was my day job and when I got out at 7PM, I'd run over and work the door or do sound at shows. That company laid me off, which was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
MC: It's funny how that happens. I got fired from a restaurant and that's what facilitated all this happening. Get fired—it's the best thing that'll ever happen to you. Get on unemployment and follow your dreams.
EW: It's not like I'm making tons of money now. I made five bucks on last night's show because you need to pay the staff and the dude who came from Japan to play here. But I saw this awesome show, so it was okay. I still get off on that. It's amazing how many bands from Japan, Australia, New Zealand... countries that fund the arts. Once one band plays here, they tell their friends in bands. And they tell them about the pedals. That gets a lot of people here too. Some crazy noise dude has one of the pedals and the kids who look up to him want one too. But they're twice as much to ship to Australia, so when they tour they play the space they come look at the pedals. You pay them like $60 bucks and then they go back and spend $600 on pedals. And Iím like 'Oh I guess you really didn't need this money I just gave you, you've got a crazy grant from your government.'
'Oh, we've got pedal money.'
EW: But it's still cool they came halfway around the world to play in this room because you heard about it. That's what I'm into. Iím so much more excited about touring bands but there are so many more local bands. That's the trouble. I mean, it's not trouble to get out of town acts, but there are so many 'hey we've been a band for 45 minutes and I've decided to send you an email and if you don't get back to me in two days I'm just gonna resend this same email without anything new.' I wanna be like, 'Dude, you're one of 30 people that sent me this same form letter today. I want to help new bands but there's only so many slots and, who knows, in two weeks you might not be a band anymore.' That said, I'm much more likely to talk to those people than a band I've never heard of that has a manager already. Or some dude from Bacardi called me. He got my number. I told him I don't do any business over the phone and he's all, 'Your space would be perfect for this Bacardi event.' I said, 'Do you even know what you're talking about? Why would an all-ages space be perfect for Bacardi?' Of course, he's like 'Oh, we couldn't do all ages.' Then we can't work together! That's the end. This guy just wants to promote his drink and that's not what I want to do. Sure it'd be nice to worry about money less, but to worry about what that means for us is so much more of a headache to me.
MC: This is something both Edan and I feel really strongly about. When we first started out, one of the other guys involved who wanted to use the space for his office, he was all 'Man, I don't give a fuck. I'd totally put a giant Nike swoosh at the front door if we could get $500 from it.' Well that's the difference between me and him. I don't mean to sound like we're the only good guys and everybody else sucks, but I do feel good that our priorities are not about co-branding and banners behind the stage and that sort of thing. For us, this is not about making money, it's about making music. We're a non-profit organization. We're not out to get rich. Our venue will eventually close and none of us are going to be able to buy a house with the money we made from it. And I think as a culture, we need to be thinking more about how we value things. Unfortunately, no one wants to buy music so people have to start making money through branding and cross-marketing. I think itís pretty vapid and pretty pathetic of our society.
You've done some renovations in the past couple years. You have A/C now...
MC: There's air conditioning. We redid our whole soundsystem, it's all new. These days, it's fair to say I have responsibilities but when I'm in the show space it's as an audience member. To my ears, it's the best room to see bands. I say this, believe me, without bias. I just think it sounds really good, especially now. We have a great PA in the room, really nice size. It's just live enough, it's not weird, like you're on the left side it sounds like ass, but if you're close to the band you can't hear anything. There's so many places, especially smaller ones, and I think we sound great.
Any planned improvements in the near future?
EW: I think it's pretty good right now. There was always a list. Next we need these new power amps, we need this new mixer. We need to fix the stage. We need to fix the ceiling. But right now we're pretty much there.
MC: When Edan came in it was like a breath of fresh air. Jason and I... things can sometimes get stagnant when you'e just working with one person. Someone loses interest, it's a stalemate. But it was nice. Edan was like, 'Okay, what are we going to do?' I can't think of a whole lot of things we'd fix. I guess, the only thing I donít like about our venue is our bathroom is always gross. But I don't think there's anything you can do about that.
EW: He's tried. I've tried.
MC: I hand silk-screened these abstract blobs. I said to myself, I'll wheat-paste these over tags, it'll look nice and people will respect this weird art thing. No! No! The fucking first day, full wall tag.
EW: Before that, I painted the bathrooms, wheat-pasted Showpapers... nothing worked.
What about the toilet lids? Are people ripping them off the hinges? Is that how they get like that?
EW: I had to put the toilet seat back on last night! I got in there with a wrench, it was on tight.
Who wants to touch that, to grab it and pull it off?
