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The Lowdown on Slowdown

Like the record label that spawned it, the key to the new venue's success depends on Nansel and Kulbel doing it "their way."
story by tim mcmahan
photos by paparazzi by appointment



Lazy-i: June 6, 2007

Slowdown opening weekend
June 8-9
729 N 14th S.
Doors @ 5 p.m.
$2 (each night)

Friday set times

7:00-7:30 Cap Gun Coup
8:00-8:30 Flowers Forever
9:00-9:30 Now, Archimedes!
10:00-10:30 Art in Manila
11:00-11:30 Domestica
12:00-12:30 Little Brazil

Saturday Set Times

8:00 Mal Madrigal
9:00 The Terminals
10:00 Ladyfinger
11:00 Bear Country
12:00 Neva Dinova

If Slowdown succeeds -- and it probably will -- it'll be because of the unique vision of owners/operators Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel.

Doing it Sinatra style -- their own way -- has always been their credo, sink or swim. They've been running Saddle Creek Records -- one of the country's most successful indie labels and home to Bright Eyes, The Faint and Cursive -- their way for more than a decade. For them, it's never been about The Benjamins, it's been about releasing CDs that they can be proud of, records that may or may not sell in the tens of thousands of copies, records by artists they like, with no regard to their commercial viability (though it helps if the artist is a friend of theirs).

With that philosophy, it comes as no surprise that Slowdown -- the 500-capacity bar/music venue that opens to the public Friday -- is the product of decisions that seem to fly in the face of conventional bar-owning wisdom.

Take the no-smoking policy -- a no-no that most bar owners insist is absolutely essential to attract a "regulars" crowd.

Then there's the club's all-ages access -- something that no other bar in town offers, assuming that the beer-drinking patron doesn't want to share a booth with a 12 year old.

Then there's the three most important words in real estate: Location, location, location. Slowdown is located only a block west of The Qwest Center -- home of UNO Maverick hockey, Creighton Blue Jay basketball, and various high school and NCAA sporting events. You'd assume the bar would tip its hat to the casual sports fans that will be driving past almost nightly on the way to the game.

Nope. In fact, glance along the club's shiny black-tiled walls or above the huge mirror-backed bar and you'll notice one thing missing that is a staple to every other lounge in Omaha: Television sets. There isn't a single TV in Slowdown. And if Nansel and Kulbel have it their way, there never will be.

Slowdown is a music-themed bar, not a place to watch the game. But even then, we're not talking about just any music. Ask almost any venue owner what they most want from live music and they'll say the same thing: They want bands that will draw the biggest crowd of booze-drinking fans. They could care less if they like the music or not.

Kulbel and Nansel, on the other hand, could care less about a band's drawing power as long as their music doesn't suck. In other words, there's a no-shitty-bands policy at Slowdown that applies to everyone, no matter how popular they may be.


A brief history

The idea for Slowdown goes back to the '90s, when Kulbel joined Nansel in Omaha not only to help run Saddle Creek Records, but also to operate an anticipated music venue/bar. For years the duo searched for the perfect location, but never found it. Meanwhile, Saddle Creek Records prospered. Bright Eyes, The Faint and Cursive all released records that topped 100,000 in sales. The roster continued to grow. And by 2001, Omaha was deemed "The New Seattle" by the nation's music media, with Saddle Creek Records acting as the city's Sub Pop. Every national music publication as well as mainstream print media from The New York Times to Time Magazine wrote features about the city's (seemingly) exploding indie music scene.

It wasn't until 2004 that Nansel and Kulbel found the location they'd been searching for, smack dab in the middle of midtown at 1528 N. Saddle Creek Road. The proposed facility not only would house a 400+ capacity music venue, but also would include the new offices of Saddle Creek Records. It was a perfect locale, with a number of the label's bands living within walking distance of the club. Unfortunately, the rest of the neighborhood was less than enamored with the idea and let Nansel and Kulbel know during a torch-carrying Metcalf Park neighborhood association meeting that might as well have ended with chants of "Crucify them! Crucify them!"

