Run the Jewels kicked off the RUN THE WORLD TOUR at Electric Factory, playing to a sold out show. The hip hop super group comprised of El-P and Killer Mike brought to bear the talents their fans most adore them for – making them feel included.
It’s not surprising that the group was able to draw enough Kickstarter backers to fund a remix album composed of cat songs. After the opening song (“Talk to Me” off the RTJ3 album, a seemingly thematic choice) El-P broke from the theatrics to tell the disastrous story of his first time at Electric Factory, opening for the Beastie Boys as part of Company Flow. It was a tale that seemed custom tailored for a Philadelphia audience, folding in local pride and local embarrassment in equal measure and worth checking out on YouTube.
The group, which has not shied away from overt politicism and controversial imagery with the videos for “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F**k)” and “Nobody Speak,” embraces their fans in a more intimate way at their shows. With RTJ3 being their most political release thus far, it’s unsurprising that they would seek to use the voice of an inclusive family member to deliver the harsh pill of the reality of this upcoming year. When your favorite rappers takes time to wish your boyfriend a happy birthday from the stage, you’ll be more inclined to stay tuned in when they’re being interviewed on CNN.
Killer Mike continued the dialog by leading the crowd in chanting his son’s words from the opening of “Stay Gold,” further invoking that familial bond. Also did you know that Killer Mike’s son calls El-P “Uncle El”? How cute is that shit?
It is an uncharacteristically busy Wednesday night at 2nd Street Brew House in South Philadelphia, something Roger Harvey instantly notes. Sipping a tequila on the rocks, Harvey, 29, settles into a metal chair outside the bustling pub.
For someone who has toured the world incessantly, typifying the rock star lifestyle, Harvey is particularly soft-spoken. In appearance, he is almost a cliche – long, dark curls frame his angular cheekbones and his clothes are black-on-black. In character, Harvey is sagaciously mindful. Each tale is presented thoughtfully, each piece of the puzzle as significant as the last. He is constantly seeking out meaning, attaching it to everything he can.
“I think it’s part of the human condition,” he says, “to desire and want validation of meaning in the things that you do so you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time and you’re doing something that’s worthwhile.”
Born and raised about 45 minutes outside of Erie, Pennsylvania in what Harvey describes as “basically a farm town, but now it’s a meth town,” he always felt like he was different. At the age of 10, he befriended someone eight years his senior who introduced Harvey to the local punk community he didn’t know existed. Homeschooled from 14 to 16, Harvey later graduated and left for California, staying two years before heading to Europe and then New York City to pursue solo endeavors.
While in New York, Harvey began to seriously write his own music. Though he didn’t initially have the confidence to share it, he tried out an open mic night at a dive bar in the East Village and ultimately landed a monthly showcase spot there.
Traveling is an influential constant in his life and that is reflected in his lyricism. In this modern era of music-making – an industry fueled by social media and driven to entertain, Harvey acknowledges that everything is a learning experience.
“Personally, that’s one of the things I find joy in with making music,” he says. “Constantly learning and constantly discovering what’s good and what’s valuable and being able to contribute to an old tradition.”
Harvey released his debut record, Twelve Houses, in 2015. J. Vega, who recorded the album at his studio in Pittsburgh, says it was all about experimentation and discovery, and was created with the intention of requiring repeated listening.
“Big recurring themes were transformation and dreams,” Vega explains. “So the production had to be very visual, cinematic, endlessly moving, transforming.”
At 2nd Street, Harvey switches from tequila to Miller Lite, saying “the cheaper, the better. I don’t really care about craft beers.” He then explains his next record, a project for which he’ll be venturing to Music Row in Nashville to collaborate with Justin Francis and Adam Meisterhans (of Rozwell Kid), will be nothing like Twelve Houses. He hopes to create an inherently sparse record, simplified in production but saturated in meaning.
“It’s more so about what it’s like to exist in this time and live inside of a phone, and how that’s basically deconstructed our ability to feel anything,” he says, adding that he may want to call the record Gold, somewhat ironically. “But also in a way to exemplify the lack of value in anything, the deconstruction of value in anything because of our desire to find gold in all the wrong places.”
