Zen Arcade

"I need to be around tons of buttons": Techie-turned-art impresario David Wesley

"I need to be around tons of buttons": Techie-turned-art impresario David Wesley

A few years ago, David Wesley and his wife Bernadette were sitting around on a Saturday night when they decided it might be cool to do a radio broadcast. The couple went down into their basement recording studio, and, without any particular plan, began to send their signal out over the Internet. It didn't matter that no one in the electronic ether was receiving; they were just in it for kicks. The Sursumcorda Radio Hour, as they dubbed it, became a regular feature of the couple's Saturday evenings.

On a given night, the Wesleys might play music from their eclectic library, interview local musicians and scenesters, take calls (which, not surprisingly, tended to be from friends, baby sitters, and long-distance phone company solicitors, many of whom expressed little interest in being broadcast over the Net), or visit with "Margaret," the female version of HAL 9000 who introduces each show. The show's audience was minuscule--mostly friends from around the country--and its content sometimes inaccessible (imagine broadcasting your after-dinner chatter to the world). But, after 60 shows, the Sursumcorda Radio Hour has taken on a life of its own, breeding an online atelier, an embryonic record label, and, most ambitious, a cybercafé-cum-cabaret-cum-music venue that is rising from the ashes of the Foxfire Lounge on First Avenue in Minneapolis's Warehouse District. David Wesley seems, rather incredibly, to have built a media empire out of air.

On a recent afternoon, in the midst of the mad rush leading up to Sursumcorda's May 6 opening, Bernadette, who is a spoken-word artist, arrives. She explains that she first worked with David when he was the frontman of the local new-wave band E B da--Wesley went by "Wesley Mayhem" in those days and still uses the moniker on occasion as a nom de roche. (The band's first album was also titled Sursumcorda, a Latin phrase referring to an uplifting musical refrain.)

"When we started, we were just doing it for fun, to be creative. We weren't trying to do anything with it," she explains. "Our basement became the Wayne's World of Web radio." In the background, a girl with tricolored hair is wrestling with a hissing espresso machine, while another employee with thick and tattooed forearms stacks demitasses on the counter. Jo Gordon, a restaurateur who, along with Wesley, is one of Sursumcorda's three founding partners (the other, Steve Fluegel, is a high school friend of Wesley's), zips by with a box of rubber gloves.

"That's how the whole thing got solidified," Bernadette continues. "The idea behind this place was really to take the Web site to a tangible, sensory level. No one's been able to connect the whole cybermovement to reality like that yet. And that was always Dave's vision."

Specifically, Wesley's vision for Sursumcorda is of a physical manifestation of his Web site, Billed as "an experiment in collaborative Web design," the site includes experimental and documentary film, visual art, writing, and music by its collaborators. Though it began as a showcase for Wesley's own music, it has since grown into a virtual gallery, which, while still populated mostly by Wesley's friends, offers a commercial showcase of art that, for reasons of taste, merit, or economics, wouldn't otherwise find an audience.

Like, the namesake nightclub might best be described as a vanity project with generous impulses. The club--a bricks-and-mortar enterprise in the parlance of the New Economy--is intended to bring together Wesley's far-flung endeavors, including the weekly variety show 21, which he cohosts with local comedian Colleen Kruse, a small retail outlet selling magazines and old vinyl, and a record label, which is based in a tiny room cluttered with rock paraphernalia below the club and which represents three local bands--Bayern Kurve, Monuments of Leisure, and Pablo. Ideally, Sursumcorda would become something like Andy Warhol's Factory--a place where artists and the art crowd interact.

The Zeitgeist, though, is a slippery creature. And Sursumcorda's location also puts it in the unenviable position of inviting comparison to the Foxfire, a beloved, though short-lived, venue that died because it couldn't ply its underage clientele with alcohol. Even on its dullest night, the Foxfire had a reason for existing: It was one of the few remaining places in town where teens could be gently initiated into rock's sweaty rituals. But economics were working against it: In a high-rent entertainment district--where "entertainment" is increasingly synonymous with "Jell-O shots and jalapeño poppers"--its demise seemed destined.

Sursumcorda, by way of contrast, would appear to have both better business prospects and a murkier raison d'être. The club has a liquor license, as well as a full-service restaurant. That also means, though, that the built-in teenage clientele who made the Foxfire what it was will likely have to seek their pleasure elsewhere. According to its founders, Sursumcorda will appeal to a broad audience: morning-caffeine seekers and the upscale downtown lunch crowd, as well as crepuscular scenesters and local music fans. They envision a place that, like the Internet, will offer something for everyone. Or everything to no one.

