This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Elliott Lefko, vice president, Goldenvoice.
Elliot Lefko’s music career began by writing for Toronto underground and mainstream publications; and then as an underdog promoter making pilgrimages to New York and Los Angeles to make contacts, and recruit bands to perform in Toronto.
Along the way Lefko attracted Henry Rollins, Jim Carroll, the Pixies, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and a host of other “buzz” bands to Toronto for club dates (and dissuaded Kurt Cobain from hurling beer bottles at a club wall), and booking Arcade Fire before they’d even hired a manager.
Eventually, Lefko joined MCA Concerts Canada, and stayed with the company as it morphed into Universal Concerts Canada, and then House of Blues Canada before being sold to Live Nation in 2006.
By that time, Lefko had decided to move Los Angeles to become vice-president of Goldenvoice, responsible for booking concerts for Morrissey, the Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails, Tegan And Sara, and promoting tours for Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Kraftwerk, Sigur Rós, and Father John Misty.
Goldenvoice is involved with multiple festivals and hundreds of clubs dates annually. How involved are you in the range of the company’s activities?
I am not involved in the festivals. That is more the people in the festival department, Goldenvoice president/CEO Paul Tollett, and Stacey Vee. She does the Stagecoach Country Music Festival. At Goldenvoice, so many people are hired from within and prosper at the company. Stacey was Paul’s assistant, and she helped him book the festivals. She took an interest in country music, and with Stagecoach. Now (since 2015) she is booking it herself, and just killing it.
Launched in 2007, Stagecoach has developed into arguably the most important country music play west of the Mississippi.
They needed to do something the week after Coachella. Paul came up with the idea of doing a country music festival. Like Coachella, the festivals had growing pains. The company just got behind them all from the top down and stuck with them. Now they are all successful festivals. There is really this feeling of nurturing at AEG, at Goldenvoice, in terms of the people here working with the festivals, the concerts, and with different deals. There’s always room for a good idea at AEG/Goldenvoice, and there are always people who will get behind you. It’s a fertile place to work.
Who do you report to?
Right now, I report to (North American president of AEG Live) Rick Mueller. He runs all of the talent buyers across North America for AEG. I’m fortunate that where I work now it’s a bunch of like-minded people. You walk down the hallway and this guy is working on Rogers Waters, this guy is working on the Rolling Stones, this person is doing Coachella, and this person is booking 400 amazing club shows a year. Even the president of the company (AEG) is really into music and knows about bands. Dan Beckerman is a music-head, and he’s very supportive
While I don’t do any of the festivals, it’s fortunate that with the Leonard (Cohen) tours I got to learn how to book across North America. I learned how to go into all of these different theatres, and arenas. Then I started doing it for other artists. The first one was Nick Cave. I got introduced to his manager Brian Message, and Craig Newman (at ATC Management), and then I started booking Nick. Leonard is a big influence on Nick. It is almost was like I had (developed) the blueprint for all of these theatres where Nick Cave could play. He is such a great live performer. Watching him is sometimes like watching someone larger than life onstage. He breaks down the wall in front of the stage. He walks into the audience. He walks on people’s chairs. He goes after the audience. I’ve been doing his tours for the past two years. Then, after that, I just kept meeting different people and doing more tours. I did Kraftwerk’s tours. I did two tours with those guys.
Kraftwerk had played several shows in North America, including multi-night residencies in both New York City and Los Angeles, but starting in 2015 the band embarked on more full-scale outings.
Yeah, they had done a little bit. I was doing a gig, and I met their manager Scumeck Sabottka, who is also a concert promoter, and a brilliant guy. I met him, and I said, “I wish I could do more with them.” So he introduced me to (the band’s leader) Ralf (Hütter) and I talked to their agent, Chris Dalston at CAA, and I was able to book a couple of tours with them.
[After a few wild years in West Berlin’s punk scene, Scumeck Sabottka founded the concert firm Music Consulting Team (MCT) which, in its early years, organized tours for the Ramones, King Kurt, and John Cale as well as later for the likes of R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nick Cave, Lenny Kravitz, and Robbie Williams.]
You’ve worked with Morrissey?
I haven’t done Morrissey’s tours, but I have been booking him in Los Angeles for a number of years now. One funny gig with Morrissey was that I booked him at the at the Staples Center in Los Angeles (in 2013), and his agent Dave Tamaroff (at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment) asked me to book a small gig the next night. I had always driven by the Hollywood High School, and I knew the Elvis Costello record “Live at Hollywood High” (2010). In the back of my mind, I had that place in mind. So I said, “What about Hollywood High?” He said, “Check it out.” I went, and the principal showed me the gym. I thought, “This is going to be okay. Do you have anything else, though?” She said, “Well we have an auditorium.” The auditorium was amazing. A real size for 1,500 people. A theatre arts teacher was there, and I told her what I was doing, and she asked if her kids could help. It turned out to be the best gig.
What are you working on right now?
