In the venue review of The Room, I had a conversation with owners, Vern Nickerson and Jimmy Guptill about their club and the music scene in general. There just wasn’t enough room to put the whole interview in the review, so here it is in its entirety.
Vern Nickerson and Jimmy Guptill
Agrippa: How did the idea of The Room begin?
Vern: Me personally, I’ve played in bands for many years. The start of my playing career, if you will…we had people that were good to us. The Knights of Columbus Hall was good to us, The firehouse was good to us, but it was always…you rented a place. You played a place. You did all the work and there was never really a club atmosphere. It was more of a band practice somewhere.
The all ages venues that do currently exist, they’re all ages, but they have a bar. We don’t do that. We have a completely different atmosphere here. 14 year old kids whose parents drop them off here…the first time they walk to the counter they stick their head around. They look, they leer in.
Agrippa: There are 21+ clubs that actually exclude the younger crowd.
Vern: There are. I feel, I’m sure my business partner Jimmy feels the same way, the thing that we have over them is that we’re truly all ages. Bands that play here…we’ve had nights that musicians 9 years old are in bands playing on the same night as a 63 year old man. It was the same night and the same show.
Jimmy: All ages
Vern: Literally all ages.
Agrippa: Prior to this, what did you do?
Vern: Jimmy and I are both Union Steamfitters, which means we’re unemployed, but Jimmy used to go to a lot of shows and I used to play in a lot of shows. We’ve been friends for a long time. He knew that I wanted to do something like this and he said ‘I’m in.’ So, here we are. We’ve been open a year now and we still feel like we’re just getting our feet wet. Most of Connecticut doesn’t know we exist and part of it has to do with our secluded location and part of is that if you’re just starting a club it takes between 2 and 3 years before people know you exist.
We’re hoping that some of the larger profile shows…some of our Battle of the Bands events, will get us noticed. The band that’s currently on stage, they’re called, ISpaceWalkSometimes. They won their round of Rumble at The Room, so they’re going to be competing April 21st in our Battle of the Bands. We like to think that our Battle of the Bands is a little different than most of the ones that are around. There’s a winner each night. Five bands competed each night and one band moves on to the finals from each night, so you have a winner each time. Not just one band competing against 80.
Agrippa: a lot of these promotion companies putting on Battle of the Bands are absolute garbage.
Vern: Some of these contest, they offer these prizes that are phenomenal prized and if I’m in a band I’m gonna be in them. I’m going to join them.
Jimmy: It’s like a pyramid scheme almost.
Vern: But, I look at it from my perspective and if I’m in a band…obviously you want to win. If you don’t win, you want the exposure. If you win on a contest to play a major rock show somewhere, but you had to sell in excess of 200 tickets over the course of 2 months for 3 shows, it’s troubling to do that in the 1st place. As the economy is and just how the scene is, when you ask bands to sell more than 15 tickets for a show a lot of times they can’t.
Tonight we have Eye Empire here. A phenomenal band. We’re extremely excited to have them.
Agrippa: Who are some of the more notable acts that you’ve had here?
Vern: We’ve had Psychostick. We’ve had Eve to Adam, Crossfade, Boba Flex, KrashKarma, Downtown Brown. We’ve had a lot of bands that are national traveling bands that most people haven’t heard of. A lot of Pop-Punk bands that travel on their own dime. It seems like that genre in particular tends to travel on their own dime. We’ve also had a lot of Metal bands.
Probably the best Metal band we’ve had in this joint was out of Jacksonville, FL called Wormwood Prophecy. They played here on a night that was not a Metal night. They had a gig scheduled at another venue in CT. They got canceled the day before the show. They were cold calling venues saying, “Is there any chance you can put us on a bill?”.
I told them, “You’re not really going to fit the night. It’s more of an Alternative night, but I’ll put you on the bill.” They came here played at the end of the night and every band that played that night…bless them. It doesn’t usually happen…their people stayed and watched that night. They gave them their 5 minutes to see what happens and they all stayed to the end. We can’t wait to have them back.