After years of not really having any roots anywhere, Harvey came to live in Philly when an opportunity came up to move into a room in the Dickinson Narrows neighborhood in South Philly. He praises the support he’s experienced since settling in. The local music community has been both unusual and special, especially compared to New York, where there’s essentially no communal support, he says.
Tom May of The Menzingers is someone Roger cites as being especially welcoming and supportive, and May reciprocates that love.
“He is a well-traveled man with stories as good as they come, and I think his accepting and curious approach is a fresh one,” May says. “He’ll be influencing songwriters and musicians with his music, and I think he may have an equally large influence through his personality. He tends to really bring out the thinking-person inside of those around him. In that regard, the more musicians and people in the scene he meets, the more he’ll be shaping their lives for the better.”
Harvey notes that after spending his summer essentially stationary in Philadelphia while writing new material, he is particularly excited to travel again. He has a few things lined up, including an upcoming European tour with Bouncing Souls and The Menzingers, but ultimately doesn’t quite know what the future holds. Aside from continuing to put thoughtful meaning into his music.
The bartender begins stacking the outdoor tables and Harvey shifts in his seat. He reaches for his beer while watching a motorcycle rev down the street.
“Promoting and supporting positivity is so important,” he says, sipping the last of his drink and placing the empty bottle in front of him. “Because almost everything is negative, and it affects us in such a deep way.”
Buddy Mercury is the alter ego of mild-mannered criminologist Kurt Fowler, the guitarist in the band Mercury Radio Theater. He’s a real-life Batman moonlighting as a rock star. Or maybe vice-versa.
He sits at a bar table inside West Philadelphia’s Local 44, across from fellow guitarist and writing partner F. Woods, chatting excitedly about the band’s new album, Oh, This Can’t be Good, their fourth studio album.
Fowler, 38, who recently moved to the neighborhood after many years in Fishtown, wears a black T-shirt with a giant red star and banner advertising a Communist Party of China rally. Retro communist propaganda also served as the basis for the three-part concert series the band performed in 2014 and 2015, entitled “The Fabulous Red Menace.” They debuted several of the songs on the new album during the series.
The story of Mercury Radio Theater, Fowler explains, began 16 years ago and it has all the usual ingredients: three friends, a lot of empty bars, a van, the road, a few albums, personnel additions and subtractions, etc.
The band on Oh, This Can’t be Good is much different from the one that recorded 2011’s Kilroy, let alone the trio that released their debut album in 2003. There are more musicians now, including a brass section, and after years honing a distinctive, instrumental sound that blended surf rock and horror shows, they now feature vocals and crowd sing-alongs.
“I actually believe that good art comes from restraint,” Fowler says. “I believe that. But I felt that there comes a time where restraint becomes stifling.”
Mercury Radio Theater started playing as a trio in 2000. The band played a unique blend of surf punk (“Monster Freak Twilight Hour”), exotica (“The Hypno-Eye”) and a little pop-punk (“Dejected, adj. Depressed in spirits; disheartened”). They set a daunting task in the beginning, coming out with a brand new “episode” for every big concert. They created new music, flashed new visuals and wrote new spoken-word horror stories that played between their instrumental songs. Their first three albums followed that same mix of narration and music.
Woods, 37, says theatrics were always part of the show. Though he isn’t a founding member of the band, he has been around on-and-off since the beginning. He initially provided the live sound effects for the radio play segments of their first show, an idea they immediately abandoned for being too difficult and unreliable.
“We tried to make it a spectacle on stage,” Woods says. “We were tired of seeing four guys on the stage, playing guitars real low by their knees, not moving around. It wasn’t much to look at, so what can we do to make this interesting?”
A Mercury Radio Theater concert was a show in every proper sense but they didn’t draw much of a crowd in their native Philadelphia. So they spent many of their early years on the road.