I just finished working with Sigur Rós, the Icelandic band. Scumeck Sabottka promotes Sigur Rós in Germany. He had a meeting with their manager Dean O'Connor and told him what I was doing in America with Kraftwerk. Dean was intrigued. Then I got a call from Marty Diamond (who leads Paradigm's New York operation) asking if I’d be interested in working with Sigur Rós. He told me the story of the two managers meeting, and that I had been recommended. I met Dean, and we hit it off. I ended up doing two full tours with them. That was totally incredible.
The other act I’m working on right now is Father John Misty. His manager Dalton Sim is the manager of Guster and fun, and he works for Nettwerk Management. He’s a friend. We had talked about working together. Father John Misty is such an incredible performer. There’s so much ahead of him. That tour is going on right now.
In your position, you are almost a utility player in that you have worked everything from small club shows with punk and new wave acts to national theatre and arena tours with Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. You certainly can serve AEG’s interests in the Canadian live market after so many years working there, including working on promoting the initial Lollapalooza festivals across Canada
Yeah, I think I straddle the alternative side of music.
Like a utility player.
Well, I think an important thing for myself is that I want to be the guy. I, unfortunately, never had that opportunity when I was in Canada. There was always somebody else in that chair. I may not have been the right guy to be in that chair running a business, but I wanted to be the guy that, at least, made things happen. When I came to L.A., all of a sudden, I had that opportunity. There was never any ceiling above my head. So if I wanted to book a tour, or if I wanted to do a festival in Canada, I was given the freedom to do that. It’s important for me that when I go to Canada now, and that I am making stuff happen, that I hire the people that are working with me on these festivals that I feel comfortable to work with, and who are very competent, I want it to be my vision. And, then if it doesn’t work, it’s my responsibility. It feels really important for me to be able to do that.
Leonard Cohen died Nov. 7th last year, and now a family-endorsed tribute will be held in his Montreal hometown on Nov. 6th at the Bell Centre co-produced by his son Adam and producer Hal Willner, and jointly promoted by Evenko, Rubin Fogel Productions, and Live Nation/Robomagic. How fitting that a commemorative show for Leonard will take place in Montreal.
That is the only place to do it. Adam is behind it with (Cohen’s former manager) Robert Kory. Adam is the driving force behind this. He’s the one that has made it happen. He called the people (artists) up, and Robert brought Hal Willner in. It is definitely fitting. It will be so good. They are also having a major exhibition (“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything”] at the Museum of Modern Art too that Victor Shiffman (and John Zeppetelli) has put together that is running afterward which is going to be incredible too. (About 25) artists were commissioned to do works based on Leonard.
[The line-up of “Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen” includes Elvis Costello, Lana Del Rey, Feist, Philip Glass, k.d. lang, Sting, two members of the Lumineers, Damien Rice, Patrick Watson, and Adam Cohen.]
Let’s talk about your role in Leonard’s AEG Live world tour that started in 2008. Prior to agreeing to tour, Leonard and Robert Kory sought numerous conditions, including an advance of $3 million to cover off extensive rehearsals and advance tour dates. As well, several AEG Live principals weren’t convinced of Leonard touring North America even following his successful run of dates in the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Robert Kory credits you with driving the excitement for the North American tours. A fair assessment?
That’s completely true. The other person is Rob Hallet (now CEO, Robomagic.)
As president of international touring at AEG Live then, Rob Hallett was the person who went to Robert with the idea for a global tour.
Yes. What happened was that after he (Leonard) had his earlier financial problems cleared up, and he got his head above water, the idea came about, “Let’s talk about doing something live.” Robert had been the lawyer for Mike Love of the Beach Boys in the heyday, and Concerts West was their promoter through Jerry Weintraub, and (John) Meglen worked for them (later becoming co-president/CEO of Concerts West/AEG Live). So when Robert was looking to help Leonard on the music side of things, the guy that he knew was John Meglen. So he reached out to John. We had Rob Hallett working for us in England, and Meglen knew that Rob was a huge Leonard fan, so he brought Rob into the mix, and together they made a structure for Leonard to do the shows.
There were numerous conditions placed by Robert including two months of daily rehearsals time with backing players.
But that is where it started.
But that was a big start because it came with a hefty price tag of $3 million.
At that point, I got brought in. I sat down with Leonard and Robert. Leonard was sketching on his ideas, almost like on a napkin, where he was saying, “I want the band to wear suits. I want you to bring in this player from Spain. I need a road manager. I want to start in the Maritimes in Canada, and do warm-up shows there.”
Leonard wanted some warm-up dates with no announcements. That’s when you brought in veteran Montreal-based concert promoter Rubin Fogel.
I called Rubin whom I knew, and we booked the tour of 18 warm-up dates in the Maritimes. It was the Maritimes leading into Ontario theatres. Leonard went in and rehearsed. I set it up at SIR (SIR Rehearsal Studios in Los Angeles) to rehearse with a band. I got the band together. They rehearsed at SIR for over two months. The first gig was in Fredericton (New Brunswick). The night before Leonard ran through the whole show, and it was Robert Kory, Rubin, Rob Hallet and myself in the audience.
The Leonard Cohen’s global tour actually kicked off in Atlantic Canada?
