CORRECTION: Jimi Hendrix scholars have informed us that contrary to corraborated reports from news sources, Hendrix did not in fact perform at Central Tavern. We regret the error.
A century before longhairs and goatees founded Cool Seattle™ on Capitol Hill in 1992, the Central Saloon in Pioneer Square was ground zero for this city’s Filson-clad, counterculture beardos. Like actual gold miners, loggers, and sailors. Before Jimi Hendrix was a statue on Broadway, he was a real live person, who played the Central Saloon. Before Kurt Cobain died for our sins, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden played their first shows there, making it one of the early hubs for grunge. When grunge’s flame was smothered by the cardigans of indie in the 2000s, stalwarts clung tightly to the sound at the Central, turning the bar into a hideout for cover bands content to relive the glory days on the weekend.
But in the past couple of months, something has been happening at Central Saloon. Thanks to new booker Michael Gill, relevant, contemporary local hip-hop, rock bands, punks, and weirdos have returned to Pioneer Square, the city’s birthplace of weird. We talked to Gill, a Missoula native who started booking at Central in March 2015, about what the hell is going on. Gill noted that the Central is now the home of Chop Suey’s old sound system and a new stretch-wrap projector screen, which he is excited to use for upcoming Mario Kart nights and electronic shows.
SW: Is it hard to get bands to come down from Capitol Hill to play in Pioneer Square?
Gill: Kind of. I flew under the radar for most of 2015, which was a conscious decision because I was trying to figure out what [the Central Saloon] was all about. In January, we just had Steal Shit Do Drugs, which almost sold out. That show was awesome, it was packed. We had Tomten and Fabulous Downey Brothers. Now that the calendar is full far enough out, we can take more risks since we have that promo lead. Also we’ve kind of churned the water enough that people are noticing this place again, and know that it’s not what it used to be. Due to its geographical location next to the stadiums, there’s so much sports walk-up.
For the first six months, my business practice was that I’d pull brand-new Capitol Hill bands and younger bands that would never get a show on Friday or Saturday up there, give them a show down here, and all of a sudden their friends can come and they get to play to 100-plus people who would never have seen them otherwise. Baseball fans—they are more of a mellow crowd, but they get really excited and buy a lot of merch.
Are bands surprised when you ask them to come play down here?
Very much—it’s so funny, because there’s a lot of people who live down here. Kyle from Blood Drugs, I was talking to him the other day, and he was like, “I used to live around the corner and I’d always come in here, but never at night because it wasn’t my type of entertainment [laughs].” Steve from Crypts, his wife owns a salon around the corner, so Steve is in here a lot. People are here!
Is there a general philosophy that guides your booking practices?
Through trial and error I’ve learned that you should do what you know. Your marketing is going to feel more honest, because it’s stuff you actually like. In Missoula I learned I had to be willing to lose the guarantee because I actually liked the show.
What music in Seattle gets you stoked enough that you’d take that risk?
Blood Drugs. Bad Future, watching them in here, the feel was so cohesive—that loud rock vibe felt perfect in here, it feels honest in this room. Hip-hop does really well here. We had Diogenes in here recently. We had this thing called Bummed Out where we had a bunch of poets come in and read sad poetry, comedians told sad stories with no punchlines, and Jason and Faustine from Maldives just played a bunch of really sad country music. It was awesome. That will be quarterly.
What’s your ultimate Central Saloon goal?
Our website is about to be revamped. Once that’s fixed, I want to start bringing in national touring acts and have music every night—this place can support it. We’ll pair them with local opening bands. Those shows will probably start being announced in April. We also have one of those “Seattle Underground Tour”-sized Pioneer Square basements, and we’re looking at putting a screen-printing set up down there and start doing limited runs [of posters] for the bigger shows that bands can take home.
Kelton Sears is Culture Editor for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.