Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with JJ’s Bohemia co-owner John Shoemaker about how he got into venue management, celebrating the bar’s fourth anniversary and his favorite shows.
CP: How did you and Jeni (Brown) start JJ’s?
JS: I was unemployed, but i had been saving to open a restaurant. After I had fallen out of love with the restaurant business and finding out that this space was available, it just made perfect sense and fell right in place. This is a building that Jeni and I used to hang out in when we worked at the Read House about 14-15 years ago. It was The Chameleon back there.
CP: What did you do at the Read House?
JS: I managed Madeline’s which is no Porter’s. I did a little bit of everything.
CP: What made you fall out of love with restaurants?
JS: It’s just something I’ve been doing since i was 16. i definitely still miss being able to get in the kitchen and cook and work in a professional kitchen. It pretty much started as a dishwasher, busser, server, bartender and manager. I worked my way up, and the next logical step was to be an owner. By the time I got through that stuff, I realized that Chattanooga has plenty of restaurants and it’s highly competitive and a flavor-of-the-month type thing.
And here, I was able to combine my passion for the bar business and music. I had my ducks in a row. I was ready to do something. A lot of it is being ready to seize an opportunity.
CP: What’s different about working as a venue owner as opposed to a restaurant owner?
JS: There are similarities in that there’s a high level of commitment and work. The difference is it’s easier to get more passionate about music. Anything you’re going to do and do well, you need to have a vested emotional interest in it. I’ve never played an instrument, but I’ve always been a fan of live music.
CP: So music makes you feel more driven?
JS: Yeah. You can work a restaurant and manage a restaurant and have a good night and be on a wait all night long, and it feels pretty good. But man, working a show where it’s a packed house and people who are coming to the show are having the time of their lives, which goes through the bands, you can’t beat that. That’s an awesome night. You’re making people happy and giving them something to remember.
CP: Do you feel like you’ve given Chattanooga a lot to remember over the past four years?
JS: Yeah, I believe so. I believe that’s kind of what our reputation is built on now.
CP: Over the years, JJ’s has gained a lot of notoriety among regional bands and publications. What kind of feedback have you gotten from them about why they love JJ’s so much?
JS: A lot of that is just word of mouth from the band. Just like the band we had last Friday Chooglin. This is their third show with us, and they seem to play with us every November because it’s part of their routing and touring. They tell me this is their favorite show of the whole tour every time. A band like that will go off to different cities and talk to other bands. Word spreads.
It’s not just about me. It’s about the fans in Chattanooga more than anything. People here are just enthusiastic and don’t hold anything back. They get into the shows. They party. They scream. They’re having a good time. They’re not standing around with their hands in their pockets analyzing whether it’s a good time or not.
CP: When you got into this, did you expect Chattanooga to contain that enthusiastic a group of music lovers or was that level of response a surprise?
JS: Yeah, I thought so. I’d seen it already. I’d been to shows here, and the best ones I saw here were the Nautilus parties in the Nautilus Building on North Shore. They used to throw these fantastic parties about 6-7 years ago that featured bands like The Black Diamond Heavies and Ghostfinger and The Hidden Spots. Just seeing what those were like, it was like, “Man, if I could bottle this, it would be the best thing ever.”
CP: When you’re booking bands, what do you look for? What’s your booking philosophy?
JS: As far as artists, we’re looking for people who are true to themselves and doing what they want to do, not trying to be the next metal band. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is, it matters what the bands are into, what kind of people they are and why they’re doing it.
There’s nothing more special than a band that spends 250 days touring. Those are people who are definitely pursuing their dream and putting everything they have into it, and not trying to copy the next thing, like we need another Coldplay or Radiohead or something.
CP: Looking back, what have been the high points for JJ’s, musically?
JS: This year, the two best shows I’ve had so far were Bob Durough from Schoolhouse Rock opening up for The Distribution CD release. That might be my favorite show of all time. The other show I was stoked about was King Kong and The Shrine. Both of those are just absolutely impossible. Things just fell in place for those shows.
CP: What about before this year?
JS: Probably our first big show — I’ll always remember that one — was The Slits when they came through. That was our first sold-out, “line down the street show where we couldn’t let anyone in anymore” show. That was a lot fun.
