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Chicago’s Other Music Box: The Story of Schubas Tavern

The Windy City landmark celebrates 25 years of music and memories.

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There is a quote that hangs above the music room at Schubas Tavern. Held in a bronze frame, the words come from “The Rest Is Silence”, an essay by Aldous Huxley: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

For Huxley, music was more than bars and notes on a page; it stirred something in the soul. Music was the ghost of “man’s most significant and most inexpressible experiences,” evoking in the listener something raw and emotional: the anguish of defeat, the triumph of love, the warmth of days past.

Located at Belmont and Southport, Schubas looks like any other slightly upscale bar in Lakeview—except for the Schlitz logo on the building. Considered one of the best small rooms in Chicago, Schubas has been a destination for rising artists as they tried to grasp something magical, something inexpressible to connect with their fans. Since opening in 1989, Schubas has hosted more than its fair share of future stars—The National, Janelle Monáe, and My Morning Jacket, to name a few of the venue’s Hall of Famers.

But long before a single note rung out at Schubas, its life began as a Schlitz “tied house”—a brewery owned the bar where it exclusively sold its drinks. Step inside Schubas and that history comes alive: There are meticulously restored Schlitz logos, a Schlitz statuette standing atop the photo booth, a Schlitz dinner plate perched on a shelf behind the bar. And yes, they still serve Schlitz on tap.

Schubas Daytime (36)At the turn of the twentieth century, breweries like Schlitz prided themselves on building exquisitely designed bars. Their aesthetically pleasing appearances served as a middle finger to the temperance movement, whose fervor was building toward Prohibition. Breweries wanted to show that their bars weren’t the cesspools of drunks and degenerates that the Anti-Saloon League decried.

Even when Congress repealed Prohibition, the tied-house system remained defunct as bars passed to private owners. In the century since Schubas’ building opened, tied houses were bought, demolished, and rebuilt. The City of Chicago recently designated Schubas a historical landmark—it’s one of 44 remaining Schlitz taverns—citing its “rare” German Renaissance Revival architecture. In an ironic turn of events, the city immortalized what it once tried to destroy.

When Schubas opened in 1989, Lakeview wasn’t the most pleasant area. In fact, it resembled the kind of neighborhood someone from the Anti-Saloon League would have avoided. The venue’s first talent buyer, Ray Quinn, remembers that “nobody wanted to live on Southport” and how it “wasn’t that good of a neighborhood.” He adds: “There were prostitutes on the corner, on the bus stop bench every day.”

But just about everything—Lakeview, Schubas, Belmont—has changed in the past 25 years.

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When I arrive at Schubas on a brisk, sunny morning, promotions director Jud Eakin greets me at the door.

“I have about 10 minutes,” Mike Schuba says as he sits next to Eakin by the bar. Summoned from an in-house phone, the co-owner is an imposing man with graying hair and long, white sideburns. Mike’s voice is gravelly and gruff, even when he’s discussing fond memories. But soon he’s excitedly talking about 1989, about the venue’s first show (Big Head Todd and the Monsters), about a legendary Tuesday residency by a jam band, The Otters. He stays a bit longer than 10 minutes. He’s a music industry veteran telling tales of days past in a slow and deliberate voice, starting with the rough-and-tumble reputation of the venue’s predecessor, Gaspar’s—a bare-bones new wave rock club.

“We had heard stories for shows,” Mike says. “They would climb up on the pole in the alley to steal power for the lighting, the artists getting shocked by their microphones.”

Schubas didn’t start solely as a music venue. The brothers cobbled together a used PA system and lighting to host concerts on weekends. Since the bar was deserted on weeknights, Quinn invited Stuart Rosenberg, a local musician, to jam in the back on Tuesdays. Rosenberg saw an opportunity to assemble an eclectic group of his friends as The Otters. The ground rules for The Otters were that the band wouldn’t try to get signed or get other gigs; they only wanted Tuesdays at Schubas. Word spread, and the lines wrapped around the block to see them play every week. Rumor had it Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan even stopped by.

“The most intense memory is the way that this gorgeous, incredible crystal formed out of the coal,” Rosenberg says. “And for the next several years, every Tuesday night was like the greatest Saturday night party you can imagine.”

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At the end of the residency, The Otters played Schubas somewhere between 250 and 275 times. The band needed to print on both sides when they designed a tour shirt for every gig they had. By this time, Quinn says, Schubas gained a reputation as “this little showcase room in Chicago.” And he was at the heart of the booking process, organically building relationships with managers and record labels. “There was very little time off, but I was really young,” says Quinn.

“And I could drink for free,” he adds with a grin.

Because he succeeded at filling the room, Quinn had free reign to book whomever he wanted. In the process, he established Schubas’ reputation for hosting high-quality bands and treating them well. Quinn remembers being approached by an agent proposing that Tom Wopat—Luke Duke in the original Dukes of Hazzard—play Schubas. Quinn said no.

“This place is only for people based on their musical merit, and nothing else,” Quinn says. “I didn’t care how famous they were.”