We just had Skinmask here. Breathing Theory. That’s a band you probably haven’t heard of that you will. They were opening up for Skinmask and pretty soon they’re going to be the band that people are looking for. I wouldn’t be shocked.
Agrippa: What band was playing on your busiest night?
Vern: Locals. We’ve had 2 local shows that were phenomenal. Our Christmas show went really well. Actually one of the biggest drawing bands was a band out of Long Island called Face the King. They’re not all that heavy, but…the thing we try to accomplish here with the bands is when they come here and play here for the 1st time, if they’re from far away, whether it’s from Long Island or Pennsylvania or whatever, the 1st time they play here they bring 3 or 4 people with them. Next time they’re here they’re bringing 10. The time after that they’re selling tickets to shows, because they can. If you’re good you’re good. So, we’ve had a couple of bands that have done that. I think Psychostick…we had a Monday show with Psychostick…
Agrippa: That’s a rough spot.
Vern: It’s a rough day. The locals on that show didn’t do what they were supposed to on ticket sales and we were worried. I think that was the one we had 45 walk ups for them. On a Monday. Forgetting ticket sales, 45 walk ups on a Monday show is phenomenal.
Jimmy: We have tickets available on ticketstorm.com and they’re usually less money to buy them on there and most people still pay at the door.
Agrippa: Coming from a Metal band perspective, if you had to put together a night of 3 Metal bands from Connecticut, who would they be?
Vern: As a club owner I’d have to go to my charts and see who did the most ticket sales and I’d go back and say, “Alright, who was the…”, I don’t want to say “nicest”. We’ve had a lot of bands here that play here repeatedly and some bands that have played here once. As a venue and as a person I’m driven on respect.
I think that some of the bands that come out, they don’t exactly…we’re not a dump dive place. We have little perks that we do for bands. If you’re in a band and you play here at a local show, any band that sells 50 tickets we give them the VIP loft. We treat them right as long as they get the money in ahead of time, so we can set it up to treat them like rock stars. We’ve only had to do that a couple of times. We’d like to do it for every local show.
From my personal perspective, it’s the thing that I remember from being on tour. I remember, I always wanted to play in Atlanta, because every club I played in at Atlanta, they treated you like gold. Kansas City, they treated us awesome. The little tiny things that happened in those towns and how the venues treated the artist, those are all the types of things, that when we opened, I tried to add into here. Simple little things. We have guitar hangers off to the sides of the stage and on the back of the stage, because you’d be amazed at how many bands come in here and they don’t bring a guitar stand to put their guitars on. They got 2 guitars and 1 leaning against an amp, or they got one in a case and they plug it in and it’s out of tune.
Agrippa: I think a place like this designed from a musician’s point of view, a touring musicians point of view, makes a big difference.
Vern: Hell yeah.
Agrippa: The bands come here and they feel that.
Vern: We do our absolute best to treat every band that plays here like they’re the rock stars for the night. There are too many venues where the bottom line is all about the money. If you’re opening an all ages venue that doesn’t serve alcohol, it can’t be about the money. I think people have this misconception that, because I own this venue that we’re making a ton of money. On major headline act shows we actually make less money that if we do on locals.
Agrippa: The money has to come from somewhere to keep the place open.
Vern: Absolutely. We’re going to make very little money tonight. We’re not doing poorly on attendance, but we’re not going to make a lot of money. But, we’re getting a national act in here that…the exposure you get from having a national act is…well tonight we’re probably going to have 50 people that have never been in this building before and that’s it. That’s your goal. You want those people to come in, because they see this local band that’s playing….
If you live out by the Webster or by the Chance or by somewhere farther away…we have a lot of travelers tonight. This is the only local show for Eye Empire. A lot of the people coming out tonight…I know a guy called me yesterday to make sure that they weren’t going to go on too early because he coming from work to come here. He’s 2 ½ hours from here. They’re not playing near him, so this is it.
