Influential New Brunswick scenester Chris Pierce plays in five bands; owns a recording/rehearsal studio; books, promotes and does sound at the Court Tavern, and genuinely cares about the New Brunswick music scene. On April 13, the Hub City Music Festival will salute him at “An Evening with Volume IV,” an intimate concert in his studio with his and his friends’ bands.
When he’s not playing in Doc Hopper, The Groucho Marxists, The Mikey Erg Band, Speed Queen, Nervous Triggers or something that I left out, Chris Pierce is behind the board either at his Volume IV Studios or Court Tavern, both New Brunswick punk, indie and alt-rock institutions. On April 13 at Volume IV, Pierce will play with The Groucho Marxists and Nervous Triggers, as well as Erotic Novels, who are recording an EP there, and up-and-coming New Brunswick band Feeny.
In a salute to Pierce’s positive influence on the scene, “An Evening with Volume IV” is part of the month-long Hub City Music Festival, a sixth annual fundraiser that has collected more than $17,000 for the Elijah’s Promise food justice and empowerment program.
One of the things Pierce has done since taking over the booking at the Court about five months ago is bring in more touring acts, like during the historic venue’s heyday from 1986 to 1994 when it presented Mudhoney, Butthole Surfers, Pavement and more. The Grouchos will play a show May 20 there for the “Weekend Quality” podcast run by Erotic Novels’ Shannon Perez and Chris Tull. The bill will include Hospital Job and Attic Salt, both from Springfield, Ill., as well as New York’s House Boat, which features Pierce’s longtime collaborator Mikey Erg, formerly of the beloved New Brunswick basement band The Ergs.
Pierce also will wear two hats as performer and soundman when the Mikey Erg Band returns June 9 to the Court as part of a weekender with Dr. Frank of Mr. T Experience and Even in Blackouts from Chicago. That jaunt also will bring them to Baltimore and Boston. The “Weekend Quality” show at the Court also will feature Erotic Novels and Philly’s Ramona.
Doc Hopper — Pierce’s other band with Erg, which originated in his home state of Maine before gravitating to Boston and then New Brunswick in the mid-’90s — will play June 16 at the Court with a reunion of the Bridgewater-based Universal/Revelation recording act Shades Apart. Sharing that “Weekend Quality” bill will be the local straight-edge band Hands Tied and Grey C.E.L.L., featuring members of the Hub City hardcore bands Cable Car Theory, Automation and Scarlet Letter.
A former member of such impactful Hub City bands as Deadguy, Pierce recently chatted with me in the Court’s game room about his longtime love affair with the New Brunswick music scene and how and why it inspired him to transplant from Boston. We also discussed how he’s helped the Court once again survive and thrive, doings at Volume IV, and past recordings at his former Technical Ecstasy Studio, where he recorded The Ergs’ 2004 debut, dorkrockcordrod. At No. 34 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2017 “50 Greatest Pop-Punk Albums” list, the 2005 vinyl pressing of the influential collection was the first LP issued by Don Giovanni Records, home to Screaming Females, who’ve worked with Pierce’s studio partner, Brian Buccellato.
Q: What brought you to New Brunswick?
A: I think where we were concerned, it was the hardcore scene. Doc Hopper came down here in 1993. Chris Ross had us play here and then at Handy Street (the house Ross shared with members of Lifetime). Then we played at the Handy Street house a bunch of times, and then, a few years later, I ended up living here.
We were friends with Deadguy. I started dating the woman who is now my ex-wife. She worked at the Melody. Whenever we came down to New Jersey, we would stay here. And I was coming down here from Boston to see the girl I was seeing, and my friend Tim Naumann from Deadguy was like, “Hey, this place I work at needs people to drive vans doing business files.” And I was like, “I can do that,” so suddenly, I had a job. And then a couple of weeks later I was like, “Hey, guys. I think I moved to New Jersey” (laughs).
