by Robin Sinhababu
After speaking with Jason McNeely about Hotel Vegas’ epic 1968 New Year’s, the drinking habits of Vegas regulars and the Austin music scene of the ’80s, we continued our discussion by turning towards the ’90s DIY scene that birthed And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Explosions in the Sky and others, discussing the history of East Austin and also McNeely’s own history in the band Windsor for the Derby. We hope you enjoy this in-depth conversation with one of the most beloved figures in the Austin booking community.
Robin Sinhababu for Ovrld: Is there anything you like specifically about New Year’s Eve as a holiday?
Jason McNeely: Yeah. New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s real important to me because it’s how I recalibrate my relationships with people, and artists, and other people that I work with throughout the year. It’s one time of the year where– my New Year’s Eve party has always been incredibly successful– I get to pay the artists a lot of money. They get paid really well. I get to give my staff Christmas bonuses. It’s my moment to start the year off right with everybody.
Ovrld: One of the things that really struck me when I moved here– from Chapel Hill and Raleigh in North Carolina– was that I was used to more shows being in houses, and house shows being a big part of the scene…
Jason: That was real big here, for a really long time.
Ovrld: When do you think the change happened, and what brought that about?
Jason: In the ’90s house parties, bands like …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and Explosions in the Sky, were the bands that came from the house party scene.
Ovrld: When you say the house party scene, you’re talking about specific houses that would put on shows regularly?
Jason: Yeah. Even bands like Spoon, they came from that scene in the ’90s where it was all DIY. There was only one venue, really, which was Emo’s. I mean, there were venues, but Emo’s was the only real solid, strong rock’n’roll/punk venue at that moment in time. So either you played at Emo’s or you did a DIY show. And I remember, for a long time, bands like Trail of Dead– the Trail of Dead was actually banned from Emo’s. So those guys couldn’t even get shows.
Ovrld: Were they being rowdy, or what?
Jason: Yeah, I think they broke a window. While they were playing. And they got banned for a while. But for a long time, it just made more sense to just do our own shows, and that’s what we did. There were venues, like the Blue Flamingo –
Ovrld: Was Liberty Lunch open then?
Jason: Liberty Lunch closed right before then. But that was one of the real important venues for a long time. I think that’s pretty much how it went down. There was another venue called the Electric Lounge for a while, that there were a lot of good shows at, but that place closed down, and Liberty Lunch closed down, and so for a long time, the only real venue was Emo’s. And they knew it. So you really had to kiss ass and be on top of your game to get a show at Emo’s back in the day. So if you were a shitty punk band, or experimental band or whatever, or indie rock band, you had to put your show on on your own. And house parties were huge. We used to have crazy, crazy house parties with shows. Every fucking weekend. All the time.
Ovrld: What neighborhood were most of these house shows in?
Jason: West Campus had a lot of house parties. That neighborhood off of Duval –
Ovrld: Hyde Park?
Jason: Yeah, Hyde Park, 32nd and Duval, I think. There was a house where the Trail of Dead dudes lived for a long time, and this band called the Primadonnas called the Duval House, and that I believe was at 32nd and Duval.
Ovrld: Both bands lived in the house?
Jason: Yeah, I think Trail of Dead and the Primadonnas, but a lot of people came and went. There was a band called Rhythm of Black Lines, which was popular at the time, they lived there. But they used to put on shows constantly. The house was so gross. But it was fun.
Ovrld: So what happened to end that era? More venues?
Jason: More venues. And venues got more serious. And I think it’s more fun. I mean, house parties are definitely a lot of fun. But I think the City of Austin cracked down harder on those kinds of events. Back then, it was kind of like anything goes. Now, you get in a lot of trouble, and you get fined. There are cops that just deal with sound enforcement now. That’s all they do; the only job they have is to deal with sound enforcement. If you want to have a house party with a band playing, legally, you have to get a permit. And if you don’t have a permit, and the sound cops roll in, you’re getting fined. I mean, chances are they’ll ask you to turn it down, but you could get fined for a lot of money as well. So I think a lot of people have been burned, and aren’t that excited about dealing with the cops anymore, because the cops do show up now, as opposed to back then, when nothing really happened. Plus, there are more venues than back then, so you can go to so many places to see a killer show in one night. It’s ridiculous how many awesome shows there are.
