In the spring of 2000, Jason Boardman and Leigh Shoemaker were just about ready to open Pilot Light, a new venue for underground and experimental music.
They'd been working on the space on East Jackson Avenue in the heart of the Old City since late 1999, doing most of the physical labor themselves and slowly working their way through the city's maze of planning and building regulations.
A near-disaster forced the pair into overdrive in May when the south wall of Tomato Head on Market Square collapsed during demolition of the adjacent building. Brian Sherry, who worked at the restaurant and booked weekend rock shows there, had scheduled the Boston band Karate for a show later that month. There was no way it could be held there after the collapse. Sherry approached Boardman and Shoemaker, who agreed, at the last possible moment, to move the show there and open sooner than they'd anticipated.
"I remember being down there and knowing I had to have it ready the next day," Boardman says. "The building inspector was coming that morning and we were having the show that night. I was trying to build a wall between the stage and the bathroom. I was squatting down like this"—he hunches his six-foot-four-and-a-half-inch frame onto the floor, resting on his knees—"driving a nail in and I fell asleep. We had the barest of the bare minimum to sign off so we could have that first show. We didn't have a bar, we didn't have beer. There were three walls around the bathrooms and the backstage area and some chairs I got from a UT auction.
"But 40 or 50 people showed up. Leigh and I looked at each other—it felt really good."
Boardman's not had many chances since then to appreciate the difference Pilot Light has made in Knoxville's music and arts scenes. Once the club was open, he found dozens of tiny details—city and county regulations, gradual improvements to the building and its sound system, building a stage, booking and promoting shows—that took up most the time he didn't spend at his day job as network manager for McKay Used Books and CDs. When Shoemaker backed out of the business partnership in 2004, the pressure only increased.
In the meantime, however, the hole-in-the-wall space has turned into one of Knoxville's longest-running independent music venues. It still looks like a dive, with second- or third-hand furniture, a concrete floor, and room for fewer than 100 people. But it's also showcased an extraordinary number of noteworthy bands, from legendary acts like Pere Ubu, Maureen Tucker of the Velvet Underground, Mike Watt of the Minutemen, and Damo Suzuki of Can to heavily buzzed underground rock bands like No Age, Liars, Times New Viking, Deerhoof, Fiery Furnaces, Black Dice, and U.S. Maple. The eclectic list of notable performers who have appeared at the club, from rock bands and forward-thinking jazz combos to singer/songwriters and avant-garde and electronic performers, reads like an index of reviews from the website Pitchfork or the table of contents for an issue of the venerable British music magazine The Wire.
"A lot of what they've presented reaches back to the roots of how I started in the business," says AC Entertainment's Ashley Capps, who owned Ella Guru's in the Old City between 1988 and 1990. "My first concerts, I was interested in programming stuff that was not in the mainstream, whether it was Derek Bailey or Eugene Chadbourne, so I've always been excited about the spirit of Pilot Light."
The club has also become—in part because of Boardman and Shoemaker's vision for the space and in part because of its longevity—the unofficial headquarters for a community of Knoxville musicians, artists, DJs, music enthusiasts, and writers. That outlet has been at least as important for the city's collective creativity as the big-name out-of-town guests Pilot Light has hosted, because it's provided an anchor for a scene that's largely independent of the one descended from the Cumberland Avenue and Old City clubs of the 1980s and '90s.
A contingent of local bands associated with Pilot Light over the last few years—Cold Hands, Royal Bangs, the Cheat, and the now-defunct Woman and Divorce, all of which have drawn overflowing crowds of kids who have never even heard Superdrag or Scott Miller—has invigorated Knoxville's music community with a jolt of youthful spontaneity and an awareness of the kinds of scrappy, noisy guitar pop that are happening in New York and Los Angeles. Other groups with more far-out energy that might not have ever had a place to play outside their friend's basements without Pilot Light have injected an adventurous and improvisational spirit into the local scene that has spread into other clubs as well as galleries, museums, and non-traditional venues.
"There was all this disparate, loosely connected stuff going on," Shoemaker says. "It needed a creative center. We wanted to provide that. It sounds really ambitious, but we wanted to help out our friends and the community and to make sure that that creative energy had a place. Ultimately, we live here in Knoxville and wanted to make it the sort of place where we want to live and make art and music."
