Joe Shanahan, Founder of Chicago’s Smartbar, on Keeping Your Ears Open to New Sounds

As the founder and owner of iconic Chicago music venues Metro and smartbar, Joe Shanahan has an emotional investment in the city’s scenes that stretches back decades. The slate of venues he currently operates, which recently expanded to include the Gman Tavern and Double Door, reflect a deep-seated desire to embrace the multi-faceted artistic needs of the local community, a responsibility that Shanahan does not take lightly as both a music fan and a businessman.

In this excerpt from his recent appearance on The Deepest Dish on RBMA Radio, Shanahan speaks to host Leor Galil about what sparked his initial interest in music, how he’s managed to keep an open ear to new sounds over the years and his long friendship with Frankie Knuckles.

Listen to The Deepest Dish on RBMA Radio every third Wednesday of the month at 11 AM EDT.

Jeremy Deputat / Red Bull Content Pool

Metro, smartbar and the Gman Tavern are located in Lake View, a couple of blocks from a historically important part of the city, which is Wrigleyville, Wrigley Field. The Cubs won the World Series and you were part of the parade, I’m told.

Yeah, I’m the friendly neighbor over the left-field wall. Between Metro, smartbar and the Gman Tavern, the relationship with Wrigley has always been rather interesting. Ten years ago, it was different. Twenty years ago, it was really different, but now with what Mr. Ricketts, Mr. Epstein and the boys in blue have put together, it is truly a joyous civic moment. I’ve always had this romantic dream or scenario that baseball and music actually have a lot in common. A lot of guitar players wish they were playing first base, and a lot of first basemen wish they were playing lead guitar. That’s become more and more part of the vocabulary between Metro and Wrigley Field.

Wrigley Field’s a cathedral. It’s a baseball stadium, but it’s a baseball cathedral, a beautiful monument – not a museum, but a monument. It’s a living, breathing thing, just like Metro... I’m just really excited that there’s this baseball and music relationship, hence a Wrigley and Metro relationship.

We did host the Player Organization Party. Tom Ricketts and Paul Rice gave me about a 24-hour notice to put a band together. We were able to put a band together with some really great local musicians that basically did all the walk-on songs for all the players. We turned that night into something really special. Maybe a crazy moment for me was that at one point, BJ, the traveling secretary, brought the trophy into Metro. Metro was the first public stop for it in a bar, restaurant or a club, or something. It’d only been in the parade, on the stage at the Grand Park and then in the clubhouse. Then it came to Metro. I was left in a room alone with it and they were like, “Hey, keep an eye on this for us.”

I’ve been a Cub fan since I was ten years old, and I was happy to feel part of something that was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. My wife and I were invited to ride in the parade, actually. Anyway, I’m still buzzing from it, because it was just a few days ago and it was a dream sequence. It was really quite amazing.

Given that this area has changed over the years, what originally drew you to set up Metro and smartbar in this part of town?

It was cheap. This is where the artists live because this was where it was affordable for artists, musicians, writers, playwrights, filmmakers. This area was... I wouldn’t say blighted, but it was gang-ridden. Next door to Metro there was a bar that was one of the number one heroin drops in the city. There were constant busts. I remember one of the first couple of weeks of smartbar actually working the door. Back then you would stand at the door with the doorman and one guy would take the cash for the cover charge, and the other guy would just stand behind him.

I remember turning around once and talking to somebody that was having a hard time getting in, and someone blackjacked me, knocked me out cold on the street. It was some gang member who we had turned away, and he was angry. I never turned my back again, at least not on the street at two in the morning.

It was rough and tumble, and I think that you earn your stripes a little bit. You realize that your mission is strong, because it was always about the music for us – as a company, as a family. I was one of the first DJs to spin on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and my partner would work the door. Our best friend would clean the bar, and I drafted bartenders from places that I used to hang out at. We cobbled together a great staff.

This neighborhood, the million dollar homes were basically two, three flats with sometimes six to ten people living in those buildings. Lots of Latinos, African-Americans, whites – it was a blend. Because it was so close to the “L” and close to the jobs downtown, it’s still a very affordable place to live for the working class. What came with that was the criminal element. We were here when the streets weren’t quite paved with gold.

The Rolling Stones - Get Off Of My Cloud

What got you interested in music in the first place?

It would basically be raiding my brother and sister’s 45 collections. I had an older brother and older sister that bought records. I didn’t have money to buy records back in the day. Once I saved some money, I was able to begin a collection of 7" records. We really started with the single, a 7" 45. It was a Rolling Stones 45, “Get Off My Cloud.” It was a prize possession that I actually had a record, and I would walk around my house with that record and play it in different rooms that had little turntables or little hi-fi’s.

I began to collect more of them. I remember taking my little turntable, hi-fi, the portable record player and putting it in the garage, beginning to play records for friends. They would come over, we’d be getting our bikes ready to go out for a bike ride, and they’d say, “Oh no, we got to listen to a couple of records, come on man.” I would play a Beatles song or a Rolling Stones song.

It really started with my love for a 7" piece of vinyl. Vinyl, to this day, is something I collect, I play. Some Sunday mornings, I pull out the Velvet Underground and go and sit, and don’t do anything but a little yoga and listen to a record. It could be Radiohead or it could be a Frankie Knuckles record... Music comes in all flavors in my life. It’s always been about that variety. While maybe I love the sound of a guitar, I love the sound of a voice, a great live rock band, there’s nothing better than a really fine-tuned DJ set. Goes back to the 7" record.

A Saturday night at the Warehouse was pure magic. It was another planet. It was another dimension.

