I’m going to tell you some things about the Gotobeds that you won’t know, because they aren’t famous. The Gotobeds are a post-punk band who’ve been around for around nine years. Their music is a mix of the Fall, Wire, and Mission of Burma—super classic, you know it when you hear it. They have a reputation for drunken shows and drunken behavior, even though they’re all in their 30s now, with jobs and kids and stuff. They’ve just released a record called Debt Begins at 30. It’s out on Sub Pop. They don’t know why they’re on Sub Pop. And they’re from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—if you know anything about the Gotobeds at all, it’s probably that, since it’s all they ever talk about in interviews. When they do interviews.
If you didn’t know—because they are not famous—that the Gotobeds are from Pittsburgh, Debt Begins at 30 offers liner notes by Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich (who contributed guest vocals to the record, along with a host of other moderately-to-not famous people) which tie the band’s legend to their city. He uses a lot of steel and iron metaphors, and calls the Gotobeds, “as Pittsburgh as it gets, the folk music of the Steel City”—which means it sounds like everyone plays guitar, I think.
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In honor of the occasion, I’ve asked the Gotobeds—singer and guitarist Eli Kasan, guitarist Tom “TFP” Payne, bassist Gavin Jensen, and drummer Cary Belback—to take me on a tour of their hometown, a place I’ve never been but am curious about, because nobody I know ever goes there. The idea has a contrarian appeal that feels appropriate for both subjects: few people I know talk about Pittsburgh, and even fewer talk about the Gotobeds. There is no way this profile can descend into hometown-as-character-trait hackery when the bar is so low anyway, right? This is the very normal and logical train of thought that has brought a bunch of punks in their mid-30s to the pews of St. Nicholas Catholic Church on Maryland Ave. in Pittsburgh for the 12:30pm tour of the Vanka Murals.
Painted by Croatian immigrant and committed pacifist Max Vanka in two bursts in 1937 and 1941, the Vanka Murals cover the entirety of the church’s interior, floor to ceiling, basically making St. Nicholas the Sistine Chapel of Pittsburgh. Our guide, a white-haired Pittsburgh native—or “yinzer” in local parlance—details the mural’s provenance. His monologue is punctuated with the occasional excited digression into personal memories of growing up in the parish, and also hockey.
The murals are striking in their unabashed pro-labor, anti-war politics. Above us is the Virgin Mary depicted as a hardy Croatian woman. Below her, images of pastoral Croatia are contrasted with those of immigrant laborers in the Allegheny valley. On the left side of the church stand a pair of willowy angels representing justice and injustice. In another grim image, a woman in white is shown chained to a cross, a book at her bare feet bearing the word “Mati.” This, our guide explains, is Vanka depicting the Nazi occupation of Croatia. Near the end of the tour, we come to a mural with the evocative and very Pittsburgh title of “Immigrant Mothers Raise Their Sons for American Industry,” which Jensen will later joke about making the name of the Gotobeds’ next record.
Starting off our day out in Pittsburgh with the Vanka Murals was Jensen’s idea, because although the band has lived in Pittsburgh forever, and they’ve known about the murals forever, and everyone knows they’re cool—when else would they ever come here? It’s like that for Pittsburgh, too. “Whenever anyone says they want to come to Pittsburgh, it’s like, ‘Cool! Why?’” says Kasan. We’ve left the Vanka Murals and are in Kasan’s car, heading back across the Allegheny River to Cruel Noise Records in a neighborhood called Polish Hill.
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Kasan was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and has been knocking around the punk scene since he was 15 (he’s 36 now). He will know somebody everywhere we go today, and he’s also planned out exactly where we will go, in an itinerary he emails me the night before. Although we didn’t end up totally following it, I am replicating it here, in case any Pittsburghers would like to be mad:
12:30 – Vanka Murals in Millville (24 Maryland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15209)
01:30 – Record Shopping at the Government Center (519 E Ohio St, Pittsburgh, PA 15212)
03:00 – La Hutte Royal museum (1812 Rialto St, Troy Hill)
04:00 – Cruel Noise / Kaibur Coffee (3138 Dobson St, Polish Hill)
06:00 – Dinner @ Apteka (4606 Penn Ave, Garfield)
08:00 – Art All Night (Lawrenceville, bunch of blocks)
10:00 – Brillo, then Gooskis
Not included is the amount of time we’ll be spending in Kasan’s car. Pittsburgh’s varied elevations and location at the juncture of three rivers means that, while everything in the city is geographically close together, blocks are long, and routes are roundabout, so it can take a minute to get places. This also is why Kasan will be the primary speaker in this piece—not only because he talks a lot in general, but because our car rides provide the longest stretches of uninterrupted time.