“It became a years-long whirlwind of being on the road and not being in Philly,” Fowler says. “We would draw crowds by the thousands in Arkansas but no one at home knew who we were.”
How did the band go from the instrumental horror shows of their early days to lyrics and chanting and farfisa organ now? The excitable Fowler can tell you when the change started but his answer changes every few minutes.
It could have been the arrival of a steady bassist in Jason Todd or the process of putting together their third album, Kilroy. But it seems to always go back to their return from the road after 2006. Fowler went back to school and other members got into different music projects or day jobs. The band still existed but they performed less frequently, and mostly in the Philly region.
Mercury Radio Theater was playing to a growing audience of repeat customers and found it to be a different experience. Woods had been away from the band for a few years and got to see what it was like to be in the audience. He says people liked the music but they were playing a strict format and instrumental music did not give people a lot to get excited about.
Fowler took it more personally.
“I recall being at a show and I overheard somebody saying, ‘I’ve seen this episode already so it’s nothing new to me,’ and it was just like, ‘Agh!’ It was like a dagger,” Fowler says, clutching his side where the metaphorical blade had been slipped through his ribs.
Kilroy retained many of the surface elements of the earlier albums but the story was kept to a few interludes — instead of one story track for
every song — and new instruments were brought in. Tom Scheponik contributed to that album on the vibraphone and accordion.
The numerous musicians who contributed to Kilroy were invited to play the album release party.
“That was just a lot of fun,” Scheponik says. “You got eight musicians together who can play and feed off each other. You can see different little influences coming in. And we’ve been going since then.”
The new lineup for Mercury Radio Theater started that night.
The band now features a vibraphone, saxophone, trumpet and that farfisa organ. That allowed for a lot of room to experiment with new sounds and traditions on Oh, This Can’t be Good, which was recorded in a studio The Black Keys have used and was mastered by the guy who did David Bowie’s last album.
Songs like “I Don’t Owe You Know More” strike a note somewhere between Woodie Guthrie and Bob Hoskins’ big musical number at the end of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” But their roots still shine through in a few moments, like in “A Reasonable Suspicion,” which comes from the same framework the band used 13 years ago.
Things have changed thematically, too. Fowler says he started seeing past the boy-girl themes and he started looking at the people around him.
“My dad always said to write what you know – one of the only pieces of advice that my dad ever gave me that made any fucking sense,” says Fowler. “What I know is that I work really hard, my friends who are brilliant and amazing work really hard, and everybody is scraping by all the time. So, let’s write some fucking music about it!”
That economic disaffection found expression in the music and story used in Mercury Radio Theater’s “The Fabulous Red Menace” concerts. The band had moved away from the werewolves and mad scientists of their early albums and looked at communism. Performed as three concerts over the course of about 18 months, “The Fabulous Red Menace” included narrated story segments and was built around the look of old communist propaganda.
This opened the door for Mercury Radio Theater to write songs about larger themes of money and community, which Fowler was wrestling with in his own life, and to do so in a way more playful than preachy.
Todd remembers Fowler, who was then completing his doctorate in criminal justice, composing fun beer songs for everyone to sing together at an annual “Friendsgiving” party.
“In one of the classes he was taking, he was working on a project which was basically about different forms of community,” Todd says. “Being a musician for so long, he was talking about how writing songs with your friends and singing together is a very therapeutic thing and also a way to build community.”
The new music is meant to be more engaging, Fowler says. Some of the songs have Fowler singing — something previously unheard of in Mercury Radio Theater songs, and nearly all have a part where the audience is supposed to join in.
This affection for community can be seen beyond the music too. When they are booked at a venue, Fowler says they book the entire night, bringing openers they love to work with, like Big Lazy and Scheponik’s other band, Gringo Motel. For the bands, it means you work with friends and know the crowd you’re going to get. It’s a perk of being a steady draw.
“I am always a fan of when local bands own their shows,” says Chris Ward, who handles booking and promotion at Johnny Brenda’s.
Ward has been booking Mercury Radio Theater since 2008. The next show at the Fishtown venue is on December 2nd.
