Column 212: Business As Usual; A.A. Bondy tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 6:39 pm March 4, 2009

And now part three of what has become a trilogy of stories featuring Ladyfinger. Part one was an indepth feature on the band (here). Then came last week’s column, where I reviewed their CD release show (here). And now this week, a look beyond the music to the businesses owned and operated by two of the band’s members. Something tells me this won’t be the last thing I write about Ladyfinger this year.

Column 212: The Entrepreneurs
For these rockers, it’s business as usual.

I’m told we’re living through the second coming of the Great Depression. Maybe it is. People are losing their jobs and houses and livelihoods. Fear is strangling all of us as we await the return of the bread lines. Even Warren Buffett says that times are tough.

In the middle of all of that, when people are holding each dollar tightly in their angry fists, two Omaha entrepreneurs are starting new businesses. What all this has to do with music (this is, after all, a music column) will come later.

Chris Machmuller, 28, and Jamie Massey, 34, figured now was as good a time as any to roll dem bones and invest in a new business despite an economy bad enough to scare any survivor of the Depression into epileptic fits. But while they explained how they got their businesses off the ground, neither brought up the current state of the world. Booze and sandwiches, it seems, are immune to economic downturn.

Along with partners Ryan Albers, Ken McNealy and his boss at Media Services Jim Pettid, Massey purchased Benson folk music club Mick’s Music and Bar from Michael Campbell and reopened it as The Sydney — named after an old bar in Sioux City where Massey’s grandparents would “kick it.”

It was Pettid who found the ad in Craig’s List. “I told him that it’s always been a cool space, though I didn’t always agree with what Mike (Campbell) was doing with it,” Massey said. “If someone did something different, it could be a good place to hang out.”

Hang out, and drink. Immediately after Massey and partners took over the bar in January they made changes — painting the walls, taking out tables, adding a TV, jukebox, darts and a Golden Tee machine — all the typical accoutrements of your local neighborhood bar. And they tore out Mick’s famous stage, replacing it with a platform that currently holds a foosball table.

“We wanted it to be kind of like O’Leaver’s, with regulars and a happy hour crowd,” Massey said. “In my opinion, it’s a little nicer than a dive bar.”

Machmuller and his business partner, Pat O’Neill, originally looked at opening a restaurant in a vacant Old Home outlet on Farnam St., just down the road from The Brothers Lounge. After the deal fell through while working a shift at O’Leaver’s — a bar Machmuller’s managed for three years — he realized the answer to his dreams might lie on the other side of the bathrooms.

“I started wondering about how big that space was next door,” he said. “I knew that there was no room for seating, but if we made it simple and good, a take-out restaurant would work fine.”

It took 11 months of remodeling and construction before Worker’s Take Out served its first sandwich last August. Machmuller said he came up with the recipes himself and with some help from his friends. Just months after opening, the shop’s Cuban Pork Roast already has gained a rep as the restaurant’s flagship sandwich.

And now, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story. Machmuller and Massey are members of Ladyfinger (ne), a band that’s signed to Saddle Creek Records and that just released their second full-length album, Dusk. Rock ‘n’ roll protocol states that upon releasing a new album (especially for a label with national distribution) that the artist hits the road and spends weeks driving around the country in a shitty van, performing nightly in hopes of generating attention, exposure, word-of-mouth and ultimately, album sales. So how do you do that and run a business?

Guitarist Massey said there are plenty of people to watch his back at The Sydney; the struggle will be keeping his head above the waves at Media Services, where he’s the art director. Machmuller, the band’s frontman, also has the necessary staff at Worker’s, and there’s always someone to take his shifts at O’Leaver’s.

“I spread myself pretty thin,” Massey said. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to say ‘no.’ It becomes stressful, but it could be worse. I could be doing a job that I hate, or be at home doing nothing.”

Fact is, Machmuller and Massey have no choice but to burn the two-sided candle. Both Ladyfinger and their businesses are at a crossroads, and what happens over the next few months will determine their success or failure.

“It’s a matter of just staying open,” Machmuller said. “Year to year — from the first year to the second to the third — your business should double. You hope that the longer you’re around that more people will know about you, and a sense of consistency will come into place.” The same holds true for rock bands.

But if Ladyfinger fails to catch fire, it only costs Machmuller his pride, whereas with Worker’s, “if we have a bad week and the rent’s due, even if the business can’t afford it, someone’s got to afford it,” he said. “The money comes out of someone’s pocket. You hope that the business pays for itself completely, after that, you hope to start paying yourself.”

But what if the stars align as they should and Worker’s and The Sydney become money-making machines at the same time that Ladyfinger finally gets the attention it deserves?

“We’ll have to do everything on a bigger scale,” Machmuller said, “We’ll have to order more food.”

“When that happens,” Massey added, “we’ll do another interview.”

The Sydney celebrates its grand opening this Saturday, March 7, with music by Mal Madrigal and Jake Bellows (someone’s going to have to move that foosball table). The bar opens at 4 on weekdays and noon on weekends, and boasts a “reverse happy hour” from midnight to closing in an effort to scoop up the after-show business.

Worker’s is open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Call ahead at 932-6083. If you order a hot Cuban for me, tell them to hold the mustard.

* * *

Here are a few words about tonight’s A.A. Bondy show at The Waiting Room: Before opening for Felice Bros last September at TWR and Kevin Devine at Slowdown in early ’08, it had been almost five years since A.A. Bondy came through town. Back then, he was going by the name Scott Bondy and was fronting Verbena, a major-label band that mixed grunge with Delta Blues. Verbena probably got tagged with the grunge label thanks to Bondy’s grainy Cobain-esque voice. Shortly after that show in ’03, Verbena hung it up. Bondy disappeared for four years and reemerged with a stripped-down sound and a new name. In ’07 A.A. Bondy released American Hearts on Superphonic Records. The LP is 40 minutes of earthy indie-folk ballads that combine a heartfelt ’70s Americana vibe with the subtle urgency of Nirvana Unplugged. The disc caught the ear of blues label Fat Possum Records, who rereleased it in April ’08.

And so on. Opening the show is McCarthy Trenching and It’s True. $8, 9 p.m.

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