Two years later, I opened a studio down here. I feel like I wouldn’t have done that up in Boston. The atmosphere up there seemed more inhibitive. I was friends with Jim Baglino from Deadguy, who owned Red Bank Rehearsal Studios. I saw how easy it was to take that route, to open a rehearsal studio, already neck deep in the local music scene. In Boston, they don’t do hourly rehearsals. There are huge warehouses with monthly rooms but no hourly things. When I came to Jersey, the hourly rehearsal was the way they did it. No bands had monthly rooms. I was like, “Well, that’s cool.” And my friend Jim was like, “Yeah, dude. It’s awesome. It’s like babysitting bands.” And I was like, “I already babysit bands” (laughs).
I was already friends with all the local musicians, so I was like, “Wow, I came down here, and I’m more neck deep in the New Brunswick music scene than I was in the Boston music scene, even though I’d been there for seven years.” We had just won The (Rock ‘n’ Roll) Rumble (of WZLX). We thought we were big shit in Boston, but down here, the sense of community in the scene was way tighter.
Q: Is it still like that?
A: Sometimes. Oddly enough, most of the crew I met down here then, I still deal with most of them. I’m still friendly with all the same guys. We’re in different bands now, but we still all play together. I still see Chris Ross, I still see all the Deadguy dudes.
Q: I really like Chris Ross’ new band, Second Arrows.
A: I wanted them to play here June 16 with Doc Hopper and Shades Apart, but they were booked, so we’ll have some appropriately old-guy band. But that’s going to be awesome because I haven’t seen Shades Apart in a really long time, so I’m excited for that.
Q: How are things going here at the Court Tavern?
A: The manager here is into having the bar be an open venue that is a good spot again. Beforehand, it was being controlled by people who were somewhat apathetic and incorrect in their approach. And I firmly believe that there is no one person who can save the Court Tavern. I certainly don’t have the ego thinking I can do it alone, which is why Sluggo (longtime Court Tavern promoter, bartender and musician Doug Vizthum) pulled me into this.
When (manager) Pat (Kotsonis) and I talked, I respected what he did, and it seemed like he respected what I did. He welcomes my passion and occasional madness when it comes to this place. Lots of people feel very strongly about this place. There needs to be many more people. I can’t do it alone. Sluggo’s doing stuff. We have Shannon booking shows. Mikeromosh (Mike Tatick) is doing stuff. It needs to be a community because that’s what it was before. And that’s the only way to keep it alive. It can’t be one person and their single vision unless they’re independently wealthy and want to have their own clubhouse (laughs). No one person has enough of a scope to keep it alive.
Q: Do you think it will stay alive?
A: I’m hoping once we’re open seven days a week. I’ve got stuff booked throughout most of the summer now, even on off days. We’re trying to get the touring bands back in. We’re trying to do things so that this is again a venue talked about and stopped at in between Philly and New York because it always used to be. It was always the spot in Jersey.
Q: It was amazing how many Boston bands played here in the ’80s and the ’90s.
A: It’s just crazy to think that now this is the only real venue in town. My place (Volume IV) isn’t a real venue. The first time my band, No Way Narc, played in New Brunswick, we did four shows in a weekend. It was with Tim from Deadguy, Mike Polilli of Buzzkill, and Chris (Corvino) from Deadguy, who’s now in Second Arrows. It was stoner rock stuff. We had our friend doing lights in the Melody (Bar), so we thought we were Monster Magnet. The first weekend of shows, we did the Melody, the Court Tavern, the Budapest (Lounge) and Plum Street (Pub). It was a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday at the end of ’98.
Physically, this town is the same size as Gardiner, Maine, where I grew up. You can walk from one side of town to the other. It’s got the same kind of layout along the river. But this has the college population of Boston with 65,000 college kids in it. Geographically, I liked that, and with all the new flux of kids and new blood that’s here all the time.