Ovrld: Is it ever the case that there are too many shows, or too many venues?
Jason: Well, I don’t think that there can ever be too many shows, but it’s definitely competitive. I think that’s good, it keeps everybody on their toes, and keeps everybody evolving. I would never say there’s too many shows.
Ovrld: Earlier, you were talking about how historically, people participated heavily in the music scene without necessarily knowing who was behind the shows they were going to– without knowing who promoters were. Do you feel like the kind of work you do, let’s call it concert promotion in general, is particularly well understood, even by other people in the music scene?
Jason: I don’t think people think about it much. Maybe more in Austin, because promoters tend to actually have a little more of a recognizable status in the community in Austin, because we tend to have a relationship with a large group of people. Maybe it’s because of social media: I don’t think, back in the old days, that anybody knew or gave a fuck who was the actual promoter of an event, but now, people are very aware because they’re getting Facebooked to death by all these promoters.
I go to almost all my shows, so people see me at almost every event that I put on. But I know a lot of the promoters in town myself, I see them around a lot, and I assume– they seem to have somewhat of a relationship with their audiences.
Ovrld: Is there anything about the flow of having three or four bands play at a bar that’s very different from having three or four bands play at a house?
Jason: Yeah, you know, my formula has been to keep the shorts relatively short, but consistent. Bands play 30 minutes, with a 15-minute changeover. So we do 45-minute intervals. I think that if a band plays longer than 30 minutes, in my opinion, no matter how great they are, people start to fade. They get tired of standing around. They start thinking about going outside and smoking a cigarette, they think about getting a drink, they think about hitting on a girl or hitting on a guy. They lose their attention. And I think 30 minutes is usually the magic number that’ll keep people involved. Then we have that 15-minute changeover, everybody smokes their cigarattes, gets their booze, looks for their action for the night, and then they all come back in and the punk show resumes.
Ovrld: To what extent do you have to think about those things, about selling alcohol, and about smoking, and keeping the vibe good? Or do those things take care of themselves once you have good music?
Jason: It’s both. You’ve got to think about everything you do. We definitely think about shows and how they’re going to affect the bar. If there’s too many people in the bar, that can affect alcohol sales because people can’t get to the bar. If there’s too little people in the bar, that’s going to affect alcohol sales, you know, if you have a shitty show. If you do a show outside, people aren’t going to come inside to get alcohol. So you do have to have some kind of strategy, but for the most, part, the only strategy that’s dependable is, you’ve just got to put on a good event, every time.
Ovrld: If you’ve been doing this for so long, then probably most of the audiences at the shows, and the bands you’re working with, are quite a bit younger than you are. Do you ever feel weird about it?
Jason: Yeah. I do, actually. It’s definitely– my life is very different from a lot of people’s lives that I know. A lot of my older friends, my older peers, they’ve all moved on, and they’re doing totally different things than me. So it’s hard for me to…
Ovrld: Like, they’re doing 9-to-5 things?
Jason: Yeah, or they’re raising children, they’ve got mortgages, a lot of them own their own business. They’re just very busy building a domestic existence. And I’m doing the same thing, in a totally different way. I spend a lot of time with people half my age. It’s hard for me – I don’t spend too much time, like I don’t go to afterparties. I have this relationship with a lot of really young people with music, and with booking and promoting, but I don’t have very many peers that are easy to relate to. My best friends are always half my age, and I’m always the old guy. At the same time, all my older friends– to them, I’m like the person that never grew up.
Ovrld: You mentioned you don’t go to afterparties, or maybe you don’t hang out too much outside of work with people you see here. Is that at all a professional consideration, or was there a time you did that, and you don’t anymore?
Jason: There’s a time I did that, and I don’t anymore. It might be a professional consideration, too– it’s just one of those things, you have to pace yourself. My livelihood is dependent on my social relationships with the community, and musicians. And I can’t keep up. I can’t go out and party every night and get wild. I have to pace myself, every day.
Ovrld: Do you find it a challenge, as a booker, to keep your tastes in step with what’s going on?
