Joan Jett St. Vitus Bar 2016

Joan Jett performs at St. Vitus Bar in Brooklyn, New York.

Courtesy Photo

St. Vitus sits on a quiet main street in the northernmost stretch of Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, nothing more than ominous, unmarked black brick facade and heavy door. Like every place of cultural note in New York excepting its museums, St. Vitus' public face indicates nothing of the warmth inside -- a lot like the city's people, actually. Inside, the venue and bar seems like the tastefully morose apartment of an aesthete metal devotee: dark and light wood, commingling red and white lighting, carefully curated metal totems on the shelves, sterling (once) bathrooms.

The venue itself, just off the bar past a merch-friendly partition, is diminutive in relief to many of the artists who have taken the stage; from practically every modern metal band of note to performance art to... Nirvana.

In the five years since its opening on April 13, 2011, St. Vitus has become a cornerstone of New York's live music scene. Billboard spoke to co-founder Arthur Shepard about his roots bartending in New York while touring as a musician, how to start a bar in the prohibitively expense New York market -- and how to make that bar an actual success.

Billboard: It seems like St. Vitus has been around longer than five years, for some reason.

Arthur Shepard: Believe me, it seems like fucking 20 years.

How did it start? Can you run me through?

Part of that whole thing, I was waiting for someone to tell us we were crazy and as soon as that happened, I was like, "Yes! It's going to be awesome." We were looking at different spaces, we were kind of vague on how we wanted to do it, but we definitely wanted to do a metal bar.

We were looking for spaces and we happened to be in that part of Greenpoint looking at a space. We were walking back to the car and we saw a 'For Rent' sign, a really big one, on the building that is now St. Vitus. My partner called it, and the guy who owned the building, we met with him and he wanted to be our partner in the business after we pitched it to him... And that was it. When it opened we didn't mean to be a full-on venue, because that's such a pain in the ass. And I've been touring for so many years that the last thing on Earth that I wanted to do was to be dealing with a full-on venue -- the bands and promoters and people like that. It was like, this place is perfect. So over time, we were seeing better numbers from the venue thing and I actually learned to enjoy it after a while.  

What do you mean better numbers?

We were ringing better, there were more people coming down, and when you do shows your tentacles go out further. You're reaching different people, different things. I hired Dave Castillo to be our booker, and he was on a very part-time basis in the beginning, but his job got more and more important as we went on. Eventually, it was almost out of monetary necessity. But we were like, "This looks really good. Let's go full force with this. I'm going to bring you on full time, you're going to get a salary and we're going to be a venue." That was how it kind of happened. I do all the production and all of that crap, make sure the room sounds good and everything works, deal with band's riders and all that.

Let's back up. Before you started looking for the space, what led you to start looking for a space?

I bartended at a bar in Greenpoint with my now-partner George; we worked for years together there. We would play metal all the time and we had fun and we had developed quite a following. That was kind of how it happened. It was a guy named Justin as well, who I worked with a bunch -- he was my tour manager with one of my bands and he's an old, old friend of mine. 

Basically, you get to an age where you feel uncomfortable being a bartender in these hipster neighborhoods, 'cause you're like, "I'm serving 23-year-olds and now I just feel like a creep." That's when you transition into the old Irish bartender, the guy with the big potbelly and you serve guys 65 and over. It was always a dream. Any guy who's a bartender, musician, blah blah blah, they always [think], "What am I going to do?" That's pretty much what I was left with. "What am I going to do?" I have no job skills, I'm completely un-hire-able. I could have continued bartending making a lot of money, but I was thinking in the long-run, "Why don't I make money for myself?" I had compadres who wanted to do the same thing, and that's how it went. There are a bunch of partners in Vitus, so it's money that's split up by quite a few people, but it's a good situation. 

The back of the bar is very much what my room looked like. A lot of the posters and the records, all the paraphernalia stuff, a lot of it was hanging in my room in my apartment. All of the religious paraphernalia which I had been collecting for years; ephemera, I should say. Our original idea was crazy, but we wanted to be a Byzantine church. We wanted it to look like The Limelight, but we didn't have enough money to do that. So we did what we could. The guy who designed the place was super hyped on the idea and he kind of modeled it after an L.A. rock club. But then as things progressed and we were building out, we were like, let's make a few changes here, a few changes there. It became what it is now. I think it's really beautiful. The guy who designed it just got nominated for a James Beard award.

We even tried to keep the bathrooms nice after the first year, which was a struggle.

Good luck with that.

