Factory Wages

Is New York’s most vital music venue suddenly gasping for breath? For many employees at the Knitting Factory, payroll has been late in every pay period since the beginning of September, and the September 15 checks bounced; some employees were given checks and asked not to cash them. KnitMedia impresario Michael Dorf claims he hasn’t drawn his own salary in five months, and says others have volunteered to wait. Senior managers are leaving, and many staffers at the Knit’s L.A. branch are mutinous. A brand-new webcasting studio in New York has been converted back into a performance space, and plans to open a third club in Berlin later this year are on hold.

“For a long time we were allowed to cash our checks at the bar from the register, but now we can’t,” says Jordan Worley, named three weeks ago in the Voice as New York’s Best Barback in a Music Club. “A lot of people who work here are squatters and anarchists, and they don’t have bank accounts.” “The Knitting Factory is a great company,” says a senior manager who wished to remain anonymous, “but it is unacceptable under any circumstances not to pay your employees.”

Former compatriot Kramer, who sold his Shimmy Disc label to the Knit in 1997 but retained the title of Shimmy Disc’s A&R director, says he’s “not sure the label exists anymore” and will soon sue to enforce the deal (Dorf says the label is “operating”).

The empty purse affects audiences and artists, too; refunds are still owed to some ticket holders from rained-out shows at the Knit’s four-city Bell Atlantic Jazz festival in June, and there were delays in paying performers. Switchboard staff describe angry calls from creditors fruitlessly circling the centrex; at various times last month the Leonard Street club ran out of cups, napkins, candles, merlot, and postage. For a few weeks, only three of the 18 taps in the basement Tap Bar were flowing.

“You couldn’t get a Jack and Coke,” says Glenn Max, the programming director. “I drank elsewhere. This is as bad as I’ve ever seen it, but I’ve seen it get pretty bad. I’ve seen the power turned off.” Performers at the club were never shorted; in keeping with the club’s long-standing policy, artists receive at least 70 percent of the gate (some receive a straight guarantee), although on a few nights managers had to dip into cash registers to settle up.

This should have been the Knit’s year: At the spiritual if not the geographical center of pre-crash millennial Alley fervor, the inventive Dorf was poised for world domination. “By leveraging content around our globally recognized brand name in the Knitting Factory club, we have consistently had strong gross margins across our multiple product lines,” crows the business plan posted on its Web site.

Many employees feel that Dorf bit off more than he could chew. Jennifer O’Connor was promotions manager for the club until she was laid off in July for financial reasons. “If there was less focus on how ‘smart’ the club is or how ‘connected’ or whatever the buzzword is this week, and more invested in the people who make the club what it is, there would be less of a cash flow problem,” she says.

Dorf attributes the financial crisis to a Bermuda Triangle of bad breaks. “Construction at the L.A. club went way over budget and delayed the opening. We lost money on the jazz festival. And we were relying on Internet money, parties, and sponsors, and in April that just dropped off the face of the earth.”

Back pay is now up to date, and Dorf says he will pay any fees incurred for bounced paychecks, but as of press time last week’s checks were three days late. At least one staffer was not surprised: “We’ve been lied to about that constantly.” In an e-mail to employees, he promises that come December, “I will certainly be making the rounds doing my jewish santa thing.”

The new hires in L.A. may not be willing to wait that long. Several employees staged a sick-out on Yom Kippur, the day before a party for publicists, and returned to work when Dorf promised to pay them by the end of the week.

The L.A. club cost Dorf $5 million in venture capital, and looks it, once you find the entrance (it’s hidden away in a mall on Hollywood Boulevard, with frontage on a side street). The 459-occupancy main room feels like a TV studio, with shiny wood floors and a soothing gray carpet in the expansive balcony. There’s a smaller “AlterKnit” space for work more in tune with the Knitting Factory’s “brand,” and a Melrose-esque restaurant serving $9.50 burgers. Staff say business has picked up steadily since the club finally opened on August 11.

