3_2005_mcscott.jpgI'm a born and raised Lower East Sider. So, I've been in NY 33 years. I live in Brooklyn now, much to the chagrin of my mother who still lives on the Lower East Side. I own Tonic with my husband John Scott.


THE INTERVIEW

How did you go from being a comparative lit major to a club owner?
After college I taught creative writing as part of an Arts program for NYC schools. My husband (boyfriend at the time) was getting excited about this new thing called the Internet. After reading about cyber-cafes on the West coast, we thought it would be cool to open one in the East Village. We hooked up with someone who knew all about coffee and we became entrepreneurs. My friend Ted Reichman, an accordion player, started booking a weekly music series in the cafe and so we started to meet musicians and get into some really great music. After a few years, we wanted to expand.

When did Tonic open?
We opened in the Winter of '98 presenting film, music, theater and comedy.

But Tonic is mainly a music venue now, were your original visions for the place derailed?
Our original vision wasn't derailed... it just became more focused.

Can you talk a little about the space…
John read about the space in the NYTimes. It was an old kosher winery complete with giant oak casks that we thought was amazing. We opened the casks and put seating inside, converted an old wine filter into a DJ booth, and made a wall sculpture out of steel bands. We tried to preserve as much of the buildings history as we could.

John Zorn has close ties to the club. How did that come about?
After two months of a weekly music series, John Zorn came in and asked about booking a festival. Two days later he had two months of incredible music booked. The new music series was born. That summer was a crash course in the "downtown" music scene.

Many clubs fail within the first year, when did you realize that Tonic might have some staying power?
That first show Zorn booked packed the room and there was a line around the block for people trying to get in. After that we continued to get attention in all the local papers and magazines, which really gave us a sense that we might be on to something...

The club was opened in part as an alternative to the Knitting Factory. Did you feel like you were competing?
We never thought much about competition, we just booked what we knew and musicians seemed to be excited about having another place to play.

What's your “curatorial system” all about?
During the first few years we invited a different musician to curate each month, which kept the booking really interesting. Vernon Reid, Arto Lindsay, Susie Ibarra, Thurston Moore, Dave Douglas and Zeena Parkins were among the curators.

On a day to day basis, what's the most frustrating part of running the place?
Getting the bills paid!

Speaking of paying the bills, you've been getting a lot of press as a result of some current financial woes. How did things get so out of control?
We've always struggled to make ends meet. We book creative, experimental and avant-garde music... by definition, not a huge audience. Increasing rent and serious plumbing problems made it harder and harder.

Has 9/11 been a factor?
Our insurance has tripled since 9/11 and we definitely lost a lot of business in the months following.

What kind of reaction/support have you received from artists and patrons?
Support from musicians and audiences has been outstanding and truly inspirational. Hearing from so many people that Tonic was an important venue to them really kept us going. On a bad day I could just read some of the testimonials on our website to feel encouraged.

Tonic is located in the heart of the LES. What do you think of what's happening to the neighborhood?
Of course there are pluses and minuses. When we first moved in here the blocks was pretty desolate. There were many vacant lots, little foot traffic and plenty of rats. As someone who missed having cafes, boutiques and great restaurants here when I was growing up, I'm thrilled to see businesses flourish here. It would be unfortunate if some of what made this neighborhood turn around eventually became high-end apartments. I would hate to see this neighborhood loose it's artistic integrity.

We know you probably have dozens of favorite shows and memorable moments, but if you could only tell one story, what would it be?
It's true, there have been so many favorite shows. Most recently,Yoko Ono's birthday with Yoko performing with Sean Lennon and Vincent Gallo. What an amazing night!

Another memorable Tonic episode that comes to mind...Richard Thompson played here on a day of pouring rain. We made the downstairs a cozy backstage as the band played to a full house in the main space. Halfway through their set, the downstairs started to flood. Furniture was beginning to float! We quickly rolled up our pants and started to frantically dump out buckets of water. By the time the band came downstairs to hang out, the space was back to normal.

If Tonic was to close, what would be next for you?
Tonic T-shirts.

Seriously, right now we are just planning on continuing Tonic. The day may come where we have to find a new home but the plan is to keep doing what we're doing.

Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "I'm so glad I live in this city."
I once saw one cab hit another on Houston street. A drag queen got out of a passenger seat and said "I didn't see nothing," then strutted off in 6-inch heels, leaving the drivers to argue.

You're in a time machine that can take you back in time. What day in NYC history would you go back to?
Hmm, there are a couple. On one hand I'd love to catch legendary performances like, Frank Sinatra at The Paramount or Billie Holiday at Cafe Society but I'd also like to see my grandfather the day he opened his shop on Mott Street.

Billy's Topless is now a bagel shop, no more smoking in bars or restaurants, Times Square has been Disneyfied, what's next?
The Frick becomes dorms.

If you could change just one thing about New York City, what would it be?
NO CARS. Or at least a limited amount.

It's the year 2024, what do you think will be the hot topic of discussion at the water cooler?
Martin Scorsese has finally won an oscar.

Check out the Tonic website for a list of upcoming shows.

Interview by Raphie Frank and Mindy Bond