by Robin Sinhababu
Just in time for their epic 1968 New Year’s, we spoke with Hotel Vegas head honcho Jason McNeely about their New Year’s plans, how Austin has evolved over the decades, Hotel Vegas regulars’ penchant for Bud Light and more. This is just the first part of our interview with Jason, you can now read the second part here.
Robin Sinhababu for Ovrld: Have you been over to Congress or Jeffrey’s yet?
Jason McNeely: You know, no I haven’t. I’ve never gone to Jeffrey’s.
Ovrld: And how long have you been in Austin?
Jason: I’ve lived in Austin since 1986.
Ovrld: Do you like it as much as you did then?
Jason: Well, it’s a totally different place. I think that it’s – I mean, this is a golden moment, for sure, in Austin music history – but living in Austin in 1986 was such a different world. It was fantastic. I mean, you would be at a bar and you could see Stevie Ray Vaughan playing at a bar, you could see Jimmie Vaughan with Stevie Ray, you could see crazy things, you know. Little Charlie Sexton. I grew up in that scene, where I was around that a lot, going to the Continental club, going to the Black Cat Lounge, so I got to see a lot of the old punk bands, and a lot of the old blues bands in Austin, country bands.
Ovrld: Most people have probably heard of Jimmie and Stevie Ray, but can you tell me of a few, maybe country-specific people from that era that you still like to listen to that folks might not know about?
Jason: Well, I remember the first time I ever saw Kelly Willis, she had a little country band with David Murray, and they sounded exactly like old Patsy Cline. I used to go see them at the Black Cat Lounge a lot, that was a really great time. Used to go see Don Walser a lot. That was the best time ever, he was an amazing yodeler. That was a great time.
Ovrld: Could the audience at those shows be compared to the audience at Hotel Vegas for a show on some day of the week now?
Jason: No. Not at all. It was a totally different world. Although that’s part of what I’m striving for, is to be like one of those old venues from the old days, or from back then. I mean, I want to be like what the Continental Club was like in the ’80s.
Ovrld: Does the Continental Club want to be like what the Continental Club was like in the ’80s?
Jason: They’re different. The Continental Club now is a totally different thing. It’s more – it’s very refined, in comparison. In the ’80s, you could see punk bands playing at the Continental Club, which isn’t something you would see often now. And it wasn’t 10 or 20 dollars to get into the Continetal Club back then, it was very cheap. Like I said, it was kind of a punk club.
Ovrld: How important is ticket price, door price, to what you’re trying to do here?
Jason: For me, it’s real important. I mean, we like to think of ourselves as being a neighborhood bar more than we think of ourselves as being a venue, a downtown venue. So a lot of our events are driven by regular clientele that come three, four, five nights a week to our shows, and if we were to charge more than five dollars for a show, it’s really difficult to get people consistently coming. And that’s what we’re shooting for, is to have consistent regulars.
Ovrld: Did people drink the same things at shows in the ’80s that they do now?
Jason: I don’t know, I wasn’t a drinker back them. Back then, it was Budweiser. Some Budweiser and Shiner Bock was what I knew people drank. And Miller High Life. But we’re kind of a divey bar, so that’s what we sell a lot of, too. A lot of PBR, a lot of whiskey. Jameson, Fireball. We have some kind of bizarre affinity with Bud Light here. We sell a lot of Bud Light. I’m really into East Cider, I think that’s pretty tight.
Ovrld: Do people drink more than they used to? Do people get crazier, or less crazy, than they used to?
Jason: I remember people drank a lot, for sure. It gets crazy here. People are pretty well-behaved for the most part; there aren’t a lot of fights anymore. I don’t see people fighting like they used to fight. I always attributed that to whiskey; people drink a lot of whiskey and they want to fight. Maybe people are drinking less whiskey now, I don’t know.
Ovrld: How do you feel about putting bands that are of different genres on the same bill on the same night?
Jason: I don’t do that. I mean, we try to keep everything very comfortable. We want people to – I would never curate a show and mix hip hop with country, or hip hop with rock’n’roll. Sometimes we’ve done punk shows with hip hop, that works sometimes. But anything where you’re clashing two different cultures, I’m not really…
Ovrld: Why is it uncomfortable for people to be around each other then?
Jason: A hip hop show and a country show just never work together. You might be able to do a hip hop show and a college, indie rock band, that would work, but some things work well together and some things don’t. Sometimes metal will work with hip hop, depending on the band. But yeah, not all genres coexist well.
