Matthew Conboy is the director of Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio. As co-founder of the venue, his deeply personal documentary highlights the last months of the now historic DIY space. From interviews with Oliver Ackermann, co-founder and frontman of A Place to Bury Strangers, and Edan Wilber, the impassioned perfectionist that made every show special, to performances by Dan Deacon and Future Islands, Goodnight Brooklyn is a fitting form of catharsis for anyone who valued the space. And if you lived in New York from 2005 to 2014, chances are, you have a memory from Death by Audio. Speaking to Conboy, it’s clear that this place isn’t going to be forgotten anytime soon.
Culled Culture: I just saw your movie like a couple days ago and I had to write a review while it was still fresh in my mind, but an interview is another good way to talk about it.
Matt: Yeah I’m happy to talk about it.
Culled Culture: So I’m ghettoly recording this. I have you on speaker phone and I’m filming myself on iMovie… It’s the spirit of DIY. I’m addicted. It’s a New York thing, you have to be DIY.
Matt: [laughs] Yeah.
Culled Culture: Are you still in New York?
Matt: Yeah, yeah. I still live in New York. I never moved away. When DBA closed down I moved in with my girlfriend…we currently live in an apartment in Williamsburg.
Culled Culture: Still there, huh? Are you on the South side?
Matt: I am on the South side. Like right off the JMZ stop by Marcy. It’s kind of surreal to see all the changes that are going on, but it’s also part of living in this city. Nothing stays the same, you know?
Culled Culture: Ain’t that the truth. I guess the first official question I want to ask you is: why make a documentary so soon after Death by Audio closed? Is there a fear that people will forget about it in terms of what’s here today in NYC is gone tomorrow?
Matt: I think our producer Amanda Schultz really was the driving force behind finishing it as quickly as possible because I probably—left to my own devices—would have done something else or taken longer to do it. But in a way I think it’s kind of nice because it’s a very immediate kind of visceral document of the recent history and, unfortunately, with the tragedy of this fire in Oakland, I think showing a different side of what alternative spaces can be is pretty relevant. And the motivation was just: this is an important thing, and getting the story out there as soon as possible became a priority.
Culled Culture: I can definitely understand that. Do you feel like it’s better to do things artistically on your own?—because it’s just generally annoying to be at the mercy of other people, in terms of putting something out or doing anything, really, which is sort of the benefit of a DIY space.
Matt: Absolutely, and we’re trying to do as much of it as we can ourselves with this film but it’s a whole different ball game than having a music venue or a record label or a band. But we’re trying our best to work with companies that believe in the movie and are interested in getting the story out there. It’s tough, but we’re trying to make it work.
Culled Culture: Has it been difficult at all, distribution-wise? Because it’s a specific-to-Brooklyn story? Or do you find it transcends a specific niche?
Matt: We’ve been very fortunate in having multiple companies interested in helping us distribute the film and then, in terms of the story having appeal outside of New York, when we show at festivals people come up to me and say “Yeah, this is happening here too,” whether it’s Austin or Oakland or Memphis, people come up to me and say it resonates with them so I feel like there is some universality to it. I also think it’s a good rule of thumb with any creative endeavor that the universal comes out of specificity. The more specific your story is, the more universal it can become.
Culled Culture: True. Was there any difficulty making the movie, or did it all just sort of flow out because the pieces were already there to begin with? Did you start filming right when you knew it was going to close down?
Matt: Yeah, so the summer before we had to move out, it was a little apparent how things were going to roll out and Amanda, the producer, was just like, “All right, let’s just start filming. I think there’s a story here, let’s make it work” and we kind of tried to assemble a team as early as possible… and you know, I’d been a filmmaker so I already had cameras and lighting equipment. It took a little while, but we eventually turned it into a machine where every night it was, “Okay here’s what’s gonna happen.” And it was really wonderful to have all these people help and volunteer to make something.
Culled Culture: Do you have plans to make films after this now that you’ve made a full-length one?
Matt: Definitely, my single ambition in life has always been to be a filmmaker. And this being my first film, I feel not only privileged to get to tell a story I believe in but one that will resonate with people. And that’s all you can really hope for. So I look forward to making another one, and it probably won’t be a documentary. But I think a lot of the things I’ve learned from this process are easily applicable to any other kind of filmmaking. Trying to get to genuine storytelling, character—all that stuff.
Culled Culture: For sure. So you mentioned in the documentary Death by Audio sort of being one of the first things that made Williamsburg attractive to, you know, what I call “richies”—that’s my John Hughes term. Do you think that short of putting a cloak of invisibility over something that this is always what’s going to happen when artists come into a neighborhood—that it’s always going to catch on with the sort of people that want to come in and change it?
Matt: Yeah I think it’s such a complicated thing too because for some people, it’s the artists who have changed [the neighborhood]. I think there’s examples in New York City where you look at areas like the East Village, which obviously has changed dramatically since the 1980s, but it’s remarkably closer to what it used to be in terms of the artists are still there, there’s still crazy homeless people, there’s still weird stuff going on—and on top of that there’s also some young wealthy people or people who aren’t creative or poor. And there’s a lot to be learned from that and I think it comes down to the fact that the city, for whatever reason at the time, really gave people living there the opportunity to put down roots and offered programs like the urban homesteading one or any of the rent stabilized or community housing stuff that really allowed for people who were apart of the transformation of a neighborhood that was once the best place to buy heroin into a really nice area—they were allowed to stay connected to that, and I think maybe, if anything, that’s what I would say because the capitalist real estate machine is always going to be looking for the next opportunity and I think they’ve been paying attention to the realities of what happens when artists transform neighborhoods. But I think it’s kind of the job of the city to recognize that like, “Oh well these people aren’t just the temporary custodians that make money for everybody else, their contributions have value, their place in the community should be preserved.” And I don’t think that’s too much to ask. There are ways to prevent the wealthy interests from wiping everything clean.
