Saint Vitus Bar: An Oral History Of Brooklyn’s Metal Mecca
If you’re a fan of metal, hardcore, punk, goth, or post-rock, you’ve probably heard of Saint Vitus Bar. Over the last eight years, the Brooklyn, New York, club has cemented itself as one of the most important locations to see loud music in the entire world. With a musical history that includes performances by Megadeth, Anthrax, High On Fire, Carcass, and Refused — oh, and a surprise late-night show by the surviving members of Nirvana, with guest vocalists Joan Jett, St. Vincent, Kim Gordon, and more — the venue has officially become a rock music institution at which bands consider a true honor to play.
But like any cool venue, Saint Vitus started as a total crapshoot driven by a dream. That a mid-sized venue with a pitch-black interior full of sacrilegious decor catered to hosting evil music for drunken psychos stayed alive in the ass-end of Brooklyn is impressive; that it became one of the city’s most popular hangouts and dropped names is straight-up bonkers. And no one is as aware of this as the people who helped create the venue from the ground up.
In honor of Vitus’s eighth anniversary — April 11th, 2011 — we spoke to those behind-the-scenes figures who built, worked at, and promoted the bar from the very start.
I: In The Beginning
Arty Shepherd, co-owner: It’s a little bit blurry, and I definitely have a revisionist history of it. George [Souleidis] and I were working together at Matchless. We worked together for a while — I didn’t know his last name, I don’t think he knew mine. And one day, I’m trying to get everyone out of the bar, so I put on Yngwie Malmsteen. I had no clue he liked metal — at the time, he was playing in a retro ‘60s girl group — but we both started singing all the words.
George Souleidis, co-owner: Neither of us were out metalheads, and he was full on Paul Weller, Ben Sherman, Ronnie Wood hair.
Arty Shepherd: I wanted to do a metal bar, or rock bar at least. At that time, I’d been touring a lot, and when you’re in a band, no matter what you play, and let people know you’re into metal, they’ll always take you to the local metal bar after the show. So i’d been to pretty much every fucking metal bar in Europe and England, and I’d started taking notes — stuff I liked, stuff I didn’t like, how I wanted the place to look. We all agreed that we’d do something that was black and dark with red candles and shit.
George Souleidis: Originally, we just wanted it to be a metal bar. It’s all about what kind of bar would impress us as alcoholics. As a New Yorker, I always grew up going to L’Amours and Limelight. It was always that combination of a little goth, a little metal…you wanted to walk into a club and be absorbed by it. You want to go an escape from everything else, and be in somebody else’s world. If we could’ve bought a church, we would have.
Arty Shepherd: But we needed a name. And one day, I think George had brought in this magazine from 1985 with Dio on the cover. Before any customers came in, I said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to open this magazine, and whatever I point to first is going to be the name of this bar.’ I opened it, pointed, and it was a review of Saint Vitus’ Born Too Late. And I said, ‘Saint Vitus,’ and he said, ‘That’s awesome.’ One of the things that hurts any place when they open is having no identity. You want people to see the name of a place and have an idea of what to expect. Saint Vitus is not going to be a techno bar.
David Castillo, co-owner: I’m the last piece — I came in right before it opened and helped out a little bit with the branding, put ‘em in touch with a designer. Arty and I were playing music together in Primitive Weapons, and I was doing a bunch of shows around town. Arty had brought me by, so I had seen the bar getting built, so I asked: are you gonna put a stage back there? Fast forward two months, the opening was coming close, and they asked me to come through and start doing shows. They didn’t want too many shows, just cool shit, and then they gave me the carte blanche to do so.
Arty Shepherd: Eventually, we had to make money to pay people back, so we said, ‘What brings people in? Music does.’ And it’s not unfamiliar territory. I know what bands want. I know how to treat people. You won’t have to deal with an asshole sound guy. If you’re cool, and I’m here, I’ll give you as many drinks as you want.
David Castillo: The first show here was Liturgy and White Ring, and Terrence Hannah. That was the first OFFICIAL show — Primitive Weapons were the first band to ever play here, for a friend’s birthday. For the first show, I wanted to do something that showed that we were going to take all angles on this, and not stick to any sort of super-strict definition of what would be here. We were going to do all that sort of stuff — black metal, and hardcore, and punk, and techno, and industrial and post-punk. We were going to do it, like many great New York institutions before us. That first show was a statement of intent.
