Small town to big city, Justin Duerr finds creative freedom
PHILADELPHIA — Being a weirdo in a small town with not a lot to do and a traditional, conservative community isn’t the ideal place for someone with a creative mind to flourish.
For Justin Duerr, an artist and musician, spending his entire life in Wenksville, Pennsylvania was out of the question. At age 16, he dropped out of high school and moved to Philadelphia with his brother, Marc, and some friends, including Kevin Riley, who’s in two of Justin’s bands.
“When you get into any kind of major city,” Duerr said at his West Philadelphia home on a breezy December Monday, “people have the freedom to decide [who they want to be].”
Duerr, who has had art featured in galleries throughout the city, starred in a 2011 documentary, “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles,” which showed at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Now, he plays in four bands, including Northern Liberties with his brother and Riley. Another band is Geb the Great Cackler, which is a two-piece with his fiancé, Mandy Katz. Philadelphia has been a huge influence on his art and music.
“I’ve always liked that Philly is kind of an underdog city,” Duerr said. “Maybe if I moved to New York when I was a kid, I could make more money at it, but Philly has so much more heart.”
While Duerr said the art and music scene in Philly “pretty much sucks,” the little stuff that does exist in the city is more “for real.” He said Philadelphians are less likely to buy experimental art than New Yorkers, but he has no regrets moving here.
“I would have been smarter to go to New York, probably,” Duerr said, “because there is way more of an art scene with money and stuff. But, who knows though, maybe I would have started shooting heroin and died when I was 23.”
What drew Duerr and his brother to Philadelphia was one of Marc’s friends, who went to the University of Pennsylvania and lived at The Quadrangle. In 1992, the Duerr brothers started coming to the city and hanging out around South Street.
“I remember going down to South Street and it was amazing because that was when South Street was vibrant,” Duerr said. “It was a serious counterculture in a way I don’t think could happen anymore anywhere, partially because of the Internet.
“The first or second day in the city, I met people I still know to this day on the street,” he added. “Like literally met them just walking down the street and it was like, ‘You’re a punk, and you’re a punk,’ and we’re friends to this day.”
After living in the city for a while, Duerr entered a “super punk rock fashion” phase of his life, which he recalled having a haircut he and his friends called the Chemo cut.
“You’d just take a razor and randomly cut out chunks of your hair,” he said. “We had rubber bands in them, pieces of metal and chicken bones and all kinds of shit, it was horrendous.”
He would walk down streets in the middle of the night as bars let out and people threw bottles at him because he was different. One night, Duerr recalled one norm leaving a bar on South Street.
“This guy walks by and goes, ‘Talk about your self-hate,” he said.
But that wasn’t what it was about. The punk fashion was about being able to easily identify other punks, and it was “something that could bring people together that would never” have been socially acceptable before.
“You could pick out other people that were into [punk] just visually,” Duerr said. “That stuff was kind of interesting too because it cut all the boundaries of class and race and stuff, kids had come from different backgrounds.”
When he first came to the city, Duerr, his brother and some friends, through the friend who went to Penn, were able to sublet a frat house at $100 a month for the summer.
“The frat guys hated us,” Duerr said. “They wouldn’t be around that much, but they hated us.”
After that summer, Duerr’s money had run out, and his group started hanging out with a crowd of squatters. For about a year or so, Duerr joined the squatting scene.
“We kind of learned, or got the idea that you could do that,” Duerr said. “We were [bad] at it, especially at first. We got a little better after a while.”
Duerr liked “a lot of things” about the squatting scene in the mid-90s, but one thing that was silly was peer pressure.
“In some ways you think, ‘Oh, they’re experiencing all this freedom,’ or nothing else they’re at least living this extreme vision of life, which they were,” he said, “but it was very strict. There was a lot of peer pressure and it was as conservative as anything else.”
There were two squats, Duerr recalled. The main one and the one Duerr and his group created, which accepted people who didn’t fit in with the main one because they didn’t have face tattoos or didn’t wear dark enough clothes.
The main squat, Duerr described, had a gang culture, which he didn’t understand.
“They were into that kind of like, ‘You got to get beat up and then you’re part of the group,’ stuff like that,” he said. “I thought it was just so stupid, like this is just so asinine. What do you win?”
