Sofar, also known as Songs From a Room, has been in existence since March 2009. It began in London as a new concept for attending music shows and has since expanded into a worldwide showcase series. In November 2012, Eric Muhlberger began planning his first of many Sofar shows in Chicago. When the first concert was held in January 2013, he had officially made Chicago a Sofar city. Eric heads up a committed group of volunteers who give their time and energy to help showcase up-and-coming artists and bands to music lovers across Chicago. Eric joined us for a Light Post Conversation to discuss everything you need to know about Sofar.
Light Post: The concept behind Sofar Sounds is extremely interesting. Explain what it is you guys do.
Eric Muhlberger: Yeah, so this whole thing started in London where a group of friends were sick of the typical concert experience where you pretty much go to a show and somebody there is wasted and another person just wanted something to do that night and have a venue to talk about their week with their friend. You know, you might be interested in seeing the opening act because they’re a great local band and other people only care about the headliner so they talk through the other band...so there’s a lot of distractions when you go to shows nowadays. So with Sofar, we host secret, pop up, intimate, living room concerts for up-and-coming talented artists both in our host cities and touring artists coming through. From an audience perspective, if you try to come to a show, you sign up through our website to get on a list, and if you get on the list you’ll receive an email with an address a couple days before the show. You don’t know who’s gonna play, you’re told if you can bring a +1, and then you show up at a given time. You’re almost always in someone’s living room or someone’s apartment, and you can sit on the floor and experience a very intimate concert. We have two ground rules, though, which are there’s no talking when the music is playing and we encourage everyone to stay from start to finish. We do this because for artists, we want to make a community that is really made up of music lovers that are there to hear new music, experience new music, and support local artists.
LP: And you guys don’t charge a fee for your shows, right?
EM: We don’t have a ticketing fee. We do a suggested donation. The purpose of that, since we’re all volunteers, is to help us buy or rent gear. We have professional AV crews that is kind of our payment to the artists, who will professionally film and record the sessions and put them on our social media channels. We like to try and show a small token of appreciation to those freelance folks who turn down other gigs to do this.
LP: So how’d you become involved in it?
EM: I got invited to a show in Brooklyn with a friend of mine when I was out there for work. She kind of heard about it from a guy at a bar and she invited me as her +1, and I went to my first show and fell in love with it immediately. At the time it was up and running in New York and some other cities, but Chicago hadn’t gotten off the ground yet, so I just got in touch with the London team, and I think they could tell that I was really serious about trying to make it work, and we just kind of went from there.
LP: What do you look for in an artist or band to play a Sofar show?
EM: That’s a great question. We just look for an artist who we think can play stripped down in a living room. We don’t provide a PA at the shows, and the way we usually frame it is we highly encourage artists to have acoustic vocals and then frame the rest of their set around there. So, we’ll have anyone that’s good. We’ve had West side rappers to blue grass groups to nine-piece, New Orleans style funk groups and everywhere in between. And I think we’ve got a great team here in Chicago. We all have a pretty diverse interest in music, so we all just kind of get our heads together and say 'is this high quality music?' and 'can they strip it down and play in a Sofar setting?'
LP: Now, with these shows, people don’t know who is performing beforehand. They pretty much go in blindly, completely unaware of what bands they’re about to see. Why is that?
EM: Well, for one, it’s more fun that way, and two, I think it helps prevent people from only going because they already know an artist and they want to see them. The point again is getting back to people who are avid about discovering new music and opening themselves up to be wowed by something they may not be familiar with. By not announcing who’s playing, I think you really cut down that list of people that want to come to those people that are in it for the experience and just love music.
LP: We got to attend one of these shows, and it was definitely a different type of concert going experience. For someone who has never been to a Sofar show, how would you describe the scene to them?
EM: Yeah, if you haven’t been there before it might be a little weird. You show up at a place that isn’t really familiar to you and if you walk into the room and show up early then you might be one of the first people in there, but if you come in later you’re basically walking into a room full of strangers that are just kind of standing around and sitting on the floor. Some people may have beer or wine and they’re just hanging out. But I think you’ll find that it’s a very welcoming and friendly atmosphere with a lot open-minded people hanging out in a room for an hour and a half and they all want to hear some good music.
