For better or worse, New Brunswick isn’t what it used to be. In the last decade or two, the grease trucks were replaced with the “charm” of The Yard, many of the dilapidated college houses (for which dubious landlords charged too much) were torn down for modern condo units, and downtown transformed from a gritty but fun collection of bars, restaurants and businesses to a burgeoning metropolis with luxury units, performing arts venues and fine-dining restaurants.
But for many of us who hung around Hub City in the ’90s and early ’00s, music is what set New Brunswick apart. There are high-profile bands that started in New Brunswick—Gaslight, Bouncing Souls, Thursday—but for each one of them, there were hundreds of smaller bands for which the basements and small venues of New Brunswick were home. There was a community formed in these shows, forged in sweat and rafter-shaking vibrations of young bands playing hard.
Now, look. It’s easy to be romantic about the “good old days” of New Brunswick’s music scene, but one need only try to find a show today and then dust off some old flyers to see, at the very least, the modern music scene is not the same as the one of yore. Bands that play in New Brunswick, at least hardcore/punk acts, largely aren’t from New Brunswick. But that doesn’t mean that a homegrown music scene doesn’t exist there; it just looks a little different today.
The truth is there are local bands still playing basement shows, many of them quite good—though today, there seems to be plenty more indie acts than hardcore/punk ones. Too, there are now venues hosting punk and hardcore shows that weren’t on the radar for those of us in our 30s and 40s back in the day.
Dusters and Freezeheads are two bands carrying the punk/hardcore mantle in New Brunswick into the ’20s. They let us in on what the scene looks like today, how their ethos mirrors (and differs from) that of older New Brunswick bands, and finding a musical home in Asbury Park as the New Brunswick scene transitions.
Dusters is an aggressive blend of East Coast hardcore punk, Oi! values and football hooligan culture. Having survived a COVID-hiatus and the general turmoil of being in a band for more than five years, they’re becoming undeniable in the Jersey punk scene. With a name derived from the English slang term for brass knuckles, the band’s attitude and agenda is anything but subtle. They don’t give a shit about your sensibilities at a time when feelings and “vibes” seemingly dominate the zeitgeist.
“In the order of importance, I think we write a lot about: being working class and working class solidarity, our city of New Brunswick and being from the East Coast in general and then, obviously, the hooligan culture… we’re not a political band, we’re just a working class band,” says Dusters frontman Nishad Datta. “We represent a myriad of different opinions that exist within the working class…we’re not just solely writing about Marxism, we all have different opinions and write about the world as we see it.”
Plenty of bands in the U.S. write about their communities and issues facing the working class; few write about soccer hooligan culture. That’s likely because the popularity of hooligan culture usually flourishes in countries where soccer (football) plays a much larger role in the national identity. Dusters connects with it via Datta, who grew up with a hooligan.
“My father was a football hooligan for his club in Calcutta, India, and so was my great-grandfather,” Datta says. “So, technically, I’m a fourth-generation hooligan just singing about what I know. I don’t think we’re the first U.S. band that has songs about hooligan culture, but I think we’re the ones that have it the most integrated in our aesthetic and purpose. We’re a subcultural band, you know?”
Recognizing you’re operating within a subculture is one thing, but screaming into a microphone about soccer culture would border on disingenuous without actually having a local club that you passionately support. The concerted effort of Major League Soccer to establish clubs in communities that are densely populated with soccer fans (many of whom are first or second-generation Americans with roots in soccer-dominant countries) and promote the construction of strategically located, soccer-only venues (instead of sticking teams in oversized NFL stadiums that provide a sterile atmosphere) has tapped into a growing appetite for the sport in the U.S. and resultantly legitimized the league. The New York Red Bulls, and Red Bull Arena in Harrison, are a prime example of an MLS club in a soccer-mad state with a venue that’s accessible for supporters.
The Red Bulls are Dusters’ local team, and their passion for club and culture is overt in the track “Central Bookings (Derby Days pt. 2)” off of their newly released 7” titled Guerilla.
“The reason we got into MLS is because that’s what’s around us,” Datta says. “I grew up working jobs here and there in Newark [right across the passaic river from Red Bull Arena in Harrison]. My mom used to work in Newark ,and it was only like a 30-minute ride from New Brunswick, especially if you’re taking the train. We’re a hardcore punk band with hooks about going to soccer. We’re singing about supporting our local team that never wins and hopping on the train to fight with supporters we refer to as right-wing because they’re for the wrong club, that sort of thing.”
There’s usually a long, protracted story behind the formation of bands and their motivation to create together. For Datta, the biggest impetus behind the inception of Dusters can be largely summed up in one word: spite.
“It had been a while since I was in a band,” Datta says. “I was at Rider University at the time and I met this guy named Tom Bontempo, who used to be in Freezeheads, Fence Cutter and a bunch of crazy bands, and this other guy, Vic, who was a punk kid from San Diego. I had heard that some of Vic’s friends from San Diego were talking shit because he was over here on the East Coast, saying he wasn’t punk anymore, this and that. So, using the greatest motivator for anything in my life—spite—I wrote a sick-ass demo and started playing gigs with these guys.”
The band’s original college lineup didn’t last long, but shortly after Datta wrote his demo, he met current Dusters bassist, Mario DaCosta, and a lasting bond that would radically influence the band’s identity was formed.
“I call him the beating heart of the group. He is the most idiosyncratic guy I’ve ever worked with. Some of the ideas he has are bizarre, but, if you take your time, have as much patience as you can and listen to everything he says, the songs come out phenomenally,” Datta says. “I feel like Motown records probably had a couple of guys like him to put the polishing touches on every record and every group rehearsal. Mario has been my right-hand man and closest collaborator ever since joining Dusters.”
