The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Shannon Roach
by Jay Babcock
In 2006, I spoke by telephone with Shannon Roach, executive director of the Vera Project in Seattle, for a piece on all-ages philosophy/history/yadda yadda. The piece kept expanding, so much so that it looked like it would have to be published as a series across multiple issues of Arthur. Some of the interviews ended up getting published; unfortunately this one didn’t, basically due to internal Arthur chaos in 2006-07. Anyways, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation. — Jay Babcock
Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)
Shannon Roach: I’ve been involved with the Vera Project since September of last year, of 2005, as a staff member, but I went to the first show that Vera ever had, in January 2001. It’s a big part of the music community here in Seattle. That first show was the Murder City Devils, Botch and the Blood Brothers. It was really fun.
Arthur: The Vera Project has moved around, right?
It’s the name of the organization, not a particular space. It’s named after an organization called Vera in Gronigen, Holland. The Vera over in Europe is a community center that’s over a hundred years old and its focus is on the popular arts: music, film, visual art. And it’s truly all-ages: people from the entire community participate in it. Totally government-funded. Things are a little different in Europe, you know. (laughs) The idea of Vera came from that. James Keblis and Shannon Stewart, who you talked to, they did a study abroad over in Holland and found out a lot about the Vera Project and then brought those ideas back here, and filled a specific need in Seattle, which was for all-ages music.
Why was it needed?
Well, there was a law called the Teen Dance Ordinance (TDO) here in Seattle that prohibited people under 21 from going to see live music with people over 21. So audiences under 21 …the venues had to have a lot of insurance. It was basically illegal for people under 21 to see live music. So there really wasn’t much of an all-ages scene here, which is kind of crazy because Seattle is known for its music, it’s totally culturally rich in music. When I was younger, I couldn’t go to see live music shows. I had to go up to Vancouver or down to Portland, leave the city to see some music. A little nutty. The TDO prohibited young people from seeing music so there was really a need here in Seattle for a place for that outlet, for young people to see and to play music.
Vera initially did shows out of a union hall called the Local 46, a huge union hall. Every show that Vera had, volunteers and staff came in and set up a PA system. They would have to take all of the folding chairs down from the union meeting, set up the PA system, run the show and clean everything up and set all the chairs back up exactly like they were for. Like 500, maybe more. It was huge. That was a fine space.
Vera also did some shows out of a theatre over in the international district called the Theatre Off Jackson. It was a good space, it was a little bit smaller, and it was also a theater so it was set up to be a little more acoustically sound and conducive to music. In 2003, Vera found a space in downtown Seattle on 4th Avenue. That was also an old theatre, the Annex Theater. It was really cool, this old building that was probably going to be torn down sometime soon and Vera moved into it as is, and the whole community came together to help build out the venue, helped to put together the sound system, do a bunch of construction in there to make it safe for people. So then for the first time the Vera Project had a home, and it just totally exploded from there, because it makes it a lot easier to have shows. So there were MORE shows available. And then ot also expanded to have an art gallery, a silkscreen studio and night tech classes, and all kinds of community events that were a little more difficult to put on before.
Who gets booked there? Bands that normally play bars, or bands that are on a completely different circuit?
Both. The thing is, Vera has really great shows. I don’t know if you’ve been to the website, looked at some of the bands that have played, but there’s a good mix between established bands that are gonna draw really, really well and then also it’s a place where people who are getting established can come and play. So there are some shows that there’s gonna be a line around the block and people are gonna be turned away. And there are other shows that are smaller and more intimate. It runs the gamut really. We get national and international touring artists, and then we get local people as well.
Never more than ten dollars. That’s part of Vera, really, is for it to be an accessible space so that people can afford to come there. It’s a small capacity, the stage is low, there’s all these opportunities for young people to be involved in everything from stage management to being a sound assistant to taking tickets at the door to helping book, so it provides people with direct access to artists with makes it a little bit unique.
It’s run as a non-profit?
Non-profit, yeah. It became a non-profit in 2001. Our space on 4th Avenue was slated to be demolished and so we thought that we were going to have to vacate. One of the things that’s really important to Vera is to be in a central location where people from all over the region can access us. That’s a little bit easier said than done. It’s really hard for a non-profit to find an affordable space in downtown Seattle. Our shows don’t make a whole bunch of money because we don’t have alcohol there and the ticket prices are intentionally affordable. So the Seattle Center offered us a space there, it’s this big conference room, a long-term lease, a really affordable price. It’s called the Snow Kwami Room. The Seattle Center is where the Space Needle is. It’s a big city-owned property where there’s a big basketball stadium, the Space Needle, the children’s museum, the science center, it’s one of those big huge fun municipal campuses. So it doesn’t really have the street cred a space in the middle of downtown would have but at the same time it’s still downtown Seattle, and it’s easy to get to, and the cool thing about it is we get to build up this conference room into our own space. We’ve gathered up a whole bunch of people to help us come up with concepts for it, and we’re working with architects and construction people to turn this huge 6,500-square foot conference room with linoleum floors and fluorescent lights into a venue and an art gallery, silkscreen studio, recording studio, all kinds of stuff. It’s going to be really nice. It’s very ambitious. But it’s also, in the 4th Avenue space, what I hear a lot from people who use it, is that once they had a place to call home, everything, all the opportunities expanded for everybody, no matter what they were interested in, it really did help for the Vera Project to expand. And so having a place where we can stay for a while and grow into it is going to really benefit a lot of people for a lot of years to come.
The shows, do you run them earlier than a show in a nightclub would be?
They usually start around 8pm and are done by midnight.
Not very often. Usually we’ll only do a weekend matinee if it’s a performance that we can’t get any other time that’s really exciting. It’s nice to have a nightlife for all-ages. It’s so important.
Urban kids don’t have garages. They NEED a place to go and play music and see music. It’s so important. It’s part of their culture. It’s so ridiculous for them not to be able to participate in it.
I think a big part of our success too is “No booze — no drugs — no assholes.” That really helps for the whole community to say, Yeah that place is okay. And the nonprofit model really helps too.