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Making a living as a band on Capitol Hill often means bartending –- on Capitol Hill

See Me River’s Zettel lets it fly at Bimbos (Image: Ashley Black/Courtesy Kerry Zettel)

It’s a story as old as rock-n-roll itself: the struggling musician working in a bar or cafe to finance their dreams of rock stardom, or at least, to make enough of a living to keep on playing. The cliche certainly isn’t unique to Seattle, but on Capitol Hill, it does provide an engaging  look into what makes our neighborhood such a vibrant and music-positive culture. Members of bands like Mad Rad, Champagne Champagne, Sad Face, and See Me River all hold down jobs at restaurants and bars on the Hill. To me, the connection is compelling: I’m a Capitol Hill resident myself, freelance music journalist by day, server by night, and I find the correlation linking rock with the restaurant industry endlessly intriguing.

When I stopped into Via Tribunali on Pike on a recent Sunday afternoon, Thomas Gray of Seattle hip-hop trio Champagne Champagne was just putting on his apron. I was running uncharacteristically late, but Gray seemed relieved. “I’m glad you’re here now,” he said, “I was actually running a little late today, too.” Such is the life of the rock star rapper these days — after he drew himself a double shot of espresso, Gray went on to tell me about his typical work week: 40-60 hours clocked, regular overtime pay, and multiple double shifts (two shifts back-to-back). And that’s just the day job.

“Everything else is Champagne, and family,” Gray explained, who lives on the Hill with his girlfriend Laura, and their dog, Linus. During our interview on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, the artist was regularly high-fived and greeted personally by people going by. Gray has a distinctive style you don’t easily forget -– fat, nappy dreads, warm smile, infectious, easy laugh –- so I asked him, “How often are you recognized by people in your bar?”

“Every night,” he said flatly. His band has played huge music festivals like South by Southwest, Bumbershoot, Sasquatch!, and the Capitol Hill Block Party, and toured with internationally recognized artists like Ke$ha and indie rockers STRFKR, but through it all have maintained a highly visible, down-to-earth presence at home. “When it comes to the reason why these cats [fans on Capitol Hill] feel us, it’s because they see us all the time. We’re all over the Hill.”

And Capitol Hill loves music. Any resident music lover who’s ever strolled through the sprawling chaos that is Capitol Hill’s annual Block Party will tell you that there’s nothing like squeezing into Neumos to watch Champagne Champagne rap on a stage in clear view of the pizza joint MC Gray works at night.

It’s no surprise part of what makes it easy for musicians to connect with each other –- and their fans –- in the bar industry is the booze. But on Capitol Hill, there is more at work. The Cha Cha Lounge, for example, has been a magnet and oasis for Seattle musicians for years, and its roster of employees current and past reads like a unofficial guide to the Seattle sound. Kerry Zettel, frontman for folk-garage-rock group See Me River, tends bar and heads up promotions at the venue.

“Most everyone who has ever worked at the Cha Cha or Bimbos is a musician or is somehow involved in the music community,” he said. “It’s employed members of Murder City Devils, The Fastbacks, Fleet Foxes, Carissa’s Weird, Band of Horses, Love as Laughter, and 764-Hero, to name a few. The bar also has been home to tons of other musicians from Modest Mouse to Marilyn Manson. Touring bands are always coming through. It is a great place to network.”

“Not only do they [the management] allow for an incredibly flexible schedule, they are really cool about letting you take time off to tour. Some of the kitchen staff are gone six to eight months out of the year. Bimbos and the Cha Cha lounge have always been run by musicians,” said Zettel. Bimbos, by the way, is a CHS advertiser.

Nate Quiroga, aka Buffalo Madonna, of party rap group Mad Rad, said his bartending job at Liberty on 15th is also flexible. “Any time I need time off, they’re cool with it. The management here believes in us, and wants us to succeed. They know firsthand how difficult it is to start your own business.”

Of course, rockers aren’t the only ones wiping counters and working for their big break — or at least a smoke break. Capitol Hill is a cultural wellspring for creative types who work day jobs to live out “the dream.” Artists and entrepreneurs of all genres live and work and work some more here. But musicians are among the rare members of the Hill who can find their job and their passion in the neighborhood.

Tim Mendonsa of Capitol Hill rock band Sad Face works at Dilettante on Broadway and says the bar scene in Capitol Hill offers a unique support for musicians because people he works with are involved in the arts. “All my co-workers are artists, dancers, musicians, actors, film makers, photographers, etc. One of my ex-coworkers at Dilettante did our album artwork, others have drawn posters, taken pictures at shows, done incredible film work. I actually met our bass player through working at Dilettante. There are so many bands and musicians around here, it’s pretty hard not to meet someone that doesn’t play music. It breeds a close, supportive community in the neighborhood.”

Notwithstanding all the hard working, rocking female bartenders on the Hill — women like Stacy Peck of band Pony Time holds things down at Redwood, and Emily Denton of Stickers works at Linda’s — generally speaking, bartending has been dominated by men, and — excluding all other restaurant jobs like waitressing, bussing, etc. — it appears that is also the case here.

As much flexibility and networking opportunities these Capitol Hill businesses offer their rocker bartenders, the employees can reciprocate just as much in manpower, and can appreciate the connection between bartending and playing music. When I stopped in at Liberty for a chat with Quiroga, it was 11pm on a Tuesday and the place was hopping, fully staffed with three bartenders. I waited a good 10 minutes for a few words with Quiroga, and even then, the MC hopped back behind the bar a few times to keep things flowing smoothly. “You have to be aware, to be ‘on it’ in an environment like this. To me, it’s all about rhythm and awareness, and that helps me a lot on stage, to be fully engaged with the crowd.”

Quiroga’s hard work can help make a Capitol Hill bar like Liberty a lively neighborhood spot, and the support from his employer in finances and flexibility helps Mad Rad keep the creative energy it needs to thrive.

Back at Tribunali, Gray tells me that he never raps at work. But as I head out, I hear him approaching his first guests of the evening with a lilting, uptempo beat.

“What up, what up, my name is Thomas and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.”

Gwendolyn Elliott is a Seattle-based freelance music journalist living on Capitol Hill. She writes a monthly country music column, “Country, Etc.” for Seattle Weekly and blogs about music at Reverb. This is her first post for CHS.

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