East Side King
'This has been the poem': ND celebrates its launch three years after opening
Mike Henry is smiling a lot more these days.
For anyone who knows the co-owner and talent buyer of the ND, East Austin’s scrappiest live music venue, you know what this means.
It means that his plan worked.
For the last three years, Henry and his crew at the ND have been building a brand of quality independent programming that includes live music (touring and local), live performance, video and film, art, fashion and only-in-Austin excitement. With almost 500 shows down in the books, they’re just now celebrating their official launch.
Three years? How does that timeline elicit a smile from Mike Henry?
Sitting in the gloriously disarrayed office of Henry and Creative Director Krissi Reeves, the answers unfold amidst stacks of band posters, show flyers, action figures, to-do lists and receipts. Throughout our conversation, Henry is pulled away dozens of times to answer urgent questions for the impending weekend of celebration at the ND.
“We’ve been operating sort of like a three-legged dog for a long time,” reflects Henry, after hanging up the phone. “I honestly had no idea it would be this difficult or take this long. To be honest, it’s been fucking hard getting to this point.”
When Henry first envisioned the ND, there was no way to foresee the complications that would arise that would make the sweat equity approach to building East Austin’s favorite venue a necessity. For example, the economy crashed the same year Henry shook hands with prominent filmmaker and friend, Richard Kooris, to attach plans to 501 Studios.
“We made up our business plan right as the economy tanked,” remembers Henry. “But we had this space, so we thought, ‘Let’s just go for it, we’ll figure it out as we go.’ We’ve been pulling sixty hour weeks ever since.” For the record, the DIY approach to starting a club is not a method Henry would recommend to upcoming business owners without the right team and a lot of time on your hands.
"All of it was planned. And all of it was improvised," says Reeves, with the same quixotic humor that kept them afloat these long hard years.
Facing an endless obstacle course of City of Austin and TABC permits, the ND has (until recently) negotiated revolving Temporary Use and Catering Permits to build and serve drinks at the ND. Henry compares it to “dipping one’s toe into the water in preparation for a swim across the Nile River at the height of piranha season with a live cow tied to each ankle.” Apparently, there’s a lot of excess paperwork and hassle involved.
Part of the problem is that the ND was never intended to be a cocktail lounge. Instead, 501 Studios was originally a grain mill re-purposed into a fully functional movie studio in the 1970s. (The giant white syke wall on the south end of the studio is still used by the ND for film screenings and other visual effects.) Changing the purpose of the venue once more required significant upgrades in both technology and architecture.
Luckily, Henry’s former business partner at the iconic Electric Lounge, Jay Hughey, was looking to move back to Austin after a long stint in Los Angeles. As an experienced architect and builder, Hughey agreed to take on the task of developing the studio into a premier performance space along with Henry and Kooris.
"I just want to see this place up and running to its full capacity," says Hughey, amidst the current renovations. "It's so great seeing people loving the new space, it sounds good and it looks good."
Says Henry of his long time business partner, “Jay built everything we needed from designs he did himself. Once he agreed to come on, that’s when I knew it would all work out. I was literally jumping for joy the day he said yes.”
With a stage, decent lighting, speakers and a cash bar, the inaugural performance evening at the ND (then called “The 501 Theater”) took place on May 16, 2008. Among the night’s performances was a one-person show called Spinning the Bottle, starring none other than the woman with whom Henry would later share his business and his home, Krissi Reeves.
"Yes, it's true. The ND's first official show was Spinning the Bottle, a jaunty little comedy about neuroscience and bedwetting written and performed by me," says Reeves, matter of factly. "I knew that night that the ND would eventually become my home for work and play."
“In a lot of ways, Krissi has been the muse behind the ND. She’s been there from the beginning, re-imagining the space through its incarnations,” says Henry with an unabashed grin. “This place is as much hers as it is mine.”
(Unsurprisingly, Henry and Reeves are regularly found smooching any time, day or night, at the ND. It's become so common, it's just part of the decor now. "We make out a lot," reports Reeves. "At work and otherwise.")
