It’s pretty much standard procedure that metal bands play most of their gigs at drinking establishments of some description—bars, nightclubs, theaters, etc. Well, if beer’s gonna be served at their shows, why not go directly to the source and play at an actual brewery?
Atlas Brew Works in Washington D.C. (one of the breweries featured at the first Decibel Metal and Beer Festival last April) is making that happen. For more than a year, they have been regularly hosting shows on the brew house floor amongst looming metal tanks. The setting is perfect and the libations are fresh and tasty. Talk about cutting out the middleman.
We asked a few members of the Atlas crew— head brewer Dan Vilarrubi, tap room manager Rachel Murray and brew emeritus and director of heavy metal operations Will Cook—a handful of questions about how they brought great craft beer and metal together in their brewery.
How long has Atlas been hosting metal concerts at the brewery and who does the booking?
Rachel Murray: In July 2016, we hosted our first Heavy Metal Night with DCHeavyMetal.com, after the brewery’s new tap room opened. No bands played live that night but we hosted Borracho for their Atacama album release party—and that event solidified heavy metal as a part of Atlas Brew Works’ identity. Our first actual show was later that December when we hosted the DCHeavyMetal.com‘s holiday party and local DC favorites Gloom and Genocide Pact played live.
Will Cook: Four months later in April 2017, we held a metal show at Atlas while the Craft Brewing Conference was in DC. Lord, Cavern and King Giant played a hell of a show for all the metalhead brewers in town. After that show, the requests to play Atlas started pouring in. Folks realized that we were a metal-friendly venue.
Murray: There’s a bunch of other small and medium-sized venues in DC that can host metal shows, but it seems like a lot of bands and promoters have been gravitating towards Atlas since we do our best to take care of the bands. We never take a cut from their ticket or merchandise sales. We don’t charge venue fees and there is no pay-to-play—and we give the bands free beer! Essentially we take care of bands who get paid regardless of attendance.
Cook: I handle most of the booking and coordination with the bands and promoters while Rachel keeps the calendar and ensures our staff of metalheads fully support the shows.
What are some of the challenges of putting on live music in a brewery?
Cook: Putting on metal shows at the brewery is a lot of work but it’s a labor of love. Everyone is on board from Justin Cox, the founder, to the brewers and the tap room staff. It’s not without it challenges though.
Murray: Atlas has had live (non-heavy metal) bands play at the brewery since our one-year anniversary party back in 2013. We booked a band from Dischord Records that has a long history in the DC hardcore scene. From that experience, we learned the various licenses we needed from the local regulators and music licensing agencies to be legit.
Another challenge is coordinating with the production staff to make sure we are not interfering with brewing operations. After all, we are a production brewery, first and foremost. Bands play in the loading dock/cellar/mill area, and we can’t have a permanent stage set-up all the time. We set-up and break down the stage, lights and sound every show. Our brewers always go above and beyond to help with the process. We would not have any metal concerts if it were not for their hard work! It also helps that they all like various genres of metal and often stay late to see the bands.
Additionally, bands from various genres are constantly contacting us requesting to play at Atlas. We can’t always do ticketed shows since we do need to keep the tap room open for regular business. We have a limited budget to pay bands to just come play for the public without selling tickets, so unfortunately, we can’t host every band. Another recent challenge is that not every booking agency/promoter we work with actually promotes the show and therefore it has not worked out for everyone’s benefit. But we are learning from our mistakes and can make more informed decisions on who to work with in the future.
Dan Vilarrubi: Acoustics. Everything is stainless steel or concrete [in the brewery] so sound bounces off everything. We’re working some things out though.
Cook: We don’t have a house sound system yet, but we have a roster of local sound engineers who have done wonders making concrete and stainless steel sound great. However, I’ve had some near epic fails trying to coordinate their availability with our show schedule. I’ve had reservations about shows inside a brewery. But I have to give a shout out to Blake Harrison of Pig Destroyer who convinced me metal bands could sound good in a brewery after they played Hardywood Park Brewery in Richmond, VA. Also, there are so many shows at Atlas and the DC metro area and so little time.
What’s your conversion rate for turning on metalheads who are just there for the show to craft beer?
Cook: Our conversion rate is 100%! Since we’re a production brewery, we only can provide our own beer. So, basically, they have no other options. Honestly, it’s mostly preaching to the converted. But if we find those few diehard generic lite pilsner drinkers, we pour them the 1500 Lager or District Common and they are happily converted. I also find the bands’ favorite type of beer is free beer. We have received numerous compliments from bands and fans on our beer. There are benefits to playing in a brewery.
Murray: Many of the bands are from out-of-town—as far away as the U.K.—so we always like to send them away with six-packs [so that they can] remember Atlas and have road sodas.
Are there any beers that sell particularly well at the concerts?
Murray: Atlas always has its best sellers. One is our Dance of Days Pale Ale brewed with Citra and Mosaic hops. It’s named after a song from an old-school DC punk band, Embrace.
Cook: We also brewed several official and tribute beers for bands that we release at shows. One of the first that was Oculus, a smoked nut brown ale brewed with our friends in Borracho—and we always get requests to bring it back. Another favorite was HaSaWoDo Satanic Saison that we specially brewed for the Decibel Metal and Beer Fest in Philadelphia back in April. And if it’s not totally obvious, it’s a tribute to Bongripper’s album Satan Worshiping Doom. Our most recent beer that sold fast was Uhtcearbrew, which we made for our friends in the Wisconsin-based melodic black metal band Uhtcearu. Atlas sponsored their east coast Rite of Passage tour. When they played the brewery in mid-August, one of our brewers, Sean, whipped up a special batch of our Silent Neighbor Stout (appropriately named for our dead neighbors in the graveyard across the street) infused with vanilla and coffee beans from Compass Coffee. In the final analysis: metal beers sell well at metal shows.
Typical show size attendance wise?
Murray: Attendance of course depends on the promoter—whether that’s us or an outside agency—and the band. We average about 40-50 people per show. But we have gotten around 200 people to bang their heads and worship at the altar of tap handles.
What have been your biggest/best shows?
Murray: One of the biggest and best was the April show during the Craft Beer Conference with King Giant, Cavern, and Lord. We teamed up with TRVE Brewing for a mini tap takeover of their metal-inspired beers and we also poured Decibeer—a collaboration bouble IPA with Champion Brewing in Charlottesville, VA, and Decibel magazine. The bands destroyed, and the amount of metalhead brewers that attended from around North America was amazing!
Cook: Another big show was Thou, Cloud Rat, False, Moloch, and Hand Grenade Job in late June that our friends in Ripping Headaches Promotions put-on. Uhtcearu’s show here at the brewery absolutely slayed when they played in mid-August with locals Helgamite and Dagger Moon. This was such a solid bill and certainly one of our favorite shows and best performances we’ve had at the brewery. We’re pretty lucky here in the DC area to have a huge metal scene with so many great metal bands and fans who love beer.
Vilarrubi: King Giant was awesome. I liked the Midnight Ghost Train even though they’re not super metal.
Bands interested in playing at Atlas should contact the brewery through its Facebook page. Here’s a listing of upcoming shows at the brewery.
October 5: Borracho, Lord Crow, Dirt Eater
October 27: One Slack Mind, Unsullied
October 28: Defeated Sanity, Outer Heaven
November 4: Yautja, Pyrrhon, ASM, Tomb Warden, Negative Impressions
November 8: Demoncy, Crurifragium, Ululatum, Tollunt, Genocide Pact
November 11: Tomb Mold, Taphos Nomos, Ilsa, Left Cross
December 3: Replacire, TBA
December 14: Lord Almighty, Barishi, Foehammer