It’s been almost a year since Peter Shapiro, the jamband impresario who formerly operated the beloved progressive nightclub Wetlands during its final years, opened Brooklyn Bowl, an audaciously massive concert, bowling, and dining venue in an old Williamsburg warehouse. Shapiro and his partner Charley Ryan sunk millions into the LEED-certified project, which brings together live music and bowling under one roof, often simultaneously. Visiting Brooklyn Bowl on any given night gives the impression that their gamble paid off; the lanes are packed; the menu, by Blue Ribbon, is comfort-food gold; and most bands seem delighted by the bifurcated space, which provides them with a dancing, general admission crowd at their feet and 16 lanes of bowling off stage left. (The sound is also stellar.)
Tomorrow, Brooklyn Bowl will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a rare screening of U23D, filling the stage with a 22-foot screen for four screenings throughout the day. The 3D concert film, which Shapiro produced, will be broadcast with a Dolby CP2000 XB industrial projector, the same technology used to screen Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, etc. And the film’s original sound engineer, Carl Glanville, will be on hand for sound check to ensure that the sound system is tweaked just right. Admission is free; the glasses cost $5, and bowling will be free all day. Check the Brooklyn Bowl website for more details.
In 2001, Wetlands closed. Fast-forward eight years later, you open Brooklyn Bowl. What led you from running a sort of progressive left-wing concert clubhouse to opening this massive bowling alley-restaurant-rock venue? Yeah, that’s a good question, dude. Started off strong. Wetlands was a pretty unique place, but I wanted to do another venue. There are a lot of great venues out there—Music Hall [of Williamsburg], Gramercy Theater, but they’re all basically at the end of the day a box, with a strange cross with a bar. And I looked at maybe doing another Wetlands, but I realized you couldn’t really recreate Wetlands; it was a pretty unique space and place. But I wanted to do another venue, so I wanted to do it a little differently. Working in partnership with the former general manager of Wetlands, Charley Ryan, we looked everywhere in Manhattan, then searched Brooklyn. We walked around on our own; we didn’t use a broker. We were walking the streets of Williamsburg and we walked by 61 Wythe Avenue and walked inside, and that was instant: This building was amazing. You don’t find buildings like this, they don’t exist in Manhattan.
What was it originally? It was an iron works foundry from the 1880s, being used as a warehouse that basically had almost no electricity, no plumbing, no air conditioning, none of that stuff. The walls were falling in, the roof was caving in, leaking. So we rehabbed the building, spent a lot of time and money over a couple years, multiple millions of dollars were put into that place to bring it to what’s there today. But it was driven a lot by that building and that space. We looked throughout Williamsburg and other areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan and we didn’t see anything like it. So the idea of the venue and the bowling and the restaurant was to create a live music venue that had a different approach.
Have you heard any criticism from progressives or hippies, or whatever you want to call them, who lament it doesn’t have the same political agenda as Wetlands? Well, I would say this about the Wetlands “green” ethos. Brooklyn Bowl is the first LEED certified bowling alley in the world. Wetlands was a great place and had a lot of activism, but it was far from a green building. We spent a lot of time and money making this place LEED certified. When you see a LEED certified building, they’re typically new structures, so new office buildings or new residential buildings. Take a 130-year-old warehouse and do a conversion and have it be LEED certified… I don’t think there’s another 130-year-old warehouse that’s been converted to public assembly that’s LEED certified anywhere.
I think a lot of people recognize that there was a lot of time and money put into that. We don’t serve bottled beer. We only serve beer from Brooklyn breweries. A lot of bike racks outside. We do things, we try to really do a lot of things, a lot of the skilled labor we used, and furniture and all that was made locally in Brooklyn. So, that part of the building is more progressive than Wetlands was. But it’s a different place, Bowl vs. Wetlands in terms of the political side. We’re still doing a lot of events with organizations we’re aligned with, but it’s a different place; it’s not Wetlands. I think it has a lot of the spirit of Wetlands in it, but it’s a different place.
What inspired the design? The building. When we walked in the building, that inspired a lot. We worked with an interior designer, Tristam Steinberg, out of L.A. He helped us with a lot of choices, a lot of the design aesthetics, then Charley and I laid out a lot of it ourselves; we knew what we wanted. And that was the big sort of gamble, everyone thought, “It’s a bowling alley with a music end? That’s not going to work, the bowling will be too loud.” Anyone who has seen a show at Brooklyn Bowl knows that we were right: we hoped the sound of the PA system would overcome and overwhelm the sound of the lanes, and it does. And we’re having bands; you’ve seen the list of bands who have played there, from O’Death to James Murphy, to Citizen Cope, to The Roots, to Soulive tonight and Vernon Reid. We made the stage; the stage is bigger than Irving Plaza, it’s 35-feet wide.
So that was a conscious attempt to let the bands know they were a priority, because we were aware that a band coming into this place, we didn’t want them to go, “We’re playing a fucking a bowling alley.” We wanted them to know this is a venue first, but there’s bowling there. You know, if you’re a band you’re on tour doing 30 dates, you play a room, and you have to soundcheck, then you go into a dungeon room underneath the stage in the basement usually, and they give you a sandwich, some vegetable tray. Brooklyn Bowl, after soundcheck, you get to go to lane one, bowl and eat Blue Ribbons and be waited on by a real waiter. We try to treat the bands, and I think we have, in a way they don’t typically get treated. That’s why Soulive is doing ten nights.