The title of the Gotobeds’ latest record is a play on Stephanie Beroes’s short film Debt Begins at 20, a lo-fi, black-and-white Decline of Western Civilization depicting the Pittsburgh punk scene circa 1980. The film has a quasi-narrative aspect, following Bill Bored of local band the Cardboards around town as he goes to shows and record shops, hangs out in his apartment, and complains about how boring Pittsburgh is. The title has been updated to “30” to reflect the Gotobeds’ own age, and also the inherent hilarity of somehow still being a punk in your 30s when you have a full-time, non-music job (Kasan), a kid (TFP), a house, an upcoming wedding (Jensen).
“I think it was Gavin who said it,” remembers Kasan. “Like, debt really begins at 30. Real debt, when you become indebted to people for helping you through shit, or financially in debt for different things. We liked that duality of it, so a lot of songs [on the record] deal with that. I wouldn’t say they’re about aging, because nobody’s going to read an article about old white guys with guitars.”
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The Gotobeds weren’t always old guys—the earliest version of the band included a woman, Kathy Horne, with whom Kasan formed the Gotobeds after running into Belkan at Art All Night, a community art show in Lawrenceville. It’s a night he will later sincerely say, “changed my life. Nobody thought we would do anything. I’m a really loyal person, and Cary and Kathy cared when nobody else did.”
The band initially had “more like a Flying Nun, the Clean, Verlaines” type of sound, but they gave that up that after Horne left, a moment Kasan recalls clearly. “I do remember when Kathy had a turning point. We were practicing in the middle of the day, and Kathy opened Cary’s fridge, and all he had was a birthday cake and mustard,” says Kasan. They weren’t the same band after that, and couldn’t play the same songs, but they kept the name Gotobeds.
The band coalesced into their current iteration around 2012. Jensen joined after moving to Pittsburgh for school. Another guitarist named Jeff played in the band for a minute, but he didn’t write songs and ended up moving. Kasan didn’t have anyone to write with until TFP, with whom he had played in hardcore band Kim Phuc, joined the Gotobeds, at which point the band’s sound became closer to what is now. “He’s really into the Marked Men and Total Control and the Wipers. All of a sudden, we started being less indiepop.”
Before my trip, I asked Kasan to send me a playlist of Pittsburgh bands, so I could get an idea of the city’s musical DNA. Many of the groups he picks are proudly raggedy, scratchy, and outspoken, much like the Gotobeds. It’s rough around the edges, but with everything from no wave squiggles to jangle pop goodness, this music isn’t stylistically out of step with what arty bands from places like New York and D.C. and London were doing at the time, so it’s unclear why it didn’t travel far beyond its origin point—was it because the bands themselves had no greater ambitions for their work or because, you know, Pittsburgh? It’s probably a little of both. That’s how it goes in Pittsburgh. “We create our own scene because nobody comes here,” says Kasan. “That’s fucking cool.”
Why does nobody come to Pittsburgh? For one thing, a lot of people don’t seem to know where it is. Suspended between the Midwest and East Coast without being considered part of either region, by anyone, Pittsburgh is continually overlooked—or, worse, conflated with Philadelphia when it comes time to plan a tour route. “We clown on New York bands for that,” says Kasan. “Any band from New York that hits us up like, ‘We’re going to play with you in Philly because you’re close, right?’ Sorry you haven’t ever looked at map. We’re six hours apart.”
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Pittsburgh is also difficult to place culturally, too fancy to be Midwestern and too blue collar to be truly Eastern. “I feel like Pittsburgh does have that East Coast attitude. It’s quick,” Kasan says, snapping his fingers. “It’s got some attitude, but not like Philly attitude. I think there’s a distinction, but that’s a personal chip on my shoulder.”
