By Elly Rifkin
It’s midnight on a rainy October Thursday. In Smart Bar’s dimly lit back room there is a small crowd of music lovers surrounding the DJ booth, bobbing their heads to Jeff Pietro’s cerebral, bass-heavy dubstep set. Standing in the DJ booth beside Pietro is a tall and handsome bald man with glasses working the club’s lighting board, smiling ear to ear. This man is Nate Seider, Smart Bar’s new music director and talent buyer.
The following night, Seider arrives at Smart Bar at 8:30pm to do a soundcheck. He runs to the DJ booth with an arm full of cables to set up Curtis Jones’ elaborate table of gear for his Green Velvet live set. Seider inspects the equipment and discusses the evening’s performance with Jones and company as they listen to a CD with some new Green Velvet tracks. Seider closed up shop around 4am the night before and just put in a full day at the office, but shows no sign of sleep deprivation. In just a few hours, the club will be packed with people, and he is clearly brimming with anticipation.
Saturday night around 3:45am and UK DJ Ben Watt is finishing up his set. Smart Bar isn’t always at its busiest between 3:00am and 5:00am, but you can be sure that the most zealous fans of the closing DJ will be there, cheering and dancing until the obligatory “encore track” is dropped. The lights go on, Ben Watt gets a round of applause, patrons drag their weary bodies out the door, and Seider waves goodbye to the staff so he can drive Watt to his hotel. But his weekend still isn’t over. He’ll be back the following night for the monthly “Synthetic” party to do it all over again.
You might picture a club talent buyer sitting in his office, gabbing on his cell phone with agents and artists. While Seider can be found in the Smart Bar office five days a week, emailing and talking with agents and artists every day, his job entails far more than booking talent and acting as a music-industry travel agent. Seider plays the roles of sound tech, lighting tech, manager, artist liaison, event promoter and gracious party host every Wednesday through Sunday night.
Since it opened in 1982, Smart Bar has been unequaled in its commitment to dance music and DJ culture. Perhaps the only 100-percent music-driven club of its kind left in Chicago, the beloved basement room still remains ahead of the nightlife pack when it comes to the variety and quality of both international and local DJ talent and continues to thrive based purely on its reputation for cutting-edge music.
Smart Bar doesn’t care about what you’re wearing. It doesn’t have a VIP section. It doesn’t have a bathroom attendant to hand you paper towels or sell you fragrances and breath mints. At Smart Bar, everyone is treated equally, everyone is welcome, and—most importantly—nearly everyone goes there to hear good music and dance. While the club has gone through some transformations since its inception—a 2006 redesign and the addition of an impressive Funktion One sound system, for starters—it hasn’t lost much of its underground appeal or intimate atmosphere.
Much like world-renowned clubs such as Fabric in London or Fuse in Brussels, Smart Bar tends to bring out the best in most DJs. Reflecting on my own experiences DJing at Smart Bar, performing for an attentive, musically knowledgeable audience in an intimate space with a good sound system allows for more musical freedom and experimentation. Local DJs and international superstars alike recognize Smart Bar as an institution. Some DJs choose to play there exclusively when they visit Chicago.
Thanks to owner Joe Shanahan, Smart Bar, like its upstairs neighbor Metro, has remained a place to help local talent grow and develop. He asserts, “That’s our mission. To stay committed to the emerging artist.” Look no further than Smart Bar’s roster of resident DJs (all current or former Chicago residents) to see how the club has helped local DJ talent grow their careers. This exclusive group includes Colette, DJ Heather, Miles Maeda, Kaskade, Justin Long and recent addition Chris Santiago.
Naturally, the longevity of an award-winning, music-driven nightclub is heavily dependent on the work of exceptional music directors/talent buyers. Shanahan’s criteria for hiring a music director includes “a love of all types of music—not just electronic music—and the ability to be part of a team.” He adds, “A big part of it is to be organized. This person is dealing with tons of calendars, agents and artists all year long.”
At the beginning of October, Shanahan hired local DJ, event promoter and Bad Advice Music label boss Nate Seider (aka Nate Manic) to take over music director/talent buyer duties. Shanahan couldn’t be more excited about Seider joining his staff, but also admits, “He has some formidable, large shoes to fill.” Those shoes belong to James Amato.
