The Hills Have Ears and Eyes Too: John Morris of Waitsfield's Mad Mountain Tavern
Max Owre interviews John Morris of Waitsfield's Mad Mountain Tavern.
One of the missions of Good Citizen is to support the people who
support our Vermont music community. The underappreciated people who make it all happen: club owners, bar tenders, club bookers, bouncers, sound people. We're looking for the people who make their own music scene happen and for six years a new scene has been developing in the Mad River Valley, thanks to the efforts of John Morris and his ever popular venue, The Mad Mountain Tavern.I have had the good fortune of playing at the Mad Mountain Tavern (hereafter refereed to as the MMT) on many occasions. Every time, I have been amazed at the large, receptive crowds that pack the rustic club. There is always a contagious festive atmosphere that is shared by everyone including the band and the staff. Both in the winter, when the ski industry boosts the local population, and during the "off season," the vibe is real and tangible. Recently, John Morris, the man behind this phenomena, agreed to sit with me and discuss his club and the music scene in the valley.John grew up on the New Jersey shore and dabbled in accounting and bass playing before he found himself surveying in the Mad River Valley and, in the fall of 1991, purchasing a local bar called Mooselips and beginning to change the face of music in the community. John has helped a lot of Vermont bands make a living with their music and we wanted to thank him and introduce him to you. Maybe you'll like him and go say "Hey" and check out the tavern the next time you're in the valley.So in his and my own words...
Good Citizen: Do you think your experience with music is influencing you as a bar owner and how you book bands right now?John Morris: Yeah, I think so. I don't listen to bands just like, 'I hope that they play a song that I like.' I see what kind of talent is there, and not just talent; but how well they play together. So I listen closely before I let bands in the club, even from the start.GC: How did you end up in Waitsfield? Is this a mountain connection?JM: I was actually doing accounting work when I moved up here. I was looking for something else to do along the way...going to school part time at Johnson, and doing the book work, and kinda looking around. I was living in Stowe - ski bumming there... going between Smuggler's Notch and Stowe. Then I bailed out on the accounting and took a land survey job and discovered the valley through the business. I drank here when it used to be Mooselips, a redneck dive scene. If you came in with your girlfriend they wanted to beat you up. And couple years down the road, the place ended up going under. So I knew the area and I knew the building.GC: ... and you knew accounting...JM: Accounting, yes. Very important.GC: It is all making sense. What year was that?JM: We opened in 1992.GC: So we are working on a six year anniversary here, that's great.JM: Coming up to it.GC: Congratulations.JM: Thanks, man.GC: I'm gonna cry.JM: We're still here. I am going to cry if we are still here in ten years.GC: Tell me a little bit about what your format for music is in general. How many nights a week?JM: We do weekends, mostly through the year. We skip a little time during the mud season and a couple of nights during stick season (colloquial for fall), but pretty much year round we do music Friday and Saturday nights. In the winter we add Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons. We're into mostly original stuff with covers thrown in, more than cover bands with originals thrown in.GC: This is a deviation from a philosophy that I encountered a few years ago. I know you've always had original bands, but at one point was there a predominance of cover bands?JM: Yeah. I'd say maybe not a predominance but 50/50, maybe 60/40. You know blues, R&B, cover bands and some cheese rock. It was more a matter of feeling out what we could get in here and what worked. It was wanting to hear five different bands playing the same three sets of music. There are some bars that every weekend it's a cover band- no matter what, and they all play the same songs as the band before. We really didn't want that but we had to see what the local crowd would listen to (and not listen to) and if we could get away with doing more original or creative stuff than in a typical ski bar. Most ski town bars are like... "Mustang Sally," "Louie Louie," "Tequila..."GC: "Low Rider."JM: Yeah, "Low Rider," there you go.GC: Can you pick one thing in the music that your clientele looks for? Is it danceability? Is it "party music"? What is it, that no matter what the season, will work here?JM: The stuff that is not too hard and is more rhythmic. Stuff that leans towards dancing music, but not "dance music". Funky, Jazzy, Reggae, Ska, Island sounds stuff. The R&B thing works well but not as well as you would think. Usually R&B will get people on their feet, but I don't think that works around here.GC: It's hard to find good original R&B as opposed to good cover R&B. There is some out there but...JM: Yeah. Even the original R&B, when you hear it, most of the time, sounds like a cover tune anyway. R&B and blues, unless you're really a master, you