I never noticed a scene changeover the way I have been able to in New Brunswick. In Boston, it seemed way slower. Thinking back two years ago in New Brunswick, it’s like, “Wow, a totally different vibe and a totally different scene,” which is cool. It’s awesome! That’s what gives it its freshness. The lifeline is really what it is. For as much as we sometimes bitch about the students, that’s the undercurrent that makes the stuff above happen, that there’s 70,000 new people here every year.
Q: You opened Technical Ecstasy in ’97. When did you start doing sound at the Court?
A: Early 2000s. Once I had the studio, I started doing sound at random shows around here. I had done sound up in Boston. As soon as I moved down here, I became good friends with Bob and Irene (Albert, former Court Tavern owners). For a while, they had Kirk (Miller, former soundman), so they didn’t really need anyone else. Once Kirk graduated and went on tour, it was Gabe (Monago). Once Gabe started getting bigger gigs, he was like, “I don’t know who else to turn to,” and I was like, “Dude, I’ll do it.” He was like, “You want to be here?” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s what I love doing.” I was Gabe’s fill-in guy for a while.
I feel like I was here all the time either playing or working or that brief period when I was writing for The Aquarian. I had that weekly column. I was just everywhere. Between that and the studio, it was just local music all the time. And again, there were three more venues and bars around town to work at.
Q: How does it feel to be back at the Court after some of the rocky things that were going on with you under previous management?
A: It feels great to be back because even at my maddest points, I still had faith. I wanted things to work out. Until a bulldozer comes to knock this building down, I will have faith in what the Court Tavern can be (laughs). Even between the owner and me, when I was at my angriest and most venomous about that stuff, it came because I love this place, and I felt that I had been done wrong because of my love for the place.
Q: Why do you love the Court Tavern so much?
A: I’ve definitely seen some of the best shows. I’ve played some of my best shows ever here. There was no place in Boston that felt like this. And the Melody was the same way. Both these places, coming from Boston — and admittedly, we were younger, so we weren’t quite into the bar scene yet — but there was no spot that was where the weirdos and the punks and the ravers and the skinheads all hung out together. There is definitely nothing like that up there, so coming down here, seeing this spot and the Melody, where it was such a community … it’s hard to replicate, and immediately, I loved it. Even when there weren’t shows here, you could always come here and run into friends. You could be out drinking or at a show anywhere else and then come back here at 1 o’clock to hit last call, and Neil or Sluggo would be behind the bar, and there’d be a couple of other pals just hanging out. It was a Cheers kind of vibe. Everyone was friends. It was all cool.
Q: Can it be like that again? It hasn’t been since Bobby left?
A: True. And it lost the bar side of it … you can’t forget that these spots are bars. That’s how they stay in business. That is where the money comes from. Once it became a spot where people didn’t want to hang out and drink anymore, it was still cool to go to shows, but if the place is failing, then there weren’t people here who were thinking of it in those terms.
I recognize that we’re going to stay afloat by getting people in here to drink. My goal is to get as much fun stuff happening in here to facilitate people coming and hanging out and drinking because that’s how bars stay in business.
As much as the previous regimes here have cared about music and have wanted to do things right that way, the oversight in forgetting that it’s a bar put this place in trouble. Once financially it wasn’t doing well, everything was under ultra-scrutiny, and then suddenly it became more expensive to be open because it couldn’t support its infrastructure. Once that happens, there’s nothing else that you can do.
Q: What are your favorite projects that you worked on at Technical Ecstasy?
A: The first Ergs’ record. I love those guys so much. The Ergs reinvigorated the New Brunswick scene like I had not seen. They personally invigorated me at a point when I was going to break my band up and didn’t want to play anymore. Doc Hopper. I first worked with The Ergs in 2002. That’s about when Doc Hopper was stopping and became The Groucho Marxists. Seeing those guys and seeing that there were still people who write mushy, melodic pop-punk was a great thing. Seeing a basement full of kids screaming along to mushy girl songs was a pretty powerful thing (laughs).