They all went down to the Maritimes. Leonard, the band, and the crew. They rehearsed in a tiny theatre (the 700-seat Fredericton Playhouse) where I had done the Barenaked Ladies 20 years before. I am not sure how long they rehearsed there, probably more than a week.
After Leonard stepped onto the stage of the 700-capacity Fredericton Playhouse in Fredericton, New Brunswick on May 11th, 2008, the audience responded by giving him a standing ovation before he had sung a note. He rewarded them with a three-hour show.
It was funny. Leonard was so nervous that he was doing the in-between song patter in French. People flew in from all over the world. People couldn’t believe that he was performing in this 700-seat theatre. He did a show that he was going to do for all of the other shows. He rehearsed so much because he’s the type of person that he would worry. He wanted to make sure that it was good. So he rehearsed such a long time. Every day he rehearsed. So when he went and did the show that he would be able to do it. He never used a teleprompter.
After we did these gigs in Canada, and they went really well, the idea was, “Okay, how are we going to take this to the next level?” Robert came up with the idea of doing the Beacon Theatre for one night (February 19th, 2009) just to see what would happen.
[Leonard Cohen’s performance at the historic Beacon Theatre followed his successful run of dates in UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. AEG Live next announced a run of North American engagements including nights in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and a performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.]
Leonard performed at The Beacon Theatre for a number of reasons including that there was considerable hesitation on AEG’s part that he could have a successful U.S. tour. Leonard hadn’t done American dates in 15 years. AEG wanted to test the waters.
Yeah, and what happened was that he sold it out in a second, and it was a magical gig. Someone asked me if I’d like to book one Leonard Cohen show, and I said, “It would be like a dream come true.” I got to book every one of his gigs in North America. It was over 100 gigs.
[In his 2015 “In The Hot Seat” profile Rob Hallet admitted having difficulty with his AEG Live associates in convincing them about Leonard Cohen doing a world tour. He said, “Yeah, they all looked at me. At that point, I was still being indulged and Randy (AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips) was very much my friend. He was like, ‘You’re not going to be able to shut him up.’ It really didn’t take too long to prove the point. In respect to my American cousins, they really don’t know what‘s going on in the rest of the world too much. I knew there was a market. Leonard’s poetry has been translated into Polish, Greek, and so on. I just knew that there was a market for him. I was convinced. Convincing Leonard (about touring) actually was harder than convincing AEG, to be honest.”]
For the U.S. runs, you awarded certain smaller cities and local promoters with Cohen dates including Peter Jest, owner of Shank Hall, who co-promoted the concert at the Milwaukee Theatre on March 15th, 2013, 38 years after Leonard’s prior performance in the city.
Right. The thing about working with Leonard Cohen was that I was getting to work with someone that I idolized, but it was an education for me. Learning about booking shows in America, and learning about those cities and the theatres, promoters, and journalists in those cities. I did shows in all of these different places that I hadn’t been to, that I didn’t really know about. I was putting these tours together, and certainly, at the beginning, it was the bigger markets but later on, when I was doing the second, third or fourth tours for him, it was, “Where else do we go?” People would call me wanting to book him, and I’d save them (their contacts). Then the people who really really wanted him, and were consistent in checking in, I would save them. Then, when it was time to do the other kind of markets. I contacted Peter Jest in Milwaukee, and I said, “Let’s do it.” The show did really well.
The other funny thing is that there was also a show in Ashville, North Carolina, the home of (author) Thomas Wolfe, and the Thomas Wolfe Theatre. There was a friend of mine, Bob Lawton from when I was first booking shows. He had a company called Labor Board in New York. He was the agent for Sonic Youth and all of these great bands. He gave me my start in booking bands. I called him up and said, “I need to book a few gigs for Leonard.” He said, “Well, Asheville, North Carolina, that’s the place. It’s a great theatre and a great community.” But I was nervous. He helped me in terms of the marketing. Then we brought in Mac (McCaughan) from Merge Records who lives in North Carolina. We took his mailing list from Merge which had done Superchunk and Arcade Fire...
Here you are going back to a contact from days of booking Arcade Fire when they didn’t have an agent or a manager.
That’s right. We used Mac to help us market the show. Bob is now an antique dealer so we went antiquing in the Blue Ridge Mountains the day after the show.
You and I were in Israel together at the Tune In Tel Aviv conference when it was announced that Leonard had passed away a few days earlier.
Somebody had called AEG, and then I had gotten a phone call, “Someone called saying Leonard had died. ‘Do you know anything about this?’” I said, “No.” But I was thinking that where there is smoke, there is fire as the cliché goes. I kept looking at my phone, and nothing was happening. Then I went to Israel a few days later for the conference. I got home after a night of seeing shows, and my cell phone rang, and it was Robert. I knew before answering it that he was going to say that Leonard had passed. I talked to Robert for a little while, and comforted him. Then all night, the phone kept ringing.
Being in Israel and hearing about Leonard’s passing somehow felt appropriate. Either to be there or in Montreal.
It was fitting. He definitely loved Israel.