In the fall of 2006, Smart Bar’s then-music director Brad Owen had been offered a new job at a booking agency. Meanwhile, club owner/promoter and DJ James Amato had just sold his venue Mantra Lounge in Milwaukee. Brad Owen recommended Amato as one possible replacement. Besides club ownership, Amato had plenty of experience working with several Milwaukee music venues and promotions companies in graphic design, marketing, event coordination and artist hospitality. This made Amato an ideal music director/talent buyer at Smart Bar. As Shanahan points out, the person hired for the job does much more than book the talent. The music director position entails “wearing many different hats.”
Amato always felt a connection to Chicago as he cultivated his love of electronic-music and DJing as a teenager. While other Milwaukee kids were attending the legendary Drop Bass raves in rural areas of Wisconsin, Amato “grew up going to rave parties in Chicago every weekend” to get his house-music fix. “The Drop Bass parties kinda scared me, “ he laughs. “I was more of a house head than a techno kid.”
As far as his current musical preferences are concerned, Amato says, “I’ve got my favorite sounds, but as a promoter I try to be very open and book all kinds of music. Brad Owen maybe focused a little bit more on the techno side, but also booked a lot of different genres [at Smart Bar].” As Shanahan points out, “There’s a blueprint [for the job], but everybody improves upon it. You have to have your own spin on it.”
Amato recalls, “My first night I worked at Smart Bar, it was a Thursday, and I had to pick up these two French guys at the airport and I had no clue who they were.” As it turns out, this night was the first time that the electronic duo Justice DJed in Chicago. “To watch [Justice] go from bringing in 120 people on a Thursday, to 600 people on a Friday, to selling out Metro on a weekend, to see them go to the Riv and then the Congress… it was the perfect example of a genre of music that I would not have had the opportunity to work with in Milwaukee.”
During Amato’s three-year tenure as Smart Bar’s music director, he aimed to uphold the quality of bookings we’ve all come to expect from the venue, while introducing the city to some new acts and musical genres. “Personally, I moved from house to more of the electro/fidget sound,” he says. In some ways, this decision to book more electro-house and fidget house DJs had a polarizing effect. Some Smart Bar patrons, particularly those who attended the regular Friday night techno-oriented showcases booked by Brad Owen, seemed particularly displeased with some of Amato’s choices.
Booking artists that appeal to fans of countless electronic-music subgenres while still injecting an element of personal taste is certainly one of the more difficult things about being a talent buyer. You’re not going to please everyone. And, while Amato’s choices about some bookings may have alienated certain individuals, just as many people applauded his championing of the fidget-house genre and his efforts to book debut Chicago appearances of acts like Crookers and Jesse Rose. Industrial, dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass also enjoyed a small resurgence under Amato’s direction, leading to a noticeable rise in attendance on Wednesdays and Thursdays—difficult nights to get patrons in the door.
Late this summer, Amato gave Smart Bar notice that he would be moving to Los Angeles to pursue other opportunities. “Smart Bar has given me a great opportunity and opened me up to a whole new network of people that I’m sure I’ll work with throughout my career.” Amato plans to continue running his “fidget/electro/tech-house” label Potty Mouth Music, DJing around the world and producing events with some of L.A.’s big clubs and promoters. He also has aspirations to eventually return to club ownership in a few years.
An extensive interview process began to search for Amato’s replacement. Joe Shanahan says, “I talked to a lot of talented people. There were a lot of good candidates in the mix. And at one point, it was an obvious decision.” Fast-forward to early October, and Nate Seider is Smart Bar’s new music director.
Like Brad Owen and James Amato, Seider also grew up in Wisconsin. In the late 1990s, he began DJing and throwing events as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he earned his bachelor’s degree while on scholarship for vocal performance. Seider has now lived in Chicago for nine years, and has established a reputation as a talented DJ and producer and as an accomplished event producer. In 2003, he began working for Division Street bar and restaurant Moonshine as a resident DJ and music director. A couple of years later, he left Moonshine to pursue event production independently while also working on music production and DJing.
Whether Seider was promoting events at Moonshine, Betty’s Blue Star Lounge or a number of other Chicago nightspots, he always went out of his way to feature up-and-coming, deserving DJ talent. This willingness to hunt for underexposed, innovative, local talent is a necessity to keep any music scene alive, and certainly aligns well with Smart Bar’s booking policies. “I tried to book the people that I felt should be playing everywhere,” says Seider. “And that is what I’m excited to do at Smart Bar…but to give them that gig that they’re looking forward to for months.”
Seider’s unwavering enthusiasm and infectious optimism about music and nightlife entertainment is rarely found in someone who has worked in the industry for as long as he has. Shanahan lists his “positive attitude and depth of his knowledge of musical history—not just dance music” among the many reasons he hired Seider. If you’ve ever seen Seider DJ, it’s obvious that he has a great admiration for all kinds of music. His sets include music that spans decades and covers a wide range of genres from broken beat, soul, funk, and rock to house, techno and beyond.
