Doug “Sluggo” Vizthum has played in four great New Brunswick bands – Pleased Youth, Lunar Bear Ensemble, Bad Karma, and Mr. Payday. All but Lunar Bear Ensemble are pictured here. Photos courtesy of Doug Vizthum
This week's Makin Waves contains a chat with Doug “Sluggo” Vizthum, a long and vital part of the New Brunswick music scene with bands Pleased Youth, Lunar Bear Ensemble, Bad Karma and Mr. Payday, host of the “Flexible Vinyl” radio show on WRSU, and a concert promoter whose latest endeavor is EMF Productions.
If anybody is Makin Waves in the New Jersey music scene, it’s Doug “Sluggo” Vizthum, one of the most integral parts of the New Brunswick scene for 35 years as artist, promoter, radio show host, and one-time manager of the legendary Court Tavern.
Sluggo’s first big band, the influential Pleased Youth, are reuniting with shows June 30 at the Court with fellow punk bands Cyanamid, Metal Decay and The Dentures, and Sept. 8 at Hub City Sounds: ROCK New Brunswick in Boyd Park. That fifth annual festival also will feature Hub City Stompers, Doc Hopper, Sharief in Burgundy, Silent Knight feat. Derrick Braxton & Friends, Danielle Illario, Nalani & Sarina, Experiment 34, Professor Caveman, SusBus, Hong Kong Graffiti, and Circus Place.
Meanwhile, Sluggo’s current band, Mr. Payday, have several tasty gigs coming up, including May 18 at Pino’s, Highland Park, with Naughty Clouds, and July 20 there with Soft Rock Renegades, The Milwaukees, and Atom Driver; June 23, “The Best of Makin Waves,” Asbury Park Brewery, with Cook Thugless, The Brixton Riot, The Successful Failures, and Disposable; and July 26, FM, Jersey City.
And as if that wasn’t enough to keep Mr. Vizthum busy, there’s a retrospective due soon from one of his best bands, Bad Karma; he’s planning more shows for his new concert promotion company, EMF Productions, and he hosts “Flexible Vinyl” weekly on 88.7 WRSU-FM Rutgers University. The radio show, which often features many local bands, airs 6 to 7 p.m. Thursdays.
Sluggo took time out of his busy schedule to chat via email about all that he has going on, his take on the state of the Court Tavern and the New Brunswick music scene, and more. Enjoy!
You grew up in Edison? How and when did you gravitate to the New Brunswick music scene?
Actually, I grew up in Metuchen. My Mom had jury duty and told me about the Court Tavern, said it was a cool bar. She had business in New Brunswick one day in 1981, and I went to check it out. By that time, they had moved from across the street to the building it’s in now. I started hanging there, became friendly with Bob Albert and just became a fixture. Thanks, Mom!
Was Pleased Youth your first band or were you in bands before that?
First real band. I played with friends doing covers in high school, nothing serious. Pleased Youth was where I learned to really play in a band setting and write music.
How did Pleased Youth influence the New Brunswick scene and help lay the foundation for what became the New Brunswick basement scene?
First of all, we booked all-ages hardcore shows at the Court and places like the Modern Arts Hall in Rahway, Wendy Hughes' Rubber Room rehearsal studio and various American Legion and VFW halls. We had shows with the Circle Jerks, 7 Seconds, DRI, JFA, AOD, The Dicks, Butthole Surfers, The Freeze, Gang Green, The Adolescents, Youth Brigade and many other national acts alongside all the local bands in the area. We also ran shows out of our house on Railroad Ave. in New Brunswick. Later on, Paul Decolator, Pleased Youth guitarist and songwriter, ran shows in his basement on Commercial Ave.
Given that influence, how does it feel for Pleased Youth to be reuniting this summer, including a spot at Hub City Sounds: ROCK New Brunswick on Sept. 8 in Boyd Park?
It's interesting. Except for guys like Chris Ross, we don't get much recognition for all the stuff we did. We played from 1984 to 1986. During that time, we played hundreds of shows. We got to play with Black Flag, DOA, The Circle Jerks, Agnostic Front and so many others that people remind me of. It's crazy how much we packed in in a short amount of time. Because we were gone by the time house shows became a bigger deal, we don't get remembered. Like that guy Ronen (Kaufman) that wrote that house show book, he never took the time to look at the history. We were there before Lifetime and The Bouncing Souls. As a matter of fact, I booked the Souls at the Court for their first club show at one of my birthday parties. I wish Paul was here to enjoy it, but we play the songs he and the band wrote, so it's nice to be able to go out and play them.
It’s a shame that Paul passed away so young. Also, Ronen’s book is a personal memoir, so he’s too young to realize how Pleased Youth paved the way for the basement scene. What do you think of ROCK New Brunswick? How well does it represent the New Brunswick music scene and what would you do to make it more representative?
It's something I wish we had during the ’90s when we had a real happening rock scene in New Brunswick. There were so many bands, but it never got the attention it should have. The good thing is there are still great bands and a vibrant music scene, though nowhere as booming as it was then. You had five clubs with live music, and Rutgers also hosted bands. Now there is one club and Rutgers does nothing anymore. And ROCK New Brunswick is very diverse, which is a plus. A great venue for bands.
Anything coming up and going on with Bad Karma?
I will be going in and remastering our recordings and possibly releasing a retrospective on our Polanco Label. We never got the respect we deserved. We were a great live band and wrote great songs. A combination of not having a niche sound and being broke (laughs). Our recording output should have been four times what it was. We wrote, like, 100 songs. Just never caught a break.
What's new with Mr. Payday?