Through his uncompromising vision, Quinn established Schubas’ virtuous circle that quality performers would gravitate there. Twenty-five years later, it’s one of Chicago’s most respected rock clubs, acclaimed for its sound. “It’s the marquee room in this city for a reason,” says Yvonne Doll, singer for The Locals. “They know how to put on a show.”

But the reason artists love to return is because Schubas prides itself on being an inviting place for the artists it showcases.

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Walk downstairs at Schubas—but watch your head, the ceiling’s low—and you’ll reach the green room. It’s where I met Jenny Owen Youngs the first time I covered a show at Schubas. The enclave for visiting artists is complete with warm lighting, a comfy sofa, and walls plastered with posters from old gigs. When I interviewed Youngs and her bandmates, they had just finished their complimentary dinner. (All food is supplied by the Harmony Grill, the restaurant that’s attached to Schubas.)

For Kevin Barnes, singer for of Montreal, being a starving artist was part of the band’s early performing career, and a free meal at Schubas was a welcome perk. “That meant a lot, especially in the early days when we weren’t really making any money,” says Barnes. “And I just remember it being a highlight of the tour, always.”

of Montreal ended up playing Schubas six more times since their first show in 1999.

“The brilliance of the Schuba brothers,” Rosenberg says, “is they figured out how to create a really comfortable context that honored music and honored the fans and held the musicians in high esteem.”

In the words of Matt Rucins, Schubas’ current talent buyer: “Our staff treats bands like kings.”

Rucins no longer really needs to contact bands to play Schubas. The venue has an email dedicated solely to fielding pitches from local bands who want to open for headlining acts.

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Erik Selz, the owner of Red Ryder Entertainment, which represents Andrew Bird and Jukebox the Ghost, says, “It’s become our go-to first step in the market for most of our bands.”

The benefits of having a reliable venue while on the road are not lost upon Tommy Siegel, who plays guitar for Jukebox the Ghost. He remembers the struggles of slogging cross-country in a minivan, but could always count on Schubas’ hospitality.

“I don’t have a great memory for most things, but I do have a good memory for touring and venues,” Siegel says. “The ones that really stick out are the really bad ones or the really good ones, and Schubas always fit into the ‘really great’ category.”

Schubas’ former talent buyer, Doug Lefrak, says he tried to continue the tradition of “making bands feel like kings when they came to Schubas; it was their home away from home.” Lefrak now owns his own company, Feisty Management, whose clients include Doomtree and Motion City Soundtrack.

“I want my artists to go through the doors of Schubas first,” Lefrak says.

tomorrow never knows Chicagos Other Music Box: The Story of Schubas TavernMany bands that play Schubas graduate to Lincoln Hall, Schubas’ sister venue, which opened in 2009. Mike and his brother Chris wanted to open a larger room (Lincoln Hall’s capacity is 500) so artists could stay in their network when they outgrew Schubas. Selz says that even if a band could fill a bigger space—like the Vic or the Riv—he will often book his artists at Lincoln Hall because of existing relations.

Given the club’s reputation, the only time Rucins pursues bands is for what he calls Schubas’ “signature event”: Tomorrow Never Knows, the club’s annual music festival. It replaced Summer on Southport, Schubas’ outdoor summer festival that got muscled out by Lollapalooza. Tomorrow Never Knows is not your typical festival, though. It happens indoors, in January, in Chicago.

Eakin describes Tomorrow Never Knows as giving fans the chance to see bands “before you’re not gonna be able to see them here again”; its most famous alumni are Bon Iver and The Walkmen. In its current incarnation, the festival occurs over five days at six rock clubs. Because Rucins knows a lot of talent buyers in Chicago, getting other venues that compete with Schubas to host Tomorrow Never Knows wasn’t hard. Planning the festival consumes much of the staff’s energy starting in the summer, though. “It’s still difficult to persuade bands to come to Chicago in January,” Rucins says.

To lure musicians into the polar vortex, Rucins will often fly artists in and pay for their hotels, taking time and money to coordinate.

“I remember three years ago, Chris Schuba walked in the week after Tomorrow Never Knows and is like, ‘Let’s look at doing this in June, too,’” Rucins recalls. “We just all looked up at him like, ‘What are you, fucking crazy?’”

The staff may be small and stretched thin, but they’ve had some incredible finds over the years. Before Flosstradamus were anointed trap’s next big thing and tore up the EDM festival circuit, before Vampire Weekend burst onto the indie scene with their eponymous debut album, before Macklemore scootered into the national consciousness with “Thrift Shop”…

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There was Schubas.

Now these artists connect with millions of fans worldwide, but back then, they engaged with 200 fans in this tiny space. There’s not much to the concert hall at Schubas; it’s a roughly rectangular, wood-paneled room with four fans spinning lazily overhead, seats flanking each side and an elevated sound booth and small bar in the back-right corner. There’s no barrier between the fans and the stage.

Rucins says that for the bands destined for critical acclaim, there were clear indications of greatness when they played Schubas. For many local musicians fortunate enough to land a gig there, the club provides an opportunity to hone their live show in a warm setting.

Solo artist Shawn Rosenblatt, known as Netherfriends, played a month-long residency at Schubas in 2012. Over the course of the four shows, Rosenblatt recorded an experimental semi-live album, This Is How I Sound, which he tinkered with while editing.

