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An interview with Marc Campbell
By Sounni de Fontenay
(more articles from this author)
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"Jesus Calling Jesus"(1994) - The Nails

BE Tell me what you are involved with in the music industry?

MC Well right now I am booking three different rooms. Gonzalez y Gonzalez [NYC], which is a Latin room, The Rodeo Bar [NYC] which is Americana, country, french & country western and Louisiana Community Bar and Grill [NYC], which is primarily blues, R&B, funk, swing music.

BE Do you have a band?

MC I am currently recording my 4th CD called The Devil Circus. I have recorded a couple of albums with RCA, then I recorded an album a few years back for an independent label called Safehouse. The band's name is The Nails, but this [The Devil Circus] will probably be released with my own name. I haven't decided on that.

BE With respect to the past, how did you get yourself into this? Into music?

MC I got into it like many musicians. I grew up in the 60's when rock and roll radio was quite different than how it is now. I can imagine the time when you can hear the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry all on the same radio station. These days, the radio market has been so segmented that you have urban radio which is predominantly black. Then you have oldies stations. Then you have progressive rock stations. Back in the 60's, radio stations would play black artists as well as white artists; whether it was rock and roll, R&B, or what have you. So I grew up, at a time when I was 11 or 12, lying in my bed at night with the radio under my pillow going to sleep to the sounds of American rock and roll. It was also a vibrant time for rock and roll; there were the British invasions taking place and so many great stuff coming out of Motown. I grew up as a rock and roll fanatic.

I later started writing as a teenager; poetry and prose. As I grew a little older, and continued to pursue poetry, I realized that poetry sections in bookstores where usually the least patronized with most books in poetry covered in dust. People don't really listen to or read much poetry but that is starting to change. But at the time, I felt that if I wanted to be heard I have to be out there and share my vision. I have been inspired by the poetry of rockers like Jim Morrison, Patty Smith, and Lou Reed and so I just started doing readings with bookstores accompanied by a a couple of musicians and before you know it, it evolved into a full fledged band .

BE Do you play an instrument?

MC Yeah, I play guitar, sing and write all the songs. I was really inspired a lot by the punk rock group movement, which says that anyone can play rock and roll. It doesn't have to have to involve 15 minute long elaborate guitar solos. I saw that the great rockers really did alter people's and society's conciousness hoping to expand it and introduce new ways of thinking. Certainly guys like the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix totally broke down racial barriers. So I want to be involved in that kind of energy.

BE Did your band ever do a recording?

MC Yeah, I came to New York with my band from Boulder, Colorado to play and audition at CBGB's in the 70's, at the beginning of the NY punk scene. We ended up staying in New York sleeping on a friend's floor in a friend's loft and eventually released a small independent record. It got the attention of John Peele on BBC1 in London, of all places. The song, "88 Lines About 44 Women", that John Peele heard was on this very limited pressing vinyl disk. It is used in a Mazda commercial, being aired right now as we speak during the World Series. They used someone that sounds like me and changed the lyrics of the song. It's my song. It's funny, I started out in this kind of underground scene; I never though in a million years that I would ever get signed to a major label. It wasn't what I had set out to do. It was icing on the cake. I was never one of those guys that said "I got to get into music and make money." I got into music because I don't know what I would have done otherwise. I might have become a serial killer otherwise. [laughs]

BE A worthy profession!

MC Right, I had to express myself and rock and roll was a fun way to do it.

BE How did booking bands come into the picture?

MC I had been touring with my band and often went to work and had nothing to do. I was hanging out in a restaurant that was called Albuquerque Eats and they had a separate room where they had live music. They had some folk musician there playing music. I said to one of the owners that it would be very interesting to build a stage in that room and bring some real country acts, some real rock and roll acts. He said "go ahead and give it a shot." I did it for the sheer fun of it. It became very successful which evolved into what is now called the Rodeo Bar, NYC's longest running honky-tonk, lone star restaurant/bar.

BE How long ago did all of this start?

MC About 12 years ago, so I found out that it was a great way to make money while still being involved in something I loved without compromising my ethics or my morals. It's a pretty righteous way to make a buck. It's not working in slaughter houses, it's not working for military industrial conflicts. It's a way to make money without selling out too much. The only pitfall is that one starts to approach music as a product and that's dangerous. I try to avoid slipping into that, I try to look at music as art and not see it as a commodity. Music talent is not to be sold like used cars.

BE That is interesting, on one hand you are a musician in a band and on the other you book the bands. You cover two sides of the spectrum.

