Since settling in New York in 2001, promoter Todd Patrick – known through his website as Todd P – has established himself as a major force in the avant-garde rock scene. In the fastidious spirit of a modern day Bill Graham – though without the passion for profits – Patrick has distinguished himself with his commitment to producing shows at atypical, under-the-radar locations like lofts, rooftops and funky, “illegal” clubs. Often eschewing such vagaries as permits and liquor licenses, a Todd P show typically features an eclectic line-up of bands unleashing an adventurous squall of sound before a sweaty, writhing all-ages crowd. But there may be a bit less sweaty writhing in Brooklyn in the months to come; Patrick recently announced a hiatus from his dizzying schedule promoting shows. We spoke with him earlier in the week about his future plans, why most clubs are so oppressive, and that time he got assaulted by a bouncer outside Bowery Ballroom.
So how do you think the music scene in New York has changed since you moved here in 2001? The obvious answer to that, which is the one that gets the most press, is that the center of gravity has shifted to Brooklyn. But I think there are more subtle changes than that. There is a lot more diversity and there are many different scenes going. But let’s be blunt; we’re talking about the indie rock music scene. There are certainly other scenes that I don’t involve myself with and I don’t think you’re writing about. But when I moved here in 2001 the indie rock scene was a very small community of bands and talent. Now it’s different; you can chalk it up to all the people moving to Williamsburg and perhaps also to people like myself and to club owners who have opened up since then and tried to create a multi-faceted, diverse, independent rock scene.
But ultimately it’s because Brooklyn has become a place where young, college educated people wanted to live bohemian lives – and that only took hold in the late ‘90s. Because of that there’s this possibility of being able to live in New York City and being able to sort of afford it without having to hold the most serious day job in the world. Which cannot be said about Manhattan anymore. If you have a new lease in Manhattan now you better have a serious job or be independently wealthy or you can’t afford it. At least in Brooklyn you can kind of pull off, by the skin of your teeth, the kind of lifestyle you can get in say Portland or Oakland or Austin or any of these other perennial rock communities.
Also right now you see a lot more people out there doing experimental music in Brooklyn and people mixing that experimental spirit with pop music. You can point to bands like Animal Collective or even TV on the Radio or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as being sort of the forbearers of that. And now you’re seeing really awesome pop bands that are totally influenced by the bands doing just totally abstract experimental noise and putting it together in a way that’s never been done before.
Who are some examples of that?Dirty Projectors. Or High Places. Or The USA Is a Monster. They’re basically making this pop music that is appealing to a lot of people but has textures that are very avant and very experimental, while at the same time being accepted by mainstream crowds. That’s something that didn’t exist in New York. When I moved to New York, pretty much the best bands in the scene sounded like Gang of Four. You know? The bands that were the indie rock bands of New York were The Rapture, Interpol, The Walkmen, Radio 4. And now there’s so much more going on. There’s so much more than just sounding like alt rock. And that’s a great thing.
How does seeing Matt and Kim at an established venue like Bowery differ from seeing them at a Todd P event? I see what you’re getting at, in that obviously you would think the crowds would go less apeshit. But Matt and Kim are a bit of an exception, which is what’s awesome about them. They can play these places and kids still lose their shit and that’s great. I’ll happily see Matt and Kim become the biggest band in the world because even on a big scale they still bring the same kind of unbridled joy unmatched by these other cynical art school kids. And I’ve seen that happen at Bowery Ballroom and I’ve seen them do it in somebody’s basement.
At the same time I see other bands that can offer totally raucous off-the-wall experiences and then get lost at a club. I’ve seen bands play a show on the floor with the audience around them jumping around and the next night see them at the Mercury Lounge and it’s just a stale, by-the-book experience. And that’s not so much any failing in the bands, it’s a failing in the clubs. The clubs in Manhattan and even in Brooklyn to some degree are just these factories where they send a band onstage, and then the next band, and then the next band and now it’s over – get the hell out! And that effects the audience, when the guy at the door stamping their hand won’t even look at them, where everyone is gruff, where the drink prices are designed to milk as much as they possibly can out of their captive audiences. When they hire jerk sound guys and a doorman who thinks his job is to be the doorman at Studio 54 and act like the biggest dick possible to everybody, these things have a cumulative effect on everyone’s vibes and it makes people lose sight of the fact that rock and roll is a participatory art form that has the potential to involve the audience.
