The Southern Theater Sessions: A dream DIY experience
Photo by Nora O'Brien
Batteryboy frontman Cobey Rouse has been a busy man as of late. In addition to getting his kids ready for the start of the school year, Rouse organized the second installment of the Southern Theater Sessions, a two-night concert that begins this evening at Minneapolis's Southern Theater. In addition to two separate Batteryboy performances, the Sessions shows will also feature the first ever performance of Adam Levy's solo material, a sure-to-be special performance from the Murder of Crows (featuring Low's Alan Sparhawk), as well as stripped-down sets from notoriously loud rockers Fury Things and Alpha Consumer. All set in the spare, intimate surroundings of Seven Corners' venerable Southern Theater.
These shows represent a rare, musician-only event, with no corporate sponsors/bookers/promoters assisting with organizing the gigs in any way -- only Rouse and his musical cohorts. Gimme Noise spoke to Rouse about the rewards and challenges of putting together shows like this, what initially inspired him to organize these Southern Theater shows, and what he has planned for his band's performances over the next two nights.
Inside the ornate chamber folk of LOTT
Gimme Noise: How did the Southern Theater Sessions idea come to you initially?
Cobey Rouse: After finishing a set at a local club that started at midnight on a Sunday, I split the $45 four ways with the band and got home at 2 a.m., only to wake up four hours later to go to work. I decided that wasn't the right type of gig for me or my three bandmates, and I set out to try to create more meaningful shows that we could be part of, even if that meant creating my own events. I reached out to a friend who had hosted a show there to see how it was done, checked out the theater and decided it was the perfect spot to bring this little idea to life.
How perfect a setting has the Southern Theater been for your event? It seems to match the vibe and atmosphere of the performances quite well.
It's amazing. A beautiful space, excellent sound and the stage on ground level adds to the "unplugged" vibe because the bands are not placed above the audience. The vulnerability really adds to the whole experience. It creates a cool perspective for the audience and really pulls something different out of the performers. It's hard to explain until you're actually doing it. I can't wait to see the stunned looks on the audience members' faces when they hear acts like LOTT and Har-di-Har entrance them from that gorgeous stage.
Obviously, the Sessions have been a way for you to promote your own band, Batteryboy -- but you've done a great job shining a spotlight on your talented friends and musical cohorts as well. What initially goes in to setting up the music lineup for the Sessions?
For the first Sessions, I reached out to other musicians who had either helped me, shared early bills with me or inspired me in my first couple years as batteryboy. For "Act 2" I got the word out by tweeting/posting for interested acts and fielded several dozen responses, but I also make a dual effort to reach out to the bands that really inspire me. Basically, I try to create concerts that I would like to sit back and enjoy and try to make it happen. It's really rewarding to see every act garner some more attention and hopefully new fans as a result.
How rewarding -- and challenging -- has it been planning and eventually pulling off these Southern Theater Sessions shows?
It's quite a trip. The months leading up are busy, along with family, full-time work and other gigs we play along the way, all while handling all of the booking, marketing, logistical setup, etc. It's not easy, and it's especially stressful when fellow artists, many who do this for a living, are relying on you for a great experience and for decent payment for the event. Every seat that gets filled means I am able to compensate the artists more, so that is always weighing on my mind. But when the bands first take that beautiful stage to play for an attentive crowd that is there for the sole purpose of listening to every word, every note, it makes the six months of planning totally worth it. Knowing I can give that experience to the artists and audience means the world to me.
Your set up encourages a more stripped-down type of performance from each of the participating bands and artists -- including the notoriously loud Fury Things and Alpha Consumer this time out, and the Melismatics and Carroll among in the initial go around. Have the previous bands enjoyed stepping outside of the comfort zones in order to match the mood and style of these shows? And does that set up add to the special quality of the performances themselves?
Absolutely, that's the most special thing about this. For artists, they get to challenge themselves a bit and possibly re-work their songs to fit the event. They might find something they love about that version and try it again live, or it might be the only time anyone ever hears that version, and it's awesome either way. Last year, you had the Ericksons and Danny from the Farewell Circuit go out to the crowd for their final songs completely unplugged. This year, who knows who's going to surprise you with a little experience you may never get again? That's definitely one of the coolest aspects.
It must be a thrill to have Alan Sparhawk involved in this year's lineup. How did you end up getting Murder of Crows on the bill?
I have known Alan's Murder of Crows counterpart, Gaelynn Lea, for several years from sharing bills in Duluth when she was with Snöbarn, so I reached out to her. While it's totally cool to share the stage with Alan, whose songs have been an inspiration to me for two decades, I booked Murder of Crows because I feel like the Twin Cities needs to hear more of them. And this is the perfect place to hear them. The two of them together are stunningly beautiful.
You've also managed to get Adam Levy's first performance of his new solo material. How excited are you about his set tonight?
I really admire Adam as a musician and as a person. He's one of the earnest leaders of the music scene here in my opinion, so I was really pumped that he even wanted to play the event. Then when I found out he planned to debut his new solo material with an all-star backing band? That's the kind of performance that deserves a night all to itself, so this is going to be super special. I'm equally as excited about hearing J.E. Sunde live for the first time...he's just a brilliant songwriter.
Last time out, you went for an ambitious three straight evenings of music. This time you've scaled it back to two nights. Did you find the two-night lineup easier to organize and manage in the long run?
Unfortunately, it was the same amount of work but possibly a bit harder emotionally because I had to let more acts down who were hoping to be part of it. That's the hardest part about being a fellow musician putting this all together, letting people down. I would have done three nights actually, but Saturday was not available. So, if there happens to be a third act being planned for next spring, you know who to contact to be in the running for it. In fact, we might already have a handful of acts confirmed...
Obviously, your goal in putting on the Southern Theater Sessions is to have a room full of music lovers enjoying distinctive performances from top-notch local artists. But beyond the shows itself, what are you hoping to achieve creatively and personally with these Sessions?
My two mains goals going forward are to encourage the spirit of community collaboration rather than competition, where artists know that they can rely on each other to play meaningful shows. I also want to give music veterans a fun new experience and up-and-coming acts an amazing way to be heard. If those things happen, audiences will continue to get their money's worth with these one-of-a-kind performances. Personal success for these Sessions would be that the word gets out and we can keep doing this for everyone involved. And, Jay Fleming and his students at IPR are doing sound for us. By doing so, they are helping us pull this off with a free service (so amazing) and he is able to provide students with a real, live learning experience and opportunity to network with working musicians.
Batteryboy is on the bill both nights. What do you have in store for your sets, and how thrilled are you to be back playing at the Southern Theater once again?
Night one will include some trombone accompaniment from Har-di-Har's Andrew Thoreen, including a brand new song 'you don't need to disappear.' Half of each night's set will be from last year's 'up for air,' but the rest are newer. I'm also back behind my weird 3-drum setup again for the first time since January, so we're kind of back to the roots of batteryboy's distinct sound. I'm SO thrilled to be back. With our style of music, there's nothing like playing to a room full of people who are there to listen. It's like a 200-person living room show.
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