Club Culture:
Behind the Scenes at Three of the Best Places to
Hear Live Music in Buffalo

by Pam Swarts with Ron Ehmke

Craig Reynolds
Craig Reynolds.
Photo by Jim Bush.
Soundlab
(110 Pearl St., 883-3209,

www.bigorbitgallery.com
)

In the early years of the new century, events at this not-for-profit space have cut across genres and audiences with the skill of a DJ sampling songs from across the musical spectrum. Experimental electronic music, video installations, avant-garde jazz, breakdancing: everything is fair game here. We talked to Soundlab Director Craig Reynolds.

Q: How long has the club been around?

Craig Reynolds: Soundlab is unique among local music venues insofar as it’s not really a club, although it looks and acts like one. Soundlab is actually a not-for-profit art space, and its sole concern is the music, media, and performance programming of Big Orbit Gallery. I don’t mean to sound pretentious or exclusive, only to clarify that our incentives and business model are a little different than most other clubs. For example, Soundlab is 100% volunteer-operated, and every dollar it receives goes toward artists’ fees or rent or whatever, and although our concessions include a small beer and wine menu, drink sales are really just a means to a different end. You won’t see neon beer-company logos, promotional banners, cardboard cut-outs, or anything like that, because we’re not really a part of the bar industry, but rather of a network of small experimental venues that typically occupy lofts, storefronts, galleries, and auditoriums.

That being said, the “ Soundlab” series has existed since 2000, when Big Orbit began producing music events in its gallery on Essex Street. … Our music programming was expanding so rapidly that we had to open a space off-site at 515 Pearl in early Spring 2002. At this location we were able to create an environment that attracted audiences that were maybe more comfortable seeing music in bars and clubs than “alternative art spaces” and galleries—but it was only a temporary arrangement with the landlord. In November 2003, we moved Soundlab to its current location at 110 Pearl. Here, we tried to create a really nice hybrid space with just enough touches of familiarity to generate crossover appeal for non-“art” audiences.

Q: How does your location affect what goes on inside the venue?

CR: Our physical location is—like the city of Buffalo in general—both a blessing and a curse. Soundlab is located in an awesome building—the Dun Building, on the corner of Pearl and Swan—and is surrounded by many of Buffalo’s great architectural gems and pretty parkways, but the only significant nighttime activity around the building is sports-related. Nevertheless, the fact is that we are a music venue, so being in the middle of an empty downtown works out pretty well, considering noise issues.

I think that part of Soundlab’s appeal is the fact that it is off the beaten path, like some deep downtown Manhattan club where you drive for blocks past closed-up storefronts wondering if you’ll ever be able to catch a cab at the end of the evening—and yet it’s not really that far out at all, it’s in the center of the city! I’ve heard people look up at the tall buildings and say, “Wow, Buffalo feels like a real city down here!” or “I haven’t been this far downtown in years!” It’s really cool to give people a reason to do that, and also great to benefit from the appearance of sophistication associated with a more cosmopolitan architectural landscape.

On a related note, most visiting artists stay at my house, which is located in Allentown. In the ten minutes it takes to travel from Soundlab to my home, they get a visual impression of Buffalo that is overwhelmingly positive. They see the Ellicott Square Building, the Guaranty Building, County Hall, City Hall, several churches, about five Victorian-era gi-normous mansions, Kleinhans Music Hall, and the domestic architecture of Allentown. And once they get inside and see what kind of beautiful, big living spaces are available—most of them are from the New York area, Chicago, or some other large metropolitan area where escalating rents have forced artists into tiny living spaces—they become really intrigued. I’ve lost track of how many artists have entertained, at least for the moment, the possibility of relocating here, and that’s awesome, to be able to transcend years of negative publicity so easily. If we could only get day jobs for these people, we could really rock as a vibrant, creative city that draws artists rather than simply incubating them.

Q: Digital technology has allowed musicians to polish and refine their sound, and mainstream pop artists often rely on lip-synching in “live” concerts. Have trends like these affected the music that gets performed at your space?

CR: Well, at Soundlab the emphasis is generally not on the spectacle, nor really on pure entertainment, so lip-synching never has to happen. Nobody would bother faking anything unless it was meant to be obvious or theatrical, although people often play to pre-recorded tracks or manipulate pre-recorded materials ... which is fine with us, because we approach music as art, and can accept creative uses of sound materials even if [they’re not being played live] on the spot. In fact, one of the major components of our programming involves the creation and performance of entirely synthetic music—music created on an entirely digital plane. It’s not uncommon to feature a performer whose only instrument is a laptop computer. In that case, the artist is likely using sound-making software to generate and/or manipulate different sound sources, and often projecting visual imagery at the same time. Sometimes the artist retains aspects of the source sound, sometimes not; it totally depends on the artist and his or her unique sensibility. Oftentimes, groups—and this is in every genre, from free improv to rock to modern art music to DJs and even spoken word performance—will combine acoustic, electric, or electronic sounds played live with laptop accompaniment or live laptop manipulation. The technology has expanded the playing field endlessly for creative music, even as it might be argued that it has tended to narrow the aesthetic sensibilities of pop music.

Q: Any memorable evenings that were a result of unexpected audience/artist collaborations?

CR: In the early Soundlab days at Big Orbit, we went crazy for literal collaborations, and did all kinds of events meant to mix up artist and audience roles. For example, we had twenty vintage Atari consoles set up around the gallery once, with the images from the games projected on giant scrims and monitors around the space. Audience members could play the Ataris for fun, and the sounds they generated were linked into the mixers of three DJs who could import the bleeping sounds into their mix, creating an interactive “symphony” composed by the audience and the DJs in collaboration. … We’ve never really had the great Who moment where the drummer passes out for good and the guitarist walks to the front of the auditorium stage and says, “Is there a drummer in the house?”—but we kind of reinvent ourselves with each new show, so who knows?

Q: Soundlab is located in a space that was previously a bar named Cheers. I have always wondered if that place was set up like the bar on the TV series, with a fake Norm and Sam.

CR: I don’t know about the old Cheers, but we absolutely have our Norms and Cliffs—however, there can only be one Sam Malone. We probably have a few too many Dianes and Fraziers, though. But between the times of Cheers and Soundlab, it was a Chinese food restaurant. It’s hard to envision it as a Chinese restaurant anymore, but if anybody needs a giant wok or industrial-size box of take-out cartons, Soundlab has ’em in storage.


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