About ten years ago Todd Abramson gave me Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From The British Empire And Beyond, a four-disc box set, during Maxwell’s annual employee Christmas party.
My self-imposed ban on all types of music not heavy or fast was lifted. I went from Slayer, Bad Brains, and Sick of it All to The Pretty Things, Marmelade, and Small Faces.
For the past three decades, Todd has enticed bands from around the world to perform in Maxwell’s, a modest venue (200 capacity), in Hoboken. The musical acts include Elliot Smith, White Stripes, Nirvana, Fugazi, The Strokes, Beck, Black Keys, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
I recently caught up with Todd to discuss the shows he has planned for New Year’s Eve, his life in the music business, and the agony and ecstasy of being a professional sports fan.
Hi Todd. Tell us about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m one of the owners of Maxwell’s in Hoboken and I also book the bands. Additionally, I also book The Bell House, a great venue in Brooklyn. And under my alias “Todd-O-Phonic Todd” I deejay on WFMU and for assorted live events.
When did rock and roll take over your life, and who is responsible – was it AC/DC, The Flamin Groovies, or KISS?
It was probably Three Dog Night! Hearing the opening of “Joy To The World” come out of my transistor was revelatory at the time! The Rolling Stones surpassed Three Dog Night as my favorite group maybe a year later.
Tell us about the shows on New Year’s Eve. Who is performing, and why should everyone ring in the New Year at Maxwell’s?
We have 2 shows this year. The early one (7:30) is Mike Doughty, formerly the lead man from the band Soul Coughing. Then at 10:30 we have a great rock ‘n’ roll show with The Fleshtones and Detroit Cobras. The Fleshtones will have performed at Maxwell’s in each of 5 decades! The first time I saw them at Maxwell’s they were playing in the restaurant area (the backroom came into being about a year after the joint opened). They are an incredible if often overlooked (at least in this country) rock ‘n’ roll band that incorporates so many great and diverse elements into their sound. The same can be said of The Detroit Cobras who perform almost exclusively covers of great R ‘n’ B and soul nuggets from the 1960’s and occasionally earlier. It’s going to be some party.
You’re a great role model for music promoters, having built a life – and a profession – around your love of music. You co-own Maxwell’s with Steve Shelly and Dave Post, and book all music acts. You also act as head booker for Bell House in Gowanus, and occasionally fulfill booking duties for Union Hall in Park Slope. You are the founder of Telstar Records and guest deejay at WFMU. How did you get your start in the business, and what is the key to sustaining a livelihood in the game?
I got started just by being a fan and then just slowly getting more involved until all of a sudden it became what I did. There was never a plan and when I started I figured I’d do something else when I grew up. Maybe I still will because as my 6-year-old niece put it to me recently, “You are a grown up, but you don’t act like one”. Sustaining a livelihood is probably a mixture of luck and skill. And you need to try avoiding getting too low when things are lousy or too high when they are going good. Easier said than done.
Maxwell’s has often been voted best rock club in New York City. Why is the Big Apple always trying to steal Jersey glory? What distinguishes Maxwell’s from the other music venues-specifically the ones across the river?
I think a few things …one is that it has always been a little lower key than the New York clubs because there is very little “industry” presence at shows. Another is that having the separate room with the restaurant and bar makes for a different atmosphere. A lot of times people spend many hours at Maxwell’s in a single night (coming in early for drinks and dinner, then seeing the show, and hanging out a bit afterwards) as opposed to just running in and out seeing one band that they want to check out.
Rock clubs come and go. Why is Maxwell’s still standing, and what is the key to its longevity?
With the exception of a brief period when it was in flux in the mid-90’s, there have only really been 2 bookers. Steve Fallon, the original owner whom I learned a lot from and was my inspiration when I started booking shows, and myself. So while he and I displayed somewhat different musical tastes, there has been a cohesive vision that has really driven the place for over 30 years.
As headwaiter, I worked at Maxwell’s from 1999 to 2003. My favorite memories include Sarah Silverman helping me bus table #80, a six top, before a Yo La Tengo set; Janeane Garofalo dropping a $50 tip on a two-dollar plate of French fries; Meg White devouring an entire shepherd’s pie. What are three of your favorite non-musical memories?
Well speaking of tables, the one from the first night of this year’s Hanukkah shows that at one point had myself, my wife Cheryl (a.k.a. “Sissophonic Cheryl”), comedian Todd Barry, musician M. Ward, actress Julia Styles, Elvis impersonator Gene DiNapoli and booking agent Eric Dimmenstein would probably be hard to duplicate elsewhere! A fond memory from years back is when some guy was a little bombed and his wife said we should go easy on him because he was in The Guinness Book of Records as The World’s Tetherball Champion! Lastly, I don’t know how you didn’t list this one yourself, but the time Sky Saxon came falling out of the lounge on to that poor couple on a date at the “wise guy” table.
