Of bucket lists, Bif Naked, and gritty neighbourhoods: Mo Tarmohamed on the Rickshaw's seventh anniversary

    1 of 12 2 of 12

      I don't really know why I love the Rickshaw as much as I do. It's not the neighbourhood, obviously. I kind of like the history of the building—the fact that it's connected to the Shaw Brothers, the Hong Kong film studio.

      But it's not like I ever went to see movies there, when it was the Shaw, and my investment in that particular brand of cinema is slight; the only Shaw Brothers film I can say for sure that I've seen, in fact, is the Hammer co-production, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, which combines vampire intrigue (including a role for Peter Cushing as van Helsing) with elaborate and somewhat absurd kung fu set pieces; it's hardly a typical Shaw product, and it's nowhere near any Top 10 list I might formulate (save maybe "top 10 Unlikely Co-productions" or "Top 10 Absurd Genre Cross-pollinations").

      And to be honest, with apologies to Mo Tarmohamed, interviewed below, it's not even the current management that draws me; I like that Mo is actually a music fan, whom I sometimes spot at gigs at other venues, and I've enjoyed my interactions with him, but I felt an attachment to the Rickshaw before Mo ever stepped through the door, back when I was interviewing David Duprey about his role there.

      So why is the Rickshaw my favourite place to see shows in Vancouver? It might just be the simple fact that more often then not, the gigs I care about in Vancouver have been located there. The Rickshaw is sort of the Richard's on Richards for its time, in terms of the nature of the bands it draws (too small for the Commodore but too big for places like-uh, I was going to say the Railway, but you get the idea. Plus the prices are comparable to what Richards offered, it's not too expensive to go to a show there and have a couple of drinks, which is not how I feel about some of the other recent venues that have sprung up in the neighbourhood).

      And to the extent that the Rickshaw and Richards are different, the Rickshaw is better: there's not the constant clink of alcohol being served from the bar, distracting from the music, which was almost always a problem at Richards, especially during quieter acts. And cool as the balcony on Richards was, if people were inclined to stand up there and talk through an act, they could actually RUIN a show, whereas the talkers at the Rickshaw tend to be sort of divided from the people who actual music fans, by virtue of the seating arrangement, which kind of implicitly encourages non-participants to fuck off to the back.

      Bison b.c. at the Rickshaw's second anniversary party.
      Rebecca Blissett.

      Some of my favourite shows of the last 10 years have taken place at the Rickshaw, from recent events like Kid Congo Powers or the Bowie Tribute Night to seeing Swans there five years ago, on their first reunion tour. There was catching the Subhumans opening for Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, and the Residents the show before last... I've also reviewed shows for the Straight there, like Bison b.c., back when the Rickshaw was celebrating it's second anniversary.

      I'd actually really RATHER have an attachment to venues like the Rio or the Biltmore, since they're more conveniently located for a Burnaby guy to get to and from, but I've had a few weird vibes at the Rio trying to interact with the people who run it, which left me feeling like I wasn't cool enough for them or somethin', and the Biltmore can have problematic sightlines unless you're standing right up front or watching a really tall band... I still go to shows at both, but the Rickshaw, even despite its drawbacks (the neighbourhood) remains the place I most like to see live music acts.

      Anyhow, with the venue celebrating its seventh anniversary this Friday, with Pickwick and No Sinner playing there, it seemed a good time to interview proprietor Mo Tarmohamed about his time at the helm of the venue, his taste in music, and his bucket list of acts that he hopes to book. I actually haven't read his answers to my questions yet, myself. Here it goes.

      Allan: So what's your history as a music geek? Can you fill in your backstory for us? Are you a musician? Do you have an industry background?

      Mo: My claim to music geekdom was my propensity to push/peddle my music taste on an unresponsive audience ever since elementary school. My enthusiasm for Bowie, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, etc often fell on my 12-year-old mates' deaf ears. I suppose very little has changed as I am still peddling my taste in music but now on a much grander scale. I have a whole venue to showcase music; unfortunately, I find my enthusiasm for bands that are not considered mainstream still fall on deaf ears-until said bands finally get the props that they deserve.

