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Steel for Brains

Exploring the Brains behind the Noise

photo credit: Merrilee Challiss

So, this artist and this musician decide to open up their own venue…wait, you’ve heard this one?  More than likely, you haven’t unless you’ve been to the Bottletree here in Birmingham, Alabama.  Continuing my weekend coverage of what’s happening in my hometown, I recently sat down with Merrilee Challiss, owner and operator of the Bottletree Cafe.  Like most things here in the south it was an easy going talk between two people so excited to see the music world change not just here in Birmingham but for any and every one who wants that shot at doing something they love.    

As far as opening the Bottletree, what was the process in doing that – what were the reasons?  Just with reference to your growing up to where you are now, what was the reasoning behind opening the venue here in Birmingham?

I just wanted to have my own business, and I wasn’t really sure what it would be completely, but I knew I wanted it to represent my interests and Brian [Note: Brian Scott Teasley is Merrilee’s husband and business partner], he was involved, but he was also touring heavily with bands, so he was along for the ride, but he definitely contributed to the idea of having the venue.  We knew we wanted to have music, and food, and art.

Well, the question inevitably comes up, I’m sure, but why Birmingham?  Of any place, obviously you’ve been around, and you’re familiar with other cities, what was the draw for you?

I believed that we could make it happen here.  That’s why.  I love Birmingham, and I love the people here.  I thought, logistically, it was easier to maneuver through the process of opening up a business here in my community.  I’d done a lot of starting over in other communities and especially when I was in Philadelphia I had people tell me: You have to live here ten years before you’re accepted by the city and its locals.  And liquor licenses were a quarter of a million dollars, so once you realize how easy things are in Birmingham it’s like: Oh, we can see all this cool stuff happening there.  There was a sense that there wouldn’t be as many impediments.  For us, there wasn’t as many people trying to do stuff like this here.  There wasn’t as much competition, and what we didn’t know about opening a business was how hard it would be because of the three entities: city, state, and county – it’s just a crazy three-ring circus.  There is almost no help in the logistics of the legal stuff – the codes and the building.  All of that stuff was a nightmare, and a learning process, and we were starting from zero in terms of knowledge.  I would go and have lunch with people who had businesses and ask them: How do I do this?  What do I do when this happens?  And I’ve done that even since we’ve opened up here.  Tell me a story.  What did you do?  How did you deal with this or that?  How did you deal with the city, county, and state issues?  So, I just did a lot of asking, and just begging people to kind of let me pick their brain.  It still took us a year. [Laughs]

When was the inception of the venue?  When was Bottletree born?

Well, our infancy started in 2005, and then we had our first show in March of 2006.

And who was it?

Elf Power and Ferocious Bubbles.  And then our second show was Bonnie Prince Billy.  Sold out show.  So we hoodwinked these bands into coming.  Hey, come play in our BYOB illegal space [Both laugh] with black plastic tarp hanging up everywhere.  And I think that was largely due to Brian’s influence and him knowing people and them knowing him, and him having some sense of legitimacy with his efforts. 

As far as the type of bands that are drawn to Bottletree, that come to Bottletree – it’s not just one indie stream or one specific genre.  It covers a whole multitude.  I mean, one week you’ll have Agalloch where the next week you might have Grimes or some other pretty different band, and yet it always seems like there’s the same kind of draw and, oftentimes, the same kind of people who come to these shows.  I mean, it varies, but you still see that core crowd just as loyal to the venue as they are to bands playing. 

That’s true to an extent.  There is a core group of people, and they’ll come out, take a chance on something they’re not familiar with, and then there are fans loyal to bands that make up another percentile of patrons.  And then hopefully there’s other people who just show up for whatever reason. [Laughs]  Maybe they got lost.  They saw a neon light in the dark.  You know, sometimes I’m like why are all these people here?  How do they know about this band?  I mean, I love it when I’m surprised by a band’s draw, because we’ve gotten kind of scarily accurate in our ability to predict certain outcomes.  We have some kind of statistician: Oh, it’s Tuesday, there’s a 30% chance of rain, this band’s been here before and fourteen people came last time, so tonight there’ll be 25 people.

