It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday night at the Tin Roof. A young band is loading their gear into the West Ashley music venue, a cloud of cigarette smoke rises from a small party in the parking lot, and the Tin Roof’s doorman Rex Stickel casually talks about his job.
“I’ve been in bands. I’ve been in that situation where $5 makes or breaks you on the road,” he says. “You’re not going to tell me that your $5 is more important to you than a band that is probably going to share a fucking sandwich later.” The doorman carries a passion and energy for everything he does, even the small task of collecting a few dollars.
Some know him simply as the doorman at the Tin Roof, but Stickel’s sharp sense of humor and regular creative outlets have let him transcend his night job. Some people recognize him for the comedic observations he catalogs in his City Paper column “Tales from the Door Side” and others know Stickel as a consistent musician in the rock scene. But, that’s just surface stuff.
Rex Stickel is something of a Holy City Renaissance Man, occasionally jamming in the gig economy and always pushing forward to his next creative endeavor.
Like many Charlestonians, Stickel is a transplant from a much colder part of the country.
“I was born in North Dakota,” Stickel recounts. “My mom and dad, they worked at a frozen food company in North Dakota. I grew up in a small town. It’s funny because I was talking about this to a friend of mine and he was asking, ‘How small was the town?’ I was like, ‘Eh, it’s probably a couple thousand people, I don’t know.’ I Googled it and when I lived there, there was less than 600 people.”
Stickel’s family moved to Charleston in 1995, when he was 10 years old. Upon entering high school and obtaining a “shitty” construction job for the summer, Stickel had some leftover income. “For a whole summer I was throwing asbestos and ceiling tiles away and all this shit,” he says. “After that summer, I ended up with enough money and I bought a guitar.”
The new guitarist carried the hallowed tradition of ’90s kids everywhere by practicing on Nirvana songs.
“As soon as I had figured out how to play it, I loved it,” he remembers. “I wanted to be in a band and I jammed with anybody I could find. Then I just started playing music from then.”
As life would have it, Stickel’s interest in music set the path he would follow.
Finding his groove
Local music geeks will remember Stickel from his hard rock band Bully Pulpit.
Formed in 2010, Bully Pulpit was a blues-based attack on classic rock memories. The group reevaluated the groove-oriented guitar groups of yesterday, a la Led Zeppelin, with a modern, unchained growl.
“Their sound has more in common with the screeching, acid-rock longhairs of the late ’60s and early ’70s, from Sabbath and Blue Cheer to the MC5 and the Stooges,” former City Paper music editor T. Ballard Lesemann wrote in 2012.
Joined by bandmates Danny Kavanaugh, David Blair, and Tyler Davis, Stickel moved to Atlanta to pursue Bully Pulpit full time in 2015. The time Stickel spent in Bully Pulpit was some of the most fun he had, but the music life taxed the group to exhaustion.
“Being in a band is one of the poorest situations you can put yourself in,” he describes. “It’s such a selfish thing to think that you can do this thing you love and expect to make a living out of it because the percentage of people that can do it is so small. Eventually you just get sick of sleeping on other people’s couches.”
In 2017, the group called it quits and Stickel returned to Charleston to be more involved with his family.
Stickel remains friends with the guys in Bully Pulpit, and he still keeps music close to his heart. The instrumentalist will play bass on an August tour with Greenville soul-rock band Italo & the Passions. “They have shows booked already. I basically get to ride along on an already booked tour. It took me no effort. I just have to show up and play,” he says. “It’s Virginia to New York. We’re doing Rhode Island, Connecticut, Boston. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
In the last year, Stickel’s Thin Lizzy tribute band Trouble Boys burned up the St. Patrick’s Day circuit. And while he says that the band is on a break for now, it’s always on the periphery. “As fun as that band is, we kind of put a pin in it for right now, but that’s the beauty of it,” he says. “We can always come back to it whenever we’re bored or whenever we’re ready for it again.”
Stickel’s music career seems to always be floating overhead, within arms reach any time he needs it. But, he’s got a new hobby that’s finally coming to fruition, and it bloomed out of his time in Bully Pulpit and an off-the-rails encounter with a ’90s rap icon.
There’s a justified mysticism behind the interview Stickel conducted with rapper Coolio for the City Paper in 2015. From the “dead, uncomfortable silence” the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop star gives Stickel at the beginning of the Q&A to Coolio’s descriptive recipe dubbed “The Panty Dropper Express,” the two’s chat is just delightful.
Coolio spends the majority of the talk giving Stickel advice on impressing a date with a homemade chicken and avocado tempura dish on a tight budget of $23. Let’s just say that the rapper swears by the results.
“By the time you get that second glass of wine in, you better have some condoms on the table,” Coolio told Stickel.
“That’s why I only have $23, all the condoms I bought,” Stickel replied.
As a part of the City Paper‘s “Unlikely Encounters” series, in which local artists interview famous touring musicians, the Bully Pulpit guitarist set a gold standard that’s unlikely to be matched.
The expansive Q&A is more impressive because the Tin Roof doorman had no interview experience to speak of outside of his job at a call center. “I’m very versed in trying to get people to like me,” Stickel laughs. “As soon as I got the inclination that it wasn’t going well at first, I was thinking ‘I cannot walk away from this thing thinking Coolio doesn’t like me. He’s got to at least see my sense of humor or something.”
The interview incidentally led to what he’s most known for outside of the Tin Roof grounds, “Tales from the Door Side.”
“Just because I’m me, I would post all the weird shit that would go on out here. Just the weird conversations, and the weird questions, and the weird things that artists would do,” Stickel says. “After a while, [Music Editor Kelly Rae Smith] was like, ‘The things you post about the door are hilarious. You should try to save them up and we should do an article.'”
The doorman was apprehensive at first, concerned that he would not have enough material, but those fears were immediately laid to rest. “I wrote two articles in two weeks,” he laughs. “It works just like the police blotter. It’s basically just a timestamp of when something happened and then whatever exchange that I thought was weird.”
The offbeat, cringey, relatable, and sarcastic comedy of “Tales from the Door Side” has led Stickel to several long-form jokes and short stories, including one called “Fear and Bowling in Las Vegas” that was printed in music zine Jersey Beat.
Writing has become Stickel’s latest pursuit, culminating in a recent screenplay that he considers a love letter to the city. “Obviously, it has Bill Murray in it,” he says. “I just was just kind of thinking, ‘What would be a good Charleston movie?’ It’s about craft beer, it’s a comedy, and it’s about a family that has a craft beer business and they’re trying to save it.”
The Charlie Chaplin tattoo on his left arm is a solid indication of where his mind’s at with his writing. “I love comedies,” he says. “It’s always something I’ve just kind of danced around. A lot of people ask me, I think because of the column, if I do stand-up.”
Stickel finds a very utilitarian delight in writing screenplays. “It was so fun to come up with,” he says. “There’s rung formats and there’s bad writing, but nobody can tell me no. This is my world, I can invent it — whatever happens to these guys is my choice.”
As someone who’s been so willing to branch out into different fields, the only remaining question is where Rex will go next. The answer’s not clear, even for Stickel, but he’ll probably take it on with the same trademark humor and good-hearted snark he’s done with everything else.