Cruel Noise Records is located above Kaibur Cafe, a small and usually crowded coffee shop that serves vegan egg and cheese bagels. It’s the epitome of a neighborhood record store, with a bin dedicated to local releases and zines, and walls covered in fliers for upcoming shows, including the Gotobeds’ release gig in a few week’s time at a DIY venue called Babyland. Kasan and Jensen both worked here once, and are still friends with owner John Villegas, whose dog, Demon, hangs out behind the front counter. Though small, it’s a really good record store: records, tapes, and 7-inches at Cruel Noise are reasonably priced, and the selection hasn’t been picked over, because nobody comes to Pittsburgh. Everyone in the band is a music nerd of sorts, but nobody is really buying anything except Kasan, who always seems to be buying records (most recently, some Record Store Day reissues from one of his favorite bands, the Fall).
I mention disliking reissues because they’re expensive and usually pressed on colored vinyl which has unreliable sound quality. Why can’t new records just be pressed on regular black vinyl anymore? Kasan agrees, although Sub Pop always releases a colored “loser edition” of their records before making the black vinyl available. Obviously this included Debt Begins at 30.
“The label said they wanted to do a special color and we were like, ‘What if we made black the limited color?’” says Kasan. The answer was “No.”
“Then we were going to do a picture disc that was just a picture of a record,” adds Jensen. “They said no to that, too.” I ask them what color the Debt Begins at 30 loser edition ended up being. They think it’s orange. (It’s blue.)
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Our next stop is La Hutte Royal, a mysterious immersive art installation inside a once-abandoned 1912 house created by German artist Thorsten Brinkmann. Brinkmann was invited to create the work by curator Evan Mirapaul, who wanted to do something similar to the Art House Project in Naoshima, Japan, once he moved to a city where he could purchase a house purely for art’s sake, i.e. Pittsburgh. But while the interior has been redone, from the outside La Hutte Royal looks just like everything else on this mildly suburban, if alarmingly steep, street in the Troy Hill neighborhood. So much so that Kasan, who has visited La Hutte Royal before, misses it on first pass.
“Oh wait, that’s it over there,” he says, pointing to a bland beige three-story house with a mismatched windows, a narrow green lawn and a wide porch. The house’s external ordinariness begins to take on a kind of eeriness in the bright sunshine as TFP and Belback take turns on the porch swing while we wait to be allowed entry. Eventually, the front door opens, and a sour-faced kid slides out, closing the door behind him so we can’t see inside.
“I’m sorry, I just got a bad call,” he says darkly. For a minute we wonder if we’ll be asked to leave, but we never get an answer as the boy just launches into a glum spiel about how he will lead us through the first part of the house, and that we are absolutely not to touch anything except the handrails, although those are technically part of the art, because everything inside the house is part of the art. “The second half is self-guided for very obvious reasons,” he finishes. “You’ll see why when you get there.”
He holds the door open and we walk inside, immediately running into a giant prop bell scavenged from an old children’s TV show that takes up the front entrance. The walls of the entryway are hung with Brinkmann’s portraits of faceless people and objects depicted with aristocratic formality. As we follow the docent through downstairs floors of La Hutte Royal, any expectation of how an early 20th century middle-class Pittsburgh dwelling should be presented begins melting away. Everyone starts getting the giggles.
Brinkmann has redone and redecorated every room in the house, casting an absurdist’s eye on traditional settings by reconstructing ordinary scenes and imagery with found and thrifted materials both banal and magical. The cool and dingy basement holds a boxing ring big enough to walk around in. In the first floor rooms, LPs spin on small turntables in concert with repurposed ceiling fans turned upside down; the album covers are displayed on the neon pink walls—these were left behind by a DJ who squatted in the home for a time. The upstairs hallway is lined with closed doors, each one opening to a self-contained little world—one especially memorable room has been transformed into a wooded clearing, with a ceiling made of twinkly stars, a floor of damp moss, and a tent with playing cards spread out inside of it, in the soft glow of a camping light.