Have you gotten to bowl with any of the artists who have come through? Yeah. I’m usually just busy running around, so I don’t get to bowl that much. The irony is that when I’m there, you know it’s a big space, I like to make sure the staff feels good, patrons feel good. The problem with bowling is once you get into a game you can’t really take off, because they need you there, so it’s a hard thing to do, to be bowling and watch the club. But we’ve had some cool people, whether they’re musicians or celeb-types, just cool people, who I think appreciate that it’s a different kind of place you don’t get to see a lot.
What celebrities? If I told you that, they might not feel as comfortable coming here. But I think it’s also a place where your cool time is Saturday, because early you can bring kids in before 6, and there’s a whole scene of kids running around. A lot of people ask, “Why don’t you do kids bands?” We haven’t really been doing that, because I think it’s cooler to have kids running around listening to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
But one Saturday you had The McLovins? Yeah, that’s right, an afternoon show. So usually we do Saturday, on the screens is Planet Earth with some sports, with some Zeppelin playing, with some kids running around, and then later we put a DJ on, and then bands are usually soundchecking, we’ll do the show. Then like, Friday night after Soulive, Q-Tip’s gonna play, this Friday night. It’s just been pretty exciting to see ?uestlove doing a residency there, Soulive doing the residency. We have the ability to be a little flexible; like with the Super Bowl, we had the ability to book Galactic to play after the Super Bowl, because we’re doing things like bowling and food and other things and we can take that risk, “What if the Saints lose the game?” That wouldn’t have been too good, but we can take that risk where maybe a traditional venue can’t really do that. The Bowery [Ballroom] probably wouldn’t be an ideal place to watch the Super Bowl. But Brooklyn Bowl does work, everyone came, and if they had lost, they lost, at least we had those people there for the game, but they won, so to go from the game to a Galactic show, it was probably one of the most prominent bands in New Orleans playing the room 15 minutes after the game was over. That’s a cool thing to be able to do.
It’s my understanding you weren’t originally going to have league nights. Did that change? Yes, that’s right. When you do something like this, you have to get used to calling audibles, changing, so it just became clear we should have a league night, so we’re doing league night. You know what I mean, simple as that.
The pins are on strings at Brooklyn Bowl, and a buddy of mine, who’s in a bowling league, doesn’t think there’s enough “pin action.” Do you hear anything from the league people about pin action? Not really. We believe it’s not. If you’re a good bowler, you can ask good bowlers, the pin action is the same. Compare it to somewhere else. It’s part of two things: LEED certification—those machines use one-quarter of the energy. And they’re also much quieter, there’s no mechanics in them. People ask, how do bands play? In a real bowling alley, all that mechanical has a lot of low-end noise. When they’re churning, there’s a lot of bottom noise. And we wanted it to be quiet, and that was a priority of the place, because we were going to be doing shows every night, and to be energy efficient, and they were the most advanced things there are. But listen, the league nights are sold out, full, everyone loves them, and we’re going to re-up them and they’ll be full again, so we find people enjoy it. It’s interesting to see people’s response, their gut reaction may be “Oh my gosh, strings?” But when you really bowl on them for awhile, you can see the pin action is the same. We could get you on the phone with a former pro who says it’s the same.
I heard this was something that came from Japan. I think it is. It definitely is a new technology, but I couldn’t tell you the details of the industry. I’d be bullshitting you, I don’t know. I do know it’s a new technology, but I don’t know where it comes from, the details.
What’s the craziest thing that’s happened at Brooklyn Bowl so far, from your perspective? We had a thousand Santa Claus’s there, for Santacon. And when Dr. Dog played, we had snow machines in there, the night before Santacon, and when we turned the snow machines on it was basically snowing in the club, and you can do that if you have a barn like we do with 35-foot ceilings. But I’d never been in a club in NY where it was snowing, and this was not the cheesy bubble thing, foam bubbles. It felt like it was snowing.
What’s on the horizon for this year? When we first opened, we thought we’d do live shows 3, 4 days a week. And now we’re looking to do them 6, 7 days a week, and we’re gonna have a lot of good shows. The other cool thing I’m really psyched about is Karaoke Killed the Cat on Monday nights. When you typically go to karaoke, it’s at a karaoke bar, and you’re singing off of a PA system that’s in a bar. And I think karaoke works really well at Brooklyn Bowl because you’re up there on stage singing through a PA system on a 35-foot wide by 19-foot deep stage. So you’re up on a stage bigger than Irving Plaza. We found that people really freak out; it’s a pretty awesome experience, different than singing in a karaoke bar, so we’re super psyched about karaoke on Monday nights.
Have you gone and done that yet? Yeah I’ve been up on the stage and I did it.
What did you do? Sweet Caroline.
Is there anybody who performed at Wetlands who you haven’t gotten to perform at Brooklyn Bowl yet? Good question. I’ve made it a real priority to have a lot of the bands that did play at Wetlands, and I’m the publisher of Relix magazine too, and used to do the Jammys and that stuff. So it was important for me to have Bob Weir there, to have Warren Haynes from the Allmans there, to have the Soulive guys, to have Robert Randolph, to have the Disco Biscuits, and I’ve been really psyched that a lot of those bands have come back and played in the first six months. A band that hasn’t played yet…I’m trying to get the band God Street Wine back together, I’d like to get them back. Who played Wetlands….? You know, Pearl Jam played Wetlands, I’d love to see them at Brooklyn Bowl. I’m not holding my breath, but you never know.