Sure: the dance floor is better at the Commodore, the Astoria is friendlier to stage diving, Venue and the Imperial are swankier, the WISE Hall is homier, and the SBC and Fox Cabaret mayyybe have cooler backstories—depending on how you feel about the relative value of punk, porn, and kung-fu movies.
But for this writer’s money, the best live music venue in Vancouver remains the Rickshaw Theatre. The old movie-house's seats are fab if you want a break from standing, the overall vibe is friendly and laid-back, the security is less intrusive and joy-crushing than it is at some other spots, and there’s a real appeal to knowing that the guy who runs it, when duty permits, is often front and centre in the audience, checking out the bands himself, and booking all his favourite acts when he can.
That guy, of course, is Mo Tarmohamed, and the Straight did a fairly exhaustive interview with him about how he came to take over the space, back when the Rickshaw held its eighth anniversary celebrations. (We also go the scoop on the contents of his fridge around that time).
The Rickshaw is now celebrating its 10th anniversary, corresponding with a concert from reunited Vancouver New Wave band the Gathering. In honour of the occasion, the Straight played catchup with Tarmohamed about the Rickshaw.
GS: What changes have taken place in the last two years? (And do tell us about the new sound system!).
MT: The biggest change is the very recent acquisition of a new line array system (a MILO high-power curvilinear array loudspeaker system to be precise), thanks in part to a grant from the Province of B.C. and Creative B.C.
Even though the sound quality at the Rickshaw has been improving by leaps and bound over the years, every so often we would see shows we were competing for go to other venues. One of the reasons cited was that when booking agents saw our tech specs, they deemed them inadequate, especially in comparison to other venues of a similar size. With the installation of our new system, we now hope to remove that objection.
The new system, which has now been in place for over a month, projects an even distribution of sound, regardless of where you are in the venue, even on the balcony.
We have also made considerable improvements to our green rooms.
Have you crossed any bucket list bands off the list since that time (because they played there, or for other reasons?). Who remains on the bucket list?
Yes—even ones that I didn't even know were on my bucket list, like the Flesheaters! It was amazing to see musicians who I have followed—like Dave Alvin, John Doe, and Steve Berlin—grace our stage. Similarly, I never thought I'd see Chip Kinman and Peter Buck on the Rickshaw stage. And the number one artist on my list can now finally be crossed off: Bob Mould.
The ones that are proving elusive are Pere Ubu (who cancelled their show at the Rickshaw the day before their scheduled performance because Dave Thomas was gravely sick and hospitalized), Graham Parker, Richard Thompson, The The, Mark Lanegan, Blasters, and Menomena.
What are your favourite shows in the last two years?
Bob Mould, Idles, the Selecter (for pure nostalgia), The Dils, Flesheaters, METZ, Subhumans [UK], Typhoon
How much of a concert do you get to see, usually, before duty calls? Are there many shows where you are "off duty" when the headliner plays?
On average, I'll see about 30 minutes of a show (inclusive of the openers!). I'm usually zipping around the venue making sure everything is running smoothly. However, if there's a show I really want to see, I let my staff know ahead of time that I'll be "off duty". In those rare situations (may 4 or 5 times a year), I hand over the reigns to Rob Barrington, who pretty much runs things around here anyway!
Do you have many moments where you consider getting out of the biz? Someone once told me "never do what you love for money"—would you agree?
Running a music venue is not easy. Even though I entered into this venture somewhat naively, I knew it would be a challenge. However, the challenge is even greater than I expected. I don't want to dwell on this, other than to say that I have surrounded myself with some amazingly talented individuals, such as the aforementioned Rob Barrington, who is not only my productions manager, but also my ops manager—my indispensable right-hand person. Rob and the rest of the staff are so dedicated to this cause that I never feel that I am carrying the burden all by myself.
Curious about the economics of it – because sometimes shows are booked by you, I know, but sometimes you rent out to others, too. Which is the safer bet? I’m also surprised to hear that sometimes your shows lose money, despite enthusiastic crowds. The audience for Death was nearly full, for example, but it still didn’t pay the bills!
It's a safer route to rent the venue to other promoters. For the most part, the rent covers the tech costs and the balance is hopefully funded by bar sales. For the size of the venue, the Rickshaw is the least-expensive venue to rent in the city. However, we are faced with the same cost pressures as other small independent businesses in this city. In my case, my rent has increased by nearly 100% since I took over, as has the property tax. Insurance has gone up over 400% as fewer and fewer companies are insuring music venues. Add to that, the Canadian dollar is now a lot weaker than when I took over. This is especially painful given that all international artists get paid in US dollars.
Putting your own show can be lucrative but it's a risk/ reward game. It's also very, very easy to lose a lot of money. Most artists require a guaranteed payment for performing. So, you have to make an educated guess on how many people will show up at the ticket price you are charging. Some of the factors to consider are: the day of the week the show lands (and in most cases you don't have an option because of the way a tour is routed), the time of the year (who knew club shows were seasonal? Summer shows tend to be poorly attended), shows at other venues competing with your show, etc. Your ticket sales should not only cover the guarantee but also marketings cost, hospitality, tech, security, box office and of course good old SOCAN which is 3% of tickets sold (and that is not insignificant). If you have a win rate of 50% (i.e. half your shows make money and the other half lose), I think you're doing okay.
I finally snagged a Rickshaw T-shirt for myself. It’s fun! Who designed it?
The concept of a skeleton pulling various gear was done by Rob (I told you, he does everything!) and the final design was by Rob's tattooist, Christina Christie (of Black Rabbit Tattoo in Port Moody). We currently have T-shirts, baseball shirts and hoodies with that design. However, we plan to refresh our merch later this this year with a new design, so I encourage people to purchase the remaining stock for they are sure to become collectors’ items.
Any other accolades I should mention?
I know it's a small thing, but it's always gratifying when an artist takes the time to thank the tech and venue staff on stage. Kyle Morton, singer from Typhoon, took it a step further and talked about how much he always enjoys playing at the Rickshaw and the special relationship he and I have formed over the years. It was also a bit of thrill when Bob Mould gave me a shoutout on stage. And then there is Bif Naked. She has been so supportive of me and the Rickshaw over the years, I cannot thank her enough.
- Nominated 3 times in a row (including this year) by Canadian Music Week as one of the best mid-sized venue in Canada.
- Last year, the readers of the Georgia Straight voted the Rickshaw as the best mid sized venue in the city.
- Four-time Whammy Awards winner for Best Venue in the city
- Vancouver Magazine 2019: One of the top five venues in the city (along with the Commodore, Orpheum, QE and Chan Centre)
What are some of the coolest perks (besides seeing bands) that go with your position?
I'm not sure if this would classify as a perk, but I have had some very interesting and completely unexpected conversations with artists that I would never have dreamt of having. Oft-times these conversations take place on our rooftop, like for example when Brian Tristan (Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds) and I were about chatting about Malcolm Lowry I was able to point towards Deep Cove where Lowry used to live in a shack. There was also an interesting discourse I had with Mark Adkins of Guttermouth about the merits of universal medicare (a concept that seemed foreign to him).
Other interesting "roof top" conversations I've had with have been with Adam Granduciel from War on Drugs and members of Typhoon. Most of these conversations centre around the jarring optics of the DTES. I would see them visibly struggling reconciling the image they had of Vancouver and the almost other worldly (other worldly?) scenes on East Hastings—something they have never seen in their lives.