While putting together the Jam Room Music Festival, Jay Matheson came across an old poster from Rockafellas’, the former Five Points rock club that became the city’s prominent venue almost three decades ago.
The weekly schedule featured Matheson’s band at the time, Bachelors of Art, playing on a Saturday. A band working its way up the local food chain, Hootie & The Blowfish, was playing on Wednesday that week years back.
“They had a great business plan,” Matheson said of Hootie, chuckling. “We thought we were just going to play music and get somewhere.”
Even though Matheson didn’t release a record that sold 16 million copies like Hootie’s “Cracked Rear View,” he has gotten somewhere by recording local and national bands at the Jam Room. The studio, located for much of its existence on Rosewood Drive, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The party for the 15th anniversary was a string of outdoor concerts at Art Bar. For the 20th, there were shows at New Brookland Tavern and the 5 Points Pub.
The 25th is something much larger.
“I had envisioned something kind of similar to the earlier St. Patrick’s Day Festivals, which were three or four stages — kind of what was at (the recent) Viva La Vista — small stages and a lot of local and regional bands,” said Matheson, the South Carolina native who graduated from USC in 1982.
And admission is free.
“And we’re doing it on Main Street,” said Matheson, who received $25,000 from the City of Columbia.
The festival, which Matheson said was organized with help by others including Steve Gibson, Bruce Crouch, Dave Britt, Michael Miller and ACS Sound and Lighting, will feature two stages. The out-of-town headliners include Dead Confederate, The Woggles, Justin Townes Earle and The Hold Steady.
We talked to Matheson about establishing a festival in a city that isn’t known for supporting outdoor music events en masse other than St. Pat’s in Five Points, cycling and 25 years of recording, among other things. Matheson might not be a ramblin’ man in the sense of the Allman Brothers’ popular ’70s song, but get him talking, and he’ll tramp all over the place.
Has this festival idea gotten crazy yet?
It’s been crazy for months. This has really taken up a lot of time that I would have liked to have been devoting...working on business. Just organizational stuff around here. You know, being a first-time thing, it’s just taken a disproportionately long time to do everything.
It seems with this festival that you’re trying to introduce Main Street to new people.
We have a different agenda. We just want people to come and think Columbia’s a great place to be. We want to show our appreciation to the city for having a place where we can do business. We feel like the current administration of the city is open to partnering with people to do forward moving things like this.
Why make such a big deal about cycling?
Riding your bike to the thing is like voting. If you’ve got 600 cyclists in downtown Columbia, the mayor and city of Columbia is going to go, ‘Wow, we really have to get our butts on the whole greenway thing.’ I just traveled to Greenville just to ride on their greenway. When I went to Greenville, I spent $200 to spend the night and eat there. The reason I started biking was sitting (in the studio) all the time, I started getting back problems.
There seems to be so much involved with the festival — from partnering with the Nickelodeon to show the documentary on the studio to working with the city — that it seems to be about more than music.
It’s a community thing. I think we really got a good thing going on. I envision us having an old car and trying to push it up a hill. We all need to get behind and push it or it’s going to roll back down over us.
What is the key to longevity? Twenty-five years is a long time to be operating a business.
The biggest was surviving when it transitioned to the home recording thing. There was an art to making a record, and that’s what we learned how to do here. And now, there’s a whole new art to home recording. But it’s two different arts. And D.I.Y., in my opinion, is driven by the manufacturers of the tools to do the D.I.Y.-ing with. Another thing is the decline of the CD. The rise of vinyl is helping that somewhat, but a lot of people can’t afford to do vinyl. Of course, we got more diverse and that was the key.
You’re still producing big records here. And one of your new in-house producers, Phillip Cope, has made records for Baroness, Kylesa and Dark Castle. (FatRat Da Czar and Jamey Rogers are producers who have also joined the staff recently.)
What’s really the big deal, and we haven’t had a lot of time to publicize because of all the noise of the festival, is that Phillip Cope’s moved to Columbia. He exclusively does his projects here. He’s starting to mentor a lot of the young bands around here, which is really big. He is a very wise dude.
The Jam Room’s doors are seemingly open to anyone.
Anybody can afford to record here. The only reason why some people don’t is because they just don’t call us and talk about it. We still record local bands, but there’s a lot that never come to look at the studio, never come to talk to us and then you hear these recordings on the radio. We like to think the bands that we work with are much more likely to get signed.
You’ve mentioned that it was the experimentation done by punk bands in the early ’90s such as IN/Humanity, which was fronted by the irrepressible Chris Bickel, that really made the recording studio explode.
IN/Humanity was one of my biggest clients in the early days. They had a really big demand for their music. People basically heard that and said, ‘If I want true control of my own creativity, I’ll go to the Jam Room.’ This off-the-wall brand of music just flourished and it all came here because they know I didn’t give a (crap) what anybody did. We were just doing this crazy stuff. The stuff is just unbelievably chaotic.
Is that why you opened Midlands Audio Institute in 2004, so people could produce their own chaos?
It seemed to me there was a void of places for anybody to learn about audio. We just teach classes for Midlands Tech, and we do a certificate program for them. I just do it because there was pure lack of opportunity for anybody around here to learn anything like that. People are always calling wanting to talk on the phone. You can’t tell anybody on the phone. It’s too much to know, so I now I teach in a proper classroom environment.
Local festivals have been knocked for featuring too many nostalgic bands. What were directives you set forth in planning this one?
We wanted stuff that was current, for sure. Just because it’s the 25th anniversary, we don’t want to live in the past. The past is handled by the documentary and the 300-song comp. We’ve got to go with the future.
There is some doubt that music festivals not built around food and pseudo holidays can work here.
We want to show that something like this can work. And it can be well done. Columbia used to be a destination for bands if you were coming down the East Coast.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.