Chris Ward and Barrett Lindgren at Johnny Brenda’s | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Changing of the Guard: A conversation with Chris Ward and Barrett Lindgren on passing the baton at Johnny Brenda’s
In August of 2008, Chris Ward filled out a few pieces of legal paperwork and became an official staff member at Johnny Brenda’s. He’d been running sound at the popular Fishtown venue for the year previous, a job he enjoyed because it worked well around his other gig drumming in the Philly art-rock duo Pattern Is Movement. But he increasingly became interested in the business side of the music business, as much as he was in the creative side. This curiosity led to his first post as assistant talent buyer, helping out the venue’s first booker Brandy Hartley. It later led to his longtime role as lead talent buyer — a job he held from approximately 2011 until this week, when he steps down and turns over the reins to his colleague Barrett Lindgren.
Tomorrow night, Johnny Brenda’s hosts the final show booked by Ward: a sold-out gig headlined by singer-songwriter David Bazan, followed by a DJ party in the venue that will stretch from curtain call to closing time (the DJ half of the night is free, and open to the public). It will make for a fitting departure, a bittersweet celebration of somebody whose keen ears and willingness to take chances helped shape and maintain the identity of the venue as a spot to see consistently high-quality music in an ever-changing neighborhood.
Leading up to his departure, we asked Chris to reflect on his time at JBs; he shared five impactful memories of the venue with us, and you can read those here. We also sat down with him and Lindgren to talk about their own personal trajectories through the independent music scene, the importance of small music venues to a city’s cultural landscape, and how their ethos of treating the venue like home and the staff like family helped make it a beacon for Philadelphians and touring artists alike. (They also give several shoutouts to Marley McNamara, the JBs show runner who will be stepping up to be Lindgren’s assistant talent buyer after Ward’s departure.)
Read our conversation below, and get more information about the farewell DJ hang here.
The Key: Chris, why did you decide to leave Johnny Brenda’s?
Chris Ward: I’ve described [this job] that it’s like putting a puzzle together. And I started really figuring out the puzzle. And what’s great about this job is the puzzle content kind of changes every year. New artists, new this, new that. But the idea of putting the puzzle together is the same. So just like anything, you do it over and over, it just doesn’t become as rewarding intellectually. And so part of me had been thinking for the past couple years about “what’s my next move?” I’m also teaching at University of the Arts, I’m booking Spruce Street Harbor, I’m DJing weddings, DJing around town. So I just had a lot of plates spinning.
And then to be very real, I also didn’t want to lose Barrett. And the idea of “[what if] Barrett went to another job?” I would have to start this process all over again, because this place means too much to me to just be like “I’m out.” I always wanted to have a planned exit, I never wanted to be like “here’s my two weeks, here’s my four weeks.” That’s honestly not enough time in a small independent venue, there’s not enough infrastructure to take that giant of a shift. And that’s actually how small venues collapse – a lot of institutional knowledge that no one has goes away.
TK: I think it’s interesting how you phrase that: “I didn’t want to lose Barrett.” You’re thinking of the “I” as you personally, but you’re also thinking you didn’t want Johnny Brenda’s to lose Barrett. And I really admire that: you’re not just looking out for the venue, but looking out for the next generation of people doing what you do. That’s a rare thing, Can you talk about that, finding it in this industry, or this city, or in general?
Barrett Lindgren: Even just hear you say it, it feels particularly Johnny Brenda’s to me. I think as a room, that’s kind of the thing that attracted Chris to this place, me to this place, Greg [Mungan, venue manager] to this place, Marley to this place. It’s genuinely a special, unique room in the sense that everyone here understands that about it, and will do everything we can to keep it that way. Every decision we make comes down to is it good for us, good for our room, good for our relationships with each other. It’s a very all-inclusive kind of way of decision making.
TK: Did you ever hit that point of worry that Chris is alluding to? “Oh, I need to leave and go somewhere else?”
