At first blush, Fat Cats and the Clubhouse don't seem to have anything in common. For starters, Fat Cats is housed in a historic building in a rough arts district in downtown Phoenix; the Clubhouse sits in a Tempe strip mall. But both have opened at a time when the imbalance in Valley music has arguably never been more obvious.
Simply stated, there are too damn many bands and too few venues. Here, at least, is a look at two clubs and their growing scenes that are helping the Valley's musical life swing in a more hopeful direction:
Fat Cats proprietor Jim Seagrave is not afraid to display his personality. He erupts concurrently from 1980s rock and generations of antique collectors, and both of those elements are apparent at his club. With a gregarious disposition and an impressive poodle-like head of hair that curls furiously to his shoulders, Seagrave is as interesting to look at as the many artifacts that adorn his space, from kitsch to collectible, a decorative style he admiringly calls "hectic collectic."
The venue is two rooms -- a large, 2,500-square-foot front space featuring pool tables and random antiques hanging from the ceiling and hiding in every corner, and a smaller music room, intimate and ready for locals to plug in and play, read poetry, or do karaoke or standup comedy. The main room features a beautiful antique bar, a relic from a lost age of swank. "The . . . bar is what really impressed me," explains Seagrave, and for a moment we are transported to an antiques road show, downtown bar style. "It's from the 1880s, made by the Empire furniture company out of England, all flame crotch cut mahogany, with stained glass, all original, the back bar and the front bar, though someone changed out the bartop at one time."
How did a huge -- perhaps 60-foot-long -- back bar from the 1880s land on Grand Avenue, you ask? Seagrave discloses, "From the research I've done, I think it came out of the Queens in Bisbee, when it closed down, they moved it, had to have been over 65 years ago."
Seagrave is also proud of the work he has done to restore the music room, which he has christened the "Champion Room," because of the stained-glass pocket door that bears an advertisement for the Champion beer company. When he bought the bar last year, the room was unusable, with no entrance from the main bar, a greasy mess left from its previous incarnation as a carburetor repair shop and no ceiling. "The ceiling had fallen in from a bad roof. When we had the first big monsoon last year, I wasn't sure if it was raining harder outside or inside."
You would never know the Champion room was in such disarray a short time ago. Seagrave has built eight tables from the wall, a huge booth adorns the back, and a small stage can be made larger by pullout platform hidden under the stage. The space is small -- 600 square feet -- and live music happens at the club on weekend nights. Recent acts championed in the room include Bay Area melodic punkers Tragedy Andy, local pop-rock band the Heartgraves, and the dressed-to-kill all-girl punk of Hell on Heels.
For those not satisfied with the antique eye candy and live music, Fat Cats is also somewhat infamous for briefly employing an accused serial killer. Cody Morris, now facing charges of drugging Phoenix prostitutes and crudely dumping their bodies on the street, worked there as a karaoke host. "I had him walk patrons home, women that lived nearby to be safe because of the killer," says the still visibly upset Seagrave.
Seagrave was worried about the implications of Morris' arrest, and, at the risk of sounding callous, the effect it might have on Fat Cats' business. But the morbid public soon turned out in droves. So if antiques aplenty, music and cool atmosphere aren't doing the trick, remember, folks, you can always hire a guy with supposedly creepy extracurricular activities to boost patronage.
The Clubhouse doesn't have any accused killers on staff, but the club can boast a killer makeover of a less-than-ideal space.
Housed in a Tempe strip mall at Broadway and Dorsey, once you enter the place, you forget the tacky stucco outside. A more traditional hole in the wall, the 2,200 square feet of the Clubhouse are dedicated to music and ambient darkness.
Booker and manager Maria Vassett runs the unlikely space with humor and honesty, finding charm in to-do projects that add character to the five-month-old space, things like a huge sign that claims the place is still called "Sports Grill."
"When we first opened, I asked the owner if he could make us a sign and he asked us to wait so we had a banner made," says Vassett. "We got a tiny vinyl banner lit by two little clamp lights that have burned holes into the banner. It's also being held down by wire spools. Totally ghetto duct taped. People would drive by looking for this big red sign in a strip mall from hell."
A scene vet and Zia Record Exchange founder Brad Singer's last hire before ascending to rock 'n' roll heaven, Vassett helped run Singer's indie label Epiphany as well as doing sales and marketing for Zia. She also manages or has managed numerous local acts, including Yoko Love, Truckers on Speed and Tolerance.
Next door to the Horse & Hound, a cavernous sports bar that boasts off-track betting, the Clubhouse is the kind of place that only makes sense in Arizona. Working hard to shake off its restaurant past, the template for the funky space is the old, old Nita's Hideaway -- back when Nita still ran the joint -- that once sat across town.
Like the old Nita's on Rio Salado Parkway, Vassett is focusing on what she believes is really needed in a music venue. She took out the pool tables, turned down the lights, built a stage, made sure the club had a good soundboard and good people working the boards, like Nita's alumnus John Psamis.
Their first night testing this simple formula with Denver band Drag the River and local rawkers Steppchild and the Necronauts drew 100 people. Since the March debut, the 300-capacity Clubhouse has seen its tide continue to rise, hosting such notables as Matt Sharp of Weezer and Rentals fame, Communiqué and Noise Ratchet, and quite a few shows have sold out.
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Vassett holds a special Saturday matinee show from 5 to 7:30 p.m., a showcase for bands that have never had the chance to play in a club. "It's so cool to watch brand-new bands get up there and hear themselves in the monitor, and to have live sound coming out," says Vassett. "When it's their first time, they just glow. It's a big deal to me."
But mostly, the Clubhouse hosts all-ages and dirtbag 21-and-over shows alike, and a sense of community is starting to develop. "It's turned into this great little bar," Vassett says. "So you get these scenester punk rock kids outside because of the smoking ban, and people that are 60 betting on horses are hanging out outside, all talking together, smoking cigarettes."
When asked to nutshell the Clubhouse vibe, Vassett explains, "Since Arizona is based on strip mall culture, it's the best strip mall club where you can just walk in and disappear. You walk in and it just melts around you."
Fear not: While it might melt around you, when you leave, it won't stick to your clothes.