An Experimental Music Scene Grows in Gowanus

On the second floor of a stately brick building across the street from the Gowanus Canal, an electrical wire dangled over a dusty desk on a recent Monday afternoon, and the sounds of light construction drifted through an open doorway. Until last year, this rather remote building had been home to Retrofret, a niche guitar repair shop.

But now it was just weeks away from becoming Public Records, a state-of-the-art music venue and watering hole that hopes to become a beacon for a neighborhood in flux.

The club’s three youngish partners — Francis Harris, Shane Davis and Erik VanderWal — sat around the desk along with the saxophonist Rob Reddy, who will be booking an ongoing weekly jazz series there, and explained their idea. During the day, Public Records will serve as a vegan cafe, and at night as a bar. On weekends and many weeknights, the back room will host concerts. The audio systems throughout the space will be profoundly high-fidelity, and at the bar a different record collector will spin vinyl each evening.

“We want to be a community-based performance space that supports avant-garde or experimental music, while at the same time feels like a neighborhood spot,” said Mr. Harris, the member of the triumvirate in charge of all things musical.

Public Records is perched at the northern tip of Gowanus, a postindustrial neighborhood of warehouses and former factories along the edge of the East River, hidden away between the tonier Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. Gowanus has long been hospitable to small manufacturing businesses and artists seeking affordable studio space, but it tends to clear out at night. Club owners prize the cheap rent, but often have trouble drawing a crowd for gigs.

“There’s not a built-in audience. You have to bring your own crowd,” said the trombonist and pianist Brian Drye, who runs iBeam, a cooperative studio and performance space about 10 blocks south of Public Records. “Generally what works best here is music that has smaller audiences, and requires an attentive listening crowd.”

Still, a small syndicate of offbeat stages has sprouted up across the neighborhood in the last decade, helping to fill a vacuum left by the disappearance of experimental music clubs in the Lower East Side and the East Village. (Tonic and Fez closed in the early 2000s, and the Knitting Factory eventually decamped to a smaller space in Williamsburg. The Stone left last year to be absorbed into the New School.)

iBeam is run by the roughly two-dozen musicians who use it to rehearse and teach. Mr. Drye started the club 11 years ago when an adult student offered to rent him an empty space that he owned on Seventh Street, just a half block off the canal. (A similar institution, the Douglas Street Music Collective, also run by jazz musicians, sprang up soon after but eventually closed down.) On weekday evenings, members of the iBeam cooperative present their own music there; on weekends, Drye books other acts — typically a mix of outré improvisers and young composers looking to showcase new work.

In 2012, the bassist Matthew Garrison and the entrepreneur Fortuna Sung opened ShapeShifter Lab around the corner from iBeam. It was founded as a music club, but attendance was not strong enough for it to survive on shows alone. So Ms. Sung and Mr. Garrison have turned it into a flexible event space and recording studio. As the neighborhood around it has gradually grown more residential, it has begun to host weddings, bar mitzvahs and student recitals as well as regular concerts: “Shape-shifting with the hood,” Mr. Garrison said in a recent interview.

The shifts have been slow, partly thanks to zoning laws, which have warded off rapid real-estate development while keeping the area friendly to the small businesses that use it for storage and light manufacturing. As a result, while many artists have work spaces in Gowanus, few actually live there.

But with Public Records open, the area may start to have more of a nighttime ecosystem. In nearby Red Hook, Pioneer Works has become one of New York’s essential multi-arts spaces, and in Park Slope, just three avenues over from iBeam, Barbés is one of Brooklyn’s most creatively curated pint-size music rooms.

Public Records will have a different feel from all these places. Its team is devoted to craft comforts: The space has high-flown ceilings and elegant, exposed concrete. Walls are lined with wood panels to help improve the acoustics. The food will all come from Henry Rich, the local restaurateur behind Rucola, who will run a commissary kitchen in the building.

And the team is also devoted to flexibility. Mr. Harris imagines that Mr. Reddy’s Wednesday-night jazz series — which will be in the barroom, rather than the back — might open the door to more spontaneous musical happenings throughout the week. “Our hopes were to create an environment where great players can drop in and do a set,” Mr. Harris said.

Public Records’ early bookings for performances in the main space include Damo Suzuki, the Japanese musician known for his stint singing with Can; the ambient-music giant Laraaji; and the minimalist techno artist Jan Jelinek. It isn’t a rock room or a dance hall, and it’s not a jazz club. You could think of Public Records as a kind of genre-agnostic music festival in residence (like Big Ears in Brooklyn), or as a contemporary expansion on what Tokyo’s jazz record-spinning cafes used to be. It’s a little bit of both.

“I come from a jazz and creative-music background, and I’ve seen a lot of venues come and go really quickly,” Mr. Reddy said. He remembered that the Knitting Factory in particular had felt like “a home base where you could go any night of the week and hang,” and said that he senses “a real hunger” for something similar again today: something as reliable as it is eclectic.

“I wanted to be conscious of programming artists of different ages, different genders and different races,” he said, listing some of the jazz musicians that he’s already lined up to perform: James Brandon Lewis, Patricia Brennan, Adam O’Farrill. “I wanted it to be inclusive — as inclusive as I could.”

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