BL: Sure! That was largely part of it, too. I was just getting past my fifth year here. I was about to hit 30, and was like all right, what am I doing? I’ve been booking shows in Philly at this point for ten years. I definitely felt like I’ve learned a lot here, and I either wanted to apply that to doing the head talent buyer job here or take it somewhere else, but would much rather apply it here, ‘cause it’s home base. It very much feels like home base. So I had another job offer come in to book another venue, I brought that to Chris, and this is the plan we kind of hashed out. He said I’m looking to exit in a period of time, we can figure this out. And I was kind of hoping in my heart of hearts that that was going to be the response. I wouldn’t want to do this job in another place, to be honest.
TK: You’ve been doing shows in Philly for ten years, and started out doing them at the house show level, in West Philly primarily. And then branched out from there. And the growth of the house show scene was something that, for me on the periphery as an observer, was an education. Particularly, the Golden Tea House…I don’t know if that’s a room you booked often?
BL: [laughs] Yep, that was a big big part of my life for four years.
TK: I know that a bunch of people had their hands in that space.
BL: That’s sort of the thing with how it was organized: Jake Cooley was kind of the calendar keeper, and then me, Will [McAndrew], Nick Fanelli, a handful of bookers did the shows.
CW: Kind of like at The Ox, the same thing.
BL: It’s a way a lot of the best places are done; someone keeps a calendar, everyone else does the shows. So Jake would manage the calendar, and I would kind of hit him up and say here’s the band, here’s the date, he would say yes or no or whatever, and we’d take it from there. But, I mean, it was so strange to transition from doing a ton of shows at my basement or the Golden Tea House to working at Johnny Brenda’s, because doing shows here is way easier. I have support staff, we have sound people, we have door people. For those shows I was doing the poster, I was booking all the support, I was running the sound at the shows, I was running door at the shows. It was a way more hand-on experience, and then coming here it was like woah, what if I don’t have to do literally everything?
TK: What I was saying about it being an education, though: Golden Tea shows were house shows, essentially in a living room. As a spectator when you’re new to that environment, you think about house shows as more of a loose, thrown-together thing. But it’s like no, these are touring bands, they’re still getting guarantees, all the professional stuff still goes into it, but at a micro level.
BL: DIY really did grow into its own level of the music industry in the last ten years or so. It’s always been there, but it really kind of became something else in the last ten years, and I think we were in the right place at the right time, and had the right kinds of show spaces, the right friends. It started falling together in a really unique way. So yeah, that mid-2010’s DIY show scene really started to take on a life of its own.
Then, the reason I got this job was because I mentioned to [previous Johnny Brenda’s assistant talent buyer, singer-mandolinist of Norwegian Arms] Brendan Mulvihill that I was looking to get into legit booking somewhere. I was driving myself nuts, I was still working at Green Line, I was like opening and closing there, late at night or early morning. Running 15 shows a month between Golden Tea and my house. Just going insane. And I was like, I’d like to get paid to do this. ‘Cause I’d never take money from any of those shows.
And I mentioned it to Brendan, and I think two months later he was at a Speedy Ortiz show at Golden Tea House, and he was like “I’m leaving my job, you should have my job.” He told Chris, “you should talk to this guy Barrett, he’s doing a lot of these DIY shows that are really blowing up.” I was thrilled, I couldn’t imagine a room I’d rather work in than Johnny Brenda’s. This was kind of a space that inspired me in doing DIY shows. This feels great, it feels good to go to a show here, I’m excited to be in the room, and I wanted a show in my basement to feel that way, or a show at Golden Tea to feel that way. Careful, intentional, and you could tell someone put time into organizing the event when you go there and things happened on time, everything was planned in advance, instead of you showing up and it’s piss and beer cans everywhere.
TK: I just read a book about City Gardens in Trenton. That’s a venue that folks slightly older than me in the indie rock world would rhapsodize about…
BL: Yeah, it’s a legendary place.
TK: …but that place sounded like a shithole that treated artists terribly, and the audiences terribly, and then the artist treated the room terribly. It just seemed like so many negative vibes to that space; like it’s legendary for having really cool lineups, but sounds generally awful overall.
BL: It’s just what was there at the time sort of. But that’s kind of what I mean; it started to feel in that mid-2010’s DIY world that we kind of had the opportunity to do those shows justice, do them right.
TK: Like “We don’t have to settle for this.”
TK: I remember seeing your band Ghost Light play at Johnny Brenda’s with Bleeding Rainbow. Chris, did you know Barrett as a musician before he applied for the job? Like “oh, he’s played here?”
