Dec 28, 2016
In the House: Can Bands Afford to Live together in Brooklyn?
It was a chilly November night, but after paying the cover charge and pushing open the door, we were immediately greeted by a wave of near-stifling body heat. We could barely even get into the room, it was so packed with people. Someone had been standing directly in front of the door and had to move out of the way so that we could push it open wide enough to squeeze through it.
Once inside, we were practically standing on the “stage”—a short little riser on which the Berkeley-based band Streeteaters were tearing through a set of minimalist but aggressively noisy punk rock. The crowd pressed in on the band, standing just a few feet away from them but also extending back into the adjacent kitchen and even spilling out the back door.
The best views in the house—and we do mean house—were on the spiral staircase that led up to the second floor. People leaned out over the curling banister or sat on the stairs with legs dangling off, several feet above the heads of the thrashing crowd, nodding along to the music as if in a trance.
Beyond the staircase, there was a long landing lined with open doors that, presumably, lead into bedrooms. Because while this was, by all appearances, a thriving music venue, it was also several people’s home. It’s called the Other Side, located way out in east Bushwick, and it’s probably one of Brooklyn’s last band houses.
One time-honored strategy working musicians have historically employed is to pool their resources and live in a house or apartment together—a.k.a. a “band house.” Often, denizens of such a home might even throw shows in their living room or basement, if not to make a little extra money, then at least to try and build a scene and get some folks out to hear their music and the music of likeminded bands.
But it’s not exactly cheap to live in Brooklyn anymore, and so musicians, of course, feel that squeeze, even when resources are pooled. Unless they’re among the lucky few with a gold album to their name, working enough to pay rent and bills and keep themselves fed is struggle enough. At that point, having enough time and energy leftover to make art is a luxury. This is a first world problem, to be sure, but the struggle therein is real.
Is the Brooklyn band house not long for this world? If the band house residents we spoke to are any indication—while they are hanging on for now—they say its days are likely numbered.
“We have been lucky enough to have our rent stay pretty static over the years,” says Leslie Hong, one-third of the sludge pop band Haybaby and, along with one of her bandmates, a resident of a five-bedroom apartment in Bushwick dubbed the Haybaby Cat Farm. “It is definitely difficult because the cost of living in general is so high.”
Hong and bandmate Sam Yield are the apartment’s original tenants, and have welcomed a rotating cast of musicians into the space over the four years they’ve lived there. “We met all of our roommates through playing shows and fellow musicians,” Hong says. Currently there are five musicians living in the house, as well as three cats and a free-roaming rabbit in the backyard.
Hong and her roommates try to put on at least a few shows a year at the Haybaby Cat Farm. She says her neighbors are “blessedly cool with it”—but alas, their future there is uncertain. Hong, who bartends and does freelance hand-lettering work on the side, and Yield, who works for a tutoring company, are looking at moving out of the city early next year.
“I’ve been living in the city for just over ten years now and moved eleven times in the first six before we found this place. It was very, very difficult to find a place that allowed us to do what we do,” Hong says. “I actually can’t devote as much time to music as I’d like while trying to make ends meet here—part of why we’re looking to move.”
Alex Holmes plays in the punk band Eats Drywall and also lives in a band house in Bushwick—in fact, perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s where all three of the band houses we were able to identify are located.
Holmes lives in the Other Side, a five-bedroom apartment in an industrial warehouse space near where Bushwick meets Ridgewood. He lives with three of his four bandmates there, and it is consistently home to at least seven to eight people, if you count touring bands, couch-surfers, and a roommate who lives in the backyard in an enclosed loft bed, says Holmes.
While the Other Side is two years old, Holmes moved there from Oakland, CA just a year ago. But he already sees the end as perhaps being nigh. “Our rent has gone up once since I moved in, and is approaching the point of being unaffordable,” he says. “I reckon at this rate we will be able to stay for another year or two max.”
Being from Oakland, where a fire in the DIY arts space and underground venue known as the Ghost Ship recently claimed 36 lives, Holmes said he and everyone else at the Other Side wanted to express their love and support for the victims, survivors, friends, families, and chosen families of the tragedy. He’s also concerned about what the post-tragedy crackdown on unlicensed arts and performance spaces might mean not just for places like the Other Side, but the entire underground arts and music community.
“Without DIY spaces like [the Ghost Ship], or ours, many people will not have a safe space to be themselves, to make the music and arts that they need to be creative,” Holmes says. “The world needs artists and musicians to reflect the state of affairs of our societies, and to spread the joy and pain that comes with that. The Other Side asks that you please do everything in your power to honor our friends in Oakland by fighting to keep these spaces alive, safe, and away from interests that aim to benefit from shutting these spaces down to make way for wealthier inhabitants. The response from cities and states has been nothing short of alarming, and the closing of these spaces, instead of making them safe, only serves to perpetuate the poverty and homelessness of our artists and their arts, and those that aim to benefit from something so horrible.”
Bobby Lewis of the indie band Mustardmind just moved into his Bushwick apartment with the bassist from his band, Yianni, and a drummer (not in the band) last August, so they’re not expecting to be out any time soon. But even though Lewis considers himself a full-time musician, he still has to pick up side jobs to afford Brooklyn living—some freelance audio engineering gigs and work at various venues around town, mostly. Yianni is a student and tutor at NYU.
“I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy prior to my current apartment but I spent most of my time in NYC in Alphabet City in Manhattan,” Lewis says. “It’s definitely a struggle, but I find as much flexible work as possible to make it work. Bushwick’s rents aren’t quite as bad as the apartments we checked out in Williamsburg, but it still requires us to do work outside of Mustardmind.”
While comfortable with his living situation for now, Lewis can easily see a day when it is no longer viable: “I think the L Train shutdown in 2019 will slow down the gentrification of Bushwick, but I’d predict that it will eventually be along the same lines as current-day Williamsburg in the next decade.”
Of course, one of the key activities any band must engage in if they want to see their passion project become a full-time career is to hit the road and bring their music to the masses. But does living in a Brooklyn band house leave any resources available to make that happen?
Mustardmind and Eats Drywall have yet to tour, being relatively new bands, but Haybaby hits the road several times a year. In fact, when Haybaby’s Hong talked to us, her band had just returned from a month-long road stint. Hong finds subletters for her room to make that possible, though her band and housemate Sam “is really good at saving money” and manages to avoid the subletting route.
Subletting is actually a quite common tactic for making it possible to be in a touring band and still have a home to return to. Still, if you’re lucky enough to be invited to a show at the Haybaby Cat Farm or the Other Side, you might want to go while you can. It’ll be a much longer train ride when those places are no longer located in Brooklyn.
All images by Nicole Fara Silver
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