Jason: It’s always a challenge. I have to tune in, I have to be open. What happens to a lot of people in this business, is, you get beat down constantly with people that want to be performers and aren’t really as good as others, and after a while, you see all these bands, and it just tires you out. You tend to close yourself off to what’s really good. So you just have to get good at staying consistently open, because there’s always fresh, new greatness.
Ovrld: How do you do that? I mean, I sometimes have a hard time doing it, and I’m not going to shows six, seven nights a week.
Jason: I love what I do, that’s the number one thing. I really, really enjoy it. And I have a strong sense of empathy for young people that have that dream of being a performer. It’s like, I can usually sense when somebody is going to be realy great, but they’re not quite there yet, and I’ll get excited about helping them grow into what they’re trying to do. That’s kind of what we do, we meet these people because they come to shows, and they’re watching other bands, and they’re talking to us about what they want to do, and we’re like, well, you want to try it out on Tuesday night? Come play a show?”
And we’ll see the promise, and we’ll say, “We’ll give you another show. We’ll let you open for this show.” Eventually, a lot of these groups get really good. You support them, and they get excited, and I think the energy of being around other performers, and being friends with other strong performers helps create a momentum where you grow and become a good performer yourself. So for me, it’s really exciting to be around young kids who are in that cycle of figuring it out, and I do it over and over. I’ve been around it so many times, I’ve seen young kids become extremely popular performers, going from watching them be the audience guy that comes and watches shows, and is absorbing it all, to being the guy on stage that’s packing rooms and doing great things.
Ovrld: Is that a cycle that happens regardless of what genre is popular, and regardless of what the musical trends are at the time?
Jason: Well, regardless of what musical trends are out there, rock’n’roll is not a trend. Rock’n’roll is not going away. It’s always going to be there. Kids are going to be into rock’n’roll, and then they’re going to move on to something else, but pretty much, rock’n’roll is never not going to be popular. It’s always going to be popular. Kids are always going to associate rock’n’roll with a good time. And that’s kind of what I gauge – we’re a rock’n’roll venue because that’s just the one thing we know. Country music and rock’n’roll will always be around, and they’re always going to be popular.
Ovrld: Even if keyboards and drum machines are getting more popular?
Jason: Well, I’m really into noise music and synth bands, and I’m into everything that’s good. But garage rock and rock’n’roll will always be popular, will always be around. Other things may come and go, but if you’re going to run a venue, the last thing you want to do is hitch your wagon to something that’s trendy, because it’s going to come and go.
Ovrld: So garage rock is not a trend?
Jason: Certainly not. Garage rock’s been popular since the fucking ’50s, maybe even before that. Garage rock’s been around for fucking ever.
Ovrld: Since garages.
Jason: It’s like do-it-yourself music. Garage rock is basically do-it-yourself music. People have been entertaining themselves with electric guitars sine the ’50s. And before that, as well.
Ovrld: Was there ever a time you thought seriously about another career?
Ovrld: Have the straight jobs you’ve had fallen into one particular line of work?
Jason: I worked in the service industry pretty much my whole life. I never wanted to be in the service industry– actually, I’m not being totally honest; I never set out to be a promoter. That’s not what I really wanted to do. I think, when I was younger, I wanted to be a rock’n’roll performer, to be a music performer, and I did for a very long time, and I got to tour with some outstanding bands, and I got to experience those experiences, and I got to fulfill some of my life goals, but it’s very, very tiring. It’s exhausting. I eventually started booking shows because it was fun, and I enjoyed it, and it was natural for me to book shows and organize shows for people, and then I started making a little bit of money doing it, and then I just realized at some point that it just made sense. It became a career. And I get as much creative fulfillment out of organizing an event, and helping other young people do their thing.
Ovrld: Is there anything that the White Horse is doing– besides the obvious, of having a country band playing in the main room every night with no cover– that’s changed the game at all?
Jason: Yeah. First of all, those guys are super, super bright people. And they basically know what their clientele wants, and they deliver. It’s really simple. I think there’s a lot of performers at the White Horse that were kind of nurtured; their popularity was nurtured by their relationship with the White Horse, and with the Hole in the Wall. Which– that whole scene at the White Horse came from the Hole in the Wall.
