Forget about climbing; there isn’t even a ladder!
By Andy Polhamus & Nick Statt
Crammed between a row of lower middle class businesses, and across from the railroad station from which it takes its name, Traxx Music Hall is a small, but popular, venue in Ronkonkoma, Long Island. The capitol letters stretch out in a chipped gold font and the black tinted windows conceal the happenings inside, but let the sound leak out in glass shifting swells. Loafing around outside are sweatshirt donning ticket peddlers who, at first seem to be trying to pick up a few bucks, but are in reality just part of a band trying to earn a little profit, or sadly just break even, using the tickets they’re forced to sell in order to play.
Traxx is just one of many venues that host the mind-bendingly vast Long Island music scene. Ranging anywhere from brutal hardcore to riff-heavy catchy pop, Long Island’s distinct tastes, mixed with the upper-middle class budgets, spawn an army of teens, expensive equipment in hand, who are trying to get noticed.
On the bitter Sunday of March 1, a blaringly large amount of bands stuff themselves into an estimated 8-hour set at Traxx. One such group, Stony Brook’s Pembrook, was the fifth to step onstage. Sal Grisafi, a Stony Brook University freshman, leads the band with vocals and is joined by John Enrico, also a freshman at SBU, on bass, and Kacey Heiser, Danny Tesoro, and Patrick Dwyer on drums and guitars respectively, who are still attending high school. Grisafi views the SBU music scene as slightly out of touch with that of the rest of Long Island, saying, “Stony Brook has the potential to be a powerful and honest outlet for local music, but instead were stuck with a cycle of the same students and limitations imposed by the TAC.” We took the liberty to check out what a true Long Island show involved, taking note of both the good and the bad.
We arrive at Traxx in time to see the third of the night. It’s only about twenty after three, but this isn’t a matinee show; there are maybe eleven bands performing tonight. Nobody seems sure of the exact number. Long Island’s high cost of living is reflected not only in ticket prices (ten dollars for a local show is absurdly high in most local scenes) but also in the equipment used by the musicians – a vintage English-made Orange amp head priced $1500 in one corner, a Marshall half-stack parked against a pool table.
As for atmosphere, Traxx is nicer on the inside than one might expect. Trendy post-hardcore blares from the speakers in between sets played on a stage about three and a half feet high at one end of the L-shaped room.
Finally at ten minutes to five – 20 minutes late – Pembrook takes the stage. They are the first of three or four mid-level bands in the enormous line-up. The hierarchy of bands is a good illustration of the core of Long Island’s music scene – an often exploitative network of bands jumping on top of each other, using each other’s strengths to climb to the top.
Earlier tonight, Grisafi finally managed to sell all of his tickets, which means Pembrook will be paid $10 for this show. Unfortunately, bands almost never make money for their performances. In most cases, the ticket selling is demanded of them by the promoters and often they don’t see a dime of the ticket-money they earn. Most bands are happy just to be able to get stage and get some exposure, even if it’s for the usual 20-30 minutes. “This is the fairest way, even if it does cause some problems,” says drummer Kacey Heiser. But the fact is, most Long Island musicians don’t know how different music scenes can be in other areas of the country, being forced to make the best out of a rather difficult situation.
When asked about putting on affordable and non-exploitative shows, such as basement or church shows, Grisafi says the hardcore bands dominate the DIY scene, which in recent years has forced many venues to stop putting on shows due to complications like “blood on the floor”.
Despite all these negative impediments in their way, Pembrook takes the stage with smiles on their faces, drawing a small, but dedicated, crowd of fans. Pembrook, musically, are a pepped-up marriage of the new school of pop punk and the harsh sounds of post-hardcore. Deriving influence ranging from Death Cab For Cutie and Fall Out Boy to Chiodos and Saosin, Pembrook also give nods to the much-loved sound of Long Island favorites Bayside and Taking Back Sunday. Their closer, “Double Life”, is easily the best song in terms of not only performance, but also lyrics and music. They emit a vibrant energy – going as far as letting friends sing into the microphone during choruses – that some of the other bands lacked. It is this sense of not taking themselves too seriously and devoting more to crowd participation and having fun that gives them a strong edge against the many other performers. They recently recorded an EP at Killingsworth Studio on Long Island and plan on touring this summer with their friends Love, Robot, another up-and-coming LI band.
As Pembrook packs up, everyone seems satisfied and the show seemed to have gone well, especially considering they actually made a profit this time around. Traxx is still relatively crowded and will be cycling through bands for many hours to come, all the while using the local scene as a means of obtaining both revenue and bar traffic.
Our first fully immersed Long Island show ends and it’s easy to discern the many layers of this infamous music scene. For Pembrook, this was a good way to get the word out and another step forward toward a true and record-label worthy fan base. For promoters, it was just another day, just another dollar.