We reach a corner room on the second floor and the docent points down to a small fireplace. This, he says, is the entrance to the next part of the museum. He tells us that he won’t be going through with us, “but you won’t get lost unless you’re really dumb or really high.” We assure him that we are definitely neither. One by one, the members of the Gotobeds get down on their hands and knees and crawl into the fireplace.
We’ll be doing a lot of crawling, climbing, and crouching in the second part of the La Hutte Royal, which is where Brinkmann has subtly started fucking with perspective by subdividing rooms into three and four distinct areas linked by ladders, crawlspaces, and staircases. He’s begun shrinking entryways while raising ceilings and narrowing hallways to throw off your spatial awareness. You don’t even notice the rooms getting smaller until you get closer to the attic, a change which might become panic-inducing if the scenes Brinkmann created along the way weren’t so cozy and funny—a made-up bed in a loft space hung with lights, colorful Chinese lanterns swinging from the ceiling, a tiny kitchen with onions on the table, which you get to after you pop up out of a garbage can concealing a hidden ladder from the room below.
The entire place is, needless to say, eminently Instagrammable. That La Hutte Royal hasn’t been ruined by influencers is entirely due to the fact that anyone with over 500 followers on social media needs express permission to post photos of the place. This insane funhouse could only be in Pittsburgh—it’s literally made out of Pittsburgh.
Our bummed-out guide is waiting for us in the attic, where Brinkmann has created a home movie theater out of repurposed beauty hair salon dryers that pipe in sound while a film of the artist awkwardly posing on a chair is projected onto the wall in front of us. He asks if we have any questions. I ask if he’s ever met Brinkmann, expecting him to mumble something noncommittal in response. That is not what happens. Instead, he talks about how he’s constantly being interrupted at art events, which has caused him to give up on the idea of ever making a living on art alone, because…well, we never really get the reason, although later we suspect it might be related to the phone call he received before we arrived.
After leaving La Hutte Royal, we’re in the weird, half-baked state that comes from having your perception of reality warped beyond recognition. But all we can talk about is the docent and his broken dreams.
“I feel bad for my man, but what do you expect to happen?” asks Kasan. We’re back in his car, going to the Government Center, a new record store that’s only been open since March. “People make shit and get pissed off that nobody gives a shit. It’s like they’re not even making it because they want to make art.”
The Gotobeds have always more or less made art for art’s sake, at first because nobody was paying them, and now because they don’t constantly lose money on their band. Even though maintaining some semblance of straight world stability stops them from working as quickly as they’d like—their last record came out in 2016, a century ago in punk time—it also means they don’t have to treat music like a job, though that, Kasan says, was a conscious decision on his part at least.
“There was a time when we were touring a lot and I was always on the verge of losing my job. Right around the time we signed to Sub Pop, I was like, ‘I don’t want to rely on [the band] as financial support, because then I’ll make decisions that have to support that,’” says Kasan. “I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like it to make more money, but I certainly like that the band is an outlet that exists for stuff we want to do, versus trying to think about what else it could do.”
What they’ve wanted and persisted in doing is making music that’s resolutely old-fashioned, as far as punk goes, the kind of guitar-heavy, circa-1980 version of angular, angry, messy post-punk that’s not difficult music to listen to or appreciate, because what you hear is what you get. That’s part of the charm. Even though the kind of music the Gotobeds play goes in and out of style, their political streak is depressingly more fashionable now than when Pitchfork gave them a withering review for unironically rehashing post-punk sounds in 2016. Not that they cared.
“I think that’s a strength or a virtue,” says Kasan of his band’s dogged commitment to their own sound. “There’s not much to date it, like with the early 2000s when everyone had the disco beat, or the ‘90s gravity scene where everybody had that hollow snare sound. I remember reading in the 33⅓ [music book series] about the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society that it was so unfashionable to put out a pastoral English album during the psychedelic era. Or even the Fall, putting out rockabilly punk records. I think that’s super fucking cool. I can’t say it helps sales. I’m not a businessman, I play the guitar.”
The Gotobeds’ commitment to their image of themselves as eternal underdogs manifested as friendly suspicion when Sub Pop showed interest in releasing their records. Cool, they thought. Why?
