“It wouldn’t have happened as rapidly as it happened if it weren’t for all the people that were creating culture on their own terms and making it attractive.” —Kyp Malone, TV on the Radio
“The role of the artist in New York is to make a neighborhood so desirable that artists can’t afford to live there anymore.”—Mayor Ed Koch
Goodnight Brooklyn: the Story of Death by Audio, a documentary premiering today at SXSW, is all of the things you would expect it to be: a historical look at the origins and eventual demise of the Williamsburg DIY venue, a crushing story of scruffy artists’ defeat at the hands of corporate near-sightedness, and a montage of live footage from the final evenings of shows. It’s also a really good movie.
Director Matt Conboy, also a co-founder of DBA, weaves the narrative– via talking heads and Gonzo reporting– around and between live music sets, dropping in the soul-destroying diegetic sound (what you’d expect from a documentary about a rock venue) from bands like Deerhoof, Future Islands, Grooms, Jeff the Brotherhood, and of course, A Place to Bury Strangers. But he also manages to lay in excellent ambient music.
Perhaps most successfully, Conboy presents a #TotalBummer of a story with all the celebratory feeling that a vibrant, upbeat scene’s wampeter deserves. Goodnight Brooklyn brings viewers along for the same ride experienced by the venue’s progenitors and audiences alike, from ebullience to anger to eventual sadness and acceptance, as the DBA boys put the last items in a rented Penske truck.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Conboy was handed an excellent cast of characters: Oliver Ackermann, founder of the guitar effects pedal company also called Death by Audio, seems like the friendliest, most posi guy in the history of optimistic entrepreneurs, while Edan Wilber serves as the poster child for Belief in a Vibe, a dreamy-eyed workaholic devotee.
Try not to get choked up when Edan bursts into tears after reading about how DBA had failed to live up to its economic potential, and I dare you not to cheer when Oliver, in a rare moment of derision, finally allows himself to say that “Vice is a bunch of fuckin’ douchebags” and, simply, “Fuck Vice.”
I caught up with Conboy via phone before he flew down to Texas to see how he was feeling.
To be honest, I found out that we were going to have to move out, and I met up with our producer, Amanda Schultz, and kind of told her the whole story. ‘Here’s what’s happening, Vice is moving in.’ And she was pretty adamant like immediately, ‘We need to get cameras and we need to start filming this, we need to make a documentary about this.’ She convinced me over a dinner.
Initially, it took a month to get everything organized, and get the right people in helping us, so there was some overlap where I was filming stuff here and there and trying to do both– trying to run things, and experience them, and film them. I was trying as quickly as possible to get us to a place where we had people and I could go, ‘Ok, today you’re gonna film Edan.’ And I could do whatever other crap I had to do related to moving out or getting shows set up.
There was definitely something where I knew it was gonna be crazy. If you’re interested in making movies, it’s scary when it’s your life, but as a filmmaker, this seems like an opportunity— there’s gonna be some crazy shit going down.
It’s hard to get over the whole Vice thing because the irony is so thick. Edan told B+B that the shredded Vice mags at the last show were from yours and his personal collection. Vice never covered your closing. And in the film, Nick Kusyk notes that the “Fuck you Vice” graffito is something the old Vice would have put on their cover. But at this point, you’ve just had this whole cathartic thing of processing it– where are you at now with the new-eating-old that Vice did?
You kind of hit the nail on the head in that making the film for me was really cathartic, and I think a lot of my anger and frustration, I put it into the movie. And now that it’s pretty much finished, I’m able to let a lot of that stuff go.
The one caveat being that—[per the title card at the end of the film: “Every great city has a space like Death By Audio. If yours doesn’t, you should start one.”] them not paying for any of the damages [caused by flooding during Vice‘s construction]. That’s the only thing left that I’m mad about, is I’m still having to deal with this. They destroyed thousands and thousands of dollars of our stuff in these floods, and completely refused to do anything about it. And I’m having to pay for lawyers to try to get money back for my stuff and my roommate’s stuff. And that’s maybe the thing I’m most mad about currently. Because it’s nothing to them.
But yeah, in terms of the old eating new, I think we were trying to have the movie really be transparent about the irony of the situation but also how, whatever this process of gentrification—it’s not something that started with Vice and it’s certainly not going to end with them. I hope that the movie doesn’t paint them as [being] the only reason there’s anything wrong with Williamsburg, because that’s not how I feel. But it is really ironic. It’s safe to say that if Vice weren’t one of the smaller subjects of this movie, they would very much be interested in telling this story.
