For more than 20 years, Vern's bar and stage owner Clint Pike has opened the door of opportunity to bands, from the Sheepdogs and Marianas Trench to garage bands from down the street

thumb NEWClint-Pike Verns Hannah-Cawsey ae

Clint Pike has seen it all, from metal artists performing with severed goat heads on spikes to sermons of a Christian group, all from his post behind the bar at Vern’s.

On any given night, Vern’s hosts up-and-coming bands mainly from across Canada and the United States, but bands have travelled from as far as Tokyo to play in front of the infamous wall of cymbals.

Thousands of bands have taken the stage in the 20 years Vern’s has been open in Calgary, with anywhere from 60 to a 100 bands a month depending on the time of year. With owner Pike -- a fixture in the Calgary music scene -- manning the helm, the bands who take the stage at his bar gain valuable exposure and all the cash made in door sales.

Opening the bar was a labour of love, but Pike felt it was important to provide a venue in Calgary for bands of all genres and levels of popularity. They were one of the first venues in Calgary to book metal bands, partly because “like punk in the 70’s,” according to Pike, “it just wasn’t cool.”

Theassociation with punk and metal Vern’s has seems to have gripped on tenaciously, despite the wide array of bands that have taken the stage there.

Pike, 54, was born in Northern Quebec and grew up in Montreal. He was constantly surrounded by music, playing guitar and being a part of multiple bands. “My first band was straight-up rock,” recalls Pike. Another band of his he mentions could have been referred to as punk, “but it was because we sucked. It wasn’t really a style of music, we were just bad.”

He began going to concerts as a child, and remembers sitting on the beaches of the St. Lawrence River with his friends to listen to bands like Pink Floyd play at an open arena in southern Montreal. They couldn’t afford tickets to get in, so they’d grab some camping chairs, make an illegal fire on the beach and partake in some underage drinking while trying to hear the concert through the open roof of the arena.

While Pike has had a myriad of jobs, trying his hand at construction, painting, and computer programming, his true passion was live music and theatre. While he was hitchhiking west across Canada, a few of his friends were putting on a show at Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and gave him a small role in the play when he moved to the city in 1984. Once that wrapped up he was offered a part-time position as a bartender at the Unicorn Pub, where he enjoyed the live music the pub had on Saturday nights.

AE hannahcawsey clintpike EDPike does everything at Vern's from cooking food and pouring beer to booking bands and setting up equipment for live shows.

Photo by Hannah Cawsey
The association with punk and metal Vern's has seems to have gripped on tenaciously, despite the wide array of bands that have taken the stage there.

 Pike, 54, was born in Northern Quebec and grew up in Montreal. He was constantly surrounded by music, playing guitar and being a part of multiple bands.

"My first band was straight-up rock," recalls Pike. Another band of his he mentions could have been referred to as punk, "but it was because we sucked. It wasn't really a style of music, we were just bad."

He began going to concerts as a child, and remembers sitting on the beaches of the St. Lawrence River with his friends to listen to bands like Pink Floyd play at an open arena in southern Montreal. They couldn't afford tickets to get in, so they'd grab some camping chairs, make an illegal fire on the beach and partake in some underage drinking while trying to hear the concert through the open roof of the arena.

While Pike has had a myriad of jobs, trying his hand at construction, painting, and computer programming, his true passion was live music and theatre. While he was hitchhiking west across Canada, a few of his friends were putting on a show at Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and gave him a small role in the play when he moved to the city in 1984. Once that wrapped up he was offered a part-time position as a bartender at the Unicorn Pub, where he enjoyed the live music the pub had on Saturday nights.

Shortly thereafter, he decided to add his own flair to the Calgary music scene by opening his own bar on “Electric Avenue” at 613 11 Ave. S.W., where Broken City is today.  To do so, he relied heavily on support from his friends in the arts and music scene. “All we had was a low-interest credit card, and a lot of help from the music community,” Pike said.

With a mere $15,000 on his credit card to start the business, friends pitched in to help build, paint and decorate the bar. They added tables and chairs as they went, which helps explain the hodgepodge collection of furniture that still exists in Vern’s today.