And it's all been done on the cheap, with bartenders who work for tips and a steady cast of regular volunteers who work the door or the sound board, help book and promote shows, and play opening sets for out-of-town bands. Pilot Light is run, essentially, as a non-profit enterprise. The cover rarely exceeds $5 and the only other source of revenue besides admission is beer sales. Local letterpress Yee-Haw Industries has provided free posters for several shows over the years. Boardman sometimes finds himself forced to pay guarantees for touring bands out of his own pocket.
"I'm proud of the stuff I've been able to accomplish in the midst of this, but I worked a lot harder on my creative life and personal life before all this," Boardman says. "I'm very proud of it. I feel very strongly about all the accomplishments that have come from it. But I'm not sure I'd do it again. The sacrifices, personally, have been huge, and this late in the game, it's too late to say whether it was worth it. You just have to decide it was because that's what you did and what you keep doing."
LIKE A LOT OF other great rock clubs—the old CBGB in New York, Ella Guru's in the late 1980s—Pilot Light doesn't look like much from outside. The smoky windows are plastered with flyers and the entrance is cramped; you might not even notice that it's a club at all if you didn't know to look for it.
It doesn't look like much on the inside, either—it's dimly lit, with a small bar made from the original interior lumber running along the west wall and a makeshift sound booth set up at the end. The walls are covered with junk-store art, old set lists, a banner with a reproduction of the Revolutionary War cartoon "Don't Tread on Me" on it, and a slightly Cubist reclining nude by Steven Pogue that used to hang above the bar at the Snakesnatch Lodge on Market Square in the late '90s. A few couches and tables and chairs line the other walls, marking off a small dance floor in front of the stage. The two unisex bathrooms in the back are functional and to-the-point, and also hold some sort of local record for the amount of graffiti they bear.
The club runs, counter to Boardman's wishes, on what's widely known as Pilot Light Time. Most shows are officially set for 10 p.m., but few actually start that early. (The conundrum is that if you show up later, it's one of the three or four times a year that a show starts on time and you've missed half of the headliner's set.) Generally, the doors open around 9 or 9:30 p.m.—you can usually find the members of touring bands there before anyone else, nursing cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon at the bar and setting up their merchandise—and people start showing up at 11 p.m. or a little later. The size of the crowd on a given night depends on a range of factors, including the day of the week, who's playing elsewhere in town, who played the night before, and the weather. Boardman's never been able to nail down the exact formula: Some shows he expects a big audience for might only draw a dozen people; some shows he expects to go unnoticed attract far more than he anticipates.
"A lot of people who only come to Pilot Light when we have decent crowds don't realize that for every show like that, there are 15 or so that aren't bad but aren't a jackpot situation, either, where we barely break even on the night after everyone's paid," he says. "These people come out one night a year who tell me we should expand, that we need a bigger place. I tell them, ‘Come by tomorrow, when there'll be 15 people here for an amazing band you'll never forget.'"
The small, intense crowd of regulars can be imposing for newcomers, as can the often harsh music, the rough acoustics of the room, and the late start times. But the 35-year-old Boardman resists a too-explicit classification of the Pilot Light scene. "There's certainly a group of bands locally who call Pilot Light home," he says. "And there's a certain group of people who like to hang out and listen to music at Pilot Light. But occasionally bands have told me they want to ‘play for the Pilot Light crowd,' and I tell them that the Pilot Light crowd is whoever you bring down to see you that night. Some nights it seems like a completely different club to me."
Despite its modest fixtures and bare-bones budget, Pilot Light became a popular gathering place for a ragtag collection of musicians and artists whose sensibilities are either ahead of local trends or at odds with the commercial expectations of other venues. That soon built into a critical mass of music and art that taps into what's going on in bigger cities and has simultaneously developed a recognizable local identity. Knoxville musicians informed by the avant-garde folk, free-form improvisation, and sharp-edged dance music that made Brooklyn a hotspot in the early '00s play regularly at Pilot Light and frequently at clubs scattered all over downtown now. Artists with ever-expanding awareness of the conceptual multimedia work that defines New York and London galleries show their work in downtown art spaces like Fluorescent, the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery and Gallery 1010, and the recently closed Host Clothing and the Basement Gallery, which is currently on hiatus.
