Interior of Big Snow Buffalo Lodge, by Jeremy Aquilino
Life is good for the founders of Big Snow Buffalo Lodge these days.
The bands they play in, Leapling and Baked, are getting back in the swing of things. Dan Arnes (Leapling) just released a solo album, and did sound for a television pilot, Animals. It won best comedy pilot at the New York Television Festival, and got a nod from Mitch Hurwitz. R.J. Gordon (Leapling, Baked) has been doing sound for Titus Andronicus on tour, following a stint opening for them in a local band called Lost Boy. Jeremy Aquilino (Baked) has been illustrating a children's book about a baby owl who is afraid of the monsters in her bedroom. Yoni David (Leapling, Baked) has been commuting to Manhattan to work sound at Bowery Ballroom, and has started drumming in Leapling and Baked again, as he has regained use of his arm.
That would be his left arm. That's the arm in which he was shot. This is the same Yoni David who was the victim of random gun violence in Bushwick last July. It was this shooting which led to the rapid closing of the Morgantown-area Big Snow Buffalo Lodge. For just under two years, it was one of the integral spaces in the Brooklyn DIY community. Yes, that's also the Dan Arnes who was last publicly heard from when he was talking to Village Voice about mopping up Yoni's blood.
Life was not good for the founders of Big Snow back in July.
Dale W. Eisinger's article in the Voice was a very public testament to that. The dissolution of Big Snow meant the sudden end of a mission that had brought the four friends to Brooklyn. It would lead to the first time they split apart since meeting as undergrads at SUNY Purchase. All of them except for Dan would end up leaving Brooklyn, dissipating to Long Island, Upstate New York, and Connecticut.
Jeremy, now splitting time between Upstate New York and friends' couches in Brooklyn, told me over the phone that it had been six or seven years since the four friends became inseparable. “I had been living with these guys since I was 18," he says. "Going from that to being alone was pretty intense.” Yoni, now on Long Island, remarks over phone that he hasn't worked professionally without R.J. since the beginning of college. It was during their time at Purchase that they started hatching plans to open a venue. While they were watching Harry Nilsson's animated film, The Point, R.J. pointed out that the opera house in Pointsville was called “Big Snow.” They knew right away that they had a name.
Big Snow was not around for all that long. DIY venues are not known for their longevity, thanks to the brutal economic realities of throwing cheap shows that only 20 people attend and a potpourri of grey legality: unlicensed liquor sales, the caprice of law enforcement. DIY venues in Brooklyn essentially sit on the brink of annihilation for the entirety of their lives.
The quotidian operation entails grueling work, with little instant gratification aside from the music itself. Dan Arnes admits that “when you're in the midst of it, it's quite time-consuming and exhausting for a lot of us. You lose perspective on what you're doing because you're so busy with it, and it becomes a job.” Keeping the place in order often entails getting trash collected, keeping the bar stocked, and fixing the toilet. Minimizing intervention by the authorities means maintaing good rapport with the neighbors. Booking bands involves wrangling schedules and sometimes egos. At the show itself, the best audience members cheer loudly and buy beer. The worst scream and vomit outside as the police drive by.
Yet Dan, living in South Brooklyn, is also quick to testify over phone to the rewards of the endeavor. “It's interesting, when you're done, to see how significant it became with people.” Bands and patrons that frequented the venue have told him that they feel like they haven't had a home since Big Snow closed, which he regards as “insane, and really touching.” The scene-builder types often go unthanked, and we often forget that they are even there, behind the scenes. This is a less-than-sane undertaking to provide you a spot to listen or play. Don't forget to show your appreciation to these humans-- they are not immune to kind words.
Fatalistically speaking, the local music scene is comprised of operations that are doomed to fail. Some, though, regard such a flux as inevitable, even beautiful. For every Zebulon that closes, there's a Living Gallery that opens. Each new show at 285 Kent or Silent Barn or Body Actualized Center or Fitness is another realization of an impossible dream, an active refute of both long-term pragmatics, conventional late-capitalist business sense, and commercially friendly music. Part of the violence of Big Snow's closing was the feeling that this dream had realized its impossibility, its fate in an especially brutal way. Basically, the dream hemorrhaged more blood than Yoni.
Consider where this dream lived. That particular pocket of North Brooklyn-- along the L train stops in East Williamsburg and Bushwick-- is something of a bubble. A working class, industrial area is morphed by a utopian gaze into an oasis of youth and creativity, often in ignorance of some real life, big city shit. The intersection of Flushing and Broadway is one of the deadliest for pedestrians in the city. The corner of Jefferson and Evergreen has been the site of a few brutal rapes. Bodegas and BPs get robbed more frequently than you would like to know. A stray bullet hitting a venue owner could be construed as a penetration of one reality by another.
So yes, the Big Snow four sounded defeated in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. But they are also the kind of people who remain insistent upon moving forward. Talking to each of them, you get a sense of optimism which most people in such a situation just wouldn't bother with. As R.J. Gordon puts it, “This is definitely the worst any of us have had it. But with all of that considered, none of our hopes or values have really changed. We're just trying to keep moving on.” Moving on is all you can do after tragedy, and it seems like they did a pretty good job so far.
After a few months of working on their own projects, the four are once again rehearsing Leapling and Baked in advance of two “Big Snow Farewell” parties booked by venue compatriot and Bushwick scene vet, Jordan Michael Ianucci. In fact, Leapling finished recording its new album shortly before the shooting and subsequent closure. “[It was] kind of the epitome of what Big Snow was,” Yoni admits. “We set up the studio, took off a few days, and put things together. Big Snow was such a funny place. It was our house. It was everything. Everything we did was out of that space. Setting up studio for that session was the epitome of what Big Snow was to us.”
The language of home, of family, is prevalent when talking to David, Aquilino, Arnes, and Gordon. They most certainly regard one another as such-- and Big Snow Buffalo Lodge as their homestead-- as well as the people who frequented the venue. At the end of my interview with Dan Arnes, he made a point to express gratitude for supporters of all stripes. He said, “Big Snow couldn't have been anything without everyone else. We did what we had to do to keep it going, but it was everybody else that kept it going. We just kept throwing shows."
His words betray the kind collective selflessness that the Flower Children aimed for when they dropped out to start cults and communes. But often, such communes failed because of ideals clouding practical considerations-- living off the land for the first time could mean not enough food store for the winter, or free love could be a ruse for misogyny and womanizing. In comparison, the Brooklyn DIY scene at least seems a bit more competent, if equally starry-eyed. Brooklyn hosts its fair share of Millennial self-centeredness which, if anything, makes the presence of the scene-builder types like these all the more admirable. Most others would have gotten out and stayed out, but Yoni, R.J., Jeremy, and Dan are holding on to a dream with battered, resolute claws. Wish them luck, and tell them thanks for Big Snow.