Leonard’s great-uncle Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Cohen had been the unofficial Chief Rabbi of Montreal and Canada.
Montreal and Leonard, it’s a holy place where he lived, and where he came from, and what he represented. There were times on the road that if it was Sabbath that he would do the prayers, and when it was Hanukkah he would light the candles and he would sing the prayers. And on Sabbath, he would have his tour manager bring challah backstage and the wine.
It isn’t generally known but Leonard wanted to do another tour.
Oh yeah. I would go and see Robert every couple of months. We’d have lunch, and we would talk, and talk. I’d say, “Okay, are we going to do another tour?” And he’d say, “Yes, let’s do another tour.” Then I would see Leonard every so often at a gig or something, and he would say, “Let’s do it.” When he did his last tour, he was doing some of those new songs like “Going Home.” He was writing some great songs near the end of his career. He totally wanted to do more touring, but Robert said he wasn’t well. I didn’t realize until just before. We had a lunch in this Indian restaurant in Los Angeles, and Robert kind of took me in his confidence saying, “He’s not well.” Leonard did his record release party at the Canadian Consulate (Oct. 13th, 2016) and I went with my wife. That is where they had the cantor (Gideon Zelermyer of Montreal's Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue which the Cohen family attended, going back for generations, whom Cohen met in person for the first time) sing. Leonard walked in, and he had to be helped to the front part of the room because he wasn’t well.
Overlooked by many because of the passion of his imagery, and the open-hearted approach to his life is how funny Leonard could be.
There was one gig in a tour that I did, and it ended in Denver or something like that. I was sitting with Leonard, and he said, “Do you think you can book some gigs next week?” He was having such a good time. The band was looking at me, “Next week?” Everybody had plans. But Leonard had a twinkle in his eye. He loved being on the road.
Goldenvoice, which was acquired by the Anschutz Entertainment Group in 2001, is 37-years-old.
It’s funny with Gary Tovar who started Goldenvoice. The other night I went to a gig, and it was Marshall Crenshaw and Los Straightjackets performing together in Silver Lake. I was watching the show and, all of a sudden, I get tapped on the shoulder, and it was Gary. He goes to more concerts than anybody, and he started everything. Everybody else is in bed by then. I see him at all of these shows.
Goldenvoice carved a considerable niché for itself in the competitive Southern California live music scene by booking punk rock bands into low-rent theaters, warehouses, industrial parks, and other off-the-grid venues in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties. Given Gary’s background in booking Jane's Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Social Distortion and Nirvana in the ‘80s, your paths would have crossed. You’d certainly would feel comfortable with each other.
Yeah, exactly. What he was doing or what Paul (Tollett) or (the late Goldenvoice co-president) Rick Van Santen were doing in L.A., I was doing in Toronto. They had a house from where they were doing their shows, and I would visit them. I always wanted to be what those guys were. I remember when Rick came to Toronto in the early days of Concerts West, at the beginnings of AEG, he came to Toronto with a tour with Limp Bizkit, and I was like, “I want to be you.” We were friends, and I think that is what led to me getting my gig at Goldenvoice He introduced me to Paul. So Paul knew that I was a friend of Rick’s and the fact that Jay Marciano was there too.
[Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar hired Rick Van Santen in 1985, and when Tovar was arrested on drug distribution charges in 1991, he signed over ownership to Paul Tollett and Van Santen. Tollett and Van Santen sold Goldenvoice to the Anschutz Entertainment Group in 2001.]
You had been working at the House of Blues Canada.
It was MCA Concerts Canada, then Universal Concerts Canada, and then House of Blues Canada. Eventually, House of Blues was bought and became part of Live Nation. I left just before that happened.
[House of Blues faced enormous competition In the late 1990s as Robert F.X. Sillerman, under the SFX Entertainment banner, spent about $2.5 billion rolling up most of the major promoters in North America. In 1999, House of Blues Entertainment acquired Universal Concerts, the Seagram Co. company, which operated 19 concert venues across North America. In 2006, Live Nation purchased House of Blues Entertainment.]
Why come to Los Angeles to work at Goldenvoice?
As I said Rick Van Santen, who was the co-owner of Goldenvoice with Paul Tollett, was a really good friend. When he would come to Toronto, we would hang out, and when I’d go to L.A. he would take me to basketball or hockey games. We would go and eat, and we would listen to music together. Unfortunately, he passed away (in 2004 at the age of 41), and I was coming down to L.A. for a Pollstar conference, and Rick’s funeral was happening. So I came down, and then I got a call from Paul Tollett. I came to see him, and he asked me if I wanted to come to work with the company. So he was there, and Jay was there. I guess he needed somebody, and Jay recommended me, and Paul knew that I was a friend of Rick’s. It was a seamless transition.
Well, you did have family to contend with back in Toronto.
My son was then two years old. When I came back, I brought some little toys for him, and I sat with my wife. She said, “How was your trip?” I said, “Really good. I got offered a job in L.A. They want me to move.” After she got over the shock—after all we had a little kid and a house, and all of our family is in Toronto--she said, “Let’s do it. It will be a great opportunity.” So we did. It.
