Thread Magazine sits down with Burlington music collective Friends & Family
words // Zach Despart
I’m in a crowded basement in Burlington’s Old North End with the eerie feeling I’ve been here before.
There’s a band in front that I can sort of see around the heating duct that’s haphazardly fastened to the rafters. I don’t know them, and I’m pretty sure few here do — a girl in front of me asks her friend; he shakes his head.
There are easily 50 people crammed into the long, narrow space — mostly UVM students and twenty-somethings. The floor is dusty and uneven and there’s a mattress propped up behind the drummer to muffle the sound. Empty beer cans are stacked on it. People are dancing below a single 60-watt light bulb that offers the only illumination in the place, kicking up a cloud of dust that clings to their skin.
The band is a two-piece, bare-bones outfit, just drums and a guitar. Their sound is loud and unpolished, like they’ve only been together a few gigs. The songs are short and simple. The PA sucks. And everyone loves it. After all, this is a Friends & Family show.
You may have never heard of the Burlington-based music collective but if you’ve seen a band in a sweaty basement in the Queen City the last couple years, there’s a good chance it’s been a Friends & Family show.
Today, I’m sitting at a table at Uncommon Grounds coffee shop on Church Street with Max Kravitz, Sophie Cassel, Yard Salei, Nathan Lake and Henry Webb. There are about a half-dozen others in the group, which plans, promotes and hosts shows in Burlington and beyond.
The group estimates they’ve put on 40-50 shows since 2011. Originally a vehicle to promote shows in basements and living rooms across the city’s Old North End, Friends & Family now partners at downtown venues like the Radio Bean.
So what’s the secret to their success? A combination of meticulous planning, creative promotion and a commitment to fostering relationships with artists, bookers and venues.
F&F makes a conscious effort to book shows with bands that sound similar, mixing local and touring acts to create the best gig possible — you might go to see your friend’s band, but you’re going to be exposed to groups you’ve never heard of, too.
“We curate our shows really hard,” Webb says.
In the beginning…
Friends and Family traces its humble roots to the fall of 2009, to a house on the corner of Pomeroy and Hyde streets nicknamed “The Wedge.”
“Everyone was living in at The Wedge,” Max Kravitz recalls. “[We put] two mattresses behind the drum set to keep the sound in; there were leaky pipes.”
“It was the tiniest, most horrible house,” Kerr says.
The group hosted 33 shows at The Wedge over two years. In May 2011 the lease expired, and Kravitz wanted to keep the vibe going. “I felt like I needed to recreate that in some way,” he says. That summer Kravitz reached out to Max Weiss, Harrison Bigler, Sophie Cassel, and Shane Kerr.
They held their first meeting in August 2011, in Kravitz’ dining room. Webb, Salei, Jim Osborn and Matt Usifer soon joined. The group currently has around ten regular members — though they stress that anyone is welcome to come to their meetings, held every Tuesday at 9:00.
Kravitz spent the fall of 2011 studying in France and couldn’t believe how many people were going to the shows when he returned. “There used to be 8 or 20 people,” he says. “It exploded.”
A bellwether of F&F’s burgeoning success occurred in September 2011. Leopard Shepherd, a label founded by Max Weiss and Harrison Bigler, released a compilation album of recordings from shows at The Wedge. The group hosted a release party at The Bakery, a venue in the Old North End. In order to break even on production costs, the group needed to pull in $400, or about 80 people. They made over $800.
“That show reaffirmed everything that we wanted to do,” Kravitz says. “It proved to us that there are people out there that love and support local music.”
But F&F stresses it has never been, and never will be, about the money. If they do charge a cover for their shows at all, it’s only a few bucks — a pragmatic approach that they point to as a reason for their success.
“It’s on a sliding scale, no more than five dollars, depending on how far away bands are,” Lake says. “We want to make it worthwhile for touring bands to come to Burlington.”
Kravitz puts it another way: “Charging too much for a local show is silly.”
Most of the money they take in goes to help bands cover the necessities — beer, gas and cigarettes. Any left over is used to replace broken equipment, and in some cases, cover the cost of a noise violation. In scores of shows over the past two years, the group estimates there have only been a handful of run-ins with police.
“We don’t make any money from what we do,” says Lake. “We’re just trying to benefit the local music scene.”
Cassel sums up their non-commercial approach succinctly:
“Some of the best music I’ve ever heard in my life has been music played by bands who probably less than 400 people in the world know exist. Maybe they have recordings, maybe they don’t. Maybe the only way to get them is buying a tape at a show. The more we realize how incredibly talented and creative people are, and how much not being in it for the money impacts that, makes us want to show Burlington the enormous plethora of music that there is.”