“They’re a rarity in Philadelphia – they don’t play enough,” Ward says. “They make every show that they do special, and that is awesome.”
He says they remind him of his days touring in a band and the comfort of being invited to play with local bands in different cities. Ward says he knew the local guys cared about putting on a good show.
“In some ways [the band members] become like the promoter that night,” he adds. “They get to own the room that night and if they own it and respect the room, like they do, then it’s amazing.”
Oh, This Can’t be Good is in many ways a homecoming, and it sounds like one too. The songs feel like the band is back in front of its home crowd and having a great time.
And at Local 44, Fowler and Woods are having a good time too, busting chops with the bartenders. Until, without warning, Fowler suddenly picks up the tab and disappears into the night.
Kate Faust says she can remember writing songs in her head before she even knew how to write words.
“I would just scribble down pretend words because I really liked the way people’s hands looked when they were writing words,” Faust says. “I remember being a kid and watching my mom write and just watching her hand glide over the paper.”
She once found a journal from second grade that had song lyrics in it and she remembered how the song went in her head.
“I think basically I’ve always been the same person,” says the Philly-based R&B-electro artist. “I’ve just been very different versions of the same. I have always been this someone who needs to make art to interpret the world around them.”
Faust, who grew up in Lancaster County, lived in a music-friendly household. Her father is a drummer and her mother is a music lover.
When she was 14, she went without Christmas presents and used her life savings to buy a Casio Privia, which she still has today.
“Some really special music has been composed on it,” she says. “I will never sell it. I may pack it up in my mom’s attic for years but I’ll never sell it. It’s too special.”
Faust says she didn’t want to attend college because she wanted to pursue music, but since her parents felt it was important, she decided to study voice at The University of the Arts. She graduated in 2011.
The first time she ever heard Jill Scott’s music, she says, it opened up a “richness and beauty in the world” that she never knew was possible.
“It sort of shifted everything because up until then I hadn’t been exposed to anything like that,” she says. “I finally felt like I had something that my spirit and soul recognized in the world around me.”
“She writes really depth-filled songs, which can be pretty intense, but Kate is very atmospheric,” Ibeneche says. “She fills the space instead of focusing on dancing and she finds ways to incorporate both. Definitely with your body, you can really get down to that.”
In 2012, she began creating electronic music again and released the solo EP, Crucial Companion.
“One of the reasons I stopped being in bands was also because I met up with some of those people who I hadn’t seen in a couple of years and none of them were playing music anymore,” she says. “I’m not about that life ever, so it’s just easier sometimes for me to get shit done the way that I do it now.”
In 2015, Faust released two EPs: Eros and Undercover. She currently has a five-song EP “ready to go” and eventually hopes to release a full-length debut album. She released a music video for the song “Your Body” in late August.
She’s also working on a short film that was shot at the Rigby Mansion, a Germantown home where she has spent a lot of time making music and playing shows. The film is based around a volume of poetry that she will be releasing.
One of her strongest inspirations is intimacy, she says.
“Eros was heavily influenced by the concept of self-discovery through intimacy,” says Faust, who added that Eros is named after a speech by feminist and writer Audrey Lorde. “I feel like my music has a lot of those erotic undertones … I mean erotic in the sense of this chaotic, sort of very emotional, intuitive underbelly, the glue of every interaction that we have. I feel like I had always operated in that space but until I heard her perspective on it, it had never been so clear to me. It kind of just helped me put a frame around the work I had been doing in my mind.”
Faust says she’s in a “weird, transitional place” and is unsure of how much longer she will be in Philadelphia. She’s thinking of moving to the West Coast in the next few months.
“I love Philly,” she says. “I just don’t think there is really a scene for the kind of music I do here. If there is, I think we reached the top of it because I don’t think there is anywhere else to go from here.”
Faust also feels that overall, the music industry is disrespectful toward women.
“It is a microscopic view of society at-large,” she says. “There are always people who are predatory to us, whether it is management people, whether it’s producers, whether it’s other musicians.”