According to Shanahan, Seider immediately established camaraderie and chemistry in the workplace. “On the first day, he came in and just put some music on—a Nick Nice DJ mix—and we just looked at each other and nodded.” He proudly says, “Nate has such well-rounded musical taste. He has that ‘internal iPod.’”
As Seider himself so accurately puts it, “the music director is kind of the face of Smart Bar.” Like many good club promoters, Seider is charismatic and driven. But he is extremely genuine, relatable and likeable. As we speak about what he’s looking forward to about his new position, his eyes light up and he exuberantly says, “I’ll get to work with people that I respect immensely, and people who are passionate about what they do.”
And no one is more passionate about Smart Bar and its musical integrity than Lenny Lacson, Smart Bar’s indispensable general manager. For the last nine years, he has worked with very closely with the music director overseeing club operations, helping with promotions, running the club’s security team and bar staff, keeping track of the club’s nightly cash flow, and performing all other behind-the-scenes duties to keep the club running smoothly. “Our relationship is a total partnership, like two brains melded into one,” he says.
Having known Nate Seider for many years, Lacson sees the partnership as a great match. “His talent and his focus and perception of what the whole landscape is right now—how music and nightclubs stand—is definitely cohesive with what my standards are. Nate definitely has a very aggressive and very hungry drive to maintain proper standards for good music and good parties.”
He praises Seider for his innovative ideas and his people skills. “Bottom line…it’s throwing good parties and it’s making sure the talent stays happy. He manages that part well, and he gets it.” Though Smart Bar has thrived for many years, there is always room for improvement. “I can see us as a team and [Seider] coming up with really good ideas along with our other peers and coworkers to make them and Smart Bar a lot more successful.”
Lacson adds, “I truly believe that Nate has what it takes to make it happen.”
Smart Bar’s music director maintains regular office hours in addition to working in the club Wednesday through Sunday nights until the wee hours of the morning. Seider seems ready to face the exhausting schedule. “I haven’t had a full-time job in fifteen years, so I’m prepared for being there all the time.” He adds, “I know that I want to have a career in music. I know that I want to be in entertainment…I think that this is something that will allow me to exercise my own taste and to really make my mark on our scene, and express myself the way that I want to with the people I book, and the way I feel about music, and the industry.”
While Seider has already been on the job for several weeks, he won’t officially begin booking talent at Smart Bar until January. He seems pleased he’s been given some time to settle into his new role. “I obviously have a lot to learn about protocol and how to do things,” he says. “It’s great for me to be able to concentrate on creatively promoting and making sure as many people know about our nights as possible.”
But, just because Seider isn’t actively booking artists right now doesn’t mean he hasn’t given the upcoming year plenty of thought. “I’m just trying to be as absolutely well-rounded as I can with the bookings. I want to try to really get a mind-blowing array of artists in there! Smart Bar is the kind of venue that’s just the right size where you can have up-and-coming people; you can take kind of a gamble on things.”
Just to make things official, Seider is planning a “Welcome to Smart Bar” party on December 11 featuring pioneering DJ and producer John Acquaviva. Seider says, “I chose John because he, more than any other DJ, had a direct impact on my musical direction and the type of DJ I would turn out to be. He taught me about not sticking to any one musical style and exemplified the art of DJing, being able to blend everything from disco to house to techno and progressive into one big cohesive and mind-blowing set. I am honored to share the stage with him for this night and can’t wait to kick off my tenure at Smart Bar with one hell of a party.”
The electronic-music community seems overwhelmingly supportive of Seider’s appointment as music director, and he is thrilled that the feedback from friends and colleagues has been so positive. Brad Owen says, “I’d just like to say that I have absolute confidence that Nate will carry the torch of great music and creative bookings in Smart Bar. I’ve known him for many years and think he will do a fantastic job.” James Amato seems to agree. “He’s very driven and I’m sure he’s going to be very dedicated to Smart Bar and give a hundred percent.”
While you may find it easy to trivialize clubbing, a night out dancing with friends is something many of us look forward to in these tough economic times. For more than twenty-five years, Smart Bar has indeed been a place to go dancing with friends, but also a place to be inspired by music. And no one understands this better than Seider. “I’ve adored Smart Bar forever… especially DJing there,” he says. “But, even when you just go there for a great show, you feel like you’re a part of something.”