By Danielle Modica & Teresa Pavia | May 10, 2023
This edition of ISBITB is dedicated to Rat Den organizer Benjamin Rowe, "Ben," who died due to gun violence on June 25, 2023 at 25-years-old. Ben is remembered for his caring spirit and contributions to the Albany music community.
Since 2019, the Rat Den has been a fixture of the Albany D.I.Y. music community, coming in and out of the scene throughout the past four years. Having the closest connection to earlier underground venues, The Orange Peel and The Rice House, the Rat Den reigns true to the Albany basement values – but it is instead hosted in a second-floor apartment.
Photo Credit: Za’Nief Washington
Led by previous Rice House co-organizer Madeline and her two roommates – booking-lead Ben and promotional artist Frank – the trio has been providing a place for local bands to perform for almost a year.
Madeline created the “original” Rat Den with former roommates in 2019. After shutting down the first venue due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and moving, the latest iteration of the venue organized its first show in July 2022. Teaming up with Ben and Frank, the venue has consistently hosted four shows a month for the past ten months.
“I’ve been living at D.I.Y. venues now for about six years… I started doing sound sometimes at the Rice House when I lived there, when I was a freshman and sophomore in college. I lived there for a couple of years and then started the first Rat Den,” Madeline said. “There was another [Rat Den] down the street, one block away from the one that we live in right now… a lot of good shows happened there… we were there for like two years.”
Creating the name “Rat Den” adds to the cultural phenomenon of naming underground music venues after the house pets, contributed to by other venues like Caesar's Palace.
“I was a rat mom. I had a total of four pet rats: Theiffe, Natasha, Pearl, and Diamond,” Madeline said. “Now, coincidentally, Frank is the rat dad.”
Madeline also noted that the fabled Rice House is of house cat Rice’s namesake.
On moving on to the Rat Den from her experience with the Rice House, Madeline said living in underground venues is a defining point of her adulthood.
“For me having a D.I.Y. venue and opening my home to people has always felt like a nice excuse to put a community together and just bring people together,” Madeline said.
Ben, Madeline and musician Ladybyrd (left-to-right)
Photo Credit: Ben
While Madeline takes on the primary role of sound engineer, Ben takes care of booking bands, often through his own booking company “2 Dead Hummingbirds.”
“I’ve been booking shows since 2020 and eventually created 2 Dead [Hummingbirds] which mostly [books] metal and hardcore,” Ben said. “Then I moved in with Madeline… Post-COVID, [and post-Rat Den reopening] we tried to start it up again.”
According to Ben, the venue has no shortage of booking interest. Since opening the venue, the Rat Den has hosted as many as four shows a month.
“Things are booked out way in advance because I just have touring bands messaging me with inquiries all the time and we agreed on a four show a month cap,” Ben said. “We pretty much hit it every time because we have that many inquiries.”
“We’ll book any day of the week, we don't care,” Ben said. “So people hit me up and will [ask] ‘what dates do you have available?’ And we're just like, ‘When do you want?’” Ben said.
The team first opened their doors last summer, and have been hosting regularly ever since.
“First show at the new space was July 1, 2022… it was a two band bill with No One and the Somebodies, and Bruiser and Bicycle,” Ben said. “Then we did a Senior Living show like a week later… and then we started doing four a month, from August through the rest of the lease period.”
Fellow roommate and collaborator Frank’s artwork has defined the Rat Den’s image, also making appearances through art projects and screen printing for Caesar’s Palace and The Dojo. Frank most recently worked with the Laundromat on a series of sustainable clothing pieces.
“It's nice to have a team who are all doing specific things to make the show work,” Ben said. “People really like the Rat Den signs that are on our door…we hang them up in the house in the room after we're done with them and those get a really big response.”
The Rat Den Logo, created by Frank
Photo Credit: Rat Den Instagram / @the.rat.den518
Deviating from the traditional basement space of other D.I.Y. venues, the Rat Den hosts their shows in the second-floor of their apartment in the living room.
“It’s a second-floor apartment space, at the old Rat Den we had the whole house, so it’s definitely different,” Ben said. “But at the end of the day, it’s kind of the same small capacity because it was just a living room space both times…The Rat Den is small, it’s homey, it’s intimate.”
While being on the upper floor might seem like a recipe for upset neighbors, Ben and Madeline say they’ve never received a noise complaint.
“We got lucky,” Ben said. “They’re nice dudes who play music too, so they’ve got drums and guitar playing all the time.”