      I am not a musician and I don't play an instrument. I tried my hand at learning how to play guitar as an adult. Unfortunately, I was under the tutelage of a strict instructor who had been trained at a music academy in Germany. I was doing fairly well until we hit a snag about a year into my lessons. There was one chord that I simply was not able to manage. After repeated failed attempts he slapped my wrist! Alas, that was my last lesson and the guitar has remained in my case for the past decade and a half.

      I have had absolutely zero background in the music industry. In fact, I am a professional accountant by trade! But after years of toiling in soul sucking jobs and having to answer to others, I reached a crossroad in my life in the fall of 2010. Do I carry on and earn a decent salary doing something that I had begun to hate, or should I throw caution to the wind and do something that I actually cared about? I thought of various options, with something to do with music being on top of my list. A friend suggested opening a live music venue to which I naively responded: "Okay"! It was as simple as that.

      The Whigs.
      Joshua Black Wilkins.

      The catalyst for the change, however, had begun a year earlier in 2009. I had my first taste of New Orleans which is steeped in live music. A year later my wife and I went to Memphis and Athens, GA. In Memphis, a friend of mine gave us a tour of Ardent Studios where one of my favourite bands, The Replacements had recorded their seminal album Please to Meet Me. In Athens, I saw a band that I had started following and had become friends with, The Whigs, at the 40 Watt Club. Actually, befriending the Whigs started the chain reaction that culminated with me finally acquiring a music venue. They were (and still are) very generous with their time as they provided me insights about their evolution as a band, their musical influences and life on the road. I also marvelled at the number of venues a small city like Athens had. Live music was embedded into the fabric of that city much like Austin, New Orleans, Memphis, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. This is something that I thought Vancouver lacked, and so I began my crusade.

      I started researching live music venues in Vancouver. I spoke to a city council member, liquor licensing, bookers, and other venue operators. One of the venue operators I spoke to was David Duprey who had opened the Rickshaw about a year earlier. I had already been to shows at the Rickshaw (soon after it was opened) and was already intrigued with the venue even before I had a notion to own one myself. There were a couple of vacant spaces I had been eyeing and I asked David what his experience were opening a new venue in this city. David was kind enough to share his experiences and encouraged me to pursue the spaces I was considering. However, about a month after meeting him, David sent me a text one evening asking: "Do you want to buy the Rickshaw"? And so began the negotiations and my eventual takeover July 2011.

      Like I said, I had never been involved in the music industry, let alone owning a venue. But as an accountant I have worked in various industries (consumer electronics, petrochemical, cafes, tech, heavy machinery, chocolate manufacturing, advertising, utilities and roofing!) and the one main principle that I have learned is that regardless of what the industry is, you have to pay attention to some key fundamental business drivers in order to give you the best chance to succeed. It may not guarantee success, but it will at least give you a fighting chance. Having said that, the live music game is probably the most idiosyncratic business that I have ever come across and it has been a bit of a learning curve. Initially I surrounded myself with people who had been involved in booking shows and running a venue: I hired Aaron Schubert and Stephen Lyons. Both Aaron and Stephen really helped me in re-launching the Rickshaw.

      The Rickshaw, where those who aren't into a show are free to take a seat.
      Rickshaw Theatre.

      I've never had a problem with the sound at the Rickshaw-I'm a pretty easy touch, as long as I can hear what's going on-but I've heard that other people have complained about it, and have been at shows where people in the bands got kind of choked with the sound mixer. That said, people don't seem to complain much any more, at least not that I've heard. So did you upgrade things when you took over? What was that like? 