Ovrld: Do you yourself find time to go to shows outside of this venue often?
Jason: I try, yes, as much as I can. I get really busy because I do shows pretty much six or seven nights a week, and I feel like, if I don’t go to my show, or a show that I book, why would somebody else want to go? So I tend to go to most all of my events, but there’s a really good event happening somewhere else, and I don’t already have another engagement, I try to go, as much as I can.
Ovrld: Do you feel like you learn things by going to other events?
Jason: Yeah. It’s so important that you always expose ourself to other people’s ideas. I like going to Cheer Up Charlie’s; we’re similar-minded people, but I think we have a very different aesthetic, but we have different ideas of how to produce an event. I really like what they do. And they tend to have a lot of fresh bands that I haven’t heard of or seen before, which is always helpful.
Ovrld: Is there a particular ratio of local stuff to out of town stuff that you aim for?
Jason: I just take it as it comes. We like doing road shows, but we like to keep it more local than road shows. We have a specific way of doing business with touring bands’ booking agents, and I think they tend to have a way of doing business with the Mohawk and Red 7 and other venues that we don’t feel comfortable with. So it’s harder for us to take on too many road shows, because we don’t really get into the process of bidding on shows, and we don’t really compete with other venues to get shows. If somebody contacts us, and it seems like a good fit, then we’ll express interest and most likely carry through with booking the event. But if somebody contacts me with any kind of touring act, and they ask me if I’d be interested in bidding on the show, I always tell them no.
Ovrld: So if I see a touring band at Mohawk or Red 7, is it probably the case that that venue and others bid on the show?
Jason: I don’t really know how they do it. I think in their case, they have solid relationships with booking agents they’ve worked for years and years, so now the agents go directly to them. I think now that the Austin market has grown so much, booking agents are experimenting with making the promoters compete against each other. They ask for promoters to bid on the events, and I usually pass; I don’t like to do business that way. It’s totally legit, it just doesn’t work for us.
Ovrld: You don’t often sell tickets in advance for things, right?
Jason: Not really. I don’t like doing it like that. If we do touring events through an outside promoter, like Transmission, Transmission will sell tickets for their event. If I book a show – like, for example, New Year’s Eve, which has 26 bands – we’ll put tickets online, on our website, and we’ll sell tickets. But it’s very rare that we sell tickets in advance. It would have to be that we have a really big show that will sell out in advance, and we don’t want to deal with a clusterfuck situation at the door.
Ovrld: How long have you been doing this “tons of bands doing a one-off cover set” for New Year’s Eve thing?
Jason: We’ve done a lot. We did 1974, 1977, we did 1994, I think we did 1984. We’ve done it for six or seven years. We did it at Spiderhouse for a really long time. Brian Tweedy and I both came from Spiderhouse; we were general managers and booked events at Spiderhouse and the 29th Street Ballroom.
Ovrld: Is there anything you miss about that period, about being over there?
Jason: There’s nothing I miss, but it was a really good period. I mean, it was important to our growth that we started there. Hotel Vegas is much more true to our personalities than Spiderhouse or 29th Street Ballroom was. But at that time, it was a really great time, and that was very reflective of us as people.
Ovrld: Could what you’re doing here right now have been done then? Would you have been successful at Hotel Vegas during that period, or is there something about that period that was more conducive to being up by campus?
Jason: There were a lot of young kids involved back then. We kind of grew out of this scene of young punk bands, and I think that being by campus definitely helped nurture that a lot. All those young punk bands kind of grew up with us, and it was natural that we moved downtown into a much more grown up atmosphere.
Ovrld: This area is changing so much. Do you like what you’re seeing generally? Do you have mixed feelings?
Jason: I have mixed feelings. I’ve had this conversation with several people many times. I don’t know how sustainable it’s going to be for venues like us, with all the development going on around us, and sometimes I don’t feel like there’s a plan to keep venues like us alive. I mean, we’re doing great: we’re super busy, and we’re thriving, every month it’s better than the last. But I don’t know what’s going to happen when we’re surrounded by condos.
Ovrld: You might not get the Broken Spoke treatment.
Jason: No. We don’t know. But maybe we will, who knows. I don’t know what to expect. A lot of people want to complain about development. I don’t know how I feel about it because, I mean, the cost of living in Austin is so out of control, and part of me is hoping, if they develop the city more, and there’s more places for people to live, maybe the cost of living will actually go down. I don’t know if bringing more development to this area is going to bring more business to us, rather than take it away, it just remains to be seen. But it’s definitely a concern that I have every day. Because I would like to remain in this place for as long as I can. I want to be in a venue like the Continental Club, in a venue that has history. One that’s going to last a decade, not one that comes and goes overnight. Which there’s a lot of.