Culled Culture: Is that what would prevent you from opening another space? Do you have plans at all to get together with the same team or has the ship pretty much sailed?
Matt: I think the ship has probably sailed, at least for me. Also, starting a music venue was never a life ambition of mine, I kind of fell into it. I’m really proud of the work we did and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but it’s also something I feel like I’ve done and it’s something that I probably don’t have the same passion for that I did when I was 22 or 23 when we started the thing.
Culled Culture: It’s a young man’s game.
Matt: Yeah, and it’s important to remember that maybe I should be getting out of the way so that the 23-year-old girl who just got out of college and wants to do this, that I’m not standing in the way. I’m not occupying that warehouse preventing her from realizing her dream. That’s kind of where my head’s at, I wanna see what the next generation does, because, you know, I didn’t invent this thing—we just ripped off places like Gilman. And I wanna see what somebody inspired by those spaces, or our space—what they could do.
Culled Culture: Do you think if VICE hadn’t been the one to come in, was there still an expiration date on the venue—there still would’ve been somebody else to come in and shut it down?
Matt: Almost certainly. It’s really difficult in New York City for a DIY space to last more than a weekend. I don’t think any of us ever expected it to last for thirty years or something. But the circumstances of the whole thing could’ve been handled a lot better and other institutions maybe would’ve been a little less callous, less cutthroat—wouldn’t have flooded us, wouldn’t have made threats against us. Maybe might’ve been like, “Hey I know you’ve been doing this for a long time and sorry this is the way it’s going down, but please let me know how we can ease this transition.”
Culled Culture: It’s just more a matter of the surreal irony of it being VICE. They’d probably publish this interview. I call them the corporation that would sell the noose to hang itself if it made them money. It’s crazy that it was them, and that’s what adds to the story I think. And it gives your movie a villain. Every movie needs a villain.
Matt: Right, and every horrible thing that they did for as much as it was painful and traumatic for me and my friends, it made the movie better—so at least I got that out of it.
Culled Culture: Silver linings. I also wanted to know: as you watched Death by Audio become more popular over time, did you feel like anyone—any regulars within the space—ever showed signs of resentment or irritation toward the new people who were just sort of there because they wanted to be apart of the lifestyle that VICE talks about as opposed to just being there for the music?
Matt: I don’t feel like I ever picked up on any of that. I always felt like people who came to our shows were really just people who wanted to be there. Valued that kind of environment, aesthetic and community. But I never got the impression that “oh this wave of people suck” versus the old timers who have been here longer. That was never really on my radar.
Culled Culture: That seems to be the pattern of “original gentrifiers” versus new gentrifiers though.
Matt: Well, nobody’s ever “first.” There’s always someone who’s come before.
Culled Culture: Are you still in contact with Oliver and Edan?
Matt: Yeah, I just talked to Edan yesterday.
Culled Culture: Is he ever planning to come back?
Matt: He just moved to Austin and I think he’s—I don’t want to speak for him—but I think he’s getting settled there and really enjoying it. I don’t think he has any plans to move back to New York.
Culled Culture: Do you think musicians are maybe better off in smaller towns these days since New York hasn’t been so kind to its artists of late?
Matt: I think everybody has different things they want. Some musicians might be happier in small towns, some prefer the challenge of New York.
Culled Culture: Was there a performance at DBA toward the end that stood out to you or was your favorite for any reason?
Matt: Probably the most memorable was the last concert if only because I know Edan and I—and Oliver too—were all very inspired at different points in our lives by the band Lightning Bolt. We had always hoped, “One day maybe we can get them to play here” and also the kind of music that they make is such a specific, overwhelming, intense, visceral experience—you just get so worked up that you can exorcise all your demons, and that’s part of the reason we wanted them to be the last band. It was a triumphant goodbye.
Culled Culture: Did you foresee A Place to Bury Strangers becoming such a big deal from the attention they got by playing Death by Audio?
Matt: Definitely, I always thought from the first time I saw them that they were amazing. And it wasn’t just from performing at Death by Audio, they’d been going at it for years before we started the venue. I do think that having a community around the venue was really great for everyone’s bands because it was just a really creative, amazing environment. You have people doing different things and helping each other out on projects.
Culled Culture: Are there any DIY venues now that stand out to you that you’ve visited?
Matt: I’m a big fan of Silent Barn and Palisades.
Culled Culture: RIP Palisades.
Matt: I know, that’s been kind of a bummer. There was this wave of probably from the late 90s to the early 00s that our warehouse was kind of at the tail end of where there were just so many of these places—for every one of them that closed, another one would open. And that doesn’t really happen anymore. But I think creative people always find a way to make what they need to happen happen.
Culled Culture: They’ve got no other choice. Psychologically. Last question: have you forgiven VICE?
Matt: I’m not walking around thinking like, “Oh I hate them so much.” It’s a pathological corporate entity that has no values other than greed and maybe it does some things that are good and some things that are bad. It’s not my place to forgive or not forgive—forgiveness usually involves a conversation and they’ve made no efforts to apologize. But life’s too short to carry grudges, I’m just trying to move on. I think the movie speaks for itself.