Yeah, after two years I was like, "Fuck this." But the idea was that we wanted to keep it nice so that we could do a corporate party if we wanted to. Or we could do film shoots, which we've done a bunch of. Just keep it looking decent. We've managed over five years to not have the place completely fall apart. It has fallen apart quite a bit, but not in any ways that anyone would notice. We kept it together.

How did the financing come together initially?

It's very difficult when you don't have a track record. We got lucky. The landlord is one of our partners, and another guy named Josh Cohen, who owns about six restaurants in the Greenpoint area, he was another consultant investor. They both played roles. The one guy is a lawyer, and he did all of our legal stuff. On one side he's our landlord, on the other side he's our partner, so it got kind of weird for a little while. But in other ways, it worked out in our favor because he wanted us to succeed. Josh is a consultant for, like, every restaurant and bar in Brooklyn. He's even on the committee board in Greenpoint. He brought an element of, "I know how to set this stuff up," because we had no clue. At the same time, as you watch him do it, you learn how to do it. He gets you everything from your expeditor, to your lawyer, to your porter.

When did you first notice that it was working? The first six months of any restaurant or venue must be nerve-wracking.

Well, the way the industry works is that the first three months are always busy because it's the excitement of opening. Then you go, "What now? What now?" We were a little bit luckier than that; we had a lot more time than that being busy. But our first show was Liturgy, and it was packed and it sounded great. We were like, "Wow, man. This is cool. Let's do this six times a month." And it kept growing, and growing, and growing. Honestly, the first "moment" was when we got Tony Iommi to do a book signing. It's just a book signing, but we got Tony Iommi to come to our fucking stupid little place in Greenpoint at two o'clock in the afternoon on a Thursday. It was beyond weird and crazy. It was like, "We could do anything." We went from nothing to Tony Iommi. 

From that moment on, we were like, "We have to do more of this." Eventually, we decided we wanted to be a full venue. Then it got to a point where then we did Carcass, and Carcass was a huge score -- when Dave got Carcass that was a huge thing. Those guys did full production in our room and it looked incredible. It was another moment where we were like, "Wow, we can do this, our room can look like this." Granted, it was a lot of their work, but we were still capable of doing it. And it sounded fucking great. Eventually we were doing shows probably 4-5 nights a week, and we sat down and were like, we should do this as much as we can, seven days a week.

When was Carcass? When did this start picking up steam?

September 2012, maybe 2013. I can't remember what year it was. I know it was in September. There's an amazing video of it, a three-camera shoot that a couple of dudes did that's on YouTube. Things just went from there and that was pretty much it. We were super excited. But Dave and I also have very varied taste in music. We knew that metal wasn't going to pay the bills all the time, there just aren't enough metal bands around or touring to have a show seven days a week. So last year we started diversifying -- Glasslands closed and the people who book that, PopGun, started throwing us shows. We just really wanted to prove that we could do indie shows as well. Like, we did two Merzbow shows awhile back, Merchandise. We wanted people to come and have an amazing experience regardless of what kind of music you play. And that's pretty much where we are at right now. The bar itself is very metal, but the venue does whatever the fuck we want. From Marissa Nadler, Chelsea Wolfe, fucking a ukulele show, to grindcore, death metal, whatever.

The metal scene is very insular and supportive. That must've been a huge help as far as getting off the ground.

Absolutely, it's just giving a platform. The Acheron opened up six months to a year before us, they kind of focus on more crusty punk stuff, the more punk side of shit, but we're all friends. It's all cool, everybody likes hanging out and chilling. It's a good scene. My thing, when I used to bartend, I would always love that moment when I'd play a song at the bar, like a weird old metal song like Sanctuary or some weird shit would come on, and somebody would be like, "Fucking Sanctuary! I can't believe I'm in a bar listening to Sanctuary!" And I'd be like, "Yes you are!" 'Cause that was my experience around the world, when I was touring people would be like, "Oh, you're into metal?" And I wasn't necessarily playing in metal bands all the time. And they would drag me into these metal bars, and I'd be like, "I can get drunk to The Shining?" Just shit like that, super cool. Like, "I can't believe I'm in a basement in some weird part of London, listening to black metal, drinking shitty beer. This rules."

All this, of course, culminated in "the Nirvana show."

The Nirvana show was super cool. That's a long story on how that all went down. We were nice to people who we didn't know were a part of that whole crew. They had played a couple of shows, really enjoyed the place, suggested it to Dave [GROHL? WHO WANTED TO BRING DAVE DOWN?]. When all this stuff came about, even before that, he just wanted to bring Dave down because he's like, "You're going to love this place. They've got Voivod records behind the bar." That's how that shit went down.

