A Short History of Pilot Light

How Knoxville's biggest hole-in-the-wall music and arts nightclub got started

The inspiration for Pilot Light came from a series of shows held at the Foundry near World's Fair Park in the late 1990s. At the time, Jason Boardman was playing synthesizer for the local improvisational drone/noise group Or, and there were few venues available in Knoxville for a band like that. A handful of clubs and non-traditional spaces came and went in the space of a couple of years—World of Gifts on Broadway, the Snakesnatch Lodge and Tomato Head on Market Square, the old A1 space at the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill Boulevard, and a whirlwind of house parties. Or practiced and held most of its shows at the Foundry near World's Fair Park. It was an illicit venue—a friend of the band, whose family owns the building, lived there and would let the band in occasionally.

"There was a really short period of time where we could do that," Boardman says. "But it was my absolute favorite place to go see shows. It was such a beautiful space, and people showed up in small numbers. They were respectful and quiet. It wasn't like a rock club at all. The environment was completely tuned to performance. It wasn't a bar at all, it wasn't a place where there was a restaurant downstairs and a venue upstairs. You could make it completely dark if you wanted. It was like a theater."

After the Foundry shows stopped, when the band's friend moved out of the basement, Boardman and Leigh Shoemaker started talking about opening a similar space. The casual conversation went on for months, as much a way to memorialize the old Foundry space as to create an actual plan—until late 1999, when Boardman happened upon the old Futopia space on Jackson Avenue.

"Jason and I are not ambitious people," Shoemaker says. "The conversation was never about starting this successful business. It was always an organic kind of thing that emerged mainly from his dreams and both of our idealism—and the fact that a space was available at the time. One night we were talking about it, and the next day he told me there was a space in the Old City."

For the next several months, Boardman and Shoemaker devoted most of their free time to what would become Pilot Light. "We never really expected it to work, and therefore worked really hard to not take on any debt over the place and do all the work ourselves," Boardman says. "That way we could just walk if it turned out to be a bad idea. It was several months' work gutting the original structures inside the building. It was basically an empty shell that needed to be rebuilt, rewired, and replumbed. We did all we could legally do ourselves, and then saved up to have the rest done professionally. Some of my most indelible memories were times like jackhammering up the floor inside and digging in the dirt underneath trying to find the ancient sewer line, and walking down the middle of Jackson Avenue on a Saturday night, pulling a cement mixer on wheels up onto the sidewalk to mix and repour the floor."