Mike Cracchiolo of the Firebird, a premiere rock music venue in Midtown, has come across a variety of bands in the course of his duties as owner and talent booker. They’ve varied in temperament: funny and humble, obstinate and demanding. “Panic! At The Disco–they were totally rad. Their lead singer took a picture with my dog and put it on Instagram–700 teenage girls now follow my wife’s Instagram,” he says. His wife, a DJ who occasionally tends bar at the Firebird, talked to their lead singer for several minutes without realizing it. “She was like, ‘Are you–are you with the band?’ He’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m the lead singer.’ You know–just a regular dude,” Cracchiolo recalls.
Bands often insert jokes into their “riders,” or lists of amenities and tech necessities for each show. Among the requests have been: socks and underwear, organic produce, a piñata, and a unicorn. “We had a band ask for strippers. I almost got them–the strip clubs are right across the river–just because I wanted to call their bluff. The tour manager’s like, ‘I just started working with them, it’s day three of the tour. Let’s not do that,’” Cracchiolo remembers, laughing. “This is a tough business. You get beat up a lot. If a band has a bad show because they were hungover, or their sound guy was terrible, or whatever, there’s always the possibility that the fans will say, ‘That venue sucks.’”
One day, one of Cracchiolo’s friends, a sound technician for Interpol, told him the band was in St. Louis for a few days. The lead singer, Paul Banks, needed a space to rehearse some demos he’d been working on, and Cracchiolo immediately offered up a practice space at the Firebird. Interpol is his all-time favorite band, and he still remembers picking up Banks from the hotel. “He was probably the only person I’ve been a little bit starstruck about,” he says. “He was incredibly nice–incredibly nice. He’s a guy who blew up really fast, was drinking and partying a lot, living that lifestyle, and now he’s sober. I think he’s trying to quit smoking–all he does is drink coffee and smoke. He’s grown up a lot over the course of all that.”
As a former touring musician himself, Cracchiolo remembers the agonizing monotony that often plagues bands during the day. “Boredom is maybe the worst thing about touring. And I’ve done just enough to know what it’s like,” he says. “On one hand, you’re like this exalted God-like figure to these kids and music lovers who connect with your music, and on the other hand you’re like a homeless person. You have nothing–you’re never home, you’re always transient.”
Although Cracchiolo is still an avid music lover, he doesn’t go to shows much anymore. When he does, he’ll drive to Kansas City or Lawrence, hovering around the outskirts of St. Louis, his hometown. “I’m pretty domesticated at this point. If I have free time, I try to spend it with my wife … this job has sort of beat the going out impulse out of me. I don’t really drink anymore.” Both a vocalist and a bassist, he began singing in school musicals. “Believe it or not–I did learn to sing because of it, correctly.”
Cracchiolo has also been in a smattering of local bands and has always viewed songwriting as one of the most effective forms of therapy. What has he written about? “Dumb stuff,” he says. “I wrote about–I wrote a lot about relationships. Not just about romantic ones. Friendships, conflicts. I’m a pretty angry dude, I guess. I wrote about things that made me sad. I wrote songs because it was cathartic. I was never particularly proud of my lyrics.” False Moves, the second band he started, performed regularly at the Firebird. During one performance, from behind an eerie curtain of unlit black, Cracchiolo’s voice spears through the darkness: “You can turn the lights way down for this one. Or you can turn them all blue. Turn them all blue, there you go. Imagine, you’re floating with us in the cosmos. In the deepest recesses of out-ter space.” Ambient bass and guitar come alive in the background, and Cracchiolo’s willowy vocals ring out. False Moves also spent an evening at the Firebird playing covers of songs by Interpol, during which Cracchiolo emerged from the darkly lit stage in sunglasses and an argyle sweater vest singing “Untitled,” the lead track from “Turn on the Bright Lights,” which came out in 2002.