The project was dead, but only stayed dead for a few months. The City of Omaha knew a good idea when it saw one, and with the help of former Planning Director Bob Peters and planning department official Ken Johnson, a new location was found for the project in Omaha's North Downtown redevelopment district -- horribly nicknamed "NoDo" -- on a piece of property bound by 13th and 14th Sts., and Webster and Cuming Sts. The Slowdown project -- unveiled in the summer of 2005 -- not only would include a 500-capacity music hall/bar and the Saddle Creek Records offices and warehouse, but also a two-screen independent movie theater called Film Streams, coffee shop (The Blue Line), a restaurant (TBD), apartments and an Urban Outfitters clothing store.

Saddle Creek purchased the 35,000 sq. ft. property at $7 per sq. ft. -- a price that City Spokesman Joe Gudenrath said was established by a real estate appraisal. Financial incentives were offered through Tax Increment Financing -- or TIF -- a form of tax relief where any money used toward the purchase and public-benefit improvements can be offset in future taxes. Though the tractors began clearing the property in November 2005, actual construction didn't begin until September 2006. Now 10 months later, Slowdown is ready for business.

The walk-through

The facility is the epitome of modern design. The club itself has a sort of '70s strip-club flair, but in a deconstructed, minimalist sort of way. The operative word is "glossy" -- glossy poured concrete floors, glossy black tile walls, gloss black paint. A large mirror behind the bar reflects windows that make up the opposite wall. Stroll to the south end of the room and ramps lead downward to the sunken floor in front of the stage, all surrounded by rough, black wrought-iron railings. A metal tract along the ceiling divides the music hall from the bar. It feeds a series of panels that close off the hall from the rest of the bar when no big shows are scheduled for the evening.

The room's crowning glory, however, is an enormous stage backed by a wall of dark-blue curtains. Two arrays of speakers hang from the ceiling while a battery of subwoofers are hidden below the stage. Controlling it all is a massive sound and light board.

Sight-lines are unimpeded from any table in the bar (as long as you're not sitting behind a 7-foot freak). A brief test of the sound system (a track by My Morning Jacket) proved folks at the back of the room will get just as clean a sound as those on the main floor -- at least when the place is empty.

Above, balcony seating a la Minnesota's First Avenue is connected via catwalk to the artist Green Room behind the stage. Keep going back and you'll discover the Saddle Creek Records' warehouse and offices -- all on the second floor -- done up entirely in IKEA. The label staff moved into the new offices a week ago. A peek through a metal door and there's the warehouse down below, already chock full of T-shirts, CDs and assorted merch.

Back downstairs, the place looked ready for business -- from the sleek mahogany tables, to the glass overhead garage doors that pull back to reveal outdoor seating, to the black-and-white photo booth that sat near a stack of board games -- Life, Monopoly, Yahtzee. Over in the corner, Good Life drummer Roger Lewis studied an instruction manual trying to figure out how to get the new juke box to work.

"You want something to drink?" Nansel said from behind the bar. "I've got some warm tap water here."

He carried over three pint glasses of Omaha's finest and sat down beside Kulbel, while two curious cyclists peeked through the windows to see what was inside. Yes, everything was ready for Friday's opening, except for one tiny thing.

"We need liquor," Nansel said. "We still don't have our liquor license."

The club should already be open, Kulbel said, but their liquor license was delayed while they both underwent background checks. After that, they were told they had to get the fencing built around the outdoor seating area. "We'll have that buttoned up by Monday morning (June 4), and then they'll push the license through," Kulbel said. "With any luck, we'll be doing business on Friday."

















Sight-lines are unimpeded from any table in the bar (as long as you're not sitting behind a 7-foot freak).























"I guess I see The Waiting Room as a competitor, especially for the mid-200-size shows. But we can get along. We each can have enough shows to be happy. It'll be fine."


Dan, Val and Ryan

Nansel said Slowdown's sound system was inspired by the famous 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. "It's notorious for its sound," he said. "I called the guys there and asked for some sound advice. They said SoundCom out of Cleveland was their consultant. The company specked it all from the building plans, did a site visit, finalized the system and installed it last week."

