What Happens in New Brunswick Shouldn’t Just Stay in New Brunswick

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Story by Evan Zwisler. Photos by Brian Hughes.

New Brunswick, New Jersey, isn’t getting the love it deserves. But one might reasonably argue that it never has.

Over the past five years, this city has quietly become one of the best DIY scenes on the East Coast. Much of this growth is due to the hard community-building work of people like James Bauman, who manages the venue Mount Moon and is a member of the band American Lions. We sat down and talked about the DIY scene, his band’s upcoming release, and the best ways to get booked at DIY venues anywhere.

“I first got involved in the DIY scene when I was 16 helping some friends run VFW shows,” he said. “After doing that for a few years, my friends and I decided to start running house shows in New Brunswick. We called our space The Bomb Shelter, and we notoriously put together countless packed shows from 2013-2017. After we had to end The Bomb Shelter, I started Mount Moon. We’ve been going strong since August.”

Spaces like this aren’t uncommon.

Throwing a DIY concert in your own space isn’t impossible, either, but it’s far harder to run a DIY music or art space for years. Most neighbors will put up with a show here and there, but when it comes to running a space that throws multiple shows a month, you’re inviting a whole new list of issues you have to eventually deal with: noise complaints, occupancy limits, safety measures, gear maintenance, etc.

In some cities, like New York, high rent and lack of large enough available spaces are only a couple of the factors that make it difficult to sustain adequate DIY venues for multiple years, despite how popular they might grow to be. But smaller, scrappier cities like New Brunswick have been able to maintain a consistently thriving scene. With a city of just over 50,000 people, it rocks just as hard as any bigger market.

“I genuinely feel New Brunswick is the best place for shows right now,” Bauman tells me. “This college town has a lot to offer up-and-coming bands. There’s an insane number of musicians and plenty of peers to support them. You just have to know how to spread the word. Real venues are great and all, but with $5 entry, 3-4 great bands, and a comfortable, homey vibe, you can’t go wrong.”

I can say from personal experience, as well as anecdotal evidence from other bands, that if you’re playing a house show in New Brunswick, it’s hard to go wrong.

I asked Bauman how someone could create a DIY space in their town:

“To get started,” he responded, “I would suggest finding a place big enough to fit full bands and a crowd to watch them. Avoid bills with too many acts, and try to be fair when booking. You also have to be extremely careful with neighbors and the police. You should always have 1-2 people working the door collecting $5 for the bands, and one person to stay down by the PA to run sound for the gig. Other than that, welcome people and show everyone respect. You’re in charge of creating and maintaining the vibe of the show.”

He has clearly been taking his own advice, as Mount Moon has become one of the cornerstones of the New Brunswick DIY scene.

“It’s been growing super fast,” he says about Mount Moon. “This is a beautiful thing, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. Tons of bands are emailing or messaging to be booked, and we simply can’t book everyone. It’s also challenging to deal with neighbors and bands showing up late. Unfortunately, our shows have to start at 8 p.m. because we can’t really let the loud volume happen past 11:30 p.m. If the neighbors call the cops, we basically would have to shut down and move our shows elsewhere.”

The tension between a DIY space and its neighbors, as well as the local police, can be palpable. But as long as you work out loose guidelines and keep lines of communication open, there’s always room for cooperation.

If you’re in a band, I’m sure the question on your mind right now is, “How do I get a show at this awesome space, or spaces like it?”

Bauman’s answer? “EMAIL ONLY! I appreciate the power of Facebook, but we try to keep our inbox clean for actual communications with show-goers. Our email address is in the ‘about’ section of the Mount Moon page.”

He was also kind enough to give some general tour advice for bands going out on the road on a budget:

“Make sure you’re playing a show every single day. You want to make sure you’re not spending way more than you’re making. Route your tour destinations to be 2-4 hours apart, if possible. Gas is always expensive, especially in a van. Eat light and effectively. Always keep water in the van, and remember to share the aux.”

I wholeheartedly agree with all of this. All hail the almighty aux!

Once you’ve played a show at a great DIY space you like, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t come back — but what can you do to make sure this happens? Bauman talked to me a bit about what bands he likes working with time and time again:

“I support good people and good music,” he states with confidence. “If you are both of those things, then I will most likely book you if I have room. I understand punk time, but show up on time to load in gear and set up. Being late happens, for sure, but everything goes smoother when people are on time. We like to be punctual.”

Be kind, be on time, and be respectful. Good advice for a band, good advice for life.

In addition to running Mount Moon, Bauman is also a founding member of the band American Lions, one of the most exciting alt-rock bands out of Jersey right now. I asked Bauman how their recently released debut album, Serf Rock, came together.

“We’ve been working on this record for just about two years. We took a different, more natural approach to composing this time around. It took a really long time, but we’re all really happy with how it came out. It’s not perfect, but so much energy and passion went into it. I feel it doesn’t really sound like any other band out there right now. This is rock ‘n’ roll for all people.”

American Lions surely falls in line with the striking balance of small-town grit and universal listenability of other great New Jersey bands that have come along, like The Gaslight Anthem, Springsteen’s E Street Band, and Titus Andronicus.

When discussing the recording process, I was shocked at the time and energy that Bauman and his band put into their album. It was a labor of love, and done in a rather alternative way.

“We recorded with our friend Sam Pura at The Panda Studios in California over the span of 35 days in December 2016/January 2017…. We brought demos of the whole record to Sam, went through them, and started pre-pro. After heavily experimenting with different sounds and instruments, Serf Rock ended up being 14 tracks. Then the record went through a ton of mix revisions and rounds of masters, but it has finally reached the surface.”

I hadn’t heard any of the early mixes, but where they landed is a unique fresh take on their classic rock sound. I wanted to dig deeper about American Lions’ songwriting process, and whether it had changed over the years.

“Things are different from the past, but still pretty similar,” Bauman told me. “Justin [Calaycay] or Josh [Claps] usually come up with the skeleton of a song with lyrics, chords, and melody, and we build from there. We usually all get into the jam room and figure out what the song itself is. Then we try to figure out the best way to display that with sound.”

Finally, Bauman left me with a pretty positive outlook on how simple it actually is to develop the DIY community in your area:

“The DIY scene is all about networking, making friends, and helping out. Do your part. If you build it, they will come.”

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