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From bands big and small, cheers to the Brass Mug

For the up and coming (or sometimes bad and going nowhere), the Brass Mug is a great venue for bands to showcase their music. Its owner hopes to shine a national spotlight on their versions of punk, metal, grunge, jazz and ska.

By RYAN MEANY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


UNIVERSITY NORTH -- Inside the bar, it's never brighter than dusk, whether it's noon or 3 a.m.

It smells like a bowling alley. Cluttered inside are the common distractions of a bar: pool and foosball tables, electronic dart boards and poker games. Neon Budweiser signs hum. Beer and cigarette logo mirrors decorate the dark blue walls. Four SUVs might fit snugly in the main room. It's so smokey, even smokers sometimes find it a problem.

Signs warn that drinking alcohol in the parking lot is illegal.

But this blue-collar bar by day takes on a different mood at night, when the ear-numbing volume of punk and metal bands sends much of the afternoon crowd to their cars.

Since it opened in 1982, the Brass Mug has become a proving ground for raw styles of fledgling bands that come to hammer out every variation of punk, metal, grunge, jazz and ska. From the downright horrible trio that should have never left the garage to national touring acts such as Green Day and No Doubt, everyone is welcome at the Mug.

Heather Mullis, a 27-year-old former Mug bartender, has cleaned up the place and its rowdy reputation since she bought it four years ago. She's generous and respectful to the bands she books, and feeds every show live on the Internet to help them get exposure and maybe a record deal.

Mullis aspired to become a dancer or choreographer until her leg was crushed by a truck at an outdoor concert. Now she runs the Mug, in addition to a tanning salon. She also plays competitive pool.

"I don't know if I've made the right decisions. I think sometimes I should be doing something else," she says.

The local version of CBGB

The eclectic lineup of bands that rely on her business are glad she's running the Mug.

Joel Brown, bassist and drummer for Handshake Squad, says every band needs a place to play where the managers don't yell for the headline act to start its sound check while rushing the opening band to unplug and pack up.

"I don't care how big your band is, you have to have a venue that's fun. The Brass Mug has always been a fun place to play because there's no pressure."

"It's the CBGB of Tampa," said Brown, referring to the famous New York City club where the Ramones and Blondie gave early performances. "It's a staple, and it's the only local place for bands to play that's been around for as long as it has."

Scott Imrich, a a disc jockey at WMNF-FM 88.5, has been going to the Brass Mug for 10 years. He says the unpretentious, open-door policy of the bar is a rare find for young musicians.

"A band trying to get a gig out can be really hard," he says. "But the Brass Mug has been a tremendous supporter of local music, whether you're a bigger established band that's been around a few years or you're straight out of the garage. The Brass Mug has been the only place, for the most part, around here for so many years that's not snobbish or elitist."

Russ Van Cleave, singer/guitarist for the Tim Version, personalizes the Brass Mug as "a comfortable old shoe."

"I've never played for that great sea of faces," Van Cleave says. "But I don't think that's what I'd remember when I'm a rickety old man looking back. It'll be the little experiences that came from playing at places like the Brass Mug."

A rotating menu of bands, big and small

A recent concert by legendary punk band Fear illustrates the Mug at its most energized.

A circle forms where a group of young people, heads down, legs kicking, arms swinging in the style of a military march, form the mosh pit. To the unfamiliar, they appear to be reacting to the screeching, throbbing music with violent tantrums. In truth, they are just dancing.

Lee Ving, Fear's guitarist and lead vocalist for more than 20 years, says punk rock concerts never change, as he autographs a young woman's arm with a marker. He says to play professionally this long "is an honor and a privilege."

About a week before Green Day, a popular punk trio from California, debuted on MTV in 1994, they drew 400 fans to the Mug, where they literally brought down the ceiling, removing tiles to make more room for crowd surfers. A few months after Green Day, the bar hosted the band No Doubt. Within in a year, that band also made an MTV debut.

But the big-name bands are a small part of the Mug realm. In a typical week, anywhere from nine to 15 bands will perform at the Brass Mug. Mullis remembers nights about three years ago when the audience consisted of her and the sound technician.

Mullis networks hard, and now the bands always have an audience, she says.

"If it's 10 people, it's 10 people."