“We took a long time to sign the contract. I asked them what they thought it was going to do. It’s marginal music,” says Kasan. “I don’t think Pittsburgh’s ‘Midwest,’ but there is some Midwest thing where it’s really self-deprecating like, ‘I don’t think it’s going to be that popular, but if you want to waste your money on it you can do that.’”
The question of selling out is sort of moot, anyway, since Kasan doesn’t think their style of music has the mass appeal needed to even make it an option. He’s been surprised, though: “I was on Spotify and I saw how many streams Protomartyr or Priests have, and I was gobsmacked. That many people like this kind of music?” His band was also once paid to have their music used in a movie, a fact that Kasan finds endlessly hilarious—“You can’t even hear it, and we got five grand. Why the fuck would you spend that?”
Pittsburgh is a city that will tolerate that kind of attitude because it remains cheap enough for artists not only to survive, but to do what they want without having to compromise too much. The city also has a streak of creative energy and an annual influx of young people (there are two major universities here) to keep things from getting too stagnant. This is what drew Josh Cozby to Pittsburgh from Salem, Oregon, to open the Government Center record store, which is where we are now. The store is still in the opening phases, with boxes waiting to be unpacked, but it’s filled with people browsing the well-stocked racks. Kasan already knows Cozby, of course, who has joined us in drinking the entire 12-pack of beers that Jensen, TFP, and I pick up around the corner. I ask Cozby why he chose Pittsburgh. He just gestures around with a shrug, his meaning clear. Pittsburgh is still a place that makes accommodations for people with small and achievable dreams. In Cozby’s case that means selling records. For the Gotobeds, it means not selling records.
It’s a constant joke among the band how unpopular they are, how messy their live shows are, how much they drink, how ridiculous it is that Sub Pop puts out their records when they don’t move units or thrill critics—or care about doing either. It’s not that the band is ungrateful for the support, it’s more that they feel like they’re getting rewarded for something they’d be doing anyway.
“I’m psyched [the band] funds itself rather than losing money constantly, but I’d do it anyway. I would guess Sub Pop are not going to make the next record,” says Kasan. “I wouldn’t blame them. We’ll make another record anyway. They’re the greatest people, they’re so kind. But for us, it’s not like, ‘Oh, we didn’t make it, because Pitchfork didn’t like it.’”
Of course the Gotobeds can be a little flippant about success, because they’ve had some, even if it’s a byproduct of having done whatever the fuck they wanted in the first place. Also, they work hard. “Sometimes we’ll catch flak like, ‘How did you guys get signed to Sub Pop when there’s more popular bands here?’ Just because you play to your friends, that doesn’t make you a good band. Play to a hostile audience night after night for a long time, for six weeks, like we have, and then maybe…”
“We’re also heavy drinkers, so we’ve played some terrible shows here,” he continues. “I can’t be mad at it, because it’s kind of our thing.”
The band have generated enough indie scene cred over the years to have successfully asked a different artist to guest on every track on Debt Begins at 30, ranging from local friends to bigger names like Greg Ahee from Protomartyr and Victoria Ruiz of Downtown Boys, who rewrote the title track’s lyrics in Spanish. (The band thinks they’re the same, but they can’t tell because nobody speaks Spanish.) Kasan emphasizes that the band had a connection to every single contributor. “None of it was star-fucking,” he says. “We feel real lucky that anybody wanted to contribute, let alone the 15 people we got. That’s fucking success for a no-name band.”
Debt Begins at 30 was also the first time the band had ever recorded outside of friends’ basements in Pittsburgh. They’d recorded the songs in their usual fashion after hearing that Sub Pop might be more inclined to continuing working with them if there were demos. “If they would’ve said no, we probably would’ve just put those out. We were trying to be like, ‘If they say yes, we’ll have a little more money and we can actually do this for once.’”
The band spent six days at Electrical Audio in Chicago “‘not recording’ with Steve Albini!” At first, the Gotobeds were intimidated by the upgrade in environment—Kasan spilled a beer in the studio at 11am on their first day—but eventually, their normal personalities took over. Bob Weston walked in on the band listening to rap music and playing dice at 1am, only to turn around and walk out when Kasan offered him vodka with a Pedialyte chaser. Weston plays on Debt Begins at 30, too. The result is a record that isn’t exactly polished, but perhaps a little more serious, a little more edited than anything they’ve done before. For the next one, Kasan says, he wants to “make it even uglier and more scrappy. In theory it should be like, ‘Wow, we did good, we should repeat that process.’ But that doesn’t feel interesting. Maybe it’s just my personality.”