The economics of venues [Laugh]

Right.  Yeah. [Laughs]  We oftentimes can make those predictions, and they’re scarily accurate, and not in a good way.  But when I’m proven wrong in the other way, I’m pleasantly surprised.  There are bands on other people’s radar that I have no idea about, and that’s really encouraging. 

Did you expect the kind of acclaim that’s come with Bottletree?  I mean name drops on Pitchfork, in the New York Times, and many others. 

Well, before we’d even opened for business we’d been featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post.  We were in both of those publications mentioned as like this weird underground DIY place, before we even had a business license, so it was crazy.  People were so hungry for something, and it was exciting because it was illegal and all that, that word of mouth spread.  But no, I definitely did not expect it.

Well, it always makes me feel good when I see the place get name-dropped in a national zine or publication. 

Oh yeah. There’s definitely a sense of local pride from everybody, and that’s awesome.  I mean, you can’t do it alone.  There has to be someone else to carry the torch or carry the weight. 

Some of the bands I’ve talked to who’ve played here are just enamored with the place, and there’s always a commonality with what they have to say.  It’s accommodating.  There’s a sense of actual investment in the artists, from you guys who are operating the Bottletree, for those who play here.  Usually the line these bands and musicians make would be from Nashville to Atlanta.  But now it seems like Birmingham is getting at least some of the attention it deserves, and I think a lot of that has to do with venues like the Bottletree and Bottletree itself who are doing it differently. 

It’s so amazing and cool, and that’s the thing about doing this.  We’ve changed the view about our city in a lot of ways.  It’s always the people from outside who appreciate something first, you know what I mean?

Oh yeah.  Definitely. 

It’s easy to take something from granted that’s right around the corner, and so that’s huge.  It always makes my heart melt when a band is onstage, and they say something along the lines of “You guys are so lucky to have this venue.”  And everybody cheers.  I’m never gonna be jaded enough to think that that’s not awesome.  

Well, you’ve had a lot of bands who’ve never played Bottletree, they’ve never played Birmingham, and just from my experience from the ones I’ve talked to here, just sitting in the Airstream back there, they’re just astounded.  They talk about the atmosphere of the venue itself and how pleasantly surprised they are at our town.  These bands have been all over, to much larger venues that tout the best in sound, space, etc., but the common thread I see for these musicians that come here and love it here is the camaraderie that’s just ever present here. 

You know, I think because we’re not in it for the money, or we’re too stupid to know how to make any. [Both laugh]  Right?  I think that either there are a lot of douchebags running clubs or running a club has a way of making you become a douchebag.  I’m just dumbfounded.  I’ve been to a small number of clubs.  I mean these bands have driven all this way, and they come into the clubs, and you treat them like crap?  They’re there to perform.  You need to be nice to people.  We started out from that point, and I don’t know why it seems like such a novel idea, but apparently it is.  That’s the Southern thing.  That’s the hospitality.  We’ve always been like that.  It’s how Southerners are.  We’re not New Yorkers.  We’re not Seattle.  We’re hospitable.  We can’t fight it. [Both laugh]  And it’s perfect for what we do.  It’s perfect for running a venue.  You know, you take care of those people and make them feel welcome, and it’s kind of disarming to people who tour so much.  We’re just being ourselves.  We’re not even going out of our way to be super nice or anything.  It just so happens that most Southerners are open and happy.  We don’t have the pretention, the baggage of pretention that comes along with being from a bigger metropolis, so we don’t have that kind of crusty, fake, ironic, I’m too cool for school mentality.  That’s one of our pluses, and I hope we never lose that. 

Well, one thing you hear from bands and fans alike that come here is that you’ve got musicians or people familiar with the music industry running the place.   People who’ve been there, and dealt with being treated like garbage, and so there’s a sort of unwritten understanding from the venue, and a sort of empathy that goes a hell of a long way. 