I think the coolest thing that has ever happened since we opened is for a band to have someone come see them from a distance. We had Diecast here. The attendance for the show was OK. It wasn’t great, but we had one woman here to see the band who bought tickets from her hometown to fly here to go to that show on Friday and another on in NY on Saturday to see a different band. She was from Japan. She was such a Diecast fan that she bought tickets to fly here and see them on their 1st show of their tour. That was amazing.
When we had Bobaflex here, the nicest guys you ever want to meet. They went and played their set, played their last song and I went up to shake hands with the guys on stage. My wife’s here every night. She takes pictures of every band that plays. She was standing next to me and she said, “They didn’t play ‘Home’. I’m so disappointed.”
So I went over to them to shake hands while they were packing their gear away and said. “You guys were awesome tonight. Thank you so much. My wife was disappointed you guys didn’t play ‘Home’”.
He turned around and said, “Plug the stuff back in.” The sound guy had to re-hook up the board. He said. “The club owners wife is pissed off that we didn’t play ‘Home’. We’re not leaving here with the club owner’s wife pissed off.” So they did that for her.
Agrippa: That’s great.
Vern: You get the small stuff like that. When we had Crossfade in here, most venues they play in are a lot bigger than ours, so they played a show here to an intimate setting, obviously. Other than me and my business partner Jimmy, they were the last people to leave this building. They stayed here and signed autographs and took pictures with ever single person there. Psychostick did the same thing when they were here. It’s one of the things that you get having this place. you get that personal touch there. If we could only get Metallica to come out.
Agrippa: What was the strangest thing you’ve ever seen here?
Vern: Skinmask? No, obviously we do a variety of music here. The night we had an acoustic show here and we had a metal band doing an acoustic set. We had a rock band doing an acoustic set, and a bunch of solo acoustic performers. Then we had friends of our that play Irish music.
Jimmy: Iron Hill Vagabonds.
Vern: They do their thing and it’s completely different.
Agrippa: I’ve seen them. Or him.
Vern: I say them too. He’s a one man band. We having him come in here on the 16th for his EP release.
Agrippa: I’m trying to get my guys to do an acoustic set but they just won’t budge.
Vern: Well, acoustic set doesn’t work for everybody. What gets me is we had an acoustic night…we had a band that was obviously a Metal band…the only reason you could tell they were a real metal band is because when they started to play it sounded real…pretty? Then the singer started screaming in a deep growly voice and I’m thinking to myself, they know it’s acoustic night. They’re playing acoustic guitars. It was definitely different. We’ve had bands from all over the place like KrashKarma from LA. Weirdest? You have to give credit to Downtown Brown for being a little out there too.
Jimmy: Yeah, they were out there.
Vern: They’re the type of band that, if you watched their videos and you saw them, you wouldn’t quite understand what it was until you saw them live. I watched the video and I didn’t get it. I saw them live and went, “Oh my God. I get it now.”
Agrippa: What was the most disastrous gig you’ve ever seen?
Vern: The reality is, is that…not that I don’t want to focus on the positives, but I don’t want to give press to the negative. We’ve had 2 shows here that one of the bands didn’t adhere to the rules that we have, not that they’re majorly strict rules or anything, but they got sent home. They showed up drunk, which we gave them a little bit of leeway on that. You’re not allowed to drink here. They showed up and I didn’t want to shove them back in their car and send on the road to be honest. I had them set up. I had them do everything they had to do and get ready to get up and play. Before they got their gear to the stage off to the side, they were drinking and trying to do other things in the back room. Me, my partner, and a friend escorted them out to their van and they went home. I had to send a few people away, because it’s not how we operate. Some places don’t care, but the majority of our crowd ranges from 14-40 on any given night, so we do have to do things a little bit different. Since we don’t have a bar…when people 1st show up the 1st thing they say is, “Where’s the bar?”. I say, “Go to the stop sign and take a right. It’s down the street on the left.” Not here.
