By Hank Hoffman
It may be cold and snow-covered outside the first weekend of February, but things are heating up in the basement of Bespoke restaurant on College Street in New Haven. Just shy of midnight, the smallish room is packed front to back with local underground rock habitués, here for the record-release party of Fake Babies’ first album, We Are Blues. In fact, show promoter Carlos Wells, whose Safety Meeting Records label is putting out the LP — yes, it’s really vinyl — and who rented the room as an ad hoc venue, has to turn away people at the door because the room is at (or over) capacity.
Unlike conventional rock bands, Fake Babies rely more on instrumentation usually associated with contemporary dance music or hip-hop: MPC beat machines, samplers, synthesizers, KAOSS Pads. With Fake Babies, electric guitar and bass are the occasional seasoning, not the whole dish. Their sound is a mixture of shimmering tremolo chords, robot notes, and rapid-fire arpeggios, the treble rasp and bass punch of electronic drums and vocals drenched in reverb and echo. But the song structures are definitely rock.
“With Fake Babies what we’re trying to do is bring in the electronic stuff and that power of sound you can get as well as use the dirt and rock you can get listening to punk music and still keep it accessible,” says member Gary Velush. “There is a presence of sound that fills the room rather than a rock band that just comes at you from the front.”
Fake Babies play their instruments live — a point of pride — rather than “having a laptop up there and hitting play and rapping along with it,” as Velush says. The energy is visceral, not virtual.
Velush joined founding members Justin Roberts and Bob Nuzzello, Jr. about two-and-a-half years ago; Jay Sirianni completed the quartet during the recording of the album. Even before the release of We Are Blues, Fake Babies was chosen as Best New Band in Connecticut in the Boston Phoenix’s 2010 50-state survey.
From electronica to Americana and garage rock to psychedelic soul, from established clubs to ad hoc venues and house parties, from vinyl to downloadable mp3s, the Greater New Haven rock scene is experiencing one of its periodic renaissances. Besides Fake Babies, other local groups that get name-checked for their creativity or potential breakout appeal are Estrogen Highs, M.T. Bearington, and The Stepkids (the Bridgeport-based psychedelic soul trio has been signed to a national indie label).
When punk rock gained a foothold in New Haven in the late-1970s, musicians had to struggle to convince bar owners to let them play something other than radio-tested cover tunes. Since then, a succession of clubs — Ron’s Place in the punk era, the Grotto in the 1980s, the Tune Inn in the 1990s — have hosted musicians and audiences hungry for sounds outside the mainstream. And many of the local musicians and groups who first hit the stage in the preceding decades are still recording and playing regular gigs.
These resurgences are cyclical but several factors are key to the contemporary scene:
• New Haven boasts a growing and mutually supportive community of young musicians with catholic tastes and prodigiously creative work ethics. The aforementioned four bands are just the tip of the iceberg.
• Respected venue Café Nine, BAR on Crown Street, The Space in Hamden (the all-ages venue with a predominantly under-21 clientele recently opened the affiliated The Outer Space, which will serve beer and wine), Daniel Street in Milford, Lily’s Pad at Toad’s Place, and a plethora of other performance locations offer a bounty of places to play.
• The Safety Meeting Records label showcases bands with professional and collectable releases.
• There are several independent promoters, among them Mark Nussbaum of Manic Productions and Rick Omonte of Shaki Presents, who care about underground music.
Velush of Fake Babies embodies the genre-defying eclecticism that seems to define a resurgent New Haven underground rock scene. Besides performing and recording with Fake Babies, Velush also plays bass for the bluegrass band Silver Alert Fugitives.
According to Paul Mayer, there is “a lot of intermingling of members” in various bands. Mayer is well positioned to know. The owner of Café Nine in New Haven since 2003, the 51-year-old Mayer has been attending shows in New Haven clubs since the punk rock days of the late-1970s. A self-proclaimed late bloomer, he began playing bass in rockabilly bands like the Big Bad Johns in his 30s, adopting the rock ‘n’ roll pseudonym “Nervous Chet Purvis.”