And whether 10 or 400 fans come, Mullis lets the bands keep 100 percent of the door; most venues take a cut. She even turned over the entire $2,900 take to Fear, even though the band had agreed to play for a guaranteed minimum of $1,500. Her concert profits are solely alcohol sales.

"Bands treat you the way you treat them," she says.

A 'living organism' of a club

A thin wall separates Mullis' office from the jukebox, which booms Pink Floyd before shuffling to the Charlie Daniels Band. Under her desk are stacks of demo compact discs and low-budget concert videos sent by bands from all over Florida and as far north as Washington and New Jersey.

She says at least 10 musicians try to contact her daily by phone or e-mail about booking a show.

"One in a million of these bands will get signed by a major record label," she said. "I want to make it one in a hundred."

To that end, she has started a Web site (http://www.brassmug.com) where record agents anywhere can catch every Mug show live. She said it has averaged 30 hits a day in the few months it has been up.

Frank Vagnozzi, singer/guitarist for Reckless Deerhunter, has performed at the Brass Mug at least 70 times.

He says the addition of a small camera and an anonymous cyber audience will not affect a single note of his set. In fact, he's glad friends in other states can see him play.

"I think it's in the back of our minds that an agent could be watching," Vagnozzi said, "but we think about it the way you think about winning the lottery. It would be nice, but we want to play."

Dave Gunter, who first played at the Brass Mug in his high school band Chester, half-jokingly calls the bar a "living organism," which may or may not, according to whim or luck, agreeably digest a particular band's music.

"It was the first venue where we learned not just your friends go to the places you play. And after that, I always sort of expected to get heckled."

Gunter says the Brass Mug was a prelude to his band's later experiences with the gauntlets of finicky fans that form along the circuit of smaller venues.

"I stopped that, too," Mullis said about heckling. "There's no band ever who deserves to get up on stage and have someone yell to them they suck or have cups thrown at them. I don't allow that."

A run-in with Vomit Spawn

Mullis dropped out of school at 15.

"It was hard," she said. "I had to work at Dunkin' Donuts."

At a Livestock concert when she was 18, her leg was crushed between a pickup and a van, which ended her career as a dancer and choreographer.

Before the accident, she taught at Fred Astaire Dance Studios, choreographed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneer cheerleaders and was on her way to Las Vegas to work full-time as a choreographer, she said. Then she began working at the Mug, and got involved in booking bands.

Now, at 27, she has little time for regret. She is her own accountant, owns a tanning salon and she's even thinking of starting a dance/nightclub. Her last vacation was a weekend at the beach four years ago when she bought the bar from the previous owner, who she said still advises her on business issues now and then.

"A lot of people told me I was going to lose it," she said. "And they come in here now and can't believe I haven't lost it."

After taking over, she laid new carpet, re-covered the pool tables and painted the walls.

Clean-up didn't stop there. The Brass Mug had a reputation for fights, about one a night Mullis recalled. "I had to change that," she said. "When I first bought the place, I had to bar like 30 people."

Mullis contends her common sense and intuition have been sharpened by mishaps that sound like familiar movie scenes.

One night when she was managing, she had to tell Vomit Spawn and their fans to stop drinking in the parking lot, and she asked a skinhead to quit hanging upside down from the rafters. They responded by ripping signs off the walls, breaking the front door off the hinges and smashing tables.

Mullis grabbed a bat from behind the bar to coax the riot outside. A band member wrestled her for the bat while another jumped on her. The struggle ended when a bar maid reached for a beer bottle and knocked out the Vomit Spawn member on Mullis' back.

The cops came. The bartenders and Mullis were bruised. Ultimately, a judge awarded Mullis restitution for the damage to the bar.

Last summer, bands were smoking marijuana in the Mug's parking lot, and police made more than 40 arrests there in two months, Mullis said.

"They tried to shut me down. They said I was a public nuisance, and I couldn't control my parking lot. But the bands have been smoking pot in the parking lot for 15 years. I figure it's going to take me 15 years to get them to stop."

She posted a sign on the door prohibiting marijuana use inside or in the parking lot. She says it was stolen by college students who wanted it for their dorm.

At a glance

WHAT: The Brass Mug

WHERE: 1441 E Fletcher Ave.

HOURS: 11 to 3 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday. Admission prices vary.

For information, call (813) 972-8152

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