"A musical keg of West Philly weirdo dynamite": Reflections on two decades of the genre-defying Northern Liberties - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Northern Liberties, circa 2003 | photo by Debbie Travis | courtesy of the artist

West Philly post-punk three piece Northern Liberties has been a band for so long that when they played their first show in February of 2000 the neighborhood they borrowed their name from was still a mostly forgotten blip on the radar. Fast forward almost two decades and the band — Justin Duerr on vocals and percussion, his brother Marc on drums, and their lifelong friend Kevin Riley on bass — are set to release their seventh album Parallel Hell later this year.

To say that Northern Liberties sounds like anything else out there would be to do a disservice to what they’ve managed to create over the years. But also this is a band that has comically defied categorization: reviews have compared them to everything from Green Day to Joy Division to Nirvana, Lightning Bolt, Crass, and even Guided By Voices. Clearly something is going on here, even if the band members are usually quite baffled by the comparisons.

“I swear to fucking God this is true: none of us ever heard that God damn Lightning Bolt,” Justin Duerr told The Key. “They weren’t on my radar. I never listened to that much stuff that was noisy. … [but] for the first four years that we played, almost at every show somebody would be like, ‘I get it, you worship at the altar of the mighty Lightning Bolt.’”

Nothing against the Providence bass and drums duo but he’s right: just because Northern Liberties have a similar lack of guitar going on doesn’t automatically make them a noise rock band.

“Whoever you talk to is going to feel put off by it somehow,” Riley said. “They’re either a person who doesn’t get it because it doesn’t have guitar or they’re a person who’s jaded because they’ve already seen someone play a trumpet with their ass. Every person who sees it is, like, ‘Oh no, I’ve seen something  better.’”

While their music might confuse some critics, there are many out there who are incredibly devoted to this band. According to Billy Brat from Harrisonburg, VA band Buck Gooter, “I love their music. They really do care about songs and what they put out is very interesting.” He and his bandmate Terry Turtle are rabid Northern Liberties fans, and have been since they first played with the band more than a decade ago. Turtle considers Riley to be one of his favorite bassists: “… what Kevin does on bass is the coolest thing since I heard Morphine’s Mark Sandman.”

When people talk about the uniqueness of Northern Liberties, they’re not just referring to the songs or even Justin’s emblematic and mysterious art but also to the energetic and powerful performance the three heavily-tattooed band members bring to every show they play. This has been the case since they were teenagers in bands together in rural Adams County, which is about 45 minutes southwest of Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania.

That’s a video of  Marc and Justin’s band in high school, by the way. As Justin tells us, this video from 1991 or 92 was their only show and they played one song. “Zig is on guitar. Marc is behind the curtain.”

While they were somewhat isolated, there was a college radio station in the area — Justin Duerr said he used to tape songs off of WZBT in Gettysburg, a station far enough away that you’d have to “hook a copper wire up to the roof” to get it in clearly — and a record store at the mall in nearby Carlisle that would occasionally get something cool in stock.

“I would always pick up stuff that I just thought looked weird,” he told The Key. “That’s actually the thing that got me into Joy Division because I remember the Unknown Pleasures tape just looked so completely cryptic that I was like, ‘I have no clue what this is but it’s got to be awesome.’ Even the paper that they printed it on, it’s got this weird texture to it. I was just sold on the packaging. I remember the way that tape smelled, I even remember the smell of it being part of what made the music good.”

Around the same time, he also made a list in his notebook of all the bands he discovered in the flyers printed in the liner notes of the Black Flag compilation album Everything Went Black and made it his mission to track down their albums. Fast forward to 2012 and Northern Liberties — with their friend Brian Nothing on guitar and Marc Duerr singing while Justin drummed — did a Black Flag cover set at a Halloween show in West Philly.

Northern Liberties performing as Black Flag on Halloween | photo by Yoni Kroll

Justin Duerr recalled how in high school, “What I really wanted to do was take William Butler Yeats poems and put them to music. I just wanted that to be the lyrics.”