If buzz translates into profit--another principle of the New Economics that has yet to be borne out--Sursumcorda could become a going concern. Thanks to a concerted advertising campaign, the club--and its built-in hook of the Internet reified--has caught the eye of the local media, in the form of KMSP-TV (Channel 9) features, Star Tribune stories, and pieces like this one. Though dot-coms would have it otherwise, a business can't survive on hype alone. But Sursumcorda may thrive if it becomes the epicenter of bohemian cool that Wesley dreams of. It will, at least, represent something genuinely new: an overground underground.


At first blush, David Wesley doesn't cut the figure of a hipster impresario. Wearing a neatly trimmed goatee, glasses, and his usual work ensemble of jeans and a dark T-shirt, he looks more like a prosperous techie than a Warholian artiste--and more Steve Jobs than P.T. Barnum. He is pleasant and low-key and, in fact, tends to fade into the background when more than two people are in the room. He seems somewhat ambivalent about his role as an überscenester. During a recent Sursumcorda Radio Hour broadcast, Bernadette asked him how it feels to be a local hipster. "It's changed my life," Wesley deadpanned, making pretty clear that it hasn't.

Like his club, Wesley seems to have something of a dual personality. On one hand, he is an artist and dreamer--a "big-picture guy," according to one acquaintance--who rhapsodizes about Brian Eno and raver psychedelia. In the next breath, though, he sounds more like a midlevel marketing executive, discussing plans to leverage the Sursumcorda "brand," forge strategic alliances with local booking agents and music venues, and actuate his business model. When he talks about "defragmenting" Sursumcorda's various enterprises, one gets the sense that he's also talking about putting together the disparate pieces of himself.

Wesley, who is 37 years old, grew up in Hastings in an isolated country house filled with antiques collected by his parents. His father, he explains, was also a jack-of-all-trades: a dentist, a photographer, and a banjo player in a modestly successful Dixieland band. Though his father encouraged him to enter "anything but show business," Wesley says, he also bought his eight-year-old son a dime-store ukelele. "I've been playing guitar ever since," Wesley explains. "I knew I wanted to do something with music. It didn't come naturally, necessarily; but I was just driven. So I kind of taught myself to sing. Or rather 'vocalize,'" he adds with a self-deprecating laugh.

Throughout high school, Wesley played in various short-lived bands, most of which were influenced by Seventies postpunk and the new wave (which, not surprisingly, hadn't quite caught on in Hastings yet). During one of these stints, he met Fluegel, who had the virtue of owning the coolest synthesizer in town.

Wesley was also captivated by technology. "I've always been fascinated by buttons," he says. "I need to be around tons of buttons. And airplanes. I always liked planes." As a boy, he says, he used to stand in a field near his home and keep a log of planes that passed over. When he went to college in North Dakota, he imagined that he'd become a pilot. Instead, he got an economics degree and went to work for a consulting company. He also continued to chase rock 'n' roll fame with middling success. (In one episode worthy of Spin¨al Tap, a drummer in one of Wesley's bands quit because he thought Wesley's lyrics were "anti-Christian.") "We were just kind of idiots," Wesley recalls. "The fact of it is that when you're in a band and you're not getting laid or making money, you break up."

Though Wesley's musical career seemed stuck on the launch pad, his business career--which, paradoxically, he'd gotten into mostly to finance his music--was taking off. Wesley, who developed tracking software for healthcare management, formed a spin-off company and, for the next five years, played the New Economy roulette, taking meetings with investors and dreaming of an IPO that never materialized. He only wanted to make enough money, he says, to build himself a state-of-the-art recording studio, which he admits in retrospect was a "kind of stupid" reason to work so hard.

By the mid-Nineties, after an initial flourish of success, Wesley's company was foundering. When he finally sold it in late 1996, Wesley recalls, he was severely depressed. (He'd also been recently divorced from his first wife.) Then, on the cusp of a midlife crisis, he began to go through a personal renaissance. "It was a really cathartic time," he recalls. "I just made a commitment to being prolific and going with the flow. I taught myself to stay up all night, and quit drinking for a year."

Wesley says he initially conceived of as an outlet for his own music. "At first I just put on stuff that I liked. I wasn't filtering content or anything like that. Then people started asking me, 'Can I come on your Web site?'" grew--as Wesley hopes Sursumcorda will grow--through word of mouth.

