Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sidewalk Talk Show Online - with Guest Ben Krieger

Thanks for tuning in everyone to the first online Sidewalk Talk Show. We usually do these live on stage at Sidewalk Cafe, but during the club's renovation, I thought we could try some online interviews.

I'm very pleased to have as my first online guest Sidewalk's very own head honcho, Ben Krieger. Welcome Ben.

Hey Herb, glad to be here!

First off, I want to say that I think we solved the problem of finding an appropriate catch phrase for the talk show.

We did?

You brilliantly came up with it last night.

Wait, what did I say?

“Hey Little Buddy, Let's Go”

Heh! You know, that's actually a pretty good one. Let's use it!

Definitely. So, that gets us to the point that the Monday Night Open Mic is now operating in exodus from A Gathering of Tribes on East 3rd Street, and last night was the first night it was held in this new temporary location. How did you feel it went?

It went well. There were 15 performers, which is small compared to what we're used to, but I felt like all the key elements in terms of personalities were there. We had a bit of everything, and people from each "generation" of the Sidewalk scene. I've already had a bunch of inquiries re: next week, so I can't wait to see things build.

I thought it was lots of fun and I liked the intimate feel last night. Because of the people there, in combination with the setting, I really felt comfortable, which enabled me to try some things I might not have with more people around.

That was a great new song. It really opened up the feel of the evening.

Thanks. I always wanted to write and perform a song in the same night and I was glad I was able to do so last night....but really, I just wanted to say that there was a good feeling of comraderie and ultimately some wackiness last night. You guys ended up with an inspired Crabs on Banjo set.

Yeah, it really worked! I really hope the tape Bernard made came out.

So, can you talk a little about what is actually going on at Sidewalk. Any details for us?

I don't know too much. Pini (the SWalk owner) is working on the renovation plans now, and Brian Speaker (sound tech) has been in touch with him regarding upgrades to the backline and sound system. Other than that, I'm trying to keep out of the loop for a few weeks. It's not often that I get to NOT think about the Sidewalk much. I haven't felt like this in almost 3 years.

OK--but I need to ask this because I think some people have been wondering--is there any chance that Sidewalk will close altogether?

No chance at all. There is no way Pini would be spending any amount of money if he wasn't planning on reopening. More importantly, Pini is pretty straightforward about things like this. If he says we're renovating, that's what we're doing.

Cool--let me get back to what you said above--you haven't felt like this in almost 3 years--what do you mean by that?

Booking a music venue is exactly like Tetris. I've talked with other bookers about this and they feel the same way. There's always another week on the horizon, always a potential snag on a particular night, maybe a last-minute cancellation. To be free for 4-6 weeks and know that there is nothing I need to worry about at 94 Avenue A is a huge weight off my shoulders. I care about the club a lot but can't help thinking about it. It never turns off. And right now I feel a bit more relaxed than usual because it's closed.

So, this is a good chance to ask you about what it's like to run Sidewalk, both on a day to day basis and more broadly.

From what you wrote above I see-and it's probably only the tip of the iceberg--that you have lots of day-to-day details to deal with. Do, you also get to think more broadly about how you want to shape things? In other words, do you think about what you want the overall flavor, image, feel of the club to be and do you try to move things in any direction.

The day-to-day can be pretty overwhelming, so it's hard to think about how I want to shape things, but I've been getting better at that. Keep in mind that before Sidewalk, I had never booked a club more than one night a week. So I've grown a lot as a booker, and I've started to put together systems where I keep track of the acts better and can begin to shape events/evenings that are regular, cool events at the club. This is in addition to the antifolk activities. When I started, it was antifolk/not-antifolk. Over the past year I've started to focus more on all of the talented acts at the club who aren't part of that scene, putting together bills that are more cohesive. One act recently told me that the bill I put him on in February was the best bill he's ever been on. I had made a conscious effort to assemble those acts and it felt good to get that feedback. I'm trying to do much more of that.

I just want to run a good club and try new things. That's my basic MO. And I try to maintain the most unique open stage in the city.

I'm not sure what you mean by the "antifolk activities." What is that exactly vs. not-antifolk?

When I got to the Sidewalk, there was this active antifolk scene with festivals, alumni, a history, legacy. I spent a lot of time working with acts on the scene, trying to put together events like I Heart U to maintain the momentum. I booked other acts at the club, but I wasn't as familiar with them. Keep in mind that sometimes I listen to an act online and within 30 seconds I know I want to book them. 3 months later they play their show and it's great. They play again, and again. And if they are consistently playing on nights where I'm off, then 2 years later there are some great acts at the club whose sound I don't know at all. I just hear about it from the sound crew. Meanwhile, I'm catching the Purple Organ a zillion times all over the city simply by hanging out with my friends. So for a while I felt like--especially with my commitments as a father--that there was a large group of amazing acts coming through the Sidewalk who had nothing to do with the antifolk legacy. They were getting booked, but not as thoughtfully as I would have liked. About a year ago I started to focus on changing that.