Outside of Vern’s, music pours out from the front door before you even open it, and as you walk down the rickety wooden stairs to get to the bar, the bass reverberates through your feet to the tips of your fingers. To your left is a pool table and the bar, directly in front of you is the stage and a row of the mismatched tables and chairs.

A tall young man is taking cover at the door, $10 to see five bands. It’s a busy Saturday night, and a crowd of 200 people circulate between the stage and the bar, drinking cheap draft beer. Before hurrying behind the blonde wood bar to take drink orders, Pike adjusts sound levels while the band tunes their instruments.

Chris Thoresen, lead vocalist of Calgary band Shark Infested Daughters, has played at Vern’s five times in the past two years. He sais that the unique way that Clint is involved with the bar is a really positive aspect of performing at the venue. “Clint is the main bartender, doorman, sound guy, busser and booker. He is also the best in the city for making sure bands, especially touring acts, get paid. It’s an unfortunate norm in some bars across Canada where the owner or promoter will disappear before paying the agreed guarantee of gas money. Clint has never let that happen,” Thoresen said.

Clint-Pike Sound-check Hannah-Cawsey aeChris Thoresen (left) and Clint Pike (right) getting ready for sound check for Thoresen's band Shark Infested Daughters, Sept. 19th at Vern's.

Photo by Hannah Cawsey
Pike believes that giving the bands 100 per cent of the door sales is only fair. “A lot of bands put in hours of effort to get a show together, and they deserve that money,” Pike said.

While bars across the city have a variety of ways to pay bands, ranging from just a percentage of door sales to a set amount of money regardless of cover charge, Pike has found that his system works best for Vern’s. The door money goes to the performers, and all the alcohol sales go to the bar. “It seems to make the bands who play here the happiest, and that’s what I want,” he said.

Publisher of BeatRoute Magazine, production manager of the Calgary Journal, and local music savant Brad Simm has known Pike for about 10 years. “He must have the heart of 10 horses. He does everything. He’s the multi-, multi-tasker.  He cooks the food, he takes the door, he sets up the PA, he books the bands, he breaks up the fights, he serves the beer, he opens the place up, he shuts the place down, he’s like a huge locomotive,” explains Simm. “To do all this and to still be a smiley guy, I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Groups of people stand outside the front door, billowing a mixture of cigarette smoke and puffs of breath in the chilly air. They happily discuss the bands and their pleasurable experience at Vern’s. “There is not a single negative thing people can say about Clint,” patron, Katherine Guay said. “He is awesome because no matter if it’s your first time or your hundredth time, he makes you feel like an old friend.’”

Pike has a reputation as a booker who will give stage time to almost any band or act that asks, and welcomes repeat performances from bands. The diverse lineups at Vern’s range from bands who are stepping on stage for the first time to bands who have gone on to become nationally acclaimed, including The Sheepdogs and Marianas Trench.

Reminiscing about the night that Marianas Trench performed, Pike said “I remember it was a super cold night in February, there was about 32 people here, mostly young girls, and the band rocked it. They played like they were playing Woodstock.”

Simm said that Pike provides a crucial opportunity to lesser-known bands by giving them stage time and the chance to get out of their garage or basement. “In terms of his programming, he’s quite unique. He’ll put any band on a bill. He doesn’t care if you have a cd out, he doesn’t care if you’re ugly, good-looking, doesn’t even care about the music half the time,” he explains. “He’s a great egalitarian, he’ll let anybody play.”

"A lot of bands put in hours of effort to get a show together, and they deserve that money."

- Clint Pike, owner of Vern's Tavern

Pike’s casual approach to who plays on his stage is due to his belief that everyone has a story to tell. Whether they scream it or tell it in a monologue, whether it’s a new group or a veteran band, Pike said there is value in an original performance.

The rules for the bar are simple. Be respectful of what’s going on, be nice to one another and say please and thank you. “If you don’t like those rules, there are bars beside us and two across the street. Go there,” he said with a shrug.