Oh yeah, for sure. And we had known that forever. I think we were all secretly hoping that someone like Donald Trump would come in and offer hundreds of millions of dollars to level that whole building and build some nasty monstrous skyscraper. Because that seemed plausible and it seemed like, at least we won’t end up like Headgear, the recording studio. It’s now a J.Crew. And that’s kind of a bummer.
I think that’s something we all noticed, and were like, hopefully they’ll just demolish our building and it’ll be a parking lot or some ridiculous thing. Obviously we knew it wasn’t gonna last forever. In some ways we stuck around longer than we were welcome. We kind of ended up being the last of the DIY spaces in Williamsburg. And you feel like you stick out like a sore thumb when it’s just you and a bunch of bars and restaurants and fancy stores.
Did you see that they’re talking about building luxury condos in East New York?
That’s really fucked up. That’s one of the things I always felt kinda good about, for whatever force DBA had on our neighborhood– and that’s for somebody else to determine— but I always felt good that at least we didn’t kick anybody out of their home. We came into this unused relic of another generation’s American manufacturing that had gone by the wayside. We can talk about how screwed up that is, but it’s a completely different thing to inherit industrial spaces and repurpose them for creativity versus taking over a brownstone that a family’s lived in.
There’s all this press about how ‘Williamsburg is over,’ and my question is, is it over for New York? DIY culture, or having any kind of culture that’s not just about making the most amount of money, are we doing that any more?
I think we are. It’s something I worry about. Absolutely. I still live here, and I love New York, it’s my home. I think that things are going in the wrong direction in terms of how our city and how our country in general values creativity. And I think that New York is definitely at the point of the pendulum swing that’s about as far away from the kind of freedom and openness of the 1970s or even the late ‘90s, where there were a lot of opportunities for creative people to do their own thing. And I think that the reason the city has a vibrant culture is because so many people come here, because it has such a history. But I do feel concerned that at a certain point we’re gonna run out of space. At a certain point, it can’t be just wealthy people living in the city. Like Michael Bloomberg’s idea: if it’s all just billionaires, it’s great. I don’t think any city is worth living in if it only caters to one group
But all that said, and [with] all that doom and gloom, I think one of my favorite things about the DIY spirit of community– as I’ve seen it across the country– [is that] it’s surprisingly adaptable, it’s surprisingly virulent. [Some] 23-year-old kid who is like me when I started the venue, that kid’s probably thinking of ways to do weird shit that wouldn’t even occur to me. Within New York City. So I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t like the way things have been progressing.
But I’m optimistic because there are still places like Silent Barn and Shea Stadium that are still doing weird stuff. And Secret Project Robot, there are some cool art spaces around where people are doing cool stuff all the time.
I’m optimistic that the L train might shut down for two years. Rents will have to stop going up, right? For a second?
It would be interesting if that was where the wave crested and rolled back. Then we’d be like, well, the real estate speculation monster needs to keep trying things out, so they gotta pick another neighborhood and forget about Williamsburg.
Once you got this film into the editing room, how did you approach balancing the celebratory nature of what the space was in its prime, and the sad nature of its closing, especially with those final shows?
That wasn’t a difficult thing to do because of the very nature of the different things we filmed. The movie is a straight-up reflection of what it was like. I’m sure if you interviewed Edan or Oliver, they’d say, pretty much every day we would get up and laugh about something that happened or was gonna happen, and then something stressful or frightening would happen. And then we’d give each other a hug, and y’know, we’re gonna get through this. We’re not giving up. And then an awesome band from somewhere in the world would show up at our door and would be super excited to play, and we would be excited, and our staff would show up, and the general public would show up. And we’d be like, oh my god—another insanely fun awesome show with great bands and great people.
All of the emotions that I think are reflected in the film, it really just comes from me trying to make the film as close to a representation of what it felt like being there as possible. Every concert was amazing, inspiring, and really bittersweet because you knew it was one less that was gonna happen.
Also, we are just that kind of people— we’re doing this weird thing, y’know. We’re not bankers. I think that when you’re involved in this weird social experiment, living in a warehouse and having art and music and stuff, you kind of have to have a thick skin and you have to be just down to roll with it and make things work. And be in the moment when it’s fun, and keep looking forward when it’s not.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
SXSW screenings of Goodnight Brooklyn: the Story of Death by Audio:
Monday March 14, 4 pm to 5:22 pm at Stateside Theatre
Tuesday March 15, 2 pm to 3:22 pm at Rollins Theatre at the Long Center
Friday March 18, 10 pm to 11:22 pm at Stateside Theatre