Wednesday, April 10, 2013

1 INTERVIEW: Jodi Ecklund of Chop Suey

“I just want it to be a rock and roll city again.  That’s what I hope for.”   

From the late nineties into the first few years of the new millenium, a venerable dive bar and rock/metal venue known as The Breakroom inhabited the current location of Capitol Hill’s Chop Suey on the corner of 14th and Madison.  A short walk from what could have been arguably lauded as the cultural center of Seattle—the short vein transecting the hill and flowing down Pike and Pine streets toward Downtown—The Breakroom put on many of the best shows offered during the “post-grunge” years. 

At the time, The Stranger columnist, Kathleen Wilson, wrote, “What sets the club apart is its unyielding dedication to presenting great bills that serve two purposes: providing bands with a comfortable, supportive place to play, and providing audiences with shows that do not offend their sensibilities.”  It’s strange to read that now, as the ensuing years since The Breakroom shut its doors in 2002 saw a distinct lack of congenial and supportive venues around town (with some notable exceptions, such as a then fresh-faced Funhouse).  Instead, a number of clubs were facing harder times, especially those offering rock line-ups, and began resorting to different booking angles and strategies.  This resulted in more bottom-line approach to talent-buying, and a generally dog-eat-dog temperament among the heavy music community.
In recent years, these tensions have dissipated to a great degree, with a clear resurgence of loud music and an increasing support system involving bands and showgoers alike.  One club that has adeptly caught on to this current trend is Chop Suey.  With the recent hiring of talent buyer, Jodi Ecklund, a series of rapid changes have occurred to not only increase its viability as a destination, but also to bring the location back to the very same values reflected in Ms. Wilson’s sentiment above.
Before a recent show featuring Vancouver’s raging Nu Sensae, I bent Jodi’s ear for a bit about what she had walked into when taking the job, what she sees happening in the local music scene, and where she hopes to take Chop Suey in the future.
“We made some changes internally, and now we have a pretty rockin’ team.”

After returning from a few years spent in the Bay Area last April, Jodi walked into Chop Suey looking for some part-time work, having set up a few successful events at the venue in the past.  Almost immediately, she noticed a few things that could change, but felt some trepidation about doing it herself, “They started to do a lot of DJs and house and it just seemed like they were taking whatever came their way and not being to creative about it.  I was just, like, ‘This place should be a rock club…’ I realized I couldn’t make any kind of changes with the club that I wanted to without it being full time.”  By October, Chop Suey owner, Koichi Tanaka, had offered her the full-time position.

Quickly accepting the offer, she had already identified many of the existing issues surrounding the business of the club and made some immediate changes, including the hiring of motivated young intern, Alex Barr, along with talent scout Brandon Rowley, and the implementation of a more proactive approach to booking and show promotion, “One thing that drastically had to change was the marketing; there was no marketing in place…So now what’s happening is when we discuss a show, we’re thinking about all the ways we can market that show.  That was never being done before. And, I mean, it doesn’t matter how good of a show it is—if it’s not being promoted right, no one’s gonna know about it, no one’s gonna come… I believe in ‘grass roots’ promoting.”  This new approach included a focus on the use of social media, building relationships with businesses and print media for posters and advertising, and even reaching out to labels directly to help promote their touring bands as they would swing through town. “I’m trying to get more creative in different ways to reach our audience, and that’s a big thing that’s helped us quite a bit.” 

She praises the knowledge base and drive of her scouting team to find bands, and stay on the cutting edge.  “We make hit lists together, all of us: me, Alex, and Brandon now.  We just kinda go after things; we can’t wait for it to just fall in our laps, you know?”  Alex plays in a popular local band, and Brandon  retains ownership of a record store in Idaho, giving them both involvement in, and deep access to the “outside” music world removed from any of the cliquish isolation that tends to manifest in clubs with weary or just less active booking agents.

From an audience perspective, one noticeable change has been an improvement in the room's sound.  Since bringing in the PA formerly used at the Crocodile, the mixes have been better and the bands can now definitely be heard.  She is hoping this is something that bands begin to notice, as well as the fans, “I think that it was just, like, everybody had kinda forgotten about us—because of the type of music that was in here, and all the DJs and all that—I think they kind of forgot, and they got it stuck in their head that it didn’t sound good here, you know?”
“I’m really passionate about making sure that we’re just…you know, nice!”