MC When I think, it kind of makes me more sympathetic to the artist almost to the detriment of the business that I represent. I feel and know how difficult it is to be an artist and a musician in NYC especially with the incredibly expensive rehearsal space. People often wonder why is the NY rock and roll scene or music scene in general so unfruitful in terms of new exciting stuff. Locally, I have to say that, particularly in rock and roll, nothing much is going on. While places like Seattle, North Carolina or Boston are producing really great rock bands, I think that it really boils down to real estate. Bands in Seattle probably live in a surburban house which they are probably paying $500 - $600 per month, which is probably attached to 1-2 garages. They set up their equipment and rehearse nonstop and write nonstop for next to nothing. In NYC if you want to rehearse a band, you have to book rehearsal time and it could be as little as $10-$15 an hour or for some of the better rooms $35-$40 an hour. That really does not encourage a whole lot of creativity. It's hard to write when the clock is ticking.

BE It's hard to just get the band together on a moments notice and start to rehearse and jam.

MC It's an interesting point to be made that maybe part of the reason that hip hop is so big, aside from the demographics and aside from the fact that there are a higher concentration of black artists in the city. It could also be a function of real estate because I know for a fact that if I'm working on a new album I can't rehearse with a new band on this material. However, I can certainly program a drum machine. So it's possible for one to record in one's home. You lose some of the organics in rehearsing with a new group of musicians in a rehearsing environment. Maybe what makes electronic music and hip hop, things that uses programs, samplers and rhythm machines, so attractive is that you can afford to make music in your apartment, in an urban environment. That may be a contributing factor in why rock and roll seems to be in a low right now. I am just thinking about this as we talk, maybe this has to do a lot with real estate. It's a good theory.

BE Yeah, you have to put this down in writing. You book bands for three different clubs with different genres of music, well two of them are similar. How do you keep up with every individual type of music?

MC I read a lot about music. At Gonzalez, it was but only so much if you are doing a tex-mex style of food; we had to do little fast playing. Mariachi -tejano kind of border music involving accordions and whatever was something that wasn't readily available in NYC. There really isn't that much of an audience for that traditional Mexican music. So I tried to stick to something that had a flavor of the southwest which led me to doing some country, blues, texas style blues stuff. None of it seemed to really make sense so I decided to go with an international world beat approach.

I thought well we'll go with something that takes in some Caribbean essence, South American elements, and even some reggae; attaching maybe some of the Jamaican stuff. All of these are tropical music. The food derives from southern culture so that made a little more sense. But then again I was having a problem finding a variety of good reggae bands, but there seems to be a lot of good Latin bands. A lot in Brooklyn, in the Bronx and when we decided to go with the Latin thing, to go it pure and simple, we found that there was an audience. There was an incredible array of musicians.

BE Just around the time that Latin music started to become big in America.

MC Yeah, I think that there is an argument to be made in the success of Gonzalez being attributed to the Latin music renaissance. We have been doing it for a while and this is NYC, when you do anything in NYC it tends to radiate outward. People tend to say that if it happens in NY, it must be hip. It's been great not only for business but it's been great for the musical community. Gonzalez is a decent room to be seen in; we don't charge a cover. Anybody can walk in whether they are interested in music or not.

Maybe they can be tuned into something that they really haven't heard or know nothing about. So it's good exposure for the bands and we try to create a user-friendly atmosphere for the bands. But because we don't charge a cover we don't have that much money to spend on a band. While we do pay generously, we also realize that in large bands, individual band members walk in with less money than what some of our waiters and waitresses earn. So we try to make up for that. The booking thing is not just hiring bands and making decisions based on trying to figure out what the band is worth based on its draw; name recognition and etc.

Part of it is also to contribute to an atmosphere; make sure that the bands are well treated. I work closely with the managers of the restaurants to let them know that the bands should be treated with respect. I make sure that the managers in the restaurants have an affinity for the bands and have a feeling for what is going on and that is the case with Gonzalez.

The staff and the management team over there really understand the value for the music and knows how to treat the bands with respect. So we have a good rep in terms of an overall approach to the music

BE What about Louisiana?