You told a story once about the three things you wanted to do once you got to L.A. for the first time years earlier. It was visiting three different places?
Right. I used to work with Henry Rollins a lot. Rollins used to sleep on the floor of my apartment in Toronto. I loved working with him. I said, “Henry you lived in L.A. for such a long time. If I go there what do I do?” He said, “You go to Duke’s (West Hollywood’s legendary Duke's Coffee Shop which closed in 2012) for breakfast. It was such a great place. “They have those giant meals. You stay at the La Cienega Motel, and then you go to Barney Beanery.” So that was Henry’s (guidebook) version. I did it, and it worked.
Growing up, I caught the tail end of the New York (music) scene. I was really happy about that, and that really helped me. Back then, I was a promoter and everything was happening in New York, and then everything moved to L.A. That was the point where I realized that I had to go to L.A. Ever since the business moved there, I would go there every year. But it was funny because I never drove. Being from Toronto, I never drove. Once I took the bus to William Morris, and they asked, “How did you get here?” I said that I took the bus, and people looked at me like I was crazy. Eventually, one of the senior agents Don Muller said, “Can we just drive you to the airport after this so you don’t get lost?”
While attending York University in Toronto I know you had worked for the school newspaper. What was your major at York?
I took film courses. You know that thing when you go at nine o’clock in the morning and they do a shot-by-shot (Alfred) Hitchcock. They had this professor of film studies, Robin Wood, who was an expert on Hitchcock. With all of those other films, the European stuff, I just sat there and watched all of those films. But I just was never good at school. I was never really interested in school. One day I passed by the newspaper office, the Excalibur. I figured there was a way of going to school, and not going to school. The film “Midnight Express” had just come out and, for me, it hit all of the buttons.
When “Midnight Express” was released in 1978, it was credited with destroying the Turkish tourism industry. The film told the story of Billy Hayes, a young American sentenced to 30 years in prison after attempting to smuggle hash out of Istanbul.
With (actor) Brad Davis, right? I asked the guy at the Excalibur if I could review the movie and he said okay. I wrote it, and everything was so good. The music and the story about it. I handed the review in and the guy said, “This is really great,” and I didn’t leave there for 5 or 6 years.
Did you graduate?
Yeah, it was one of those things where I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “Did I really do that last course?” I’ve always had this tinge of fear that I owed them one course. I got it (my degree), and I gave it to my parents, “Here’s you go.” While I was at the Excalibur, I was really going heavy on journalism. I had this friend Peter Noble, he was a really good photographer. We used to see gigs together, and I would write for underground rock magazines a lot. He pushed me through the door. Then, I started writing for the Toronto Star. For a minute, I was their music reviewer.
Following Peter Goddard?
Yeah after Peter Goddard. There was a time that they were trying different people. I got in there, and I was good and I was doing some good stories. Then they would ask me to review bands like Duran Duran, for example, and it just wasn’t my thing. I couldn’t take it seriously, and it showed. They would look at my articles, and I might be cutting up Duran Duran. They immediately moved me to the back part of the newspaper. I had to do stories on 24-hour supermarkets, and bowling alleys and things like that.
It’s always hard to get into the mainstream of any field.
Yeah, the above culture was hard for people like us who were certainly in the below culture, and we were made for it.
Like many writers of your generation, you would have been blown away by Jim Carroll’s 1978 memoir “The Basketball Diaries.”
Yeah, yeah. It was a huge influence for me. Every line, I pored through. For him to write that at that age (between the ages of 12 and 16). When I was writing, and doing concert promoting, writing was really hard. You had to sit at your typewriter, get a good lead, you‘d finally do a good job and, if you were lucky, they’d give you $100. With Jim Carroll, I’d call him up and say, “Do you want to do a gig?” Then I’d book the gig and, all of a sudden, I was making $500 just with a phone call. I threw the writing out of the window at that point. Jim was such a great writer but even more so as a live performer. I would do him at a club in Toronto for 500 people, and people would be hanging on every word of his. He was the type of guy too that he didn’t have a filter in terms of what he was saying. He would say the same thing to you or I that he would say to Patti Smith. He would tell these stories of being with (Andy) Warhol or Larry Rivers and people like that. Crazy stories, and he was just so magnetic.
[“The Basketball Diaries,” the journal Jim Carroll kept during high school and published in 1978, was reissued in a mass-market edition in 1980. It became enormously popular in North America, especially on college campuses. In a 1995 film adaptation, Leonardo DiCaprio played the part of Carroll. In the late 1970s, there was the Jim Carroll Band whose first release, “Catholic Boy” (1980), has been called the last great punk album. Carroll died in 2009 at the age of 60.]
I remember reading “The Basketball Diaries” and my jaw just dropped. I knew Patti Smith from her writing for Cream magazine.
I remember driving around in my friend sister’s Pinto listening to the first Patti Smith record, knowing how that was going to change everything.