OK--I see, so it's not just that you're booking acts that you discover at the Open Mic, but other people who approach you or you find elsewhere, or whatever? I guess I never really thought too much about how you book acts other than people you see at the open mic.

A lot of acts approach me online and get booked that way. Sometimes they bring their friends on a bill and I end up booking the friends regularly and separately.

There are some great acts--some of the best, actually--who have never come through the open stage.

Cool. So, I certainly can understand your sense of relief at having a break for a few weeks, but now that you have been at this job for almost three years, how do you feel about it? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Some of both? Do you feel you are providing a service? Do you think that you are contributing something to the world...or what?

I love it. I feel like I'm contributing a service to the people who chose to play there and show up on Mondays. While "draw expectation" is one of those things that artists grumble about, I also feel a huge sense of responsibility towards the staff. I'm in charge of the revenue for a third (symbolically) of the club, and also a lot of the bar traffic. I want to see the staff be able to eat and pay rent. I think performers should have a great place to play. In terms of the sound crew, I think we should always make the artists sound good.

It can be really exhausting. Sometimes the toughest thing about Sidewalk is that I care about it. Because I also care about my family, my health, my art. And when you care about everything in your life, when there isn't anything you are willing to walk away from, it can leave you pretty exhausted. There are times where I wish I made my money cleaning toilets. Because then I could walk away easily if I wanted to. But I'll settle for exhausted.

What do you love about the job?

I love the music and I love bringing people together in positive, meaningful ways. More than anything else, I love those two things.

When you took over the job you were following in the footsteps of He Who is Known as Lach--who certainly had a following and his own style. The Sidewalk had a reputation for hosting the City's leading open mic and we all know of the names of notable artists who emerged from there over the years. When you took over were you intimidated by all this? And, while this may be similar to some of the other things we've already covered, do you think your style is different from Lach's and how?

Lach and I are different in several ways...

First of all, Lach has an incredibly healthy ego and a rock-star amount of confidence. He's really good at talking with pretty much anyone, no matter who they are because, hey...he's Lach. I approached this job a little less confident than that, particularly in terms of the performers who were now notable artists. I certainly felt I could do the job, but - and here's an example - when Regina Spektor used to show up, I was a little nervous talking with her. For Lach, or for anyone who has known her for a long time, she's just Regina. I was nervous. It's taken me a few years to deal with that. Now it's no longer an issue.

I don't see too much of a difference in the way Lach and I run the open stage, but this is because I mostly experienced a post-child, milder Lach. I'm about the same age Lach was when he started things at Sidewalk. I get a sense like he was a bit more of a devil back then.

(The good thing about conducting an interview via chat is that you can take a break when your subject needs to go pick up his daughter.)

Hey there....

So, picking up where we left off... I understand when you talk about nervousness with individual well-known performers, but I wonder if you were ever concerned about the whole thing, i.e. the obligation/challenge of carrying forward something that had been so well-established at that point.

Initially I was nervous about it, but it becomes easier as time goes onwards. You start to notice the patterns: new people coming in who connect with the scene, people moving on, leaving the nest after a few years and playing out more, coming back. Once you start to recognize the ebb and flow, things become more manageable. You start to understand what you have control over and what you don't, and you dive in to the opportunities you have.

This gets into what I wanted to talk about next, which is the community aspect of Sidewalk. I guess it may be preaching to the choir to talk about this here, but my experience has been, as has that of so many other folks I talk to, that while so many performers turn up at SW for the opportunity to play, they often get caught up deeply in the community aspect of the place. There are so few opportunities these days to really interact in a common setting with like-minded people that Sidewalk can be enveloping in that way. This isn't so much a question as a comment, I realize, but maybe you can respond as to your own perspective on this.

One thing that I've gotten better at is playing meet-and-greet. The community is there, but it's my role to make sure that people don't leave without brushing a few shoulders. This way, they have a reason to come back. The community definitely needs to be nurtured.