      Ah yes, the myth about the sound at the Rickshaw. Truth be told I too had problems with the sound at some of the shows I had seen at the Rickshaw before I took over. Because the space is a cavernous concrete box, sound was bouncing all over the place. Add to that, the high and low frequency ranges were seriously compromised. I invested in additional equipment to partially mitigate the sound issues and also added wood treatment on the concrete walls to reduce the amount of reflective sound. These changes have definitely helped, but more than anything else it is our front of house sound engineers who have really dialed in to compensate for the idiosyncratic nature of the room. Johnny Wildkat (Savella) our head sound mixer is simply one of the best in the business. The sound at the Rickshaw has never been better. And our tech group are continually tweaking the room to make it sound even better. Unfortunately I don't have deep pockets to invest in the latest and greatest. The Rickshaw has been self-funded for the most part. And as such this is a continuous work in progress. My productions manager and literally jack of all trades, Rob Barrington, regularly scours the internet for deals on equipment.  

      Another thing a lot of people don't realize is that some touring bands bring their own front of house sound mixer. I am always apprehensive whenever that happens. A band's sound guy may have a really good understanding of how to mix the band, but may not properly compensate for the dynamics of the room. Depending on how receptive their sound guy is to our tech's suggestions on optimizing the levels, the sound may range from mediocre to great. That's what a lot of patrons don't realize (and frankly neither did I before I embarked on my career as a venue operator): the sound is so dependent on whoever is mixing it. Unfortunately whenever we get a touring sound engineer who ignores the house sound engineer's recommendations, the sound can be sub-optimal and folks end up blaming the venue.

      We are still battling the legacy of how inferior the Rickshaw sounded more than 5 years ago. It's a revelation to people who had given up on the venue due to sound issues in those early years when they finally come back. Not only do they comment on how great the venue now looks but also how great it now sounds.

      The Rickshaw lobby.
      Rickshaw Theatre.

      What are other challenges you've faced?

      The other challenge that I have encountered with the Rickshaw is the location; not only in getting patrons to come to shows, but also to convince booking agents to put their bands here. Everyone in Vancouver knows about the problematic Downtown Eastside. There is seemingly no solution from all levels of government despite the ongoing rhetoric about effectively dealing with the mental health, rampant drug addiction, poverty and homelessness. The fact is the area is actually quite safe, despite of the optics. In my five years spending a lot of time in the DTES, I have never once felt threatened. But like I said, the optics are not good.

      Bands that have never played Vancouver are completely taken aback when they come up the East Hastings corridor from Carrall Street and Gore Avenue. When they arrive at the venue the band members are like deer caught in a headlight. You can sense a feeling of unease emanating from them and more often than I would like to, I feel compelled to explain to them as best as I can, the area that they have just found themselves in. It is nothing like anything that they have ever seen in their lives, and unfortunately, social media being the beast that it is, inevitably band members take pics/videos of the area and upload them, mostly on Instagram. It's frustrating to me that that's the image fans around the world are left with.

      However, after every show I often check in with the bands to see how their experience playing at the Rickshaw was. I can't control the neighbourhood but what my staff and I can control is the band's and the audience experience. I can say without hesitation, the feedback I get from bands is extremely positive. When you keep hearing the same things over and over again from a host of different people, you have to believe it as a universal truth. In our case, it is what an amazing staff we have. Bands quite often come across the stereotypical surly house tech personnel, but in the Rickshaw's case, I keep getting told that we have amongst the best crew that they have ever encountered. Whereas bands arrive with some trepidation, they leave giving hugs all around!

      There have been a number of uplifting stories that have reinforced my decision to get into this nebulous world of the music business. I have really enjoyed meeting and interacting with a number of local musicians. There is a plethora of amazing talent in this city and it bothers me to no end when I hear people of my generation lament "the good old days". These are folks who have been stuck in an era and who refuse to invest even a modicum of time to check out any "new music". In my opinion we are experiencing an explosion of some of the most compelling music ever. Musicians these days now have over five decades of pop/rock music to draw from plus they are adding their own voice in the evolution of rock music. Whenever I hear new bands I can hear influences that have informed their music, yet without sounding derivative. 

      Bif Naked.
      bev davies.

