Rock artist Matt Burr ’99 has shared the stage with the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers and Robert Plant. These days the drummer and founding member of the critically acclaimed band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals performs in a half-abandoned historic building in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The site once housed WKAQ, the island’s first radio station (and fifth in the world). It’s now home to Burr’s latest venture, San Juan Sound, a nonprofit music organization he launched in 2018.
Back in 2017, Burr intended to launch a modest radio station there and outfit the space with a recording studio. He was just months away from opening when Hurricane Maria made landfall in September.
“In the beginning, I did my best to stay positive as I enjoyed a very large pepperoni pizza dubbed my ‘possible last supper,’ ” Burr remembered. “My calm turned to shock with the arrival of unforgettable screaming wind and crashing noises.”
Burr considered himself “blessed” compared to those who lost loved ones and homes in the Category 5 storm.
“I tried to remember that all of the gear in the studio was material and staying hopeful was crucial to survival,” he said.
Searching for something new
Burr journeyed to Puerto Rico in 2015, a move he said was “triggered by personal events.”
“I had only visited the island once before and did not know a soul but decided to unpack my bags after it became crystal clear I had to rebuild my life,” he said. Burr soon fell in love with Puerto Rico, and the island’s music scene inspired the original concept for San Juan Sound.
Many schools in Puerto Rico shuttered after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island. Music programs and concert venue budgets were slashed or altogether abandoned. It was a heartbreaking reality, Burr said, for “a place where you are born into music, and local sounds are your soundtrack to survival.”
In anticipation of the storm, Burr collected all the studio gear and stacked it in the control room, which escaped flooding. Still, after the hurricane, the future of the studio was in question.
“All we could do was wait out the power outage before testing the gear,” he said. “This left me with no choice but to expect the worst, hope for the best, and come up with a new plan.”
A mission born in crisis
The idea for a nonprofit to support Puerto Rico’s struggling artists had been on Burr’s mind when he enrolled in Harvard’s nonprofit management program in 2016, before dropping out after Maria hit.
“In Puerto Rico, the independent music community and programs began suffering well before the Hurricane when the financial crisis forced budget cuts, closures and fewer opportunities to survive as an artist,” he said.
Motivated by Hurricane Maria’s devastation, Burr filed the paperwork for a music nonprofit in November 2017 and also launched an instrument donation program, Gift of Sound.
“With patience and one miracle after another, we had our first Gift of Sound event shortly after the power returned in December and officially opened the recording studio on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria,” said Burr.
According to Burr, Hurricane Maria ultimately inspired the true identity of San Juan Sound, which provides free recording, workshops and live music for independent artists and students directly impacted by Puerto Rico’s economic crisis and Hurricane Maria.
“San Juan Sound is a mission born in crisis and driven by the truth that music remains one of the greatest forces and gifts in the world,” he said.
Survival through music
San Juan Sound has provided free recording and workshops to scores of local artists and students since it launched in September. But, according to Burr, there is a lot of work to be done to reach more artists in need.
“As much as I want the world to support Puerto Rico and San Juan Sound, what I care about most is the world supporting the arts any way they can. Every living soul relies on art whether they recognize it or not,” he said.
A life-changing injury
Burr severely injured his knee during his final football game against Blair Academy. He later said that this was the “best and main reason” he pursued music.
MB: My biggest fan (aka Dad) used to angrily recall a super dirty hit, although I don’t remember that nor do I care. It was the greatest injury of my life, and less than a year later I realized my calling was in music despite having no formal training. I only played a few times while at Peddie when campus legends Nucca and the Gang allowed me to sit in on their rehearsals, which ironically featured a drum set I sold to Peddie.
Favorite Peddie memory
MB: Mr. Tattersall, aka “T.” Beneath his lieutenant-general exterior was a brilliant and warm soul who touched many lives. I’ll never forget seeing “T” and his unmistakably stoic poise at one of my concerts in Portland, Maine.
Life lessons learned at Peddie
MB: I learned about the beauty of evolving with people from all walks of life and corners of the world. Looking back right this second makes me realize my experience at Peddie was my first eye-opener to the power of diversity and acceptance.