Henry and Reeves share a fascinating history, stretching all the way back to 2003. Both were heavily involved in the Austin Poetry Slam community, which moved venues from the Electric Lounge to Ego's and later to the ND while Henry was the Slam Master. Henry was even the President of Poetry Slam, Inc. for two years and co-directed the National Poetry Slam in Austin two years in a row.
"When [Mike] took over the space, I knew I'd wanted to be involved somehow. I just wasn't sure to what degree," says Reeves. "So, I just dove in, never really coming up for air, and here I am."
Reeves bought into the ND in 2010, following the second year of SXSW's hosted parties in the space. Henry, the former booking agent at the Electric Lounge, has had no problem finding local and touring bands to occupy his stage, and Reeves’ entertainment background helped guarantee the parties at the ND were always bumping long into the night.
“At first, we knew our limitations, and we would only offer to host parties we knew we could accommodate,” states Henry. “Then we just kept doing shows with our friends, which led to bigger and better parties with their friends.”
A dedicated team of bartenders, door staff and sound technicians helped to round out the staff that kept the parties going and the partygoers happy. Austin musician/producer/promoter/engineer Paul Minor was brought on as the official ND Production Manager, handling the sound board and the unique requests for audio-visuals without ever batting an eye. And there have been some crazy things projected up on that giant screen...
"We want to be a big welcoming club for everyone," says Henry. "We don't care if you're gay or straight or neither or both. The ND is a little bit different. We've got indie rock, The Encyclopedia Show, Bearracuda, burlesque. There's always something different. And that's the kind of venue I want to go to."
One thing standing in the way of growth, however, was brand recognition. From The 501 Theater to The Independent to ND, the space has had its fair share of names over the last three years.
To help brand the space and raise its notoriety, the Austin-based art and design studio RECSPEC was brought into the fold in 2009. Comprised of partners Laurel Barickman and Dave Milner—the former manager at Whisky Bar, where Reeves used to work—the team helped design the “bat signal” logo and the venue’s final name change, which became official in Feb 2010.
“I like having an ambiguous name for the space,” says Henry of the simplified moniker. “Some folks assume it’s just a streamlined version of ‘Independent.’ Others say it stands for ‘Naked Dancing’ or ‘Nuclear Dicks.’ But it’s really up to you to decide what you want it to mean.”
RECSPEC has also been busy in recent months developing two new components to the ND brand as well. Tamale Molly is a trailer-esque tamale kitchen combining tamales, chili, Fritos and beer in whatever combination you prefer. And The North Door is the spy-themed alley-entranced speakeasy in the north entrance of the ND set to someday include an outdoor beer garden.
During my visit, Barickman is busy painting “Master of Disguise” faces on to each of the mirrors in the unisex bathroom of the North Door. “It’s a spy theme,” she explains between brushstrokes, “so we’re including James Bond touches to everything from the music to the drinks to the wall art. The sign in the alleyway even gives it that hidden secret meeting feeling.”
Together, these fully conceived spaces make up one mighty facility of entertainment, food and drinks like the East Side has never seen. “Coordinating all of this has been the poem I’ve been working on, all the parts coming together,” says Henry. “Next, it’ll be about finding the right mix of programming—art, poetry, film, music. After all, the whole thing lives and dies on the performances.”
As the final piece of the ND puzzle reaches completion, there’s a weekend-long party underway at the North Door featuring free tamales and drink specials, live DJ sets and secret password parties for Facebook fans of the ND. There’s even a secret kitchen order called the “Mike Henry,” which is a shot of Jameson with a Frito Pie chaser. (“It’s surprisingly good and only five bucks," says Reeves.)
In the end, Henry got his tamale and he’s eating it too. So no wonder he’s smiling so much these days. “This is what I'm supposed to do. This space. These people. It’s been totally worth it. I would absolutely do it again if I had to.”