Death By Audio, Resurrected in an Excellent Documentary

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On November 17, 2014, I stood in a long line outside of 49 South Second Street waiting to get into one of Death By Audio’s final shows. Just a week later, the venue would be demolished by VICE, whose big new offices now take the place of the late, revered DIY space. In seven years it had played host to thousands of bands, including some of the most recognizable musicians today (Future Islands, TV on the Radio, Ty Segal), and was the literal home of the employees who ran it, and its eponymous pedal effects company.

That night, Downtown Boys, Future Punx, B-Boys and Priests delivered one of the best live bills I’d ever seen. On the drive up to the show, DC-based punk band Priests had van trouble and arrived late. Finally on stage, lead singer Katie Alice Greer told the packed crowd how important it was for them to make it there no matter what. This was not a normal closing of a music venue: this was the forced shutdown of a temple for creativity and self expression. That night in DBA’s tiny bathroom I took an Instagram of a graffiti that read: “Is it fucked up that I always feel weird?” At DBA, self-expression, and self-directed art was palliative, empowering, and the prime directive around which a large community was formed; it was the gathering space where all of it happened, where everyone could let it rip, whatever it happened to be.

Five nights later DBA’s final show included a set from A Place to Bury Strangers, the band of co-founder Oliver Ackermann. And only hours after that, VICE’s demolition crew turned the space into rubble, and then fancy office space. Since then, DBA has existed as nostalgia to the music lovers who spent hundreds of hours there. But now, DBA co-founder Matt Conboy has resurrected it as documentary. This Saturday along with Rooftop Films, he will screen the New York Premiere of Good Night Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio.

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Last Saturday, Conboy called me from the parking lot of the Knock Down Center in Queens, a giant art space that was showing an exhibit called You Are Here. Years earlier, the same artists had exhibited the maze-like interactive show at Death By Audio.

“I always imagined that I would make something about my experience at Death By Audio,” said Conboy. In the beginning, though, he imagined a fictional narrative. Then VICE  steamrolled in and changed everything. “The origin of the movie came out of a meeting with my producer Amanda Schultz—we worked on a couple of projects together—and I was telling her about how we just found out [in June 2014] that we were gonna have to get kicked out, and because of VICE, and she said, ‘You need to get cameras going and film all of this.’”

And so included in the documentary’s approximately hour and twenty minutes is footage of VICE construction workers, willy-nilly breaking things, causing pipes to burst and flood Death By Audio’s stage area just week’s before the string of era-ending shows. Conboy says that, pretty quickly, it became clear that the iconoclast newsmakers cared very little for the iconoclast art makers whose space they were taking over.

But, in real time, that reality came as a shock. At first, when Conboy learned VICE would be taking over the second and third floors above them, he thought it was the ideal scenario. “I actually say it in the film,” said Conboy, “‘Oh, this is perfect, it’s not a bank.'” Surely, VICE, the progressive media organization, would allow DBA to keep being DBA. They shared the same philosophy: fuck how things are done normally, we’re doing things how we want. Of course, that is exactly what VICE did. Furthermore, VICE didn’t speak to DBA a single time about their plans, or acknowledge publicly that they knew they were taking away one of New York City’s most depended-upon and deeply loved music venues.

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“A lot of stuff we were hearing would be second hand through the landlords or friends of friends who worked there,” said Conboy. “The only communication I ever had with anyone from VICE was much later, but some of their employees doing the construction project wanted to pay us money to be able to build an elevator shaft in the middle of the venue early on,” when construction first began, Conboy recounted. “They marked out a box on the floor—it was like ten by ten in the center of the stage,” he continued. “That was a little bit of a turning point to me where I was like, ‘Oh, this‘”—this community and home to creativity and incredible music—”‘means nothing to you.'”

As time went on, VICE remained quiet, even when DBA’s landlord revealed VICE would not only be taking over the first and second floors, but also the first floor, home to DBA.

“It would have been nice if they were cool about it,” Conboy said. But, “this reveals a truth about [their] organization,” namely, that VICE lacked all empathy even for people whose values they claimed to ascribe to.

The film itself is well-made and a treat, though sad at times, to watch: Early footage of Future Islands, and of Dan Deacon doing brilliantly wild sets, and of young versions of Conboy and Ackermann and Wilber bringing the venue into the fully-realized creative bastion it eventually became, are all captured; sometimes, the earliest footage comes from two prior documentaries made about the space, and which was given generously to Conboy.

Ultimately, the issue that the film, and Conboy, and everyone who ever heard or played music at DBA, and anyone who cares about DIY spaces at all, has to deal with is this: Closings like will never stop happening—and that’s ok.

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“It’s obviously difficult, but it is an unfortunate reality of life,” said Conboy. However, “That’s what is so awesome about creative people; they find a way—it’s like water getting into the cracks. Unfortunately, I think there are fewer places like DBA now, especially in New York City than there used to be. We were almost kind of late to the party.” Conboy and everyone at DBA are on the hunt for real estate that could host some future version of it, DBA 2.0. But it may take a while. “It’s like, how many times can you win the lottery? We keep our eyes open, but it’s a pretty, you know, particular, a unique set of circumstances,” that allows for a large space to be taken over completely for cheap by artists who get to do with it whatever they want, near a city center and the creative people it holds.

This view may sound like an overly tidy recap of what DBA was, and his feelings about it now, but as the film runs on, emotions run high. The most poignant moment comes from Edan Wilber, who lived at DBA and booked most of its shows.

He is shown sitting in his apartment that is about to be destroyed. “Yeah, the memories I have here, and just like the amount of like awesome shit that I’ve been able to do—it’s worth so much more than anything [VICE is] going to be able to get out of this fucking building,” Wilber says, welling up. “You’re trying to stamp out all this amazing shit—it’s like, I can’t be, I can’t be upset because I’m so full, I’m so rich with memories. I’m so much more wealthy in so many other ways than those people are ever going to be. That’s kind of enough, you know?”

It’s only through the blossoming and death of a place like Death By Audio that, in the end, we are reminded this is true. How, despite unwanted endings, whatever shape they may take, people will keep creating and making art, and finding spaces to host the communities who do it.

The last line of the film appears as text on the screen. “Every great city has a space like Death By Audio. If yours doesn’t, you should start one.”

Conboy is working on distribution for Good Night Brooklyn Now: “We just want as many people as possible to see the film, and we are up for whatever we can do to make that happen, in theaters or places like iTunes,” he says. So look to stream Good Night Brooklyn, or see it on the big screen soon.

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