You mentioned Frankie. You mentioned the fine-tuned DJ set. Smartbar is a world-renowned venue. What inspired you to open smartbar, before opening the current location of smartbar/Metro?

That is the easiest question you’re going to ask me all day long, because I went as a patron, as a disciple or as a follower to the Warehouse to hear this young DJ do his thing. A Saturday night at the Warehouse was pure magic. It was another planet. It was another dimension. What I took from that was not the way it sounded, not the way it looked, but the way it felt, and I knew the way a good party or a good event felt. That was my goal: How could I recreate how that felt? If I could deliver that to 100 people, to 50 people, or 500 people. At that time, my goal was to have something feel just the way, what Robert [Williams] and Frankie had put together at three, four, five in the morning on a Saturday night in the middle of nowhere. I knew what it felt like.

And, Frankie, since you opened this place, played at least once a year, every year?

My relationship with Frankie Knuckles was pure joy. He knew I was a fan. He knew how much I admired him as a DJ, but also we got to know each other. I rented The Power Plant from him to do a party for the anniversary, I think the tenth anniversary of Wax Trax! Records, here in Chicago. There was a financial relationship, a commerce relationship, but also an artistic relationship. I’m maybe most proud of this, because he and I had a 30 plus year relationship, business and artistic.

He was the first DJ to play in smartbar. When we opened, Afrika Bambaataa played in Metro and Frankie Knuckles played in smartbar. If you think about that, the story couldn’t have written itself any better. It’s the first time I actually paid a real DJ fee. When Frankie told me what his fee was, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t think I make that all week long.” I found the money because I wanted him to baptize and christen the room, so to speak. He did it with such grace and such beauty.

Those days were so special, because I would say to him at one point, “Oh man, it’s sounding so good,” and he’d give me the wink like, “I got your tape for you after this, I taped some of the set.” I would get these cassettes at the end of a night, maybe 90 minutes or sometimes 120 minutes. In his own handwriting, he would write “Frankie Mix” and put a date on it. I began to collect those and I still have many of those.

Even when I went to the Warehouse and went to The Power Plant, every so often he’d slip a tape in my back pocket as I was walking out of the booth. That’s the kind of person that he was. He knew I loved music. He knew I appreciated music and he also knew that I was promoting something bigger than just DJs in Chicago. It was a civic pride for me to talk about Chicago on a local, national and then eventually an international platform and stage.

How do the venues that you run incubate a greater sense of community, beyond booking a DJ or booking a band?

I think at the heart, the center of the success that I’ve been so blessed to be part of is the staff. It’s the staff of Metro, the staff of smartbar, the staff of Double Door, the staff of Gman Tavern. They’re the ones that open the door and lock the door. Everything that goes on from a bartender, a waitress, a cleaning crew, the building managers, the publicist. There are so many jobs and so many people involved in all of the venues that I’m sort of the custodian. I’m just keeping the wheels on the bus.

I think that might be the most important part of our overall success, is that people have been gravitating to us because of what we’ve done, as far as our mission. Independently owned and operated for 35 years in a world that is extremely corporate and people getting gobbled up every day. We try to stay true to our message, and that is the doors are open to everyone. We do hit pop, we do house, we do rock, we do indie rock, we do metal, we do poetry, we do things that I’m proud to say really come from the heart of our community. If you keep the radar clear and you keep an open ear, the community, the arts community, the culture around you, begins to tell you what it is. They give you indicators, there are signs.

As a young artist, Chance the Rapper came on our radar. It was the interns and the kids that were working in the clubs. He was showing up in high school parking lots handing out mixtapes. Actually, my daughter Tara, she was the first one to say, “You need to know about this guy.” She’s 16 years old. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” She goes, “This guy is amazing, dad.”

I think getting music today is so much easier through Mixcloud, Soundcloud, all of that. Back in the early days, sometimes you had to go to the clubs and you also had to be present in some of the record stores. I think that’s still a really important aspect of things. The community is what you need to listen to. The community will tell you what it wants, and usually the people that can help make that happen.

I’m not in the music business, by the way – I’m in the Metro business. I’m in the smartbar business.

With that in mind, how do you keep your ears open all these years? When your daughter tells you, “Yeah, you should keep an eye out for this person,” what continues to drive you to go, “OK, I’ll listen to this, let’s see where this goes?”

Don’t get lazy, don’t get complacent. People that meet me say, “Oh, you’ve got the greatest job in the world.” They just don’t realize that I’m up early and I’m home late. I’m constantly searching, constantly trying to unearth something.

You need to thread the needle and then you begin to make the quilt, you begin to make the piece. It comes from that. It does come from someone telling you or messaging you or emailing you an idea. It’s a waterfall sometimes. Believe me, 90% go away, and that’s the hard part. You don’t want to miss something, so when we used to review every single cassette tape that come to the club by every band, I’d always say “stay in touch,” because that guitar player might be in another band, or that drummer might go to another band.

The dialogue was there. We don’t come off like the gatekeepers, and I think that’s one of the worst things about the music business. I’m not in the music business, by the way – I’m in the Metro business. I’m in the smartbar business. That’s what I do. I feel that’s really important to not lose track of that. You don’t want to become, “Okay, I’m only going to book these kinds of bands.” That’s why the variety thing is so important to us. We can have Vic Mensa one night and then we can have Lydia Loveless the next night, and after that we can go and have the YCA, Young Chicago Authors, “Louder Than A Bomb.” That’s what Chicago is to me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

By Leor Galil on December 12, 2016

On a different note