While we mostly interview artists for our NoiseTrade One-on-Ones, it's always an interesting experience to interview someone from the legions of off-stage roles that encompass the music industry. Allan Pepper co-founded the legendary Greenwich Village music club The Bottom Line in 1974. Pepper ran The Bottom Line (along with the other co-founder Stanley Snadowsky) in the bustling New York City music scene for an impressive (and absolutely star-studded) 30-year run. We chatted with Pepper about The Bottom Line's earliest days, The Bottom Line Archive Series releases, and Bruce Springsteen's mythical pre-Born to Run 10-show stand at the club in the summer of 1975.
NoiseTrade: When you first opened The Bottom Line back in 1974, there’s no way that you could’ve envisioned the depth and range of talent that would continually grace its stage over the next three decades. What was the initial vibe of the club like upon first opening its doors?
Allan Pepper: When people ask me about the success of the club, I always talk about the fact that the stage was blessed on opening night by three musical wizards. There was a jam with Dr. John, Stevie Wonder, and Johnny Winter in front of an audience that included Mick Jagger, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Don Kirshner, Rip Torn, Geraldine Page, James Darren, Charles Mingus, Janis Ian, and a host of other notable celebrities. Because of the opening night notoriety, we kind of hit the ground running.
The other thing that always drew attention was that our booking policy was so varied. We always wanted to present the best talent of the time that was available. And because of the range of music, it always kept people curious. We never envisioned ourselves as a specific kind of room – not as a jazz club or rock club or a cabaret. We always saw ourselves as a music room open to booking beyond one specific genre.
NT: Do you remember the first moment or the first artist that made you say “Hold on, I think we’ve really got something special going on here at The Bottom Line”?
Pepper: When we opened The Bottom Line, Stanley and I were both 31. To finally open the club was a dream come true for both of us. We had been working towards that goal since our early 20s. So when that opening night jam occurred that I referenced in your first question, and those sparks coming off that stage in front of this kind of audience, I turned to Stanley and said, “Holy shit, this is just the first night”.
At the time we opened, clubs in general booked long engagements - meaning a week to two weeks at a time - and we wanted to be more flexible. We would book an act for as many days as they could be available. I didn’t know if that would work or not. One day, I got a call to see if we would be interested in booking Rick Nelson for a Friday and Saturday night, and then 10 minutes later, I got a call from a different agent asking if I would be interested in booking The Strawbs for the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the same week. It was at that moment that I knew our approach was going to work.
NT: As a huge Springsteen fan, his 10-sold-out-show stand at The Bottom Line in August of 1975 is pure musical mythos for me. What can you tell us anything about those 10 career-launching shows and about what you remember of that inexhaustible, 26-year-old, pre-stardom Bruce and his E Street Band?
Pepper: The first thing I can tell you is that it was every bit as magical as everybody said it was. The Born To Run Tour was the second time Bruce appeared at the club. He played at the club a year before that. Truthfully, on that first engagement, I didn’t get it. Part of it was because his show was evolving. And in fact, it wasn’t the E Street Band that we know today. And so, on this engagement a year later, when I was bringing in the crowd that had been waiting outside, a couple at the head of the line said Bruce Springsteen had ruined live music. I asked them what they meant by that, and they said, since they had seen him, they couldn’t go and see anyone else live because no one else could measure up. After seeing Bruce’s 10 shows, I knew exactly what they meant.
NT: The Bottom Line was known to be an intimate venue with an “official” seating capacity of 400. As it was routinely known to run well over that number, what were some of the most packed-out shows that you remember?
Pepper: Legion of Mary with Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders, David Bromberg, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Springsteen's Born To Run tour, and Billy Idol – to name a few. The Legion of Mary show was our first real experience with that kind of overflow audience. People camped out on the street the night before to buy tickets. I actually slept at the venue that night. I figured, if they were gonna do it, so would I. I also wanted to make sure tickets went on sale when they were supposed to.
NT: Although the club closed in 2004, you have recently reignited the spirit of the legendary venue with The Bottom Line Archive Series. You released three live albums this past March and have four more planned for release on June 30 (Harry Chapin, Janis Ian, and two star-studded compilations featuring Joey Ramone, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, and more). How do you go about selecting which shows to releases and what can we expect from The Bottom Line Archive Series going forward?
Pepper: There are many factors that go into making these decisions. The physical shape of the tape (some have mold or some disintegrate when you pick them up), the sonic quality of the tape (how the tape actually sounds – meaning can you hear stuff clearly), and the performance on the tape. We have some tapes that we would not release because Gregg Bendian, the series producer and a musician himself, felt the performances were not up to a level that the artist would be comfortable with. He has transferred 3 different tapes we didn’t even send to the artist for their approval, because Gregg, as a musician and producer, did not feel they would be happy with their level of performance.
