The walls are covered with staples, thousands of tiny relics of bands gone by. Some of the staples still serve a purpose — holding up band flyers at The Nick, one of Birmingham’s quintessential music venues where, literally, the writing is on the walls.
The Nick is not on any shortlist for an architectural design award. Low-hanging rafters, pool tables and dark walls make up the interior of the unassuming building that’s nestled next to an overpass of the Red Mountain Expressway.
People often get exactly what they expect while attending a show at The Nick: loud music, scuzzy guitar riffs, stiff drinks and generally wild behavior.
The Nick is a far cry from the Alabama Theatre, another one of Birmingham’s treasured venues, built in 1927. Cloaked by the amaranthine stage curtain and the cavernous, ornately decorated interior, any band who has played The Nick would perhaps be found out of place on the stage that is home to “Big Bertha” the aptly named Wurlitzer organ that demands the attention of anyone in the room when it ascends from beneath the stage.
Music and architecture share a unique relationship, one that can often go unnoticed, unless the acoustics of a venue are bad, said Neil Davis who helped design venues like WorkPlay and the Alys Stephens Center with his firm, Davis Architects.
Davis believes that the structural elements of a venue play an equal if not bigger role in a live musical production, which he repeatedly refers to as “a shared experience.” Otherwise, you would just put some headphones on and close your eyes, he said.
“Everyone wants to feel as though they are part of the experience. That is an important element in designing a venue,” Davis said. “You can’t have any dead space or places where people are going to feel excluded.”
In a way, Davis said, architectural design has helped music fill the spaces of larger and more modern venues. Arena rock would not work in a confined space, nor would anyone want to listen to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in a football stadium.
“Now with these big arenas they make money off memorabilia, how many drinks they sell and all of that,” Davis said. “So, acts and a style of music are developed for this. It can still be intimate, but on a whole different scale. Seeing live music is always a shared experience no matter how big the venue.”
He recalled once seeing The Who perform at Legion Field. “It was stadium rock, sure, but they really rocked. The whole experience there is a great example of the visual aspect being absolutely just as important as the sound,” Davis said. “It was a sensory overload in every way. And I think you’re seeing a lot more of that. It really lets you crank up the music and let the patrons feel it in their bones.”
Speaking at a recent TED Talk, David Byrne, front man for the legendary rock band Talking Heads, explained the ways in which he believes architecture has helped shape modern music.
Byrne showed a slide of a music venue that resembled The Nick — dark, grungy and covered with old flyers — where he used to play music before he was with the Talking Heads. He recalled how the nature of the room blended perfectly with the rhythms and the sounds of the band. “We had to play loud enough to overcome the sound of people falling down, shouting out and whatever else they were doing,” Byrne recalled.
“Since then I’ve played places that are much nicer, like Carnegie Hall. It’s very exciting, but I also noticed that the music I had written didn’t sound all that great in some of those halls,” Byrne said. “We managed, but sometimes the halls didn’t seem suited for the music I had made.
“I asked myself, ‘Do I write stuff for specific rooms? Do I have a place in mind when I write? Is that a model for creativity?’” Byrne wondered.
Davis agreed with Byrne’s line of inquiry. “If it was just about the music every venue would be a big black box with good acoustics,” Davis said. “But nobody would want that because that’s not what it’s about.”
During Byrne’s TED talk he addressed African music, which began playing during the lecture. “The instruments, the intricate rhythms, the way it’s played, the setting, the context, it’s all perfect. The music works perfectly in that setting,” Byrne said, adding that most popular music today has roots in West Africa. “It’s no accident and it’s perfect. It would be a mess if that kind of music were played in a gothic cathedral.”
On Jan. 19, Davis will take part in a panel discussion at Avondale music venue Saturn with Brian Teasley, Saturn’s owner, and Sean Price, guitar player for the band Erra, to discuss the relationship between music and architecture.
The Birmingham chapter of the American Institute of Architects will facilitate the discussion.
Rhea Williams, executive director of AIA Birmingham, said that she hopes to get people thinking about various design elements and how they feed into the music.
“We want people to think about the venues they enjoy here,” Williams said. “The acoustics, the location of the bar, these are all things that architects take into consideration. They want to utilize every square foot of that space.”
From the newly reopened Lyric Theatre to the freshly minted Saturn, Birmingham has a wide variety of venues. Individually, they serve as snapshots of the era of music in which they were constructed, Williams said.
When approaching the idea and conceptualizing what Saturn could be, Teasley said it truly was a team effort and didn’t hesitate to dole out appreciation for everyone involved in the project and turning his dream into reality.
“All of those people worked tons of hours for modest reward because of their love of the project,” Teasley explained. “It was certainly a group effort, but the most positive thing I can say is that the project was fairly actualized and ended up how I originally envisioned it. That obviously rarely happens in the world of design.”
A musician himself, Teasley said that his experiences while touring and being exposed to “thousands of clubs over the last 20 years,” helped him come up with a list of nonnegotiable elements he wanted to be included in the new venue.
“Things like the size of the stage in relation to the room; the accessibility and number of stalls with the bathrooms; the functionality, speed and efficiency of the bars; having (for lack of a better term) an apartment for the bands and not just a green room; having a separate bar where there’s never a cover to get in; making the room acoustics great from the onset; being able to have silencers on the air conditioning and machines that make noise in the venue,” Teasley said.
Perhaps the most important element of Saturn’s design, he said, is that it’s a place that bands want to play. Happy musicians make for happy crowds.
“It’s sort of like riding a roller coaster in that if you’re thinking about the safety mechanisms and the engineering to any real degree, it clouds the sheer thrill of the ride. On the other hand, it’s nice to have people say that everything sounded great or to simply to be cognizant that it was an above average experience due to the efforts from our side of the equation,” Teasley said. “Music, when performed well, is powerful enough on its own accord. It’s a bit corny and overused to say this, but it’s ultimately all about the music.”