Michael Stratton is the right guy for the job. We couldn’t have come up with a better General Manager for the revived Bunkhouse Saloon if we’d grown one in a vat for that very purpose. The Grand Rapids, Michigan-born Stratton—a Las Vegas resident since 1988—understands what it takes to run a bar and music venue like few others do, having worked both backstage (at the Huntridge Theater) and onstage (as a member of the late, great local band 12 Volt Sex). He’s worked in food and beverage management; he’s worked in recording studios. He’s ready, almost supernaturally so.
With only weeks remaining before the Bunkhouse reopens on August 25, Stratton took a few minutes from a breakneck schedule to talk about the venue, and how he’s earned the pleasure of running it.
The last time we talked like this, you were in 12 Volt Sex, which dissolved in late 2000. What did you do after that?
I took a break from playing music. I really tried to take off from doing that for a while. I reopened the Huntridge (with Eli Mizrachi). Did that for a while, and then I wasn’t sure really what I wanted to do until I was offered a job to do proper food and beverage management. So I did that for seven or eight years, worked my way up. I looked at that job as going to school: you look back, and you take for granted how much you learned. That was an incredible experience, because I learned things I would have never known if I didn’t dive in like I did and turn my back on a lot of things.
Did you enjoy running the Huntridge?
It was great. Though, at the end of the day, there just weren’t the resources to do what everybody really wanted it to do. It wasn’t the 10-plus-million-dollar Huntridge that they’re hoping to do now. Back then, it was just family money, and we were trying to stay afloat.
What brought you to Downtown Project, and the Bunkhouse?
Downtown Project’s Aly Sapien and my friend Ryan Pardey talked to me: ‘Hey, we’ve heard that the Bunkhouse is going to reopen.” They said, “You’re the dude. We’ve got to introduce you to people.” I said, “I’m in L.A. making a record; I’m cool right now. But I would love to see what’s going on.”
They brought me in and introduced me around, and from that point on, it seemed really obvious. It really sparked a fire in me. This is the exact “best of both worlds” that I’d been looking for. It was an easy decision.
People have been clamoring for this venue to re-open since the minute it closed last year. Did you ever feel discouraged by how long it took to rehabilitate the space?
No, because I think it was really obvious to us what needed to happen. There were two choices: One was to turn it and burn it, open it back up. Or we could step back and say, “Do we have an opportunity to do this correctly?” Everybody involved agreed to do this right, and that takes time.
What kind of room is it now? Does it have Brooklyn Bowl aspirations?
I was having this conversation the other day, about direct comparisons to other rooms. I would consider us a smaller version of (West Hollywood’s) Troubadour or (Austin’s) Mohawk. I think the stage is perfect for the space, just like the Troubadour: it feels bigger than it is until it gets packed, and then it feels small. I think we’re going to be like that, as well. I would like for the Bunkhouse, on certain nights, to feel like just a dive bar … and on certain nights, I want it to feel like the best show you’ve been to in a really long time.
The Bunkhouse used to do indoor and outdoor shows, sometimes at once. Have you retained that capability?
We would love eventually to do outdoor. I don’t know when that’s happening. We’re really concentrating on the inside right now. That’s the first step, to figure that out. Anything else is just icing on the cake. Though we do have an awesome backyard area, with dining, that’ll be a good place to hang out.
What are your three favorite things about the remodeled Bunkhouse?
The first thing is the feeling of space. We expanded a little bit in the back, but we also rearranged the portioning of the building, and now the feeling of space in there is incredible. The second thing is that we get to be the first ones on the block. Not a lot of places can say that; that’s really exciting to me. And third is the way it’s positioned between old and new. I really like the historic elements of the building that we kept, mixed in with the new build-out.
So an old Bunkhouse patron could come in and feel at home?
Yeah. I think they’re going to notice that it’s different, but I think they’re also going to say, “Oh, I remember that. I remember that little thing.”
Tell me about the soundboard. I hear it’s amazing.
We’re one a few small rooms that’s going to have a Meyer sound rig, which is kind of top-notch. Cost is not really the issue, though; we could have spent more money, but that’s not the point. The point is building the correct system for the room and making the right choices for the room, and we 100% did that.
Local bands are going to get a chance to sound, hopefully, better than they’ve ever got a chance to sound on stage before, and to play through a legit system in a small room. I think there are a lot of incredible local bands that you’re going to see here and you’re going to say, “I did not know they were this good.” And the bands are going to know that stepping on stage.
The early round of national bookings is solid: Built to Spill, Bob Mould, Washed Out. Is this the quality of national bookings we can expect from Bunkhouse going forward?
Yeah. All the conversations that (Downtown Project music booker) Mike Henry and I have been about what makes sense for the Bunkhouse. It’s not like competing with the Joneses. What’s the best thing for the Bunkhouse? That’s why Built to Spill playing our first official opening day just was an overwhelmingly obvious choice to me. That says everything you want to say.
How many nights a week will you have music at Bunkhouse?
We’re going to program music for the majority of the week. Right off the bat, I’m looking at the calendar and there is something happening almost every day. The idea is to have music programming there, or some sort of programming there, more often than not.
Sounds like the kind of place you can just show up to, without knowing what you’re in for.
I would love for people to show up to the Bunkhouse sometimes and see bands that they can’t stand … but they still come back, because they just like to go there. There are always going to be things happening there, even if they don’t connect with them.
That’s the way it is in a lot of other cities. You go to the Mohawk, and even if there’s a local band playing, you might not know them. They might be horrible to your ears, but you still return the next night, because that’s just where you go.
PHOTO BY EMILY WILSON/DTP