“I always liked poetry and stuff, but you can’t be a poet,” he added. “I mean, that never paid money. You can maintain twenty people’s attention span for thirty minutes with a band. You can’t do that reading poetry. I guess there are people who do that, but I’m not one of them, and I never thought I could become one.”

Maybe Justin Duerr never thought he could be a successful poet, but his brother Marc was part of the poetry scene in Philly back in the day. “He used to do spoken word and he was real influenced by Henry Rollins,” Justin explained. “But he decided he’d take it way further, like it was the more intense version of Henry Rollins. So he lifted more weights and he was more intense. But it was so intense that it would be stuff Rollins would never do. I remember one [poetry slam] where he was ripping pages out of his notebook, chewing them up, and spitting them out.”

The Duerr brothers, Riley, and a number of other punks and weirdos moved from their hometown to Philadelphia in the early 90s, some before they finished high school. They stayed in squats, worked odd jobs, got tattoos — Riley turned that into a career and is now a sought-after artist and tattoo machine maker — and started bands.

Despite their shared tastes in music and fashion, these transplants didn’t always feel welcome in the Philly punk scene, especially when they first arrived. According to Riley, “In small town culture you had to align yourself with anyone who had even a little bit of overlap” because the community was so insular. But when they moved to the city they discovered that subcultures could be cliquey and downright mean to people they didn’t think belonged. Or as he put it, “Then you met all those people and they were all assholes to us because they were like, ‘You don’t have the right patch on your jacket.’ It was a bummer to realize that a lot of the kids who looked the coolest were just fratboys with mohawks.”

Before Northern Liberties, Justin Duerr played drums and sang in another West Philly punk group called Eulogy. At times just as much a movement and an art collective as it was a band, Eulogy could include more than a half dozen members playing everything from traditional instruments to banging on sheet metal. They even had someone on the electric rake at one point! It was chaotic, weird, loud, and incredibly fun, very much a reflection of both the members and their environment.

According to him, “We had all these ideas that never came to fruition cause it was too artsy and too big idea level. Our original ideas were, like, ‘We’ll get ten people to play 50 gallon oil drums and we’ll play behind a screen and we’ll project video footage of car crashes on the screen.’ I mean it was ridiculous. Especially because we didn’t do 85 percent of that stuff.”

Sean “Wispy” Damon is a West Philadelphia activist and punk who has been a big Northern Liberties fan since the band debuted. He also got to see Eulogy a lot and said about them that, “They had this aesthetic that was really unusual in the DIY punk scene at the time. It was sort of mysterious or occultish and channeled the best weirdness of the 90’s squatter scene.”

Damon told The Key that what draws him to Northern Liberties is not just the music but also Justin Duerr’s lyrics that touch on the spiritual and mystical. In fact when Damon first listened to the band’s debut Erode + Disappear — an album which includes references to Gnostic creation myths — it just so happened to be at the same time he was researching early Christian mysticism.

“They go into a a bunch of weird territory that pretty much no other contemporary punk band were willing to go into,” he said. “There are these moments when you’re young and you’re first exploring counterculture and underground music and you feel like you’re being let in on this big secret, that there’s only a small group of people that are being initiated into these mysteries, but Northern Liberties has this aesthetic that makes you feel like you’re being brought into some sort of mystery that very few people know about time and time again.”

Because Northern Liberties started at the halfway point of Eulogy’s 1997 – 2003 existence, it was in someways a retort to that band’s more self-destructive tendencies. Not to say that Northern Liberties doesn’t embrace the chaos, because everyone in the band would tell you unequivocally that they do (albeit with a smile on their face). It’s more that they use it to their advantage rather than stepping directly into the whirlwind and seeing where it takes them.