MC: Maybe they're climbing on shit or having sex on it? I don't know what people are doing. Maybe I shouldn't even say this, but one of our door staff was cleaning out a trash can and I bought latex gloves and told them to use them because you don't know what you might touch. Of course, nobody does it. So one of our door staff is cleaning out the trash can, is reaching in for some reason because the trash wasn't coming out, pulled her hand out and it was covered in human shit. Someone was in a bathroom with a toilet that worked, but decided, 'Nah, I'm shitting in a trashcan.' I don't know what you can do about that? I get bummed about that. People, what is wrong with you? Animals.
EW: People think you pay seven dollars and that gives them the right to shit in a bucket. That should be way more. An extra charge for that. We should have a bathroom attendant who'd be like, HEY! That's extra, buddy! Well I guess that's on the list now. Bathroom attendant.
I'm sure a lot of people wonder about this — who did the murals in the main room?
EW: The one behind the stage with the dogs and the weird people was done by Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females and Noun. She did that a year ago. And now my head is next to that, that was done by a friend of hers. They were going to do it together but I was out of town and this guy Lenny, who I didn't know at the time, did that. I came home from vacation and there's my giant head on the back wall. I didn't ask for it, though everybody thinks that. Or that it's a self-portrait. It's kind of embarrassing, it's kind of weird, but it's such a good portrait... that's why it's still there. It is hard to have people look at it and who don't know me to come over. Then I have to explain it.
It has to be weird to see a giant version of yourself every night.
EW: The thing is as tall as me.
MC: Ted McGrath, who was in These Are Powers and is in ATM now, he did the waves on the back wall of the main room. Sarah from Bleeding Rainbow, she did the two tigers on the stage left wall. That was one of the first of the new crop, after we did The Maze back in 2009. You can still see remnants of the Maze peeking though. But we just had people who came through town do stuff.
What are your most memorable shows? I know there must be a zillion?
MC: I don't know if it's the most memorable, but I remember feeling nostalgic and proud and happy and psyched this last time JEFF the Brotherhood played. They were the first band that I booked a show for at DBA that I felt like 'I think these guys are amazing, my friends do too but nobody else in this town gives a shit.' They were awesome that first time and JEFF have been the band that our house was the most psyched on.
When did JEFF first play DBA?
MC: 2007. Maybe May of that year? They came back at the end of the summer touring with Meemaw. It's just been great. They've come back every six to nine months and it's been kind of wonderful to see them go from being these guys I thought were great to achieving success without... they're chill. They're awesome.
EW: I was thinking that too. Theyíre the band has been really loyal to us and they don't have to. Even to the point where we've said to them, 'You guys can do whatever you need to do.' But they make it a point to play here. Last time otherwise they were playing Terminal 5 opening for the Kills.
MC: It's not a show, but I remember when I saw that giant photo of Psychic Paramount from a show at DBA on the front page of the New York Times Arts & Culture section. I remember thinking 'This is Crazy.' It looked really cool, they have these smoke machines, but I mean we're in this weird subculture, it's very incestuous. A tiny little town. And to have the New York Times say that this is culturally relevant was very surreal. And kind of wonderful.
What about you, Edan?
EW: We did a show for Iron Age and Sex Vid it was for Ian Dickson who does Hardcore Gig Volume. It was his birthday, they had done at daytime show at ABC No Rio and all got wasted there, then came over to DBA. It was before I ever worried about a capacity because no show had ever been that big. It was like 400 people paid and I thought 'There's no way there's 400 people in here,' as I threw crowd surfers off the board. Then I walked outside. There was just this bubble around our door and the entire street, the sidewalk across the street, the parking lot. all that, was just full of people who were just drinking on the street. I was like, 'uh okay...I'm going to go back inside and hope that this thing plays out.' During the next band this dude stage dove and everybody moved out of the way, but then immediately enveloped him. The dude crawled over to me, stood up and was holding his teeth. His two front teeth had gotten knocked out and blood was gushing down this kid's chin. I said, 'Dude you should get out of here.' He shrugged and was like 'Yeah I guess.' That was the single most horrifying moment.
Craziest show, Matt?
MC: The first Dan Deacon show in 2007. It was some time in July and he had done one of the pool parties earlier and we were the "secret" after-show. That was another 400 people paid, and before we had a stage and before we had a PA. It was set up in the middle of the floor and there were more people in the room for that one than any show I've ever seen. A friend of ours Greg Wilson is a photographer and he said 'I'm gonna go in there and take some pictures because this is crazyî and he came back 30 seconds later saying 'This is useless, my lens fogged instantly.' It was July and it was like going swimming in that room. Itís hard to say best show, their are so many memories.
EW: I used to say, 'what was the best show last week?' because that was enough to think about.
Ok, then what's been the best show recently?
EW: That JEFF show? I'd have to look at a list. This has been a great year so far.