Café Nine earned the nickname the “musicians’ living room” under previous owner Mike Reichbart, and, if anything, the club’s claim to that sobriquet has only strengthened under Mayer. Mayer’s personal tastes run to rockabilly and 1960s-style garage punk — his favorite current local band is the Estrogen Highs, who have “true garage spirit” — but he strives for diversity in the club’s bookings. Café Nine recently completed a three-week remodeling that opened up the floor space of the room and shortened the bar to allow better sight lines to the stage. Mayer plans to expand the stage later this year.
The new digital technology has facilitated the resurgence, according to Mayer. E-mail and websites like Facebook and MySpace have made it easier on both ends to set up shows.
“When I was playing, you had to get on the phone and call every day. And call and call. Now you can send an e-mail and if there’s any interest, the person will get back to you,” explains Mayer. “I can go listen right away, look, see where they’re from. It makes it very in the moment.”
Another factor is the affordability of high-quality digital home-recording options like Pro Tools. Home recording, says Mayer, has “made it easier for people to get their stuff around and be more prolific in their recordings. As they write stuff, they can record it and get it out. It’s easier to get stuff from idea to peoples’ ears, which has changed the game in a way.”
Matt Thomas of M.T. Bearington has experienced this himself. Thomas — whose previous band Weigh Down released a CD on Safety Meeting Records in 2007 — recorded almost all of the first M.T. Bearington album Cloak of Nouns and Loss at home using Apple’s GarageBand software. Following Safety Meeting Records’ release of the set of bedroom psychedelic pop on a limited-edition vinyl LP, Thomas put together a band and accepted a slot as the opening act for the Connecticut-based national act Mates of State.
“Anything with a story and a melody — that’s interesting to me,” says the 34-year-old Thomas, who has been playing in bands since 1993. He cites influences such as the Kinks, Beatles, Beach Boys, and Zombies, as well as the Popeye movie soundtrack by Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks. Thomas and M.T. Bearington guitarist Bill Readey established Fuzzy Rainbow Productions as a partnership to record and produce bands. They recorded Fake Babies’ LP and the new M.T. Bearington album Love Buttons, which is available as a vinyl LP and CD from Safety Meeting Records.
Like the first M.T. Bearington record, Thomas wrote all the songs on Love Buttons. But much of the new record was recorded as a band.
Thomas says, “It does sound much different — a little more hi-fi, more rocking of a record.”
M.T. Bearington have played as far afield as Maine and Vermont but Thomas doesn’t envision any touring in the near term beyond nearby markets like New York City. But the Internet helps them get noticed in more distant locales.
Thomas says, “There are people in Iowa who know about our band who would never have known about us 10 years ago.”
Estrogen Highs, on the other hand, have gone on five tours of varying lengths — including 30 days this past January — since their formation in late 2007.
“In any city, you can have weird little pockets of scenes. We do really well in Columbus, Ohio, in Detroit and Vancouver,” says leader Stefan Christensen.
The group evolved out of a Christensen side project. In 2007, he recorded a handful of songs inspired by raw 1960s garage-rock bands on four-track cassette, playing all the instruments himself.
“I put about five songs on a CD-R and started to hand them out at shows and send them out to some people,” says Christensen.
The first two Estrogen Highs seven-inch 45s were pressed from those solo recordings, including one on the Iowa label Milk n’ Herpes Records.
“Once those two records came out I decided to make it into a real band,” says Christensen.
In their three years, the group has produced two cassette releases, three singles, two vinyl LPs, and a vinyl 12-inch EP just issued by Safety Meeting Records.
Vinyl has supplanted compact discs as the physical medium of choice for releasing underground music. According to promoter Mark Nussbaum of Manic Productions, releasing CDs is “not worth it. People realize someone’s going to buy it and burn it or put it on (a download site like) MediaFire or something.”
Carlos Wells, who has been involved in booking shows for more than a decade, originally put out CDs when he started Safety Meeting Records in 2006. But his intention was always to release vinyl records.
“The overhead is a lot more and the profit margin is much tighter but it’s a better product to put out. It sounds better. There is more of a ritual to listening to records. You wind up paying more attention,” says Wells.
“I concentrate on small press runs, hand-numbered stuff. I include CDs and try and add the little touches that make them more collectible rather than just a disposable piece of music, which is what we thought CDs were. Nine out of 10 times they are ripped into the computer and become a coaster or something on the floor of a car. That would never happen with a record,” says Wells. “And we were lucky, too, that a year after we decided to make the move was when we started seeing press on ‘vinyl is back.’”
