All play, no work for local musicians

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Michael Denisiewicz and John Panos used to be Pencilgrass. Now they are Kings.

They’re just trying to make it as bandmates here in New Haven, a city of too many musicians and not quite enough buzz to go around.

New Haven musicians Michael “Denny” Denisiewicz, left, and John Panos play local venues like Rudy’s to make ends meet.
New Haven musicians Michael “Denny” Denisiewicz, left, and John Panos play local venues like Rudy’s to make ends meet.

“We’re trying to walk the line between trying to convince everyone that we’re not crazy, and trying to convince everyone that we are and that they should join us,” said Denisiewicz, who is known as “Denny.”

Last week, Denisiewicz and Panos, his friend and bandmate, sat in the Olive Street apartment they share in New Haven. One could instantly gauge the primacy of music in their lives by glancing around the room. A trumpet rested on the bed, and record covers blanketed the walls. Between the old soul and Donna Summer titles were flyers for Denisiewicz and Panos’ last band, Pencilgrass. When that band broke up, the two formed Kings, the musical genre of which they declined to define.

The craziness Denisiewicz referred to is the sheer insanity of trying to succeed in a music community that is swamped with band after band trying to get by. By their own accounts, the two members of Kings make no money whatsoever off their music. They each have to work a variety of odd jobs to pay the rent. And their stories are similar to those of other members of New Haven’s music scene. Though Elm City performers realize they’re not at the center of the music world — some have plans to move to New York City, others commute there several times a week — like musicians anywhere else, they love what they do.

For many Yale students, the New Haven music scene might start and end at Toad’s, where some believe a storied musical past has been hijacked by the Billy Joel tribute bands of the present. But Denisiewicz and Panos said the Elm City offers places to go for almost any type of music.

“I lived in Miami for seven years,” Panos said. “And it’s a lot bigger, there’s more clubs, but there’s the same amount of people playing as here.”

“There’s a good music scene in New Haven,” Denisiewicz agreed. “It’s easy to be a part of because all the bands hang out together.”

Among the venues they mentioned were Rudy’s, Firehouse 12, Fuel and Cafe Nine. Kriss Santala, who has worked at Cafe Nine for the past 15 years, said the club’s bread and butter is live music, which it features every night of the week.

“You could be a rock band, a country band, rockabilly, whatever,” she said.

Although national groups do sometimes turn up, most of the bands that perform at the club are local, Santala said.

One of those bands is The Vultures, which has been around since 2001. Warren Brelsford, whom everybody calls “Warn,” is their guitarist. He said he has been in up to 10 bands at a time, but time constraints have forced him back to just two. Asked how many bands he knew in New Haven, Brelsford declined to give a concrete figure.

“I don’t think I can count all of them,” he said. “I’d have to really sit down and work it out. All I talk about with people is music.”

Brelsford said he never thought he would be able to make money from writing and performing his music. He has a job teaching music to children in Fair Haven.

As for the Kings, the question inevitably arises: How do they pay the bills?

“Uh …” they both said.

“I don’t have an everyday job,” Denisiewicz explained.

He works for a set designer in New York and has a job at a catering service in Hartford. Panos works at BAR in New Haven and sometimes as a session musician in a recording studio. But music remains their primary occupation.

“We spend three times as much [time] on music,” Denisiewicz said. “We work when we have to.”

While Denisiewicz and Panos center their lives around music, Dena Rosenberg is a full-time film student who also plays in local band Kalte Sterne. A few times a week, she commutes down to New York to attend classes at the New School.

“It’s kind of exhausting, but I’m centered here right now, and I put up with it,” she said.

She pays the rent with a combination of work at a coffee shop and student loans. She said her band has had trouble connecting with an audience that just wants an easy night out — a difficult feat given that she describes her music as “dirgy, transcendental pop.” Although the music scene in the city is crowded, Rosenberg said, it lacks a certain dynamism.

“I find it’s active, but there’s no buzz coming out of here,” she said. “It seems like there’s always new bands, but, I don’t know, there’s some kind of barrier. We’re so isolated. There’s no communication with the outside world.”

The Internet has opened up new possibilities — Rosenberg said she feels more appreciated by people overseas who see her MySpace page than by local residents. Denisiewicz and Panos’ last band, Pencilgrass, also seems to have had some following online. Its EP is on iTunes and Rhapsody, and a Google search yields hundreds of hits. Denisiewicz, Panos and the five other members have toured all over the country. Even so, Denisiewicz said, they made no money out of the enterprise.

Pencilgrass came to an end when the other band members tired of the musician’s lifestyle, the pair said.

“I guess they wanted to grow up,” Panos said. “They wanted to get a legitimate job.”

That response begs the question: Have Panos and Denisiewicz not grown up?

Matt Goff played drums in Pencilgrass. Like Brelsford, he has a job teaching music now. He said staying in New Haven was never the ultimate goal.

“We came up from Miami,” he said. “Our main goal in moving up here was to be near New York. Maybe it would have been better to move straight there.”

Although the band toured extensively around Connecticut, Goff said, he ultimately decided he had to get “realistic” about its prospects.

“I was working part-time at an ice cream shop,” he said. “I wanted something that was not so on the bottom end of the food chain.”

He said he still wants to pursue a music career and plays when he can.

Denisiewicz and Panos are still trying to work out a way to transfer their new sound to a live setting. In a few months, they will be leaving New Haven and moving to New York.

“We’re not from here,” Panos said. “And in New York, there’s just so many awesome clubs … it’s just all in front of you.”

Whatever happens, the two will certainly not stop trying to make it in the music world. Neither will Rosenberg, although she, like Denisiewicz and Panos, like Brelsford, like Goff, knows that she must exercise patience.

“I’m trying to be realistic about the fact that most people do not have immediate success,” she said.

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