As many of you readers know, Missoula recently got some national exposure by appearing in the October issue of Spin magazine, the one that’s currently on newsstands. From reading the Kaimin and listening to the Craig and Al show on Z-100, you might also have heard that I, the person who wrote it, didn’t much care for the piece that actually ran.
And I don’t. But I guess that’s what I get for writing for a publication that seems to pride itself on the way it purées the distinctive voice of every contributor to the same indistinct, cynical, jaded hipster mush. I saw it happening, too, even as I wrote my way through a fifth dumbed-down draft at the request of some whinnying sub-editor who didn’t “get” anything that wasn’t predigested into that smarmy and ubiquitous Spin tone. And yet I went along with it anyway, so I guess it’s my fault.
I’m not usually so petulant or arrogant about things I write. But in a perverse way, I’m actually proud that it took five drafts for Spin to trim enough fins and flippers off the original piece to turn it into another fish stick to go with all the other partially-hydrogenated fingers of bland cod cake in their college towns feature.
I kept the money, by the way. Slim compensation, I figure, for flushing a little piece of my soul—and, I daresay, a little piece of Missoula’s, too—down the corporate crapper, but compensation nonetheless. I’ll buy you all a beer next time I see you, how ’bout that?
Anyway, I already feel appreciated enough for doing my little part to keep Missoula on the map. The local map, that is—the one in your phone book. It’s my job, for crying out loud. There are many others who deserve way more recognition than they get.
So, for this year’s installment of our annual Rocktober issue, we chose to include some of the holder-uppers in the Missoula rock scene, the behind-the-scenes types who deserve your applause for the time and energy they put into keeping the scene as vibrant as it is. Just last week, there was a piece in The Inlander, Spokane’s equivalent of the Independent, bemoaning the state of the music scene there and wondering what Spokane could learn from the flourishing rock scene just across the mountains to the east. Here, we think, are a couple of individuals who could teach them a thing or two.
Plus about 500 percent of your USRDA of lurid filth. It’s only rock ’n’ roll, but we like it.
by Andy Smetanka
The mind behind local label Wäntage USA
Sitting inside Josh Vanek’s tastefully decorated house, you’d never suppose that he is Missoula’s rock record guru. You might expect a punk rock record-maker to live in a mess of records, pizza boxes and partially torn Black Flag posters. But while Vanek is the go-to guy for local recordings, he admits that he is not a musician, and not so much a punk rocker as a professional music votary. Like his house, he’s clean-cut and put-together. As Vanek tells it, he’s into the local rock scene for the music, and not for the associated style. “I think I’d be in a band if I was into the recognition,” he says.
Vanek is the owner and founder of the Wäntage USA label, the agent behind rock records by Volumen, International Playboys, Last of the Juanitas, Drunk Horse and Fireballs of Freedom, just to name a few. Vanek explains his role in the recording and production process.
“Doing a label is not recording bands,” Vanek says. “It’s figuring it out so that the bands can get it together to do that. It’s mostly promotion—setting up recording times, encouraging bands to record at good places, dealing with the pressing plant, making sure that the master tapes are mastered correctly, getting all of the artwork together. So it’s not the most hands-on job in music. I’m never twisting the knobs. I’m the go-between.”
Vanek began the Wäntage label in 1994 with a 12-inch vinyl compilation titled Want Comp Uno. Interestingly enough, a band on that first record, Vi Thompson Overdrive, was nearly sued by the late Missoula TV personality they named themselves after. Despite that shaky beginning, Vanek continues to enjoy working with vinyl today, although he has also branched out into CDs.
“I like the format of the seven-inch,” Vanek says. “The cost of making them has gone up, so vinyl is not the shrewdest proposition. You sort of have to be in love with it.”
And while Vanek has made some money on a few Wäntage releases, he affirms that the label is far from being a profit-seeking machine.
“I shoot for breaking even,” he says. “It’s more about the fun side of it. Punk rock is much better on ideology than business sense. I try to keep it as tightly managed as possible, but I just hope to break even and realize that, bottom line, money isn’t the reason I got into this.”
The reason Vanek did “get into this” is to expose his idea of exciting, creative music to wider audiences. Wäntage has encountered a degree of success. A single by the Champs, for instance, has been re-pressed three times, a good sign for any indie label. Also, several Wäntage releases have made their way to France, Japan, Germany and even the former Yugoslav republics. “It’s crazy for me to think that somebody in Bosnia now knows about the Last of the Juanitas, you know?” says Vanek.