Ovrld: That’s the hope for a lot of promoters, right? You want to be at one venue, and focus on the part of the work that you like, but sometimes things take you from one venue to another to another?
Jason: Yeah, you know, the idea of having branding like Antone’s, or the Continental Club, that’s so woven into the fabric of the identity of the city, is what I dream of. Because I consider myself, being that I’ve lived in Austin, and evolved in the music scene in Austin, since 1986, I feel like I live and breathe this city. And that kind of history is something I want to be part of.
Ovrld: Are there a lot of peers of yours who were involved in music in the late 80s, who are still involved in music in Austin?
Jason: None. Zero. I mean, I see some people around, but I don’t have a relationship with anybody from that far back. I have some friends. I don’t know any promoters that have been around since 1986.
There’s a couple guys that I think about a lot. Specifically, there’s this guy Jim Ramsey. Jim Ramsey was a big influence on me in a lot of ways because he was actually a promoter at the Armadillo World Headquarters, and he also booked bands for Club Foot. Club Foot was kind of a famous punk venue where bands like New Order and U2 played at. Back in the day, just like a little club that these ginormous band actually performed at. And that venue is where Frost Bank is now. He was close friends with my dad; my dad was a booker and a promoter too. But I remember getting to know Jim Ramsey in the 80s; he used to promote the Back Room, and a lot of the great shows that I can’t believe I got to see back int he day, like the Ramones, X, the Jesus and Mary Chain, were all booked by him.
There’s a lot of people like that. Brad First, who used to run the Cannibal Club, which was a huge influence on me. I saw Scratch Acid, the Butthole Surfers, and Sonic Youth play at that venue in the 80s, which was fucking insane and crazy. And that’s where the Elysium is now. You look at these old rooms, and it’s just shocking to me to think that these old bands played on those stages. I saw the Lords of the New Church play there, with Stiv Bators.
Ovrld: And years later, Yoko Ono would.
Jason: Yeah. It’s crazy. There’s a lot of those folks out there. People don’t really remember them now, but those people had a big influence on me as far as me doing what I do now.
Ovrld: For New Year’s Eve, do you ever consider having the bands play their own sets, or is better to have this theme?
Jason: Well, the theme that I’ve been doing for many years now, it’s pretty organic. It just happens. Like, we’re doing New Year’s Eve 1968 this year. But I’ve already had like a dozen conversations about what we’re doing next year. Everybody wants to do – it’s everybody’s opportunity to play something they’ve always wanted. For example, I’m playing in the Beach Boys, and it’s always been my dream to do that.
Ovrld: Who are you going to be?
Jason: I’m going to be Mike Love. Yeah, I get to sing the surf songs, which is going to be tight.
Ovrld: Have you ever met Mike Love?
Ovrld: Do you want to?
Ovrld: Yeah, he doesn’t seem like he’s real pleasant any more.
Jason: He doesn’t seem like he ever was. I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Beach Boys, and he seems to be the most unpleasant Beach Boy. He’s like the stick in the mud. But he’s got a great voice; I love his jams.
Ovrld: Are there any challenges beside the obvious logistical things, with having that many bands play this space on that night?
Jason: Yeah. It’s a really, really, really, extraordinarily challenging event. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of these kids are playing in the different bands, which makes it a pain in the ass.
Ovrld: You mean they’re playing more than once?
Jason: Yeah. So I have to time it out so that things don’t completely overlap. As long as the room is at capacity, you should be able to move around and see a little bit of everything. One of the challenging things about this event is that almost all the bands are headlines. There’s not a band that doesn’t deserve the headline spot. We made six different posters for this event – like there’ll be a poster for each stage. And each one of them, on their own, stands to be one of the best shows you’ve ever seen. Like, for example, that Loretta Lynn poster over there, Elvis is headlining that show. So King Pelvis, which is one of the best Elvis impersonating bands I’ve ever seen, Loretta Lynn is incredible, and before that Johnny Cash and June Carter, before that it’s Waylon Jennings, and before that it’s the Sir Douglas Quintet.
Ovrld: Looks like Waylon might not be too happy about his place on that bill. Then again, the others have paid their dues, and I suppose he’s going to have to do the same.
Jason: Well, I mean, he’s one of our newer artists.
The second part of this interview is now available here.