There’s a lot of consideration for how an artist sounds when making a decision as to what will be released. And yet, there are other tapes where the performances aren’t pristine, but the spirit and energy of the show captures something very special and that’s worth preserving. And then of course, you have to be able to get the rights to these performances which sometimes go beyond the musicians themselves. Currently, we are in discussions with either the artist manager or estates of some of the following: Waylon Jennings, Rory Gallagher, John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, Jack Bruce, and Doc Watson.
NT: Finally, there have been countless examples of shows played at The Bottom Line that are important to the overarching musical culture-at-large. However, on a truly personal level, what’s an example of a moment at The Bottom Line that you have held the closest and in the fondest light over all these years?
Pepper: There are the obvious ones – the opening night with Dr. John, and certainly Bruce Springsteen and of course Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Meatloaf, Lyle Lovett, and Doc Watson, but there’s also Barry Manilow’s first appearance, Dolly Parton, Flo & Eddie, and most certainly, the first production of Leader of the Pack, every episode of In Their Own Words, and without a doubt, the Downtown Messiah.
While Nate Ruess has made quite a name for himself as the lead singer of the Grammy-award winning band fun., yesterday’s release of his debut solo album Grand Romantic marks the beginning of a brand new chapter in the eclectic frontman’s musical journey. Not only can you trace some of those sonic steps through his exclusive NoiseTrade sampler A Nate Ruess Retrospective (featuring new solo single “Take It Back,” two fun. songs, and a track from his pre-fun. band The Format), but you can also delve deeper into Ruess’ new solo adventure with our intimate and enlightening NoiseTrade One-on-One Interview as well.
NoiseTrade: Grand Romantic has such a diverse sonic range – sound collage-based pop, emotive piano ballads, a little vintage country crooning, cinematic strings, and arena-ready, singalong choruses. Did this diversity come from the unencumbered experimental atmosphere of recording as a solo artist or has it just always been mixing around in your head ready to come out?
Nate Ruess: I've never felt the need to be genre specific and fortunately I've always been in bands with people who think the same way. With that being said, I think it was easier for me in the writing process to allow these songs to be whatever I wanted because I didn't have to tailor certain things around other musicians specifically. That itself can be a blessing and a curse. I think the excitement of trying new things made it much more a blessing for this album.
NT: In February you told Rolling Stone that you decided to make a solo record because “This is the first time I’ve been comfortable in my own skin.” What flipped that internal switch for you and how did that realization manifest itself?
Ruess: I like to think time has made me that way more than anything else. I can point to certain relationships or the surprising success of Some Nights as well, but more so it's just all of life's experiences (good or bad) accumulating and leaving me no choice but to accept who I am - whoever that is.
NT: Did the pressures and expectations to try and top the huge success of Some Nights impact your decision to go solo in any way?
Ruess: The success definitely helped. A lot of goals I didn't even know I had were checked off once we put Some Nights to bed. That made me look around and think, "what's something new I can accomplish?"
NT: Just a week or two ago you played your very first live set as a solo artist (with backing band “The Band Romantic”). How did it feel to take these songs out of the studio and set them free into the wild?
Ruess: So incredible. I'm lucky to have such a great band behind me (I've always felt very fortunate to have the people I've played with throughout). They took it upon themselves to really learn everything and I think they love the music. It makes it even easier when you enjoy what you're playing every night. That, coupled with an amazing crew that makes us sound great, no matter the weirdness of a room. Plus, Jeff Bhasker came in during our week of rehearsals (as Musical Director) and MD'd like he used to with Kanye. I think that really helped with the backing vocals and people knowing exactly how something was played, getting it from the guy who played so much of the stuff on the album.
NT: Your song “Take It Back” features a wonderfully Wilco-esque guitar solo from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. How did that pairing come about and are you a Wilco fan at all?
Ruess: Wilco is my favorite band of the last 15 or so years. I shouted out my favorite song of theirs ("More like the Moon") in a Rolling Stone interview years ago and Jeff Tweedy reached out about possibly collaborating. I think both of our schedules disallowed us to ever meet up. But once “Take It Back” was written, I intentionally left a gap just for him. Fortunately, he filled it with what ended up being my favorite part of the album.
NT: Your A Nate Ruess Retrospective NoiseTrade sampler features a new solo track (“Take It Back” from Grand Romantic), two fun. songs (“Carry On” and “The Gambler”), and “Oceans” from your pre-fun. band The Format. Is the intention here to craft a bit of a narrative arc of your musical career or are these just some of your favorite moments from your catalog?
Ruess: Great question. I think these are just a few of my favorite moments. As a songwriter - not just on Grand Romantic - but for a career, I've wanted to be diverse, because my taste and what inspires is so eclectic, and I feel like this is a nice eclectic bunch of songs I've written over the last 10 years.
