The Underground Sound: New Brunswick’s Basement Music Scene

Cape Canaveral, a local New Brunswick venue, hides itself in plain sight; It’s address is known only to those who have been there before and is not given out unless you “ask a punk.”

The venues aren’t really venues either, but instead the basements of New Brunswick residents who host bands, ranging from local acts to small touring bands from across the country, and even musicians from overseas.

Basement shows are a growing part of New Brunswick’s culture, with the city having a long-standing relationship with the developing music scene.

New Brunswick has been home to a large amount of bands that have made it big, from The Smithereens during the 1980s to current acts like The Gaslight Anthem and Screaming Females

While the Court Tavern, New Brunswick’s only official venue, is another popular spot for people to see up-and-coming bands and musicians, the cramped space of a basement offers a different way to listen to new music.

Randy Singh, who organizes shows at Cape Canaveral, says that the basement shows offer more than just a place for bands to play.

“I’d say because it’s a really stress-free environment to just play whatever you want,” said Singh. “The crowds are usually pretty receptive and supportive.”

Singh started organizing basement shows when a friend in Perennial Reel wanted to play one last show before graduating.

“We had a friend in Perennial Reel that wanted to play one more show before he graduated and asked if we wanted to host it,” said Singh. “So I guess that’s what finally pushed us to do it.”

Before the offer, Singh and his roommates were already talking about throwing a show once they moved off-campus..

“There’s also a kind of satisfaction that comes from having a show and sharing music with other people,” says Singh. “The people that come to these shows are always really friendly and make the whole thing an all around pleasant experience.”

New Brunswick's Professor Caveman, a local rock band, playing at The Banana Stand's Halloween show.

New Brunswick’s Professor Caveman, a local rock band, playing at The Banana Stand’s Halloween show.

Semiotics guitarist and The Banana Stand organizer Nicholas Rapon has had a long history organizing basement shows in New Jersey.

“I’ve been ‘in the scene’ since I was 13 years old,” says Rapon. “Being in bands and in the scene, it was easy to book my friends and my band and help us get out there. Kids needed a place to hang and see good ass music.”

Rapon organizes shows for one of the longer running basement show venues in the city of New Brunswick. The venue has hosted bands ranging from local bands such as Modern Chemistry or Dollys, to Chicago’s Archie Powell and The Exports’ and Canada’s The Hunters.

Rapon attributes being able to organize shows easily because of the venue’s positive word-of-mouth. “Now since we have credibility and great word of mouth, people email us, Facebook us, meet us at shows and shoot the sh**,” says Rapon.

Now due to Rapon’s schedule and the rising amount of bands wanting to play at The Banana Stand, Rapon has help from Brittany Dixon, also known as Rahway/Asbury Park organizer Brittany on Fire, and Semiotics vocalist Seth Blissenbach.

In The Banana Stand’s earlier days, Rapon had help from elsewhere.

“Luckily, I had the help of Eric from Au Revior and Joe Scala from The Best of The Worst throw shows with me at the beginning,” said Rapon. “They would book half the bands and I would too. Then eventually we gained a rolodex of bands and now have to have spreadsheets to keep me in check.”

Indie Rock band The Gray Company performs at The Banana Stand in November

The Gray Company, an Indie Rock band from Union, NJ performs at The Banana Stand in November

Both Singh and Rapon agree that the appeal of basement shows lies in the fact that they allow for all-ages shows, something that the Court Tavern usually does not do.

Basement shows also offer other benefits that a venue like Court Tavern might not be able to provide.

“If you play a pretty tight set, chances are someone from another show house is at that show and will probably want to book you for one of their shows,” says Singh. “There’s also a lot of value in word of mouth, and it’s a good way to get your band’s music out there.”

The shows are typically advertised through Facebook events and word of mouth.

Rapon notes that basement shows can be cheaper to run, and are usually in walking distance for most of the possible turnout.

“The kids actually care and show up for all the bands as opposed to paying $20 for a ticket and seeing one or two bands you actually enjoy,” says Rapon.

However, while running a basement show can be fun, it does come with its costs.

“Initially, you may have to buy mics and a PA and a mixer for audio,” says Singh. “If you have really nice friends though, they might let you borrow those things.”

There’s also the cost of having to soundproof the basements to prevent the loud performances from causing neighbors to call the police.

“As far as soundproofing goes, the best thing to do is find mattresses that people are throwing out and place them in front of windows in the basement,” says Singh. “It could easily cost you nothing to throw a show, but your best bet is to have equipment on hand, in case you can’t borrow in time for a show.”

Despite the risk of facing a possible noise violation ticket, both Singh and Rapon agree there is a certain satisfaction you get from organizing and running a basement show.

“I can honestly say since I was 17 years old, never profited from a show,” says Rapon. “I’m a musician first, ‘promoter’ second. Not that I haven’t made a lot of money, cause we have, but the bands deserve all the money since they are the performers. I just offer a place to play.”

“Plus, good tour karma, hopefully there is a Nick Rapon out there for Semiotics in Nebraska when we play there eventually,” said Rapon.

Indie Rock/Alt-Emo band Hodera performs at The Banana Stand in November

Alt-Rock band Hodera at The Banana Stand in November

New Brunswick used to be home to several popular clubs and venues, including The Melody Bar, Patrixx, Budapest, and The Roxy.

Rapon thinks that because the Court Tavern does not let minors in, it loses a large potential audience for shows.

“Local bands still play and once in a while they will get a good act, but since it’s 21 and over in a college town, they are missing three-quarters of a potential demographic,” said Rapon. “Basement shows are a staple in our scene and will be since we lost a lot of bars and venues between the 80s and 90s.”

Rapon says that basement shows will be a part of New Brunswick, as long as the music scene continues.

“The history in this town and music’s importance will not let it die down,” said Rapon. “Even if there were to be a decline, it will still happen. I can honestly say since starting The Stand, we had friends start up basement venues.”

In addition, he thinks that New Brunswick is currently riding on a small wave of bands that could potentially get bigger in the future.

“We have bands like Romp, Dollys, Semiotics, Modern Chemistry making big moves and getting written about everyday,” says Rapon. “Hopefully we make a big splash and can move out of (New Brunswick) and become a national act.”

He compares the current scene to a small family in which each member helps each other, and that they constantly talk about one another on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“(Romp) were nice enough to talk about my tush in their article with Rutgers Review,” said Rapon. “And next day get written about by a big UK blog just cause of being associated in the (New Brunswick) scene.”