On The Level

The calm before the rave: Mariesa Bumgarner and Kurt Schultz enjoy a quiet moment in the not-yet-open Level
Tony Nelson

Minneapolis dance music is like that klutzy nerd in the cafeteria--he has to approach six different tables before setting his tray down without someone protesting. That's been the case on the local nightclub scene for the last couple of years, as electronic dance music DJs have wandered from room to room in search of a welcoming home: Drink and Tonic have swapped locations; Tabu closed permanently; Spin, Karma, Escape, and Barfly introduced themselves; and the poorly secured Quest is open once again--at least until its next Jerry Springer moment.

To many EDM aficionados' chagrin, one man has constantly positioned himself as a liaison between the fledgling clubs' management and their would-be public. Kurt Schultz started as a talent booker for the now-closed numbskull nest known as Banana Joe's (later called Ocean Club), and quickly became known for playing to the flossy Top 40 set, only turning to the dedicated underground dance contingent when things went sour. But as a businessman, Schultz has an impeccable reputation with corporations. When Tonic opened in 2004, Schultz was unsurprisingly put in charge. He promised the "heads" he'd have their best interests in mind, but burned bridges with respected DJs and club management soon after. Now Schultz is pandering to the dance scene again, hovering over the incubator containing the city's latest discotheque, Level. The club plans to strictly adhere to a dance-music-only format--something Minneapolis hasn't seen in many years.

"We've hired a cool-ass staff, and we're leaving the promoting up to the promoters and the DJing up to the DJs," Schultz says. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us and we plan to make the absolute best of it."

Sporting an almost-flat-top and neatly trimmed soul patch, the 38-year-old Schultz first comes off as a fast talker who could be downright slick when necessary. But there's something about the way he speaks humbly and passionately about Level that hints he's on the side of the music and its true fans this time.

Resting in the Rogue's old location in the basement of the Lumber Exchange Building on Fifth Street and Hennepin Avenue, Level is one part Alice in Wonderland playhouse (floor-to-ceiling mirrors and red velvet) and one part windowless Victorian-era dungeon (wrought iron and stained wood). Schultz says it used to be a spa in the 1800s; the sunken dance floor was a wading pool. There's definitely some charm here, both in the environment and in Schultz's tone.

"I'm a little insecure about how I am perceived in [dance music] circles," he says. "It's because I feel I've done my share to be a positive force for EDM in Minneapolis and some people just don't see that and it hurts."

Though Schultz takes turns playing the roles of martyr and reformed guy, many respected pillars of the scene are putting their faith in him again. Opening night will feature sets from Celebrity Records DJs Bryan Gerrard and David Drone. Confident and fiery Mariesa Bumgarner, who helped launch Industry Magazine, the city's first full-color pocket magazine, is co-piloting the endeavor as the club's general manager.

"We want Level to be the kind of place we'd want to attend and the kind of place our friends would go to every weekend," Bumgarner says. "We're going to make it a place you can show up to any night of the week in relaxed clothes and hear the best dance music in the city."

The owners of Level say Schultz came highly recommended, and they plan to have a hands-off approach to management.

"When we spoke with customers, people either loved him or hated him," said Preston Field in a public forum on MNVibe.com. "He told us that if we wanted to be a successful dance venue, we needed to utilize respected, local DJs and promoters that know the industry, otherwise the people who prefer dance music will not support it. So we offered him a management position. He accepted only under the condition that we follow that advice."

Many music lovers are on the edge of their seats about opening night, but not everyone is convinced the endeavor will be fruitful. Longtime dance music patron Dana Bruhn says she'll believe it when she sees it: "People say, 'He's changed. He loves the music. It wasn't entirely his fault, blah blah.' They sound like battered women."

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