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Friday, 19 April 2013 09:00

'Right time, right place, right team' An interview with Chris Hansen of Atomic Cowboy and the Demo

'Right time, right place, right team' An interview with Chris Hansen of Atomic Cowboy and the Demo Mariam Shahsavarani
Written by Mariam Shahsavarani

Chris Hansen has been involved in the music business his entire professional life, and he loves it.

Hansen grew up in the restaurant industry, worked in the music industry, and as a co-owner of Lola, the restaurant and lounge that opened in downtown St. Louis in 2010, he found a way to merge the two. He left Lola at the beginning of this year to work on developing the Atomic Cowboy in the Grove. Working with Mike Cracchiolo from the Firebird and Josh Loyal from 2720 Cherokee, the collective launched the Demo earlier this year, bringing a diverse set of shows to the newly renovated 200-capacity room.

Hansen is ambitious about the future of music in St. Louis, and hints that the network of individuals he's been currently working with -- Crachiollo, Loyal, Jake Snyder at the Demo, Bert McClimans at the Firebird and Chip Schloss at Atomic Cowboy -- have a lot in store for the city.

I met up with Hansen at the Atomic Cowboy to find out what he's been up to and how he's looking to change the sound of summer in the Grove.

Mariam Shahsavarani: You seem to be involved in a lot of different things in St. Louis. Can you fill me in on the projects you're currently working on?

Chris Hansen: In January I sold Lola to come down here to the Grove and help develop the Atomic Cowboy complex. The first step in the process was to build the Demo. My partners, Mike Cracchiolo from the Firebird and Josh Loyal from 2720, and I, we developed a concert production company and started to program and develop the Demo into a world-class concert venue in the Grove.

My other company, Leisure Studies, is my lifestyle or promotions company. It's what I do for a lot of my external concert productions -- so anything that's not in one of my venues, you'll see the brand Leisure Studies. You'll see us do a Lee Fields show at 2720 or the Ghostface Killah show we have coming at the end of the month. That was the entity that ran Lola's nightlife and programming, and really had a strong tie to the urban market.

The collective I spoke of with Josh and Mike, we are also part of the process of helping Chip [Schloss] and Jim [Kellogg], the original owners of the Atomic Cowboy, develop the backyard into a 1000-capacity outdoor festival and concert venue.

In correlation with all this, I'm also a partner at the Cowboy and developing their food program, and part of the food program rollout is a whole new smoked meat line, which we're integrating into our backyard festival area.

When will the backyard festival area be ready?

On May 19th we roll out our Barbecue Brunches with JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound sponsored by Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, and that will be our first brunch. On May 26 and May 27 we're launching our Bootleg Stage, which is a brand new stage out back. On May 26 we have an all-day festival with Shooter Jennings, and on May 27 we have an all-day festival with Big Boi from Outkast and Dam-Funk and a slew of local artists. And then from there we'll go on with a soft season of events and festivals as we develop the backyard.

We're going to do maybe 20 events this summer and get a feel for it. We're going to work with the neighborhood to make sure it's structured the right way, help develop parking and help find out what the best fits are for them.

Where did the initial idea for further development of the Atomic Cowboy complex come from?

Chip and Jim and I sat down and really saw this place as one of the institutions down here, one of the original founding nightclubs in this area. It was just time to take all of the good stuff that it had built over the years into the future and leave all of the mistakes and everything else behind. It was an opportunity to come in and take what I did at Lola, which was concerts, nightlife and food culture. There I did it all under one roof. [At the Atomic Cowboy], we moved to start compartmentalizing the circus: restaurant, lounge, nightlife, food culture in here; concert business [in the Demo]; and then festivals and big shows out back.

Was Lola your first experience with the merging of nightlife, food and music?

I grew up in the restaurant business, and my whole adult life all I've ever done is the music business. I owned a talent agency in town called Talent Plus Entertainment for years, I've owned a couple production companies and recording studios. Everything I've ever done in my professional life has been dealing with music or food. Lola was my first restaurant and first venue. As far as the music business goes I've done just about everything you can do in the business except be a record label owner. I've been a recording artist. I've been a talent buyer. I've been a manager. I've been an agent. I've been a performer. I've owned a recording studio. I've owned a production company. I have a lot of the back office business experience that's kind of led me to be able to execute these venues.

On the food side I started off as a young person doing everything from washing dishes to bussing tables. I've worked in every part of a restaurant from the kitchen to the bar. So, for a place like this that has all those tentacles, a person like me with my background was really well suited, so that's why we partnered up. It was the right time, right place, right team.

Have you had to make adjustments to how you approach things since moving from working in downtown to the Grove?

Absolutely. One of the reasons I sold Lola and brought my concerts down here was because I felt like downtown had certain limitations to how far I could take the music programming and the diversity of the programming. The biggest difference down here is that we're bringing all walks of life. It's true diverse culture. Lola was a very diverse establishment, but it definitely catered, as a lot of the other venues do, to a particular scene. We were at the forefront of the black arts movement, and we had our own little pocket. And then the Firebird had their pocket. And 2720 had their pocket.