While Riley told The Key that it “honestly baffles” him that anyone would want to listen to his music at home; “I do think the spectacle of the live performance is interesting and when people are engaged in that or have a good time at the show that makes perfect sense to me. It’s chaotic, it’s doing things that are slightly outside of the format that people are used to.”

“I guess it was an ego thing of mine, cause I wanted to have a band that I just sang for, mostly cause I felt tied down behind the drums,” Duerr added. “I was like, ‘I want to do crazy dance moves and hang off the chandelier!’” While he hasn’t hung off any chandeliers just yet, he always ends up out in the audience, even when the band is playing at more traditional venues like Union Transfer or Johnny Brenda’s.

The band maintains a database of past performances both local and nationwide over on its website. Outside of that being a really neat history, it’s also really cool to be able to chart where Northern Liberties’ long-term friendships with other bands first started. The first show with Buck Gooter was June 4th 2007 at the Trocadero Balcony with Pony Pants and Peter & Craig. The first time they ever played with Bugs & Rats, who they’d later release a split with and whose drummer Kellzo ended up moving to Philly and recording a number of bands here including Northern Liberties, was way back in 2005.

Northern Liberties perform in West Philly | photo by Yoni Kroll

Justin Duerr recalled how at a recent show in West Philly, someone working at the venue came up to him after the set and said, “I don’t know anything about the genre that you guys play and I’m not interested in it, but I just have to say that it transcended the genre. I don’t care about the style of music that you play, but it was interesting enough and energetic enough that I was like, ‘Well shit, I better go pay attention to this because these guys are really serious about this shit.'”

This reaction is not abnormal, especially in the neighborhood the band has always called home. Leta Gray, a co-worker of Riley’s at Spirited Tattoo and also a fellow musician, referred to them as “a musical keg of West Philly weirdo dynamite. The music is of its own breed, electric and honest as fuck.”

Northern Liberties’s first show was in the basement of the house where the band lived at the time called The Catbox, which was on Buckingham Place off of Locust. They played with Captain Crash and Myles of Destruction, the former being a bass and drums no-wave two piece and the latter a one person bass and drum machine punk band.

Myles Donovan – that’s the Myles of Myles of Destruction – was also living at The Catbox at the time. He told The Key that, “… the whole crew there really inspired me as an outsider. I definitely learned, for better or worse, how to keep my torch lit and get things done from those folks, independent of a supportive audience. Everyone was extremely driven and threw themselves full force into their craft in this very intense, contagious, manic way.”

Donovan grew up in the Northern Liberties neighborhood in the 1980’s and remembers “giving Justin shit about naming his band after my neighborhood when all the members are from Gettysburg.” Ironically enough, he’s now in a band named after the Forgotten Bottom neighborhood, so as he put it, “I guess I have no room to talk.” Despite their central Pennsylvania origins he feels that Northern Liberties represents Philadelphia’s “awkward strangeness and underdog clairvoyant charm” and referred to Duerr’s lyrics and artwork as “bizarre evangelical street signs in their own right.”

“Musically their stripped-down, weird energy frightens and confuses as many people as it wins over,” he added. “Like Philly, they are not for everyone, [but] they exist and are loved in their own microcosm here. I don’t know. Sun Ra called this place death’s headquarters for a reason.”

Almost twenty years have passed since their debut. Has anything changed? If you ask the band members they’ll say absolutely not. While Marc and Justin spent some of their earlier years doing medical studies and working odd jobs, including a number of seasons on fishing boats in Alaska, they all have careers now — Kevin works in a couple different tattoo shops, Marc is a mechanic at SEPTA, Justin works for a contractor and is an author and researcher — and as a result, only practice once a week,versus the twice weekly schedule they maintained when the band first started. The band is still just the three of them, though they did put out an album of collaborations a few years ago which included contributions from members of bands including Ruin, Towers, The Nite Lights, Bad News Bats, and more. And it’s still just bass, drums, and vocals, with Justin Duerr also playing secondary percussion.