I think it’s huge, and I’ve heard now of other musicians starting venues.  I think Brian is definitely the trendsetter of the three of us.  So much of that is due to his experience and his efforts and his charisma.  There was some spread I saw recently that was going on and on about this new club that had Airstreams and was decorated with vinyls acting like it was something new, and I’m like Been there.  Done that.  Six years ago.  In your face.  [Both laugh]  You know, it’s Birmingham, though, and we’re still not “indie cool.”  We’re still not there.  I just had this proud moment with that where I was like: Yeah.  We’re getting copied.  You know, the form follows function is a concept we had to follow out of necessity to build this place.  Like, the Airstreams came about because we needed a green room for someone in a band who had a baby.  And, for us, it was a somewhat kind of economic solution, and now it’s become stylish and chic to do that.  And putting record albums on your walls for your wallpaper makes sense.  I mean, if one of them gets graffiti on it or whatever, you just put up another twelve by twelve you got at the thrift store.  Do we want to look at the black plastic you get from Home Depot, or these weird, funny albums you get from the thrift store?  You know, so a lot of that was out of necessity, and it just so happens to be cool looking or whatever.    

There was a time when arena and amphitheater rock was kind of the sole outlet for these musicians, it seems like now these bands, even these big name bands, are wanting to play the smaller venues.  There seems to have been a shift, and they’re shirking the solely monetary outlook and looking more towards places like the Bottletree. 

I don’t know that it happens that often, but it definitely happens.  A lot of the people who are booking these bands – they’re not the band.  You know, it should be a choice they should get to make.  There’s a certain level of intimacy and energy you’re going to get when you can connect with almost every single person in the room.  Of course they’d still want that if they’re not burned out or whatever.  It’s just cool to play in a small venue.  The energy can be so much better, because you’re all sharing this space.  It’s kind of like church, you know.  I mean, there’s something cool about being in a sea of a thousand people, too, but it’s just a different kind of experience.  I guess it’s fair to want both.

Well, having been to some big shows here, where it’s packed, I’ve had my fears or reservations about that aesthetic being achieved, yet it’s always the same.  It doesn’t matter if there’s ten or a hundred people here, there always seems to be that congeniality and intimacy you don’t get in other venues. 

Well, the crowd in Birmingham is so gracious and courteous.  I can’t tell you how many times bands have said from the stage: You guys are the most polite audience we’ve ever had.  One of our shows, early on, was Joanna Newsom – which was another one where we were all just like: We can’t believe Joanna Newsom is coming here!  She was playing 1,200 seat theaters at that point, and we were just scratching our heads.  She had played a big place in Kentucky the night before she played here, and she had stopped the concert there early and walked off stage because people were being rude in the audience.  And so we had heard that before she got here, and we hung up signs, and that’s probably the first time since we’d opened the Bottletree that we did that, and I think setting these rules early on for the crowd like: Please come here to enjoy the music.  Don’t come here to be a drunk asshole.  There are plenty of places you can go to be a drunk asshole.  We’re not that place.  Or if you want to have a loud conversation please just go outside.  When you’re in here, we treat it like a performance space, and we expect fans to respect that, and for the most part the majority of our core patrons dig it, and they know they can get a better quality experience of the music, because they know the people around them also respect the musicians and the space.

I’ve personally yet to have a “bad” experience at Bottletree as far as the crowd goes, which is saying a lot given how small the venue is.  Of course, you know I’m writing primarily for and about the metal genre, so those shows get a certain stigma regarding their crowds, etc.  [Laughs] but most of that is just bullshit, really.  I mean, you’ve seen enough of them, and I’ve seen enough of them to know that it is. 

You know, it’s funny but metal crowds are the best.  Honestly.  It’s one of the things I’ve learned, you know, where experience basically debunked my own preconceived notions about types of people.  The metal crowds – they tip the best, they’re the coolest, the nicest, and generally the most well behaved, which always blows my mind.  [Both laugh]  I mean, seriously.  You ask any bartender here, and they’ll tell you they want to work the metal show, because the fans are cool, and they’re not acting out.  Occasionally, whatever.  The ones you have to worry about are completely not what you’d expect. 