      One of my fondest memories over the past five years happened last year: our collaboration with Bif Naked. Up until the fall of 2014 I had never actually spoken to Bif Naked but had been noticing that she was very active in re-tweeting some of our shows. I sent her a note thanking her for her ongoing support of the shows at the Rickshaw and suggested that perhaps she would be interested in performing at the Rickshaw. Thinking nothing more of it-after all, she didn't know who I was and I am sure she gets numerous requests like mine-I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least, when she responded almost right away. She put in touch with her manager and agent which led to the first (we have another one planned for this fall) Bif Naked Extravaganza.

      Bif, along with my staff, Ashley Frerichs and Rob Barrington, actively collaborated in putting the show together. We held a competition whereby musicians who wanted to be on the bill had to not only send us their EPK but also to tell us why they should be on the bill. From around 50 applications, we narrowed it down to three (Cobra Ramone, the Wett Stilettos, and The Living). Bif also suggested that we have dancers for a few of the songs, so I also asked Rahel Claman of Rahel belly dancing and The Lover's Cabaret if they too would like to participate. Sure enough, they jumped at the opportunity. Both Rahel and Vanessa Young, who heads the Lover's Cabaret, have put on multiple shows at the Rickshaw and have been strong advocates of the venue. My meeting Bif Naked has been transformational for me. Her unyielding enthusiasm and infectious spirit has helped through moments of self-doubt that all entrepreneurs go through. The fact that she was giddy like a teenager when I arranged Cam Pipes of 3 Inches of Blood to sing with her the night of the extravaganza has left me with hope for the business I have found myself in. 

      Other than Bif Naked, other musicians such as Kyle Morton of Typhoon, Galen Disston of Pickwick, Sharon Van Etten, Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs, Dallas and Travis Good of the Sadies, Midge Ure of Ultravox, and many other notable musicians have been vocally supportive of the Rickshaw and the work we do. It's always reaffirming that musicians that I respect are so openly encouraging.

      One of my scariest episodes was the time when I nearly plunged to my death. The roof was in a terrible state when I took over the venue, and oft-times during a downpour I'd be in the rafters with buckets and bus bins catching drips, even during shows. On one occasion, thankfully not while a show was going on, I was rearranging some buckets when I accidentally stepped on a wet gypsum ceiling tile. The tile collapsed and I almost fell 50 feet to a certain death. Luckily I had the presence of mind to quickly grab a steel girder and hung on. That hole in the ceiling is still there to this date to remind me of my narrow escape.

      Mike Usinger.

      What shows have you put on because they were on your bucket list of bands you wanted to see or work with? What bands were your picks, rather than promoted/touring shows...?

      Bands that I have booked: Thee Oh Sees, the Whigs, Pickwick, Typhoon, the Sonics, Death, Flamin' Groovies, Midge Ure, the English Beat, Kid Congo, NoMeansNo.

      Bands booked by other promoters: The Buzzcocks, Killing Joke, Russian Circles, King Khan, Built to Spill, Japandroids, Mac DeMarco

      Shows booked by the bands themselves: D.O.A. and Pointed Sticks.

      Who remains on your bucket list-shows you'd really like to see happen?

      Pere Ubu, Bob Mould, Richard Thompson, Graham Parker, The The, the Damned, Menomena, Pinback, and The Dishrags.

      Any other colourful stories?

      A funny episode: We had booked the band Death (the punk band from Detroit) and I was to pick them up at the airport. Their manager suggested that I held up a sign with the band's name so that they would be able to recognize me. I sent them an email asking if it was a good idea that a brown guy with a surname like mine should be holding up a sign that said "DEATH" at an international airport. I meant that as a joke. But the band's manager took me seriously and worriedly suggested that I simply write down ABCD to denote A Band Called Death.

      What are the challenges facing live music venues in Vancouver?

