Lowdown on Slowdown
Like the record label
that spawned it, the key to the new venue's success depends on Nansel
and Kulbel doing it "their way."
story by tim
photos by paparazzi
Lazy-i: June 6, 2007
Slowdown opening weekend
729 N 14th S.
Doors @ 5 p.m.
$2 (each night)
Friday set times
7:00-7:30 Cap Gun Coup
8:00-8:30 Flowers Forever
9:00-9:30 Now, Archimedes!
10:00-10:30 Art in Manila
12:00-12:30 Little Brazil
Saturday Set Times
8:00 Mal Madrigal
9:00 The Terminals
11:00 Bear Country
12:00 Neva Dinova
succeeds -- and it probably will -- it'll be because of the unique
vision of owners/operators Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel.
Doing it Sinatra
style -- their own way -- has always been their credo, sink or
swim. They've been running Saddle Creek Records -- one of the
country's most successful indie labels and home to Bright Eyes,
The Faint and Cursive -- their way for more than a decade. For
them, it's never been about The Benjamins, it's been about releasing
CDs that they can be proud of, records that may or may not sell
in the tens of thousands of copies, records by artists they like,
with no regard to their commercial viability (though it helps
if the artist is a friend of theirs).
philosophy, it comes as no surprise that Slowdown -- the 500-capacity
bar/music venue that opens to the public Friday -- is the product
of decisions that seem to fly in the face of conventional bar-owning
Take the no-smoking
policy -- a no-no that most bar owners insist is absolutely essential
to attract a "regulars" crowd.
the club's all-ages access -- something that no other bar in town
offers, assuming that the beer-drinking patron doesn't want to
share a booth with a 12 year old.
the three most important words in real estate: Location, location,
location. Slowdown is located only a block west of The Qwest Center
-- home of UNO Maverick hockey, Creighton Blue Jay basketball,
and various high school and NCAA sporting events. You'd assume
the bar would tip its hat to the casual sports fans that will
be driving past almost nightly on the way to the game.
Nope. In fact,
glance along the club's shiny black-tiled walls or above the huge
mirror-backed bar and you'll notice one thing missing that is
a staple to every other lounge in Omaha: Television sets. There
isn't a single TV in Slowdown. And if Nansel and Kulbel have it
their way, there never will be.
a music-themed bar, not a place to watch the game. But even then,
we're not talking about just any music. Ask almost any venue owner
what they most want from live music and they'll say the same thing:
They want bands that will draw the biggest crowd of booze-drinking
fans. They could care less if they like the music or not.
Nansel, on the other hand, could care less about a band's drawing
power as long as their music doesn't suck. In other words, there's
a no-shitty-bands policy at Slowdown that applies to everyone,
no matter how popular they may be.
A brief history
The idea for
Slowdown goes back to the '90s, when Kulbel joined Nansel in Omaha
not only to help run Saddle Creek Records, but also to operate an
anticipated music venue/bar. For years the duo searched for the
perfect location, but never found it. Meanwhile, Saddle Creek Records
prospered. Bright Eyes, The Faint and Cursive all released records
that topped 100,000 in sales. The roster continued to grow. And
by 2001, Omaha was deemed "The New Seattle" by the nation's
music media, with Saddle Creek Records acting as the city's Sub
Pop. Every national music publication as well as mainstream print
media from The New York Times to Time Magazine wrote
features about the city's (seemingly) exploding indie music scene.
It wasn't until
2004 that Nansel and Kulbel found the location they'd been searching
for, smack dab in the middle of midtown at 1528 N. Saddle Creek
Road. The proposed facility not only would house a 400+ capacity
music venue, but also would include the new offices of Saddle Creek
Records. It was a perfect locale, with a number of the label's bands
living within walking distance of the club. Unfortunately, the rest
of the neighborhood was less than enamored with the idea and let
Nansel and Kulbel know during a torch-carrying Metcalf Park neighborhood
association meeting that might as well have ended with chants of
"Crucify them! Crucify them!"