Faust was offered the opportunity to work with a person she refers to as a “very famous producer” whom she looked up to. She was set to visit his studio one night but she called to say she wasn’t going alone.
“I’m a woman,” she says. “I’ve never met you before. I am not going to your house by myself. I am bringing my bandmate because we are here to work on music.”
The producer cancelled on her at the last minute.
Faust, who is a victim of sexual assault, says it infuriates her that she has to think and worry when working with a man in the music industry.
“Actually, only a few weeks ago, I got the courage to tell my other bandmates what had happened as part of my own healing process,” she says. “Seven fucking years down the line. And I am not unique.”
Faust feels that sexual assault in the music industry is too commonplace, looking back at Kesha’s case to break her record contract due to the fact she said a producer sexually assaulted her.
“She’s not lying,” Faust says. “This is the shit that happens all the time and no one talks about it. And when they do talk about it, someone like Kesha, what happens? Nothing. He’ll go on and be fine. But that trauma to her body, to her life, to her spirit, will live with her. And it forever changes your DNA, how you walk through the world.”
Faust says a lot of the poetry in the short film focuses around the idea of sexual assault and sexism in society as a whole.
The poem in the film is called “Pray,” Faust says, and at the end it repeats, “You did not die.”
She adds that the best thing she did was address her trauma through movement and music.
“That was a turning point,” she says. “Since that floodgate opened, I haven’t been able to stop loving people, or being giving and generous with my time, heart and spirit. Once I was able to reclaim my body, it just changed everything for me. Music is a great way to do that because that’s where my voice is. It’s here.”
It’s 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night in Fishtown and Gary Dann, in his solid gray T-shirt, geometric patterned shorts and flip-flops, is dressed for the beach.
But he’s not ready for a vacation just yet. Perched in his control room, Dann monitors an analog mixing console for a hard rock band in the midst of an explosive jam. The female vocalist unleashes a wail that drowns out her bandmates, prompting Dann to adjust the faders, while he bobs his head with the drums and occasionally tweaks a knob on the massive soundboard. Gradually, a pent up smile relieves the furrows of concentration on his forehead; he’s pleased with the sound.
Dann – an audio engineer, producer and musician – opened The Boom Room, a recording studio and rehearsal spot, in 2011. He’s building the space into a fully-equipped, multifaceted center for the arts, while diligently developing a diverse musical community within the white stucco building that sits across the street from Kung Fu Necktie.
“The location of the studio put me in the right spot at the right time,” Dann says. “Not only has The Boom Room grown but around me, the whole neighborhood has exploded. We have a really awesome family of R&B, hip-hop, rock, jazz, ’80s cover bands and everything in between.”
“We’re in between the high-end studio guys and the basement recording guys,” Dann explains. “It’s a really wide market.”
Dann is riding a wave of success in his niche and he’s sharing the love with his extended musical family. Because of the support he’s been shown not only in the last five years of having the studio, but also in the 10 years of being an engineer and drummer in the city before that, he wanted to do something to give back to the local music community.
So once a month, he brings in artists to use The Boom Room’s new live streaming video service for free. Called “The Free Jawn,” this gift gives artists an opportunity to shoot, record and stream their live performance with professional-grade video camcorders, microphones and lighting.
“If you don’t have a performance video, it’s hard to get in anywhere,” Dann says. “For most people, video production is just not accessible. I’m helping to uplift these artists who would not otherwise have a way to show the world what they’re doing.”
And since most people have the ability to stream video from their phones or laptops, people from anywhere in the world can watch these live performances.
Philly musicians are already feeling the love.
“Gary is extremely professional and meticulous when it comes to getting the sound, the camera angles and ambiance just right,” says JaE The Artist, a soul-infused rocker who recorded a free set in June. “Over 8,200 views later, it helped us book events in Charlotte, North Carolina, and two music festivals, one in Virginia and one in South Carolina.”
In a sense, The Free Jawn is an extension of The Boom Room’s overall philosophy: take good care of the family, provide a cost-effective space with the latest and greatest in music technology and the community will grow.