“[Building a performance area] has been an ongoing process… there’s two rooms as soon as you walk up the stairs,” Madeline said. “There’s just a big box of a room where the audience stands, that’s the standing room for now.”
The organizers spoke of the increased frequency of shows in the new venue space compared to the original location. According to Madeline and Ben, the use of Instagram as a significant new way to promote shows.
“[Instagram] is the move for venues right now…and Facebook being dead, you didn't get a lot of traction on there… The shows at the old Rat Den were good, we had a community going there, but going from the old one to the new one, and having an Instagram and doing more frequent shows,” Madeline said. “There hasn’t been a dead [show since]... All of them have been pretty good turnout wise.”
“Follower counts aren’t everything, but it's a gauge,” Ben said. “2 Dead Hummingbirds has been on Instagram since like 2021, and we just hit 1,000 followers, and have 1,500 followers on Rat Den after a year… it’s not everything, just metrics, but it’s interesting to see the level of attention it's got.”
Keeping up with the maintenance of the space has proved to be a job in and of itself.
“At the end of the day, that venue is tied up in your living situation and you got to think about that… And by all means, if your dream is to have bands come through from out of town and play in your living room, or play in your basement, or play in your attic, or wherever, you should absolutely do it,” Madeline said. “But just know that you're gonna have to pick the beer cans from the rafters, and clean up all the spills that no one tells you about… People are gonna stand on your toilet and go to the bathroom in places that aren’t the bathroom.”
According to Ben, keeping people safe while having crowds dancing is sometimes a challenge, but staying engaged with guests and keeping up communication can help.
“The Albany mosh style is crazy… People are just losing it at every show no matter what’s playing,” Ben said. “I’m the last person that wants to tell someone to chill out, but the world would be a better place if the bands performing said something like ‘hey, you can do what you’re doing, but please be careful.’”
Crowd moshing in the Rat Den.
Photo Credit: Kevin Alzate
Among the most rewarding aspects of running the venue, Ben and Madeline stressed the importance of building up and contributing to local culture.
“I really feel right now that it’s such a cool time to be in Albany. There's upwards of hundreds of bands that are around, and there’s so many that are active on such a professional level,” Ben said. “They’re really on top of their merchandise and touring and their promotion of it all and putting out music consistently and it's good.”
According to Ben, he has faith in the future of Albany D.I.Y. spaces and feels that post-Rat Den, there will still be strong community centers for the arts.
“Everyone does it in a different way and everybody sees a slightly different return… And they're all good,” Ben said. “There are consecutive weekends where there's a show at the Dojo, a show at the Rat Den and a show at [Hudson] Station, all on a Friday or Saturday that they all overlap… And they all do well…That's crazy…where are we getting 60-75 people to make all these shows?”
On the future of the Rat Den, Madeline and Ben intend on taking a hiatus after a “last show for now” on May 19.
“The last six years or so of throwing shows in my houses have been a great experience…I made a lot of memories that I think about every day and that are gonna get me through life going forward,” Madeline said. “I have pure joy in my heart that I got to make these things happen so many times and enjoy every show… I see myself doing this for probably another year, I’m still having fun with it.”
“We’re on the same page,” Ben said. “No matter what we know we’re taking a break… and no matter what, it’ll look different if we do it again.”
Edit 7/5/23: The Albany Student Press and is saddened to share the death of Rat Den organizer Benjamin Rowe, or "Ben" as referred to in this article. As originally reported in the Times Union on June 25, Rowe was fatally shot in downtown Albany after reportedly walking a friend home shortly after 2 a.m. Ben is a foundational member of the current Albany D.I.Y. community, as well as University at Albany graduate. The Rowe family created a GoFundMe fundraiser in Ben's memory; all funds will be donated directly back to the Albany music community. The Rowe family also asks for memorial donations to be made to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Read Ben's obituary on the New Comer Funeral Home Website.
Writers’ Note: “It Sounds Better in the Basement” is a developing series playing off of punk band The Devil is Electric’s 2001 release of the same name. The song represents the soul of basement shows and its importance in providing a platform for local bands. As Albany college students, we strongly believe in sedimenting the student culture of the Capital Region for generations to look back on. As UAlbany’s independent student newspaper, it is our mission to tell stories while protecting those who live them - which is why we have chosen to refer to sources on a first-name basis (unless receiving permission otherwise). This series will continue with features of other local venues, bands, and notable figures. Next up, The Dojo Beyond Time and Space.