was dead, but only stayed dead for a few months. The City of Omaha
knew a good idea when it saw one, and with the help of former Planning
Director Bob Peters and planning department official Ken Johnson,
a new location was found for the project in Omaha's North Downtown
redevelopment district -- horribly nicknamed "NoDo" --
on a piece of property bound by 13th and 14th Sts., and Webster
and Cuming Sts. The Slowdown project -- unveiled in the summer of
2005 -- not only would include a 500-capacity music hall/bar and
the Saddle Creek Records offices and warehouse, but also a two-screen
independent movie theater called Film Streams, coffee shop (The
Blue Line), a restaurant (TBD), apartments and an Urban Outfitters
purchased the 35,000 sq. ft. property at $7 per sq. ft. -- a price
that City Spokesman Joe Gudenrath said was established by a real
estate appraisal. Financial incentives were offered through Tax
Increment Financing -- or TIF -- a form of tax relief where any
money used toward the purchase and public-benefit improvements can
be offset in future taxes. Though the tractors began clearing the
property in November 2005, actual construction didn't begin until
September 2006. Now 10 months later, Slowdown is ready for business.
is the epitome of modern design. The club itself has a sort of '70s
strip-club flair, but in a deconstructed, minimalist sort of way.
The operative word is "glossy" -- glossy poured concrete
floors, glossy black tile walls, gloss black paint. A large mirror
behind the bar reflects windows that make up the opposite wall.
Stroll to the south end of the room and ramps lead downward to the
sunken floor in front of the stage, all surrounded by rough, black
wrought-iron railings. A metal tract along the ceiling divides the
music hall from the bar. It feeds a series of panels that close
off the hall from the rest of the bar when no big shows are scheduled
for the evening.
The room's crowning
glory, however, is an enormous stage backed by a wall of dark-blue
curtains. Two arrays of speakers hang from the ceiling while a battery
of subwoofers are hidden below the stage. Controlling it all is
a massive sound and light board.
are unimpeded from any table in the bar (as long as you're not sitting
behind a 7-foot freak). A brief test of the sound system (a track
by My Morning Jacket) proved folks at the back of the room will
get just as clean a sound as those on the main floor -- at least
when the place is empty.
seating a la Minnesota's First Avenue is connected via catwalk to
the artist Green Room behind the stage. Keep going back and you'll
discover the Saddle Creek Records' warehouse and offices -- all
on the second floor -- done up entirely in IKEA. The label staff
moved into the new offices a week ago. A peek through a metal door
and there's the warehouse down below, already chock full of T-shirts,
CDs and assorted merch.
the place looked ready for business -- from the sleek mahogany tables,
to the glass overhead garage doors that pull back to reveal outdoor
seating, to the black-and-white photo booth that sat near a stack
of board games -- Life, Monopoly, Yahtzee. Over in the corner, Good
Life drummer Roger Lewis studied an instruction manual trying to
figure out how to get the new juke box to work.
something to drink?" Nansel said from behind the bar. "I've
got some warm tap water here."
He carried over
three pint glasses of Omaha's finest and sat down beside Kulbel,
while two curious cyclists peeked through the windows to see what
was inside. Yes, everything was ready for Friday's opening, except
for one tiny thing.
liquor," Nansel said. "We still don't have our liquor
The club should
already be open, Kulbel said, but their liquor license was delayed
while they both underwent background checks. After that, they were
told they had to get the fencing built around the outdoor seating
area. "We'll have that buttoned up by Monday morning (June
4), and then they'll push the license through," Kulbel said.
"With any luck, we'll be doing business on Friday."
are unimpeded from any table in the bar (as long as you're
not sitting behind a 7-foot freak).
guess I see The Waiting Room as a competitor, especially for
the mid-200-size shows. But we can get along. We each can
have enough shows to be happy. It'll be fine."
Slowdown's sound system was inspired by the famous 9:30 Club in
Washington D.C. "It's notorious for its sound," he said.