Frank Huang, videographer: I moved to the city in the summer of 2011, and I believe Vitus opened in April 2011. The first show I saw there was Castavet with Artificial Brain. It was a fucking sick show. And both bands, nobody showed up to see — there were maybe 10 people there. It was one of their first 10 shows ever. And I’ve been shooting there ever since.
Fred Pessaro, journalist and talent buyer: In 2011, when [Vitus] opened, I was already doing stuff on my own at places like Union Pool, Cake Shop, Death By Audio, bunch of different places. Metal wasn’t really welcome a lot of places in the city, so it was good to have some places where we can put those shows on. From the get-go, I started putting things there, and it just kind of snowballed.
David Castillo: Greenpoint let us be what we are. We’re really at the fucking ass-end of it. We’re far away, but at the same time close enough. We’ve become one of THE nightlife destinations that pulls people down here.
Arty Shepherd: We opened the doors and were busy from the get-go…and then everybody moved! We used to have a regular bar business here, but then the New York Times did an article about this part of Greenpoint, and overnight the rent prices went through the roof.
II: If You Build It, They Will Come
Arty Shepherd: We didn’t have a porter the first few years, so I’d come here and do the worst cleaning job ever. Then be here all day, work all night, sleep a couple of hours and come back…and that went on for four years.
David Castillo: I think the reputation started to grow as we started to grow with it. Some of the stuff we got — we pulled up a wild shit, and we continue to. People really think of this place as by them, for them. We’re all of this culture. And we’re all musicians — we know what we want to provide for people.
Jeff Filmer, sound engineer: I started there about six or seven years ago, pretty close to the beginning. I used to just cover shifts down there. The way stuff sounds naturally good in there tends to make my job really easy. A lot of it really has to do with the acoustics of the room and the treatment of it. It was built by people who knew exactly what they wanted to put in there. They knew they were going to be into a lot of, like, big heavy bands. And it’s the overall vibe, too.
Frank Huang: They’re friendly, and that’s really important for me. I know a lot of video people who just punish everyone to get their ways. And that’s how you survive! But I hate doing that, and I don’t like to go to places that are hostile to the things I do. I deal with that a lot, but I don’t like it. I remember at that Castavet show, nobody stopped me, nobody asked me any questions, and I thought, ‘This is great!’ I’m a sucker for that kind of shit. That loyalty builds up. It’s about people. George and I are both gay, and I bonded with him on that…just shit-talking everybody. That told me I could be safe there. And as far as moving to New York, it was a huge change in the pace of lifestyle, and I could live however I wanted to live now. Being able to be open about it at the bar, the place I always go to, is awesome.
Arty Shepherd: Carcass was a big milestone, because that was a booked show, and an underplay for them. They brought all their production, and made the place looks so good.
George Souleidis: Carcass brought their entire production in. They had their guys make the whole place look like their show. It was one of the top five shows here of all time.
Frank Huang: I think it was when they did all those crazy shows in 2012 and 2013 — it was crazy shows one after another, and with all these secret shows. Refused played there, Carcass played there. They’ve gotten all their press from other sites. If you’re talking about New York’s metal scene for the past eight years, you have to talk about Vitus.
Above: Carcass / Photo by Nathaniel Shannon
Jeff Filmer: One of the biggest things for me, that people are surprised about a lot, is that during soundcheck, I’ll ask them to turn up their toms or their guitar amp. And they’ll say, ‘Dude, I’m so used to being told to turn down everywhere I go.’ In my experience, a lot of audio guys are deadheads who don’t really understand heavy music at all.
Fred Pessaro: One thing that’s always been cool about Vitus is that they’ve put a lot of the faith in me over the years.I think one great example of that is, I flew down to San Antonio to this black metal festival called Rites Of Darkness way back when, and I saw this young band named Pallbearer. At the time, they only had a demo out. They weren’t signed yet, they had nothing. But I was just like, ‘This thing is really amazing, they’re going places. I want to fly them up here and have a show with them.’ And basically, the guys said, ‘Fred, if you like this, it’s probably good and we should go for it.’
Above: Pallbearer in 2018 / Photo by Angela Owens
David Castillo: Are you into doom metal? Well, we got Pallbearer and Yob, they all played here. You like death metal? Obituary played here. When you can see yourself reflected in a place, that’s really cool.