Is it fair to say working as a promoter at Toronto clubs like RPM, The Horseshoe, and the Silver Dollar promoting such acts as Nirvana, the Pixies and the Strokes that you were carrying on from The Gary’s as the outside guy in Toronto’s live music scene?
[Toronto concert promoters Gary Topp and Gary Cormier, known as The Garys, were renowned for presenting cutting-edge live shows in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Topp had first programmed films, and occasional bands at the Danforth Avenue theatre The Roxy. In 1976, Topp launched a series of shows the New Yorker Theatre on Yonge Street with Cormier including with the Ramones, the Dead Boys, the Vibrators, the Viletones, and the Poles. By ’78 the Garys had relocated to The Horseshoe Tavern booking the like of the Police, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Etta James, Talking Heads, and Johnny Thunders. This was followed by nearly a three-year stint at Egerton’s booking Ultravox, the Slits, Nico, B-52s, Mink DeVille, John Cale, Alex Chilton, Squeeze, Joan Jett, Nona Hendryx, Echo and the Bunnymen, Simple Minds, The Teardrop Explodes, William Burroughs, X, and the Knack.]
Yeah. The Gary’s they had the Police, and all those bands. They had their scene and then I had my scene, and it was good. Everything was just really me. Me and my apartment, and me being confident about bands. I would always compete with larger promoters, having to do shows with no money.
As with The Gary’s you were primarily competing against Concert Productions International.
Yeah, I was competing against Michael Cohl. It was funny because I did write for Cheap Thrills (owned by CPI). I remember that Jeffrey Morgan (alter ego Machine Rock) was one of the editors. So I knew Michael Cohl because of the (Toronto Star) newspaper, and from the magazine. Nothing would have made me any happier than to work for him. It was always, “See, I’m doing this band” and “I’m competing against you” and “I found this band.”
You weren’t quite competing against CPI because Michael had zero interest in most of the indie alternative bands you were booking on their first or second tours. CPI would try to come onboard on the third tour if the band had become popular in the interim.
Right. That would be it. The Chilis (Red Hot Chili Peppers) at the time their agency was the Willard Alexander Agency in New York. The Chilis were there and I think Thelonious Monster. The Chilis were not even a big band at the time when I was working with them right at the beginning. I remember the day of the first date that they were playing for 700 people. All of a sudden, I had a partner on the show. It would be like that. I would find all of these bands, and I always would have to share with them (CPI).
They squeezed you out.
You’d apply for a position at CPI, and you’d be forced to sit in the lobby for hours.
That right. I would go there and I would try, and I would try. The people that I knew there would never hire me. Then one day I got a call from Riley O’Connor who was working for them. I didn’t know who he was. I knew Arthur Fogel and Michael Cohl. Riley came to work in Toronto (from Vancouver), and he called me up. He said, “I respect what you do, and I want to hire you.” But he could never get the rest of them (at CPI) to hire me. I got so frustrated.
[In 1989, Riley O’Connor moved to Toronto to become project manager and dir. of talent and production operations at CPI.]
Meanwhile, you had booked Nirvana for $100, but the band never turned up the first time.
That’s true. All of the Seattle bands at the time like Soundgarden, Mudhoney, TAD, and the Fluid, they rocked to a man so hard, but they were melodic. Every band was like that. It was fun.
Just one week before the domestic release of their seminal debut album, “Is This It,” you had the Strokes perform a non-ticketed gig as part of the Horseshoe Tavern's no-cover Nu Music Nite series. They were a big band in 2001.
They were a big band. You know I always tried to do something larger than life and have people going crazy on the street. Then, after that, momentum will take care of itself. With that one, I had the chance to do the Strokes, and Dave Bookman was doing Tuesday Nights For Free. I had done a few things with him, and there was always an audience. I was like, “Okay, let’s just blow this up a million times more, and put a huge band in a free situation,” and it worked, and the Strokes were amazing.
The Horseshoe, if squeezed, holds about 450 people. The Strokes could have easily sold out the 2500-capacity Kool Haus nearby.
Right. I think if you went up to the Stokes now, and asked, “Do you remember that gig?” they would remember it, but they wouldn’t remember playing the next gig in Toronto, wherever that was. Another such event was the first Rage Against The Machine show. I asked their agent if I could do it for a $5 admission. He said, “Okay.” It was the same kind of thing. A huge band, and only $5, and it supercharged the whole night. It made it crazy. Everybody there were happy to be there, and the band just got way bigger. I just love those situations where the situation helps make things a little crazy.
But still, you weren’t making a lot of money.
No. I remember when all I wanted was $5 so I could buy a hamburger. That was a good day.
You were really seeking a $30,000 a year job in music. You had to go off to India, and return to Toronto for that to happen.
I went to India to try to get away from everything. I felt like I might as well have a good time. Then, as soon as I got home I got a job right away from Jay Marciano. It was almost that I had to throw it (a job) away for it to come back to me.
With Jay Marciano hiring you at MCA Concerts Canada, you finally achieved your goal of an annual salary of $30,000.