Like anyone who rebels against social norms, the squatters had a reputation as people who were lazy and just wanted to be rebellious. But, Duerr said that wasn’t the case for most folks.
“Almost all of those people had severe damage from childhood or had some severe problem where they could not have done anything else,” he said. “Like that was the only thing they could do.”
Where did a lot of the punk-squatter kids come from?
“A lot of these kids came from Texas, and there was this one in Texas, in this really conservative [expletive] up town in Texas,” Duerr said. “It was for criminally insane underage kids, so it was kids that killed somebody or something before the age of 14.
“A lot of those kids ran away from that place when they were young and ended up in Philly,” he continued. “A lot of those kids were molested or stories about childhood were like, ‘I spent three years chained to a radiator in a basement and was raised by dogs.’
“There’s no social services in place for somebody like that, our time and place don’t take care of those people. There’s no real…unless you do come from a bunch of money, but if you do, you won’t have this experience in the first place.”
Duerr currently lives in West Philadelphia, and has been at the place he’s at now for two years. He’s lived in every neighborhood in the city, and the first time he lived in West Philly was at a squat.
Throughout their time in the city, Justin and Marc have mostly stuck together.
“We worked on fishing boats together, we did a lot of things together,” Marc said.
But, around age 23 or 24, Marc ended up going to automotive school and getting a job as a mechanic at SEPTA, where he’s been ever since.
“When we first moved to the city, I think there was a period of time he very much wanted to establish his own personality,” the 40-year-old said about his brother. “And so there was a period of time we were homeless for a year.”
Eventually, the Duerr brothers and some friends moved into a warehouse in West Philadelphia after working on fishing boats together. There, they played music and held shows. Lagwagon, a punk band formed in 1990, played at the warehouse one time.
“They got there kind of earlier and they were getting some food in the kitchen and I was talking to them,” Justin recalled. “They were like, ‘Yeah, you know, you guys are musicians, you guys should do this pop/punk stuff. It will pay the bills.”
Duerr never liked that style of music. He was never a big fan of Green Day, which he, without placing blame, said was the start of the downfall of punk.
“It was like the ladder up to Nickleback,” he said. “So it was kind of like maybe Green day, then Lagwagon, then NOFX, then finally Nickleback. I guess Nickleback is a punk band. But to me, as my experience as a kid, that wasn’t what punk was about at all.
“I really hated that sound and really hated that stuff,” he said.
Growing up in Wenksville, a rural town about 14 miles outside of Gettysburg, creative freedom didn’t exist. It was a farming community where manual labor was expected. Duerr’s father was an apple picker and his mother worked at a tourist trap in Gettysburg.
“There was no differentiation between metalheads and the Goth kind of stuff,” Duerr said. “There was none of that stuff. It was just kind of like Goth would be right on par with a metalhead because they all got beat up by the regulars, the norms.”
In fact, the town was so small that, according to Marc, “literally one car would drive by at night.” Yet, even out in the middle of nowhere, Justin and his brother found punk rock.
Duerr grew up appreciating Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and The Beatles, specifically John Lennon. His parents had a small record collection, which a lot of it he liked. There was one single Lennon released that opened Duerr up to an entire different world of music.
“As a kid, I didn’t really like The Beatles’ stuff that was just straight pop,” Duerr said. “But I remember John Lennon had a single and the B-side was Yoko Ono. I remember playing that Yoko Ono side all the time, and it was the only Yoko Ono music I think my parents had.”
The 37-year-old cherished Ono’s music because “it was the craziest thing that I could hear.” He didn’t think his parent’s generation could welcome the music because of how far away it was from commercial radio.
Once he was able to find music on his own, all bets were off.
“I would buy a lot of music on cassette tapes with my allowance money as a kid just based on the album covers,” Duerr said. “Without the Internet stuff, underground music was more exciting because you had no idea what it was.”
Duerr found most of his music at the mall, whether it was buying tapes or skateboard magazines with advertisements for bands. He described the stuff he found at the mall as “really weird,” but this one tape was influential to him.
“I must have been 13,” he said, “I got this tape, A Sides, a comp or mix of bands that this label Crass put out. You couldn’t find their records ever anywhere, but somehow that one made it to the mall. I loved that tape because it was really musically diverse.”