I’m gonna need examples. [Laughs]

Well, it’s just where we might get a crowd that might be more of a crowd from another bar.  It’s like more of a fratty vibe.  Those are the kind of people that act entitled.  They don’t know how to act in a rock venue.  They just stand there.  They don’t know to move out of the way or pick a spot.  Just kind of the basics of rock concert etiquette.  There’s a lot more entitlement with different kinds of people, but it’s not that way with the metal crowd at all.  Or metal bands.  They’re always the nicest.  And that is the consensus of everyone who works here.  I think after six years we can say that with authority, but people have this idea about the metal crowds: Oh, they have piercings, they have tattoos, they’re gonna be out of control, they’re gonna tear shit up.  They never do that. 

Well, that’s something Justin, from Aerochild Tattoos, and I had concerning the whole misconception about people with tattoos.  People inexplicably still think the tatted up are up to no good, or that we’re all on drugs, and it’s a vast misconception, and in a broader scope that kind of relates, to me at least, about people’s misconceptions about Birmingham itself.  I mean, the idea that people think there’s nothing here, or that we fit into this specific group or type of people down here.  We’ve got Warped Records opening up in April, we’ve got a great art movement, we’ve got a lot of great things happening here, and it’s exciting.  With that, Merrilee, what advice would you have for an artist, or an entrepreneur, or a musician who’s trying to start something on their own and do it on their own?

Ask people that are doing similar to what you want to be doing.  Listen to them.  Get their advice.  Other than that, just have a dogged perseverance and accept that it’s going to take ten times longer than they tell you it’s going to take.  There were many times in that first year I thought I was going to kill myself.  I thought we were going to implode as a family unit.  My boyfriend and I broke up for a while.  It was intense.  I would just get completely discouraged – the whole process was just awful and terrible.  You ask someone how to do something, and they tell you one way.  Then you do it, and then you find out that’s not how you do it, because a new person comes along and tells you that you have to do it a different way.  We had to move a toilet one quarter of an inch, for instance.  [Laughs]  So, just the logistics of getting anything going is very frustrating, and if I wasn’t so stubborn I wouldn’t have been able to do it.   I was so ignorant starting out.  [Laughs]  If somebody had sat me down and said: You’re gonna feel crazy.  You’re going to want to kill yourself.  You’re going to want to kill everyone around you.  You’re going to feel like you’re a failure every day you wake up.  You’re not gonna have any money.  You’re going to question your entire existence. [Both laugh] I would have said: No, thank you.  I’ll just stick with my job.  We didn’t know all of that going in.  We just kind of had this blind hope and desire to get it done, and we’re both very stubborn, and we just didn’t take no for an answer.  You have to be very stubborn if you want to do something.  Or rich!  Stubborn or wealthy.  [Both laugh]   But really.  Just don’t take no for answer.  Keep asking people and finding out as much as you can.  It’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, you know that saying.  I was scared at first, and then I started to realize we were already breaking all these rules, right?  We finally were just like “Screw it,” and we eventually opened.  You see people that get places open a lot sooner, and it’s because they’ve learned.  You just do what you have to do to get open, and then worry about the rest later.

Not taking no for an answer is certainly one thing I take to heart for what I do with Steel for Brains.  If you’re not from Birmingham, and these weekend shifts to focusing on the local scene here aren’t your style, then write about where you live, and where you are.  That’s where it starts.  Bottletree has the Melvins, Weedeater, and many more coming up on its calendar, so take a look and make the drive.  It’ll be well worth your time, I assure you.  Many thanks to Merrilee and the crew at Bottletree for their refusal to sit on their hands and let Birmingham stay put in the art and music scene.  They’re just one of many here in town I’ll be talking to, so be on the lookout.  Steel for Brains will be back to the metal grind this week as I feature conversations with Loss, Obituary, and Tombs.  Stay tuned, readers.  Support good metal.  Support good music.

Cheers. - D

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2 years ago
  1. dcy3 reblogged this from steelforbrains
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  3. thiswillneverbeourtown reblogged this from steelforbrains and added:
    This venue has a lot to do with who/where I am today. I bought the book of show posters they released on Friday and read...
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    LOVE LOVE LOVE Merrilee,...times. Growing up...Columbus,...
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