When the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard in 2020, it forced us to spend a lot of time indoors considering what we missed most. For many of us, the ability to hang out somewhere other than our tiny apartment was high on our list. Sam Sumpter’s new book, Groups do BK: A guide to Brooklyn, in groups, for everyone, is a byproduct of this desire for the outside world, although its blog of the same name existed long before any of us knew who Dr. Fauci was.
Sam is a journalist, radio host on Radio Free Brooklyn and band manager Mary Shelley, the perfect person to commemorate the local music scene. The book is a collaboration with countless local poet groups about their favorite places in Brooklyn – who has the best fat dollar slices? Who has the cheapest beer and shot combo? Which sites are the most fun to play? Part guide, part memory, Groups do BK is a love letter to indie rock’s favorite neighborhood, ready to be enjoyed whether you’re a full-fledged member of the scene or moved here five minutes ago.
green pointers spoke with Sam to learn more about how the book came to be.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you decide to expand your blog into a comprehensive guide?
I always thought it would lend itself well to a book, it’s kind of the kind of thing you’d see at Urban Outfitters, just by the nature of being a guide and being a list of places. In fact, I just met a publisher [Ben Taylor, of Lit Riot Press] just kinda random at a Radio Free Brooklyn event. He was taking pictures and we just started a conversation and he was like, ‘Oh, have you ever thought about making a book out of it.’ And like a lot of things, it was like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, somewhere down the line, of course, yeah.” We ended up having a series of phone calls, and I had a series of mini-panics, like I didn’t know if I could do this. And he supported me and encouraged me and convinced me that I could. I ended up signing a contract.
It was kind of crazy, because due to timing, we met in March 2020. So the two years I worked on it, it was all post COVID, so it was a really interesting time to talk about places that may or may not have reopened and to talk about those places where in some of these interviews we weren’t currently allowed to go. Talking about places that didn’t have shows at that time. It was almost like people were more eager to talk about the places they loved because you don’t appreciate things until they’re gone, a lot of times, then suddenly there’s like this extreme desire to to talk about these places, to kind of record this history, and just to pay homage to these places that are so important to the scene and to these individuals. Basically the idea was there, it was just a stroke of luck that I met an editor, and I feel extremely, extremely lucky, because it’s been a crazy journey but I feel extremely lucky to done with Lit Riot Press and had that support all the time.
As you descend down the rabbit hole and reminisce, are there any places or places that you have become particularly nostalgic for? Are there any that are long gone that you miss?
You know, it’s like giving me more FOMO for the places I missed. It gave me retroactive FOMO, talking to artists, those who have been in the scene for a long time. There are a variety of people I have spoken to. Some are relatively young artists, some have been doing this for a very long time, and they spoke so nostalgically of places that closed before I arrived, like Death by Audio or Shea Stadium. I think it’s a very New York thing. No matter when you get here, you always feel like you’ve come too late. There’s an element of that, but there are so many types of small venues in Brooklyn right now and Alphaville just reopened, which is amazing. It’s a pretty substantial entry in the book. So many people have so many wonderful things to say about this place, and it’s just wonderful to see places that are reopening again after COVID, places that have worked hard during COVID to meet regulations and stay open, just being creative.
Not all places did. Pet Rescue, one of my favorite DIY spaces that was absolutely amazing, sadly just closed this summer. A lot of places luckily have made it and the turnover is… natural to the city and the scene, and… luckily the artists are extremely resourceful and it’s always really sad when a place closes, but I just have the faith that more places will eventually open up and the spirit and creativity cannot be confined to one place. Even when they close and we have those memories, there are always opportunities to open new places that we fall in love with and that end up setting memories for new people coming to the city and to the stage and are so excited to be here.
Brooklyn is so synonymous with the independent music scene, especially in the early 2000s. What do you think the relationship between bands and Brooklyn is like now? Do you think that has changed since you started doing this job?
You cannot answer this question without acknowledging Meet me in the bathroom, and all of that time, which is such an amazing, amazing book that I read in 2017 and loved it. Maybe on some level unconsciously inspired me to start a music blog. I can’t really talk about that time, because I wasn’t there. When I talk to artists who were there at that time, I think it was probably a lot cheaper and a lot easier to live with, because of that. As with so many things, gentrification has obviously made it harder for so many people living in Brooklyn to be able to afford to live there. Artists are part of it, I think, so people are continually pushed out and it’s always harder and more expensive to live here.
I would say the scene, in my current experience, is truly amazing. There was the idea that New York is dead and you see your friends moving to LA and things like that, but the music scene in Brooklyn is really amazing. There are so, so many talented bands and talented artists doing cool, creative shit, and just beyond that, doing good for the community. It’s so amazing to me that with these artists, in addition to being so talented, there are so many good people. I think COVID obviously added another layer of complication on top of everything. It made it even harder for venues and even harder for artists, but even when people didn’t have the ability to perform and do what they loved the most and often lost their employment, they continued to gather and broadcast to raise funds. for theaters and releasing compositions for social justice… The scene right now feels really, really good. There’s an energy here and an enthusiasm and that’s undeniable, with that sense of community too, and I’m so thrilled to be here and so proud to be a part of it.
I’m sure there are so many, and you don’t want to play your favorites, but who in Brooklyn is currently making music that you’re really passionate about?
Oh man, how long do you have? [laughs] I will shout some. In addition to Bands Do BK, I lead a band called Mary Shelley, who are absolutely amazing. I saw them in Berlin last summer and I basically approached them, like, ‘Do you have a manager? I want to manage you!” And I had never led a band before or even thought about it, so I ended up buying a book on band management from Amazon and reading it on the subway platform in waiting for the train. They’re just amazing performers and the songwriting is so good and every song is different and it’s so clever. The songs are amazing and unique, and they sound amazing live. And I highly recommend playing consult them on September 21 at the Sultan Room!
Beyond that, Ok Cowgirl is phenomenal. Leah is so, so talented. My friend Meredith’s project Work Woman It’s incredible. She just released a new single today, in fact both released new music this week. They are beautiful people and so talented. I have to scream too dead tooth, Because Zach is such an amazing artist. I like TVOD, it’s still the funniest show ever, and Tyler is such a maniac of a leader and such a love.
Tell us a bit about the September 6 event. I love that Saint Vitus and WORD are teaming up for this.
I feel so lucky and appreciate them both so much because they are such cool places. Saint Vitus, I was actually there for a show last week, they are featured in the book. It will basically be a fun book release day, which coincidentally also marks the 6th anniversary of my move to Brooklyn. This is going to be kind of a conversation between me and my friend Rich Weiss. We’ll just talk about the book, talk about the scene, and probably end up talking about all the bands we like, because it’s inevitable. Then there will be a question-and-answer part and a performance of Atlas Engine, which is my friend Nick’s band. He was my first guest on my Radio Free Brooklyn show, so a great project. I am excited and terrified! Especially excited!
Discover Sam’s book on September 6 on St. Vitus (1120 Manhattan Avenue) at 7 p.m. There will also be an all-day book launch show with 13 bands at Our Wicked Lady on September 17!