      I was recently invited to speak on CBC Radio by Stephen Quinn to discuss the state of live music in Vancouver. The topic was precipitated by the recent closures of the Electric Owl and the Railway Club, and also how other cities such as London, England are addressing venues closing down in their cities as well. London has recently appointed a Night Mayor to look at the erosion of live music venues and other art spaces in that city.

      Contrary to a popular myth that there is a lack of live music venues in Vancouver, the truth of the matter is that there isn't sufficient demand for live music in relation to the supply of rooms available. For a myriad of reasons (but chiefly the high cost of living in Vancouver driving the key concert going demographics of 19-35 year olds either away from the city or not having enough discretionary income to afford going to shows) attendance at shows has been declining for the most part. Couple that with the high cost of booking international talent due the current exchange rate, it is becoming increasingly difficult for independent venue owners to operate.

      A lot of venues now include "club nights" as part of their business model to subsidize losses they make on live shows. The operating costs to run a club night are considerably less than to put on a live show. The consequence of doing that is live shows often have to take a backseat to the more lucrative DJ driven disco nights. Bands are compelled to start early so that the live music component of the venue's programming is over sometimes as early as 10:30 p.m. as they and the patrons are asked to leave to make room for the club nights.

      We at the Rickshaw have so far resisted going down that road [Can I add that to the list of reasons I love the Rickshaw?-AM]. We want to remain true to the spirit of live performance and make that our raison d'etre. We also believe that the Province and the City should treat live-events venues such as the Rickshaw differently than night clubs. It still boggles the mind why the Rickshaw is not allowed to hold all-ages events with restricted alcohol sales to non-minors. I have had to walk away from a number of shows that would have appealed to an all-ages crowd, because it was not economically viable for me to do so without liquor sales. We are turning away live-music patrons because of antiquated and inconsistent application of liquor laws when we need them the most.   


      Tell us about the seventh anniversary show-who is playing, and why? How did it come together?

      I handpicked the bands that will be playing the Rickshaw's 7 Year Anniversary Show. The strongly R&B/soul-influenced music that will be represented Friday night has universal appeal. Pickwick is a very special band that has been on the cusp on blowing up big for the past three years. The follow-up to their critically acclaimed debut album, Can't Talk Medicine, has taken a lot longer than the band would have liked, which may have derailed their momentum temporarily. Pickwick have already played the Rickshaw twice before. The last time they were in Vancouver, they opened for the New Pornographers at the Commodore in 2014. The vocal pipes on Pickwick's lead singer Galen Disston are awe-inspiring. Fans of Black Joe Lewis, the Black Keys, and Charles Bradley will love Pickwick.

      Colleen Rennison and No Sinner are no strangers to the Rickshaw stage. No Sinner has played the Rickshaw on a number of occasions as has Colleen Rennison on her solo projects. To pair two powerful singers like Galen and Colleen on the same bill had always been at the back of my mind.

      The first time I saw SAVVIE was when the band played the Rickshaw in December 2015. I had heard a lot of buzz about Savannah Leigh Wellman's band and I could see why after her set. When we announced the Pickwick show, Savannah was amongst the first to like our Instagram post. She told me that she was a big fan of Pickwick and I asked her if she would like to be on the bill, to which she agreed to without hesitation.

      The Dip is a Seattle funk, soul jazz band that had approached me in March even before we had booked Pickwick for the July 8th show. I dug their sound but didn't have a suitable bill for them to be a part of. Soon after the Pickwick show was announced it made sense for them to be part of the bill. I later found out that one of the members from the Dip played on Pickwick's debut album.

      Any final thoughts, points I haven't touched on? 

      I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the single most amazing person I know and someone who has played a major role in this new vocation of mine-my wife Brenda. She could have easily knocked some common sense into me when I suggested to her that I was planning on quitting my comfortable accounting career for the topsy turvy world of music. She gave her support unflinchingly despite the hardship she knew it would create. And after five years, she is still my biggest booster. 

      Thanks, Mo! (I think I actually like the Rickshaw even more now.)

      The Rickshaw Theatre’s seventh anniversary party takes place on Friday (July 8).