He finds that the venue is basically self-policing, and that bands do a good job of ensuring that their friends and the people they invite are respectful of the venue and the patrons. He has never had a doorman, and thinks that bars that have them are implying that there is going to be some sort of violence. He rarely has to kick anyone out, though he has had to remove the occasional rowdy person from the mosh pit and “put them in a corner for a time-out.”

Pike’s laid-back demeanor mirrors the relaxed environment. Band stickers and broken cymbals vie for space on the crowded walls, and Clint said there are another nine or ten cymbals from the past couple weeks that he has been meaning to put up. The first circle of brass to be hung on the wall of Vern’s was put up about twenty years ago, when a band broke their cymbal, signed it and gave it to Pike. Other bands saw it and signed theirs after shows, growing Pike’s collection to dozens. “I say sure, why not? We have a couple holes in the walls, we just try to cover over some of the bigger ones,” Pike said. Thus, the wall of cymbals was born.

On the rare nights that Pike is not at Vern’s, Pike favours intimate music venues like Dickens Pub or the Ironwood Stage & Grill when he wants to watch a performer. Not only does he get to enjoy seeing bands perform there without having to worry about sound levels or microphone feedback, he gets to truly experience the concert.

“I haven’t seen a show at the Saddledome for probably 15 years. I like a show with a maximum crowd of maybe 2,500 people. Anything else, you’re kind of watching it on TV. I like shows where you can interact with everyone in the room; you can see and hear the band face to face. Anything more than that it’s meaningless, it’s like watching Much Music. It just doesn’t do anything at all for me,” Pike said.

NEWClint-Pike Verns Hannah-Cawsey aeAccording to Clink Pike, the performing bands get 100% of the door and merchandise sales, Vern's only makes money off the beer sales.

Photo by Hannah Cawsey
Pike has lived in the Ramsay community for years, and said a neighbourhood that has everything he needs. “It’s close to work, it has a bookstore, a bunch of little coffee shops, and it’s a couple blocks to the farmer’s market so I can get fresh food whenever I want.”

It’s also within walking distance to the zoo, where he used to take his two kids frequently. “We treated the zoo like a park because it’s about nine blocks from my house,” Pike said. “We’d go on the weekends, say hi to the giraffes, and see if the hippo had a baby yet.”

When asked about the difficulties that smaller music venues in Calgary face, Pike said there are plenty. He cites high business and property taxes, rigid alcohol laws and unceasing rent hikes all as major factors for establishments to run into trouble.

Additionally, buildings are sold or torn down, and changing property managers and landlords inflating rent costs have caused the Vern’s location to change a few times in its 20-year history, though it has been at its rented current 8 Ave. S.W. location for eight years. Another issue is the industry itself, which is often rampant and self-destructive with alcohol and drug use.

Brad Simm attributes these habits as part of the downfalls that a lot of clubs and their owners face, but thinks that Pike’s upbringing in a tough neighbourhood in Montreal is the reason that he hasn’t allowed himself to be caught up in that. “A lot of the club owners do a lot of stupid stuff. They get caught up with problems with city authorities, with taxes, not observing codes and regulations, with Canada Revenue Agency, drugs, girls, boys, whatever. He’s above all that,” Simm said.

Pike believes the future for live music in Calgary and across Canada is bright. More venues are offering bands the opportunity to play their stages, from cafés to pizza parlours. The availability of music is another important factor, Pike said. The internet, file sharing programs and websites like YouTube allow music lovers to access music of any genre they can think of, and it is opening young people’s minds to the possibilities of forming their own band and playing original music.

“The thing about Calgary is that it doesn’t have one particular sound. There is no ‘Calgary sound’ like people say there is a Nashville sound or Austin sound. Music here is all over the board,” Pike said, and that’s exactly what a city with a fledgling but emergent music scene needs.

Vern's is open daily, and bands play throughout the week. Events can be found on Vern's Facebook page and on Reverbnation.com.

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Editor's Note: Brad Simm in a faculty memember at Mount Royal University and production designer for the Calgary Journal