“People aspire to be on that label. It’s the label to be on in New Haven,” says Mayer. “He has good taste in music and is not limited to one style. He seems to pick and choose from what’s around him very carefully. He’s passionate about it, which is a good characteristic as far as I’m concerned.”
Wells has put out 25 releases on Safety Meeting Records, most but not all of them being bands with New Haven as home base. Like the scene it documents, Safety Meeting Records’ catalog is notable for its eclecticism. Besides Fake Babies, M.T. Bearington, and Estrogen Highs, the catalog includes the freak folk sounds of Blood Warrior, the “avant skate-rock” of the Vultures, and Titles’ dreamy psychedelic pop. Titles’ Dirt Bell LP was Hartford Courant rock critic Eric Danton’s favorite local release last year.
There is no “New Haven sound.” Mayer notes that there have always been cliques among local musicians based on genre preferences. But what stands out these days is the degree to which local rock musicians prefer not to be constrained by stylistic fetters.
According to Wells, “New Haven has a lot of bands who share members and try out new things. But it’s going to happen. You play with the same group of guys over and over again, you have friends in other bands, you start turning the wheels on ‘We should try this,’ ‘You get behind this,’ ‘You grab the bass.’ There’s always a lot of experimenting and cross-pollination.”
“It’s like that in any scene really,” says Thomas. “Look at any record from Chicago. All the same people are on all those records. New Haven is no different. That excites me and validates this as a real working scene – that people are working with each other and just putting out music.
“It has the same feel of those other cities you read about in Rolling Stone. You think, ‘You know, we do that, too. We must be real now,’” Thomas adds, laughing. “There are a lot of good bands coming out of New Haven, which is really exciting. What’s cool is they all sound pretty different. Everybody is a bit older so I don’t think anybody is trying to ‘be’ their favorite band anymore.”
When I ask Mayer what bands have been doing well at Café Nine recently, one of the groups he mentions is Goodnight Blue Moon. Although they are working on a recording with Bill Readey of Fuzzy Rainbow Productions — the same studio in which Fake Babies recorded their album — Goodnight Blue Moon could hardly be more different. Guitarist/songwriter/singer Erik Elligers describes the group’s music as “indie folk rock,” adding, “some people say ‘lo-fi chamber pop,’ which I like.”
Unlike Fake Babies’ desire to use electronic instruments to harness the “power of sound,” Elligers says Goodnight Blue Moon’s “whole goal was to make music that was acoustic and that we could play in our living room.”
Originally from Windsor, Connecticut and with a degree in music from University of Miami, Elligers came to New Haven in 2003, playing alto sax with the dance/experimental/rock band Pencilgrass, which he describes as the “most eclectic group I’ve ever been involved with.” Two releases by the Mountain Movers rock band on Safety Meeting Records also featured Elligers’ sax and flute playing.
It wasn’t his intention to write “Americana” or bluegrass music, he says. Rather, he had long been interested in playing the guitar in some capacity and trying “a new medium to write in.” He started working out material, accompanied by his wife, Nancy Matlack, a cellist.
“It turned out my neighbor Mat Crowley played mandolin in a local group,” says Elligers. “He brought a whole bluegrass type of vibe, a cool departure from what I’m used to.”
The group has since rounded out the instrumentation with percussion, viola, bass, and trumpet.
“We’re certainly not anything close to the style of Fake Babies and not at all similar to M.T. Bearington. They’re more experimental. We’ve gone the more traditional route,” says Elligers. “Still, everybody in our group is eclectic. Everybody has studied everything from rock to classical to bluegrass to jazz. Everybody brings their own thing to our group.
“It feels like there are a lot of different styles going on in the New Haven music scene right now,” says Elligers. “It keeps it interesting.”
Safety Meeting Records can be found online at safetymeeting.net. Café Nine’s website is cafenine.com. Visit The Space at thespace.tk. Manic Productions events are listed at manicproductions.org.
• Fake Babies: myspace.com/fakebabiesmusic
• M.T. Bearington: mtbearington.com
• Estrogen Highs: myspace.com/estrogenhighs
• Goodnight Blue Moon: myspace.com/goodnightbluemoon