“It was a good process to hear myself and learn how to perfect those songs,” Rosenblatt says.

In 2006, Flosstradamus (Josh “J2K” Young and Curt “Autobot” Cameruci)—before they played to thousands of screaming fans at the likes of EDC or Ultra—held down a residency at Schubas’ upstairs room.

“I remember those parties being really intimate and almost private,” Young and Cameruci recall. “It was a nice change of pace for us at a time in our career where we were playing a lot of crazy house parties and dirty bars.”

A dirty bar Schubas is not.

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Before he hopped on a treadmill and mesmerized millions of YouTube viewers with the music video for “Here It Goes Again”, Damian Kulash watched OK Go’s initial lineup play their final gig (at Schubas) as another group, Stanley’s Joyful Noise.

One thing stood out to Kulash: “It was such a weirdly clean place,” unlike other “dingy, little, beer-soaked rat holes.”

Not being a beer-soaked rat hole is probably a good thing, because Schubas also doubles as a family restaurant and hosts fundraisers for organizations like Rock for Kids and Lakeview Pantry. The tables and bar are immaculately shined, and the place smells old—but in a comforting way. It’s the modern equivalent of the fastidious cleanliness and beauty the Schlitz tied houses strived for.

Matthew Kayser, ex-singer for the Bright White, started a charity concert called “Warm, Safe and Sound” that Schubas hosted. It happens in the winter, and fans who donate old coats pay a reduced cover charge. Last year, Kayser partnered with ReVive Center for Housing and Healing to distribute the clothing to homeless people in the city.

“It’s been brutally cold. There are people who are trying to live, children trying to live in these conditions,” Kayser says. “So anything we can do to eliminate them having inadequate clothing is a really good thing.”

For charity concerts, Schubas reduces the overhead as much as possible—Kayser points to the sound engineer, who waived his fee for the show. He also praised the bands that were eager to join the bill.

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“You don’t have to be U2 to play music in a way that benefits people,” says Chris Snyder, whose band Ace Reporter played the benefit. “But it felt really good to flex a teeny, little muscle and hopefully make a difference for some folks.”

Like the tied houses, Schubas is more than just a music venue; it’s intertwined with the Lakeview community. Lesser venues have come and gone, while Schubas has stood the test of time.

Ask Mike where he sees his bar in 10 years, and he’ll issue a coarse laugh and tell you, “Ten years? I’ll be dead and gone…”

Rucins credits Mike and Chris as compassionate, but respected bosses. As various staffers filtered into the bar during the interview, the noise level spiked. Mike turned around and slowly pointed to the offenders, then raised his index finger to his lips. Silence ensued.

“Chris and Mike Schuba trust their employees,” Rucins says. “Nobody’s really punching a clock every morning at 9 a.m. and every afternoon at 5 p.m. … It’s the music industry. No one wants it to get too stuffy.”

Recently, Rolling Stone ranked both Schubas and Lincoln Hall as two of the best rock clubs in America. “There’s only a handful of clubs in the entire country that can say they’ve been open for 25 years in a major market like Chicago,” Rucins says.

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It’s Saturday night at Schubas. The crowd of button-down-clad bros and pretty women in high heels are slowly filtering into the room. They’re here to see Disclosure protégé Tourist perform a set. I step outside with Tourist (born Will Phillips) as he lights a cigarette. Spring is on the horizon, but there’s still the cool bite of winter in the air. “Chicago,” he says as he exhales a cloud of smoke. “It’s the home of house music!” As we stand on the sidewalk under the neon-red glow of Schubas’ sign, Phillips explains that it’s his first time in the Windy City. When midnight strikes and he starts his set, he’ll perform to a packed room.

With Equator Club spinning, the party starts promptly at 10:30 p.m. with all the awkwardness of a middle-school dance: isolated couples converse on the sides, people sit down, one dude wildly flails his arms as he struts toward the stage, eliciting a grin from the DJ. But glasses clink, cheers are exchanged, and drinks are sipped (or chugged). The crowd starts to get into it. Next up is Autograf, with two DJs—one of whom looks like Groucho Marx crossed with Steve Aoki—behind the deck. They play a house remix of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, and a woman near me shrieks, “Oh my God, I love this song.”

TouristWhen Tourist emerges, the crowd squeezes in and pushes toward the stage. Watching him perform is mesmerizing; he never stops moving, rhythmically thrusting his pelvis as he scrambles among his keyboard, console, and pad controller. The bass makes the floor tremble, and when the songs reach their climax, the crowd moves as one—a sweaty mass of people under the spell of collective effervescence, thrusting their hands to the ceiling. Maybe 10 years from now, this show will be remembered as another legendary night at Schubas. Maybe it will be all but forgotten, another performance lost in the shuffle of the thousands of artists who have passed through. Only time will tell.

Huxley ends his essay quite beautifully: “When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music. And if the music should also fail? Well, there was always silence to fall back on. For always, always and everywhere, the rest is silence.”

For now, and for the foreseeable future, Chicago calls for music. So the bands play on at Schubas.

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