CW: Nope, Brendan probably booked him. Brendan was the local talent buyer. I was connected to local talent buying as far as being in a band. But what happens is between your age group, and kind of your friend group, you kind of only know so much.
So I met Barrett through Brendan. Brendan gave a couple weeks notice, I just happened to be on tour with Strand of Oaks going to Europe. It was like “Great! I’m going to be gone for five weeks.” This job is hard in and of itself, it’s hard when you go away. So we needed to hire someone in a week. And there were a lot of people who were interested in that job, and I had to do a bunch of interviews. Barrett came to me through Brendan, and I was like “okay, I’m down to hear this guy out.” I think you also sent me an email, too. I totally did not see that email. But I think after he told me about you, I went back and looked and saw you sent me an email.
I remember we were sitting right in this area, and I at the time – I’m newly in my 30s, and I’d seen what had kind of happened in the 2000s. I’d started noticing that the Animal Collectives and Yeasayers and Grizzly Bears, the kind of music I was part of, it was kind of graduating at that point and getting bigger. And I saw that what was coming up from that was not more art rock. It was definitely more of this interpretation of what Greg told me about from his days in the 80s. He told me “dude, what’s happening now is what happened when I was here in the late 80s in Philadelphia playing YMCAs with Fugazi.” And I was like yeah, we need to have someone who has those connections, as well as those ears. Cause those aren’t my ears. I was in a very left-of-center indie rock band and that was my world. Grandchildren was my world, Man Man was my world, Brendan’s band Norwegian Arms, that was what I was steeped in. I was not steeped in Screaming Females. I knew who they were, I listened to them, but it wasn’t my world. Speedy Ortiz wasn’t my world.
So I felt like Barrett had, and I keep using this term, a good set of ears: that’s something I talk about in my class at UArts. Doing this job is a set of ears. You’re not just listening to music ‘cause you like it, you’re trying to listen to it critically through a lens of “does this say something to a larger context?” We book artists here all the time that don’t have a giant following but they come and they bring a ton of people out. But then we book people who have a giant resume and it’s like I’m on this awesome label, I’ve got management, blah blah blah, and then they come and no one comes. ‘Cause there’s just not a larger context.
And I think Barrett had a good sense of that when I talked to him, and that it also would be a really wise move for us at Johnny Brenda’s for me to essentially hire someone where I was lacking. That was a lesson I’d learned a few years into hiring assistant talent buyers; don’t hire someone who has the same set of ears as you, hire someone who has a different set of ears as you.
TK: Who compliments you.
CW: Right. And I think we all know now doing this long enough, groups don’t stay together, they start splintering, and if you have a connection in that world, you can connect that splintering, and you can be a home base for that person to grow in that room. And that’s what Barrett was really good at. Thinking of this place as a place to grow; War on Drugs in the best example of that in our market. They played a lot of shows here to not a ton of people. And it’s not because they weren’t great then, it’s just that the context wasn’t large enough for them then. Their friends came out, but it’s like the context took time to grow. It’s like Seinfeld, it took forever for that show to catch on. Good shit takes forever to catch on. And if you aren’t a venue that’s there to support it from the beginning, then what the fuck are you doing?
BL: By extension, there are bands that I book here now, that I booked their first-ever shows in Philadelphia in my basement, seven or eight years ago, stuff like that. Or Lucy Dacus, who we have for three nights this month, we set that show up on tour when we were touring together. Those connections with bands, that’s Johnny Brenda’s to me. You have to have people in the room who are intimately connected with their wider community to keep a place running like this. And Chris has brought that to the room, I’m trying hopefully to bring that to the room, Marley brings that here, and I think that’s a really big part of the story. Bringing your friends here and watching them grow in the room is a really special experience.
CW: For me, I wasn’t booking shows in my 20s, I was mainly playing and touring. I mixed the second Beach House show here, and I’d played a show with them a couple days before with Pattern. So when they showed up and I was mixing them, we were able to cut it up and hang out. And then they came back and played another show. Was it just ‘cause I was here? No. But I think that kind of familiarity breeds a place of comfortability. Cause kind of going back to what we’re all kind of talking about right now but we’re not really putting our finger on it is being on the road is really hard.