F&F makes a concerted effort to take care of the touring bands they book, often allowing groups to crash at their apartments. This commitment to making bands feel at home is rooted in their own experiences on the road.
“The fact that we’re all in bands makes us aware of what it’s like to be in a new city and not really know who you’re playing for,” Cassel says. “Once a band gets into Burlington we take care of them — we get them to the show, show them where to eat, get them money, help them set up.”
“The most affirming thing about it is to hear them keep saying ‘this feels just like home’,” Salei says. “Maybe the world isn’t so strange and alien.”
The little money F&F collects at shows goes a long way.
“It’s so difficult to make money in the music industry these days,” Kravitz says. “The face that we’re able to keep this touring band thing going with out little shows here in town is something we’re really proud of.”
This focus on the musicians, coupled with an understanding of the hardships that touring groups face has made F&F great hosts. And apparently word has gotten around — the group gets emails from bands across the country on a regular basis. And there are some perks for F&F, too. “They invite us to tour in their towns,” Cassel says.
F&F isn’t just working behind the scenes, either — every single member is in some sort of music project, often with each other. “It’s incestuous,” Salei jokes. “But that’s more of a side project.”
“We try to let that fuel rather than limit our work with other people,” Cassel says. “None of us are house bands.”
The most open secret society in the world
The venues that host F&F events are known by their names rather than their addresses, and like everything else F&F does, eccentric creativity abounds . The Circus, The Vault, Girls Next Door, Lucy’s Bar & Grill, Mouse’s Roadhaus and House of Achilles are just a few of a regular joints.
The principal reason for this is safety.
“Technically what we’re doing is not legal, by any standard,” Cassel says, citing underage drinking, zoning regulations and the city’s 24-hour noise ordinance. “What we’re doing is considered by some members of the community to not be a worthwhile endeavor.”
When advertising for a show, F&F doesn’t list a street address, instead asking people to email the group for the location. It’s one way they ensure that attendees are coming for the music, and keeps things from getting out of hand.
“We want to protect the houses — they’re going out of their way to host these shows, and the least we can do is make sure that the police don’t come,” Kravitz says. “We’d like people to contact us and we’ll give them the address. People do a pretty good job of finding out.”
This extra step hasn’t hampered the success of F&F shows. “We’re the most open secret society ever,” Cassel says. “It’s a secret society that anyone can join, as long as you’re not the cops.”
Many college students and twenty-somethings in Burlington are all too familiar with the city’s noise ordinance. It applies 24 hours a day and stipulates that “noise that is plainly audible between apartments or houses […] is considered unreasonable.” Special “quiet hours” are in effect between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. The minimum fine for a first offense is $300 per resident of the unit and three hours in a restorative justice program.
To their credit, F&F have had only a handful of run-ins with police. It’s largely due to how they plan and execute shows. The approach isn’t to tell people what to do, but rather, to keep things in check.
“A lot of people want to have basement shows but there just kind of scared of the impending doom of the noise ordinance,” Kravitz says. “We could still get a ticket, but we try our best to keep it contained and keep it fun.”
Often, it isn’t the music or the crowd inside, but those who wander outside to smoke or hang out that draw the attention of police. It’s a simple problem that F&F actively combats.
“We always have someone at the door, telling people outside smoking or whatever to be quiet,” Kerr says. “That’s what causes the noise, people on the street.”
F&F is fighting the perception that it’s an organization that throws parties, which members vigorously stress could not be further from the truth. “People have gotten mad because they’ve paid a door charge and expected it was going to get them a cup, but it’s not what the shows are about,” Webb says.
It’s as much about promoting shows as it is educating people about what F&F does.
“People think it’s just an average party, so we try to channel everyone into one entrance of the house so we can let everyone know that there’s a cover and it’s to support local music,” Lake says. “And if they’re going to pay, they’re supporting local bands and not just a regular party.”
From humble beginnings eighteen months ago, F&F are building on the community they have fostered.
The group held a one-year anniversary show in September 2012. The event, called Downtown Underground, featured nine local bands in Burlington’s City Hall Park.
“It was sunny and beautiful,” Cassel recalls. “And great to not be playing in a basement.”
In December 2012 the group tried something completely new — an improv night. Fifty people signed up, and the night before the show were randomly assigned to bands of 3-4 people. Each were given their new bandmates’ contact information and had 24 hours to create their own sound and write a ten-minute set
The event, at Max’s Roadhaus, ran from 6 until midnight and featured 15 bands. It was a huge success. “Lots of people that weren’t even playing showed up,” Kerr said. “Everyone kept asking when it would happen again.”
