An oral history of Zebulon, the music club that stepped ‘over the doo-doo of hipster Williamsburg’

The crowd at one of Zebulon's final nights. (Matt Marinelli)
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After nearly a decade of hosting artists, musicians, and visionaries, Williamsburg bar and venue Zebulon close its doors last month, shocking many of its fans and regulars.

Founded by Parisian brothers Jef and Joce Soubiran and their friend Guillaume Blestel in 2004, Zebulon was a bit of a slice of Paris at Wythe and North Third, its massive open windows overlooking the street, conversations in French drifting through the dark space.

In 2004, the corner of Williamsburg that Zebulon inhabited looked more like a set from The Walking Dead’s Atlanta than the consumer paradise it is now. There was little else there other than Relish, the train-car-style diner that served American Nouveau cuisine across the street, and S&B Speed Cycle, the motorcycle shop and local hangout for bikers down the block; a vacant lot sat directly next door to Zebulon. Now the vicinity is densely packed with massive apartment buildings, while the upscale wine-tasting spot BOE Tasting Room and Gallery opened up just down the street last November. Where Relish used to be Manhattan transplant La Esquina now resides, and reservations are tough to come by. That empty lot is now a sprawling condominium complex.

The change in Williamsburg’s demographic, replete with incessant noise complaints from neighbors, left Zebulon with little choice but to close its doors. Employee Patrick Krou explained recently over email,“As Jef [Soubiran] often expressed, ‘Sure, we could change this or that and please everyone, but then we are no longer Zebulon, so we better close.’”

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At Zebulon, there was live music every night of the week, and never a cover charge. It hosted all manners of musical genres, including jazz, world, indie, and experimental music, avant-garde theater performances, and film screenings. It became a mainstay to some of the biggest musicians and bands to come out of Brooklyn in the past decade, such as TV on the Radio, Sharon van Etten, Holly Miranda, Zs, and Dirty Projectors, not to mention the jazz greats the bar was founded on, like Cooper-Moore, Cleve Pozar, and the Sun Ra Arkestra.

The last few weeks at Zebulon were celebratory, intensifying each night as artists who have been performing there for years took the stage for the last time. However, it provided just a modicum of the outpouring of emotion felt from those who loved it dearly. Here then is a rough history of Zebulon from the people who made it what it was—the musicians, the artists, the bartenders, the owners, and the regulars who called this place home.

The Beginning

Joce Soubiran, owner: We were finishing the place ... in May 2004, and [in walks] a musician with a sax on his shoulder—it was Ravi Coltrane walking by going to a studio on Kent. Since his father lives deeply inside myself, I took it as a sign we were on the right [track], [that we were] going to have [an] incredible experience.

Jef Soubiran, owner: We looked in Manhattan for a long time, and finally my partner Guillaume found this building here, it was for sale. In Manhattan, it was very hard to find a place where we’d be able to do what we wanted ... so, we were like, “Oh, that’s perfect.” Plus, next to Zebulon was an empty lot. The people next door were musicians and artists. Across the street was Relish, the diner. So, right away, when we saw that, we just jumped on it and decided to take the whole thing and create a little family, this nice community where we’d live upstairs and run the business downstairs. And that’s how we lived for 10 years.

Tianna Kennedy, musician: I may have been there on the opening day…or soon thereafter, at any rate.

Holly Miranda, musician: I think I started going to Zebulon not long after it opened. I used to record and hang out a lot at Headgear and Stay Gold Studios (both gone now) less than a block away, and that was our hang. You could show up on any given evening and there would be some incredible live show happening ... and always for free.

Kyp Malone, musician: I think I first went to Zebulon in late 2004 or early 2005.... I remember feeling like I looked into an empty storefront, turned around to talk to a friend, turned around again and a little world [had] opened up.

Patrick Krou, composer, producer, server: It was early in 2006.... I remember sitting at the bar—I ordered a guacamole and just stared at the records hanging on the wall, observing every detail in the space. Everything just felt right: the music, the staff, the lighting, the understated French vibe—very inviting and comfortable. The place had soul; you could feel it right away. It simply felt good to be in there.