Also consulting on the sound system was Slowdown's full-time soundman, Dan Brennan, who has toured with bands like Cursive and John Vanderslice. Nansel said his input went beyond sound to the many artist-friendly touches, like the conveniently located back stage load-in area, and a Green Room that includes a full bathroom with shower and clothes washer and dryer.

"I think the artist will appreciate the access to the stage," Kulbel said. "They can be separated from the crowd or go right out into it. Soundwise, there are eight monitor mixes -- a lot more monitor mixes than you would get at a club this size. It's all a reaction to what Dan's seen in other clubs and what other bands have told us they want."

Brennan is one of three salaried full-time Slowdown employees. Running the bar will be Ryan Palmer, an old acquaintance of Nansel's who used to work at Sullivan's before working at the downtown Hilton.

The third full-timer is Val Nelson, who's relocating to Omaha from Kalamazoo where she worked at indie club Kraftbrau Brewery. Nelson's primary responsibility is band hospitality -- making sure the bands get what they want -- as well as coordinating booking. "I think we first heard about Val through DB (Dan Brennan)," Kulbel said. "He met her on the John Vanderslice tour. They had a day off in Kalamazoo, and they hung out. Dan said she'd be great, and so did everyone we talked to. We flew her to Omaha, hung out with her for a couple days and hired her."

Nansel calls Nelson the club's "event coordinator," though booking won't be her primary responsibility. Though anyone can approach them about booking a show at Slowdown, Kulbel and Nansel will depend on One Percent Productions -- Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson -- to help funnel national acts to the club. One Percent has been booking the best rock shows in Omaha for more than a decade.

"But even if One Percent books 100 percent of our shows, we still need Val to make sure the bands are having a good time," Nansel said. "When Marc needs a hold, he'll send the date to her. If One Percent can't fill up our calendar, we can fall back on her to help book."

Since the Slowdown project was first announced, there have been questions about One Percent's role in the operations. Those questions became more pointed after Johnson and Leibowitz announced earlier this year they were opening their own music venue -- the 225-capacity Waiting Room in Benson. Weren't Nansel and Kulbel concerned about a possible conflict of interest from their primary booking agents?

"I guess I see The Waiting Room as a competitor, especially for the mid-200-size shows," Kulbel said, casually. "But we can get along. We each can have enough shows to be happy. It'll be fine."

Because of its state-of-the-art sound and other accoutrements, Slowdown's music hall might well be more expensive to book than other rooms around town. However, shows in the venue's small bar -- which has its own sound system -- will be comparable to any other club cost-wise.

But in contrast to The Waiting Room's crowded calendar, Nansel said the long-term plan is for Slowdown to host only two or three shows per week. "We want people to hang out here like it's a bar," he said. "That's how we're going to stay in business. We felt if we have any more than two or three shows a week, it starts to become a music venue. We don't want people to think of it as a music venue, but as a bar that hosts shows. If you have shows five or six nights a week, people are only going to come if there's a band they want to see. They don't want to pay a cover charge. Does anyone go to Sokol to have a casual drink?"



18 and under

So who is their target audience? Part of it is an all-ages clientele, and that includes patrons under the age of 18. Nansel said those over 21 will be given a wristband, while those under 21 will have their hands stamped.

"Being all-ages is an important part of our business plan," he said. "People under 21 go to shows. I was under 21 once and I went to shows, and I was really frustrated when I couldn't get in because of my age."

So, conceivably, you could see 12 year olds walking around the club on show nights. Still, the core target market is the people who frequent One Percent shows, buy Saddle Creek records and hang out at midtown bars like The Brothers.

"I wouldn't limit it to midtown," Kulbel said. "I'd limit it to Omaha, to kids that want to go to shows, people who like to listen to music and be at a bar. We'll also have DJ nights and stuff like that. It's not just rock shows."

"We're going to have some events -- some special, some not so special," Nansel said. "What kind of events, we don't really know yet. We might have a board game night. We'll probably have a pub quiz night. We're going to do things that people want."