“In New York, if you don’t have all your approvals you can open but you can’t sell liquor,” says Max. “You can’t do that in L.A. Everything goes by the book.” The 10-week delay forced Max to cancel an opening round of heavy hitters like Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, and Diamanda Galas; the club paid cancellation fees to artists but not the staff, and key employees walked. Max scaled back his booking ambitions until he was sure the club could open, and so far only three shows have sold out.

“The Hollywood club is exactly like New York has always been: We are short-staffed, and people are underpaid for doing a lot of great work,” says Dorf, who has operated the Knit on a shoestring since 1987, when he opened the first club in a walk-up on East Houston and slept on the floor. He relies on his partnerships with sponsors (including the Voice); after the club moved to Leonard Street, he bartered advertising for a sound system. But he admits that the Hollywood club has been a “very-difficult-to-survive project.”

Max isn’t worried. “We have a real business; we’re not like all those dotcoms. We sell beer here,” he says. “In fact, we’ll sell more in L.A. this weekend than in New York.” —Josh Goldfein

Heart Failed (in the Back of Bowery Ballroom)

Last time they toured, cosmopolitan pop’s most enduring mod squad, Saint Etienne, were promoting 1998’s Good Humor, which they’d recorded with the Cardigans’ producer and Swedish session musicians. The songs’ suspicious Ikea finish fell away on stage, along with all misgivings. Point taken: Sheer pop wonderment wins every time. Still, in theory, the London trio had a bigger obstacle to surmount at Bowery Ballroom October 7. Their giddy, intertextual art-disco emulsifies into an ambient balm on Sound of Water (Sub Pop), the obsessively textural new record (filigreed arrangements by German minimalists To Rococo Rot) that, appropriately enough, ripples, gurgles, cascades, and, in its most rhapsodic moments, bubbles over like an inviting warm bath.

Needless to say, this could mean a cold shower live, where the Etienne experience of pretty/sad hook-driven rapture is necessarily at its most primal. But a decade of tireless self-renewal has taught these pop theorists the odd lesson in showmanship, and there’s no overstating the in-person charms of hair-flipping chanteuse Sarah Cracknell. Evoking Dusty or Petula one minute, Brigitte Bardot or Debbie Harry the next, Cracknell supplements her all-purpose blond-diva aplomb with a wistful, compassionate delivery that extends to relaxed bonhomie on stage (meanwhile the two furiously interacting backing singers looked like escapees from some drunken karaoke night). With an animated Pete Wiggs manning a bank of keyboards (third member Bob Stanley generally stays home) and a supertight band in tow, the Saints cherry-picked the more song-like of the new songs—”Heart Failed (in the Back of a Taxi),” “Boy Is Crying”—and added club-friendly emphasis. The real point of the night, though, was the dazzling breadth of the back catalog: Good Humor‘s one-two punch, the amusingly calm sister catfight “Sylvie” and the poignant, anticipatory pre-night-out anthem “Erica America,” already seems classic. Is it possible not to be moved by a set that includes the best Neil Young cover ever (“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”) and the best (not to mention best-titled) Kraftwerk homage ever (“Like a Motorway”)?

They saved their newest, perhaps most amazing stunt for last, closing with Sound of Water‘s psychotically ambitious “How We Used to Live,” a sprawling nine-minute panorama that progresses, with increasing improbability and virtuosity, from orchestral ballad to spangled disco to jazzy shuffle. The encore was never in question—a riot would likely have erupted if they’d left without playing “He’s on the Phone,” the 1995 semiflop (available only on U.K.-import singles-comp Too Young to Die) since reclaimed by fans, various remixers, and the band itself as the monster hi-NRG classic it always was. It’s a testament to Saint Etienne’s all-conquering pure-pop sensibility that they’ve adopted it as their requisite grand finale—maybe not since “Dancing Queen” has a song been so blissfully drunk on its own transcendence. Pop will get off on itself. —Dennis Lim