Another thing that changed during the last year or two that Lach was at the helm was the development of the Brooklyn Tea Party. There was some resistance at first on Lach's part, some concern that the BTP was taking away from the scene at the Sidewalk. One thing that I did when I took over was try and get out to events all over the city where the Sidewalk community had spread to. It wasn't like you had to twist my arm - it's fun to go to the BTP and Goodbye Blue Monday! But I felt it had to be done. And that was hard at times. Trying to be at Sidewalk, trying to catch a show at BTP, trying to be a family man. This is no ordinary booking job. But it has been worth it. Lach, post-retirement, has embraced the BTP much more readily. I think it's nice that the community has spread all over and that people come back to the Sidewalk to play a comfortable show or the festival when they feel like it.

Yeah, and there are other offshoots too, like everything that Matt is doing with OJ, and other similar endeavors, but I feel that in some respect it all links back to Sidewalk, even in cases in which the connections to it are floating further out there than they once did.
It's interesting, because sometimes I come across people who haven't been on the scene in a long time and who I've never met, but if I explain that I hang out at Sidewalk, it immediately gives us a common basis for conversation.

I should add that in some ways, if I'm not careful, the BTP and other events DO take away from Sidewalk from a business perspective. An ill-timed birthday party can cut attendance at an antifolk-related event by 20 people. That could be a $200 loss for the club that night. There's only so much I can control, but I do try and keep tabs on major events like BTP shows, Huggabroomstock, major OJ events, to make sure that there isn't a conflict when I put together nights at the club.

Like I said, no ordinary booking job.

So, you just finished up with the Winter Antifolk Festival, and I'm wondering what your thoughts were about that both in terms of the duration and format this year and the performances.

I am glad that it was limited to a week. When I booked my first festival back in 2008, I had basically looked back at Lach's old calendar, counted how many days the fest was, and tried to fill that up. It was usually 10 or 11 days, not including the Monday. That got to be incredibly exhausting. The festival wasn't always that long. It seems like at some point it was a lot smaller but kept growing over the years. I'm glad I scaled it back. For one, it still felt pretty damn full, with amazing performances. Secondly, after such an exhausting first week, if we had to go through 4 more days, we all would have dropped dead.

I liked the format...I think people should have a little more time and I'm going to continue with that.

With the shorter Festival it felt more like what I originally thought was its intention, to highlight the performers who stand out on the scene at the moment--to put a special focus on that group--In any event, were there any particular performances or moments that stood out for you?

Crazy and the Brains have really come a long way. Their show was amazing. Emily Einhorn is always great. Isaac Gillespie just keeps getting more interesting. I was really happy with the Penultimate blowout, the Timothy Dark section in particular.

Those were some good highlights, although I didn't get to see Isaac's set, unfortunately. Crazy rocked the place. I was really glad to have been there for that, and I thought Emily was amazing. The Penultimate Blowout was a combination of your sound/art stuff with other performers. I wonder in respect to your own work are you focusing more on that kind of "noise" stuff or are you actively writing more traditional songs or are you doing some of it all?

I try not to think about it too much and just go with whatever seems to be inspiring to me. I would say that while some of the noise and sound collage that I've done has been inspired by the records I have soaked up over the past few years, it's also a reaction to hearing so many singer-songwriters on a daily basis. I haven't felt the need to express myself with verses and choruses over the past few years. And I have so many songs in that vein as it is. I do write a lot, but many of the songs are studio creations and don't translate well live.

One more thing about your stewardship of Sidewalk--is this something you see continuing with well into the future or do you ever mull over thoughts of doing other things--making a living-wise that is?

I don't see an end at this point. It's been a great ride so far. When Sidewalk does eventually end for me, things will definitely get even more interesting, that's for sure. I mean, unless I needed to, how could I take a job that sucks after this?

Well, I have finished with all the grueling 60 Minutes like questions, so I'd like to say, as someone who has benefitted very much from all your efforts at Sidewalk, thanks for all your work at keeping our little club house going in such a vital fashion.

You're welcome.

Oh wait, one more intensive question--any clearer sense of when SW will open again?

I was told that the renovation was planned for 4 weeks, but because it's a renovation and things happen, 6 is more realistic. The Sidewalk is being booked from May 1 onward. There are some late April dates already booked and as March moves onwards I'll have a better sense of how April is shaping up. Definitely no performances before April 10.

So, that's getting to be it for me. Is there anything else you want to add about anything?

I think that's about all I can muster for now. 

OK--that about does it. Just to circle back, Crabs on Banjo last night played a song that had to do with Gilligan, among other things and Ben came up with the refrain "Hey Little Buddy, Let's Go." So that is where The Sidewalk Talk Show's new catch phrase came from. Ben, thanks for doing this. I hope we'll have more of these online chats, but in the meantime, see you soon, and "Hey Little Buddy, Let's Go."

Later, sir, thanks for doing this, it was fun.


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