Where music still matters
Waterloo Icehouse celebrates one year as a local indie music venue
by Margaret Hair
When Louis Karp started putting out the word to bands about the one-year anniversary celebration of Louisville’s Waterloo Icehouse, he didn’t intend for four out of five of the acts he booked to be from Austin.
“Just in talking around and trying to find out who was available, it just kind of ended up that way,” he said of a lineup that features Junior Brown, Joe Ely, South Austin Jug Band and The Belleville Outfit, along with one Colorado native, Gregory Alan Isakov.
But for the Karp family, the connection is fitting. In 1982, Louis founded Austin’s Waterloo Records, which continues as one of the nation’s most successful independent record stores. Now an employee of Whole Foods Market, Louis co-owned the record store for five years and spent nearly three decades working with musicians and their products.
“I had worked for the music industry in Austin for 28 years, and I realized at some point in that career that music didn’t really matter that much to them,” he said of record labels and industry gurus. “So I decided I was going to try to do it myself, [and] I started Waterloo.”
Louis’s sons, Josh and Ryan, inherited that do-it-yourself aesthetic. To get things rolling at Waterloo Icehouse, the brothers teamed up with Josh’s wife Melanie to completely remodel a 106-year-old building on South Main Street.
“We built the whole piece ourselves. We ripped that place out and gutted it from the beginning, and we put 5,500 bricks up on the walls,” said Ryan, who co-organized the venue’s anniversary party with his father.
“It’s more our place that way, you know?… I think so much more we can call it our own [because of the] the sweat and tears that went into that place,” he said.
The Austin record store and the music production business Louis started as an offshoot have a lot to do with Waterloo Icehouse’s personality as a music venue and restaurant, which Josh and Melanie own and operate.
“That was a big part about it. My dad used to produce shows as part of it — he’s done a lot of work with Chris Isaak and k.d. lang,” Ryan said of Waterloo Records’ impact on his business plan.
“One day, as an idea, he (Louis) just threw it out there,” Ryan said of opening a venue in Louisville. “And we said, ‘What the hell. Let’s do it.’ And we did, and now it’s almost around the corner.”
The place to go in Louisville
As Waterloo Records — with its pioneering in-store concerts and listen-before-you-buy policy — was a touchstone and gathering place for Austin’s music community, the Karps set out to make Waterloo Icehouse the place to go in Louisville. Melanie, who acts as general manager, said the restaurant and venue has cultivated a sense of family in the past 12 months.
“There’s just been a good sense of community that has developed,” she said. “I think that people can feel free to come in here even if they don’t know anybody, and by the end of the night they’ve made friends, they’ve made connections. So it’s created a big family-like atmosphere for people to just come here and hang out.”
Starting out, the Icehouse had its challenges. Josh and Ryan were more bar guys than they were restaurateurs, and booking bands that are both affordable and original is never an easy task.
“At first, people hadn’t heard of these people or seen these people before, so it was just a challenge to get people in here,” Melanie said of the venue’s first few months of live music.
“But once the locals started to trust us on the types of bands that we were booking, and they knew they could come here and have a great time, it just kept feeding on that, and they kept coming back,” she said. “At first people were kind of like, ‘What is this place?’ But now I feel like we’re established.”
Part of that establishment has come from instituting a largely locally produced and organic menu of high-end bar food. The other part comes from the staff’s willingness to take risks in its music bookings, putting its faith in up-and-coming acts that might not have large crowd draws.
Indie folk singer Gregory Alan Isakov is a testament to that strategy’s success, as one of the Icehouse’s first recurring performers.
“Louis found him and said, ‘That guy’s going to be big,’” Melanie Karp said of Isakov’s rise to local notoriety through his gentle acoustic sound and strong sense of narrative. “And here he is; he’s probably not going to be able play here much longer because he’ll be too big.”Doing it for the right reasons
It all goes back to the catchphrase Louis gave Waterloo Records when the store opened more than 25 years ago: “Where music still matters.”
“That was kind of our guiding light, and our principle, if you would,” Louis said, listing the acts his production company found early on — Red Hot Chili Peppers, k.d. lang — and stuck with through the years. Karp feels the same way about Isakov as he did about the acts that came up in the early days of the Austin music scene. He figures someday Isakov will be famous, too.
“I guess for me, I always felt like we wanted to try to open up something of quality here,” Louis said of the Icehouse. “We wanted to be able to provide a venue with a good sound system and good music. It’s not a very original idea, but by trying to do it right and not cut corners, and by paying bands what they’re worth, [we hope] that we can start to launch more careers.”
Along the same lines, Waterloo Icehouse doesn’t charge a cover for its shows, and the $18.50 admission fee for its all-day anniversary is just enough to break even on the event’s featured bands and Texas barbecue.
“Everybody says the first year is the hardest, and when we first started putting it together with these bands, it was a challenge,” Melanie said. “We’re really celebrating how it’s come together and how the community has appreciated it and helped it.”
Ryan and Louis plan to make the anniversary party an annual event. Next time around, Louis is fairly certain the day’s music bill won’t be as heavy on Austin acts.
“If this is successful going forward, I think next year we’re going to try to get in front of this a lot faster, and try to book some up-and-coming bands in the U.S., and try to get that set in the next couple of months,” he said. “I don’t see four out of five of the bands next year being from Austin.”
Just as Waterloo Records created memories for the people who discovered music in the store, Louis believes Josh and Melanie will create memories for the people of Louisville.
“It’s all about doing it for the right reasons. It’s all about the music, and that’s kind of the driving force,” he said of the principles behind his store and production company, which he hopes will continue to drive the family’s restaurant and venue.
“When you try to do things for the right reasons, they’re usually successful. That certainly was the result with Waterloo Records, and hopefully it’ll come to fruition with Waterloo Icehouse.”
On the Bill
Waterloo Turns One takes place on Monday, Sept. 1, at the Steinbaugh Pavilion, 824 Front St., Louisville. Gates open at 11:30 a.m. for a day of live music, barbecue and beer. Tickets are $18.50 and are available in advance at Waterloo Icehouse, 809 South Main St., Louisville, 303-993-2094, www.waterloolouisville.com.
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