"It's a listening room and not so much a bar," says Adam Ewing, a local artist who also performs acoustic music as Mountains of Moss. "Everyone is there because they want to hear the music. Most people are there because they're serious about music and want to talk to other people about it as opposed to just hanging out."
For the most dedicated regulars, it's as much a living room as a listening room. "It's a second home for a lot of people," says printmaker Bryan Baker. Baker, who moved to New York in August, has worked with Boardman to book shows at Pilot Light, at Knoxville Museum of Art, and at his own Fort Sanders apartment. "It's not just a bar, though. Some people go there once a year, but if you go down there three times a month you'll eventually feel like you're part of the team, which helps out a lot when things are happening at other places."
In the early days, Boardman hosted free movie nights on Sundays, showing art films, classic silent movies, and music performances and documentaries. There's an annual New Year's Day potluck dinner followed by local bands, and Boardman has periodically kept the place open for bar nights when bands aren't scheduled. On First Fridays, local DJs like Mini-Tiger, Culture Vulture, Riggs, and Megalon Esquire preside over late dance nights after the evening's gallery openings have ended. All of this has been conducted by an all-volunteer staff that now includes Bill Warden, Eric Lee, Will Fist, Pete Hoffecker, and Josh Wright, all of whom perform regularly at the club.
"When you get something like Pilot Light established, it provides an opening for artists to really start to explore the creative process and how to make music," Capps says. "It feeds the creativity of the whole community, and then by exposing them to other artists who might not otherwise play here, it all feeds on itself."
REGINA GREENE PROVIDES a clear example of the club's national prominence and its spreading influence. She was among the first volunteers at Pilot Light, tending bar and working the door as well as booking occasional shows. (She'd started booking all-ages shows at the Mercury Theatre on Market Square in the 1990s.) She booked almost all of the shows between 2004 and 2006, and has turned that experience into the full-time booking agency Front Porch Productions, now based in Chicago, which works with an A-list roster of avant-garde musicians and composers like Tony Conrad, Damo Suzuki, and Rhys Chatham. Her younger brother Steve, also a Pilot Light veteran, now works at the Knoxville-based promotions company AC Entertainment, which books shows at the Valarium, the Bijou Theatre, and the Tennessee Theatre and manages Bonnaroo and Sundown in the City.
Repeat visits by touring bands have incubated a new vitality in a town where the favorite bands of the 1990s are still the favorite bands of the '00s. Local musicians are turned on to new ideas by bands from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Europe, or just by the old records the bartenders spin between sets. And the influence goes both ways—touring acts remember Knoxville as a small city with a knowledgeable, attentive, and interested audience.
"It's clearly not a moneymaker," says Kid Millions, drummer for the New York band Oneida, which has played Pilot Light seven times in the last seven years. "It's not like a club run in a cynical way. It's about the music, and it's very rare to find that outside of somebody putting on a house show. We've probably played 100 clubs around the country, and I could list five, maybe, where I was like, ‘You know, this place is run by somebody who really cares and is focused on the details.' And Pilot Light is one of those."
Some of the biggest names in indie and alternative music—Vic Chesnutt, the Black Keys, Girl Talk, Akron/Family, and Deerhunter—played their first Knoxville shows to intimate, sometimes even paltry, audiences at Pilot Light before coming back to bigger local venues like Blue Cats, the Valarium, the Bijou Theatre, and Sundown in the City.
Then there are the major unclassifiable events that combine music, film, video art, and performance art and spread throughout Knoxville's urban core: the Transhift08 multimedia festival in May, featuring 45 video and animation pieces by artists from all over the world, and the day-long 24 Hours of Nuclear War in April, in which local and out-of-town musicians, artists, and poets offered a series of hour-long interpretations of Sun Ra's anti-war anthem "Nuclear War." Some of the most experimental versions of the song, like Boardman's own feedback drone performance on the song at KMA, took place all over the central city—at Host Clothing, the Basement Gallery, Art Gallery of Knoxville, the Birdhouse, and the Gay Street Viaduct.