Most venues in town have kind of a scene related to their music culture, I wanted to break that wall down. My first attempt at Lola was to break that wall down, and we gave a voice to a particular part of the music community that didn't have a great voice at the time. Now I'm trying to take that voice, and all of our collective voices, and reroute it into a neighborhood that we think is progressive enough and ready for this kind of change and this kind of music industry to happen in St. Louis. It's a really exciting time to be doing music in St. Louis because there's never been better people working in the industry, there's never been more opportunity, there's never been this many great venues and buyers.

Every neighborhood requires a little bit of tweaking, but we believe that this neighborhood is the center and we can bring everybody down here equally. And we've proven that already with the shows that we've pulled off in the Demo that we can bring a rock audience to a hip-hop audience to a downtempo audience to a bluegrass audience. There's a lot of diversity that's willing to come down here, whereas downtown has a certain stigma for certain people. I couldn't drag as many people downtown, and you can't drag as many people to Cherokee, but this location feels universal.

It's been a few months now since the Demo opened in February, and you mentioned that it's been drawing different crowds. Do each of the involved partners stick with what they know best in terms of booking the shows and sticking to certain types of music?

Mike and I collectively handle the talent buying with our venue manager, Jake [Snyder], and our partner Josh Loyal is bringing a lot of events over here. Part of the uniqueness of this is that we all bring respective contacts and different backgrounds and creative ideas that allow this room to stay very fresh and programmed very diversely.

A big part of what we do is share information and cooperatively buy talent. If I get a show and I think my partner Mike would be the best person to negotiate that deal or to have the best insight, I'm going to go to him, and we're going to do that show under his guidance. Whereas, he might come to me and ask me, "Hey, what do you think about this show? Is Hot 8 Brass Band good for the room? Should we do a show like that?" I might have the background for that.

That's what gives us the unique position within the market is the team and the framework of that team and the ability to have the power in numbers. The collective this year will buy almost a thousand shows in the market. There's a lot going up on the books. It's exciting.

Is the stuff that you look towards booking, are they things that you're personally interested in or things you believe will have a good draw?

We're always looking for smart shows. Everything we're doing is smart, routed events, but there is a certain level of tastemaking in everything we do. I think we all built our venues before we came together on tastemaking and developing culture and taking risks on shows that had never been in the market before. I love good music and I won't buy bad music, so I typically like just about anything I book one way or another.

That being said, I don't buy from a personal perspective. I buy from what I think the community wants, needs, what they're ready for, and what my partners in the world of agencies and management houses and record labels need us to do, because those are our other partners outside of the market. We're helping them develop acts they've already made an investment in. Part of our job here is to cultivate and develop talent. We've had success in doing that with regional bands, like Sidewalk Chalk from Chicago, where you take them from a zero-play in the market to, after three shows, doing a hundred solid hard tickets at $10.

It's hard for any band to walk into the market in the first year and build a fanbase. We've seen it with acts like Vintage Trouble that we've developed in the market, and now they just finished a tour with the Who, and they're on tour with Dave Matthews Band. They have such a strong connection with St. Louis that they're taking one of our biggest music brains, Tom "Papa" Ray, out on the road with them just to emcee and DJ their shows, which was cultivated around the shows that happened here. So tastemaking is a big part of it, but smart buying is the ultimate objective.

What's your favorite part of everything that you do?

That's a good question.

I realize that might be asking something like "Pick a favorite child" or that it might vary day to day.

It really is. It's a challenge. I wear a lot of hats. Right now I'm in the middle of developing the food menu for the Atomic Cowboy, and I'm really excited about the process of bringing that menu to fruition. I love the production side of the business and handling the larger events and just kind of seeing the big picture. I'm really excited about delivering smart venues, not just what band's on stage, but who you have at the door, how the drinks are made, the liquor costs. Not only the front end of the business, but the back end of the business.

What I think I'm most excited about right now is to work with such great people and to develop and lift up a community that's been waiting for this to happen, this kind of music revolution to happen in St. Louis, and to just be at the center of it. To be a conduit between art and business. That's always been my biggest strength, to be able to communicate with the business people of the world and to communicate with artists. I love helping take art into its next place, wherever that is, be it a local artist that wants to be a local artist and help them build a career locally or the next cutting edge act that's going to be the next big thing that we've had the chance to take from 50 people in a room to 2000 people. Yeah, that's about it.

Do you think there's something about St. Louis that makes all this possible, or do you think it can happen anywhere?

I think it can happen anywhere, but I think it's our time right now to shine in art in general. The creativity that's in the city right now is unprecedented. The youth have really impressed me. I've never had more young people around me in my whole adult life that are impressive. Their work ethic, their ability to handle the technology upgrades and the speed at which information is traveling, their creative prowess. I think, you've seen it happen in Philadelphia and Seattle, but I think what we have going on in St. Louis right now with the fusion of musics, the way the worlds are coming together, I think we have the potential to be the next major music movement in the country.

The only thing that we need to have a little bit more of, and the one thing I can ask for the community to do, is just continue to make records. We need more recording artists and real bands and less work for hire musicians. We need more albums.

Outside of food and music, is there anything else that interests you or that you have been involved with?

No. I mean, like I said, everything I've done professionally, everything has been kind of centered around those worlds. The most important thing that I do in life is as a father to my two boys. Everything I do outside of work is surrounded around them. That's my main focus in life: to develop those two brains. I don't have hobbies or anything. I live my dreams. I am a free man. I think how I want to think, I walk how I want to walk, I come and go as I please. I do what I want to do. I love it.

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