Interview: Jake Samuels on His Career with Evanston SPACE

Photo courtesy of Evanston SPACE

There are few venues that have grabbed a hold of my imagination as strongly as Evanston SPACE has. I fell in love with its beautiful atmosphere from the moment I first walked in to the venue. It was everything that movies, parents, and books had promised me concerts would be like. Intimate affairs that felt bigger and more grandiose than the room’s size realistically afforded without ever feeling  crowded. Low lights that set the mood, a bar that looked straight out of the speakeasies of yesteryear, and a sound system so immaculate that every spot is the perfect spot. It may sound like I’m over doing it, but it’s quite the opposite. Certain aspects of Evanston SPACE’s aura evade description, falling squarely in the realm of you need to see it for yourself.

SPACE, which opened it’s doors in spring 2008, has been the starting point for amazing musicians and has welcomed some of the biggest names in the music industry. This year, SPACE will be celebrating their 10th anniversary with a series of outdoor show entitle Out of Space. The series features huge acts like Dinosaur Jr, Shovel & Rope, New Pornographers, and many more playing Temperance Beer Company and Canal Shores Golf Course. The series will culminate with the Big Evanston SPACE Block Party on August 24th and 25th, which will be headlined by Old 97s and Guided by Voices.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jake Samuels, Talent Buyer and Executive Director of SPACE. We spoke of his history with SPACE including his start as its first employee, crafting the venues’ programming, and about the upcoming 10th anniversary concerts.

Julian Ramirez: How much of a hand did you have in crafting the atmosphere of SPACE?

Jake Samuels: I was lucky enough to walk into a pretty well realized space. I was the first employee, but by the time I got there Craig Golden, who’s the owner, had really done and incredible job of building up the venue, studio, artist green room, and the restaurant. His vision for that still totally intact and he did an extraordinary job making it what is in terms of the feel, look, sound, and general aesthetic of SPACE. From there I was able to pick up the ball and match talent, shows, and programming in such a way that really let the room find its own identity beyond its decor and structure. I was super grateful to be a part of that.

SPACE seems to have a very eclectic range of shows, from these small up and coming band and huge names.

I really can’t think of another venue that’s doing shows for $8 one night, $150 another night, and then everything in-between. That variable tends to attract artists to do something super intimate who don’t otherwise have to, but choose to. Step away from a larger theater to do a special intimate show. But, our commitment is to develop emerging artists. That part is just as exciting as the other and to get to do both under the same roof is pretty unique and awesome. It creates opportunities for these artists in a way that they may not otherwise have playing DIY shows or more common rock rooms. It’s a chance to jump into, share the stage, play the same piano, or just operate on the same level as these legends that have come through. It’s is a pretty cool thing.

Jake Samuels. Photo courtesy of Will Byington

How long did it take for SPACE to find its balance of big names and the emerging artists?

It’s been very much a slow build. Our first year, I don’t think we really had anyone that was a big name or even a medium name. For us it was very organic. The space sort of told us what to do with it and as we started getting some level of comfort as we did shows and saw who was showing up. It let us get our sea legs in booking and promoting. We got more adventurous, more confident and most importantly we were winning over artists in a very important way because they became our best advertising. They appreciated the effort we put into making this a space not just easy to attend a show at, but accessible and easy to play a show at. So often artists are forgotten in the role of hospitality and for us the artists get everything we have. Without knowing it we had removed a lot of the obstacles to playing shows. From an incredible green room, a studio with world-class instruments at their fingertips, and a stage that warm and inviting to play on.

It’s difficult to put yourself in the head of touring musician. There’s so many variables. But I’d like to think if we take care of them, everyone gets a better show. They’re put at ease hopefully better than every other stop on the tour.Artists started to advocate for us, opening the doors for us to book more prominent names.

What are some of the first prominent artists you remember being overjoyed to see start coming into SPACE?

Probably the Leon Russel show was one of the first real legends to grace the stage. That’s one that I remember extremely well.

What have been your favorite bands to see at SPACE?

Oh, man. Favorites over the years is a tough one. Definitely acts like Charles Bradley, St. Paul and the Broken Bones.

St. Paul and The Broken Bones are ones of those you got in pretty early in their career right?

There are a couple of acts that we were really lucky to be involved with early on. St. Paul and the Broken Bones are definitely one of them. There’s a band called The Strumbellas who are really popular now. We reached out to them and gave them I think their first US show playing together as a band. We had a lot of early Houndmouth shows, The Lumineers were the first of three bands on a bill when they first played here. To work with these bands early on and then see them move on to larger clubs or theaters and even arenas like the Lumineers, it’s so great and crazy.

It’s a thrill and we’re always looking out for the next Alabama Shakes, or Sturgill Simpson and be a small part of a long career. To get to work with other people like Allen Toussaint, Richard Thompson, Lucinda William, Dr. John, Taj Mahal, and spend even a few hours with these folks and have them in our little club is incredible.

What was the mindset to doing the Out of Space shows in a bigger, outdoor setting?

For us that was always a goal. We love this club; we wouldn’t trade it for anything. But to get too present on a bigger stage and bigger scale is something any promoter naturally gravitates toward and certainly we’re no different. We’re also a little removed from Chicago where there’s a street festival on every corner and every week. You have Pritzker Pavilion, Northerly Island, Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, there’s just so much happening. And Evanston doesn’t have that same history of great summer outdoor music focused events. Myself, Craig Golden, most of the staff, we’re all from Evanston. As concert promoters, one the unique benefits of our job is that you get to improve the place where you live in some small way. By adding summer events and ways that people can enjoy and discover music in different setting while also celebrating Evanston. We’re beyond excited about it.

With so many of these events selling out and looking quite successful, do you think that this will continue in the following years?

You know it’s hard to say. We have to see how it goes. The response has been far greater than we could have anticipated. If all our hard work pays off in these events, hopefully we created something that can continue on in future years.

Photos of past shows at Evanston SPACE by Julian Ramirez

You can check out the wonderful lineup of upcoming shows at Evanston SPACE on their website.  Tickets are still available for the Out of Space shows, but some are sold out and the rest are going fast. You can see the full lineup of shows over at the Out of Space website and our quick preview here. I highly recommend you head up to Evanston and join in on SPACE’s epic 10 year celebration.

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Julian Ramirez