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One half block from the Bewitched statue and a three-minute walk from the Salem stop on the MBTA commuter line, two Asian-themed restaurants are reminding Massachusetts that Salem is more than a Halloween town. Their names are Koto and Opus. They’re both on Washington Street. Their front doors face each other. And together, they’re making the city a music destination.
Koto and Opus aren’t punk clubs masquerading as restaurants. They’re fully functional sit-down eateries, separately owned, that both happen to double as venues.
“We make do with what we have here,” says Harley Sutherland, the promoter — and common link — between both spaces. He’s the booker in the middle of the sushi/punk venn diagram.
At Opus, the performance space is underneath the restaurant: A series of small, connected rooms with brick archways, a few arcade games, a bar with a serious cocktail program, and a rugged quadrant for bands to play. At Koto, a low black stage sits at the rear of the restaurant, inescapable to diners and bar goers. A heavy sign hanging above the stage with a pentacle in the middle hints at the nightlife. There are other subtle differences besides the spaces themselves; Koto has the better sushi, Opus the better tapas and apps for non-Asian fare.
Sutherland’s events are usually promoted under “It’s Gonna Get Weird”, the oft-appearing moniker on posters and the name of the Facebook page which posts upcoming events for the “punk, rockabilly, hardcore, and everything in between” shows at the two restaurants.
The 32-year-old controls the calendar at Koto, with other bands and promoters setting up their own shows in between. He also books Mondays at Opus, and one Friday per month. “Mondays are a dead night at Opus,” Sutherland says of the differences between the two. “Weekend shows are usually one band, like funk, that won’t interfere with their dinner crowd. At Koto, you can do whatever. You can have a metal show on a Friday. It doesn’t matter; they’re happy to have the bar sales. At Opus, it’s specific. We can’t have anything heavy unless it’s on Monday. You have a couple having cocktails and then these punks come up. Culture shock.”
Originally from Gloucester, Sutherland moved to Connecticut at the age of 13 and stayed for 15 years before moving to Salem four years ago. “I got here at a lull,” Sutherland says. “Bangkok [which is now Koto] just closed. Dodge Street just closed. There weren’t any shows. It was weird seeing so many punks in the area and there not being any music.”
“There’s always been a music scene here, but it was specifically divided,” recalls Jeremiah Louf, singer and guitarist of The Devil’s Twins. He grew up in Salem and moved back to the city last year. “There were three places to play when I first lived here. None of the three exist anymore: The Salem Elks, Sputniks, and Dodge Street.”
When Louf relocated from Boston to Salem after a 10-year absence, it wasn’t just to live — it was also to open a new office for his business, digital agency known.creative. If you had asked him when he was graduating Salem High School if he ever thought he’d return, the answer would have been a resounding no.
When it comes to Boston-based bands feeling a gravitational pull to the north, he’s not alone. Some bands, like Petty Morals and I Was Awake, also have members living in Witch City. Others like Salem Wolves find thematic inspiration. Then there are the bands — Diablogato, Tigerman WOAH (pictured up top at Opus), Gold Blood & Associates, Ladymob, to name a handful of the many — that have become staples at both Koto and Opus.
Sutherland, who didn’t have previous experience as a promoter before moving to Salem, booked his first show at Opus four years ago this April. “When I started, it was all hippie jam bands here,” ” he says. “I just wanted to see shows and not have to go to Boston for them. It’s like Field of Dreams. Build a scene here and it runs itself.”
It may not seem intuitively straightforward to lure audiences to the basement of a restaurant or convince unsuspecting diners who begin their evening sharing crab rangoon to cough up a door fee when they find themselves in the middle of a show come 9:30 p.m. But, according to Sutherland, it’s not only that straightforward… it didn’t even need time to take off.
“The bands were here and the people wanted to see shows. They were just waiting for the right venue. I didn’t really have to do a lot,” he shrugs. “Bands play the shows and people come out. I just organize it. That’s it. People were hungry for it. There’s no shortage of bands. I don’t have to seek bands out. I’m booked into June right now.”
“I got here at a lull… There weren’t any shows. It was weird seeing so many punks in the area and there not being any music.” — Koto and Opus booker Harley Sutherland
Salem is only 25 miles north of Boston, a city with a touted world class arts scene and venues-a-plenty. In theory, bands shouldn’t have any incentive to travel at all. It’s the home of The Cars, Pixies, Mission of Burma, and a massive population of 20-somethings seeking nightlife options.
Yet, a large residential body of college students isn’t exactly an intuitive win for bands.
Husband and wife, musicians, and Boston ex-pats Troy Schoeller (Razors in the Night) and Lauren Recchia (Petty Morals) moved to Salem in April 2012. Recchia had previously bounced between Cambridge, Somerville, Brighton, and Allston. Schoeller owned a condo in Allston and ran a storefront on Harvard Avenue called Horror Business.