Fred Pessaro: Everybody who works there is a fan. They take the music seriously — they take everything seriously, whether it’s the stage or the sound or how to deal with the band. Obviously, it’s infamous that a lot of sound guys are dicks to bands, but that positivity permeates the venue. Whether it’s taking care of the bands or making sure the room is totally right, it’s all got a good vibe.
Above: Dave Mustaine cracks an À Toute Le Monde beer behind the bar/ Photo courtesy of Arty Shepherd
III: Kings Of The Night Time World
Frank Huang: Everyone wants to come check it out, because it’s been so talked about — and then they actually put on good shit.
Arty Shepherd: Getting Tony Iommi to do is book signing here was, for all of us, kind of a moment where we’re like, ‘Shit, if we can get Tony Iommi here on 24 hours notice, we can do anything!’ All you gotta do is ask. That became a thing: any time we’d wonder if we could get someone, we’d say, ‘Tony Iommi.’
George Souleidis: The Tony Iommi was the first ‘Holy shit’ moment. He rolled in with his bodyguard, we’d decorated the stage, Arty brought in his left-handed SG which Tony never signed. With all the shows, the book signings have been where were most amazed by the people who have walked in and out of this place, like John Lydon and HR.
David Castillo: I definitely have some distinct memories of strapping the dudes in Nifelheim into their gauntlets and shit. They walked with six-inch spikes through the crowd, which was unbelievable. It was so packed in here. I thought, ‘Cool, they’re going to impale half the fucking audience.’
George Souleidis: The Megadeth show was insane. They came in and soundchecked for an hour, so to sit here and listen to them play Holy Wars for ten people…I had to pinch myself.
Above: Megadeth at sound check / Photo by Nathaniel Shannon
Jeff Filmer: The most notable for me were Satan, the NWOBHM band, who’s my favorite band of that genre. That was an insane show. Just the fact that they came to play all these years after being a band, and then they came to play at my spot — it was so cool. Raven’s another one — I was like, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I didn’t work Diamond Head, but even being there was totally insane.
David Castillo: The Descendents show was unbelievably difficult, because it was last minute. The fest got rained out, and suddenly a thousand people show up to the place.
George Souleidis: It was just stormclouds rolled in, washed them out of their fest, and they figured they’d just go down the block to play…and so did the 1,000 people with them. That was the first ‘Holy shit’ show…or unholy shitshow.
Arty Shepherd: I knew [the Descendents and Hot Water Music show] was going to be crazy when it happened. When we showed up to work that say, we didn’t know the Descendents were going to play. I got a call from Justin saying, ‘Hey, the show got rained out, you should call Hot Water Music and ask if they want to play.’ So I text Jason Black, and he says, ‘Sure.’ And then he calls me to ask about the backline, and he says, ‘Hold on…do you want the Descendents to play?’ I say sure, the more the merrier…and then Riot Fest tweeted out that it had moved here to the 4,000 at the show. People were literally piled on top of each other in the bathrooms.
Above: Anthrax’s Scott Ian hanging out in the Vitus basement.
Jeff Filmer: The craziest one for me was probably putting Anthrax in. Because they showed up in a semi, with a giant trailer thing with their own PA system and everything. We put Charlie Benante’s drum kit onstage, and it took up the entire stage, which was awesome. Then we had to build out the stage a bit with empty cases, from the band’s backline. So the event’s already sold out, but now there’s less room in the room. And then they brought their own console in, for their PA and speakers. It was nuts — we had to do it all day, and then did it again that night with a different sound guy after another event. It was…so cool, though.
Arty Shepherd: Anthrax was a pain in the ass. No one realizes that that shit starts at 9:00am. We had people complaining about how long they had to wait outside because Anthrax insisted on using their own board, and insisted on having everyone patted down and bag-checked before they came in. People were just whining, ‘This place sucks.’
David Castillo: Quicksand, on New Year’s Eve, champagne spraying everywhere. That’s the stuff that’s way bigger than any of us.
Frank Huang: The coolest show was probably Neurosis, but the craziest was Dillinger Escape Plan. Dillinger played it twice, and they were fucking sick. They’re a sick live band — I’ve never really dug their music, but when they played live it was fucking awesome.
Above: Dillinger Escape Plan / Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Shannon
Fred Pessaro: In general, it’s hard for me to quantify a single thing, because that’s the beauty of this. It doesn’t stop, it hasn’t ever stopped. Even now — there is always something cool coming. There’s always something, whether it’s a sexy young band or somebody that just wants to play this space, there’s always something cool coming down the pipe.
