The foremost fear of many musicians is failing to fill a room, and rightly so. The club circuit is cutthroat, and light ticket sales and lackluster turnout can easily kill a band’s future before it even begins.
Empty seats are hardly a concern at the most exclusive live music venue in Columbus, where the audiences rarely outnumber
the performers and it’s typically standing room only.
That’s because it’s not a basement bar or small stage. It’s a barbershop.
Jim Morris might surprise you as the proprietor of a place called The Mug & Brush. With his wavy white mane and robust beard, he looks more like someone who hasn’t seen the inside of a barbershop in a while, not the owner of one. (Two in fact, between the original in the Old North neighborhood between campus and Clintonville, and now an equally quaint second location in Gahanna.)
But as the creator of an indie music series shot on a shoestring that has acts lining up to get in, his relaxed locks and attitude are entirely on brand.
“We started with a couple of prototype sessions with The Floorwalkers and Nick D’ and the Believers. Even before that, I’d asked just about every video and sound guy who came through the shop about the project,” Morris recalled. “I’d cut Keith’s hair for about ten years, but hadn’t seen him recently because he was growing his hair long. He stopped by and I told him about the idea. That’s how I finally hooked up with the crew.”
Keith Hanlon is exactly what you’d expect from a seasoned sound guy. As a producer and audio engineer, he’s as adept at booking the bands as he is running the board in a recording studio that’s far more complex than just a warm old room with high ceilings. Hanlon is the right mix of affable and technical, intent on isolating each performer’s voice and instrument with assuring precision, despite the hodgepodge of textures and street traffic.
“The biggest issue I have is bleed onto the vocal mics. It depends on how loud the drummer is,” Hanlon quipped, himself a drummer. “As we’ve progressed, we’ve gone from a pieced together PA system for monitors to a decent USB mixer and enough equipment accumulated along the way to create a studio feel that still sounds live.”
“I’d cut Keith’s hair for about ten years, but hadn’t seen him recently because he was growing his hair long. He stopped by and I told him about the idea. That’s how I finally hooked up with the crew.”
“It began with a few friends and bands we knew, like Birdshack and Righteous Buck. They agreed sight unseen, it was a leap of faith,” Morris revealed. “They didn’t know the crew or exactly what it was all about, but they said, ‘We’re in’ anyway. Within six months, bands were calling us.”
Though The Mug & Brush Sessions is a music series, don’t mistake it for a podcast. It’s decidedly cinematic, with multiple cameras and a balance of shots that never looks or sounds sanitized or slick. With angles and close ups as high and tight as a hipster haircut, it’s raw and refined at the same time.
“We do several takes, but we don’t intercut. Sometimes you’ll pick up something only one person will notice,” Hanlon explained. “You may see it on the performer’s face, but we’ll just let it go and use another shot. I’d rather have an imperfect performance than lose
Getting a big sound out of a small space isn’t easy on either side of board. Bands used to playing for hundreds, perhaps thousands, also have to scale down their performance to the intimate surroundings. Engineering can also prove imperfect, amplified by the occasional OS update with unintended consequences.
“Things break down, and an update can render a piece of equipment useless. Doc Robinson had eight performers, the most we’ve ever had in the shop. I could still use the mixer, I just couldn’t record from it,” Hanlon explained. He ended up cobbling a couple of pieces of equipment together to manage the monitors and capture the recording, syncing the 10-channel session afterward. “It was the only way we could do it. Sometimes, you just have to make it work.”
Though there is a bent toward indie rock and Americana, there are definitely no limits on genre. From local folks who have earned audiences beyond Columbus, like Lydia Loveless and Josh Krajcik, to the EDM of Damn the Witch Siren and spunk rock darlings Cherry Chrome.
“I’d like to see more of the less frequent genres we’ve had, like Blueprint and Dominique Larue,” Morris recalled. “We also had a chamber music string quartet once, Carpe Diem.”
“We try to book acts with musical diversity and diversity in general. I’d love to have a Somali or Latino group, something you won’t find outside those communities,” Hanlon followed.
“We’re creating an archive of the Columbus music scene we hope will still be relevant decades from now. But that wasn’t exactly our original intent. We just wanted to feature local musicians in a new way.”
As a Midwest crossroads, their relationship with Natalie’s, proximity to the Newport, and pipeline from Nashville has also yielded some unexpected acts for The Mug & Brush Sessions.
“We’ve had Peter Case, and Califone, and Greg Trooper, though there are so many local acts, we really don’t have to look outside Columbus,” noted Hanlon. “I’d love to get Michael Hurley. He’s always playing at Nelsonville Music Festival and up at Natalie’s.”
Beyond the bands, the real genius of the show is how scalable and shareable it is. Shot on the same DSLR platform favored by independent filmmakers, it feels authentic without being claustrophobic. Hosted on YouTube instead of some hyper-restrictive or homespun solution, it’s easy to send to a friend with a click. For many bands, it’s become a measure of credibility or a professional milestone, like the local equivalent of an appearance on Austin City Limits or MTV Unplugged.
It’s also just as easy to watch it on a television screen as a smartphone or computer. Performances also hold up on even bigger screens, occasionally featured at Mojoflo’s Music Video Mondays at the Gateway Film Center. The stripped-down style of the sessions actually succeeds where most music videos fail, transporting the audience to a live performance, as though they’re sitting right there in a barber chair between Jim and Keith, taking it all in.
“We’re creating an archive of the Columbus music scene we hope will still be relevant decades from now. But that wasn’t exactly our original intent. We just wanted to feature local musicians in a new way,” Morris noted. “When we started, I hoped we might make it to 100 episodes. But now that we’re five years in, who knows. Maybe we can make it to ten?”
For a complete archive of The Mug & Brush Sessions, visit themugandbrushsessions.com