These days, Wäntage is making bold new moves within the Missoula rock scene. This past June marked the first Wäntage Total Fest. The rock gathering drew about 300 people to Jay’s (both Upstairs and down), where seven bands took turns rocking the small, homey venue. Five of the seven Total Fest bands had put out at least one record with Wäntage.
As for the future, Vanek has big plans for his label, including the release of a compilation LP featuring four bands: Fireballs of Freedom, Federation X, Drunk Horse and the Cherry Valence. The rub? Each band has to come up with a riff or two and then send it to the other bands. So, the end result will be a Wäntage record with 16 very different songs based on the same four riffs.
Vanek’s “ultimate dream” is to work on a kind of music exchange program, not just for music but for touring bands as well. “I’d like to create a network of independent music supporters,” Vanek says. “It already exists to some extent, but I’d like to see a full-out exchange where bands sponsor one another and book tours for one another. That, to me, would be a total success.”
As for the direction of Missoula’s rock scene, Vanek states, “I always hope that Missoula gets weirder. I like to see bands that practice a lot, bands that are enthusiastic and original. There’s lots of that going on right now, but I think there can always be more.”
Despite being the only guy in Missoula currently putting out rock records (aside from self-releasers), Vanek remains modest. When asked how he feels about being described as a pillar of the Missoula rock community, he replies, “I don’t mind architectural comparisons.” A second later, he jokes, “I might prefer teetering obelisk to pillar, if possible.”
by Mike Keefe-Feldman
The guy who answers when bands call
For Colin Hickey, simple is beautiful. The cherubic singer for the International Playboys draws a small wage for booking shows, too, claiming around 15 hours a week for fielding phone calls and returning e-mails and wheeling and dealing to solidify 25 or more nights of multi-band rock shows every month at Jay’s Upstairs. He promises his bands little apart from a few dozen flyers and to help promote their show, but the one-man Welcome Wagon Hickey rolls out for most of his acts is enough to make all of them want to come back and do business again.
Sometimes he takes a cut from the proceeds, but rarely more than $20, even when it’s “his” show and the event takes in far more than the amount he personally had to put up for the guarantee. Like a doctor, he says, he’s on call 24 hours a day. But, meager wage aside, the only thing he expects in return is for the bands and booking agents to return the favors he’s extended to them, if they can, the next time the International Playboys blows through their town.
“You scratch somebody’s back, they scratch yours,” Hickey says. “I call someone up and they’re like, ‘You’re the guy from Jay’s? Hell yeah, we’ll give you a show.’ It might be someone who had called me up earlier and asked, ‘Hey, can my little brother’s band play at Jay’s next week?’ So we’ll swap.
“I’m not really in it for the money,” he continues. “I’m in it for the networking and the meeting bands, which is how I book all the tours that I book.”
In the two years he’s been booking for Jay’s, Hickey has turned a notoriously chaotic booking system into his personal black book of connections coast to coast for picking up shows at every stop along the Playboys’ chosen route. And all of this on top of working 40 hours a week slinging grub at the Dinosaur Cafe.
“I work constantly,” Hickey says. “It’s what I was born to do. I got off work today and answered five e-mails and seven phone calls for bands. And booked a tour for another band, and then made posters. I pretty much come home from work, put on a different pair of pants, and then start working again.”
“But I’ve never had to do anything I didn’t want to,” he continues. “Moneywise, I go out of my way to come up with the guarantee. Otherwise, ‘out of my way’ means I get to Jay’s when it opens and schmooze with the band, ask them if they need a drink. Hang out and treat them nice.”
At the Jay’s level, Hickey says, dealing with mostly small bands by verbal agreement, written contracts are relatively rare. Even contract riders—those pampered royal edicts by which a band like, say, Van Halen can refuse to play if the promoter fails to provide three pounds of M&Ms with the brown ones removed—are a mere formality.
“I’m dealing one right now that demands certain types of peanut butter,” says Hickey, adding that other riders he’s dealt with have demanded things like deli trays with extra carrots but no cucumber, and even firewood. Firewood? “I usually send them back with everything blacked out except drink tickets, maybe a couple of shots, and a vegetarian dinner. And the vegetarian dinner is usually just a stew that Jay’s [Jay LaFlesch, owner of the club] wife makes. And they always love it.
