Interview: Arty Shepherd of Saint Vitus Bar

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New York City has been the East Coast’s musical Mecca for most of the past century. Consequently, it has no shortage of quality music venues. (It has few shortages of any kind, aside from deficiencies in ‘quiet’ and ‘personal space.’) Even metal-friendly venues exist in quantity here.

Businesses usually face lengthy gestation periods in such crowded markets. But less than two years after opening, the Brooklyn metal bar called Saint Vitus has already become the center of gravity for New York’s thriving independent metal scene. Located at the northern tip of Brooklyn’s northernmost neighborhood, Saint Vitus hosts touring bands, local showcases, and a variety of non-concert parties and arts events. It has already achieved regional, and even national, notoriety.

The Saint Vitus staff has deep roots, both in the region and in the music business. Arty Shepherd, one of the bar’s owners, was involved in the booming Long Island hardcore scene of the ’90s. He has also toured extensively with a host of hardcore and post-hardcore bands, including Mind Over Matter, Errortype II, Instruction, and Gay For Johnny Depp. He currently plays with Primitive Weapons, who recently released an excellent album via Prosthetic Records.

I sat down with Arty at the bar before a Thursday night rush to discuss the genesis, history, and future of his young institution.

— Doug Moore

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You’re the co-owner of Saint Vitus along with (Primitive Weapons bandmate) Justin Scurti and George Souleidis, correct?

Yeah. The bar also has two ‘silent’ owners.

How do you guys know each other?

I’ve known Justin since he was 14. He used to come see my old band, Mind Over Matter, and I was friends with his cousin Julian. He’s from Queens, but he got pretty involved in the Long Island hardcore scene and with PWAC. He was also in a band called Milhouse for a while, though he was out before their first record. Their singer was my roommate for a while, so we had a few connections. When I was in Instruction, he was my tour manager and guitar tech, so he took care of me during my drunken, retarded pseudo-rock star phase.

I know George because we both worked at another Brooklyn bar called Matchless together. We worked together for a year before I even knew his last name or that he was also into metal. One day I put on Yngwie Malmsteen and his head almost exploded. We both knew all the words! We started talking about music finally, and it turned out that we both spent a lot of time in the same venues.

What is PWAC?

PWAC is the People With AIDS Coalition. It was a huge venue in Lindenhurst, Long Island that existed around ’94 or ’95. It booked everybody from Vision of Disorder and Avail to Fugazi, which was the ultimate moment for the place.

We built up the Long Island scene to the point where bands would actually come out to Long Island, which they hadn’t before. I was only peripherally involved, because I was living in the city at that point, but the other guys who worked on it just made it easy. Some of us had toured in Europe, and we realized that European venues really do things right—they give bands food and a place to stay; they work hard to make bands sound good onstage. We concluded that we should do the same things.

PWAC was based on that idea, and the scene grew quickly. VOD would bring 2,000 people to a show. It was fuckin’ cool as shit. It was the pinnacle of the Long Island hardcore scene.

Where did the idea to open a bar come from? How did you decide on making it a metal-oriented bar/venue?

The idea to do a metal bar developed over time. We wanted to open a bar for a while, but we didn’t have the money. It required a perfect storm—finding a space, finding investors, and having a lot of luck. We pretty much treated it like putting together a band. When we found the people, it was like putting together a lineup. When we opened the doors for the first time, it was like releasing our record. Maintaining the business is like touring.

When Justin and I were touring around the world, we noticed that people would very quickly pick up on the fact that we were into metal and tell us to come to this or that local bar. It would happen in virtually every town. I also lived in London for a while, and the metal people there would go to The Crobar or Garlic and Shots, which are awesome places that are specifically oriented towards metal. I remember the first time I went to Garlic and Shots—the basement has no windows, only two beers on the menu, a coffin in the corner, and a “blood” shot. They were playing the Swedish band Shining and I thought to myself, “This is fucking heaven!” I sat there by myself for hours, drinking shitty San Miguel’s and listening to black metal. That might not be other people’s dream, but it was mine (laughs).

I had a few other experiences like that while I was touring, and I took mental notes about each one. When the opportunity arose here in Brooklyn, we decided that we’d do sort of a metal-tinged place, because there’s enough of a scene here to support one. The venue part of the bar was secondary; we thought we’d just have a show every once in a while. That changed very quickly. The first show we did was Liturgy, and it was fucking mobbed in here. We quickly learned that once people had a reason to come down to this end of Manhattan Avenue (note: Manhattan Avenue runs to the northernmost tip of Brooklyn, where Saint Vitus is located), they’d realize that it’s not too hard to get here. It’s like we had to put on a metaphorical clown suit and jump around shouting “Come on down!”

The clown suit was Liturgy.

