When Brett Margulis was young, he would frequently rearrange the furniture in his bedroom and even got his mother to help him to get his table, desk, chair, bed, and stereo and TV consoles situated just so. That was even before he knew that he was practicing feng shui.
But now, 40 years later, Margulis is a sought-after interior office designer and president of Innovative Commercial Interiors in West Trenton.
What’s more, in his mostly avocational career the last dozen years as a rock and blues-rock jam band musician, he takes familiar classic rock and blues-rock tunes and rearranges them with his band, Box O’ Rox.
Box O’ Rox plays mid-afternoon on Saturday, May 18, at the free Pennington Day. Others on the bill on two stages at the event include Rockcital, the Hive, Echo Lake, the X Husbands, and Toby Bara and Timberlane Jazz. Music is presented from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Margulis, whose mother, Sheila, was a housewife and aerobics instructor and late father, Barry, owned an automotive consumer products company, moved from Brooklyn to East Brunswick in the 1960s.
“A number of my old friends from East Brunswick are still involved in music,” he says about his first New Jersey neighborhood.
“We moved when I was 13, to a new area, Colts Neck, and I’m the only Jewish kid there. That’s when I realized I was Jewish. I lived really far from everybody, and we were kind of removed on the reservoir in Colts Neck, so my dad went and bought me a guitar,” says Margulis.
Because of his father’s interest in sailing, Margulis’ family moved again, this time to a condo in Sea Bright. And it was there the 17-year-old future designer became friends with another condo resident: Jason Federici, son of the Bruce Spingsteen’s E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici.
“When I met Jay he had a little keyboard, and we’d play in his garage. Bruce Springsteen would walk in and he’d say inspiring things like, ‘You guys just keep practicing!’ ”
Around the same time other friends helped him develop his musical tastes by introducing him to the blues-rock of the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones.
And while he was very attracted to the music around him, Margulis focused his interest in design and drafting. He won a landscape competition when he was in his fourth year studying architecture in high school. He took classes at Brookdale Community College while he worked with the City of Long Branch Planning Department, and then earned his bachelor’s and master’s in interior design at Arizona State College in Tempe.
It was there that he also took advantage of another music scene. “Tempe is connected to Phoenix, which is also near Scottsdale, so when I was out in Arizona bands like Gin Blossoms, Phish, and Widespread Panic were going on and the [Grateful] Dead used to play at Compton Terrace [an outdoor venue]. I would see the Dead play there twice a year, so I got to experience a lot of West Coast shows.”
“And for five bucks I got to see Trey Anastasio from five feet away in clubs in Tempe,” he says of the Mercer County-raised guitarist and co-founder of the phenomenally successful band Phish.
At Arizona State Margulis also met his wife, Andrea Jane, or A.J., another interior designer.
The couple moved back to New Jersey in 1993, first to Long Branch and then to Lambertville, where he put his avocational music career on hold and began working for Nancy Dudas and her company, Innovative Commercial Interiors.
“She wanted to retire by 2012 or so, so I bought the company from her in 2013,” he says.
But Margulis also got something else from joining ICI. Dudas helped arrange for Margulis to take a series of lessons with Trenton-area guitarist and studio owner Ernie White. He then fell back into practicing in his time off from ICI.
“Ernie made me understand I had no clue how to play guitar. He helped me get my speed up, and I learned theory and chords from him,” he says. He stopped taking lessons from White in 2013, shortly after he bought the company and became president of ICI.
“I still see Ernie and love watching him play,” says Margulis about his former instructor. “I used to think it was funny because I was playing in the same bars that Ernie was playing in,” noting once he formed Box O’ Rox, his band would occasionally get bookings at places like the Ivy in Hamilton, the Ivy Inn on Nassau Street in Princeton, Hillbilly Hall in Ringoes, and more recently, John & Peter’s in New Hope.
Thinking back on days in Sea Bright, Margulis says he not only jammed with Jason Federici and occasionally his famous father, Danny, but he also got to know jazz guitarist Al Caiola.
And while Danny Federici had an impact on Margulis, “He never gave us any advice. But Al Caiola, who played with Frank Sinatra for many years, his condo was across from Danny’s, and he would hear me hacking away through the window when he was bringing out his garbage. One day Al knocked on my door and said, ‘I can give you some lessons.’ So Al got me good enough to play [jazz standard] ‘Autumn Leaves.’ That was an experience for me. Being so young at the time, I didn’t realize how special it was.”
Then the topic moves to his own band playing, starting with the pre-Box O’ Rox group Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors — the band that almost destroyed his marriage.
“We were playing out a lot, down at the shore, to the point where my wife finally said: ‘You’ve got to pick: You can pick the band, or you can pick me.’ So I picked her, which is not real rock ‘n’ roll, I understand,” he quickly added.
In 2010 he took a more laid-back approach and founded Box O’ Rox in his basement. He says it started out innocently enough, just jamming in the basement with his friend Kyle Barich of CDM Princeton, a healthcare advertising agency. Then they were joined by another hobby guitarist, Ned Weintraub, who works in sales at Virtual Instruments, an IT services company. Weintraub saw there were already two guitarists, so he decided to play bass. They added two other avocational musicians, Peter Nostrand of Hillsborough, a partner at RBC Cable Technologies, and finally, drummer Steve Isaacson, president of Prosthodontics of Princeton.
“We would just play around in the basement for fun,” Margulis says, “and then I began playing some of the original songs I learned back in college, and Kyle started playing some of his original songs. The band became a success because all the wives were friends; they would go drink wine upstairs and we would jam in my basement.”
“We try to be as fun as possible. We’re playing familiar stuff to most people, but we throw our own twists into these tunes,” he says.
The repertoire includes classic tunes from Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, The Band, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and now-classic rock tunes from the 1980s like Elvis Costello’s “What’s So Funny ’Bout Peace Love and Understanding?”
Although Box O’ Rox has never had an ambitious schedule of live performances in clubs — being busy professionals — they do seek out philanthropic gigs, like one they did last year for the nonprofit Dress For Success program. They invite friends and associates to occasional club gigs, which typically don’t pay much.
Margulis — who was involved in booking music for Pennington Days and serves as the volunteer chairman of Pennington’s Parks and Recreation Commission — handles most of the band’s bookings and in a way makes Box O’ Rox a musical extension of the rearranging he did in his bedroom years ago.
Brett Margulis and Box O’ Rox, Pennington Day, Downtown Pennington Borough. Saturday, May 18, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. www.penningtonday.org