MC Unlike Gonzalez, when we opened Louisiana we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do with the music. It's a restaurant called Louisiana Community Bar and Grill that serves cajun food and the idea was to bring in as many artists with cajun music backgrounds. Again, since Louisiana has no cover charge, I was very limited with resources to pay the bands. So I looked locally to see whether I could find that cajun music. With the exception of a couple of bands, there really wasn't any. So in order to keep live music going on at Louisiana 7 days a week we had to be a little more broad minded in the type of music we played there. We expanded into other genres like funk, R&B, and we discovered a bunch of old cats that were living in NYC, by the name of the Harlem All-stars. They were members of Duke Ellington, Count Basie's All Stars, these were the originators of the jazz music that we know in this country. They were still playing in joints throughout Harlem and such and we brought them in here Saturday nights about 7 or 8 years ago and they have been playing here ever since. This is real music playing here every Saturday night. Guys like Al Cassie, Johnnie Blauwers, Laurel Watson, Eddie Swatson; these cats are historic figures in American jazz. They became such a huge attraction in recent years that I started to book bands that play jump blues and swing music.

There was a new breed of musicians that were started to play this music. We have been doing swing way ahead of the curb; this year the swing thing has really exploded. As a result we are now doing 3 nights of swing music here. We got the recognition that we deserve for having helped to bring out this swing renaissance. People say that this started in LA and so on on but I think that this started here in the Northeast, here at Louisiana. If you look at it, it's been here for about 7 years. This a more formal approach to music. They dress up, the latin music scene is also more senseous with more contact, with intense dresses and classy-type of sexy gowns. For the guys I think that it's a real backlash, in terms of grunge in the late 80's early 90's, when rockers looked like car mechanics.

BE What is your criteria for booking bands?

MC It's starts with a phone call. I have an answering machine, so any given day sounds like a multi-ethnic smorgasborg. I get phone calls from red-necks in Texas, Latinos in Brooklyn, and calls from New Orleans. So it's a really interesting mix. If you want to get in touch with me call my answering machine [1-(212)-253-1745]. The machine will tell you where to send a press kit, a CD or tape, any kind of photos, to my office which happens to be here at Louisina Community Bar and Grill [622 Broadway, New York, NY, 10012, USA]. I receive them and review them. I will tell your readers that if they are interested in sending out press kits to booking agents such as myself , there are really a few things that they should consider. First presentation. I can't tell you enough about how the songs that are handwritten are sometimes in script and illegible or you get a copy of a 8 1/2 glossy picture of a band backstage where all the band members look tired, bloated and drunk. It's really important to make a great first impression in a press kit. I would not take a package which is poorly made or put together. I take it very seriously. If you aren't creative enough to put together a package, you are probably equally as sloppy with your music. It's not fair to paint everybody with that brush but is certainly an important thing to consider is that ........

BE It's as if you were going to a job interview. You dress your best.

I can't tell you how many goofy band photos I get. I can't tell you how many pictures I get and the bands look horrible. If there is anything that you can do to get the attention of a booking agent like me, do it. Try to set your package apart from the rest of them. Get interesting colors and graphics, all of these things are very very important.

BE Almost as important as the message itself.

MCIf I get a sloppy presentation I will put it on the side and will listen to it when I get to it!

BE To finish this off, with respect to bands and musicians, from your extensive experience what advice would you give them in starting off?

MCI think first of all the idea that they will earn money in the beginning should just be vanished entirely. If money is what motivates you to get out then get out now, because in the beginning it's a struggle; there's no way to get around this. Particularly in NYC you are not going to make any money. Making money is not an issue. Going out, willing to play gigs, not pay for free mind you. No one should play for free but certainly go out and play as many gigs as you can. Get some experience under your belt.

In asking a booking agent for a gig suggest things. If in the beginning you don't have a big draw hook up with a band that might. Put together a package; there a lot of angles. Certainly play with a band that has a big draw and put a package together with them. In a effort to get a gig never put down any bands that the agent is booking. What you are saying to the booking agent is that you have better taste than him. No one should try to get ahead by stepping on other musicians that are struggling as well. There are a lot of venues out there and it's getting tougher, part of it is because of Guiliani [Rudolph Guiliani, Mayor of New York City], but that is a whole other issue. It's harder and harder to run many music venues as the venues become fewer and farther in between, it's going to get harder and harder to get gigs.

Just stick to it if you believe in your art and you persist then things are gonna happen to you, but if you are gonna come into this thing and money is the motivation, forget about playing live in this city. Go into a studio and make a great record and a great video and keep your fingers crossed. But if you want to build a reputation and work a band you really have to work hard and sacrifice a lot. It's tough but it's true. Go to venues where you at least are going to be treated with a certain level of respect because there is nothing more demoralizing than playing a gig for a few months and being treated like shit. Play a room, earn a few buck, it won't be much but you will be fed and they will serve you with drinks and that is the most that you can hope for right now. With more of this Latin thing exploding there will be more opportunities for Latin bands and at the same thing for swing music

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