Working on a follow-up to last year’s ‘Welcome To The Modern World’ CD. We've got about seven songs, and it's definitely a lot different in scope. Looking forward to playing the new stuff and seeing how it translates live.
I'm very proud of the band. Everyone has such great chemistry, and I'd put us up against anybody out there. We play hard and don't stop. I modeled us after The Ramones as in there are few pauses, and we keep the energy level up for the whole set. No yacking and between-song banter. I hate that.
What do you think of the ‘Best of Makin Waves’ show Mr. Payday are playing as part of the Makin Waves Summer Concert Series at Asbury Park Brewery?
I've been wanting to play Asbury for a while and the Brewery in particular. Asbury is a much more insular scene than New Brunswick. Having a chance to go in and play there to a good crowd is what we need. We played a Happy Mondays show at the Wonder Bar, but it's Monday. Who goes out on a Monday night? I liked that, but this is a better way to get a chance to show what we can do.
What bands were you in besides Pleased Youth, Bad Karma and Mr. Payday?
I was in Lunar Ensemble for, like, 30 years. That was a more improvisational band. I played with some great players in that band, like Martin Atkins (Public Image Ltd, Killing Joke, Ministry), Lance Carter (Sonny Sharrock) and the guy that has been playing bass with me for 30 years in Bad Karma and Mr Payday, Tom DiEllo. Also, I had some other bands, like We Kick Ass, with guys from Buzzkill and Deadguy. Also, This Stuff'll Kill You with Rob Buckley and my current Mr. Payday drummer, Nick D'Amore.
How does it feel to be back once again as a promoter at the Court Tavern?
I'm not doing much so far. Shannon (Perez) of Weekend Quality has a good amount of it covered, along with this kid Mike (MikeroMedia Booking), who does stuff too. EMF Productions just fills in spots here and there. Just glad they are doing live music and keeping it going.
New Brunswick will always have a good music scene, even without clubs. Around 2001 to 2002, the booker at the Court focused on national and gimmick shows, like Leif Garrett. The whole time the Court ignored the local scene, there was a whole bunch of bands bubbling under in basements all over town. When me and Andy Diamond took back over the booking afterward, it was an explosion of great bands and big crowds. The Court thrived for years and had it's best run ever.
What do you think of the new management at the Court Tavern?
I like Pat (Kotsonis, general manager/co-owner). He steadied the place and made it more in line with the old days. There is no bringing back the heyday of the Court Tavern. That being said, he is listening to the right people. He is the only one that reached out to me since the Court unceremoniously closed after 30 years and reopened under new ownership. They never reached out to the people that ran the club all those years until he did. For that I give him total credit, which is why I went to Chris Pierce and said, ‘Talk to this guy. He is very reasonable and you can work with him.’
Do you think the Court Tavern will survive and thrive under this new management or is it doomed to be sold and developed into another New Brunswick skyscraper?
I think the skyscraper window closed when Bob held out from Omar Boraie when he built that monumental eye sore behind the Court (laughs). It really is like Bugs Bunny, where they build around his rabbit hole. That being said, I hope it works out. I love the building, and it holds sentimental value in my life. No one can predict the future, but I hope it stays around.
You also host a radio show called ‘Flexible Vinyl.' Tell me about that, when folks can hear it, and what the aim and purpose of the show is?
I'm on from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday nights on 88.7 WRSU-FM Rutgers University. My radio name is the Slugger. It has been on WRSU for years, way before I took it over. My old friend, Jeff Wertz, started it and did it for years, had started doing a freeform show on Monday nights and asked me to take it over. I never did radio before, and I always wanted to. The fact it was called ‘Flexible Vinyl’ made it so I could play whatever I felt like.
I like a lot of different kinds of music. Any direction I want to go, I can. I do take one day a month to showcase local music. ‘Overnight Sensations’ with Frank Bridges is the only show on the station that really focuses on just local music. It gives another avenue for local stuff and at drive time.
How can local bands get you music for 'Flexible Vinyl?'
Send it to Santa Claus at the North Pole (laughs). Just kidding. Send it to WRSU ATTN: Flexible Vinyl. I won't promise airplay, but I'll give it a listen. I generally seek out stuff more than ask for submissions.
Given your long history as a performer, promoter, bar manager and radio guy in New Brunswick, what do you think of the history of the city's music scene?
I have a lot of great memories over the years. From 1980 on, I can say I was there and saw all of the great bands and peak moments. Not many people can say that. Must people left or came in late. I'm very lucky in that respect. It has been a helluva ride
What do you think of its current state as a scene, including the basement scene?
It's still thriving. I can say to all the kids doing it now, open your minds. You weren't the first, and you won't be the last. Always look at your history. And keep looking forward.
What should be done to make the New Brunswick music scene better and stronger?
The town itself could embrace its own musical history. Stop with harassing show houses and the kids trying to be creative. The town could also have an open space for all-ages shows. You have how many under-aged students in this town? They could step up and make a space. It is a long time coming.
Is there anything I didn't ask on which you would like to comment?
I can say that I don't see myself slowing down. After 35 years in bands, I still love to play and write music. I continually strive to get better and learn. I don't ever want to be stagnant and just play the same stuff over and over. The point is to keep progressing and never get bored.
I could do without lugging a Marshall around (laughs). That is the only part that sucks.
I still love being creative and writing music. I wish my music got more recognition than it does, but you can't have everything. I gave up the rock-star dreams a long time ago. To me it is a cathartic experience. When you connect with people and they enjoy it, that is just extra on top of it.
Bob Makin is the reporter for www.MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at email@example.com. And like Makin Waves at www.facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.