Essentially, yeah! We had already hired [Saint Vitus events coordinator and fellow Primitive Weapons member] Dave [Castillo] on a very limited basis, but his role blew up quickly. I want to keep the front bar metal, or at least proto-metal. I think we’ve done a decent job. This business is about consistency. I’ve walked into so-called metal bars and they’ll be playing U2, and it’s like, “What the fuck is this?” I don’t ever want that to happen here.

Saint Vitus’s interior looks more aggressively metal than most of the other metal bars I’ve been in—it’s mostly black, it basically has no windows, the lighting is all red, it features stained glass and inverted crosses, there’s a picture of King Diamond over the cash register, and so forth. Who designed it?

The guy who designed it is named Matt Maddy. He’s done a bunch of other bars/restaurants in Brooklyn—the restaurant No. 7 in Fort Greene, The Box in Manhattan, and so on. He’s a friend, and he asked us what we were thinking of.

We wanted to do a metal bar, but we didn’t want it to be grungy or shitty-looking. Some of the nicer metal bars, like the Viper Room and the Key Club in LA, look nice. George and I originally wanted the interior to look like a Byzantine church—it was gonna have a stained glass façade, the bathrooms were gonna look like confessionals, and so on. That idea was way too expensive, so we toned it down. Matt based it off of our specs: the red lighting, the candles, and the black surfaces. A lot of the materials are refurbished; we were on a limited budget, and Matt was very accommodating. We also ripped out the original stage in the live room and brought in a sound designer right from the beginning. Thank fucking God we did that.

The stuff behind the bar is mostly from my room. We’ve also got some vinyl from local bands back there, which we built up over time. People would give us records and we’d just throw them up there. We do that out of a desire to be helpful—people would see a Hull record or whatever back there and ask about them, which is awesome. It helps build up associations for the local metal scene. But all the knick-knacks and shit are from my room at home.

Can you describe the logistical process that led to the bar’s opening? I assume it was a lot of work.

It was a lot of work, but a lot of people who knew what they were doing contributed, which helped.

When you walked inside before the bar was set up, the only original objects were the doors. Everything else was cinder blocks, and the floor was all stained with oil. The bathrooms weren’t there, and the live room was way bigger. The landlord’s general contractor came in and white-boxed the place, which also involved making the place compliant with Department of Buildings code—the support beams had to be in the right place and such. After that, Matt Maddy’s in-house contractors took over with the plans we’d laid out. Before they could even build the bathrooms, we had to install the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system. The system is this incredible, beautiful artwork of bent metal, called a ‘nest.’ Justin’s dad’s company installed it. He did an amazing job; the air conditioning and heating in this place is insane. As the construction moved on, we changed the original plans, which in turn had to be amended by the city. It was a fucking process.

In the meantime, we had to apply for a liquor license. We signed our lease while we were applying. The lease gave us several months of no-charge rent to build out. You want to finish building and get your liquor license at the same time, so that at least you’re not paying rent with no income. We almost made it—it was very close

One of our silent partners owns like six places, which made a big difference. If you aren’t working with someone who has a liquor license already, it can be very difficult and time-consuming to acquire one. Because we had a guy who already had four, it was a relatively quick turnaround. I know of places that took a year to get a license; it didn’t take that long for us. Both the construction and the license were done in like four months, which is very quick. Things like doorknobs and toilets started falling apart about three months later, but that was because we were busy. You can’t really complain about that.

We never put a storefront on the place for a few reasons. For one thing, it was too expensive, but we also liked that it gave the place a speakeasy-type feel. The neighborhood was pretty sketchy early on as well, and the black storefront is a bit intimidating. The area has gotten considerably better in just a year’s time.

Did you guys have any other name candidates before you settled on Saint Vitus?

Nope.

How did you choose it?

One day George was walking to work while we were working together at Matchless. He showed up with an old metal magazine from 1985 that he’d found in the garbage. It had Dio on the cover. We had been talking about names, before we had the space or the collaborators or anything. We wanted a name that was undeniably a ‘rock bar’ name. A few famous album names got thrown around—Reign In Blood, or something stupid like that.

George and I decided to open the metal magazine he’d found to a random page and name the bar after whatever was on that page. I literally opened the magazine on the first shot to a review of Saint Vitus’s Born Too Late. I said, “What about Saint Vitus?” And George responded with, “That’s fucking awesome.” It’s a Sabbath song, it’s a Bauhaus song, it’s a classic doom metal band, and it’s also a saint, which fit with our original Byzantine church idea. It’s the name of a famous church in the center of Prague, which is beautiful. The name just stuck from that point on.

I kept the magazine, of course. It’s in the corner over there.

Saint Vitus (the band) will play at Saint Vitus (the bar) on September 25. Wino Weinrich has already played here twice, once with Premonition 13 and once as a solo artist. Was it kind of weird to have the namesake of the bar here?