Agrippa: What’s your take on Battle of the Bands.
Vern: In general, I don’t like them. As a club owner you have to do them. Part of the reason you have to do them is because, when you do a Battle of the Bands, you get bands that have never played in your venue. There are bands that key in on that. They see that there’s a battle and they want to be in on that. Not necessarily just to win. We had one Friday night, there were 5 bands in it. 3 of those 5 bands all came here saying they thought they had a chance to win. The other 2 bands were playing, because they just wanted to be in on a night that it was going to be busy. They picked a Battle of the Bands, they sold their tickets, they came out…one of the kids was in a band…a young kid…he’s a fan of the band that won. So much so, that he wished them luck on stage. They happened to win so that worked out.
As a general rule, I’m not a huge fan of them [Battle of the Bands]. I’ve been in them myself in bands that I’ve been in, because of the same reason; you want to win. You need the exposure. I’m not an egomaniac, but I’ve played shows where I thought my band was the best band, and if we lost, we should have lost to band A or band B. When band A or band B doesn’t win and we don’t win theres like the bitterness thing that happens. That happens in a lot of Battle of the Bands. If you think you’re in a really good band, you think your band should win. By rights, you’re not wrong. You should believe in your band. You should believe your band should win.
We haven’t had any bitterness. A couple of moms and dads were bitter, but the bands themselves have been so supportive of the other bands, almost to the level that I didn’t believe it. Each night, the band that won deserved to win.
My business partner and myself, we own the venue. As a club owner I can’t be a judge, and here’s why: I gonna make friends with one band and if there’s 5 bands, I’m gonna make 4 bands not like me too much. I can’t be a judge. Bands that have played here 3-4 times that are in the Battle of the Bands…you can’t help but pull for them. You like them as kids, or you like them as people. You can’t help but pull for them.
I like to think that any Battle of the Bands that we run, in that respect is fair. The judges last night…I gave them sheets to go by. I told them what to judge by. I had told them how to judge and the reason I did that is, because all they have to do is look at the paper and say, “This is what we need to do for this show.” Bands are judged 4 ways. Professionalism, which isn’t just…do they say the band’s name, but all the other little stuff.
I hate dead air. When a band goes on stage and plays a song then goes and talks to each other for 5 minutes before the next one…I took a music business seminar in New York city with Peter Nichols and he talked about dead air being the thing that makes most bands lose an audience. It’s something that always stuck with me. If you give them 2 minutes of silence and they didn’t like your 1st song, they’re gone. Bands do it all the the time. They’ll play play a song, then talk to each other. Now it’s quiet. People can say, “Hey, you wanna get out of here?”. And they do. You don’t want that. You want them to get sucked in.
You want to play a song that they might recognize. In a Battle of the Bands situation, you want to hear original music. I’m an original music fan, but I’m a musician and I think I’m partial that way. The general audience, they want to hear songs they know. They’ll be sucked into your original music once they’ve heard a song they know and you did it well.
I feel like any good band that’s playing on a night in front of a crowd they don’t know, that doesn’t play a single cover, is sort of missing the point. No matter how great your music is, your ego has to take a backseat to reality. If you’re playing a 25 minute or 30 minute set you have only that small window to make people like you. If you play 5 originals that they’ve never heard before, even if they’re great, they have no base to judge you by. They weren’t there to see you. They might not even be paying attention.
It seems that every band that plays a Metallica song, Megadeth, or AC/DC, or take a Britney Spears song and turns it into a punk song…those bands tend to play their next original song to a better crowd reaction. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
I just don’t. I had an original band…we put a record out a few years ago…we used to play one cover live. I was a David Bowie song. Whenever we played that song live, that’s when people started paying attention to us. It went from being our next to last song to being the second song we played. Whenever we played in front of a huge crowd, we’d always played it early. Always played it second or third and it always made people pay attention. We ended up putting it on our record, because we felt we needed to.