Both say the club's future will be driven in part by patrons' input. An example of Slowdown's Glasnost policy is an online poll at their website ( that asks visitors, "Would you like Slowdown to be smoke-free?" As of this writing, 74 responded "yes," while 15 said "no." It helped sway the duo's decision.

"It's going to be smoke-free," Kulbel said. "The looming smoking ban was part of the decision (which goes into effect in 2011). If you smoked in here for four years, it would smell like a smoky rock club until the end of time. Health was part of it. Equipment wear and tear was part of it. We've been talking to people about this for a year, and generally speaking, they reacted the same way as the poll."

Both are aware of what happened at the old Music Box on 77th and Cass. The club opened smoke-free, but within a year, changed its policy to allow smoking. "That may happen to us, too," Kulbel said. "But these are different times than back then."

"It's all about what people want," Nansel added. "If it becomes obvious that a majority want smoking, we'll change our policy." He pointed to the other side of glass overhead doors. "These doors will be open, so if anyone wants to smoke they can just step outside."

One policy that isn't likely to change, however, is their approach to live music. Nansel and Kulbel make no bones about the type of music that will be heard at the club -- a style similar to the music they listen to every day. Examples can be seen in the first three shows booked for the venue: Built to Spill July 18, Silversun Pickups Aug. 1 and The Rentals Aug. 10. All three are or were indie bands.

That said, it doesn't matter if a band consistently draws huge crowds -- if they play a style of music that neither of them enjoy, you won't see them at Slowdown.

That unwritten policy also applies to local bands, which Nansel said are just as important to the club as national acts. "I think that we're out to represent a certain genre of music, multiple genres, actually," Nansel said. "And if there's a band in that genre that happens to be from Omaha, Nebraska, we'll want them to play here. We're just trying to have live music in the style we like. We want bands to play for 50 people in this room, and 500 people in that room.

"We want to create an environment where people know what to expect," Nansel added. "If you go to Chicago and walk into The Empty Bottle, you may not like the band, but it'll be interesting to you in some way. I want people to know what to expect when they come here."











"If you go to Chicago and walk into The Empty Bottle, you may not like the band, but it'll be interesting to you in some way. I want people to know what to expect when they come here."
















"It should be exciting, but getting it off the ground has been tough. I'm not trying to be a whiner, but it's super stressful and a ton of work. It's 12 hours a day of people constantly asking questions. It's crunch time, time to put it all on the line."



The Label Comes First

Amidst all this discussion is the question of how the club's success or failure could impact Saddle Creek Records -- the entity that made it all possible in the first place. Opening a club -- let alone an entire entertainment/retail complex -- is risky business. What if it doesn't work? Could its failure take the label down with it?

"It's a separate business," Kulbel said, explaining that the label's financials are isolated from Slowdown's financials. "There's overall risk in that if it went under for some reason we own it and things that go under affect you, obviously. I think we could always do something with this facility if for some reason it didn't work."

After years of wrangling with developers, businessmen and city agencies, Kulbel said he's ready to get out of the real estate business and get back to the business of running a record label. "The less work I can do involving real estate, the better. It sucks bad," he said. "Running a label is still fun, but I don't have as much time to do that these days.

"Over the course of a few months this went from being a rock club in midtown to owning a development downtown. The idea came pretty quick, getting comfortable with it took a year or so. Robb might have more real estate desires (laughs), but I have absolutely zero right now. This is the low point of it all. It should be exciting, but getting it off the ground has been tough. I'm not trying to be a whiner, but it's super stressful and a ton of work. It's 12 hours a day of people constantly asking questions. It's crunch time, time to put it all on the line."

So, is the label still the most important part of the Saddle Creek empire?

"That's why we have other people running this," Kulbel said. "I have a feeling I'll work here more than I want to, but I want to let other people run it and make decisions."

"The label is No. 1," Nansel added, "but I love the rock club, too. They're both priorities, but we're not neglecting the label, if that's what you're getting at. I can't imagine closing down the label and only sitting at the bar. We'd have to find something to do from nine to five, right? The bar doesn't open 'til four. And you don't want to be one of those guys that gets there right at four."


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Published in The Omaha Reader June 6, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
Photos © Paparazzi by Appointment, used by permission.