Wesley, who has dabbled in various new-age philosophies, was drawn to the Net because of its utopian possibilities: Like rock music, the Web is a community organized around abstractions. "There's something about the instant gratification you get on the Net," he explains. "It's the manifestation of the global mind."

It never mattered that's regular audience has probably numbered in the hundreds. The Web was a free and risk-free space for Wesley and his friends to indulge their catholic interests. Along with musician and artist Mark Bowen, Wesley began cohosting The UFO Show, a genuinely odd Web-radio broadcast centered on extraterrestrial occurrences. "I don't consider myself a paranoid conspiracy theorist," Wesley explains. "But growing up in the country, I've always had this irrational fear of being abducted. If I ever went under hypnosis, they'd find some pretty weird shit."

A year or so ago, while eating a sandwich at the Monte Carlo, Wesley came up with the idea of starting Sursumcorda--a physical space based on the utopian ideals of the Web (i.e., audiences and artists sharing in the creative process). "I was thinking, What else can you do to let people into your world? It seemed to make sense to do some real-world equivalent of the Web."

From the start, Sursumcorda was half dream and half marketing ploy: A venue would promote Sursumcorda's record label and vice versa. The whole would be partially financed, meanwhile, by Wesley's software consulting. It would be a nexus where commerce, technology, and art--the elements of Wesley's life--collide. Another vanity project, perhaps, but one with prospects.

"Rock 'n' roll seems to be at the end of its life cycle," Wesley continues somewhat dreamily. "The next rock 'n' roll, the next thing that's going to sweep the world, is virtual reality. It's like that Dennis Miller joke: 'When some truck driver can sit at home on his Laz-E-Boy and fuck Claudia Schiffer, it's going to make crack look like Kool-Aid.'"

Until that halcyon day, Wesley imagines, Sursumcorda might be the closest possible thing to a real virtual reality--a space that evolves to entertain its audience.


Unlike a Web site, a nightclub has to justify its existence by making money (and, unlike an e-business enterprise, there are no venture capitalists eager to toss their cash into such a long-odds proposition). On the evening after Sursumcorda's opening--or, if you like, initial public offering--the joint is definitely not jumping. The front room is virtually empty. The bank of PCs against the wall blink sadly, while the woman behind the counter, left with no customers to serve, busies herself tidying newspapers. Aside from the computers, Sursumcorda doesn't look appreciably different from the zillions of other coffee shops in the city. The small newsstand, which sells zines, cigarettes, and indie records, is closed for the evening.

Through a dark hall at the back of the coffee shop--which has been wallpapered with digital images of Sursumcorda's staff and boosters--things are a bit livelier. The old Foxfire space--with its crappy acoustics and ungainly stage--has been given a fresh gloss, including sleek bar fixtures, more computers, a caged-in sound booth, and an expensive digital-projection system. Though still tiny by nightclub standards, the space will accommodate Sursumcorda's eclectic programming: new ambient music one night, underground film, spoken-word performance, standup comedy, poetry reading, touring rock outfit, or emo-pop band the next.

On this evening, electronica artist Jake Mandell is grooving over a Mac laptop onstage, mapping a dense sonic landscape. The music is loud, but no one seems to be paying much attention to it aside from turning up the volume of their own conversations. A digital-projection system splashes ghostly silhouettes over the exposed brick behind the stage, while an adjacent screen plays mathematically generated images. The crowd is older and more subdued than the anxious teens who once made this space their own. Mandell's set is also fairly low-key: His head bobs slightly in time with the beat, but he doesn't look up from his computer keyboard. A Sursumcorda employee, meanwhile, flits through the audience with a digital camera. Eventually, when Wesley has worked the kinks out of the system, the Sursumcorda audience will be able to watch itself watching via streaming video on The experience will be a digital feedback loop--drawing people onto the Web site at the same time as it draws them into the club.

When Mandell's set ends, he drops off the stage and fades into the crowd, which is thinning quickly as patrons wander out into the dead quiet of the Warehouse District after hours. Wesley, who has been working since 5:00 a.m. and probably won't go to bed until hours after closing time, is still ensconced in the caged sound booth, tinkering with computer-generated imagery, adjusting knobs, sending messages out into the void. Surrounded by buttons, Wesley seems in his element, comfortably in control of his environment. He's built himself the perfect playground; now it remains to be seen whether anyone will show up to play.