Trans-Pecos isn’t a new establishment by any definition– the Ridgewood music venue brought to us by DIY veteran Todd P has been hosting shows in the old Silent Barn space for about a year and a half now. During that time they’ve struggled to obtain a liquor license, which, let’s face it, makes all the difference in the world when it comes to running a (legal) show space. But when we stopped by Monday night for the return of Diamond Terrifier‘s experimental and outsider music series, Practice, the place was bubbling anew not just with boozy energy thanks to a spanking new license to serve, but with a combination that might seem lost on most other venues around town: hypnotic attentiveness to mind-bending music and an experimental lineup that was magically paired with a sense of accessibility.
Diamond Terrifier, aka Sam Hillmer, the experimental, free jazz musician and saxophonist for Zs, is a long-bearded and lengthy-maned guy you can pick out of any crowd. Hillmer now runs Trans-Pecos alongside Todd P, but he previously captained the Practice series at Zebulon, the beloved now defunct Williamsburg venue known for its– prepare yourself for this “cheesy” word– eclectic bills. Zebulon joined the dirge for other late DIY venues when it closed back in 2012. (It’s now completely unrecognizable as the home of a refined southern food joint, The Heyward).
“It was the place, especially for people in the outsider music area, they were just super sweet and really made you feel like it was your place and valued having the music there, even if the turnouts weren’t great,” Sam recalled. “Practice there was always good, it was always lit up, and there was this synergy between the party and the people and the place and the leadership that was really productive.”
After Zebulon closed, Sam moved Practice to Public Assembly, though the same feeling just wasn’t there. “I wrapped it up, thinking I’d had a good run,” Sam recalled. But after a while, people began to feel like the hole that Zebulon had left was growing ever bigger. Todd P reached out to Hillmer and together they set about opening Trans-Pecos.
“There always has been a venue that did what Zebulon did, there was Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, the early Knitting Factory, Tonic,” Sam said. “And then there are other places that are committed to outsider music, but I think the important thing about a venue like [Trans-Pecos] is that it’s a full-blown, legal, commercial venue. It’s not seeking grants or anything like that. All those places were just bars, that had performance spaces that just happened to be committed to experimental music, and that’s a very special thing. Once Zebulon closed, we felt there was a need.”
After Trans-Pecos finally got their liquor license several weeks back, Sam decided the time was right to bring back Practice. Along with a series of other events Trans-Pecos is dubbing its “lightly-themed” Happy Hours, Practice is popping off weekly. It’s rare to see a free music event at a venue space, let alone several happening regularly every week. But Sam argues that the lack of a ticket price (well, there is a one drink minimum but, whatever, you were totally gonna buy that beer anyway) does a lot to get people in the door and promote the ticketed events as well as exposure to different types of music.
“It’s all off-night, alternate vibes, no money— which is meant to promote that it’s only about community and hanging out and checking out music and working on music,” he said. “When you remove the obstacle of a ticket price, it does open the gate to people who are like, ‘Oh it’s free? Why not, I’ll walk over there with you.’ And that’s not a vibe you get a lot in experimental music. Normally people are converts or they don’t give a crap and they are maybe actively trying to avoid it. The free thing opens it up to people, which is really cool.”
Practice isn’t quite an open-mic night, but the kind of attentiveness and risk-taking and newness it inspires makes it similar. Swap out amateurs for seasoned musicians who are trying out their less seasoned material and you’ve got Practice. And the fact that the event’s existence isn’t dependent upon ticket sales promotes experimentation even further. This sense of casual sharing does a great deal to create a communal atmosphere.
“My whole career has been about populist angles on pushing experimental music,” Sam explained. “The whole notion of avant-garde music is about interrupting–you’re out and about and fucking Taylor Swift and everybody’s on everywhere and then there’s some super aberrant sound object and you’re like ‘What the hell is that?’–it’s supposed to have that effect, but if it gets ghettoized and only presented at certain places for $15 and it’s only for the heads and the fans and the people who are actually converted, it actually loses that interruptive property.”