Rotating members is a reality for any band that stays together long enough. While Dusters has had a few lineup changes, one of the group’s most integral pieces has stayed on with the band, although his role has changed.
“Our original demo was recorded by Shawn Collins, who is now our guitar player; he was also our drummer for like five years,” Datta says. “He can play all of the songs on every instrument, so, if Mario is the beating heart of the group then Shawn is the spine… I’m just the face.”
While we wanted to highlight Dusters and Freezeheads for their importance to the New Brunswick scene, both bands are actually important to each other for a few reasons, the most obvious being: two members of Dusters also play in Freezeheads.
“Yeah, now we share multiple members: Shawn and Nick [Naccarato, drums],” Datta says. “Freezeheads was kind of on life-support for a little bit, I guess. But once they joined Dusters and I decided to bring my label back—Psychotic Break Records —we’ve kind of just been like, ‘Hey, whatever Freezeheads needs, we will help you out with. You need a bass player, extra guitarist, vocal tracks, this or that… we got you.’”
Freezeheads is a three-piece with a surprisingly massive sound. They’re finishing up a new demo, but recently released a track from it on Bandcamp, “You Are,” and it’s a fucking ripper. While they’re definitely a bit poppier than Dusters, the band offers way more bite than any groups that the pop-punk genre brings to mind. For reference, fans of Title Fight’s more driving, direct tunes should definitely give Freezeheads’ latest track “You Are” or even last year’s “Uh Huh” a listen.
While most of the band lives in New Brunswick-adjacent towns, Freezeheads still calls Hub City home. Frontman and guitarist Nick Naccarato explains:
“It’s funny, I actually live in East Brunswick, K [drums] is in Edison, and Shawn [bass] is based in Jersey City, but where we play, where we go to shows, and where we feel most at home is New Brunswick. That’s our city,” Naccarato says.
Unlike Datta and the spite that inspired Dusters, Naccarato’s desire to start Freezeheads stemmed from not really having an opportunity to do a lot of writing in previous bands and a belief that there was a wealth of creativity within him.
“Me and K got together originally in summer of 2020; that was when I was really trying to write some songs,” he says. “I’m a drummer first and not that this applies to every band, but usually the drummer will rely on the other people to write the music—at least that was the experience for me. But, I’d been playing guitar since I was like 17 and I really wanted to start writing and creating music—tailoring a sound to exactly how I wanted it to be. It took a while; we demo’d some shit but the songs still weren’t really where I wanted them to be. Then, about a year ago, things started to come together; I had more of the songs that will be coming out soon [on the demo] all set up. Then, when I wrote “Uh-huh,” [and] I knew the music and the sound was right where I wanted it.”
The subjects in Freezeheads’ songs differ, of course, from Dusters’, but there is still plenty of substance and depth.
Naccarato elaborates: “‘Uh Huh’ is basically just about me being pissed off, you know? Parts of it are just funny, too. And then ‘You Are’ is really just about someone being manipulative to you, living in a bad situation and having things turned around on you. I think the main themes for the whole demo are self-awareness (seeing your flaws and understanding them), general loneliness and the easily relatable emotions associated with that.”
The aforementioned track, “You Are,” was released only a few weeks ago but anticipation has been rapidly building for the rest of the demo.
“So, “You Are” is off of a six-song EP or demo-tape, whatever you want to call it,” Naccarato says. “We are referring to it as a demo-tape because we are going to release it on cassette through my record-selling business, Cody Records, and Nishad is helping, too, with Psychotic Break Records. And then I’ve got some more plans, I’m sitting on a bunch of other shit. Once we had these songs [recorded], I started pumping out a bunch of others. Can’t go into it too much, but if you come to a show, you’ll be hearing a lot of even newer songs that won’t be out on the demo.”
Speaking of shows, nothing has been officially announced yet, but Naccarato did let on that multiple dates are coming for August and September and at least one of the shows will be in Asbury Park—a date at the Bond Street Bar basement on Aug. 2.
“I emphasize that we’re from New Brunswick, but we do play in Asbury just as much and I love that scene, too,” Naccarato says. “Jesse from Mister Face Records, the guys from OC Rippers, lots of new friends that I’ve made in just the past year. I feel at home down there… maybe not as much [as New Brunswick], but I feel good [about that scene].”
It’s hard to fault anyone for having an affinity for the Asbury Park scene right now. While New Brunswick has been struggling to provide venues for underground music outside of the basement shows (and even those are more sparse now), it seems like there’s at least one or two noteworthy punk/hardcore shows at legitimate clubs in Asbury every week. Bands have to follow opportunity, but hopefully, the punk bands in Hub City can find some local businesses willing to provide a space for live music, like so many have done in Asbury Park.
Dusters’ Datta believes that one location, Cinco de Mayo Restaurant on French Street in New Brunswick, could be part of the solution to the venue problem:
“Cinco de Mayo Restaurant has long been a staple of the scene. It’s been the after-show hangout spot for years and years, but that’s going to be our main club.”
The band recently played their record release show at the restaurant on July 2 and, by all accounts, it was a success. Here’s hoping that momentum continues to build and more positive developments are in store for the venerated Hub City punk/hardcore scene.
Dusters will be playing at the Light Brigade Collective’s monthly feature at Trinity Church in Asbury Park on July 23. Freezeheads will play at the Bond Street Bar basement in Asbury Park on Aug. 2.
Dusters: Bandcamp | Instagram
Freezeheads: Bandcamp | Instagram