Pete Vogl, musician: I just popped in a few times ... and then bam, I was a regular fixture. I never worked there on any official level, but I think I took on a host position and greeter. I would go around and say hi to people, get them drinks, help bands load in, do soundcheck, etc. I was hooked.... I was there in some capacity every night—sometimes literally for two minutes and a drink, or all night.

Zachary Cale, musician: It was early 2006 that I played my first show there. It stuck out immediately to me as it was clear that the bar owners genuinely loved supporting live music. I remember [one of] the owners Jef coming up to me after my set and saying how much he loved it. Getting positive vibes from the owner of the bar about your set isn’t something that happens in your typical venue in NYC, [nor is] getting a free recording of your set handed to you. I have dozens of these C.D.s floating around my house.

Sam Hillmer, musician, artist, curator: I first played at Zebulon in winter ’05/’06 with an improvisational duo called Moth that featured trombonist Ben Gerstein [and myself]. We played fiercely outsider music, and I remember going to this kind of chic place and throwing down, and having these French dudes that ran the joint being really into it and paying us pretty well. It really stood out, and from that point, any time I got asked to play Zebulon it was an automatic yes.

The Experience

Kerry Lacy, bartender: I became fast friends with the entire staff and all the regulars, and it’s hard to imagine what I did before I knew them. Every day we would set up while listening to and talking about Jef’s epic record collection, and I learned something new [each time]. Then we would all sit down and eat dinner and have some wine together, and I really felt like I was with my family.

Kyp Malone: I’ve been touched, challenged, destroyed, made to dance so many times by friends and strangers in that room. It was started by people who love music so it attracted people who love music.

Ryan Swayer, musician: I ended up becoming really fast friends with Jef and Joce and playing there quite a bit, just doing all kinds of different projects because I had a home to do them. It was really exciting, actually.... I mean, I could say I probably played there a hundred, two hundred times, like, a lot of times, with so many different things.

Patrick Krou: After that first night, I found myself going back about four or five times a week, even if only for a quick drink.... Slowly I started getting acquainted with the staff and the owners.... Then one early March evening, Jef told me a server position was available if I would be interested in being part of the staff. It’s now six and a half years later.

Baye Kouyate, musician, server: If you wanted to see me, [Zebulon was the] place you’d come in to see me. Part of the reason is because there was such a great energy and such good people. When I [would] play [there] I felt [at] home. I felt myself. I felt so powerful.

Zachary Cale: For many of my friends [and I], Zebulon was not only the gold standard [music] joint in Brooklyn, but also a great to place to hang. The fact that you could go there just to meet up with someone and also randomly see an amazing band or performer you’d never heard of was amazing. I was constantly surprised by the music I witnessed there. I played there probably three or four times a year since I started going.

Sam Hillmer: Zeb was the destination for every occasion: birthday, meeting, date, etc. Any time I had another show in the neighborhood I always made a point to get over to check out whatever Zeb had going on, and drink a Ricard.

Holly Miranda: Zebulon quickly became my home and the home of so many wayward artists in the area that I knew. Joce and Jef welcomed us all with open arms. They would give me a night to do what I wanted with. I have asked countless friends to play on that stage with me: Sharon Van Etten, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, Kyp Malone, Stuart Bogie, the list goes on and on. It didn’t matter if seven people showed up—I mean it mattered—but it didn’t mean I wouldn’t get a chance to do it again. With this knowledge it became a safe place to experiment with new music, new lineups, new ideas, what have you.

The Donation Basket

Joce Soubiran: The great Sonny Rollins [told me once], “Music should be free, but the musicians should get paid.” I agree. Not much free stuff in New York these days—I think passing the hat [around] and giving a percentage of the bar is fair. Like that, if you are broke, you can still enjoy New York, and if you’re loaded, you can give more! And it worked. I heard many times musicians saying they were making more money [at Zebulon] than playing at places [that were] charging $5 or more.

Jay Pluck, musician: A cut of the door and a questionable percentage of the bar is ultra appreciated, but it [almost] never adds up to what passing a hat to a receptive and kind audience can do.

