After, opening in early 2002, Mt. Pleasant’s Village Tavern swiftly became the go-to place in Charleston to catch not just the unique local bands, but an ever-growing number of national and regional indie rock acts, and lately, hip-hop and DJs, too. Owner Trey Lofton got his start in the biz as a college radio DJ, slowly climbing the music world ladder in Columbia, playing saxophone with his band, Larb, working as the station manager at 90.5 WUSC, and booking bands at the New Brookland Tavern and the Elbow Room. He and his wife relocated to Charleston in 2001 so she could attend school at MUSC.
In the four-and-a-half years that the VT has been open, Lofton has managed to make Charleston a viable town for bands like the Mountain Goats, Soul Position, Valient Thorr, Band of Horses, and many, many others to stop in as they make their ways across the country and the East Coast.
This feature kicks off a City Paper series of interviews with bookers and owners at clubs throughout the local scene.
CITY PAPER: How did you get started working as a talent booker?
TREY LOFTON: It sprung out of starting as a college radio disc jockey and that moved into being a station manager at WUSC in Columbia for two years, and from that position, I was getting calls from both bands saying ‘hey, you’re playing our record where can we play?’ to the clubs saying, ‘you’re playing this band, should we book them?’ and I kinda became a go-between and was being asked to set shows up for the bands and was doing promotions with the clubs and that evolved into I was doing Sunday nights at one club and then another club hired me to do Tuesday nights and eventually a club offered me a full time job as their talent buyer, it just kind of evolved. When I moved down, my wife and I, here a little over five years ago when we had children on the way because this is where both of our families are, it’s what I’ve done my whole adult life so it made sense to do it again, to do it myself. Knowing that we had twins on the way, we weren’t ready to go that alone in Columbia, and also the fact that she was accepted into MUSC, we knew she was going to be going to med school the year after she had the kids. She deferred a year because of the children, so it was inevitable that we were coming down here anyway. I was still working at the elbow room at the time, there was no point in not taking advantage of having family here. My dad had been retired for a few years so he was looking for something to get into, so we put our heads together and came up with this. We’re co-owners.
CITY PAPER: What made you decide to open it here in Mt. Pleasant in the Crickentree?
TREY LOFTON: What was available. We looked at lots of different places before we bought this one. Price, availability, location, anything we’ve seen and more, what people might consider more ‘prime’ locations downtown, West Ashley, we felt unreasonably priced. We felt like this was a good opportunity and the fact that we’ve stayed alive for five years in this industry is testament that we probably made a wise choice. Most indie rock music clubs don’t last very long, historically speaking.
CITY PAPER: How do you feel about the live music scene in general here in town?
TREY LOFTON: I think there are a lot of very good bands here in Charleston, I would be silly to ignore that there is grousing about different things in different factions, what I think, and this is an opinion that has contributed to some of that grousing, is that it’s really not that much different from anywhere else. I’ve only run clubs in Columbia and one other city, but I was in a band, I worked with other club owners, I’ve spent time in clubs all over, but heavily in the southeast, I used to make the trip up 95 to New York and back a lot when I was younger, I’ve been to clubs in DC and you know, the club owners have the same complaints, everywhere I’ve been it’s just as hard to keep a club running, and the band members have the same complaints about their scene. There are good bands here, it’s hard in any city at any level to make it in music, it’s hard to make it to be a bar that does live music, I don’t wanna say the wrong thing. There’s great bands here, I think it’s a good scene. I book live music for a living, I would love to see more people show up to more shows. But that I’ve kinda resigned myself after a decade of doing this that that’s just how it is, I’m dabbling in the fringe and people are gonna, some shows are gonna hit. Band of Horses this Saturday is going to get the buzz rolling and it’s gonna be an outlandish success and there’s other nights that I’m gonna bring a band that is great and that people are saying great things about but it just hasn’t reached here yet and it’s just not gonna happen. It’s a relatively small town, if we’re in the top 100 markets, we’re at the bottom end of it. There’s only so many bands to go around that can draw. If I bring in a relatively new band on a Sunday, any good local bands are playing on Fri. or Sat., they don’t wanna open for somebody on a Sunday. It’s hard to manufacture a show, so I have to really go on a limb if I’m going to bring a band in on sun. As far as the caliber of bands, this is as diverse and interesting a town musically as anywhere going right now, I believe that. Our bands might not be signed to labels, and even that’s changing. I know some of our more indie type acts are gathering attention, and there’s always rumors about the others, working title, the films.