IV: Come As You Are
Arty Shepherd: I would say a big touchstone is the Nirvana show after the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction.
George Souleidis: We’re kind of a little shellshocked, in a sense. We’re preparing for shows three months out, and then…this happened. With the Nirvana show, we collectively shaved a couple of years off of our lives. We had a mild breakdown. I only let our staff come — two of our business partners didn’t even know about it. My family still yells at me about it: ‘I could’ve seen Nirvana!’
Above: Joan Jett playing Smells Like Teen Spirit with Nirvana. Photo courtesy of Arty Shepherd.
Arty: This was after the ceremony, so no one even got here until, like, 1 in the morning.
George Souleidis: There is filmed footage of that show — we’ll see what happens to that. I’ve seen it, and it’s cool. I was doing door, and when Courtney Love showed up with a bunch of her minions, it was crazy. I was waiting for anybody. Was Paul McCartney going to show up? KISS got inducted that year, and I thought, ‘If Paul and Gene roll up, I’m going to die.’ But as soon as Joan Jett got up there, playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, and everyone’s phones went up, I just started crying.
Fred Pessaro: The big ones for me were obviously [the Nirvana reunion]. I was at it, and I was the only journalist there, and I drunkenly filed a report at 5am and was then interviewed by a bunch of different news outlets and shit.
Above: Arty and Dave Grohl / Photo courtesy of Arty Shepherd
Arty Shepherd: The day after that, I was on the subway and there were two random people talking about Nirvana playing the night before at Vitus. And then I got off the train, and two other random people were talking about it. The cops came in that night and said, ‘Hey guys, we actually wanted to see that show. If you ever have something like that again, please let us know?’
Frank Huang: I didn’t even know about it until the day after. I was in grad school at the time, and my grad-school classmate, who would never listen to metal and would never go to Saint Vitus, texted me, ‘Were you at Vitus last night?’ I didn’t care, but what really pissed me off was that later I learned Butch Vig was there. Motherfucker, you’re telling me I had a chance to meet Butch Vig, and I wasn’t there? What the fuck?
V: Legacy Of The Beast
Arty Shepherd: Even to this day, in all honesty, if I see someone out of state or in a foreign country wearing our shirt, I just want to go over and hug them.
George Souleidis: Arty actually bought me VIP tickets to one of these guitar marathon shows, and Yngwie was a part of it. In true Yngwie fashion, he took the record we bought and wrote the name of his new CD on it. Nothing a million notes can’t fix. Arpeggios for life.
Fred Pessaro: Whether it’s taking care of the bands or making sure the room is totally right, it’s all got a good vibe. At the end of the day, metal is actually very positive music. I find it to be very cathartic. To me, you listen to metal when you want to stop being bad, and that’s what they do right. They’re fans first.
Above: The Vitus staff chilling with Bruce Dickinson before his book signing / Photo courtesy of Arty Shepherd
Jeff Filmer: It’s the sincerity, 100%. I walk in, and the guys who own the place are wearing heavy metal T-shirts. And they’re into different kinds of stuff, but what it comes down to is they’re not saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this to be a metal bar.’ It’s them. It’s just what we do, it’s what we love to do. Yeah, you can go to other places, and you can wake up one morning and decide, ‘I’m going to buy some property, paint everything black, and put some bands in here, but you have to really be about it, and people will pick up on that. Talking to George or one of the other owners, it doesn’t feel like I’m talking to my boss. It feels like I’m talking to my buddy.
Arty Shepherd: I think the fact that we’re in bands, and fans…there’s an emotional connection that’s existed from early one. And I think it has to do with the synergy or reciprocity of people feeling that we care. That’s pretty much how I relate to it.
George Souleidis: It’s even hard to have a vantage to look at it retrospectively — we’re just busy doing it. Now, Nirvana will be four years ago, and we can say, ‘Wow, we did that!’ Or Descendents, or Carcass, or any of those big shows that make you ask what they’re doing playing there. What’s next? I don’t know. Who do YOU want to see playing here?
David Castillo: I’ll be 70, on my porch, and I’ll feel good to say I contributed to those sorts of things. I always wanted to be part of this New York thing, of music, whatever. While at times it’s difficult, like everything else is…this could end tomorrow, and I’ll be Dave who did Saint Vitus.