Saint Vitus gives Brooklynites a taste of rock, metal, and punk that some would argue they’re sorely missing. One of those folks making that argument would be Arty Shepherd, a founder and co-owner of Saint Vitus, as well as a professional metalhead.
Arty was kind enough to sit down with Four Over Four and answer some prying questions about the inception of one of the most beloved metal and rock destinations in New York.
What was the tipping point for you, when did you realize Saint Vitus had to happen?
I was working as a bartender for many years, and it was great, first time in my life I was making any kind of money, but my longtime partner, George, and I had an opportunity put in front of us, a chance to run our own place and cultivate our own vibe and atmosphere.
Every bartender has a dream of opening up their own space, but the stars have to really align and you have to be courageous enough to take the leap. We were scared, but the stars were aligned, so we took the plunge.
We looked at it like this; like we were a band, and we were putting out an album, and the album got financed, we got signed, (the lease), we recorded the album (the buildout), we released the album (grand opening), and then we had to support the album, which was basically the next couple of years.
What was one of your first big nights?
The first real big thing we had was Tony Iommi‘s (of Black Sabbath) book signing, which made us feel like we could do anything. The space was big enough and cool enough where bands would come and be happy to play and put on a great show. So, Tony Iommi was releasing a book and doing a signing out in Long Island, and even though we’re not exactly a book store, we thought it might be a good opportunity to have him out.
Well, come to find out that Dave, our main booker, knew Tony’s publisher, and it all fell into place in a matter of a few hours. It was such a turn of fortune that it became a catch phrase around here; if we ever thought we couldn’t do something, we’d just say “Tony Iommi.” And then Carcass, and then Descendants, so it just kept growing.
And that led to more opportunities? Like the Descendants?
Oh yeah. You can go and play a venue, it’s nice, but Saint Vitus has a vibe that’s very particular, that lends itself to the sound and aesthetic. It looks great, feels great. People walk out of here saying, “that was the best show I’ve ever seen” and it is, for the bands and the fans. The band has to walk through the crowd in order to play. A lot of times the bands just hang out at the bar. It’s a very intimate type of venue. That atmosphere doesn’t exist just anywhere.
The Descendants was big, and it was off brand for us, which was a good thing. Riot Fest was going on by the water, but it got rained out by a hurricane, and so since I was friends with some of the people from Hot Water Music, who had opened for them, and they were like hey we’ll come over and play, and so then the Descendants came over and played.
Well, then AEG tweeted out that the show had moved… not rescheduled. So 2,000 people wound up in line, and it was packed within five minutes. 25 people were in the bathrooms, the ceiling was dripping with sweat, and it was in the summer. I’ll never forget it.
What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced in keeping Saint Vitus exactly how you want it to be?
Well, not a lot before we opened, but just keeping it open is an obstacle. Every music venue in New York struggles with that.
One problem is that you’re always bothering somebody. It’s hard to not make noise. That’s why so many small venues go away so quickly, because as soon as you’re bothering someone… there is a phrase – once somebody hears it, you can’t unhear it. So you have to be prepared when you open the door.
And, truth of the matter, a lot of New York venues don’t put quite as much money as we did when we opened, but that foreknowledge came from when I toured with my band. I didn’t want to play a shithole. Nobody does. The obstacles were definitely just not bothering the neighbors. That’s an endless obstacle.
… That, or not have people bothered by how many upside down crosses are in here.
What is your favorite band that you’ve booked, and a band that maybe took you by surprise?
Quicksand was definitely my favorite booking. Dave books majority of the shows here, but I think I can say that the Cromags were his favorite booking.
One band I wasn’t sure about… I have been introduced to a lot of stuff I didn’t book, but I get calls that someone will sell out, and I say “sure”, and you can judge it somehow, and they end up selling out. What was that one band… The Marked Men, maybe. They sold out three shows here, and I had never heard of them. And they were fucking awesome. This Will Destroy You was another one that was awesome, and I didn’t know them. They weren’t metal acts, though. I usually know all the metal bands that will roll through here.
Now, I’ve also had incidents where people weren’t as cool as I had hoped… but that is truthfully so rare. If you’re in it at this point, you’re in it for the right reasons. The bands that are in it for a buck, don’t play here because there are not a lot of bucks to be made. They do it because they want to.
Like Nirvana, when played here they were so fucking cool. Dave Grohl didn’t even sound check his drums. They just let Nick, our sound tech, do his thing and they were cool with it. We give so much thanks to those guys for choosing us as a venue, and also just how easy they were for us.
It’s a thrill to have seen this place and been involved so heavily growing to the point of legendary status, where we had to put up pictures, which we said we’d never do. It’s just a celebration of what we’ve done here.
Here’s Joan Jett performing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Nirvana at Saint Vitus in 2014.