New Brunswick’s music hot spot, The Bunker, is easy to miss. It looks like your standard off campus college house. Nevertheless, locals know to go around back and down into the basement. It might as well be a portal to another world.
On Friday February 3, the room was rocking with a line up of Dangerous Vice, Pioneer the Eel, Motor Heart Man, Johnny Cola and Barzan the Barbarian, each providing a contrast of sounds from psychedelic rock, post-punk, and hip-hop.
New Brunswick, which houses the main Rutgers University campus, has spawned numerous bands since the 1970’s. Clubs like the Court Tavern, The Melody and The Roxy helped bands like The Smithereens, The Bouncing Souls and Bon Jovi get their start.
According to the book New Brunswick, New Jersey, Goodbye: Bands, Dirty Basements, and the Search for Self, by Ronen Kaufman, it was in the 1980’s that off-campus houses started using their basements to host questionably legal shows in part to give students under drinking age and thus unable to get into the other clubs, access to the burgeoning punk scene. The secrecy was always part of the fun.
The basement scene continues to this day and has more recently propelled bands like Screaming Females into mainstream popularity. Venues in the scene typically allow around 100 people and often shift from place to place.
Charly Santagado set up The Bunker. In an interview with The VOICE she said: “I hosted on campus open mic type shows last year and wanted to take it off campus because I could have my own rules, not have to deal with bureaucracy, etc.”
Santagado describes how she found the space saying, “I was looking at houses to live in for the 2016-2017 school year and when I saw the one I moved into, I was totally sold by the basement and its potential as a show house. So I brainstormed a name and planned a show and that was the birth of The Bunker.”
Though she lives with housemates, Santagado is the only person actually involved with the making and management of The Bunker.
With an entry fee of only $5 per person, The Bunker became packed within the hour on the night of February 3. There were a total of five acts playing at the show.
The first to play was Dangerous Vice. As the band set up, the crowd casually talked to each other while sipping on some drinks or going outside for a cigarette. When they began to play, the tone changed, and the talking stopped. Everyone moved forward and gave their full attention to the band.
A Bunker regular and Rutgers student, Joanne Zapata said, “People are pretty friendly and don’t really care whether it’s your fiftieth show or your first show. Everyone’s just there to support each other and build on friendships while listening to music.”
Applause and cheers filled the room for each artist. Occasional impromptu mosh pits formed during more intense sets, creating a violent sea of people that pushed and pulled each other in chaotic rhythm. The energy of the show connected the performers and the audience through thumps and riffs. Barzan the Barbarian specifically seemingly made the entire basement vibrate with his violent, and ferocious beats.
Another Bunker attendee and Rutgers student, Connor Bracken, told The VOICE, “I go for the social aspects, and also just for the few hours i can escape while the music’s here. I like to just stand up front and dance for a bit, letting out all the shit at the end of the week.”
Meeting new people, discovering new music, and escaping the responsibilities of day-to-day life seems to be the heart of what makes shows so popular.
Rutgers student Leanne Reid said, “It’s something to do and way better than frat parties!”
The attendees have formed a sense of community and Do It Yourself (DIY) counterculture that shows how artists don’t need to be in an expensive venue to gain recognition and a dedicated audience.
Bracken summed up the basement scene saying: “It expands your horizons and broadens your perspective on music, all while being a much more intimate experience. And it’s just fun.”