You get the feeling Dann is already looking for the next jawn to add to his repertoire.
The five guys in Pine Barons like to think that they’re like the “Terminator” movies—they’ve only gotten better with time. At least drummer Collin Smith uses that analogy.
Nestled in a small booth at Front Street Café in Kensington, a few blocks down from where guitarist/vocalist Keith Abrams, bassist Shane Hower and keyboardist Alex Beebe live, the guys reflect on their handful of years as a band and the new album they just finished recording at The Headroom Studio.
The yet-to-be-named album, produced by Kyle Pulley, was special. After all, Pulley’s younger brother Brad plays guitar in Pine Barons. The album also marks the beginning of the band members’ lives as full-time Philadelphians after moving here from the small Jersey towns of Shamong and Southampton about a year and a half ago.
“My older brother has lived here for a long time,” says Brad Pulley, 24, of West Philly. “So I guess I was always coming here to do stuff and see shows. I also go to school here. I always imagined myself coming here, though. It always made sense.”
“We moved here for music,” Abrams says. “We kind of, I felt like, established ourselves here.”
Now that they’re here, they can go see bands and build friendships with other bands whenever they want, not just the nights they trek up Route 70.
“It kind of allows us to feel like we’re more a part of it, at least for me,” Brad Pulley says. “I feel like I’m more a part of it. Before, I felt like somewhat of an outsider.”
“It feels like less of a night out and more like our neighborhood,” Beebe, 24, adds.
For Beebe, Abrams and Hower, they really did record right in their neighborhood at Headroom. And Brad Pulley obviously had a familiar face in his older brother behind the mixing board.
When asked if the Pulley brothers butted heads, as brothers tend to do, Smith assures that they duked it out when they were little. Smith, 25, who spent his teenage years in South Philly but put down roots in South Jersey, tends to sit back in conversation, saving his words for a well-placed joke. It’s a lot like how his drumming is full of thoughtful fills that abruptly pop out of the steady foundation, adding to the overall depth of the songs.
“Brad knows I’m the boss,” Kyle Pulley, 32, says with a laugh. “I’m eight years older than him, so he knows his place.”
Jokes aside, the elder Pulley says his experience working with Pine Barons was nothing but positive.
“It was so much fun,” he says. “There would be days that I’d be doing long sessions with other bands or working on other stuff, and the days I got to do Pine Barons honestly felt like a day off. We weren’t too hard on ourselves. We tried to just make it fun. Most of the time it was cool just to hang out with my brother, you know?”
Keeping it loose and fun is a fitting approach to recording Pine Barons’ sound. It’s got the jaunty nature and melodic, riffy, ethereal jams of outdoor-festival-ready rock, but with a poetic and emotional nature that brings the typically soft-spoken Abrams’ voice to peaking highs.
Add to that just enough distortion and crash cymbal to make them right at home in a Philly basement show. It’s a cohesive unit of five friends who have not only practiced hard together for years, they practiced being friends for even longer.
“I would say that this record was a turning point,” Hower says. “We started to really learn more about working with each other. I think the point was always to make the songs really good, but I think it became more of that we would play things because they were fun sometimes. And with this record, it was like, OK, these parts are fun, but do they serve a purpose? Just learning to be more critical about our songwriting process.”
As both producer and older brother, Kyle Pulley has an insider’s view of the band’s growth.
“They started out as being, you know, someone’s first band, and now they’re really great,” he says. “They’ve always been musicians. Their musicianship has gotten better over the years, but I think their tastes and their songwriting and their aesthetic has just matured. They’re all good players. They can all play whatever. And I think, between the first record and the full-length we did together, they figured out a little bit of the less-is-more kind of thing, and just doing stuff that’s more tasteful.”
So now, after wrapping up their debut full-length (which is due out next year, and follows their 2013 self-titled EP), finalizing their five-man roster and putting a real-deal tour or two under their belts, the future looks promising for Pine Barons. And, with a metaphorical pat on the back from not only an older brother who is also a major player in the Philly music scene, they’re on their way to big things.
