Inside the Venues of Northside: 11 Years of Wild Nights at Williamsburg’s Trash Bar

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Photos by Liz Clayman

Williamsburg’s Trash Bar has been open on the same block of Grand Ave. for 11 years. Over the course of those 11 years, the neighborhood has changed markedly, but the dimly lit and boisterous dive that’s fostered a spirit similar to legendary punk haunts like CBGBs is still intact. Trash Bar is a grimy time-capsule that’s impervious to change. Its walls are blanketed with out-of-state license plates that sit above relocated car seats–it’s a “trailer trash” theme suiting of the bar’s unforgiving fragrance.

Things have often gotten wild at Trash Bar throughout the years. The bar soon earned a reputation for the freaky antics of its clientele, and it continues to encourage such an atmosphere. But Trash was also a place that inspired creativity, and where any band could play if they wanted to.

As the bar’s rent recently quintupled this year, Trash is being forced to relocate, and will most likely find a new place somewhere in Bushwick, its staff says. In fact, the bar just announced on Facebook that it would play its last set on June 27th. Bartenders Maurice Johnson and Nick Baron have been shuffling behind the counter serving drinks there for years, and recall some their most cherished and visceral memories of Trash in the Q&A below.

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Brooklyn Magazine: Tell us about what Trash was like when it first opened and got off the ground.

Maurice Johnson: When it opened, there were a few bars on the block. Across the street was the Stinger and Larry Lawrence was down the block. At first it wasn’t that busy for maybe the first eight or nine months. Williamsburg is very nice now but back then it was still really grungy and dangerous. Stinger, the bar I mentioned across the street, shut down a month after there was a shooting outside of it on a Saturday night. We were open when that happened. After that, when Stinger shut down, a lot people who hung out at Stinger started hanging out at this bar, which was cool on one hand, but not so cool on the other hand because there were a lot of drug dealers. There was a period of time when I worked here when my first thought while working was “don’t get killed,” then it was “don’t get robbed,” then it was just “serve drinks.” But those were the first few years. That was what it was like in the beginning. I remember one night this dude just walked in and was like “I’m rich,” and just through like five vials of cocaine on the bar like they were dice. And I just thought, “Wow that’s a little fucked up.”

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How did the atmosphere night to night change when Williamsburg started changing?

Maurice Johnson: Very rarely was this a locals only kind of neighborhood bar. At one point karaoke started helping that by bringing people into the bar and then they became regulars, but as far as night to night, a lot of our business was based on the band that was playing. Primarily as a venue it’s been punk, metal and hardcore, but TV on the Radio played here a year or so after we opened. One thing about the crowd that’s different, without sounding like an asshole, is that I used to have to try to dress better than the crowd of guys that walked in, and now it’s not really an effort. I’m definitely for the most part less afraid of a few people. The general aesthetic of Williamsburg became a little bit more yuppy-ish in the last three or four years and that’s definitely affected our clientele. One thing is that the clientele back in the day provided their own good time, they’d be stupid and crazy in their own fun way, and us the staff would sort of feed of that a little bit. But now, to a large extent, it’s our duty to help facilitate the fun, so to speak.

Nick Baron: I think the bar has been less busy as the neighborhood has changed. It’s kind of upsetting at some points. But it’s weird because as much as some people say like “oh I love this place so much,” it’s like well, you’re not here that much. Like they love it so much, and they don’t want it to go anywhere, and they feel like it’s always that place that feels warm and has that dive-bar, punk rock and hardcore vibe, but they’re still gonna go out and try that new place instead.

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Trash is set to move locations soon, was there ever a time when the bar was really thriving?

Maurice Johnson: Yeah! I mean, Trash is moving because our rent got quintupled, it has nothing to do with business being bad. I’m not going to discuss the number but [the rent] is a lot of money. There was definitely a time when we were busy, and that was when Williamsburg had this weird alignment of becoming safer along with creative people moving into the neighborhood. There was always creative people here, but it was never really that safe. From like 2008 to 2010 it was really busy here.

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Do you have any favorite specific memories or bands you’ve seen come through here over the years?

Maurice Johnson:[Laughs]. Yeah a lot. As far as favorite bands go, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they are my favorite, but Unlocking the Truth played here about two years ago. I was coming in to bartend, and the doorman just immediately said “go in the back, you have to check this out.” I go in the back and it’s like these three afroed-black kids, just rocking out, playing metal. And the whole crowd was going crazy. In complete honesty, I would say, just as far as audience satisfaction and musicianship go, they were probably one of the top ten bands I’ve seen here over the years and that’s not an exaggeration.

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When this place moves, are you going to miss this specific location?

Maurice Johnson: [Sighs]. I mean, yes and no. The neighborhood, when we first moved here was a big part of what made this bar this bar. And now to a certain degree, the neighborhood is not a big part of what makes this bar this bar, for better or for worse. There was a big amount of us coming in, and for the people who lived here for generations and generations, we had to be nice and respectful, as anyone should. I don’t see that as a thing that has to happen as much anymore. I’m very curious to see whether we’re going to need to book different kinds of bands, and how our interactions with the neighborhood will pan out.

How have you seen the local music scene in Brooklyn change over the years?

Maurice Johnson: In regards to the neighborhood in general, there are way less places to accidently discover. I mean Trash opened before Glasslands and before Death by Audio happened. What was great about both of those places when they first opened, was that they weren’t actually business trying to make money. They were just kids and promoters trying to put on a good show and have fun. In that regard, there was a lot more fun sort of experimental stuff that started going on there that sort of got transferred here. There was a lot more experimental stuff in the early 2000s. I think that now that doesn’t really exist quite as much. I mean a good question is, do you know as many people who are just like, currently in bands right now? We work at a bar that does music, and we all have friends who are in bands, but as far as the random person who just walks in here and tries to promote a show, that just like doesn’t really feel like it exists like it used to.

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Why do you think that is?

Nick Baron: It’s hard. It’s extremely hard to be in a band. But even in this climate, I think the one thing that’s amazing about Trash Bar is that we still have bands seven nights a week. We book like four to five bands a night, which is almost unheard of. And to me, the thing that’s amazing, is that you can be a small, tiny band with nothing and still get a night to play here and still get to put your show on. It’s not a snobbish attitude you now? Even if you suck, we’ll find a slot for you to play here, and you can start off here, and use that to springboard onto some other place. That’s an amazing thing about this place. And that’s the sad thing when this place goes, because it’s not that easy for bands to do that. Because bands can customize their own shows here. Like we’ll have Murphy’s Law, they play here all the time and they always say, like, “we love and worship CBGBs, but Trash bar allowed us to do things that CBs would have never allowed us to do.”

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Like what?

Nick Baron: Just recently, we had a band play here and, like this is so typical of Trash Bar. The guy gets on stage with his band, and he’s been nice all night, super cool. He turned into a complete maniac on stage though and immediately pulled his pants down and starts masturbating on stage and the bunch of us here, we’ve seen so much at this bar, that we don’t stop this we just turn to each other and say, “do you think we should just let this one go?” And we did, because basically no one wanted to get on stage and touch him. And the crowd loved it. I mean like, how many times have we said, “only at the Trash Bar.”

(The interview has been edited down for length and clarity).

Check out the show lineup at Trash Bar, and more north Brooklyn venues, during Northside Festival.

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