BL: It’s nice to see a friend.
CW: Yes! If a venue can feel like a friend, then you’ve kind of done a lot of work and not even realized it. It’s hard dragging your bones across country.
TK: Right, you might be in – I don’t know, insert city here…
TK: Boise, I may be in Boise, and it’s really brutal, but in five more days – okay, it’d be longer than five days – I’m gonna be in Philadelphia and I’m gonna play Johnny Brenda’s.
BL: It might be five days! Four days, three days. [laughs]
CW: Depends on how good your agent is! I’ve driven from Vancouver and played a show in Minneapolis in two days, it’s brutal. But I keep trying to contextualize it: this is a business, we’re trying to make money, they’re trying to make money. I feel like that’s an important thing for people to know. But at the same time, it’s not just about money. There’s other pieces at play. And that’s what went into my thinking of not just leaving here, and giving a year’s worth of time to Barrett and Johnny Brenda’s so that it would feel like a natural change, so there would be no disruption, so that family vibe stays.
TK: We’ve talked a lot about changing and growing. Obviously we see that all around us, in Fishtown. This corner is a very different corner than it was five years ago, it was a very different corner than it was thirteen years ago. And yet Johnny Brenda’s feels the same – not in a stagnant way, but still the same. Can we talk about maintaining your identity in this…ever-escalating weird neighborhood thing?
BL: [laughs] That’s a nice way to put it.
CW: I’ll give credit where credit’s due: it’s really been Greg Mungan, the venue manager. Not that he’s done all the work, but he would always tell me that it’s like being in a ship: we’ve just gotta keep pushing and keep going straight. The water is crashing, you want to go left, you want to go right. But if we keep our heads down and keep pushing forward against the waves, then we’ll be able to stay. And that has been his motto. And Greg not only is the venue manager, he also books all the DJs. And I think him booking DJs is part of that him keeping his head down. Not booking DJs to alienate people, which I think some people can try to do – like “you’re not welcome in this place.” For him it’s like “no, you’re welcome, but we have our own ideas about what we want to hear from the DJs.”
BL: You have to meet our vibe where it’s at.
CW: Yeah, you have to meet our vibe. There are some bars around here that are kind of O.G. bars, and on a Friday or Saturday, and I totally get it, they play music that’s kind of aggressive. Loud, noisy. And it’s to be like hey, you people from Conshohocken aren’t welcome here. No diss to Conshohocken, but it’s like [these bars’] idea being like these people are just coming down for the weekend to play in the sandbox. And that’s not Greg’s vibe, Greg is a host. And our point with upstairs is to keep booking things that matter to us while at the same time as being open to change.
That’s what I’ve really tried to give to Barrett, not in a direct way, but more “does this music mean something to someone? Does it mean enough that we should book it? Then yeah, let’s do it.” Does it mean something to you? No? There’s two ways that can cut. A, it’s great that you booked that and it means something to this whole group of people. Or B, it might end up meaning something to you. And that’s definitely happened to me: I listen to something and it’s like “yeah, this is [fine], I definitely want to book it.” And then I see the show, and I’m like, oh wow! And now my life is different because of that show. In a very small way.
BL: Something found you that otherwise would not have found you. And that’s kind of the joy of this job. Chris knows I’ve been a musical omnivore since I was a kid, that’s always been my taste. Working here broadened my tastes, or accelerated the broadening of my tastes in a way. Maybe it would have happened otherwise, I don’t know. But now, all I can do is look for the quality in things I hear, find something that I can connect with or see why it’s valuable, or why it’s important to someone else. That’s probably been the deepest personal joy I’ve gotten out of this job is finding out that I loved music I didn’t know I loved, just naturally, on my own. I love that perk.
TK: Is there anything, when you’re looking at potential booking, is there anything where you’re just like “no”?
CW: A good example of that is cover bands. We do cover bands here very rarely, because we’re generally not interested in cover bands as a concept.
BL: If we’re going to do a cover band, it has to be about who is in the band.
CW: Who’s in the band and what are they trying to do. I’m open to cover band, but for us, it’s not a cover band at that point. It becomes somebody honoring the music.