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We’re getting dinner at Apteka, a vegan Polish restaurant in Bloomfield, close to where Kasan and Belback live. Though the place is fancy and minimalist in a rustic way, decorated with reclaimed wood and succulents, it’s also got an in-house punk: The host is Colin Atrophy Hagendorf, another DIY lifer who’s made a home in Pittsburgh after publishing Slice Harvester, a book reviewing every pizza slice in Manhattan. Kasan knows him, too. Hagendorf puts out a monthly newsletter of funny cultural criticism called Life Harvester, and I take a copy of April’s edition, which is printed on green paper and contains relatable observations, like “Somehow in my financially soluble adulthood, the notions I’ve internalized from punk about active participation in creative communities have partially transmogrified into a sense of obligation to buy things from podcast advertising.”
The restaurant is busy and we have a big group, so we’ll need to find some other way to occupy our time before we can be seated. We dither outside the restaurant for a moment trying to decide what to do. Then, something across the street piques our interest.
The Allegheny Cemetery is 300 manicured acres of hills, historic mausoleums, and monuments to some of Pennsylvania’s most storied citizens—i.e. the perfect place to drink. We make a detour to get more alcohol, cutting downhill through the tiny alleyways between the square homes. In this part of Pittsburgh, every street is narrow and every corner is blind. We’re in that goofy half-drunk state where everything seems like a good idea, and everything is funny. The band poses in front of a huge American flag mural and insists on taking me into ShurSave, the dollar store of Pittsburgh where all the produce comes pre-cut and wrapped in cellophane. Kasan almost gets into a fight with a guy in a Subaru after we leave the liquor store, where we decide to forgo beer for White Claw hard seltzer.
We enter the Allegheny Cemetery through a huge, castle-like gate on Penn Avenue. Belback says he used to know somebody who lived here, and would give kids access to the cemetery after hours via underground tunnels. The band has spent time here before, indulging in this very activity, so they know exactly where to go. First, there’s a duplicate of the tomb of department store mogul F.W. Woolworth, famous for having two marble sphinxes with enormous breasts flanking the entrance. There’s also a cave somewhere, which we unsurprisingly fail to find, but succeed in scrambling up and down a muddy incline without breaking something—which is an accomplishment, when you’re drunk and practically middle-aged. TFP wants to find the headstone that looks like a shark, and does. Nobody knows why it looks like a shark. There are deer. Cans of seltzer clink together in my tote bag as we traipse deeper into the cemetery. There’s something innately hilarious about all of this. For all the lofty talk about how remaining punk in your 30s means hanging on to artistic integrity and all that, remaining punk also means giving yourself license to be a dumbass long after other people have given up ridiculous things—like playing a band nobody cares about, or convincing yourself that there’s some deeper meaning to be discerned from writing about that band as you watch them drunkenly point out a marble sphinx with big boobs.
But there’s also the sense that we’ve earned the right to be dumbasses because, in spite of everything, we’ve made it. This is what success looks like for punks like us, however blindly we may have stumbled into it, and how unremarkably juvenile it may look from the outside. So maybe debt really does begin at 30, then—but it’s not just the debt you pay to the bank. It’s the debt you incur to yourself when you make the choice to remain true to your ideals without regard to what opportunities your integrity may cost you. And it will cost you. But you knew that, and you’re still here. You’re still doing it. Just like in La Hutte Royal, the way Brinkmann used discarded flotsam to turn shrinking rooms into magical visions of other worlds, sometimes living your dreams is just a matter of adjusting your perspective. For some people, it looks like Paris. For me, right now, it’s looking a lot like Pittsburgh.
After dinner we go to Brillobox, a bar Kasan was banned from once, but he can’t remember what for. He’s started buying the drinks, so I decide it’s time to start asking serious biographical questions.
