The best things in life are often utterly simple. Example: Good music at a fair price in a cool space. This is the philosophy PopGun Presents founders Jake Rosenthal and Rami Haykal operate by. The duo launched PopGun during their senior year of college as a way of bringing together their favorite bands and supporting a burgeoning local music scene, a passion project that has since become their livelihood. In 2009 PopGun began booking at Glasslands Gallery, a former warehouse in the shadow of the abandoned Diamond Sugar factory on the then-derelict Williamsburg waterfront. Within a few short years, Jake and Rami’s willingness to take chances on under the radar artists transformed the venue into a cornerstone of the New York indie scene and a must-stop for discovering great new music. Now owners of Glasslands, Jake and Rami continue to toil into the late hours tracking down new bands and making sure the party never ends.
We dropped by PopGun’s offices, nestled in the brick caverns of Glasslands, and chatted with Jake and Rami about curating shows, soothing tunes, and the perils of running a DIY space.
You started PopGun Presents when you were still in college. What were some of your founding principles?
Jake: I’m not sure that when we first started doing shows there were any founding principles, other than the feeling that it was more fun than whatever else we were doing. I don’t think college students think about principles. Or I definitely wasn’t. At that time there were a ton of one-off parties happening in lofts and backyard lots and warehouses in Brooklyn. Those kinds of parties are still happening of course but there was something frantic and communal about that time period. I think most of the promoters that are doing their thing now in Brooklyn whether it’s with rock or dance or hardcore connected with the energy of those parties at that time. So I just wanted our shows and parties to be fun, and we wanted to have fun. We were only two people then, so anything that PopGun was at that time was just our own personal principles: treat people with respect, be honest with people, try your best. All the normal stuff.
Before PopGun acquired the space, Glasslands Gallery was your go-to venue and a place for you to experiment with new ideas. What are some of the lessons you learned from running a DIY space?
Jake: We were booking all the music at Glasslands for about three years before we took over the space. When we took it over, we pretty much flipped a coin and decided that I’d be the general manager from now on and Rami would continue on as the booker. We figured there were two jobs and two people so that made sense, but turns out there’s a lot more jobs. Oops. We were pretty naive. So for a couple years we felt our way through being bookkeepers and bar managers and plumbers and whatever else had to get done so that we could open the doors and have a show.
Rami: You never know what to expect whenever a night is booked, which makes it so you need to be on call all the time and always be quick to answer people. My day typically starts at 8 a.m., which is when I’m able to listen to a lot of new music and reach out to acts I’ve been meaning to book for a while. After 11, it all becomes a scramble of dealing with lots of email threads involving negotiations with agents, show confirmations, show cancellations (bummer vibes) and tons of promotional work. The show cancellations always suck, especially when they’re last minute. You have to find something quickly to avoid going dark. As the afternoon rolls in there can be a bunch of last minute changes, bands delayed, and guest list stuff to sort out. It’s definitely hard to find the time after an early start to quickly re-energize and be at the show to finally see everything happen. Attending the event you put together ends up being (most of the time) the funnest part. Our venue staff is always great at helping out and making things enjoyable for everyone involved in the show.
Jake: The biggest lesson then is that everything is always your problem when you run a DIY spot. When the sink breaks, that’s your problem. When the delivery doesn’t show up, that’s your problem. When the health department shows up at 3:00 a.m. on a night you’re off, it’s not your off-night anymore. I really do like it that way though. On a practical level, I can repair drywall and troubleshoot electrical problems now. We eventually got to the place where we could hire the staff we really needed to help us out with all these jobs and it’s a great staff. It’s a dream team. It’s the Harlem Globetrotters of venue staffs, and I’m thankful every day for the people we work with. For real.
Glasslands’ reputation for taking chances and finding new bands has transformed it from a converted warehouse to one of New York’s premier indie venues. What do you look for in the artists that you book?
Rami: We are always on the lookout for new music and tend to reach out far in advance to international and national acts who have any tracks we enjoy. We let them know that we’d love to host any of their upcoming shows in New York and try to pair them up with other acts whose musical genre makes most sense. A lot of these shows end up being special as they they take several years to happen.
Jake: Mainly we look for music that we want to listen to. It’s really hard to book artists that you wouldn’t want to listen to at home. My favorite kind of show is when we get to present an artist in Brooklyn that we’re excited about that has never had the chance to play in the U.S. before. The energy of those nights is great.
You guys spend your days booking acts and your nights running shows. What do you listen to for R&R?
Rami: I’ve been listening to the German composer Nils Frahm lately. It’s very soothing and calming piano music. Good way to really turn off thoughts. In my spare time I do find myself listening to Deerhunter’s Monomania, Jon Hopkins’s Immunity, and Stay Positive before going out. I also really find myself enjoying a lot of Manu Chao/Mano Negra’s tracks when I’m looking to just kick back.
Jake: If I’m not trying to discover new music but just listen to favorites, it depends on the mood. Lately when I’m trying to relax I’ve been listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Tallest Man on Earth’s The Wild Hunt, Antony & The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now, and The Durutti Column. The new Darkside album is amazing too. For uptempo moods: Fela Kuti, especially the earlier really structured, poppy, highlife songs are fun, Kendrick Lamar, the classic Outkast albums for all moods. That’s what my Spotify history tells me.
What are some of your favorite new artists? Who should we be on the lookout for in 2014?
Rami: Forest Swords, Drenge, Toy, Angel Olsen, Roosevelt, Fka Twigs, Say Lou Lou, Jungle, Tove Lo, Lo Fang. Most of these acts will probably touring through the U.S. around March and April.
Photos by Elizabeth Crawford