And these clubs tell you it’s all financial, that they don’t have an option, that the insurance keeps them from this or that and I can believe that to a certain degree but I still think these big clubs – and even some of the little ones – are just heartless. I often wonder why the people who risk their financial well-being to open these places don’t just open up a widget factory. Because all they care about is a return on their investment and a rock club is never going to be a very effective one. I don’t care how much you cut every corner and suck as much money out of it as you can, it’s still not going to make you as much money as a lot of other fields do. And if there’s no joy to it and you don’t love the visceral rock experience – which they can’t because they’re stifling it – why bother? Why sully this otherwise really pure experience for people?
Have you actually met any of the club owners? I’ve met some of them and some of them are very sweet people with good intentions. There are clubs I like and some I don’t like but still sympathize with.
What’s a club you like? Cakeshop. I like Glasslands. Those are two places that have all the legal things they have to have to be a club while at the same time being relaxed places that are about the music. I like the Knitting Factory. I have some quarrels with the way Studio B runs their security and the amount they charge for things but at the same time it’s an independently owned place with a real vision in their booking, especially with dance culture and DJ culture. Easily the most intelligent electronic curatorial choices in this country were made at Studio B over the summer. And I can even get behind Bowery Presents on some levels because they’re an independent company going against the big corporate behemoth of Clear Channel. I don’t agree with everything they do at all and have had terrible experiences seeing shows at Mercury Lounge and Webster Hall. But I do like seeing shows at Bowery Ballroom.
What’s the worst experience you’ve had at one of these clubs? When I first started putting on shows I didn’t have a mailing list yet and for the most part email wasn’t yet the way people found out about shows; this was 2001. I was handing out fliers for a band called Barkley’s Barnyard Critters which is Brian Gibson from Lightning Bolt’s side project, where he and his buddies dress up like barnyard animals, get drunk and play music, sort of.
Anyway, I was handing out fliers for their show which was to be at The Local, which later became Rocky’s which is also known as Rock Star Bar. I was handing out the fliers on the sidewalk outside of Bowery Ballroom. The bouncer came over, knocked me down and knocked the fliers out of my hand. And I wasn’t even standing on their property; I was standing by the subway entrance in front of their space. And I stood up and he knocked me down again. I stood up again and he knocked me down again. He knocked me down several times and my arms and legs were scraped up. So I called the police, they came and said they couldn’t do anything and drove off. But this man literally assaulted me for handing out fliers for a little show in Brooklyn. And Bowery was sold out – I think !!! was playing that night and they’re friends of mine who in no way would have objected to me fliering the show. So that’s one example. Didn’t even have to enter the club for that to be a bad example.
But I have to say most of the worst experiences in New York seeing shows are not so much due to bad vibes as boring vibes. It kind of comes with the territory sometimes that the bouncer is a jerk and the sound is a little crappy but some of the worst experiences are when it’s dull and routine.
What’s the show you’ve promoted in New York that you’re most proud of? Definitely the acoustic barbeque on Roosevelt Island. I do it every year though not always on Roosevelt Island. We invite a lot of bands, most of whom are the usual psych-folk bands but there are always some exceptions, there are always some bands who don’t usually play acoustic. I just invite everyone I like in town to come play in the public park, with no permit and no amplification. It’s totally free with no stage; we do it every spring as an encapsulation of what I love about music and who’s interesting at that moment of time. Those are always my favorite shows in New York.
What is the biggest crisis you’ve had to deal with at one of your shows? There’s only been somebody hurt one time in the six or seven years I’ve been doing this in New York. It was an instance where somebody got really drunk and fell down and it was just one of those situations where you just have to get the person to the hospital. And part of the challenge was not being an alarmist but convincing the person that they really were injured and they really did need to go to the hospital and no they couldn't keep partying. That’s a fairly easily dealt-with crisis.
The more difficult crisis is when a show gets shut down by the police. That’s happened less than five times for me in New York, which is a better track record than a lot of clubs. But I always vow for that to not be the end and we always try to relocate the show when we can. So if you can imagine taking down a p.a. system and moving it to another location – after also locating that location amidst all the cacophony – and then setting it up again, that’s a big disaster.