How this translates to the Battle of the Bands, the one that we have I do feel it’s judged fairly and there’s a decent prize. If you win the whole thing, you win $1000, you win recording time, and you win merch. It’s not a bad deal. That being said, you don’t have to sell an exorbitant amount of tickets either. You have to sell 15 in the 1st round, 20 in the second round. It’s not really a lot.
The comfort zone for bands…if you’re a local band and your minimum is 15, you have to keep in mind that it’s you minimum. If you’re in a Battle of the Bands there is something at stake and 15 is not the number you should be aiming for. If you can nail 30 tickets you should aim for 30. If you can nail 50 you should aim for 50. Doesn’t mean you have to sell 50. As a venue I think we probably pay the bands better than any other venue in the area. I know what the other venues pay.
Agrippa: One more thing. The pros and cons of cover bands.
Vern: We don’t mind the tribute bands, but we don’t really do the cover thing. We don’t have cover bands here for the most part. A lot of time when we have bands in here where the kids are 10 and 11 years old, they can’t exactly write a song about the things that have happened in their life. They don’t have a lot of life experience. They tend to play covers and that’s fine. Younger bands…we definitely give them a little more leeway in that respect.
We don’t tell cover bands they can’t play here. If they fit the night, a cover band would actually work. If I had a band in the middle of the show tonight that was playing Sevendust, Linkin Park, and Disturbed, and whatever else was on the same wavelength as Eye Empire, if they could sell the tickets and get people to come out that’s fine.
Personally, I’m an original music guy. I like original music. I’m a fan of original music and there’s nothing better than when an original band plays here the first time and they suck me in. We’ve had a few of those. One of the things I think needs to happen is that when people find bands that they know and they like, they need to find better support mechanism for those bands.
Bands like Wormwood Prophecy [from Florida]…we want them to come back here. We want people to come out and see them. If we can get 20 Connecticut fans to commit to buy tickets to see them the next time they’re up in this neck of the woods, ahead of time, it would be a lot easier for us to get them to come up again. They came up here last time and didn’t make any money. They jumped on a bill that didn’t fit their style that we weren’t making a lot of money on. We gave them some pizza, some soda, and some Ramen noodles and they were happy as could be.
One of the things I do as an owner, because we don’t have that bar make up money, we have to make money at the door, or we can’t afford to be here anymore. The one thing we do on any given night, if a band has merchandise to sell, after they play, if the crowd seems to dig them, I chide people, I push people, I tell them, “Hey, you liked them. I see you standing there. Go buy their CD. I know the club owner. He’s not paying them much.”
Some of the bands appreciate that and have made good money because of that. I know one of the bands that opened up for Psychostick essentially bought their slot on the bill. They paid for their tickets. Nobody came to see them, but they did well and they sounded good. They played their set and they sold a bunch of merch. If they can sell some merch it makes it worth it…
These bands that are on tour, that are on their own tours…we had a band from Cleveland that was on tour for a better part of 3 years. They book show after show after show where they don’t get paid and they’re still on the road, which means they’re doing something right. Even though they’re not guaranteed money at a venue, they’re still out there. They’re still making money. It isn’t easy.
I went on one tour one time ever and we ran out of money. We did OK on Merch. We sold merch, but when the van breaks down and the trailer breaks down…We’re supposed to go farther out west, but we couldn’t and had to ride home on fumes. I get it.
About the author
Agrippa is a the general adviser, internet tech sorcerer, and a reporter for the Metal Cyndicate of Connecticut, as well as the author of his own blog about music and music production, Agrippa: Thought Manifest. He can also be found fronting his own band, Agrippa93, on vocals, synths, sequencers, samples, and piano. Agrippa also has an industrial solo project called, Agrippa’s Laboratory. Both projects are produced through his label and studio, Sickle Pation. You can follow him on twitter via @agrippa93, or email at email@example.com.