“I think they’re already on that journey on their own,” Kyle Pulley says. “I just kind of helped them along the way.”
It’s almost impossible to notice Girard Hall if you’re walking past it on the street, but hidden inside one of the many nondescript brick exteriors on Girard Avenue is this cavernous hub of creative energy.
Altrez isn’t sure how to fashion his title, as Girard Hall isn’t a place for official names, but he’s been in charge of operations there for a year and a half.
Girard Hall stands in the Philadelphia tradition of DIY venues but easily sets itself apart by its size alone. Rather than cramming folks into a dripping basement, Girard Hall welcomes visitors to a warehouse-sized space that’s ready to be transformed for any purpose.
Altrez takes the stairs from the street up to the second-floor space and walks into the high-ceilinged, cathedral-like interior. There’s a full stage set in front of a wall-length mirror. Disco balls hang down, remnants of a past life for the building, like the sliding garage door that leads to Altrez’s “office” and recording studio.
There’s plenty of room in which to play around, and it’s all open to interpretation.
Girard Hall has been home to everything from hip-hop shows, noise festivals, Afro-Caribbean dance parties and off-beat performance art.
“It’s a raw space and you can mold it into anything you want to,” says Altrez.
Altrez, now 25, was new to the DIY scene when he first moved to Philadelphia five years ago to study industrial design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. At the time, the warehouse space was run by a collective of Temple film students who had the intention of turning it into a collaborative studio, with shows and exhibitions happening there only occasionally. The building had been known as Girard Hall through its many past incarnations (Altrez says with a laugh that it was a porn studio at one point).
As Altrez began to spend more of his time in the space, the original collective slowly went different ways. Having fallen in love with Girard Hall and its potential, Altrez stayed and continued to expand its original vision, booking larger pop-up shows with artists like Philly darlings The Districts or off-kilter rapper Slug Christ.
“What it is now is not what it was then,” Altrez explains.
Though it’s gained notoriety as a performance venue, Girard Hall has retained its identity as a creative studio. Six artists rent studio space, their respective laboratories tucked away in side rooms or at the top of the winding spiral staircase. A quick tour through the space will also find two makeshift recording studios, a homemade bookshelf and reading area, and a loft with one lonely drum kit that any artist passing through is welcome to knock around.
Jordan Smith, 28, uses Girard Hall to create ambient music scores under the moniker J. Galleo, but also books metal shows there.
“Everybody falls in love with the space as soon as they walk in,” Smith says.
Metal bands love the space for its acoustics, he explains. The massive room makes it so bands don’t even have to mic their drums. Even though shows he books at Girard Hall have ranged from a crowd of 100 to just the bands playing for one another, Smith says draw has never been a concern for the venue.
“The spot is here for creative people of any make,” he says. “You can’t exclude certain things because it makes less money.”
Sofiya Ballin felt similarly welcomed when she packed the place out with WUK, her Afro-Caribbean dance party. The 24-year-old resident of North Philadelphia had visited her parents’ native Trinidad for Carnival and wanted to bring that festive atmosphere back to Philly. Her partner in the event, Mathos Sokolo, knew just the place.
“[Girard Hall] had that homey, basement, in-the-cut vibe, but it could hold like 300 people,” says Ballin, a former JUMP staffer who now writes features for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
That charmingly grungy feel is partly just what you get when you keep six artists together in the same space, and partly because the space is undergoing some minor renovations. Buckets of drywall sit under the stage, and brooms lean against the speakers.
Altrez says he is constantly trying to elevate the space to its next level. On Halloween, however, the city shut down the building and wouldn’t even let the residents back into the premises. Altrez says that he has no idea what will happen next but that he is committed to making the venue operational again.
“It’s a big space but without people, it’s nothing,” Altrez says.
It’s no small task for Altrez and company to make the place a legal venue but for Altrez, the reasons for doing so are simple.
“I don’t like to see wasted potential,” he says.