The night itself, only three of us knew the secret that they were playing, for a week. We told the whole staff to show up at 10 o'clock that night, didn't tell them why. It felt like I was watching a TV. It took some years off my life just keeping the secret, honestly. But the end of the day, we wound up letting in about 40 of our friends who showed up and if we hadn't done that there would have probably been about less than 100 people watching them. I'm not even kidding, it was that small a crowd. It was cool, though. I can't express how fucking lucky I felt and how blessed I felt. This was good. Treat people well and it comes back around to you. That had also put us on the map. We had already been doing secret after-shows, but everybody wanted to do it after that. 

Were the Refused before or after?

Way after. We did Against Me!, we did Saves the Day, we did Braid; now that I'm saying it it's a lot more of the emo scene that does it because they don't really give a shit. It's not like the metal bands, who have too much gear. My band played before Refused because they wanted to use our gear, 'cause they didn't want to bring anything. So we just played like six songs and then they jumped up and played our shit, and they did mostly covers and it was incredible. I was blown away by how fucking awesome they were. 

I had met them in 1994 in Europe, in Scandinavia, and they were kind of straight-edge douchebags. I was happy they were cool. They wouldn't talk to my band because we drank.

Wow, that's like the definition.

Yeah, but they were Scandinavian. They took it way too seriously.

Other than that massive moment, can you pick out a top three or top five?

Not really. Swervedriver, that was amazing. Young Widows, every time they play they are phenomenal. Every one of their shows should be be sold out nine times over. There are just so many, honestly. It's almost impossible for me to say. I have a master list of every band that's ever played. I've always wanted to do something with it.

You should make toilet paper out of it. You mentioned Glasslands closing. Death By Audio closed. They were both in a much more commute-friendly location than you guys are... I'm getting to the "What's the future?" question. Are you going to start licensing barbecue sauce?

No, no. We thought about doing our own beer, that sort of thing. That is the next step, to do it somewhere else. Not New York, because New York is impossible. You need five million dollars to do anything. We've been actively trying for the past couple of years to find real estate in a place that makes sense for our business. But I do feel like our business could go anywhere. With what we do, like with touring bands and stuff, if we had another space we could be like, "You could play here and you could play here. You can do this and you can do that." I feel like we could recreate it somewhere else and actually do it better with more space. Because New York, our space just isn't big enough. There's a backstage, but it's a basement, you have to walk on stage from the front, which is kind of cool -- for the bigger bands, it's cool for people who are in the show, the band walks through the crowd. And usually because the basement is too hot or too cold, they come up and hang out at the bar which is another awesome part of it. 

The times that I was bartending and I would see the singer of a band hanging out at the bar, and people would be taking pictures -- I mean, how cool is that? Especially when we do these weird shows like Killswitch Engage, which we just did recently.  How cool is that for the people to come and see them that they would have that opportunity? Because they never do unless they pay for a meet-and-greet or some shit. The guy needs a drink and he's hanging out. I think that's fucking awesome.  

It reminds me of basement shows in high school -- the egalitarian vibe.

Yeah, it's the same kind of vibe. There's no separation, and this happened by default. But I think it's probably one of the coolest things ever. Like, the singer from Eyehategod goes out to smoke a cigarette. Or the dude from Crowbar, whoever. It's a wild way of things happening. I love it, in that respect. Especially when we have famous people. Like we do the book signings, we had John Lydon. We had to bring him through the crowd, and say, you know, it's John Lydon. He was a total dick, but he's John Lydon so he's supposed to be a dick. He wasn't a dick to his fans, I'll give him that. He was cool as shit to them. But yeah, it's a cool experience. 

The bottom line is I just want people to leave going, "I just had a fucking incredible experience. I just saw this band that I loved sound incredible in this small little space and I can't believe they're playing." That's always the thing I want to hear: "I can't believe they're playing! This is so great." And just have that experience and meet the guy, or shake hands with the dude while they're getting off stage. Fucking sing karaoke with them on a Friday or Saturday, that shit happens all the time. It's fucking awesome, man. There's no room for assholes in this industry anymore. There just isn't, there's not enough money, there's not enough anything for it. Everybody just needs to be cool and fucking have a good time. Period. St. Vitus is fucking fun, man, regardless of who you are. If you're a person who read about us in the New York Times and you show up, you're going to be accepted by everybody there because it's fucking fun. That's it.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.