Kevin Shea, musician: This gave the musicians an opportunity to stretch out and explore sound in a way that other venues won’t allow with cover charges and the negativity that goes along with money. Free from the shackles of expectations associated with investments, we could play like respectable humans: for the love of music … deep into the endorphin-gravy of unknown unknowns.

Ryan Sawyer: The donations thing is huge. It’s hard to underestimate how much that makes a difference to people when they’re coming to check things out. I definitely know from both sides—one was that I didn’t feel bad inviting people to shows.... At Zebulon, [people would] come down and check out your music and they weren’t sitting there going, “Man, is this worth 10 dollars?”

Kyp Malone: Zebulon very rarely charged at the door and there was never a drink minimum, which means you could sit/stand sober or stoned and hear often incredible performances. A ticket is a commitment; an open door is an open door.... And not charging a cover didn’t mean that players were not cared for. While no one played there for money, the hat would get passed between sets and no one left hungry.

Pete Vogl: [The] first show I played there I got a few hundred bucks from the baskets. It was amazing. I got paid better there that one night than any show. I was impressed. I felt that if you were ready to really cut loose and share your music with folks, people would reciprocate.

Sam Hillmer: It stuck out and I admired it. Zebulon was truly populist. Everyone was invited regardless of their monetary standing. No one was ever pressured to buy drinks or give up a table. Being there was like going home for the holidays every time you went!

What Made Zebulon Different?

Kerry Lacy: It was different because it was genuine to the bone. I don’t think another bar or club exists as pure as Zebulon.

Brian Chase, musician: People loved it so much because [it was] one of the only places where somebody [could] just walk in and hear stellar traditional or avant-garde music by either relatively unknown or world-class musicians. Plus, the place had a cool vibe, which provided a space—more bar than club—that had one foot in the bohemian old school, and one that was stepping over the doo-doo of hipster Williamsburg.

Garrett Devoe, musician: [The owners] spoke of artists they loved with a reverence I have hardly ever heard from any other venue owners.... They seriously championed what they loved, not what pleased the masses. But in the end the two converged.

Kevin Shea: It was like Williamsburg’s Cheers for a while there.

Pete Vogl: I think people loved it because it was alive in there. It had a pulse. [You] had the experience while you were there that this is why you came to New York.

Sam Hillmer: For Jef, Joce, and Guillaume the bottom line was the integrity of the art and the quality of the social experience; everything else came next. [At] so many venues in New York City, and really everywhere, the bottom line is monetary, or visibility, or something. These guys just exuded this completely unadulterated respect for art and community and successfully fostered a safe space for both for 10 years. Amazing!

Holly Miranda: In 2010 I moved out to Los Angeles, and I spent so long searching for a place that would feed my soul the way Zebulon had. I never came close.

Mike Wexler, musician: I think it was clear enough to anyone who came under the right circumstances that it was a pretty special place. But if you spent some time there this other dimension opened up. It was a little bit like a homecoming and a family and an institute of higher learning and an ongoing dialogue and the best party and the greatest after-party, the place to go when you wanted to see all your friends at once.

Most Memorable Experiences

Brian Chase: When Greg Saunier called me out in the audience and asked me to sit in for a bit during a set there. I got to play on his kit right after he’d been playing on it. He is awesome, and to be in that position was a rush!

Darius Jones, musician: Seeing Cooper-Moore for the first time in my life. I had no idea who he was and what kind of music he was playing. It was funky and soulful but I couldn’t put it into a category. It was just beautiful.

Garrett Devoe: Watching everyone band together and bring it back after the fire in 2008. Playing with [my bandmate] Shahzad with no rehearsal and having it be magic on the last weekend.... Stopping in randomly after work at eleven [one night], drinking some mushroom tea, and then playing guitar in Dave Sitek’s birthday jam band till dawn. Watching TVOTR play Letterman for the first time as everyone sang along.

Jordi Wheeler, musician: I first saw the original lineup of Zs play there in 2007 and they just destroyed me.... I danced the wee hours of a million nights away to myriad musics of the world there. Venuewise, it was the center of my social world.

