- Fernando Carpenter, from collecting vinyl records to putting on experimental music shows.
Fernando is an unusual member of the creative music community in the Bay Area. Being not a musician, but an avid music fan andrecord collector, he started VAMP, his record shop, in the early 90’s and out of his love for music, he began arranging weekly soul, jazz and trip-hop concerts at the back of his shop.
He says about VAMP and his introduction to the Bay Area Music Communities: “I started VAMP as a need for survival, I went through a divorce (after ten years of marriage to Holly Schneider– percussionist & founder of Studio Grand) and was paying quite a bit of child support (more than 1/2 my paycheck was garnished) so I was forced to sell my Art & Record Collection.. an activity which soon turned into VAMP… Through Vamp I met so many amazing people (artists, musicians and people who love culture) and as a result is I started putting underground concerts in the back of my shop.”
After a while he went into a 10+ year hiatus from booking shows until he was “asked by the The Chuckleberry’s (local garage rock group) to do a special day show in rear space of the old VAMP (in Cleveland Heights). A touring group from LA, “The Sidewalk Society” played that time as well… It was a very loud show but my space held up to the sound, for most of the space was literally below ground, which worked great for insulating the sound… you could hardly heard from the outside. I figured if I could put on a loud show with a group like The Sidewalk Society I could do anything and get away with it… so I started putting on concerts again”.
Soon after that concert he became involved with the experimental music scene of the Bay Area by founding the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society (a Monday series) at The Layover Bar in downtown Oakland. It was based on a challenge by owner Tim Martinez & manager Dennis Yadroff, for Mondays were the bar’s worst night of the week. “They were “open-minded” musically to give me a chance to showcase experimental & avant-jazz musicians, being that most venues would only catered to acts which draw an audience” by contrast to “most stage managers/booking agents who in a very conservative attitude do not care about the music but only about sales”. He then came across five artists from the local scene to whom he gave long term residency. The early band-leaders involved were Aram Shelton,
Lisa Mezzacappa, Vijay Anderson, Ben Goldberg and Darren Johnston. He found them to be, not only as professional as any other musician, but even more theatrical and interesting than their more traditional counterparts. Plus they were also willing to play the gig out of love for the music rather than for the love of money.
After a while, the series evolved and location changes were due, the series relocated first to Duende, a “Spanish-inspired restaurant” , then to
Spice Monkey a globally inspired restaurant located in 1628 Webster, in Oakland, CA, and finally to Studio Grand, a “a nonprofit multi-use storefront that supports local families, youth, emerging and established artists by hosting a mix of music, performance, educational, visual art classes and events.”
Besides the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society series at Studio Grand, Fernando curates hosts the Live@VAMP music series (curated by Mars De Pop) and helps bring awareness to the recently opened Octopus Literary Salon, a cafe, bookstore and intimate performance space. He also curates the visual art shows at VAMP which occur every 2nd Saturdays, and which he takes effort on making more festive by bringing in local musicians from anywhere between the experimental to pop music communities, often pairing them in creative ways that increase their exposure to diverse audiences.
In the following mini-interview Fernando tells us about the challenges and benefits of booking experimental music on restaurants, cafes and shops, all of which have a somewhat more commercial orientation.
[Challenges, benefits and advantages of booking music for restaurants, bars or cafes]
Diego: The Spice Monkey, Duende and Octopus Literary Salon, are all either restaurants, bars or cafes. Which are the challenges, benefits and advantages of booking music for this kinds of venues?
Fernando: The Challenges in running a experimental/avant-jazz series in a restaurent/bar from my experience was more noise levels than anything plus your occasional high frequency’s which can be abrasive to a few who just want to enjoy a quit dinner. The spaces(restaurants) mentioned above all approached me to do some love musical entertainment. (you can say owning a records shop gave me some clout in town). To go back to “the challenges” .. I always worry that an ensemble or musicians would be too loud … I cross my fingers. For the most part 90% of all my concerts go off with out a hitch, but there were couple artists who were way to loud… that I received complaints. Since then I chose to move away from the restaurant “as a stage” , the main reason is that most restaurants close too early…. and i find in Oakland/New York/LA that folks go out on the later side to see music 9/10pm. Where as my current residency at Spice Monkey closes at 10pm. I found it too stressful to showcase 2-3 groups in a 2 hour time frame.