TK: Kind of like Charlie Hall, the thing he did with Fleetwood Mac. Or the Tom Petty tributes.
CW: Another good example of that is Live Band Karaoke here, and that kind of came through Marley. She was like hey, I’m really good friends with these guys. We’ve never done karaoke here, or not as a booked event. And I trust Marley, so I said “allright, let’s do it.” And I came to it, and it’s like this band is really frickin’ good, and this is really hard work.
BL: Well it’s because it’s those guys, it couldn’t be anybody else!
…a tangent ensues about wading through the noise in booking email inbox and leads to us talking about the vibe and ethos of the room.
CW: This is an intimate business. It is. I always talk about this in class, as you step down in smaller and smaller rooms, there’s more and more artists who can play those rooms. So there’s more competition. And I think our response to that, I don’t think it’s been explicit here, but I think the Johnny Brenda’s response to that is let’s make the experience for both showgoer and artist the most familial it can be, while also maintaining a level of professionalism. I also think that as an artist, you should play all the rooms in Philadelphia, I don’t think you should play just our room, that’s dumb. If I was in a band, I wouldn’t want to play one room over and over again. If I’m going to play Philadelphia five times, I man, I hope you play Johnny Brenda’s twice. I get that you want to play another room. And I think that’s something we bring to the table: this is not a sport.
TK: It’s not a grudge match: “you played Boot and Saddle, so we won’t work with you anymore.”
BL: We want it to feel right. We always want people to feel good, happy, excited, comfortable. Welcome back if they went somewhere else and they came back.
CW: Doesn’t mean we don’t get sad if we don’t get a show.
BL: Yeah, but to me, that’s sort of an extension of why we have a lot of bands that really love this room come back to play it well into their careers, like War on Drugs, or Kurt, or Lucy. Bands that can play bigger rooms, but feel a special connection to this place tend to come back because of the things we’re talking about because it just feels different, it’s a different experience.
TK: Chris, what are your hopes for Barrett as he steps in?
CW: I think my hopes are that he can keep the ethos going that a music venue is an important piece of a cultural fabric. I think that’s what was given to me by the owners, and by Brandy, and Greg: it’s a meeting place, and there’s something pretty spiritual about meeting around music. It’s the same thing about meeting around theater, or going to the Museum of Art. There’s something in the air around music and we’ve all dedicated so much of our lives to it. And I just hope that keeps going for him and everyone here. Because like with any job, there’s real burnout, and it’s important that you try to balance it with other things.
I think for some people when they try to do this kind of job, it can become all-consuming. So what I hope for him, what I hope for this place, is that there’s still balance. I think part of what makes this palce good is that there’s been balance, there’s been balance since I started here, and I just hope that balance stays. I remember first time I played First Ave in Minneapolis. And we’re not First Ave, it’s a giant venue. But I remember hanging out with the staff and it felt like hanging out with the staff here. I played there in 2008 on the St. Vincent tour, and I went back a couple times with Pattern and with Strand of Oaks, and it just felt like here, and I was always like I want this place to be like First Ave. I also got the same experience dealing with some of the folks who work at 9:30 Club.
I feel like I’ve said this a lot around my ruminations around leaving here, it feels family, and I hope they can continue that family energy. That’s what has been so poignant for me about working here. I’d go away on tour for weeks at a time and then I would walk into this building and I would just be happy. And it’s rare that you have a job that you’ve been away from and that happens. And that’s something I’m going to miss: having that relationship with the building. It’ll be a different relationship.
BL: I get that all the time: if I go on tour, and I come back home to Philly, I come back home to JBs. I’ll come back from a show late at night in New York, and I’ll stop in here and there’s still people hanging out. I’ll stop in and say hey to everyone, it really still feels that way. It’s a place beyond a place.
CW: I feel like my ultimate goal is that he’ll keep the same ethos while at the same time branching out in his way of booking stuff that I never would have booked. Not that I wouldn’t, but just because we all have blind spots, every single one of us does. That’s what’s been so good about working together for this long, he’s taught me a lot about music that I wasn’t paying attention to, and I hope in turn that I did the same for him. So it’s like, I hope that’s a relationship that he and Marley can both have.