CITY PAPER: What are the steps that you’ve taken to turn the VT into a place where national touring bands stop, wanna come to?
TREY LOFTON: The number one thing is just persistence and staying on the phone. As far as that goes, I try to be aware of who’s out there and where they’re playing. If I see a band that I’m interested in that is coming through the southeast I try to make it happen. I have a certain number of agents that I’m comfortable working with. Kind of the niche we filled is that because we’re … If you look at the music clubs in Charleston that do original live music, you’re talking about Cumberland’s, Music Farm, The Plex, Windjammer, and the newest guy on the block is the Map Room and us, and we’re on the bottom of that list, we’re the newest and the smallest, and I’m smaller than them. To me, actually presented the opportunity was that the people who have the hardest time with that are the locals, every local wants to play the Music Farm on a Friday night and they seem to be able to do that these days, so I’ve been able to fill a niche by going after the regionals and the nationals that no one else is messing with, and to do that I’ve had to be very diligent and watching who’s playing at the New Brookland Tavern and Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill and Jackrabbit’s in Jacksonville, these are all bookmarks that I look at twice a week and look at their calendars and see if there’s a band I want, and the other side to it is having been in it this long and owning my own place, I don’t have to deal with people I don’t want to anymore. I have certain bands I’d love to have play here but they’re represented by people I’m not comfortable working with and I don’t, back when I was managing a college bar for someone else, there were certain bands I had to book for them, I had to put up with their crap, and I would never call those people again, I don’t have to do that it’s my own place, I don’t have to work with bands … I think we kinda filled a niche by grabbing these newer, quirkier indie acts that no one else in town was really after and I had to be dependent on the locals, there’s not a lot of loyalty in that, because if they start doing really well here and Cumberland’s or the Farm comes at them with more money, they’re gonna go play there and I don’t fault them for that, that’s the nature of the beast. But where I’m protected is those guys at those clubs, they’re not reading pitchfork and option and magnet and they don’t know who these bands are and they’re not willing to do the things that I’m willing to do with some of these smaller agencies and bands and labels and say, ‘look, I’ll take all your bands, your tiniest little baby band that no one else wants, I’ll pay them a couple hundred bucks and buy their meals and take care of beer and show them a good time and the reciprocation is that you’re able to pull in a mountain goats show or a ted leo show that maybe does belong in a slightly bigger room, but I’ve done a lot of favors to earn those shows.’
CITY PAPER: What have been some of your favorite shows over the years here at the Tavern?
TREY LOFTON: The Bonnie “Prince” Billy show was a remarkable show, I was a fan of the band, that was probably at least the 15th time I’ve seen them play and that was THE best show and I’ve promoted them before in other venues, so it’s not just pride that I got to see them play here, one of the most incredible shows I’ve gotten to see anywhere in any setting. Just a almost flawless show. One of the bands that no one seems to know anything about, that’s never been able to build an audience, has played for us three times, is Decibully. Just a phenomenal 8-piece band on Polyvinyl, one of the few bands that I’ve made sure to come see them every time they play. Jucifer’s always a highlight for me, they’re great to work with and a phenomenal band, good people. Other people like, the rilo kiley show, the mountain goats, rainer maria, wonderful people, I’ve been working with them since their very first tour and it’s just a pleasure to have them at the club, they bring a crowd, I can book it and I don’t have to worry about it. I know the bar’s gonna have a good night, I know the band’s gonna make their money and we’re all gonna have a good time. I really, without trying to sound pretentious, feel like the best thing about this job for me is that in the last 10 years I’ve seen almost every band that is of any significance, they have played in one of the rooms for me. There’s a very small handful of bands that I have not gotten to see play, have not gotten to work with. That would be an easier list to make. Built to Spill would be #1 on my list, they’re well clear out of my reach in a room this size. 6-8 years ago they certainly weren’t, I made them ludicrous offers and could never see it happen. They were just not gonna send them to S.C. They’ve never played the state, ever. I’ve been trying to book them since there’s nothing wrong with love came out.