Northern Liberties | photo by Andrew Shaw | courtesy of the artist

That has actually changed slightly, with Justin switching from a floor tom and what he referred to as “a piece of metal junk” to a set of wearable trip drums that have become something of a signature look, especially when he goes into the audience to play them. Like a lot of things with this band, the quads happened very matter-of-factly, with Marc Duerr spotting them at a music store and deciding on the spot to buy them and bring them to the next practice.

Riley’s bass sound is so full that many people do not realize the band doesn’t have a guitar player until they see them play live. He uses a number of different effects to make that happen, the most crucial being a Peavey Bi-Amp Bass Chorus Pedal. According to Riley, “I only bought it because it was a really cheap chorus pedal, I thought it would be a new effect. It sounded like crap but the bi-amp effect allowed me to run two different types of amps. I accidentally got the pedal that became the thing that is probably the most notable [aspect] about what I do.”

One more big difference: when the band first started they purposely didn’t use Justin Duerr’s artwork because they didn’t want to get mixed up with any of his other projects. But since Eulogy stopped playing in 2003 Justin’s art has been basically synonymous with the band, appearing on album covers, t-shirts, flyers, and more. He also was in Resurrect Dead, an award-winning documentary about Toynbee Tiles, the mysterious street art phenomenon that have shown up embedded in roadways all over Philadelphia and NYC, and authored a book on the artist Herbert Crowley. In addition to Northern Liberties he makes music with his partner Mandy Katz and others in two fantastic bands, The Invasive Species and Geb the Great Cackler. He was also in a short-lived two piece with Riley called Erode and Disappear. We covered Justin’s artwork in full in an article in September of 2017.

“Justin is one of the most compelling artists that our community has produced,” Damon told The Key. “All of the stuff that he’s produced is wide and varied. Some of it is very irreverent, some of it is very solemn and serious. I think there’s something really powerful about someone who is able to go so deeply into these weird, very personal worlds that he may not even be able to fully describe to other people and then in the same breath to be able to make pretty irreverent works of art that are playful and really light-hearted.”

The next album, the band’s seventh, will also include a number of remixes done by other musicians in the community. Asked why they thought to do this, Riley responded, “You’re jumping through the same hoop over and over again by making records. You can only jump through that same hoop so many times. You need to strive for something. If the art format is the same or the size of the record or the type of pressing or something is the same I’m discouraged by it. I want there to be something new about the thing.” While it’s not the same as the aforementioned collaboration album or the 30 minute long one song Suffocation EP that they released in 2009 and played only twice — the first time at Johnny Brenda’s on that spring equinox — it’s definitely coming out of the same push against artistic stagnation.

In addition, they’re releasing a song every month on Bandcamp including tracks from the new album, alternate versions of old material, covers, and more. This is not just an excuse to delve into the band’s extensive archives but also to serve as a bit of a stopgap until the new album comes out.

Most bands don’t make it more than a couple years before breaking up. Five years is a miracle, ten years unheard of. And twenty? That’s just ridiculous. According to Justin Duerr, “Part of the longevity with this stuff is that there’s no ambition, really. The lack of ambition means that nobody’s going to get disillusioned and be like, ‘We didn’t make it!’ The ambition is within the realm of reality.”

Riley agreed: “More so than a lot of things that ship of sailed,” he said. “We are not burdened by the reality of expectation that’s unrealistic. When you first start a band you might delude yourself or you may be right to assume that there is a reasonable chance you could take off. But it’s not like your tenth album is the one that all of a sudden people are really going to get it. So we are completely unburdened.”

But the truth of the matter is that people do get it. For every fan quoted in this article, there are countless more who come out to every show, who buy the records, who treat Northern Liberties like they’re some sort of secret society, which in a way they very much are. According to Justin part of his reasoning for naming the band after a neighborhood nobody at the time paid any attention to was that, “I figured nobody would care about it so we could get away with whatever we wanted.” Two decades later and they may have just gotten exactly that.

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