He added: “If it loses that interruptive quality because everybody who’s checking it out already expects that, then like what’s the mission? For me the mission has always been that interruptive thing. Putting something in front of people that is a little jarring, but that’s playful and accessible enough also to promote that mission.”
That mission is palpable at Practice. And the environment is welcoming not only for a wide variety of listeners, but also wildly different performers, and the diversity extends right down to what they’re encouraged to play as well.
We went to the inaugural Practice night on Monday and, really, we were blown away by the breadth of music fed to us, there was everything from a rap crew (Zulu P) to a musician who unraveled unimaginable noises out of a viola (Jeanann Dara). The quality and rawness of each performance was also striking. Add in a backdrop of tripped-out live video mixed projections and you’ve got yourself a true experience.
“I was anticipating that it would be intimate without feeling empty,” Sam said. “Making it comfortable and laid-back is what’s up, it would be dope if someone who has no interest in this music stopped by and they were like ‘Man that was weird,’ but they also just had fun. To me, that’s more important than hyper-dialed in people who read The Wire. They’re supposed to be fans, that’s not an accomplishment, but if you reached someone who had never considered there are other strains of music beyond dominant radio culture, that’s important, interesting work.”
Zulu P’s performance, the first, was probably the most unexpected of the night. I won’t lie, I was a little confused by it at first. It seemed out of place at what I thought was an “experimental music” event. I haven’t seen a lot of hip hop live, but compared to what I have seen these guys (three of them led by the emcee Marley G, plus one woman) were very different. They were so closely knit, arranged as a four-piece ensemble and their hooks were clever, their beats a great fit for their hyped-up act. I found out later Zulu P’s members are all developmentally disabled adults who Sam met a handful of years ago. He’s s spotlighted their work repeatedly for years and has been working with them more recently.
The Zulu P crew also uses Trans-Pecos as a practice space (along with other artists) as part of the venue’s commitment to daytime community programming. “Essentially we’re providing a rehearsal space, but we’re also networking them in with artists who might be interested in what they’re doing, and trying to program them in as part of our nighttime programming,” Sam explained.
He added: “If the point is to uplift and elevate these people, you should be finding opportunities to transition from an arts activism setting to a normative setting, where you’re just presenting that work and rolling with those people as peers, otherwise the work isn’t really transformative.”
Zulu P’s performance shook up my expectations in the best way possible. My head was completely cracked open and ready for anything when Angus Tarnawsky took the stage. Tarnawksy, an Australian composer and percussionist living in New York City, presented his electronics paired with a snare drum noise project, which started out minimally and grew into a massive sound.
Jeanann Dara pushed her instrument, the viola, to the outer limits of possibility. At one point, I had to crane my neck to make sure she wasn’t using any electronics. The sounds were devastating, created by intense staccato and a dry-as-bone bow cracking across strings like lightning, a spark I thought could only be harnessed by the power of a synth.
Attempting to describe Practice later to a friend, I said that though there were elements of noise, it was far from any noise show I’d ever been too. It was much too multifarious for that, but neither was it some sober, coffee-cup-holding “world music” sort of event. Practice was too exciting for that, though the sounds were still far from marketable and most definitely experimental.
Sam has lived in New York City for more than 20 years and said that when he first moved here, there was more synergy between various cultural groups and less “niche-based work.” “People are in these slivers, and that’s their whole existence, there are people who all they do is listen to techno, that’s their whole vibe, they go to Bossa Nova and they go to Output, Verbotten and that’s it, which is weird,” he said. “Some people are hyper-fixated on this one vibe and our shit is deeply not about that, it’s explicitly about supporting communities of outsider musical practice and that’s the only commonality. We’re really going for that intersection and trying to cause a more integrated musical community.”
Practice is held at 8 pm, Mondays at Trans-Pecos, 9-15 Wyckoff Avenue, Ridgewood, Queens, entrance is free with purchase of one drink.