I did a couple of records with Dave Witte of Municipal Waste called East West Blast Test. He was my first project at the second studio on Commercial Ave. and then one of the first projects of the next space.
Q: They were all called Technical Ecstasy?
A: Up until Volume IV. Volume IV was the fourth studio space, so in my head was like, “Oh, so it should be Volume IV.” I said to my partner, Brian (Buccellato), I have this idea to stick with the Black Sabbath worship.” He was like, “Let’s do it” (laughs). I never thought he’d go with that stupid idea.
Q: A Sabbath song was the first thing you recorded at Technical Ecstasy?
A: Yeah, Deadguy doing a Black Sabbath song, “Electric Funeral.”
Q: What are you working on right now at Volume IV?
A: I’m about to finish this record that Roxy Epoxy and I have been doing for the last couple of years. It’s basically a batch of songs that I wrote that would have been Groucho Marxists songs, but they never quite got finished, so she wrote lyrics. And then we’ve written more songs together because of that. The only collaboration I’ve ever done in my musical career (laughs).
We’re about to mix, and we’re not really sure who will put it out. We both have people that we would like to work with once it’s mixed. I always want to work with Don Giovanni. I love Joe (Steinhardt) and Zack (Gajewski). They’re just music nerds. The first time I met those guys, we hit it off, and I was like, “I want you guys to put out my record. You guys have the altruistic, stupid reason to do records that a record label should.” The good thing is that they’ve been lucky enough that that has sold, whereas most of the time that loses you a lot of money. Luckily, Joe has had pretty good taste with Screaming Females and stuff like that, so it hasn’t been money-losing for them, and they’ve done really well.
Q: You’re recording Erotic Novels?
A: We just finished. That’s going to be an LP that’s going to come out on GTG Records out of Lansing (Mich.). It sounds awesome. I’m very happy with it.
Q: And you did the next Hot Blood record. I know they recently found a label for that.
A: Yeah. And I did the most recent Mammoth Grinder record. It’s on Relapse. Some of my friends are in metal bands, so every once in a while, I’ll have a metal project. There’s a bunch of grindcore records I’ve done, the stuff that crazy grindcore kids in Japan go nuts for. I either do wussy pop-punk or bands that sound like Cookie Monster (laughs).
Q: Is The Groucho Marxists show on April 13 a reunion show?
A: We haven’t played since last summer. We stopped doing shows for a while, but we all have a blast doing it. The Groucho Marxists is definitely the best band I’ve ever been in, but they all have real jobs, so you’re never going to get Groucho Marxists to jump into a van and drive to Florida.
Q: Who else is in The Groucho Marxists?
A: Gary Zampini (bass), who was in The Selzers and now he plays with The Tide Bends and Gringo Motel. The other guitar is Brian Schwinn. He used to play in hardcore bands down in Trenton. And Austin (Faxon, drummer) is from The Stuntcocks.
Q: You’re often known as a drummer, but you’re not in Doc Hopper and The Groucho Marxists.
A: It’s hard being the songwriter as the drummer. You can still write the songs, but sonically, it’s easier as the guitar player to be the sonic leader. But it makes it tougher to find a drummer.
Q: Did you inspire Mikey Erg to play guitar after he was the vocalist-drummer in The Ergs?
A: No, he played guitar already, but he’s told me before, “I learned to play drums and sing by watching you.”
I love playing with Mike. I wouldn’t still be doing Doc Hopper if I couldn’t play with Mike and Fid. The opportunity came, and I was like, “Well, if I can play music with my best friends, that’s the reason to keep doing it.”
Q: Does Fid do anything else besides Doc Hopper?
A: He was in The Measure, and he used to be in a bunch of bands down here. Now he plays in Hat Rabbits. He’s in Brooklyn.
Q: And Mikey’s in that band too. So what do you think of “An Evening with Volume IV?”
A: It’s going to be great. Triggers are good buddies. Shannon’s band. It’s all friends playing.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.