That’s right, yeah. There were the beer wars in Canada with Molson and Labatt. I think that Molson was the sponsor for CPI. Then they switched to Labatt and Molson needed to do something. Molson asked different promoters in the U.S. if they would come to Canada, and start a company that they could be associated with, in order to be involved with music. Then it fell to Jay Marciano and MCA to do that in Canada. He was asking around who he should hire. He asked John Branigan, who is still a good friend of mine, and a great agent at William Morris. John told Jay about me.
So Jay launched the MCA Concerts Canada office.
Yes. At the time it was Jay and a couple of people in the office. A little small office. I just started booking. Before we knew it, I was booking all of these cool shows, but also tours across Canada.
That must have been a real learning curve for you.
Yeah, it was. Everything is about discovery. Up until today, it’s about discovery and finding the next band to work with. That’s when I found the Barenaked Ladies, and I did their tour that you referenced in the recent profile with Jack (Ross). Everything sold out the first day. So it was that kind of thing. Learning how to do that, and learning how to do shows.
Was Jay Marciano a good teacher?
He was the best. He was the best because the thing with Jay Marciano is that the door is always open. He’s always ready to talk. I found later on with the people that I met after him, especially some of the people that I worked with in Canada, that their doors were closed or their backs were towards you, or when you wanted to talk to them, they were too busy.
You are talking about with Universal Concerts Canada, and House of Blues Canada later on?
Yeah. Jay was always, “My door is always open. I will talk to you about whatever you want to talk about.” For me, that was all that I needed.
How cool that you remain so closely involved with Jay today.
As digital emerged nearly two decades, it immediately impacted on the live music sector, and it continues to do so.
Yeah, it’s harder to reach an audience, and it’s easier to reach an audience.
It’s harder to retain them.
Yes. There are so many other options. Everybody followed the same space before. They listened to the same radio station, and read the same magazine. I would always love opening up a Village Voice or a British music paper. I’d open them up and I would see the line-up for all of the different clubs and arenas, and see the bands that were playing there. It was all in front of you. Now that is all gone. I remember Terry McBride (CEO of Nettwerk Music Group) from when I worked with Terry, and Sarah McLachlan whom he managed. Terry was one of the first managers who was really aware of how the world was changing. He put Sarah tours on sale with no (marketing) money because he had realized that everybody was going to be there. They were all looking for it (the show). All you had to do was announce it, and it would sell out. You didn’t have to spend anything. I think currently it’s the same thing. Sometimes, you just have to pop it (the show) out there, and it sells out right away. That has certainly changed from the way that it was before.
Music fans now look to live performances to connect with both their favorite artists and to discover new bands.
The festivals do well too because there are so many great bands out there now. When I go to Coachella, it’s a chance for me to see everybody all at once. There are 20,30 or 40 different types of music that you want to see. The talent is so amazing that is out there. People will go to a festival, and they will get to see everybody at once. They might like 30 bands, but they all might be touring at the same time. How do you afford to go to all of those different shows?
Do you scout bands at Coachella and other festivals?
Yes. My favorite time at Coachella is the morning and early afternoon. At one o’clock, it’s not crowded, and you get to see all these bands, and you can get really close (to the stages). I love to check on bands where people have said something to me. Your ear is attuned to that.
Like many of us, you have a cultivated a network of people you trust over the years. If you hear, “You’ve got to check out this band, Elliot” twice, you are going to check the act out.
Certainly, you rely on your contacts. Your A&R is your contacts.
It’s still a word-of-the mouth business.
It’s absolutely a word-of-the mouth business. It’s about gut (reaction), and It’s word-of-the mouth and all of that. Those are things that are going to serve you well. At Coachella when you’ve heard about a band and then you go and see them...
We aren’t necessarily talking about social media here. We are talking person to person. Social media can be like white noise in the background.
Exactly. I remember those times of being in a room, and seeing a band, and getting bowled over by them. I remember seeing bands at the New Music Seminar or South by Southwest in the early days. One time, there was Sparklehorse, and I was just going, “Oh, my gawd. Who’s the manager? I will book this right now.” There’s this other band I want to mention from Scotland, Captain America which became the Eugenius. I remember seeing them at CBGBs. It was like when you see Nick Cave now, and he’s 20 feet onstage. That’s what that band was like. Everybody in the audience had this big grin.
Those are experiences that you forever treasure.
You can’t believe that your life is changing because this band is so good. Those moments, whenever they do happen, you are just so happy to be in a room with a band. You have to realize that the business side of you also clicks on too. There are two things that make you successful. There’s the artistic side, recognizing what is good out there, and then there’s the business side where you realize that you are going to be successful financially from this band too. I was never the guy who was going to sign the band to a recording contract. Or I was never going to be the guy who would say, “I want to be your manager.” By I was the person who was able to say, “Okay, let’s book a gig next week.” And I did do that.
Last May’s death of Chris Cornell had to have hit you hard, given your lengthy involvement with Soundgarden.
I remember booking those guys for the first time in some tiny club in Toronto. I remember that Chris was God-like with his long hair, and his performance onstage. The way he looked. The band straddled really good metal with good alternative rock. When I was starting my career, Soundgarden and all of those other Seattle bands were so good. It was like the melodic side of things with the heavy side of rock. Those were the guys who did perfectly. He was the perfect singer onstage. He was definitely a charming person.
