So, What Do You Do, Steve Gardner?

Steve Gardner is the talent buyer for The Casbah, an eclectic live music venue that opened in Durham this September. Gardner has been a fixture on the local scene in the Triangle for years, having worked at Sugar Hill Records and then at Yep Roc up until taking over the reins at The Casbah. He’s also been a DJ at Durham’s WXDU since 1995. A California native whose love for Durham is unabashed, Gardner is in the process of booking The Bull City Metal Fest, a two-day eclectic heavy metal festival on Feb 4 and 5 which boasts 18 acts. Gardner promises “kick-ass” t-shirt to accompany the event. Check back this week for a chance to win a pair of tickets for Friday.

What is it that you do at The Casbah?

If I have a career path, it goes back to when I was in fourth grade and I got my first record. I was obsessed with it. It was Joe Jackson, “ Is She Really Going Out With Him.” I got my own money and I bought it… There were a couple of things that happened when I bought it. First thing, I listened to it over and over. Second of all, I wanted to play it for my friends. That was a big thing for me. I wanted to tell people, “You gotta hear this song…” I also got kind of a high from it and I wanted more of it, so I bought another record and another record. The next record was The Who, “Pinball Wizard.” These are just 7-inches at this point. The first album was Boston, because it had just come out and it was a big deal… I was 10.

I constantly got into different types of music. When I was in junior high, I heard Devo for the first time and I said ‘I’m never listening to rock and roll again, I’m only listening to punk and New Wave.’ I kept buying records. I kept kind of looking for that high of finding out about new music, telling people about it. Eventually, rock and roll wasn’t doing it for me so I got into old time music and bluegrass, celtic and blues. I’ve hit all these various kinds of genres. I came back to rock and roll and now I’m kind of into a weird mixture; I like metal, I like Top 40, hip hop. I like Eastern European violin music—I’m really into that right now… I’m constantly into different kinds of stuff. In my efforts to share music with people, I became a DJ in college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

When I got into the music business and worked at record labels, first at Sugar Hill and then at Yep Roc, it was still to connect people with music. As record labels kind of went down the tubes, I was looking for something to do and got a job here at (The) Casbah. I bring live music. I get to book a lot of varieties of kinds of music… I kind of get to use everything I’ve done in the past… Also, it’s good for a club not to just book one genre of music. Then you don’t have to rely on the same audience seven nights a week.

Are there challenges you’ve found with booking a new venue in Durham?

I don’t necessarily book what I personally listen to at home all the time. What I still trying to do is connect people with music. My least favorite music in the world is hippie music. But, if I can book some band like Larry Keel–who a lot of hippie people like–and some dude comes here and sees that and loves that and then I see them connecting with that, then I’m totally happy and satisfied even though that isn’t my type of music. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m still connecting people with the music. There’s a little of a fortune-teller aspect to the job. When I book a band I also have to try to guess how many people will show up and then, when I guess how many people will show up, I know how much I can pay them. Obviously, if I’m wrong and half as many people show up then we lose money.

Have you run across any trouble booking a new venue in Durham in the face of other places that have also opened?

I think all that helps me actually. Obviously, there are times when I’m trying ot book the same band that Motorco is. For instance, Lost in the Trees. I was trying to book them. But then, Motorco got it and they were packed out. That’s a bummer for me. When I wanted Jason Isbell, Motorco wanted to book Jason Isbell and I got it. What comes around goes around. If I was the only club in Durham all by myself… it wouldn’t really be great for me, because I want Durham to be know as kind of a live music town and I’m not going to be able to do that all on my own.

Some bands like to play different cities. I definitely have bands that will come and say, ‘We usually play Raleigh but we want to play in Durham so we want to play your club.’ So, they’ll play in my club and the next time, they’ll probably want to play Chapel Hill. But the one thing I can’t try to do is beat Frank Heath at the Cat’s Cradle at his own game. He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s a super great guy; he books great music. People love him. I can’t compete with him at that level. What I do at The Casbah, I try to think about like any other business that’s new to an area, what are other people not doing here? What people are not doing here is a club that’s our size, 280 people—which is half the size of the Cradle—that type of a club that’s really nice with an amazing sound system. We have a versatile set up. I can put down chairs for a folk show. I can put down chairs and tables for a cabaret kind of sit around—we can have a server come to the table. We have a wide variety of shows that we can have… The next night, we might have a metal band that lasts until 2 a.m.

If you could book any band, who would it be and why?

My favorite artist in the world is Billy Bragg and has been since the mid-80s. Billy Bragg would be awesome… I would love him. There’s also people like Jens Lekman, I would die if he played here.

Beatles or Stones?

I was always a Stones guy and still am a Stones guy. In fact, if you would have interviewed me ten years ago, I would have said I hated the Beatles…. A friend introduced me to the Beatles in the right way, I guess, for one reason or another it clicked and I love them now. There’s a lot of bands that I grew up hating, like Simon and Garfunkel—they were like nails on a chalkboard to me—and now I fucking love them. That just happens.

Is that a sign of age or respect for music?

We’re constantly changing. I always feel like there’s two types of people in the world, musically. There’s the people that graduate from high school and that’s the music that they’re going to like, and they will like it forever. It was 1985 when I graduated from high school I guess that’s like The Cure. They’re a great band but there are a lot of people that probably graduated the same year I did who still listen to the same 100 CDs that they had when they were in high school and they’re completely satisfied. That doesn’t work for me… It doesn’t really surprise me that I like Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles now. A band that I don’t like right now and I’ve never liked my entire life? The Beach Boys. I hate The Beach Boys.

What are your favorite national and local bands right now?

My favorite national band right now is probably Black Tusk. They’re a metal band. I’m totally into the metal right now. They have an album called Taste of Sin… It’s metal but it really sounds like hard core to me. I grew up in the punk world so it really hits those buttons for me. As far as local bands… I’m trying to decide between Hog, Lurch and Black Skies. I’m more into the heavy, riff-based, epic metal. The longer the songs, the better. Slow is good, too, like Kylesa.

So you’re reaching the teenage phase of your life?

I guess it’s my mid-life crisis. I kind of came at it through the post-rock world, like Mogwai, Pelican and Russian Circles. I came at it through the instrumental side.

Do you have a preference for vinyl?

I do have a preference for it for two reasons:

The first is that I think it is a more social way of playing music. In other words, you have to interact with it and it’s more tactile. When you have friends over you have to decide every 20 minutes or so what music to play next. It ends up being more of a group decision and the music becomes more than just a bit-player in the evening. Of course for some people that just sounds like a hassle, but I personally love it.

The second reason is that it simply sounds better. Now, I’m far from being an audiophile and generally care more about what is on the stereo than what format is on the stereo. After not having listened to vinyl in a long time, though, I was really surprised when I put a nice quality record on how much better it sounded than a CD. Especially acoustic instruments.

What was the most recent record you bought?

It wasn’t the last record I bought, but I have to say that the last Josh Rouse album El Turista is a great example of the beauty of vinyl. First off, I love Josh and this latest record. I was stunned when I put the record on. There’s a lot of acoustic instruments on it and the arrangements are all tastefully done. There’s a lot of space on those recordings and it really comes out when listening to the vinyl. I remember the first time I heard it I thought there was a defect at first because I was hearing a popping on it. I wiped off the record multiple times. Eventually I discovered that the pop I was hearing was the sound of a bass string lightly tapping on the fretboard. I can now hear this on the CD, but it doesn’t fool me. It sounds like that bass is in the room with me. Love it.

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