CITY PAPER: Who else would be on your dream list?
TREY LOFTON: I’m a huge John Zorn fan, but it’s just way out of my league financially. Of course, the Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, but some of those bands just got too big too fast, the shins kinda blew up pretty quick. At one point I was actually holding a date for The Shins here and their asking price quadrupled in the span of a month and it just fell off the books and never happened. I’ve gotten to do some of my dream shows. I got to do a Mr. Bungle show at the elbow room. Bonnie Prince Billy, one of my favorite artists, I’m not gettin’ rich doing this, but there’s a lot of other little rewards to it I’ve found a way to eke out a living doing what I like and being around music, and it’s certainly got its trials and tribulations but I get to see a lot of great music and I like this environment for it so much better. I saw the Walkmen at Headliners in Columbia and the Strokes at the Plex and it’s just so stale to me, it’s like such a static environment, it just reaches a point where the setlist has been typed up in advance and they’re out there doing their thing, not that those aren’t great bands or weren’t perfectly good shows, but it doesn’t have the immediacy and intimacy that a place like this has, and some people dont like that! Some people come in here and complain that they can’t hear the separation between the guitar and the vocals well enough and there’s not enough line of sight to the stage or whatever and there’s certainly things if we had the space or the money, would do slightly differently. But I like I will always favor the small club environment, I don’t want barricades between the stage and the artist and six-foot stages and that kind of stuff. You just don’t have that visceral … All the greatest shows I’ve ever seen are at DIVES, Rockafella’s when I was a teenager, travelling to Atlanta to the Midtown Music Hall, it’s where you can touch the artist, you know, they’re right there and they’re hangin’ out after the show. It’s not a great place for the artist to be, but it means they’re not making money. You want bands that make music you like to make a living to be rewarded for doing it, but it’s not as interesting to me once it reaches that level. I mean, Zonaea played here last night and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in here in a long time, just really on it! once you’ve got that extended rider and the guitar tech and the in-ear monitors and all this stuff, you become so detached, you’re just doing the same thing every night, and the city is totally interchangable, there’s no crowd interaction left anymore, and basically at that point you’re putting on a show like someone like KISS did, without the makeup and the fireworks. If I’m gonna pay $35 a ticket, I want makeup and fireworks. If I’m gonna pay that, I’m gonna go see the eagles, I wanna see a show, I’m not just gonna get a 50,000 light rig like the strokes had and that’s supposed to be enough to bedazzle me. But the bands are in a tough position, they’ve got the chance to make money, it’s a limited window, they’ve gotta grab it, what are they supposed to do?. It’s not in any way to lament them, it’s just that I think a lot of people don’t realize how nice it is to be able to see shows in a place like this. For all of its faults, I’d take this every day. It’s funny how fickle fans are, too. A great example would be Man Man, who played here 8 months ago for like, six people. And because one guy on Pitchfork writes that they were the highlight of the Pitchfork Festival, they come back and 100 people see them on a Sunday night. I guarantee you that not one more person in Charleston had bought their record than the last time they came around. That magic stigma was thrown at them, like, they’re cool, go see them, and everyone did. That’s what I kinda like to tap into, is how do you get the audience to recognize certain key things, they’re on certain labels, I wish there was some code word we could add in the ad saying ‘these guys really don’t stick’ because we’ve had so many great bands that do play for a half-empty house or the regulars, we take care of them, we’re happy to have them, we try to take care of them as best we can, but a lot of them deserve an audience and it’ll be a wed. Night when you know nothing else is going on! on the average night, we’re pretty much the only place that does what we do to begin with, other places dabble in it, but not much. There’s certain shows I know are gonna kill: Band of Horses, The Elected, Ted Leo, Mountain Goats. But there’s shows that I’m just as excited about, like this Oxford Collapse show, I first fell into them on XMU, XM radio, fantastic band, new record is phenomenal, I guarantee you that about five other people in this town have heard of them. Their new album is coming out on Sub Pop, and that alone to me should say, what the hell else are you doing on a Monday night or whatever when a band on sub pop in Charleston, 100 people should be at the show just on principle, what else are you doing? But it doesn’t really translate that way, so we’re trying to learn how to do a better job promoting ourselves through the website as a tool, that’s why we’ve made so many changes there. Swearing at Motorists, on Secretly Canadian, Songs:Ohia, Jason Molina’s label, it should be, 50, 60 people come just because they’re on Secretly Canadian, I think that’s the transition where Charleston could go from being a spot where I’m struggling to bring good bands all the time and doing my best to a place where we’re really cherry-picking great shows. Once that leap is made, because that’s what Chapel Hill is, a place where people go check out bands they haven’t heard of yet, Athens, where people are just going out and seeing stuff. And it doesn’t last forever. If people want Charleston to be the kind of place where modest mouse and the shins are playing the farm, there’s gotta be a demand where people are TRYING to get into Charleston, which right now, it’s the opposite, talking about indie music anyway. Right now, the established indie bands, they have to be hounded to come here, once you get through a couple cycles where the bands have great experiences here, where they’re getting bigger but want to come back, that’s when things kinda blow up. I try to make sure bands don’t leave unhappy, but if you come play on a Sunday for 20 people, no matter how nicely you were treated, you’re not gonna go home raving and screaming about we’ve gotta go back to Charleston.
