This year’s Northside Festival was as propulsive and eclectic as viewers have come to expect from the Brooklyn-based arts and music festival. Featuring innovative performances from current indie head-liners such as Dirty Projectors, Pharmakon, and Juliana Warwick, as well as housing a plethora of newcomers, all while strategically placing its events in convenient locations throughout Williamsburg and Bushwick, Northside Festival once again showed how to efficiently hold a five-day cultural convention in what is considered one of the most creative urban out spots in the world.
Perhaps one of the more understated events of this year’s Festival, however, came from the Unit-J Block Party that took place in Bushwick on Friday, June 9th. Hosting a slew of different musicians that all take residence in the Unit-J complex in Brooklyn, the block party held a line-up of over a dozen acts (Belle-Skinner, Dirty Bird, Maria Colores, etc.) that were split across two venues (more folk/acoustic musicians played at Lantern Hall, while more rock-based acts played at the aptly titled Pine Box Rock Shop which was located a mere two blocks away). It was a fulfilling evening for everyone involved, and a testament for how far Unit-J has come towards becoming a serious presence in the Brooklyn music scene. Considering the building’s background too, it doesn’t immediately appear as something that would give rise to a gang of creative youngsters.
“It was a factory for coffins and gravestones,” explains founding member Eli Bridges, who currently plays in the band Mama Juke. “We didn’t come to Brooklyn as trust-fund hipsters, we had to put a lot of hard work in to get where we are. Every one in the building is an entrepreneur.” That said, it also is evident that Unit-J had a good deal of luck and circumstance on its side towards reach its current status.
Bridges had been living in a chapel with fellow-musician Conor Grant (guitarist for the band Ghost of the Saber Tooth). They started throwing shows there, and then in 2012 they had a tribute show for the Band in light of the death of Levon Helm which exceeded their expectations. They all wanted to continue to have shows there but it grew too hectic, but then they reached an exciting opportunity. Bridges knew a bartender at D.B.A., a bar on the Lower East Side, who was acting as a middleman for the recently-vacated Unit-J complex. He gave Eli an ultimatum that if he could get six people to move into the building then it would be their’s. “For some reason,” explains Bridges with a degree of non-nonchalance, “everyone I asked said they needed a new place to live yesterday.”
In the five years since then, Unit-J has visibly become not just a collective but a community. “The reason I love Unit-J so much is that even though they’re really fun and throw great house parties, they also have a real family atmosphere and aren’t pretentious,” explains Megg Farrell (http://www.meggfarrell.com/), another instrumental member of the collective. “We try to know who are neighbors are.”
Farrell had been asked to move into Unit-J a few years ago, and she agreed as she was seeking an environment change from Manhattan. Although her concentration at the time was towards an acting career, the Unit-J community quickly found that she was a talented musician (She could play bango and guitar, as well as sing), and had several connections in the jazz world. While Farrell has since left the Unit-J complex as a resident, she has kept in touch with the band and frequently plays at their shows. “Bushwick offers an aura that can’t be found elsewhere in New York,” she elucidates. “There are warehouses here that lead to new spaces and loft parties. Unit-J is in a place where gentrification is happening at a slower pace.”
It’s clear too that Unit-J is striving for a retro-feel that’s becoming all the more scarce in the information age too. “We aren’t drawn to super-popular electronic dance music, although we’ve only had a DJ,” explains Dru Cutler, who performs in Dru Cutler and the Heart& Hand Band (www.DruCutler.com). “I believe that any good song can be good on acoustic. If you can’t break a song down to a guitar or a piano, then it’s just not a very good song.”
Cutler is a very experienced musician, having studied composition back in college and participated in numerous bands over the years. Moving to New York a decade ago from Florida, Cutler found it was hugely beneficial for him to fall into musical communities, even attributing it to getting him a gig at South-by-Southwest. He fell in with Unit-J feeling that they were all great songwriters, and he shares the rest of the crew’s feelings that they offer a comfortable demeanor that is “one-half living room, one-half music venue.”
Now, having finished their second year hosting an event at Northside Festival, Unit-J only has high aspirations for the future. “I want to go to a place where instead of hustling hard, we sell out in a few hours,” explains Cutler. “I want someone who goes to a Unit-J show to feel really lucky that they were one of the 80 people to get a ticket for our show, rather than be one of the thousands we have to bother to ask.”
“I think we’re going to get more people to know about us, and we we will become a legit venue,” says Megg Farrell. “We’ve talked a lot about making it a record label, and we already have our own audience that responds to rock, jazz, folk and more.” Certainly ambitious conceptions for a group of millennials that were a bunch of no-names a few years ago. That said, it’s shown that perseverance and acceptance has gone a long way for Unit-J, and their brand is growing at a desirable and efficient rate.
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