Michael Swier's Musical Manifest Destiny Reaches From the Bowery to Los Angeles
Michael Swier upstairs at the Bowery Ballroom
Nicole Fara Silver for the Village Voice
In the thirty years he's spent in the music business, Michael Swier has seen enough dirt, blood, sweat, and tears to coat the stages and floors of his venues twenty times over — and that includes his own.
In 1985, Swier opened his first bar — 2A in the East Village — and has been the roll-up-your-sleeves type from the get-go. Alongside his wife, Margaret, and his brother, Brian, an architect who would later design the Mercury Lounge, the Bowery Ballroom, and the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Swier wasn't just the boss at these performance spaces, but the one hammering nails, ripping out old boards, and emptying the gutted rooms of garbage before they were transformed into veritable rock establishments. The basement of the Bowery Ballroom, where a bar currently resides, was dug out by the bucketful in 1998. The Mercury Lounge was another D.I.Y. job, one that had its owners clearing the former tombstone shop of silt and the strewn-about leftovers of its past life before transforming the space into a rock 'n' roll hotbed in 1994.
This scene of sweat and toil is captured in one of Swier's favorite photos of his wife, snapped mid–Mercury Lounge gut-job. It serves not only as a reminder of Margaret's involvement in the beginnings of their business, but as a glimpse at the raw determination that would go on to forge some of the most respected listening rooms in the country.
"You build a new venue, and there are so many aspects of it — not just the nails or the design," he says. He's sitting upstairs at 2A, just a couple of blocks over from where that photo was taken and a few blocks farther from the Bowery Ballroom. "I have a picture of Margaret — I was telling Brian the other day — of her sitting on a dumpster that was parked in front of the Mercury Lounge when we were gutting it out. She was on top of it with a mask on, taking a break. We needed to do a lot of [the grunt work] ourselves. I look back fondly on those days in many ways."
To say that much has changed for Swier since that photo was taken would be an understatement. Swier has built an empire, and the latest addition to his growing family of venues is the Teragram, a glamorous theater in downtown Los Angeles that boasts the kind of superlative experience musicians and fans have come to expect from his New York establishments. And while the club is named for Margaret — "Teragram" is "Margaret" backwards — it is also, sadly, the first venture that Swier has opened without her. She died of breast cancer in 2009.
The customized, guitar-pick-printed Flavor Paper wallpaper at the Teragram
Renée McMahon for the Village Voice
"Bringing up Margaret — it's an odd reality to live through for me right now," he admits. He smiles when he says her name, a soft and somber reflex. "The void is very present. I'm aware of it. We didn't have children; these venues were our children, and this one in L.A. is a child. Whether it was taking on physical, financial stuff, whatever, she did anything she could do to help. Or just talking back and forth, the ideas going by — 'Should I do this? Does this make sense? This person said this, but what do you think?' — it's not there anymore. That is personally the hardest thing for me, just to do it, to live through it. It's pretty rough."
Following Margaret's death, Swier wasn't going to shows much at all, nor was he seriously considering opening another venue — certainly not one 3,000 miles from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In addition to grieving his own personal loss, the dust had only just settled on a major shake-up that changed the size and scope of his business.
In the fall of 2007, Bowery Presents — the promotional and venue management company Swier and Bowery talent buyer John Moore founded in 2004 — added two new properties. They converted the notorious West Side nightclub Last Exit into the multilevel concert hall Terminal 5 and completely renovated the former club Northsix, creating the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Just prior to that, Live Nation's Jim Glancy had joined the company as a principal partner. In addition to managing their own brick-and-mortar properties, they also began booking concerts at Webster Hall, the Beacon Theatre, Barclays Center, Madison Square Garden, and other stages around the Tri-State area, thus establishing Swier and the Bowery name as one of the most powerful musical entities in New York.
Swier has since sold his stake in Bowery Presents, along with his ownership of the Music Hall of Williamsburg and Terminal 5, a schism he reduces to the "different visions" he and Bowery Presents had for their endeavors. The Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom brought booking and promotional operations in-house, and the split is so amicable that Bowery Presents and the Mercury Lounge/Bowery Ballroom teams still coexist under the same roof. "We share offices with Bowery Presents," he says. "In doing so, everyone involved takes full advantage of the synergy in all aspects of promotions that have developed and worked so well over the years."
Opening an L.A. venue was never an idea he seriously entertained throughout these developments. Swier is a proud, self-described New Yorker, quite content with his Lower East Side venues. But opportunity knocked when a friend started bringing attractive West Coast properties to Swier's attention. And while looking at one property in particular, two and a half years ago, the future of the Teragram materialized before his eyes.
The bar at the Teragram features notable New York rock icons.
Renée McMahon for the Village Voice
"It unveiled itself as you walked by," he recalls. "It revealed every aspect of itself, which is the same feeling I felt with the Bowery Ballroom and the Mercury Lounge and the Music Hall of Williamsburg. You walk into a place, and it almost comes in front of you, what it's going to look like."
Swier believes the Teragram could be the best venue he's opened to date. He says the work he, Margaret, Brian, and the rest of the Bowery family have put into their venues culminates in this swanky spot on L.A.'s West 7th Street. It's a gorgeous, gleaming, and impeccably appointed club with eye-catching art deco detail. The space is adorned with custom wallpaper printed with guitar-pick tessellations and artisanal tiles and boasts a lighting setup that puts most arena shows to shame. Swier insists he isn't opening a "New York" room in L.A., but references to the Big Apple abound: The wallpaper came from Boerum Hill's haute wall-hanging outfitter Flavor Paper, and images of Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, and the Ramones are encased in glass behind the bar. It turns out you can take the New Yorker out of New York.
The sound quality is exquisite, there isn't a lousy view of the stage in the house, and, perhaps most importantly, the booking has been as much of an industry endorsement of Swier's enterprise as anything else. A day after playing to a sold-out crowd at L.A.'s Wiltern — a theater roughly three times the size of the Teragram, and just a short drive away — Spoon played the venue's first show just hours after the marquee was mounted over the door. Delta Spirit were there the following evening, presenting a "Friends of Delta Spirit" bill that featured members of Dawes and the Violent Femmes, who celebrated the occasion by hopping on the barely broken-in stage. These special shows — Spoon's major underplay and Delta Spirit's L.A.-scene powwow — were made possible because of the taste-making expertise of the venue's bookers, Scott Simoneaux of L.A.-based audio blog Aquarium Drunkard, and the Bowery Ballroom's own Johnny Beach. Between the ritzy digs, the standard-setting gear, the intensely pleasing aesthetics, and the sensational talent under the spotlights, Swier's Teragram not only meets his own high standards but redefines expectations for the industry at large.
"From the beginning, opening the Mercury Lounge, it was all about the stage and the music — for the band, for the people coming to see the bands," he says. "Whether it's the sound system, the acoustic treatment, the way the band sounds to themselves onstage, the sightlines — it was all about that. That reputation of building really good clubs and treating both bands and patrons with the respect they deserve and putting the focus on that kind of grew out of those things."
It's far from the spot where Margaret posed for that snapshot, but her presence — and Swier's legacy — will continue to thrive 3,000 miles away from their firmly planted roots.
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