Despite what goes on behind the scenes at the venue, Jodi stresses that her main concern with the business is to adhere to a relaxed philosophy that holds both band and fan enjoyment as the highest priority.  “I think what also sets us apart is that I’m big on, like, I don’t wanna make bands start at 9 o’clock if there’s nobody here – I’m not a real stickler for ‘the rules.’” She draws a direct connection between how comfortable and welcome bands feel when they play somewhere and the quality of the show they perform, which is reflected in the mood and excitement of the patrons who will, in turn, be more or less likely to buy another round or two, stick around, and/or make a return trip.  She excitedly bursts out, “I’m a big fan of hospitality...we make all our money on drinking, we don’t make it on the artists, and we’re not trying to.  But the best things you can do for bands, and the people you want to be a part of what you’re doing is, you know, give ‘em some beers!”  This seems logical, but it flies in the face of the more venue-centric system that has crept into the local music industry over the years.

A large part of her compassion towards the musicians may be due to the fact that she is first and foremost a music fan, and knows what she wants to see, “I also come to every show I book… I realize that at least I’m booking things that I like!” She smiles, “And that’s important to me—I gotta be booking what I want if I’m gonna be here. But I think that’s something that was missing, you know, even when I play music: you don’t see the promoter, or the booking person at most shows.  The other guy that you see at shows all the time?  If I go to a show at the Crocodile, Hunter [Motto, talent buyer for the Croc]’s at the shows, every night.  I think that goes a long ways, you know?  Like, be there to shake their hands, build rapport, buy ‘em an extra couple beers, if that’s what it takes, but you want the people coming back, and you want them to tell their friends, and I think that’s what’s happening…”  Though she repeatedly praises clubs that are doing things the right way, there is a definite competetive element in her line of work, and she’s proud of the fact that they are able to offer some of, if not the fairest room rates for the capacity the Chop Suey can hold.  It falls in line with her assertion that giving the bands a break will pay off in the long run.

In return, this allows her to appeal directly to the folks walking in the door, “I am very passionate about keeping ticket prices down.  I figure, let the bar eat that, you know, couple hundred bucks, or whatever, so people come through the door and they’ll buy two extra beers.”  Looking back over the last 10 years, it is the clubs that worked hardest to appease these two fronts, rather than their bottom line, that managed to stay afloat, despite the recessions and a somewhat apathetic public attitude towards live music. “We’re trying to set ourselves apart right now, like maybe picking up where the Funhouse [left off],” she explains, referencing the beloved Seattle punk and rock venue that was recently forced to fold, not to lack of business, but to meet the needs of Seattle’s expanding condominium development wave. 

Though she likes to discuss what keeps her excited about the opportunities her efforts will be giving Chop Suey, Jodi remains modest about their position relative to their peers, “I think every venue has their own thing that they’re doing, and I think we’re still trying to define what I think that is for us.”  But, one thing that she can be assured of is that the trajectory is in the right general direction, “It’s nice when you see your hard work’s paying off, you know?  People are caring.  It's great when you look in the room, and you say, ‘There’s people that I want in this room!’”  When people who make it a point to go see the shows worth seeing start seeing shows at your venue, it serves as a decent bellweather for how well you are doing your job, especially when showgoers live in a city with enough nightlife to be such a discerning bunch…
“I think there’s a shift happening in general.”

“You know, I just think that there’s so many cool things going on… there’s something good going on in Seattle every night, I think,” she blithely offers, as we begin to discuss the current state of the local music scene.  Her personal tastes are made abundantly clear, as she goes on to praise various elements of the heavy music scene, from the Good To Die Records roster to the burgeoning, female-fronted noise punk scene out of Vancouver, B.C. “It almost feels like…even riot girl kind of stuff is coming back!” she almost whispers, as if stating it too loudly might jinx the movement.  Indeed, the recent growth in the PNW rock scene seems almost too good to be true, as these things typically meet an inglorious demise just as they start to coalesce, either by dissipating into fad-like irrelevance, or getting co-opted by a lower common denominator – which may just be what is currently happening to the indie explosion of the mid-’00s that kept heavier rock shows relegated to smaller, lower-profile venues.  Perhaps she is not so alone when she decries the "folkie" hegemony and optimistically adds, “I mean, I’m just so sick of hearing, like, these sad songs, and, you know, I just wanna see girls get up and have balls!…and there’s these bands!” she motions towards the stage, where Nu Sensae has set up their massive rig, “It’s being resurrected.”