BL: It’s nice to have somebody you can roll something back and forth with. I remember when I first started working here, Chris would send me these emails like “what are your thoughts on this?” And at first I was like “what the fuck are you sending me these emails for? You’re the head booker, dude! I don’t know!” And then I started realizing as I started booking more shows here on my own, I’d start thinking, what does somebody think about this? This relationship is so much about kicking the ball back and forth to sort of not even necessarily get the other person’s feelings, but figure out your own. That’s a big part about us and Greg and Marley and the venue is having a family of people that you can kick something around with – what is this, what’s the shape of it, what do we like or not like about it?
TK: Marley was kind of already part of the process through show running. So when that was the level she worked at when she first came in, and you were focusing mainly on talent buying, did you kick ideas off of her? How’d she come into the picture of doing more, bigger things?
CW: I feel like show running has always been a really important part of Johnny Brenda’s. Most venues this small do not have a dedicated production person: it’s pretty rare. It’s usually a door person, just for financial reasons. But something that’s really smart here is there’s usually someone who it’s their job to run the show. And it’s not the door person, and it’s not the bartender, which was the case at the Khyber and North Star.
BL: Or the sound person.
CW: They’ve got a lot on their mind! And they’re burned out, and they’re not really paying attention to the show. Show runners are living the show. I’m not at every show, Barrett is not at every show. You can’t be, there’s 200+ shows per year, I can’t be at every single show. So having a show runner that you trust like Marley, or Nicky Devine, their opinion of the show is really important. They’d be like “Oh, that middle band, the middle band is so dope.” And I’d be like…”who?”
BL: “The room filled up for this band.”
CW: And I think “Hmm, we didn’t book the middle band, the headliner brought them.” I might have listened to them six months ago, and it just didn’t click. And then it turns out the middle band is Imagine Dragons, which is actually something that happened here.
TK: I remember Vampire Weekend was a first band…with Ra Ra Riot and Tokyo Police Club.
CW: Yeah! And the example I’m thinking of, because Imagine Dragons is not the band I’m thinking of…
BL: My favorite band! When you think Johnny Brenda’s, you think Imagine Dragons. [laughs]
CW: But the band I’m thinking of is a band that’s coming back in 2020 when I’m gone called Pottery.
BL: I was just thinking about Pottery! They’re one of those really special bands that’s like watching one brain work on stage, five people onstage who are all together in the moment. They were the middle band with Viagra Boys, and then we found out that they’re going to be coming back in a few months with Fontaines DC, and now we just booked their headline show. And that’s exactly the kind of things we like to do is find out about a band out of nowhere.
CW: There are nights when we can’t be here, but there’s a show runner like Marley who gives us that information. It’s not institutionalized, they just do. And the converse is true too: the middle band was just eh, but the opener was awesome.
BL: But that’s why the show runner’s taste matters. The show runner’s taste matters a lot, and I definitely think we rely on bartenders too, to tell us about the shows, we rely on everyone in the room to be our eyes and ears and help us make decisions.
…a tangent about seeing bands live before booking, and leads to a discussion of the importance of Johnny Brenda’s for hometown bands…
BL: One of my favorite shows this year was getting Spirit of the Beehive in here for their first headline, and they sold it out. They were so worried that it wasn’t going to sell out, and they sold it out on their first shot, and it seemed like it really meant something to them. As a friend of the band, it warmed my heard to know that we could bring them in here — Chris and I love that band so much — and to see how happy and stoked they were to sell out Johnny Brenda’s. I could tell that it was something that felt like a level to them, I love being able to open that door to people, especially if I love your band. There’s nothing like that to me: watching a band from Philly who you’ve booked for years sell this place out. It feels incredible.
CW: I remember the first time The War on Drugs sold this room out, that was a special night. The War on Drugs ware very connected to this place: they lived here, this is the bar they hung out in, so when they sold it out, had you interviewed Adam that night, he would have been like “I did it! This is all I needed to do. I’m never going to do anything better!” At the time, it’s such a big deal to sell out Johnny Brenda’s or Boot & Saddle. Small rooms are so important, and that’s why I’m so happy that Marley and Barrett are taking this on. These rooms are as important as playing the Factory, as important, and it has the same impact, and if you come to the job to that level of intent, you will manifest that intention, and the people will feel it!