I remember a legendary 1994 show with Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails at Molson Park in Barrie, Ontario. How did unusual bill come about?
I was friends with John Malm the manager of Nine Inch Nails. While I was at MCA Concerts, Nine Inch Nails were looking to do something, and they were totally hot. “Why don‘t you go and do something interesting?” We were doing shows at Molson Park at the time. It was 20,000 people. So I thought, “I can make this amazing show outdoors.” I had Nine Inch Nails in my pocket, and I went to Soundgarden. “Why don’t we do a show with Nine Inch Nails, and Soundgarden together? Nine Inch Nails, it’s wild and it’s crazy; Soundgarden is a dynamic band. They don’t have all of the extra production.” They agreed to do the show which was amazing. It did huge business. After the show, I went up to Kim Thayil, Soundgarden’s guitar player, and I asked him what he thought of the show. He lit his lighter a couple of time to echo the production. I think they both loved that they could play on that (contrast). Years later, the two bands toured together.
["We had a chip on our shoulder about Soundgarden because their record [‘Superunknown’] came out the same day ‘Downward Spiral’ came out and they beat us to #1 on Billboard," Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor told EYE Weekly's Liisa Ladouceur. "That became a kind of professional showdown. And we did show them."]
Is mixing bands of that caliber harder to do for dates or tours today?
Everything is a negotiation, right? What I personally like, and what has been artistically satisfying for me—again, I have never been the manager of a band and I have never worked for a record company. I don’t really have that influence on a band’s life in terms of what they are going to do. So sometimes it’s hard to go to someone like Rage Against the Machine and say, “You should play this show for $5 or say “Strokes, you should play for free because I think that it’s going to really help you and get your career going.” I don’t often have that opportunity. But when I’m working with bands, and I’m doing a tour like these days with Father John Misty or with Kraftwerk, I have a seat at the table. I may not have a vote but, at least, I can come up with some ideas where they should be playing and, maybe, some suggestions That’s artistically satisfying to me that I am able to do that at this point in my life and career.
There’s video on YouTube of you performing the song “My First Band.” Were you ever in a band?
I was never in a band. I always say that I wanted to be in a band. When I was working at The Silver Dollar I used to hang out with Eugene Ripper who had a band. One night his band was playing to four people. So I said, “Mind if I just drop in, and do a song?” I really liked (American radio host/artist) Ben Vaughn who had a song “My First Band” (1992). I love that song. It’s a neat song, musically. The music is just so “Louie Louie.” So I did it with him one night and we had such a fun time I did it with him a couple more times.
Then fast forward 30 years later I was at the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal and my friend Howard Bilerman, who is this really amazing producer in Montreal, he and some friends had gotten this bus, and they were recording bands on the bus. So I went over there with my wife and our dog and we were watching all these acts do their thing. Then something went off in my head, “Hey, Howard can I do it.” He looked me like “Whoa.” The singer from Guster (Ryan Miller) was interviewing the bands in the bus.” He said, “I said, “Can we do a song?” He said, “Swell, what do you do?” I said, “I’ll sing. Can you play guitar and Howard can you play drums?” There happened to be a horn player there. There was a Québécois band on before, and Howard asked the guy to play bass. Then we found a keyboard player and kind of cobbled it all together. We did it on the first take. I was so high after doing that. It felt so good.
You remain a true music fan.
Yeah, and that’s what it’s all about all of the time.
One of your big moments must have been interviewing the Doors’ Ray Manzarek in 2013 at the Pollstar conference.
While also being a frustrated musician, I think that I am also a frustrated journalist. I was doing some things for Pollstar at the time. I would call a few people together. I asked Pollstar if I could interview somebody at the conference, but they put me in the lunch room. I said I wanted to do the Doors. My friend (author/journalist) Harvey Kubernik knows Ray. He got (Doors’ engineer) Bruce Botnick, and put it together. Coming to L.A., to the home of the Doors was pretty incredible. I really got off on being able to talk to those guys. It was funny because the former manager of the Doors, Bill Siddons, I had met too, and became friends with. I said to Ray, “Can we get Bill to do this?” And he said, “You can either have Bill or you can have Ray.”
Living in L.A. for over 13 years, are you still a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays?
Yeah, I am still a huge fan. My son is now 15, and he’s a Jays’ fan. We watch the Jays or we go and see the Raptors play. We drive out to Anaheim. He’s a Toronto fan. He’s got a Toronto uniform. It was nice to pass my love of Toronto sports on to him. He doesn’t cheer for the Dodgers; he cheers for the Jays.
On October 24th, 1992, the Jays beat the Atlanta Braves in the 6th game of the World Series to win the championship. Do you remember that night?
I was at a Buddy Guy show in Toronto and we were watching the game in the box-office. It’s like, “Where were you when John Kennedy was shot?” This is like, “Where were you when the Jays won the World Series?” It was nice that Toronto finally won something.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.
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