What’s the worst show you’ve ever played? The band thinks a moment then agrees that it was a Brooklyn show at the Knitting Factory in 2016. A YouTube video of the performance simply describes them as “drunk band from Pittsburgh, PA on Sub Pop records,” which, while factual, does no justice to the meltdown happening onstage, which involves instruments being thrown. Kasan has a different view.
“I think it’s our best show!” he says. “It’s funny, like performance art, because we can’t play a song. It’s both our best and worst show. If you’re going to like the band, you need to appreciate both sides.”
“Did you know what you wanted to sound like when you started the band?” I ask. It seems like a vaguely intelligent thing to ask, even though we’ve spent all day talking about music and it doesn’t even matter.
Kasan begins to answer anyway: “The number one band we loved was Swell Maps, because it was such noise, but also pop guitar. We thought we could do something similar….” But he can’t even get through the answer with a straight face. “I feel like the luckiest motherfucker on Earth!” he says. “You can laugh all you want, but the fact that you’re sitting here entertaining whatever small amount of bullshit—I just feel fucking lucky, all right!”
I feel lucky, too. It’s cool to be spending time in a city that still feels undiscovered for no reason other than a lack of imagination. Ticking off the list of things we’ve done today—the Vanka Murals, La Hutte Royal, two record stores, a 19th century cemetery, a restaurant that serves the best vegan pierogies—it’s though I’ve been given access to some secret wonderland, and all I had to do to be allowed entry was ask. Pittsburgh isn’t a hidden gem, just an ignored one. I come from Los Angeles, a place that promises meaning but never delivers because it seems like everyone there, and everyone who goes there, only wants to sell out. That’s impossible to do in Pittsburgh, a city that makes room for small dreams, because it knows what it’s like to have big ones taken away. It’s even more impossible to do for the Gotobeds, who would probably tell me to stop being so serious.
Our final stop is Gooski’s, a famous locals-only dive bar that attracts Yelp reviews from squares complaining about the clouds of cigarette smoke wafting around inside. The time has somehow crept past 2am, yet the bar shows no signs of closing. “Usually we get journalists drunk, but you’re keeping up with us,” Kasan tells me which is the kind of compliment that begins to sound less like a compliment and more like the sign of a problem the older you get. And so my day out in Pittsburgh with the Gotobeds comes to a close over a cold pastrami sandwich, kindly given to me by the bartender who didn’t want to throw it out after it was left behind by a patron. I thank them for a fun time and head back to my Airbnb, my bloodstream filled with alcohol and my head filled with big, drunk ideas about punk and Pittsburgh and all the magical things I’ve seen in the past 12 hours.
The next morning, I wake up with the inevitable headache because hangovers, also, begin at 30. But there’s work to do. I fish a lone can White Claw out of my purse to serve in place of aspirin before heading back to Kaibur Cafe. I’m there to meet Connor Murray, an energetic and bright-eyed Pitt student running a local micro-label called Crafted Sounds that I found on Bandcamp a few months ago, before it occurred to me to come to Pittsburgh for any reason other than fun. It was Murray’s 21st birthday last night, but he’s in much better shape than I am, talking about how much energy he sees in Pittsburgh, how it feels like he’s sitting on tinderbox of creativity that’s ready to explode. It’s what he’s trying to do with his label—bring some shine to bands and cities that deserve some of the attention that’s being sucked up by places whose stories have already been told.
“Pittsburgh is next,” he says excitedly. He’s made a zine to celebrate the local scene and gifts me a copy. I flip through the pages. They’re filled with dim, disposable camera photos of round-cheeked kids in dirty kitchens and warehouses, clutching tall cans they’re probably not legally allowed to drink, the walls behind them scrawled with graffiti. Here’s a can of cider sitting by a mixing board, there’s someone passed out on a grimy sofa in a corner. And there are so, so many pictures of shows—janky instruments pushed into questionable set-ups, the audience populated with kids, their heads tipped back and smooth arms thrown aloft, fingers brushing the low-beamed ceiling of the basement. These photos bring to mind the flickering black and white images Stephanie Beroes captured in Debt Begins at 20 all those years ago, of Pittsburgh punks smoking on countertops and talking about making something cool happen for themselves because nobody comes to Pittsburgh. They’re still here. They’re still doing it. Why go to Pittsburgh? Well, this is why.