CITY PAPER: What are some of the shows that you think were underattended?
TREY LOFTON: One that really struck out was Carla Bozulich (Red Headed Stranger) her band was Nels Cline, all manner of great people involved, got great press and like 8 people showed up. Those Decibully shows, Valient Thorr is a band that I think should fill this room, they do well, but to me, they’re at the point where it’s time to go to the Farm, maybe. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Detroit Cobras. We are a very particular type of venue certain people reach a point in their careers where they don’t wanna play a venue that doesn’t have a dressing room and we don’t have one, or they don’t wanna play a place that lacks certain things that we lack, so you are hand-tied by that. I can’t pretend I have a dressing room when I don’t. And I respect that, I rely on certain agents to make sure that they’re clear with their artists, because the last thing I want is someone coming in here who doesn’t want to be here, we don’t try to fool anyone. Every now and then we have artists with particular demands that are willing to work with us on it, when MC Chris plays, a lot of the rap shows particularly, there’ll probably be a shuttle from the hotel, because they’re not comfortable without dressing rooms but they’re willing to work with us, so to have those big shows, we’re willing to make some concessions. I think certain bands call on that, that’s why I rely on certain agents. Every now and then you’ll get a band through a new agent or they weren’t clear with their artists or whatever and they come in and it’s just not what they want and I understand. But if you’re not at a point in your career where you’re still comfortable hanging out in a bar with your fans, and you want to be left alone for a while, you’re gonna have to go sit in the van cause we don’t have any other place. And most of the bands that come here are fine with that, but there are ones that they’ve moved on beyond that and don’t have to do that, and I can totally understand, I’m older, I’ve got kids now too, I’ve reached a point in my career where there’s things I’m not gonna do anymore, and I understand, I don’t take it personally.
CITY PAPER: I’ve noticed, I think everyone’s noticed, that you’ve been booking a lot more hip-hop and DJ shows recently…
TREY LOFTON: Part of it is just availability, and they’ve done really well. Really, it hasn’t been that many, but we did MC Chris, that was a success, so we started going acts with his agent, he changed agencies, so we’re doing artists with his new agency, and agencies, like labels, tend to be focused on a certain style, so that kinda opened the door to two different agencies, like did the MC Frontalot show with MC Chris’ new agent. A big success was the Soul Position show, which was actually somebody I’ve been doing business with for years, I haven’t always done a lot of stuff with him, I honestly think that date was a fall-through somewhere else and he needed to fill the date and he knew they would deal with the room and that show was by far the biggest attendance EVER, I mean absolutely crazy, insane. They made more money here than they made in Atlanta the night before. When you have something like that happen, it makes some people open their eyes, me too, not that I hadn’t been interested, but I know my indie rock, I’m not that down on the intelligent hip-hip, I know it well enough, but not like I know the indie rock, so I hadn’t been out there beatin’ doors down over it, but that got offered to me, I’ve seen how much demand there is for it, so we’re kinda pursuing it. The OneSelf show that I’m very excited about, the record is phenomenal, DJ Vadim, I’m hoping that one will do well, I doubt it will do as well as Soul Position, it certainly should draw the same audience, very good show. Del is a different show, saw him on the Cat’s Cradle calendar and went after it and was able to get it, I’m a little more interested in pursuing hip-hop. Hip-hop is more expensive, it’s kinda like jazz music, the guys aren’t going out for nothing, they wanna get paid and most of ’em … There’s not a whole lot of completely unsigned, unexposed rap artists out there trying to get gigs, at least not calling me. At least not like it is with indie music, where it’s every day. I mean, I could book this club for all of 2007 in a week with all the ‘we just wanna play.’ of course, we’d be out of business three weeks into the year. Of course, rap and jazz, to me, not to compare them musically, but people expect to get paid, jazz bands approach me, they need X amount of dollars per man. They don’t