In January, the group hosted its first show at Radio Bean, the Burlington venue on North Winooski Avenue renowned for its staunch support local music.
I asked Joe Adler, the booking manager at Radio Bean, how the partnership got started.
“A bartender here told me she had been going to [F&F] shows with bands I had never heard of,” Adler recounted. “She put me in contact with them and we had lunch one day and chatted and by the end of the conversation they sold me on doing a residency, which I thought was a really great idea. I was impressed by their desire and ability to create community.”
On first night of the F&F residency, a frigid Sunday in January, Adler was skeptical.
“They booked eight or nine bands for five hours. It seemed extreme to me, but they had it together. They brought in their own sound person, brought in their own team, and basically put on the equivalent of a really kickass house party in the confines of Radio Bean,” Adler recounted. “There was a line down the street, longer than any lines I’d seen since the Madonna cover night five years ago.”
The show’s success ensured F&F a spot on the Radio Bean calendar the third Sunday of every month.
The business model of the two organizations is markedly different; Radio Bean is a business that gets by on drink sales while F&F is a collective that promotes music for the love of doing it. But their mission is the same — to foster local music in Burlington.
Adler’s explanation was brief: “We all just love fucking music,” he said.
I caught the second Radio Bean showcase on February 17, another abysmally cold night:
The second act on the bill, Mit Andre, has just finished and Hello Shark is up. Shane Kerr is on the stage untangling cables while Nathan Lake adjusts a mic stand. Max Kravitz approaches the stage as Hello Shark is about to kick off their set. Tonight, he’s the guy who keeps the trains running on time. He looks at his phone and then shouts to guitarist Linc Halloran.
“I’ve got 11:30 now. Can you guys wrap things up by midnight?”
“You got it,” the Halloran replies. “Can you guys hear me… whoa,” he says into the microphone, as Webb, hunched over the PA, by the piano, adjusts the levels. It’s a group effort, through and through.
“Alright. We’re Hello Shark,” Halloran continues. “Don’t tell Jim Osborn I’m using his amp,” he jokes of the Fridge and the Spins frontman, eliciting a chuckle from the standing-room crowd. All the acts tonight are local, and everyone here knows each other. It’s the community that Friends & Family found in the basements and living rooms, bars and backyards of the Queen City, and sought to bring together.
The future’s open wide
All of the members of the group went to UVM and have now graduated. Now, one of their goals is to find new blood to keep the organization going.
“[We’re] trying to get younger people involved and take on some roles moving forward,” Lake says. “It’d all be too bad if it all fell apart after we all move on and leave Burlington,” Kravitz adds.
“It’s not about us,” Webb posits. “It’s about what we’ve created.”
But their eagerness to keep what Friends & Family built thriving after they’re gone doesn’t make it any easier to leave.
“That makes my heart hurt, it’s like leaving your baby, you know?” Cassel says.
By any measure, F&F has come a long way from a cramped basement in the Old North End. It is now a staple of Burlington’s local music scene.
“We worked for a year and a half to create legitimacy,” Cassel recounts. “The first six months we couldn’t get anyone to listen to us unless they were peers with basements.”
“People never answered our emails, and now they’re emailing us, begging for shows,” Kravitz says. “We emails from bands all over the country every day.”
Their daily inbox includes correspondence with bands they’ve worked with before, new artists reaching out, bookers and promoters.
F&F doesn’t see its relationship with venues and booking companies as competition, but rather cooperation. “They may be able to get the bands,” Cassel argues. “But we can get the bodies. People know that if they’re coming to a F&F show — it’s going to be packed, fun as hell, and all your friends are gonna be there.
“We compiled this group of people who love local music, and look where we are now,” Kravitz says.
The group now partners with Signal Kitchen, Angioplasty Media, MSR, the Monkey House, and North End Studios. In May 2012 F&F helped curate the Waking Windows Music Festival in Winooski. Over two days, the group booked twenty-five bands at their stage at the Stoplight Gallery.
For Joe Adler, Friends and Family fills an invaluable niche in the Burlington music community by providing a place for lesser-known, less-commercial acts to get their music out there.
“The more acts on the fringe that play at actual venues as opposed to house parties helps grow what the arts scene is,” Adler said. “Without the groups that they present, the more mainstream art wouldn’t have anything to pull inspiration from.”
Check out Friends & Family at http://friendsandfamilyvt.tumblr.com/