Shuttered Island Avenue diner inspires local band’s EP debut
HELSINKI BUS STATION - Ian Kobistek, lead vocals, Carnegie, Carlynton 2017 Dylan Zeiler, drums, Ingram, Montour 2018 Jason Gallagher, rhythm guitar, Kennedy, Montour 2018 Anthony Catanzarite, bass, Robinson, Montour 2018 Ben Lex, lead guitar, Robinson, Montour 2014
By Jamie Wiggan
A sign that once lured hungry motorists into Mary Anne’s Breakfast-N-Lunch through a list of enticing breakfast specials is now catching Island Avenue traffic off guard with a more puzzling message: “Helsinki Bus Station.”
In the two years since the restaurant shuttered, it’s been transformed into the creative headquarters for a local rock band. Their name, of course, is Helsinki Bus Station.
Recent graduates of Montour and Carlynton high schools, the band got its start through a series of informal jam sessions held in guitarist Jason Gallagher’s garage in early 2020.
“We were like ‘we all play instruments — let’s just get together and play,’” Gallagher said. “…That was the start of it all.”
After carving out a regular rehearsal schedule and making headway on some original material, the group sought out a more accommodating space to develop its sound and tighten its setlist.
The move into the diner came through the band's connection to its former manager, Phil Santucci, another Montour graduate and trained chef who inherited the restaurant from his grandmother and restaurant namesake Mary Anne Schrock in 2018. Unfortunately, Santucci’s short tenure overlapped with the year-long renovation of the Fleming Park Bridge, and the impact on business caused him to close up shop permanently.
Until Santucci and his family find a new owner, they’re happy to let the band use the space to write songs, rehearse and record. In response, the group has taken on a sort of custodial responsibility toward the former diner and band members try to keep it clean and habitable.
“We offered to pay them rent to be here,” but they refused, Gallagher said. “They’re very friendly about it.”
The setting has also proved to be a source of creative inspiration for the alt-rock quintet, supplying the subject matter for two tracks on their debut EP “Island Avenue.”
One song — “Mr. No Name” — was inspired by a Russian emigrant, evicted from a nearby home, who temporarily wound up living in the vacant cottage next to the diner. For a period of several weeks, he would stop over at the restaurant when the band was on-site “to talk about life” and drink bottled water. (A former medical professional, Mr. No Name was a stickler for health, the group says.)
Another track, “Roach King,” was spurred on by the family of cockroaches that made their home in the diner after its 2019 closure. Months of cleaning and systematic trapping has kept the population at bay, but they still see the occasional critter scurrying across the tiled flooring.
“We have a symbiotic relationship with [the cockroaches],” said bassist Anthony Catanzarite.
With the sale prospect looming, Helsinki tried to capture these experiences and everything else that’s marked its time at the diner, in the four tracks of “Island Avenue,” released in February.
“We wanted to get it down with the first EP – like this was an era,” Gallagher said.
Having a lead singer whose formative listening came through '90s-era hip-hop, while other members list influences ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Strokes and Radiohead, the band’s sound is predictably hard to pin down. Rock ‘n’ roll fans of all ilks will find something to enjoy in their infectious guitar licks and reverb-drenched vocals.
Ben Lex, Anthony Catanzarite, Jason Gallagher, Ian Kobistek and Dylan Zeiler during a practice session.
However the band ought to be categorized, its members are optimistic about their prospects for building a following amid the current music market.
“I think we’re very fortunate to be at the time we’re at right now,” said Catanzarite. “Instrumental music is making a huge comeback.”
How they plan to ride that wave? Well, that takes us back to the mysterious sign.
As well as a transit hub in the Finnish capital, the Helsinki Bus Station also represents a theory
for developing artistic distinction.
According to the theory, the bus network is so configured in Helsinki that buses leaving the main station begin on the same journey over several stops before eventually branching off onto separate routes. For aspiring artists, the moral is to start off imitating what you know and eventually you’ll develop your own style.
“Basically it’s about being persistent and trusting the process, and staying true to yourself,” Gallagher said. “We welcome our fans to jump on board.”
“Island Avenue” is available to stream for free on YouTube Music, Spotify and Apple Music. To stay ahead of future releases and show dates, follow the band on Instagram @Helsinkibusstation.