care what we’re charging at the door, they don’t care about back end or any of that, they wanna get paid. If it’s a five-piece jazz band, they want at least $500, which, as a flat guarantee for a band I’m not tested with is not work on my system. For $500 I can get a national headlining act that has label support from a label like Matador and Merge. People don’t realize that if I’m not already a fan, I could care less. It’s a matter of whether you’re gonna help the bar do well. I’ve already got enough money on the line with bands I like, so the hip-hop, that’s kinda maybe why I’ve steered away from it, it tends to be a little riskier, a little more expensive, a little more demanding in hospitality and that kinda thing, so not only does that up the cost, but also the work and time and energy demanded from me to complete the show. The Del show, I will be working all day from load in to load out to keep everybody happy so that you don’t have anyone walking off. Most rock bands, you throw them a case of PBR and show ’em where the stage is and you’re done. Handshakes and PBRs and you’re done for the night. So if I’ve steered away from it for a while, that’s why, but it’s shown itself to be interesting enough. I do expect to see it taper off, when we first opened, all of our shows did well, because no one had really done indie rock in Charleston at this level ever really, to be honest, there’d been a few shows here and there but certainly not the way I’ve done them. For a while you couldn’t miss, if I brought in a band with any notoriety, we were packed. And people got accustomed to ok, well, now there is some indie rock in Charleston, now I want something better, you’re constantly forced to up the ante. I think you’d be hard-pressed outside of the five largest cities in America to find any city with one active, successful indie club. Because it’s tough. Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill has had it forever, the same people who have run that place so successfully have failed twice to open a second club. They’ve done so well, there’s so much demand, that they’ve tried twice to have a second club to steer the smaller acts into and they can’t keep it open. When the people that good at what they do can’t do it, I think it should be a testament to people how hard it is to maintain two clubs like that, I mean there are Local 506, but that’s not really in Chapel Hill proper. It can be done, but only in the very best, I mean that’s the smallest city that has ever had two or more than two. Even Atlanta can’t do it. Echo Lounge closed, but I guess they’ve got the EARL and Drunken Unicorn, but if Atlanta can’t sustain a good indie club, it’s like …
CITY PAPER: Well, do you feel like maybe things everywhere in the industry are fracturing like that? Like now in Atlanta they’ve got the EARL, Drunken Unicorn, MJQ, and they’ve all got different niches that they do, sort of like on the internet … you can find whatever your tiny little niche is…
TREY LOFTON: In a big city I can see it working, because you’ve got that many people to draw from, you can be the electronic ambient weirdo club or you can be the garage rock club with 5 million people to draw from you can stay reasonably busy seven nights a week and I just think if you went to being nothing but bluegrass all the time, I just don’t know. Especially being a destination, doing dinner and all that too, but if you were to try to be a rap club or a rock club, you either have to be so large that you get so much money on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday that the rest of the week doesn’t matter, for me, I didn’t make money, it’s so small that there’s very much a point of diminishing returns for us with our bar sales on our big shows, I like to do them because it looks great to fill the room and bring these great bands in, but as far as sales go, we probably do as good with 100 people in here as we do with 200 people in here, just cause you can’t get to the bar anymore, people get disgruntled about getting their drinks, they’re not doing shots or socially drinking, when it’s packed you just drink three Budweisers and leave when the show’s over. For me, in a market this size, it would be suicide to be in a niche like that. You’d be so busy on Fri. and Sat., but nothing the rest of the week and you’d go out. For me, that’s how we survive, is by doing all these different things.
The Village Tavern is located in Mt. Pleasant at 1055 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. Call 884-6311 or go online to www.village-tavern.com for more info.
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