Everything blurs together, but there have been a ton of great shows. Some of the local shows like Up With the Jonese, Moonlight Bride and Coral Castles, back when they were together. Those were fantastic shows. There have been so many.
CP: Over the last four years, how have things changed for JJ’s? Has anything changed about your approach to running the venue?
JS: You know, not a whole lot. I was just looking at 2007, our first full year opening, last night and realizing how quickly it got to be really good here. I guess the thing that’s changed the most this year has been looking at alternative entertainment options. We’ve done some sideshows, wrestling, like we’re doing on Saturday, and theme parties, things we can add to a show.
It just seems to make things a little more fun and interesting whenever you can mix up the different forms of entertainment. Also comedy shows. We’ve had some really big comedy shows this year. That’s been the biggest change this year.
CP: When did you guys last do a remodel?
JS: Yeah, last December. We close in two weeks every December. It’s coming up here pretty soon on Dec. 12-25. We just make a few changes.
JJ’s has a tendency to get thing donated to us a lot. Friends bring stuff in, and we put in on a wall or a counter or something like that. Every December, we take a lot of it down and store it or sell it or give it back to them and let it start over to keep refreshing it.
It’s a small space, and it gets cluttered, so it’s a good time to clean up and repaint. We try to give it a fresh look every December, and it’s usually ready by New Years so we have a nice fresh bar. Any time you’re in a building that’s 100 years old, there are going to be things to repair as well, so ...
CP: Like what? What have you had to fix?
JS: Just about everything. (Laughs.) Our shows get rough here. We get a lot of people coming through, so there are always things to work on: coolers, air conditioners, plumbing, ceiling fans, the front door. I’ve had to replace these toilets three or four times. Whenever people party, there are going to be a few casualties. It’s been a little bit of everything.
The best thing in the world are the bar stools Jeni made with the beer kegs and the simple tops on them. Those things never break. (Laughs.) They’re awesome. People have copied them. They’ve come in and figured out how to make them and put them in their house. They’re indestructible.
CP: Does that bother you, having the place slowly falling apart or being taken apart throughout the year?
JS: No, as long as people are having fun, it doesn’t matter. Anything in here can be fixed, replaced, repaired ... whatever. We don’t like for it to get broken, but if it does, it’s because someone was having a good time. As long as they don’t break each other. (Laughs.)
CP: Are you doing anything special for your anniversary weekend? Beyond the shows, are you doing anything special to celebrate?
JS: There are probably going to be online specials that I will promote through Facebook, early bird specials and things like that. There won’t be any deals — it’ll just be a lot of fun.
We’re going to come together and celebrate being open for another year. The venue business is tough, you know? People come and go all the time. There have been a half dozen venues open and close since we’ve been open.
CP: What are you doing right? Why are your doors still open?
JS: I think it’s just a combination of Jeni and I putting everything we have into it. We put in the work, and that’s the biggest thing. You spend countless hours promoting and booking and then working the venue. If you treat it like a full time job, that’s is the biggest thing.
A lot of people who get into business for themselves — this could be just about any business, just about — have different ideas of how to approach it. If you think you’re going to be sitting in an office making bank deposits and collecting pay checks, if you’re running something small, you’ll have a reality check pretty soon.
CP: Looking forward to Year Five and beyond, what are your hopes for JJ’s?
JS: Just to keep it up, at this point. I think we’ve peaked. I don’t think there’s anything more we can do. Year Four was definitely a peak year for us. We’ve increased our crowd every year up to this year, but i don’t see it going any further than what we have. We’re limited by the size of the space.
I guess it’ s just keeping the momentum going, bringing in new talent and checking out new things while mixing it up with some of our regular things we have been doing for the past four years.
CP: A while ago, you mentioned that you were looking at moving to a new, larger space. Is that on the backburner?
JS: (Laughs.) It’s something i think about every day, but it’s one of those things where it has to be the exact right opportunity. If it’s not done right, it won’t succeed. I’m kind of looking for perfection there, and that takes a while. It has to be the right size, the right place and the right layout.
That’s where the hang up is on that. I still haven’t found the perfect place, but I look; I look every week. I’m just waiting for the right thing to become available.
E-mail Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...