The Benefits: folks were able to enjoy a drink(cocktail) or dinner while being entertainment. I believe Free-Jazz can be Dinner-Jazz and not be watered down as background music. Followers of the series appreciated being able to sip on a cocktail while watching a solo, though some employees may not be so open minded. I chose Duende and Spice Monkey for they were housed in two of my favorite buildings in Oakland. I believe the a great designed interior makes for a even better experience, and can make the night memorable. Another benefit was that I was able to offer musicians free drinks and deals on meals.
I’m currently looking forward to our future home at Studio Grand: pure music & no food, but drinks are available.
Diego: Which types of creative/experimental/etc. music are best fitting for these types of venues?
Fernando: I found acoustic music using traditional instruments was well suited for these space (less jarring) offering less amplification. To me it’s important to make an effort to offer different types of arrangements/instruments. I’m still looking for that perfect place, one that is elegant and that we can be loud-as-hell in. (I hope to own such a space someday).
Diego: What characterizes the restaurants or bars that are open and willing to host an experimental music series?
Fernando: Both Duende & Spice Monkey offered artful dishes (Duende – Spanish food) (Spice Monkey – Asian Fusion). Both places struggled on Mondays both reached out to bring more paying customers. Both had Head of Operations that trusted my taste in music and network of people.
[Taking experimental music to a venue such as a restaurant or a bar]
Diego: If someone wanted to approach a similar venue, what would you recommend them to do in order to get them to agree to host a series like yours?
Fernando: I would write a proposal stating as clear as possible your intent with the series, listing the composers, band leaders and musicians who played in my series. You need to be confident that you will draw a crowd, a crowd that will also buy a drink or dinner. I let them know that what I’m presenting is more “art” than “pop-music”, that the audience may hate or love it (like art) and that you may not be able to “tap a toe to the music” (it’s head music not dance music). Its a bit of risk hosting a avant-jazz/noise show in a popular restaurant, especially if you don’t know the owner (which I was fortunate to know the owners of all the spaces I hosted music at). I also let them know that the musicians I work with are very professional.
Diego: What benefits can such venues expect from hosting such a series?
Fernando: They will expect a cool crowd who have some money to spend at the restaurant, free music with no-hassle set up. I also let spaces (restaurants) know that there are only a few places left (in the Bay Area) which host free-jazz/experimental music. That will make there restaurant cool in the eyes of musicians.
Diego: What are the essential points of the agreement? (Payment for the musicians, percentage for the venue, etc.)
Fernando: Each venue was different in regards to agreements. The Layover Bar: paid $100 flat to me to distribute to all the musicians, that is a generous guarantee for a bar. We did not charge a cover at the door. Duende: gave us 100% of the door, to help build up the music presence there. With new management it change to 70/30 split, 70% going to the artist. Free Drink Ticket for each musician. Spice Monkey: gave 100% of the door to the musicians plus 1 drink ticket for each musician. And now with Studio Grand I was able to secure 80/20 split of the door. I currently receive $0 for my work running/booking the series (it’s my giving back).
Diego: How do you decide on the bands or ensembles that are playing on a particular night?
Fernando: I try and to offer some variety when curating the series, I like opposites: acoustic vs electric, soloist vs large ensembles, veteran vs beginner, instrumentation: strings vs reeds , brass or percussive or electronics, or two groups using the same instruments but in widely different ways.
I check out a lot of sound clips of composers requesting to play. I rarely turn down an artist but find a suitable venue for their talent. However I never have enough time to hear everything an artist puts out, I get a taste to get an idea of their sound and try to pair them with another group that is opposite. I don’t know music theory so I’m not looking at compositions in details, I go with my gut. Sometimes I ask groups to help find a supporting group to share the bill. I keep a master calendar (a word doc) with dates booked out for 2-3months.
Diego: How does the booking differ from working with Studio Grand, or on your own shop Vamp?
Fernando: I use the same approach when booking at my shop, VAMP or at Studio Grand. I use VAMP to showcase new composers, more experimental music (noise) or if someone is traveling through town and needs a last minute space to perform.
I tend to reserve Studio Grand for more acoustic shows, larger avant-jazz ensembles. Groups with a larger following (like Fred Frith) plus groups which need a acoustic piano or quiet room.
Diego: How would you describe your mission as a curator?
Fernando: My mission with my weekly music series is plain and simple: provide a space for musicians to take chances, try new material while providing a positive environment where it is ok to make mistakes (i.e. fall on your face).