His wife, a DJ, is also an Interpol fan–which was one of the reasons they were interested in meeting. They met online, and have been together since their first date. “I don’t think I knew she was ‘The One,’ or anything like that when we first started dating. We just never stopped,” he says. “I’ve never been good at dating. You know what I mean? I’m kind of a weird, particular dude. I don’t find it super easy to relate to people right off the bat–I’m not really a believer in instant chemistry.” On his honeymoon in Cambodia, he lost his wedding ring in a swimming pool and didn’t realize it was gone until he’d returned to the hotel. He hasn’t gotten around to buying another one since. “I find that I start talking about my wife more in conversation a lot more to make up for it. I’m sure it bothers her, whereas with me it’s just something that I keep forgetting.”
Cracchiolo likens a successful band to a successful polygamous marriage–he has seen the dynamic when it works well, and when it doesn’t. One band he was in, called The Bureau, succeeded as a touring act but went through three guitarists, two keyboard players, and two drummers. “None of them felt ownership of it,” he says of his bandmates. “When I was younger, I definitely had an ego. Like, ‘Oh, I could write something better.’” He’s hopeful to have matured since those days. “You get older–you realize it’s silly to be a jerk, I guess. I’m still working on it.”
The Firebird came together through a collaborative effort and three partners: Tom Moslander, Jimmy Vavak, and Cracchiolo. “I’m trying to think of how to organize this tale–I’ve told it like 15 times,” says Cracchiolo. “We’re just the middlemen. Really, it’s about the artists’ connection to their fans.” Seven years ago, when the Hi-Pointe, the Rocket Bar, The Galaxy, and the old Creepy Crawl location were the main rock venues in town, Cracchiolo was playing with a drummer who had access to a free practice space, in the top floor of what would eventually become the Firebird.
File cabinets containing thick stacks of papers and documents have since expanded outward and taken up most of the room where they used to practice. “We went to make a record and ended up needing a spot to do some overdubs and stuff like that, so James, the drummer, suggested downstairs,” Cracchiolo remembers. The space used to house an outpatient diagnostic clinic, “SSM Network, or something,” but was just an empty office space at the time–perfect for additional recording work. “I actually sang most of the vocals for that record in what is now the men’s room at the Firebird,” says Cracchiolo. Vavak dropped by during one of their recording sessions, and suggested they transform it into a live concert space.
In the wake of a lofty idea, with no money, something remarkable happened: the landlord demolished a large wall that divided the downstairs space, set up a makeshift bar, and began booking cover bands on weekends to play. “There was a bunch of old furniture and house plants and stuff–really kind of a strange vibe,” says Cracchiolo. He then offered to book bands for the landlord, and together they built a stage, brought in a PA system, and painted the walls royal blue, with a grey ceiling. It became known as the Bluebird, and they bootstrapped everything for a year and seven months. “Mostly my money was driving the booking. I had a day job at the time too and was paying out of pocket to make sure we could cover guarantees,” says Cracchiolo. At the time there weren’t many places for rock bands to play in St. Louis, so the competition was low. Now, he’s been booking bands for almost eight years. “Running live music is a lot of hassle. If you don’t love it, it’s not going to be worth it.”
While Cracchiolo is well-traveled, he has never lived anywhere for an extended period of time besides St. Louis. “Up until my mid-twenties, all I ever heard was how lame St. Louis was.” Born and raised in South City, he wanted to see his hometown succeed. “I always resented those people that said, ‘I’m going to leave St. Louis because nothing’s happening here.’ I was like, ‘Screw that. I’m going to stay here and try to change it. For a long time, I thought that it was always going to be a pointless struggle, that you couldn’t change St. Louis. And then it did change.” Cracchiolo saw a vacant niche for music. “It was the chance to be a big fish in a small pond. There was a need here. Not to say that I’m necessarily a big fish–but my goals were attainable here.”