“Salem is an old city, but has a cool upstart feel to it,” Schoeller says. “I think because everyone is getting priced out of Allston and Brighton. That’s where the bands were. That’s why I moved there. But all of a sudden, my street was Range Rovers and Lexuses and rich college kids. I still love the venues in Allston, but we have a molding capability here [in Salem] to make it good.”
For the two, moving to Salem was the right fit in terms of cost and culture. “Any time people come to a party here, I swear five more people move,” Recchia says.
The affordability that Recchia and Schoeller found as property owners also translates to fair pricing and room fees at venues — and another reason Salem may be a popular option for Boston bands. Cover charges for audiences at Koto and Opus are either free or between $5 and $10.
“At Opus, there’s no room fee,” Sutherland says. “At Koto, it’s a $50 room fee and that’s just to have a door guy. For a free show, I get Opus to pay out of house, so the bands are all compensated. It’s hard to get people to pay more than $10. They’re like, ‘This is Salem, not Boston.’ Yeah, you’re right. But then you look at Boston and they’re charging $400 for a friggin’ room fee. Or, I think, $1500 at the new place in Central Square. If you’re looking at the overhead, it leaves no room for local bands. If you’re paying room fees like that, you can only do big acts. Here, we don’t really do national acts or touring acts. We do local acts, every week.”
When a local act starts to gain momentum and break out, that sticks with Sutherland. “Seeing their first show and now seeing how far a band’s come is special,” he says. “Also seeing bands that have started from these shows. Like people who would come to the shows, become friends, and start bands. Or bands that have never played together, be on a bill together, and then see them pop up on other shows together. Knowing that we made that connection for them is pretty cool.”
Even looking at a listing of this year’s Rock And Roll Rumble class, Sutherland points at the names: Heavy Necker, Tenafly Vipers, Heel & Arrow, The Rupert Selection, Carissa Johnson. They’ve all logged hours at Opus and Koto this past year. His gesture isn’t an attempt to take credit so much as it is a simple fact that peaking bands have scene support in Salem. It’s also not the first year Rumble alumni have had Salem ties.
Last year’s Rumble lineup included not only The Devil’s Twins, but also Salem Wolves. Salem Wolves played their first show at Opus in June 2015 and singer/guitarist Gray Bouchard credits both the club, and Salem, with helping the band find their sea legs.
“We played with Heel & Arrow, Black Oil Incinerator, and Tenafly Vipers,” Bouchard says. “The show was surreal for a lot of reasons. First off, I’d literally never been fed by a venue before. There was real food, sushi, and drink tickets you could use on microbrews. It was also the first time, as a band, we felt like we weren’t just holding everyone hostage and waiting for stockholm syndrome to set in. Everyone from the people who came out, to the bartenders, seemed happy to be there. We hadn’t seen that anywhere else. People were out because they liked the vibe of the place, not necessarily because they recognized the band names on the bill.”
“Salem is an old city, but has a cool upstart feel to it… I think because everyone is getting priced out of Allston and Brighton.” — Troy Schoeller of Razors in the Night
For Bouchard, who lives in nearby Saugus, it’s an added perk that playing a show in Salem means an early bedtime before work the next day. But besides the sheer convenience of playing closer to home for bands who live north of Boston, there’s a broader appeal to frequenting the smaller market.
“I think the overall appeal, both in the music industry and outside, is this,” says Louf. “Salem is big enough to be a city, but small enough to be a community. I love Boston and it’s funny to think they’re two separate markets now. For new bands, you could go to Boston, play a bunch of shows, and cut your teeth at the Midway for two years. But if you’re a hardworking band and good at making decisions, look at the two opportunities. For goal-oriented bands, there’s a clear opportunity here in Salem with this growing culture.”
Louf, however, doesn’t quite buy Sutherland’s “if you build it they will come” mantra. He attributes the growth in the scene more directly. “Harley is the most humble person in the world,” he says. “Looking at his hospitality alone is a good indicator of what’s happening up here. You need a good band, cool venue with more than one reason to go, and a really passionate promoter — who cares and believes in the bands and is professional. That’s who Harley is.”
Beyond music, Salem is flourishing developmentally overall. Next to Louf’s agency, a four-story hotel is being built in the parking lot. Another hotel is planned for Essex Street. Recchia and Schoeller have a hard time listing every restaurant that’s opened since their move, five years earlier. But perhaps the final (and most obvious reason) for Salem’s cultural epicenter, isn’t about what’s new, but what’s old. Opus sits next to the nation’s second oldest city hall, built in 1837. Standing in front of Koto and looking to the left, signs point to Gallows Hill Museum and Salem Witch Dungeon. And like Sutherland has maintained all along: The punks were already there even if they were punks with no country.
“Of course this is happening in Salem,” says Bouchard, who with Salem Wolves has a propensity to write lyrics about historical events of 400 years ago. “It’s Salem. People have been coming here for years because a bunch of teenage girls said the devil snuck into their rooms at night and made them sign his black book. If that doesn’t make it a destination for spooky weirdos and weirdo bands, what would?”
Follow Fallon Masterson on Twitter @MasterFallon All photos provided by Harley Sutherland.