Luke Allen’s songwriting process involves alcohol. He gets a good buzz going, usually from whiskey or beer. Inspiration hits as his BAC climbs. He grabs a pen and scribbles onto cocktail napkins. By the night’s end, his pockets are stuffed with bits of paper and in the morning, he edits. Most are thrown away, but some become lines in Happy Talk Band songs.
Allen is a bartender and musician, and alcohol permeates many aspects of life. Allen has been serving drinks for 13 years. He’s worked at the Circle Bar, Mimi’s, the Hi-Ho Lounge, Angeli’s, The Abbey and Saturn Bar. He’s at Mimi’s on Monday through Wednesday nights, and he works Fridays at the intimate Circle Bar, where he’s bartended since the late Kelly Keller ran it. He becomes sentimental when he talks about that bar, a lonesome building on Lee Circle.
Allen, like many musicians, can’t live off of what he makes at gigs. It’s a lucky musician who lives off of his or her art; most need other jobs such as bartending to pay the bills. Luke Allen’s not the only musician who bartends, and he’s not the only one who has to figure out how to make his work life and artistic life fit together.
Bartending doesn’t stir Allen’s creative juices like playing. A bartender has to count money, kick out aggressive customers, and keep people happy. Rather than participating in the madness, he observes it. Allen likens it to lifeguarding. “I lifeguard people compromising themselves and inspiring themselves,” he says. “It’s a job.”
Benji Lee, Supagroup’s guitarist and the Saint’s bartender, agrees. “When you’re a bartender, you’re working,” Lee says. “When you’re playing, people come to see your music. They don’t expect anything else out of you except to see you rocking. Two different things. One is a job, and one is the opposite of job.”
For Lee, dealing with drunk people is the hardest part of bartending. Drunks hassle him for drinks, which he responds to by ignoring them. He would prefer crowds of sober people than a couple of aggressive drunks.
But the more people drink, the better business is. While Lee and Allen deal with drunken customers, Die Rötzz drummer and Green Goddess co-owner Paul Artigues runs a business based on alcohol. The Green Goddess, a funky restaurant and bar in Exchange Alley, has a four page menu—one page for food, three for drinks.
“I think you want everyone to drink,” Artigues says. “That’s the business side. You want people drinking when you’re playing for them; you want people drinking when you’re cooking for them. That’s the business of pushing alcohol.”
Artigues doesn’t think there’s a contrast between bartending and music. He plays at work, entertaining his coworkers in the kitchen by improvising beats and silly songs, some of which develop into songs. He sees the Green Goddess and Die Rötzz as responsibilities. “To put on a good show, there’s A, B, and C things you need to get done,” he says. “It’s the same thing with the restaurant. Certain things need to happen.”
Lee uses his job as a source of creativity. When he began bartending, he was a senior at Tulane and just popped caps and slung drinks. Now he likes mixing monsoons and other tiki drinks, which livens up Tuesday night karaoke. “I’ve come to love bartending a lot more from doing it so long, because you get bored and start trying to be better at what
you do and get to different levels of bartending.”
Supagroup’s song “I Need a Drink” is a result of bartending. It’s based on a retired gentleman who drank daily at the Circle Bar and grumbled, “Work is the drinking man’s curse.” Lee’s brother Chris was a bartender there and the drunk’s lament became a joke between the brothers. Dressed in a black Van Halen shirt, Lee leans on the bar and imitates the elderly drinker, growling the phrase that inspired a song.
All three musicians drink onstage. Supagroup is a hard-drinking band and recorded “Let’s Go Get Wasted”. Allen suffered from a bad case of stage fright when the Happy Talk Band started and knocked back a couple of shots of whiskey before the show. Musicians are brought drinks onstage, and it’s easy to be “shit-canned”, as Allen eloquently puts it, by the end of the show.
There aren’t many cities that have a rich history in both music and cocktails like New Orleans. “Pretty synonymous with playing music is being in bars and being around bars,” says Lee. “It’s like you can see your friends when you’re working, so I don’t have to go out that much because I see everyone here that I want to see.” Lee and his buddies often wind their way to the Saint and settle into the dark bar on St. Mary’s Street where they can drink past sunrise. For Lee and Allen, bartending is the work that lets them play.