The first show he ever went to see was The Dead Milkmen, an older punk band, at Mississippi Nights. “They’re super weird, very funny–very, kind of, irreverent.” People liked them because they were funny, and Cracchiolo liked them because he was awestruck by their music. Their bass player, Dave Schulthise, had a strong influence on him. Cracchiolo’s cousin wrote a fan letter to Schulthise, who responded back to her. “She still has the letter he wrote. It was the sweetest thank-you letter ever.” On March 10, 2004, Schulthise committed suicide by drug overdose at the age of 47. “Really–sad. Really sad, sad day when that happened.” Cracchiolo gave up hope The Dead Milkmen would ever get back together and tour again. They ultimately reunited after a 13-year hiatus, and he was able to book them to play at the Firebird last year. “They hadn’t been here since the 90’s,” he says. “There are a handful of acts where I’ll see them play, and it’s like a religious experience.” He booked them right around the time he met Paul Banks, and remembers tweeting: “I don’t who’s more excited: 15-year-old me that The Dead Milkmen are playing my room, or the 25-year-old me that I just met Paul Banks.”
His own music has continued to become harder to maintain. “Even as a teenager, I was always sort of realistic–I wanted to do it because it was cool. I wanted to be like those guys I admired,” he says. “Call it a lack of confidence, but ultimately–no matter how good you are, it’s still playing the lottery. I think on some level I knew I was never going to be good enough, but I got to play at it for awhile.” He got to see what is was like to be on stage, to feel the electricity of the instrument, the microphone millimeters away. “A lot of people would love to just get that far and never do.”
“You asked why I’d never moved,” he suddenly says. “I think the answer I gave you, while true–it’s more of something I’ve learned to be true, and I didn’t know that at the beginning … St. Louis needed someone to make stuff happen–it needed a lot of people. And now it has a lot of people.” As the Bluebird grew, the informal agreement between Cracchiolo and the landlord proved too haphazard. Cracchiolo wanted to expand further and do more national, touring shows. “Five years ago, people were complaining about how there were never any good shows here.” While Cracchiolo discovered a clear demand for exactly the kind of venue he hoped to build, lack of capital was still an obstacle. He later connected with Tom Moslander, who had managed the Creepy Crawl for over a decade, and was looking to invest in a new venue. ‘“Do you think the guy would rent?’” Moslander asked of the landlord, surveying the premises one day with Cracchiolo. “‘I said, ‘If we had money, yes.’”
“‘Well, I’ve got some money,’” Moslander responded.
Cracchiolo matched Moslander’s funding and they reopened as the Firebird just a few weeks later. Their last show as the Bluebird was The Republic Tigers from Kansas City on January 17th, 2009, and the Firebird recently had their five-year anniversary in February. Since then, they’ve had hundreds of acts come through: All Time Low, Three Days Grace, and Gaslight Anthem, to name a few. Veruca Salt and Tyler Ward are coming up this month. “[Three Days Grace] is a Pageant sell-out show every time, and they wanted to do a small club,” says Cracchiolo.
“Unless you’re one of the lucky ones and the radio decides you’re the next big thing, you’ve got years of slogging it out and hoping and trying.” They had early shows for Delta Spirit and Phantogram, and Imagine Dragons played a show to under 100 people, with two local bands. “You get to see these bands before anybody cares about them.” Within a year, Imagine Dragons was selling out The Pageant, and then the Verizon Ampitheater. “Some people are going to walk into the Firebird and say, ‘This place is a dump.’” But when the opportunity to take a raise, a vacation, or fix up his apartment arises, “more times than not, we’ve put that money back into the business,” he says. “And people are never going to see that.”
“I’m not getting any younger–if it was about the money, there’s no way I would do it. ‘Oh, you own a bar. You must be rich.’ I am not rich. I’ve lived in the same small apartment for 10 years. I drive a beat-up Honda. I don’t live beyond my means,” says Cracchiolo. Last night he had to settle a show and didn’t make it to bed before the early hours of this morning. “I’m not trying to live forever, but at the same time, I don’t want stress to be a factor when I finally kick off … I don’t want to die of a broken heart because I couldn’t put away my MacBook.”
For more information about Mike Cracchiolo and the Firebird, visit www.firebirdstl.com.