“It’s because of booking agents,” Hickey says of the riders. “Most bands really don’t care, but I understand why they have riders. If the Playboys had a real booking agent and some more press behind us, we’d ask for all kinds of shit. Because once in a while you play a club that will actually do this crap—like have only red Skittles. And then you get them and you just laugh and throw them away.”
Even with three or more occasionally mismatched bands on each bill, Hickey sometimes has to turn acts away. But in addition to booking Jay’s shows, he also runs a kind of referral service for other clubs in town, pointing bands in the direction of the Ritz or the Top Hat if he thinks they’d be a better fit for those venues. Does he ever get burned out with all the band stuff?
“Sometimes I go through a week where I don’t want to deal with answering the phone or making flyers,” he says. “But then I’ll come down and be blown away by a band I didn’t really expect much from. “And sometimes I lose money,” he shrugs, “But I also expect to. For me, part of booking is thinking, ‘Man, I know this is so-and-so’s favorite band ever, and I can actually bring them here!’ Losing a hundred dollars and actually knowing that even 10 people saw that show and were so utterly happy, that’s kinda cool.”
Read all about Jay’s sordid contributions to Missoula rock history in Spotlight.
by Andy Smetanka
The Blue Heron’s man of the house
Blue Heron owner Kevin Head hasn’t played the father figure to a burgeoning, experimental rock scene like CBGB’s Hilly Kristal. He hasn’t redefined the role of the rock club like the Whiskey A-Go-Go’s Elmer Valentine. He isn’t even a flamboyant, cokehead like Studio 54’s Steve Rubell. More George Castanza than rock ’n’ roll radical, the 47-year-old admits he doesn’t know what’s hip.
“The difference between what I knew as cool growing up and what’s cool now for the 21 to 30 crowd is completely different,” says Head. “And I know that. I recognize that every generation has to redefine themselves with their music. And what’s happening now is maybe something that I just don’t know about.”
The up-for-sale venue’s owner may struggle with the fickle tastes of those pesky kids, but that didn’t hinder the Blue Heron from bringing in the town’s best mid-size rock shows over the last two years including Keller Williams, the Gourds, Michelle Shocked and Porterhouse. So while the quality of the shows hasn’t hurt the Heron, the quantity certainly has. Mapping the territory of finding enough bands at the right price for the right fans has been a challenge.
“It’s a lot harder and a lot tougher than you think,” says Head. “Not only do you have to figure out how to satisfy the bands, but you have to satisfy the fans, the people who want to come in and dance and see good music. And then you have to make enough money at it, then do it time and time again.”
A venue the size of the Heron has a huge overhead compared to other, smaller Missoula clubs. The costs of advertising, sound, food and drinks for the band and other expenses, Head says, makes putting on any show at least a $600 investment. This means clubs like the Blue Heron charge bigger covers.
“Missoula, God love it and I love it, is kind of spoiled,” Head says. “We like our stuff inexpensive and we want a lot of it. We’re asking $15 or $20 a band and other places have bands, good bands, for $3 or $5. It can be hard.”
It’s not entirely a matter of overhead costs, however. To compound the problem of recouping on a show, the Blue Heron doesn’t have an all-beverage liquor license and can only serve beer and wine.
“It’s the difference between a $3,000 night and $5,000 or $6,000 night at the bar,” says Head. “Often, if people are waiting, they will go next door for a drink or maybe two drinks.”
Also, the Heron is only open five nights a week. Fostering a group of regulars who want to know they can go in anytime is difficult. And then there is the curse.
During the half decade before the Blue Heron occupied the spot, both the Moose and 140 West Pine failed at making Missoula’s dream of the big rock club happen. They all had different problems, but the result was the same—not enough customers.
“There are people who say it’s haunted,” says Head, adding that past employees at the venue have reported mad laughter from the kitchen and rattling downstairs. “Haunted maybe, but cursed, well—I don’t think so.”
Whatever the reason—voodoo hex, bad economy or lack of liquor—Missoula just can’t seem to maintain those intimate but exciting mid-sized rock ’n’ roll shows
by Jed Gottlieb