Ingrid Michaelson is currently out on the road for A Summer Night Out Tour - her biggest tour yet - and we are so excited to partner with her to celebrate the summer shenanigans. Not only is she offering a free download of A Summer Night Out Tour Sampler, but we also did an interview with her to chat about the scope of these outdoor shows, her hilarious star-studded music video for “Time Machine,” and her own memories of outdoor shows as an audience member.
NoiseTrade: Many of the stops on your “A Summer Night Out” tour will be outdoor venues. For these outdoor concerts, do you have to change up your show in any way or do you have to be mindful of anything that’s not an issue during your normal indoor shows?
Ingrid Michaelson: Yeah, we’ve actually changed up the show a lot due to the scope of these venues and the size of them. For example, this is the first time we’re traveling around with a lighting rig and a stage set that has to be built and broken down every day. The shows themselves are just going to be amped up. In terms of being outside, it does just make things feel so much bigger. There’s no ceiling and there’s no walls, so we’ve just been focusing on making the show bigger and making it more of an event. The smaller, intimate things can get swallowed up in outdoor venues, so overall we’re just trying to step it up and have a party at every venue.
NT: That makes sense. Does that mean you’ll be changing up the arrangements for any of your songs or are there any new covers that you’ll be unveiling for the first time at these shows?
Michaelson: Yes! We’re actually doing a lot of older songs in newer arrangements. We’re also doing some surprise covers and I’ve got some special guests showing up along the way. It’s going to be different from any other show we’ve had so far. It’s going to be really fun and I’m excited!
NT: Two of the concerts - a co-headlining show with Ben Folds at Red Rocks on June 21 and Central Park on June 29 – seem like they’re going to pretty memorable gigs. Are either one of these “firsts” for you?
Michaelson: I actually played Central Park last year. That was my first time there. It was a beautiful night, the weather was perfect, it was sold out, and it was the kind of show that I wish I could just do over and over and over again. So, I’m praying for great weather again and I’m really excited about going back. New York is my home and there’s nothing like playing a sold out show in your home town.
I’ve played Red Rocks before but I’ve never gotten to share the stage with Ben Folds. For that show, we’re playing with the Colorado Symphony, which is going to be incredible! I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, you know? The venue itself is so amazing and then getting to play with someone that I idolized growing up and then also getting to play a symphony… I think that’s going to be a highlight, not just of this tour, but of my entire musical career.
NT: Have you guys planned out what you’re going to do yet? Will it be two different sets or will you be playing a bunch of song together?
Michaelson: We’re doing two different sets but I’m hoping we’re going to get to do some stuff together. We haven’t really figured it out yet. I know so many of his songs that I may just invite myself on stage for his set (laughs).
NT: That works! Since one of the tracks on your NoiseTrade sampler is “Time Machine”, I have to ask you about your music video for it. Where did the concept come from and how did you go about getting all of those actors and comedians to play along (Rainn Wilson, Matt Jones, Jorge Garcia, Rob Delaney, Steve Agee, Brian Baumgartner, Dave Koechner, Garrett Dillahunt and Donald Faison)?
Michaelson: I came up with the idea – funny, goofy guys upstaging me at every turn in all these different scenarios – and I got the idea to Rainn Wilson whose production company (Soul Pancake) produced the video. Rainn got some people and I asked a couple people. I think it’s such a fun idea and it was just a couple of hours of work and then you’re done. We did it two days and it was such a fun shoot.
NT: Yeah, you looked like you were having just a little bit of fun doing it. Do you like doing music videos or are they a necessary evil of the job?
Michaelson: I think some can be a necessary evil. It depends on how you’re doing them. I’m having fun with them because they’re my ideas, they’re from my brain. To actually think of something and then have it come to fruition is awesome.
NT: Between the “Time Machine” video and your most recent hilarious appearance on the Nerdist podcast, I’m sensing you have a comedic side that’s trying to bust out. Are you thinking of doing any stand-up or anything like that on the new tour?
Michaelson: (Laughs) I don’t think I’ll ever do stand-up because that just takes such balls to do. I don’t even know how people do that. I do like making people laugh when I’m on stage. That’s a fun part of the show for me.
Actually, my manager and I have been focusing more on the idea of getting involved in some sort of comedic endeavor – podcasting, acting, whatever. It’s hard because with my music I have a very specific schedule but it’s definitely something that I enjoy doing. I do want to push it further though and try to find the right fit for my voice in that area.
NT: Final question here... Do you have any memories of outdoor concerts that you went to as a kid or teenager from a fan’s perspective?
Michaelson: Oh yeah! My first concert that I ever went to was at this big outdoor venue in New Jersey. I went to see the band Live. I was in sixth grade and I had never been to a concert before, let alone one so big. I had been to classical recitals and things like that, but I had never seen a rock concert, outside, with 20,000 other people. Before that, I knew I had wanted to be in theater and be on stage but I never considered even being a musician until I was in college. So, it’s not like I sat there and thought “Wow, this is something I really want to do.” But I do remember being so mesmerized and thinking it was so cool.