He got into the Butthole Surfers’ “Locust Abortion Technician,” and Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures.” Of course, though, it was easier to find punk bands that kids idolized like The Sex Pistols and The Damned, but Justin was drawn to the artsier stuff.
What was punk to Duerr growing up in Wenksville?
“I grew up in such a rural area, my view of it was kind of really warped,” he said. “It was kind of like a weird magic mirror lens version of it because I was getting it all wrong.”
The radio signal in Wenksville wasn’t the best, and the stuff that did make it out to Duerr was more of the mainstream, commercial radio that was “the dominating force and sucked really bad.” However, they were able to get Gettysburg College radio.
“They played some cool stuff,” he said. “I heard some cool stuff that I would have never heard [without] them.”
Nirvana was a huge musical influence for Duerr.
“This is like hipster bragging points or something, I was into them in the early days, man,” he said.
As a kid, a friend of his had a subscription to a sub-pop magazine that issued a seven-inch single each month. One of the singles was a Nirvana single, which was a cover of the Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz,” a track he had heard before.
“My Mom had a Shocking Blue tape. I used to listen to that, I knew the song,” Duerr said. “I was like, ‘That’s [expletive] cool, they do a punk version of ‘Love Buzz,’ like how punk is that? This record is awesome!’”
One thing led to another and Duerr traded a Sugarcubes’ record, “Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week,” for the Nirvana seven-inch. When Duerr and his bands write songs, they tend to follow Nirvana’s structure.
In 2001, Justin asked Marc if he wanted to play drums in a band with Riley on bass and Justin singing. Marc said yes, so the band started to produce music. The name of the band came from a section of the city that fit the trio.
“Hundreds of years ago, Northern Liberties was sort of the wild section of the city,” Marc said. “Like you didn’t have to pen your animals up there or anything. So Northern Liberties was like, ‘If you want to be a weirdo and just want to do your own crazy thing, just go up there and do it.’”
Twelve years later, Northern Liberties is still very much alive, although they’ve slowed down playing live since Marc had his son five years ago. The band plans to record their next album this month, and according to Marc, the songs are “about 85 percent written.”
Being the older brother, Marc doesn’t mind taking the back seat in the band to Justin.
“He definitely loves the attention,” he said. “I’m more like the structure, the song writing, the general energy, the direction of things. I don’t have any great need to be ‘the guy,’ and everything that comes with that.”
What’s Justin’s biggest strength as an artist and musician?
“He is relentless. He doesn’t eat, he doesn’t sleep, he just produces,” Marc, who now lives in Havertown, said. “My Dad was running his website for a while and he was like, ‘I can’t believe how much art he does. It’s like every week he sends me a whole bunch more things.’”
Northern Liberties wasn’t the first band Yoni Kroll, a DJ at WKDU, saw Justin Duerr perform. One of Duerr’s previous bands, Eulogy, was playing at The Cat Box on Buckingham Avenue, and that’s where Kroll found Duerr and his music and art.
Shortly thereafter, the 34-year-old moved in with Kevin Riley, Northern Liberties’ bassist, and got to know Duerr.
“He’s a nice guy,” Kroll said. “I enjoy his presence, I like the fact that he is so driven to discover things that he definitely does as much as he can. When he’s into something, he is into it. There’s no real stopping him.”
About 10 years ago, Kroll interviewed Duerr for a now debunked website, Abinka.com.
“That was staying up all night and watching Roky Erickson videos and talking about God,” he said. “I feel that our relationship is based on that history, and we can refer to things that happened 10 years ago, we have a lot of friends in common.”
Duerr sometimes DJs with Kroll at WKDU, which the radio station has all of Duerr’s bands’ albums from over the years on deck; there is a four-CD box set of Eulogy live from the late-90s, and all of Northern Liberties albums.
“The main rule is nothing you would here on commercial radio,” Kroll said, “which is a bit more grey these days with stuff like satellite radio and what else. The role that it serves in the community is being a place for bands that wouldn’t get heard elsewhere.”
How Duerr sees the world is his best strength, according to Kroll.
“Justin sees the world in a way that is not, I wouldn’t say standard,” Kroll said. “I think Justin sees the world in a very open and brilliant way. He’s very much a visionary in that regard.
“He does a lot of different things and he brings his worldview, his way of doing things to anything he does,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want that to change at all.”