What will probably be the biggest event Boardman has ever been involved with is now in the works. In February, the Big Ears Festival, scheduled for various venues scattered throughout downtown, will bring an international lineup of avant-garde musicians and composers to Knoxville for one of the most extravagant and ambitious programs to ever take place here. Jointly curated by Boardman, AC Entertainment, and the Knoxville Museum of Art, Big Ears will feature the legendary minimalist composer Philip Glass, the digital composer Pauline Oliveros, the German electronic musician Fennesz, the Australian jazz trio the Necks, the sound-collage duo Matmos, New York art-rock band Antony and the Johnsons, and more in big and small music spaces all over downtown.
"I think that Pilot Light has a very real impact on everybody in Knoxville's arts community," says Chris Molinski, who founded the Art Gallery of Knoxville and now works as associate curator of education and adult programs at KMA. "It is not just a space for the people who meet and perform there. Pilot Light is inspiring. It helped create a reputation for Knoxville as an interesting art community. It matters to people in other cities—people know about Pilot Light and are drawn to Knoxville because of it."
BOARDMAN'S AN ENTHUSIASTIC AMBASSADOR for the music he books, but he doesn't really keep up with new music outside the club. He has a small circle of friends he relies on for feedback about bands to book at Pilot Light. The only new releases he gets are CDs and records from the bands he brings through town. His own tastes lean toward the cerebral—German bands like Can and Popol Vuh—and lately he's been listening to old radio dramas, audio books, and podcasts of the news. He's also a fan of the random nature of shortwave radio. "If you spend the time, you can find stuff," he says. "It's often not in your native tongue."
He's remained active as a musician—he drums for the instrumental improv band Double Muslims and the all-percussion group Darker Denim and plays synthesizer with It Is a Code, and estimates he's played more than 70 shows at Pilot Light. The attic of his house, in a secluded neighborhood just east of downtown, is filled with drums, keyboards, and assorted second-hand noise-making equipment. Most of his performances are planned weeks or months in advance, but some are last-minute additions to fill out bills, yet another item on the long list of details that have to be taken care of. "Recently Josh [Wright] and I were running the bar and sound and we were also the opening band behind the bar," he says, describing a recent synth-and-lap steel set he performed with one of the club's regular volunteers. "We were plugged into the PA and serving drinks while we played. It was about as good as you can imagine something like that being."
Even at the beginning, Shoemaker and Boardman considered applying for tax-exempt not-for-profit status. But Boardman was put off by the intricacies and oversight that would come with that, as well as the labyrinthine process of applying for grants. And, as a non-profit, the club would have been prohibited from selling beer, which is its principle source of revenue. Shoemaker spent plenty of nights behind the bar in 2000 and 2001, before she realized she was allergic to cigarette smoke (Pilot Light has been non-smoking since October 2007, when the statewide smoking ban went into effect). Boardman often mans either the bar or the sound board himself now.
"There's never been a moment where there wasn't some aspect of it in peril financially," he says. "It really hasn't been a plentiful harvest. It's always been on the lean side, sometimes a little less lean, but it's always in the red. We've never completely broken even, though we came close a few years ago. But that was probably just because I didn't write down a lot of the shit I spent on it."
Boardman and Shoemaker both attribute the club's long life, at least in part, to the simple fact of inertia—once it was open, there was always some immediate task that required attention, and then another, and Boardman's been dealing with those for all this time.
"The way Pilot Light operates is on day-to-day momentum," he says. "We only make plans based on the amount of time and energy we have between getting shows done. It's hard to think about next year when you're caught up in this week.... But we are right now on the brink of trying a last-ditch effort at solvency—adding a bartender or two, trying to be open as a bar without a show so somebody's more reliably there, and trying to be aggressive with deals so we don't lose money. Look at the schedule right now. We may be closed two or three nights a week. Why not be open so people can come in for free and have a beer? At the same time, I'm not interested in just running it as a bar. I don't ever expect the bar nights to be so successful that we opt to have one in favor of a show. If we ever became so successful as a bar that we seemed to stop booking as many shows, Pilot Light would eventually be someone else's bar. I wouldn't want to be involved."