"I called the guys there and asked for some sound advice. They
said SoundCom out of Cleveland was their consultant. The company
specked it all from the building plans, did a site visit, finalized
the system and installed it last week."
on the sound system was Slowdown's full-time soundman, Dan Brennan,
who has toured with bands like Cursive and John Vanderslice. Nansel
said his input went beyond sound to the many artist-friendly touches,
like the conveniently located back stage load-in area, and a Green
Room that includes a full bathroom with shower and clothes washer
the artist will appreciate the access to the stage," Kulbel
said. "They can be separated from the crowd or go right out
into it. Soundwise, there are eight monitor mixes -- a lot more
monitor mixes than you would get at a club this size. It's all a
reaction to what Dan's seen in other clubs and what other bands
have told us they want."
Brennan is one
of three salaried full-time Slowdown employees. Running the bar
will be Ryan Palmer, an old acquaintance of Nansel's who used to
work at Sullivan's before working at the downtown Hilton.
The third full-timer
is Val Nelson, who's relocating to Omaha from Kalamazoo where she
worked at indie club Kraftbrau Brewery. Nelson's primary responsibility
is band hospitality -- making sure the bands get what they want
-- as well as coordinating booking. "I think we first heard
about Val through DB (Dan Brennan)," Kulbel said. "He
met her on the John Vanderslice tour. They had a day off in Kalamazoo,
and they hung out. Dan said she'd be great, and so did everyone
we talked to. We flew her to Omaha, hung out with her for a couple
days and hired her."
Nelson the club's "event coordinator," though booking
won't be her primary responsibility. Though anyone can approach
them about booking a show at Slowdown, Kulbel and Nansel will depend
on One Percent Productions -- Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson --
to help funnel national acts to the club. One Percent has been booking
the best rock shows in Omaha for more than a decade.
if One Percent books 100 percent of our shows, we still need Val
to make sure the bands are having a good time," Nansel said.
"When Marc needs a hold, he'll send the date to her. If One
Percent can't fill up our calendar, we can fall back on her to help
Since the Slowdown
project was first announced, there have been questions about One
Percent's role in the operations. Those questions became more pointed
after Johnson and Leibowitz announced earlier this year they were
opening their own music venue -- the 225-capacity Waiting Room in
Benson. Weren't Nansel and Kulbel concerned about a possible conflict
of interest from their primary booking agents?
I see The Waiting Room as a competitor, especially for the mid-200-size
shows," Kulbel said, casually. "But we can get along.
We each can have enough shows to be happy. It'll be fine."
Because of its
state-of-the-art sound and other accoutrements, Slowdown's music
hall might well be more expensive to book than other rooms around
town. However, shows in the venue's small bar -- which has its own
sound system -- will be comparable to any other club cost-wise.
But in contrast
to The Waiting Room's crowded calendar, Nansel said the long-term
plan is for Slowdown to host only two or three shows per week. "We
want people to hang out here like it's a bar," he said. "That's
how we're going to stay in business. We felt if we have any more
than two or three shows a week, it starts to become a music venue.
We don't want people to think of it as a music venue, but as a bar
that hosts shows. If you have shows five or six nights a week, people
are only going to come if there's a band they want to see. They
don't want to pay a cover charge. Does anyone go to Sokol to have
a casual drink?"
18 and under
So who is their
target audience? Part of it is an all-ages clientele, and that includes
patrons under the age of 18. Nansel said those over 21 will be given
a wristband, while those under 21 will have their hands stamped.
all-ages is an important part of our business plan," he said.
"People under 21 go to shows. I was under 21 once and I went
to shows, and I was really frustrated when I couldn't get in because
of my age."
you could see 12 year olds walking around the club on show nights.
Still, the core target market is the people who frequent One Percent
shows, buy Saddle Creek records and hang out at midtown bars like
limit it to midtown," Kulbel said. "I'd limit it to Omaha,
to kids that want to go to shows, people who like to listen to music
and be at a bar. We'll also have DJ nights and stuff like that.
It's not just rock shows."
going to have some events -- some special, some not so special,"
Nansel said. "What kind of events, we don't really know yet.
We might have a board game night. We'll probably have a pub quiz
night. We're going to do things that people want."
Both say the
club's future will be driven in part by patrons' input. An example
of Slowdown's Glasnost policy is an online poll at their
that asks visitors, "Would you like Slowdown to be smoke-free?"
