Austin Punk: JT Habersaat

Traveling an hour and a half each way to see a good punk show…is that dedication or just a cure for apathy?

Justin “JT” Habersaat, a funny, punk rock kid from New York’s Hudson Valley, made the long trek about two to three times a month and most weekends. The train dumped him at Grand Central Station, then he’d either hop a cab or take a subway to the lower East side.

Everyone was going through New York City to play rock shows, and, living so close to the center of the world, it was too good a chance to pass up, he says.

JT’s punk rock world centered around venues like Irving Plaza, the equivalent of Emo’s in Manhattan; the Bowery Ballroom, still operational today; hardcore and punk rock club CBGB; Roseland Ballroom, one of the larger venues; and St. Marks Place, a favorite hangout for punk rockers that holds a lot of the scene’s history. You could walk down St. Marks and see one of The Ramones walking down, he says.

The punk scene is where JT first cut his teeth. Punk bands like Black Flag and Fugazi influenced how he thought artists should tour, and their DIY work ethics really spoke to him, he says.

While music is an important part of JT’s life, so is comedy…maybe even a bit more prominent.

“The comedians I admire like Bill Hicks and George Carlin were always punk rock to me because they would push the boundaries of what comedy could be,” JT says.

One night, while killing time with friends near Stand Up NY, JT started up a conversation with the door guy.

“How do you get on stage,” JT asked.

“Oh, come out…bring four of your friends a month from now,” the door guy said.

A month later on a Saturday night, JT got his first stage time at 16 years old.

JT had never been in a comedy club before that initial performance at Stand Up NY, but he had watched comedy specials on HBO and “Live at the Improv” since about the age of 11.

His standup favorites: George Carlin and Eddie Murphy. JT finds black humor particularly funny, a taste he shares with his father and uncle. His family jests that this fascination with dark, say-what’s-on-your-mind comedy is “the Habersaat coming out.”

Once JT got to college, he started performing for crowds of 200 to 300 people during Midnight Theatre, open mic night at State University of New York New Paltz. The rooms were big; the equivalent of The Alamo Drafthouse, he says.

These open mic nights gave JT 10 minutes to do whatever he wanted to do. He came up with a bit called Spoken Word, a story-based comedy performance that helped build his fan base.

Now 36 years old, JT is marketing associate at Classified Ventures Austin, where he does freelance writing, editing and web marketing for various online companies.

But he is still pursuing his passions in Austin, where he lives with his wife Donna.

The pair moved down to Austin from New York in 2006, when Donna got a job offer as a full-time art director for the city’s transportation department. Donna is also JT’s business partner for Altercation Magazine, which they founded in 1999 while in New York.

The independent publication came about from the Habersaat’s desire to provide substantial media coverage of the punk and indie music scene, the kind of coverage which they felt was seriously lacking in mainstream magazines. They set out to change that, with JT conducting in-depth band interviews and Donna producing about 90 percent of the photography.

JT has extended Altercation’s brand to two other ventures: The Altercation Punk Comedy Tour, a collective of like-minded underground comics with a sense of rebellion, and Altercation Records Inc., a punk rock record label–home to bands including The Jukebox Romantics and Born To Lose–formed in 2005 with New Yorker Travis Myers as partner.

JT arranges most of the details for his gigs and events, from booking venues and promoting shows to driving the van and arranging a place to stay. “There’s very little downtime for me, but I’m a control freak,” he says. “I love doing it.”

His job’s flexible hours make it easier to schedule tours and gigs, and he enjoys the laid back atmosphere. It’s a stable source of income for JT.

JT is not rich, but he’s also not freaking out at the end of the month trying to pay the bills.

Comedy pays well, says JT, but he doesn’t want to live on the road; nor does he want to rely on the magazine.

Currently, JT is finishing up his book, The Altercation Archives Book, due out in stores June 1. The book is a compilation of in-depth interviews with legendary performers–Henry Rollins, Fugazi, Joan Jett, and Billy Idol among others–and includes new intros, behind-the-scenes details, and photos. JT has also started up a residency at The New Movement Theater this month, at the new downtown venue on 7th and Lavaca. The residency entails monthly performances until September–the next one set for Saturday, May 12, at 10:30 p.m.

Upcoming for JT is stand-up at The Punk Rock Bowling and Music Festival in Las Vegas this May and the Altercation Punk Comedy Tour at festivals this fall.

His family is supportive of his work and he feels lucky that they don’t hound him about getting a “real” job.

–Stephanie Meza

Image courtesy of Donna Habersaat

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