The exterior wall of Saint Vitus Bar is black, and there is no sign outside marking the entrance. To passersby, the only clue to its contents is the occasional line of fans wearing black shirts with indecipherable band logos. To those in the know, this is New York’s home for metal, hardcore, and otherwise dark and heavy music. “We like the speakeasy appeal,” explains George Souleidis, a co-owner of the venue. “If you know you’re supposed to be there, you go in.”
But Saint Vitus is far from exclusive, and thanks to its fans-and-bands-first practices, the bar has thrived since opening five years ago. It celebrates the accomplishment this week with five nights of shows, beginning April 13. Headlining are Corrosion of Conformity, Pallbearer, Royal Thunder, and 13th Chime — several of which rarely play such small rooms, except in this beloved case.
Pallbearer, an internationally popular doom band set to appear on the fifteenth and seventeenth, made their New York debut at Saint Vitus in 2012. Although the band is from Arkansas, Saint Vitus talent buyer David Castillo sensed promise and flew them in for their first show. “They had just released a demo that was catching fire in the underground and we really liked them at the bar,” he remembers. “It seemed like they were poised for big things.”
Castillo was right: Pallbearer are now bona fide metal crossover stars, getting play on NPR and nods in Pitchfork in addition to metal scene dedication. Bassist Joseph D. Rowland remembers the first Vitus show as “an incredible and memorable time for all of us.” They’re looking forward to coming back, he writes via email. “It’s awesome [to] take part in the anniversary festivities. It’s become sort of a second home — even when we aren’t playing [there] when we play New York, we always make a point to stop in and get drinks.”
Headliners hanging out before or after their shows with regulars is common practice at Saint Vitus, because it’s a venue built for bands to love. “We want to create an experience that’ll be good for musicians,” says Castillo, who along with both his co-owners has played in bands for years. “It’s really not the hardest thing in the world to do; there’s just some decency involved.” Rowland says this is why Pallbearer keep coming back. “The guys that run Saint Vitus make a serious effort to make the experience better for the bands and the fans. They’ve made sound upgrades and space renovations since they opened, and it just keeps getting better.” This is unusual, he explains. “It’s not all that common to find a venue whose entire staff cares as much as they do.”
For all the consideration about improving the concertgoing and -playing experience, though, Saint Vitus wasn’t supposed to be a venue. Burned out from years of touring, neither Souleidis nor Arty Shepherd, the third co-owner, wanted to be around live music every day. But, as Shepherd says, “In New York, when you find a space, your space dictates your business.” The former plumbing school they fell in love with happened to have a back room that would be perfect for a stage, so they built one out, filling the space underneath with several tons of sand to dampen excessive resonance.
Still, the owners planned to host events only occasionally until, in November of 2011, Castillo unexpectedly nabbed Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi for a book signing. It drew a crowd, and with that confidence boost, Saint Vitus became a full-fledged venue. Iommi, meanwhile, became a catchphrase. “Any time we had a dream of something we wanted to do, we’d just say, ‘Tony Iommi,’ ” Shepherd explains. “It was like, ‘We made that happen, so we could make anything happen. Let’s do it.’ ”
The bar’s reputation has since reached music-industry echelons that only larger venues usually penetrate. When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, Saint Vitus hosted the secret-show after-party. The show featured Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and, taking turns filling in for Kurt Cobain on vocals, Joan Jett, St. Vincent, J. Mascis, and Kim Gordon. It turned out that a producer on Foo Fighters’ HBO documentary series had played Saint Vitus with his band. He liked it so much he suggested it for the concert.
Going back to its origins as an only-sometimes-venue, Saint Vitus also hosts events that draw in a larger community. There are weekly metal-soundtracked yoga sessions, karaoke every Friday and Saturday (bands often stick around to sing), pop-up art shows, and music-related book readings in conjunction with Greenpoint bookstore WORD. Michelle Chen, who runs events for the bookstore, says, “We have a huge music-loving customer base, so partnering with [Saint Vitus] is a no-brainer for us.” Bookings are musically diverse, too, since the co-owners are insistent that they book only good bands, rather than only metal bands, some of which are inevitably bad. They point to CBGB, which despite being known as a punk icon hosted all sorts of music at one point or another.
As Saint Vitus moves into its next five years, a changing Greenpoint looms. Condo developments are multiplying, so the owners have added extra soundproofing in preparation for new neighbors who might be inclined to file noise complaints. But rather than being wary, Shepherd and his co-owners welcome them all. “I want people to walk out and go, ‘That’s the best place I’ve ever seen a show,’ ” he says. “All I ever wanted was for [everyone] to have a fucking amazing experience.”