I can still see it as if it were yesterday. Sky leaping from nose bleeds (bottle of red wine in hand), taking out the “wise guy” table, plates crashing, men and women screaming. He created such a stir, but managed not to spill his drink. That’s class. You have been booking bands since the eighties at Maxwell’s. How has the scene evolved over three decades? And what role has new media and technologies-such as iPhones, Vimeo, iTunes, YouTube, Pandora-played in the business of rock and roll?
It’s a lot easier to get the word out about shows nowadays. For Instance, yesterday we announced a Guided By Voices show in the morning, put tickets on sale at noon, and by 3 o’clock it was sold out. When I started, the weekly ad in the Village Voice was the way everyone found out about shows. And of course, it’s a lot easier for people to check out these bands now because they can just do it at home on their computer.
One downside I see is that bands aren’t really given as much time to develop now as they used to. People get excited about them very quickly, but they are also just as quick to jump off a bandwagon.
The three greatest performances I had the pleasure to witness were Sky Saxon and the Seeds, Mudhoney, and The King Brothers, maybe even Zeke. What were your favorite shows, and what makes a great live performance?
There have been many so I would say these are some of my favorites …The Cowsills …the first time Jimmie Dale Gilmore played the club …Thee Headcoats/Headcoatees show …and taken as a whole the incredible run of Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows that just ended. Those have always been fantastic, but this year seemed like they somehow rose to even another level.
I think a great live performance does require a great performance from the people on stage, but also needs to build off the audience’s energy level.
One of the most gratifying experiences about working at Maxwell’s was having the opportunity to interact with the bands on a personal level. J Masics of Dinosaur Jr. remembered my name after a two-year absence from the club, and brought me a cup of peppermint tea. What disarming experiences have you had amidst the chaos and noise of rock and roll?
I remember one night I was dealing with some kitchen employee quitting in the middle of the night and The Shins checked on me to see if I was okay (usually, I’m supposed to be checking on them).
As the co-owner of a music venue, you have to balance art and commerce. What is the relationship between the two for you, and how has it affected the type of bands you book?
Ah, yes …basically it’s a balancing act. For instance if you want to take a chance on a Saturday with a band you love but may not bring in a high level of business, you better make sure you have something solid on the Friday (from a business sense) to at least balance it out somewhat.
The recession has hit everyone hard. Museums have organized in-house exhibitions of permanent collections to counteract the affects of the current economic climate. Has Maxwell’s seen a decline in revenue as a result of the recession? If so, what steps have you taken to neutralize the downturn, and increase revenue?
There have been good weeks and bad, good months and bad, but it’s hard to pinpoint. Due to the economic downturn there are probably people who come to our place who didn’t before, because they can spend less money at Maxwell’s than they did elsewhere. Then there are unfortunately people who can’t afford to go out at all, or if they do it’s very infrequent. But overall, business has been pretty steady.
It’s been seven years since I worked at Maxwell’s. In my time away, I have chosen an all-star wait staff to man battle stations. Sean Connor behind the taps. Frank Murphy his chief second. Kristen Giorgio, Jenn Data, and Andrea Breitman regulating the floor. Lorraine Gordon greeting the guests. Meika Franz as the DH. El Diablo in the kitchen. John Z. and C. Ward working the door. If you had to choose the Maxwell’s all time dream team, who would it be, and why?
It would be you working every job.
Since my departure from the music scene, I’ve been out of the loop. I rely on Soundcheck and New Sounds on NPR. How do you stay on top of music today?
Hearing news from friends and people in the biz that I trust…various websites…still reading some mags. Going to a record store and seeing something that looks interesting….
What records are currently getting airtime on your turntable, and what bands should we keep an ear out for?
There’s a great rock ‘n’ roll band from Rochester called The Hi-Risers that actually have around a half dozen albums out…a cool new band from Austin called The Young played in town this weekend. Best Coast have a really nice sound, they are getting somewhat popular…
Musicians are not known for sound behavior. (Ozzy bit off the head of a bat, GG Allen defecated on stage, and Old Dirty Bastard did the Old Dirty Bastard thing.) What band or performer exhibited the most brazen display of rock-and-roll eccentricity? And how did you negotiate the situation?
One time Robyn Hitchcock wanted to go on hours earlier than he was scheduled to because he said everyone would be drunk at the later hour. I don’t remember exactly how we talked him out of it, but I remember it took a few people and was very tense, kind of like I would imagine a hostage situation.
People may not know this about you, but you’re a huge sports fan. In football, you back the Green Bay Packers. In baseball, it’s the San Francisco Giants. And in hockey, it’s the Boston Bruins. How did a kid from New Jersey come to support all these out of town teams?
Actually it’s the Chicago Blackhawks in hockey, but you did well picking one of the original 6 teams. I think it was because even as a mere youth I was a rebel and didn’t want to like the New York teams just because I was supposed to and almost everyone else did. And all 3 teams have really great uniforms. I went to games 1 & 2 of the World Series in San Francisco this year; that was a fantastic experience, especially as The Giants won both games and ultimately the series.
Original post may be found here.