Ovrld: So the Hole in the Wall used to be more country and more dance-oriented?
Jason: Yeah. Denis [O’Donnell], one of the owners at the White Horse, who also books, he came from the Hole in the Wall. And he booked a lot of those bands over there, worked with them over there, and brought them over to the White Horse. He’s done a great job of understanding what people want, and giving it to them. And also, giving the music that he believes in a platform that it deserves.
Ovrld: It surprises me that it took so long for someone to open up something like the Broken Spoke on this side of town.
Jason: A honky tonk?
Ovrld: Yeah. In 2010 or 2011, I’d still hear people talk about wanting to go to the Broken Spoke or to Donn’s Depot, but not want to go to the other side of town. This is such a popular strip, I’m surprised it took as long as it did for someone to open such a place here. Certainly once they did, it was successful.
Jason: Yeah, there’s a certain magic to that room. I mean, it’s not a new space– it was a Tejano bar for years and years– there’s someting really awesome about the room itself.
Ovrld: Do you remember what Tejano bar it was?
Jason: I don’t, actually. I never went there before it was the White Horse.
Ovrld: Oh. If you had, I was going to ask you if you remembered there being a lot of dancing there. I imagine there would be.
Jason: I know that room has a lot of history. It’s actually been a venue since at least the ’70s. Probably goes back further; I wouldn’t be surprised.
Ovrld: Did you ever come over to this part of town in the ’80s?
Jason: I never did, actually. I didn’t start coming over to this part of town until probably seven or eight years ago. I kind of migrated over here with everybody else. I mean, I remember a time when this area was really, really uncomfortable. This was a really tough street a very short period of time ago. The last bar owner before us, in this venue, specifically, was murdered. Behind the bar. So it was a tough scene. I used to walk by this bar all the time, and get very vibed out.
Ovrld: What was it called?
Jason: Texas Bar.
Ovrld: That’s great!
Jason: It was a little Tejano pool hall.
Ovrld: The only thing I know about your musical career is Winsdsor for the Derby. When does that start?
Ovrld: Can you tell me what kind of musical stuff you were doing between 1986 and 1994?
Jason: I was kind of lost in space, a little bit. I moved here with the intention of going to UT, so I moved here–
Ovrld: From where?
Jason: Florida. Tampa, Florida. I was going to ACC for a little while, and I started working in bars, and I kind of got derailed and just dropped out and wound up playing music. I was trying to get a band together forever, and I just spent a lot of time observing and going to shows. Then, some of my friends from Florida moved to Austin, around ’93, ’94, and we started playing together, and it evolved into Windsor for the Derby. That name just kind of happened because we performed as a band for a year, and King Coffey from Trance Syndicate and the Butthole Surfers offered to put our first record out on Trance Syndicate. And it just evolved from there. Eventually, we did a record with Michael Gira from the Swans on his label; we put out his record release.
Ovrld: Is that how Michael Gira’s [jur-AW] name is pronounced?
Jason: Yes. He took us on tour with the very last Swans tour, with Jarboe, the Swans Are Dead tour. That’s kind of what kept us together as a band. We were kind of teetering, we didn’t know how long we were going to– we made our first record, we moved to New York, and we were going different directions, and then Michael Gira asked us to go on his last Swans tour. And it kind of solidified us as a band.
Ovrld: Someting about seeing them, or something about playing, or what?
Jason: Just going on a tour. On a real tour, with a band like that, gave us enough momentum to make another record.
Ovrld: You’ve been at Hotel Vegas since when?
Jason: For a little over two years.
Ovrld: Have there been times when you’ve felt like the energy has dipped, and that you had a series of things that didn’t go how you wanted?
Jason: Yeah, it happens. You can’t nail it every night; you can’t be on top of the world all the time. Sometimes you’ll have really killer months, and sometimes you’ll have a couple of really bad months. Sometimes, I’ll have these moments where I get paranoid that it’s all– that the magic is dying, or something. But there’s always a new group of young kids that come along. Because a lot of people eventually get tired of doing the same thing over and over, and after a couple years, they graduate to another venue, or another way of entertaining themselves. But there’s always a group of young, excited kids that are creative and need a platform for their creativity.