can only take so far before it sounds like a lot of other people.GC: "Mustang Sally" all over again.JM: Right. In your own way- In a different key or something. We like the bands that work a lot on their original stuff. But its not just that it's original- it's gotta be tight, and it has to have the talent behind it with good energy- not just standing around like, "ho hum, we're playing another song," that doesn't get people going too much. Our local crowd now is pretty particular. It's surprising, but they come in and they don't want to hear a cover band anymore. That's a big part of why we've gotten away from it. I'm pretty close with my locals, and they'll walk over and hiss at me, tell me- "I'm leaving," and leave.GC: Locals are obviously very important here. I mean, I've played gigs in the summer here and it's a packed house in the summertime. Obviously locals are a large part of your clientele.JM: Yeah, year round they definitely keep us going. During the ski season they're not a very big percentage overall, but they're definitely here for us year round, they keep us afloat. So, what they say has a lot of weight.GC: What is your philosophy towards music and the ski area?JM: I think we go against the grain as far as the norm in the ski industry. As far as the styles we've been talking about- originals and non-originals. The kind of music you hear is the duo playing CSN, Simon and Garfunkel, Van Morrison, and you know every song, and they kinda cut away at it.GC: What's your relationship with the ski areas like? Do you run promotions with them? Or do you do your own kinda thing?JM: We ended up working more and more with the ski areas. Sugarbush not because of me, but because they started enjoying themselves here and came to do things. I really had it in mind that when we opened up a business we would do it on our own merits, and not do it because we were in bed with the ski area. Which was kinda of naive actually. If I was in with them sooner, I probably would have been better off sooner. We get along pretty good; in general. There are things they do that I'm not into, but we keep that aside. Mad River Glen I'm closer to. That's where my heart is. I do things for Mad River more, because I like Mad River. It's smaller... It's backwoods 'take it as it comes' skiing. The people there are pretty hardcore about it. It's Co-op owned right now and we're trying to finish buying the mountain. There are still a few hundred shares needing to be sold to seal the deal... I do the bluegrass festival up there every summer as benefit for the co-op.GC: How do you directly reach out to the vacationing crowds? How do you bring people in here?JM: We do some postering up on the mountain. There are not too many places to do that. We mostly rely on word of mouth. We're friends with a lot of mountain employees. There are definitely people up there recommending the tavern when folks ask where to go. I believe in the word of mouth approach, I think it's worked really well for me up to now, and it keeps getting better to tell you the truth. You can read a hundred posters, but when somebody who's a local grabs you and says, "if you're going out tonight go to the tavern," that is what you're going to do.GC: The same probably holds true for vacationing people who have been up here on repeat visits who say, "If you're going up to Sugarbush, go to the MMT."JM: Yeah, there are people in Boston we know that run into other people wearing Tavern t-shirts, and there's a big thing over the crazy time they had at the tavern last winter. So it definitely helps. We've gotten a few write-ups in some of the big ski magazines, where if they walk about Sugarbush, they talk about us. That certainly helps a lot. I think it helps more than any dollars you can spend. I think one thing that helps us a lot is the local cable. We have a nice action color commercial, that goes to every condo and home in the Valley. It doesn't say anything about the place, it shows people skiing like madmen (its all local footage), and then flashes up our name and says where we are.GC: Do you like skiing? You will love the MMT...What is the competition like around here? Do you vie for the crowd?JM: I'm glad there is more than one music venue in town and I wish there were more people around to support the three of us. One of the reasons I came to the valley was because of the music scene that was happening here. There were two clubs that were geared towards ripping off tourists... they were pretty much tourist trap oriented. I thought coming in here and doing something to treat everybody good everyday, and then do the music on top of it would be a good formula, and it worked well. So one club, the Blue Tooth is open from Thanksgiving until Easter, and Gallaghers is open year around, but they don't do a lot in the off season, and both those clubs are geared primarily towards cover bands, so it leaves me with my own niche.GC: Do you tend to bring in a more youthful crowd?JM: I think we have a really wide age range for customers. I'd say our customer base runs from this fine young girl in front of us at nine months old (the author's daughter Sara), to parents of the college kids that are in town skiing. I think our median age is probably in the thirty year range.GC: Do you have any ideas in particular to bring Burlingtonians down?JM: We pretty much disregard them as city folk, so we're not really interested. No, it's hard to drag out the Burlington crowd, because there's so much going on in town all the time. We do list our bands in all the local free publications. Any radio station or print that will give you free publicity- we're in there with the listings. So if somebody is following a band, they know that they are going to be at the tavern, and usually the bands announce where they are going to be a couple of weeks down the road. If the bands have a crowd that follows them, that helps out. I think a lot of people know we're here. We do a little advertising on the radio but we don't go overboard with it unless it's a special event.GC: Do you look for bands that do well in Burlington? Does that sway your feelings on how you think they are going to do here, or is it purely a music thing?JM: I usually hear about the band in the first place because they are doing well in Burlington. But if I go there and the place is packed, but I think that the band sucks, I probably still wouldn't hire them.GC: How about regional acts. I know that Sunday River in Maine has a fairly solid roster of regional bands that come through the area. Does this happen here?JM: We haven't done anything for regional bands up to now. Part of it is the size of my room would make ticket prices kind of expensive. Also, the way the room is split up, I could probably sell a couple hundred tickets to a show but then everybody in the place couldn't get to see the stage. There's a couple of ways to expand the room that I haven't gotten to yet. When we can fit a few more people in here and they can actually see the stage, we'll be doing some bigger acts.GC: Have you ever made it with a full grown donkey?JM: You know, that question kept me up at night.GC: In a hot sweat?JM: In a hot sweat. What I will say, is that it was consensual and the donkey was an adult.GC: OK. I thank you for your candor. Who are some of the successful bands that have played here?JM: Right now (sic) is doing well.GC: Kudos, kudos.JM: Can you believe that? Thanks for that twenty spot. Viperhouse, of course. Seth Yacavone is going strong and really smoothing out the act. Motel Brown definitely. We have a reggae band that's coming up from Connecticut a few times called You and I, that's really strong, straight forward reggae. We like Currently Nameless a lot. Sandra Wright. Pure Pressure has been going strong forever, they are a good standby, no matter what. So a pretty good range.GC: What does the future hold for you? I could see this place being a viable music spot. Some bands that come to mind are like Strangefolk and Moon Boot Lover and bands that are on that level regionally.JM: I talked to Strangefolk and Moon Boot Lover actually, both of them in the past. It has been a scheduling thing. I think if we convinced the locals to pay the money when they showed up, like on a Thursday night or something. It's a fine balance between people that come here and have a beer or two and dinner five nights a week, and then it's twelve dollars to get in the night of a show. How do you handle that? We have expansion in mind but we have some other things to take care of first. We will have some bigger acts in here, it's just a matter of getting ourselves geared up for it.GC: I think we've pretty much covered everything. I will say from my own perspective; every night that I have played here. And I have played here a bunch of times with both Motel Brown and (sic), I find it always seems like it is a special night, especially during the winter. It seems like it is a festive night because when people are saying, "we only have one night to be out this weekend" it really rubs off on the bands. I was wondering if you feel that magic.JM: I had the picture in my head when I opened the bar. I knew a lot of places I had been to in ski towns and how tourists were treated and how the general public was treated, and it wasn't very well. We set out from the start trying not to be like that. I know from people who have come in and talked to me, who are tourists I've never met before, they come and tell me the vibes here are better than anyplace they have ever been while vacationing. I feel it, but to have customers come up to me and tell me that, especially when I have never seen them before, really tells me that that's what is happening.GC: Well, I feel the vibe as well. Best of luck to you in the future, I think you're doing a fantastic job. I'll take my twenty back now.JM: Thank you Max.The MMT provides a great place for musicians to play in front of people who will take their word of mouth with them when they spread out as far as the marketing power of Vermont skiing can bring them in from. It is truly a unique place, with an exciting mix of people. As Bob Bushnell from Motel Brown says, "where else can you play under a moose and to a bass." So, next time you are skiing stop by and enjoy the nightlife in the valley. John Morris and company are doing their best to make the valley's entertainment surprisingly vibrant. ~GC~Max Owre was a founding member of the Burlington band Rina Bijou and now writes and plays in the alternative groove band called (sic).