On the walls, in a house on a street nearby, are several stolen directory signs.
You know which ones I mean. The gray ones hanging at the entry floor of every building on campus. Hanging on the kitchen wall is a square sign that says, “Kitchen.”
In the basement, there’s a sign that was clearly snagged from Todd Union. It reads: “round Floor;” “Cam us Mai enter;” “Wom ‘s R om;” “Internat eatre Program.”
By the entrance there’s another, even more altered: “Floomp 4.” There are several pieces of white paper taped over the directory, with new additions written in Sharpie: “Center for Study Albums and Interdepartmental Floomping;” “Black Lives Matter.”
On Floomp 1, you can find the “Center for Bands and Musicianship” and the “We don’t have any books down here b/c basement.”
This is my first time attending a show at The Little Box. That’s what they call it, these four guys whose home doubles as a concert venue for local and traveling bands.
I came for a benefit show in February that raised about $300 for Planned Parenthood. After President Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” The Little Box also raised about $250 to go toward Cair-New York, an organization that supports American Muslims.
Most of the time, the donation bucket goes toward paying the traveling artists.
Because of their precarious position as four college kids running a do-it-yourself concert venue from their basement, I’ll be using The Little Box owners’ DJ names, which are senior DJ Disco Gravy, DJ Boxy Grandpa ‘15, and seniors DJ Door Man and DJ Music in the Basement (DJ MIB) .
“It’s kind of been more like a beg for forgiveness more than ask for permission kind of deal,” DJ Disco Gravy said of their underground operation.
“I should have come up with a DJ name a long time ago,” DJ MIB, who came up with his DJ name for the purposes of this story, said.
At 9:10 p.m., the music starts.
“Fuck Donald Trump!” one of the performers shouts. Apollo 11, the band, is playing.
There’s a banjo. Some Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan covers.
The music happens, as DJ MIB’s name would suggest, in the basement. There are Christmas lights hanging from the low ceiling, a red drum kit, and a washer and dryer. The room is filled with people, and there is a random pile of firewood stacked against the back wall, which I will later stand on to see better.
I see a Genessee Beer can in one of the tangles of lights.
Upstairs, the living room walls are covered in posters and album covers. There are some large house plants, which are named Susan B. Planthony and Swaggy P, respectively.
“The P is for Plant,” Disco Gravy tells me.
A cloud of smoke hangs in one corner. Nearby, there’s an old advertisement taped to a closed door that reads, “Is your washroom breeding Bolsheviks?”
The idea for The Little Box isn’t a new one. Disco Gravy, Boxy Grandpa, MIB, and Door Man picked up where other students left off.
But Boxy Grandpa, who was involved with the old WRUR Radio House, said The Little Box feels a bit bigger.
“I guess we’ve sort of created something bigger than ourselves because we really don’t have to do much promoting and people just kind of show up,” he said.
Disco Gravy agrees.
“Sometimes it’s just like, ‘who are you people? How did you find out about this?” he said.
The Little Box’s Facebook page doesn’t list a street address. Other than some paper stickers and posters, they don’t advertise.
Instead, The Little Box gets its almost-monthly performances, and its crowd, by word-of-mouth and personal connections.
MIB has connections to several artists from New Hampshire, where he used to play in a band, and the house has earned a reputation in the DIY music scene of Rochester.
Tim Avery, who is known by many Rochesterians as the heart of Rochester’s music scene, has even referred artists searching for venues to The Little Box.
“It is a very welcoming and accepting place, and is a good part of the DIY music scene in Rochester I think,” said Rochester Institute of Technology junior Sabrina Nichols, who also performed for the Planned Parenthood benefit show.
“They have a lot of cool stuff on their walls that I spent a lot of time looking at. It’s a good box.”
“I think that house shows in general are really cool because there’s something about the barrier between being a person and being a performing musician,” MIB said. “People have this big idea that it’s like a separate thing, and when you do a show in a living room or a basement, it just breaks all that down.”
There are a lot of flannel shirts, dyed hair, piercings, and beanies. The music tonight fits the clothes.
I say, off-handedly, to senior Dean Smiros that one of the bands reminds me of another band I know.
“I don’t like to attribute any vibe to anything I hear in this room,” Smiros says. I’m surprised. He continues. “I feel like nothing that can be here has a sense of professionalism and it makes it very hard to compare it to other types of music […] I agree with you, but I don’t want to agree with you because of the context of where we are.”
“I like to be analytical,” Smiros says, “but I don’t like to be analytical about something like this.”
MIB, who has been involved in the DIY house show scene since his freshman year, before The Little Box existed, echoed Smiros’ protectiveness of The Little Box as a space.
“This is the time more than ever where people can feel welcome and accepted […] and just kind of get out of it,” he said about a show which took place the Friday after the presidential election. “The people thing is almost more important [than the music] to me.”
After the first band plays, MIB takes the mic.
He tells us to remember not to talk over the performers.
“This is a listening room,” MIB says.
Later in an interview, MIB told me the connection between audience and musician is important to him, a musician himself.
“One person talking can break like 30 people out of that connection.”
I asked Disco Gravy about what he hopes for The Little Box’s future. All of its members will continue to live in the house next year, after graduation.
“Just keep booking shows with good tunes, I guess? I don’t really know,” Disco Gravy said. “We could plant an herb garden. That would be nice. Maybe make some bread.”
The morning of our interview, Disco Gravy periodically gets up to check his bread, which he is cooking from scratch in The Little Box’s oven.
The night I come to a show, he is also making bread.
“We’re just trying to give musicians a platform to get more people listening to their stuff, and just like more people knowing about them,” Disco Gravy said. “We’re doing it for the bands, we’re doing it for the music.”
Alternatively, MIB emphasized the value of the community The Little Box provides.
“Going to these kinds of shows when I was a freshman and a sophomore was so significant to me and growing into the human that I am today,” he said. “There’s definitely a huge part […] that is just about being able to pay that forward to new kids coming in who haven’t experienced stuff like this. I want to be able to help other people have that transformative experience.”
The bands sings: “I’m too busy livin’ that I will never die.”
I’m standing next to a friend of mine who I dragged along. He is a freshman, and he’s never come to something like this, either.
Suddenly it’s like I’m standing in a montage of some coming-of-age indie movie from the 90’s: the drugs, the Genesee cans, the lights, colors, and the feeling of the crowd—it all fits.
Dean is balancing on some logs with me, barely avoiding hitting his head on a can stuck to the ceiling, and I decide to put away some of my early judgments.
I forget my running count of beanies and flannels and piercings, of collared, buttoned-up shirts, and I listen to the band play.