When asked about how Chop Suey is looking to seize this opportunity and further help the scene thrive, she admits that it isn’t as hard now as it once was, “I think there’s just really good bands, really good talent coming out… and people seem real open-minded, you know, and I haven’t always seen that.  I feel like people are super open-minded to try on new things, like, ‘Yeah, maybe that’ll work,’ instead of being real snobby, like, ‘I only play with these bands, and I only play at these venues…’ it seems like people are more willing to give it a shot.”  This has made it easier to take risks, giving more bands a chance, with the minimal requirement that they simply rock.  And her enthusiasm for the future of the rock scene in Seattle is infectious.  It’s the kind of cheerleading that has been rampant amongst fans, musicians, bloggers, and all those involved over just the last few years.
Though she also admits that they have to keep a few of the regular DJ nights they have been hosting for years to help pay the bills on otherwise slow nights, Jodi is justifiably excited about Chop Suey’s expanding rock line-up over just the next few months.  With bands like Agalloch, Acid Mothers’ Temple, Bleached, Lord Dying, and The Kids, it’s an eclectic mix, to be sure, but it’s a solid one.  She smiles and exclaims in her continually jovial exuberance, “But on top of this, I’m doing the ‘Mo-Wave festival (see below) .  We just added Blackie, which is a Blondie cover band, but they’re all brunettes!”
“It’s so exciting – I might get to go to Japan some day!” 
At some point, Chop Suey General Manager, Hisato Kawaminami, had entered the room with a smile and sat down at his desk to finish up some work before the show.  Jodi asks me if I’m aware of the history of the venue, and they both proceed to relate the story of Koichi Tanaka, and his company, K’s Dream’s, purchase of a flailing Chop Suey in 2008.  Hisato had moved from Japan to Seattle to study English and helped Koichi find the location and start the business. The first few years were predictably difficult, as Hisato learned the business and the reputation of the club had to be built-up nearly from scratch.  As a die-hard rock fan, he is openly relieved to have Jodi around, “She’s making it happen!  Finally!  I feel like, finally, having Jodi on board, it’s going to change.” 
One of the goals for Koichi, when he originally purchased Chop Suey, was to use it to help provide a sort of bridge between Seattle and Japan.  He envisioned sending Seattle rock bands to tour Japan and have a nice Seattle home base for Japanese rock bands starting their U.S. tours.  It is a practice still in place today—Ex-Girlfriends are making their way through the Land of the Rising Sun as of this writing—and has given a number of bands a rare opportunity to see both sides of the Pacific.  This is especially true now that indiscriminate interest in just any old Seattle band (which existed in Japan for some time after the early-‘90s put us on the map) has waned.  There aren’t as many opportunities for smaller U.S. bands to pay off an expensive Japanese tour without assistance, and in many cases, there are roadblocks, as Hisato explains, “Some companies do some shady business, like, ‘Hey, I can book you guys, but you gotta pay…$1500 per person…’  But, we’re trying to eliminate those kind of shady businesses, and send good bands from Seattle to Japan.”  Jodi, especially, is excited about the prospect of traveling at some point during her tenure with the club, “I’ll find some reason [to go]!  Tour manage for a band or something!”
“We want to book shows that everybody wants.”
A low rumble comes down the hall towards the back office where we have been chatting, letting us know that the first band had started to play.  Jodi and Hisato, both smiling, look eager to catch them, and it becomes very apparent why the Chop Suey has been feeling so welcoming and comfortable over the last six months: it’s these guys.  I felt it, and it is why I wanted to talk to Jodi in the first place.  I get it now.  It is these guys, and their whole team.
As I pack up to head up to the bar to grab a tall-boy and check out Haunted Horses, Jodi stands to follow me out and says, “More than anything... I feel like we’re just trying to kinda create a buzz again about the place… and just trying to figure out how to get people back, and excited, and it generally feels like people are right now.” Hisato spins his chair toward me with a grin on his face and launches himself up to exit with us out into the pulsating noise, “Yeah, we are moving forward.  I’m super excited!”
Visit Chop Suey at:
'Mo-Wave begins Friday, April 12th!
Check out what the Stranger says HERE!
Buy tickets HERE!
Day 1:
Hosted By Queen Mookie
DJ's Bmorefree & Amateur Youth
Shearing Pinx (Van. BC)
Glitterbang (SEA)
Addiquit (SD)
My Parade (SEA)
Day 2:
Hosted By Ade
DJ Mister. Sister & KKost
Team Dresch(PDX)
Big Dipper (CHI)
Magic Mouth (PDX)
Night Cadet (SEA)
Erik Blood (SEA)
WishBeard (SEA)
Eighteen Individual Eyes (SEA)
WildRose Stage

Betsy Olson (SEA)
TenderFoot (SEA)
Butcher (SEA/PDX)
Blind Photographers (SEA)
Jordan 'O Jordan (SEA)
Day 3:
Hosted By Robbie Turner
Blackie A Tribute To Blondie (SEA/NYC)
Double Duchess (SF)
Dynasty Handbag (NYC)
The Redwood Plan (SEA)
PonyTime (SEA)
DickBinge (OLY)
Ade (SEA)



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