LP: How often do you guys put on shows?
EM: Right now we’re gearing up in the rhythm of two a month. We started off one every other, then one a month, and now we’re trying our hand at doing two a month to see how that goes. We’ve been getting a very positive response from the Chicago community since we’ve been here. More and more people have RSVP’d, so we’re trying to meet that demand, but also make sure that we are always sticking to providing quality music to the audience. We’re also trying to do two a month to keep up with the demand of artists that want to come in and play so we can put them in front of people.
LP: Do you feel these shows are more of a benefit for the artists or for fans?
EM: Well I think the reason Sofar has been so successful worldwide is because it’s both. I really do think that. I think for artists, and we hear time and time again, that it’s just a different experience. But it’s good for both because we will put 80 or 90 people in a room that are all there to hear and appreciate new music, and they love it because they get the experience from the audience that they’re craving, and the artists do as well because they’re getting 70, 80, 90 attentive audience members who get to hear what they’re putting out there and potentially get their next biggest fan.
LP: Is there more of an emphasis to promote local bands as opposed to bands traveling through?
EM: Well, I would say we don’t discriminate, per say, but there’s always the push to bring in local acts for shows. The shows have three artists playing sets, and we don’t go out with a mission to book a certain amount of local or touring, but the majority of the time it will be local artists. If we catch someone touring on the way through, that’s always a fun addition to the bill.
LP: Is there a particular artist or band that stands out in Chicago?
EM: Oh man, there’s so many. Yeah, I mean, you guys did a feature on Antony and the Tramps and I personally am just a humungous fan. They did, maybe our fourth show in the city, it was in Wicker Park a couple summers ago and it was just so...I mean everyone just had their jaw on the floor. But there’s a bunch of other ones, too. Matthew Santos has played for us a couple times, he’s just so talented and leaves people wanting more every time. We had Saba, who is a West side hip-hop artist, play for us. At the time, he was our first hip-hop artist, and the kid is just so talented. He played with an acoustic band and just tore the roof off. It was awesome.
LP: Do you get a lot repeat performers, or do you try to introduce new people for each show?
EM: Yeah, we try to keep the vast majority of our artists new. If we have people that are crowd favorites or were really great, or perhaps it was an artist we had a while ago that’s releasing a new album or whatever, then we’ll have them back. We don’t shy away from doing repeats, but we gotta let some time pass before that happens. We try to keep it pretty fresh.
LP: With these shows being in an intimate setting, like an apartment or art gallery, is it a conscious choice to bring in artists and bands whose music can fit that type of environment, or does that matter?
EM: Well, it kind of matters. We don’t want to change their element, but when we’re talking to artists, they wonder if they can mold to our vibe. And that’s why we push to have the vocals acoustic. If you’re not running your vocals through a PA, there’s always something about that that just makes the vocals so much more magical. And if you’re an artist, no matter what your genre is, if you’re comfortable enough doing acoustic vocals and can build your sound around that level of volume, it doesn’t matter what genre they are or what their vibe is.
LP: Is there an end goal with Sofar?
EM: That’s a good question. I think globally, there’s always landmarks that we’re looking at and ways we are looking to experiment. But for me personally, I want to be a first name that comes to mind for anyone who is on the way up and wants to get showcased. You know, I want to be on their radar for a show they think they need to play, or maybe not even need to play, but would love to play. And likewise with touring artists coming through. We’re not knocking down doors to get these big names to play Sofar shows because that’s not totally what we’re in it for. But I want Sofar to be a force in the Chicago music scene, as a positive influence. I’d like to be known as an avenue to help up-and-coming artists and be a first name that comes to mind when giving people a boost.
LP: So what bands would make up your ultimate Sofar Sounds evening?
EM: Oh man, that’s so hard. If I could pick three bands to come in and do it...um...man this would be really biased, but let’s see. I’d want an acoustic Radiohead session. I would want...I think Jay-Z. And I’d want, as my own little bucket list, I would want John Frusciante to come in and do one of his old-school singer-songwriter sets. Yeah, that would be a pretty good night, I think.
The Sofar Sounds: Chicago team is Eric Muhlberger, Kevin Mullikin, Caroline Kerr, Kelly Deasy, Lauren McClusky, and Elliot Fox.