In the last six months the biggest crisis I had to deal with was at an all-ages show at a place called The Sugar Factory, which is in the same building as Glasslands and Death by Audio. It’s owned by people who want to throw upscale hip-hop and Latin dance parties. When I talked with them they kind of weren’t doing well and so they agreed to let me put on this show that would be all ages. On the bill was Harry and the Potters, which is a band that mostly attracts 16-year-old Harry Potter fans and Japanther. About a half hour into the night things are not looking good. They had hired 15 huge security guards for this event that probably had 200 people coming, most of them really nerdy 15 year olds. And they decide they’re not going to sell any alcohol because the owners apparently didn’t know the law, that it would be perfectly legal for them to sell alcohol as long as they didn’t sell it to kids. Then they start frisking everybody, including 7 year olds. So they’re frisking children dressed like Harry Potter and accuse one kid of being drunk and refuse to let him in. And we eventually had to just cancel the show.
I managed to move it to Death by Audio, but we had to secretly move the equipment without security noticing and move it next door. Then we spread the word that we were moving the show next door and told everyone to sneak out the back door. We managed to completely clear out the club without telling the management or the security because they had broken all the agreements I had with them, that it would be all ages but they would sell alcohol, and that they wouldn’t frisk people. Those are my standard agreements. And we made the decision to relocate at about 8:40 and by 9:15 the first band was playing.
What are you working on during your hiatus from promoting? I’m doing a lot of different things. I don’t exactly make money off shows; that’s never been my goal. I do sometimes make an income but sometimes I don’t. I need to set up a way to make an income that doesn’t involve putting on shows. One of those ways is opening commercial spaces for bands to rehearse. I’d also like to give some other people in town the chance to start putting on shows and making connections with booking agents. You know, DIY is about doing it yourself, not about doing it myself. I don’t want to be the beginning and the end of where the music scene is in Brooklyn. Not that I could even claim that now but I don’t want that perception nor do I want that to be the truth. I don’t want to get to the point where I’ve been doing it for so long that all the connections are just mine and nobody else can break into it and do it themselves.
I’ve also been doing this for six years and want to take a little time off. I’m not quitting at all; I may come back at some point to do it at the same rate I do it now. For now I want to work on putting together some shows that make a bigger splash for people who are not as savvy. I want to put on bigger festivals because I feel like it’s those kind of one-off events that pull in the people who most need to be turned on, the ones who are the creative people but who are also homebodies. And I feel like by working on those kinds of projects I can use my skills a lot better than just putting on larger and larger shows to compete with the Bowery Presents of the world. I want to reach the kind of people who go out once or twice a year to see a show at Roseland or Hammerstein. How do I get access to those kinds of people without playing the same game? I feel like there’s a better way than just working marginally and just slowly breaking into this larger level of shows. There are diminishing returns there to a huge degree. You just end up being basically a middleman to get the same results. And I don’t want to be that guy; I don’t want to compromise.
So I would rather pull back a little bit from doing day-to-day shows and put on a few really big shows and do some really big festivals that I have planned on the horizon. And also some other events that mix art and music together and try to be more of an inspiring creative experience. I see that as more of an uplifting and hopefully more satisfying thing to do than just being the guy who puts on five shows a week. I’d also like to rededicate my time to trying to get a space of my own open because I think there’s currency to having a space and a location where people feel like they can see music, and you can reach that same group of people who don’t go out that often but come back to one place again and again. That’s something I’d like to redouble my efforts to get to, having that one room where somebody can go and feel comfortable; even if someone doesn’t know what’s going on they’ll know that space is a dependable place to go see something different.
And every once in a while maybe you’ll get that kid who doesn’t go out very much and doesn’t necessarily know how the scene works and how one band relates to another band that relates to another genre. I want to create a safe haven where that kid won’t feel excluded and you can maybe inspire that kid to form a band of his or her own or start making art the way they’ve always dreamed of or maybe just realize that it’s in them, that it doesn’t take this special class of individuals to make art people want to listen to. That’s ultimately what I’m doing this for; to inspire young people to do it for themselves and be the purveyors of art, you know? That’s my goal.