No, it was really cool! In other interviews I’ve done, I’ve pointed out that the bar isn’t named strictly after the band Saint Vitus, but I’ve never explained the name story to Wino in full. Maybe I will when Saint Vitus plays here.

I actually interviewed Wino myself last time he was here. There’s a documentary that’s being done on Saint Vitus [the bar] and Primitive Weapons by Converse. [Music photographer] Jimmy Hubbard was here, and he’s friends with Wino. He suggested that we interview him. Dave was so stoned out of his face that he couldn’t even speak, and Wino was pretty out of it too—“I’m crushed,” he said [laughs]. Justin was trying to deal with Dave, who was on another planet, so I just started doing the interview. He told some cool stories about going to shows in the ’70s and whatnot. He’s awesome, and the Vitus guys seem pretty flattered about the whole thing.

Apparently—and this is fucking hilarious—[Saint Vitus guitarist] Dave Chandler felt trepidation about playing here because of all the upside-down crosses. He’s superstitious! I offered to cover them if it was really a problem, or to turn’em rightside-up for that day [laughs].

Along with your bar obligations, you also play with Primitive Weapons (along with Justin and Dave), who have been touring regularly. How do you balance the competing demands on your schedule?

We have a partner, George, who is very forgiving. He looks at the band as an extension of this place. Everywhere the band goes on tour, people approach us and say, “You guys own Saint Vitus, right?” Which is super cool. You could be in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania, and someone will ask about Saint Vitus. They’ll say “Oh, we just played there and it was incredible!” or “We’re booked there and I can’t wait to play it!” It’s overwhelmingly awesome.

Basically, we’re able to balance it because George is very open to putting in the hours to make up for our absence. I’m able to handle the bar’s books from the road and in advance when necessary, and Dave is able to handle his job from the road too, which makes everything a little bit easier.

Vitus hosts a lot of non-concert events: art openings, TV show debuts, and so forth. What’s the weirdest event you’ve had at the bar?

The “Metalocalypse” episode debut we had here was pretty weird, because a lot of people dressed up in character. We had girls dressed in the caution tape dancing around onstage, which was pretty awesome. People were running around dressed like Dr. Rockso. That was the most fun I’ve ever had at a party here. The guy who was running it was fucking awesome. They made Watain cupcakes! It was done really well, and all for an 11-minute episode.

The art shows aren’t that weird. A lot of the art is inspired by black metal. Genesis P-Orridge DJ’d here one time, which was kinda strange. I can’t think of anything we’ve had that’s been shockingly weird, though. We haven’t had anyone light themselves on fire or anything, thank God.

What about the (alt-porn website) Burning Angel New Year’s Eve party you guys had?

Oh, that’s right! Apparently there were a lot of girls getting naked during that, but I was working, so I don’t think I saw a single naked girl that night. When the Village Voice post about it [Warning: NSFW] came out, we were like, “When did this happen?” We expected them to be dancing on the bar and stuff, but there was none of that. They apparently all went in the bathroom and took pictures of each other. George and I were totally confused. There were a lot of people here and it got pretty crazy, but because I had my head down pouring beer, I didn’t experience much of it. I’m glad people had such a good time, though.

What’s the most problematic part of the bar’s daily operation? What do you hope to improve upon?

Security, always. Sometimes you never know what you’re gonna get with shows. People sneak beer in all the time, which is really annoying and disrespectful. I hate to be that guy who says, “You paid to see a show, but I’m gonna throw you out.” We usually just walk up to people and take the illicit beer. Our shit’s so cheap here; what the fuck are you doing?

We’re constantly improving the live room. We’re constantly tweaking what we carry, booze-wise. Other than that, we want to expand. We want the Saint Vitus brand to go to other places. We’re kind of fine-tuning this place so that we can branch out. We’ll see what that means exactly.

So you’re thinking about opening other locations?

Yeah. Of course. We have been for a little while. This place is already a trusted brand. We’d love to do it in another city; I don’t think we could do another Saint Vitus in Brooklyn. We’d be competing with ourselves. But in another market, it might work. We’re just waiting for the right time and we don’t wanna rush it. Plus, it costs a lot of money [laughs].

What are you most proud of about Saint Vitus?

A series of things, really. I was proud of opening, and I’m proud of staying open. I’m proud that I’m doing this with my friends. We had an idea, and we were right—it worked. I’m happy that we hired Dave. It was a smart move that involved some foresight. I’m really proud of him; he really went for it and he’s done some incredible things here. Sometimes I walk into that back room, and a band just makes it sound and look so awesome, and I’m just like, “Yes! This is fucking great!” And I’m proud of the fact that Saint Vitus is playing here, because that was something we’d looked into before we opened. When we found out what their guarantee was, we thought it would never happen. But only a year and a half later, we realized that we could do it.

You can never step back and pat yourself on the back, though. You’ve gotta keep moving. The bills don’t let you rest. The city doesn’t let you rest.