As of this writing, 74 responded "yes," while 15 said
"no." It helped sway the duo's decision.
to be smoke-free," Kulbel said. "The looming smoking ban
was part of the decision (which goes into effect in 2011). If you
smoked in here for four years, it would smell like a smoky rock
club until the end of time. Health was part of it. Equipment wear
and tear was part of it. We've been talking to people about this
for a year, and generally speaking, they reacted the same way as
Both are aware
of what happened at the old Music Box on 77th and Cass. The club
opened smoke-free, but within a year, changed its policy to allow
smoking. "That may happen to us, too," Kulbel said. "But
these are different times than back then."
about what people want," Nansel added. "If it becomes
obvious that a majority want smoking, we'll change our policy."
He pointed to the other side of glass overhead doors. "These
doors will be open, so if anyone wants to smoke they can just step
One policy that
isn't likely to change, however, is their approach to live music.
Nansel and Kulbel make no bones about the type of music that will
be heard at the club -- a style similar to the music they listen
to every day. Examples can be seen in the first three shows booked
for the venue: Built to Spill July 18, Silversun Pickups Aug. 1
and The Rentals Aug. 10. All three are or were indie bands.
That said, it
doesn't matter if a band consistently draws huge crowds -- if they
play a style of music that neither of them enjoy, you won't see
them at Slowdown.
policy also applies to local bands, which Nansel said are just as
important to the club as national acts. "I think that we're
out to represent a certain genre of music, multiple genres, actually,"
Nansel said. "And if there's a band in that genre that happens
to be from Omaha, Nebraska, we'll want them to play here. We're
just trying to have live music in the style we like. We want bands
to play for 50 people in this room, and 500 people in that room.
to create an environment where people know what to expect,"
Nansel added. "If you go to Chicago and walk into The Empty
Bottle, you may not like the band, but it'll be interesting to you
in some way. I want people to know what to expect when they come
you go to Chicago and walk into The Empty Bottle, you may
not like the band, but it'll be interesting to you in some
way. I want people to know what to expect when they come here."
should be exciting, but getting it off the ground has been
tough. I'm not trying to be a whiner, but it's super stressful
and a ton of work. It's 12 hours a day of people constantly
asking questions. It's crunch time, time to put it all on
Amidst all this
discussion is the question of how the club's success or failure
could impact Saddle Creek Records -- the entity that made it all
possible in the first place. Opening a club -- let alone an entire
entertainment/retail complex -- is risky business. What if it doesn't
work? Could its failure take the label down with it?
separate business," Kulbel said, explaining that the label's
financials are isolated from Slowdown's financials. "There's
overall risk in that if it went under for some reason we own it
and things that go under affect you, obviously. I think we could
always do something with this facility if for some reason it didn't
of wrangling with developers, businessmen and city agencies, Kulbel
said he's ready to get out of the real estate business and get back
to the business of running a record label. "The less work I
can do involving real estate, the better. It sucks bad," he
said. "Running a label is still fun, but I don't have as much
time to do that these days.
course of a few months this went from being a rock club in midtown
to owning a development downtown. The idea came pretty quick, getting
comfortable with it took a year or so. Robb might have more real
estate desires (laughs), but I have absolutely zero right now. This
is the low point of it all. It should be exciting, but getting it
off the ground has been tough. I'm not trying to be a whiner, but
it's super stressful and a ton of work. It's 12 hours a day of people
constantly asking questions. It's crunch time, time to put it all
on the line."
So, is the label
still the most important part of the Saddle Creek empire?
why we have other people running this," Kulbel said. "I
have a feeling I'll work here more than I want to, but I want to
let other people run it and make decisions."
is No. 1," Nansel added, "but I love the rock club, too.
They're both priorities, but we're not neglecting the label, if
that's what you're getting at. I can't imagine closing down the
label and only sitting at the bar. We'd have to find something to
do from nine to five, right? The bar doesn't open 'til four. And
you don't want to be one of those guys that gets there right at
Published in The Omaha Reader June 6, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
Photos © Paparazzi
by Appointment, used by permission.