Patrick Krou: One of them would be the first time I saw Baye Kouyate perform. This wasn’t even with his own band—he just jumped into an ongoing performance with his talking drum and lit the place on fire. I’d never seen a performance like that—it was simply jaw-dropping good.... Slowly, I was beginning to understand.

Kyp Malone: I didn’t plan to go see Khaira Arby there the first time I saw her. I’d never even heard of her or her incredible band, but I walked into an experience beyond religion.

Sam Hillmer: My friend Boima Tucker of Dutty Artz curated this Sierra Leonian, elderly, blind, thumb pianist to do a set. His name is Sorie Kondi. This guy played for an hour and a half. It’s just him playing thumb piano, stomping his foot, and singing, with a hype man. He had the entire place dancing.... Literally one of the best shows I have ever seen in my life, and Zeb was famous for that kind of thing.

Mike Wexler: This one night, after Celebration played ... this spontaneous jam happened. It started with the musicians banging on the drum kit, which was lying in a heap onstage. People were lying on the ground every which way hitting drums with mallets. Little by little everyone joined in, on instruments or glasses or whatever was at hand, including the staff who were playing the beer taps with bottle openers. It was pretty amazing to see the whole pretense of the idea of a bar/venue dissolve and the veil drop, revealing just people participating in this impromptu communal moment. Zebulon was the only venue I’ve ever known that was capable of letting its hair down like that.

Saying Goodbye

Jordi Wheeler: Zebulon’s closing was sudden and untimely, despite my knowing that the neighbors/neighborhood were becoming problematic. I wasn’t prepared for it, and I am not happy about it.... However, the last week was amazing, and did nothing but reinforce the gratitude I feel for having had it as part of my life for as long as I did.

Kerry Lacy: At closing time on the last night it was like a switch was flipped and it hit me all at once. The following days, clearing stuff out and breaking it down, it sank in deeper and deeper. It was extremely emotional for everyone. It feels like someone died. Its untimely closing and the effect on its admirers, however, only solidifies how special it was and how important [it is] to keep what happened at Zebulon alive.

Patrick Krou: Once we found out the date, it really started to sink in, and I caught myself crying a few times, reaching for my bar rag over my shoulder to wipe quickly.

Sam Hillmer: Honestly, I thought it would go on forever. It seemed timeless and it’s hard to imagine something timeless ending. I was in denial, straight up.... But I made it to the last night and I just cried. I’m crying now.

Mike Wexler: It was really sad but also celebratory, like a week-long graduation ceremony from a school you didn’t want to graduate from.... The end of an era, for sure.

Will the Legacy Continue?

Joce Soubiran: The beautiful musicians will keep playing and spread the good word everywhere, so Zebulon will travel with them.

Kerry Lacy: Absolutely.... We will all continue to follow the musicians who grew there or got their start there. We will all continue to talk about the nature of the changing neighborhood and realize what is important and what is good and what is worth fighting for. The physical location is gone but everything else about it still exists.

Pete Vogl: I told people to carry the legacy with them to other places and show them how to do it with grace. We know what it was. We will all miss that, for sure, but we need to move forward and take it somewhere else.

Tianna Kennedy: Yes. We’re all friends now and we’ve made important musical connections. We’ll find ways to spread the love. Everything Zebulon stood for was generative. There’s no way that energy will die.

Mike Wexler: Well, if you lived through it, it’s ingrained in you. It’s a lesson in how to make a place that matters to people. New York is always changing, and I’m no reactionary, but you can’t kill this energy. It’s intrinsic to the place. It will crop up again, in a different form, no doubt, and probably sooner rather than later. And that will be the legacy.

Holly Miranda: There is something about Zebulon that will never end—the spirit, the life it gave to so many musicians—that will never die.The only thing that makes me truly sad is knowing that it won’t be around for the artists who are finding their voices today. I hope they find their own Zebulon to experiment and explore in. It’s not so much a place but a state of mind. I will carry it with me always, and as cheesy as it sounds, I truly do not know who I would be without this place. Merci Zebulon.

Body photos are by, from top, Shahar Lion and Jimena Roquero.