IF THERE IS ONE THING THAT GETS SLOW & LOW REVED UP, IT’S A PROPER DIVE BAR! ADD IN LIVE MUSIC, DEDICATED REGULARS, AND YOU HAVE THE LEGENDARY EMPTY BOTTLE IN CHICAGO. WE GOT TO SIP ON WHISKEY AND TALK TRASH WITH FORMER BARBACK AND NOW MANAGING PARTNER MATT CIARLEGLIO ABOUT SWEEPING FLOORS, A CAT NAMED PEG, AND “FREE MONDAYS”…
YOU HAVE WORKED AT EMPTY BOTTLE FOR YEARS, WORKING YOUR WAY UP FROM A BARBACK TO MANAGING PARTNER. WHAT DOES THE EMPTY BOTTLE MEAN TO YOU AND HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN THE LEGACY THAT IT’S BUILT WITH MUSIC FANS AND ARTISTS ALIKE?
I started here shortly after I turned 21 – so that would be 13, almost 14 years ago. I had been coming here before I was 21… We are 21+ (laughs), but playing shows, sneaking in, you know – it struck me as one of the best venues in the city, so I got a job here. Just started part time checking IDs and doing door and gradually kept working, and working, and working, and eventually became bar manager, venue manager, marketing manager, and now here I am today.
THAT’S AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, IN TERMS OF EVERY STEP UP THE LADDER. HOW DOES THAT TYPE OF EXPERIENCE INFORM YOUR MANAGEMENT? AND TO THAT POINT, HOW BIG IS THE TEAM HERE AT EMPTY BOTTLE?
It’s pretty small; altogether we have about 25 people – that’s bartenders, door staff, lighting, office, custodial staff. We have pretty low turnover. A lot of people like working here, which is really great. I mean, I’ve worked here forever (laughs). In terms of informing my decisions, something that definitely struck me when I first came here was how cool the staff was and how comfortable they were and genuinely seemed like they liked their jobs. That’s something that I try to push in my management style – making sure the staff is treated well, feels comfortable and enjoys what they do.
HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN THE LEGACY OR THAT REPUTATION THAT ITS BUILT, BOTH WITH THE FANS AND THE PATRONS, AS WELL AS THE MUSICIANS WHO COME AND PLAY THROUGH HERE?
That’s a great question (laughs). I mean it is kind of intimidating coming into this level of ownership with the rich legacy that it does have; I definitely don’t wanna fuck that up at all. But time progresses and you do have to push forward in some new way, but one of the beautiful things about here is that fundamentally, it doesn’t have to change that much because the foundation is [built on] community and good shows. So the legacy to me, as I said just a second ago, is making sure that the staff is happy and treated well, that the artists are treated well and are treated equally. That was something that I noticed the first time I played here before I actually started working here – this was the first real venue in Chicago that I had played and I was like, “holy shit, I have no idea what I’m doing.” But they treated us so well for being nervous teenagers, you know. So yeah, making sure our production and lighting staff treats every band equally regardless of how big they are really shines through with the legacy of the whole.
WHAT IS THE BEST PART ABOUT MANAGING A BAR & MUSIC VENUE? IS IT THE PEOPLE YOU MEET, THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH, THE LIVE MUSIC, THE DRINKS?
(Laughs) I mean obviously the music is great. I really love discovering new music. I still do. Which is wild that you can spend time in this kind of industry and then still be surprised when you find a new band that is really good. But I really like all aspects of it. Some of it’s really annoying, but it’s kind of chaotic. I love it; I thrive in that environment. It’s a wild fuckin’ ride, but I love it.
THIS IS A VERY PEOPLE-DRIVEN BUSINESS, FROM THE PATRONS AS WELL AS THE MUSICIANS PERFORMING – ARE THERE ANY STANDOUT STORIES OR EXPERIENCES?
There are so many for sure, it’s hard to quantify. Jack Black showed up here a few years ago, and he was a real character. Drank a lot of Jager. During festival season, like Lollapalooza, Pitchfork whatever – there’s always really famous people that come to town, and thankfully we get pretty large acts doing underplays here, so you never really know who’s gonna show up. Jack Black was really funny. Michael Shannon comes here often, and his drink of choice is lemon vodka and soda with a lime; he’s a nice guy. In terms of other big stuff that happened recently, Jack White played here in December - that was pretty phenomenal. He was one of my idols in the early 2000s, you know the rock revival sort of thing, so seeing that here was really impactful. And when he was on stage he was like, “This is my favorite venue in Chicago, never let this place close,” and it was a heartwarming moment.
WHY DO YOU THINK EMPTY BOTTLE STANDS OUT COMPARED TO OTHER BARS/VENUES IN CHICAGO AND IS SUCH A STAPLE FOR LOCALS AND VISITORS ALIKE?
I think that it’s two reasons. Well, I mean there [are] a million, but I think that the two reasons that it boils down to are the building itself – architecturally, it’s pretty odd; it’s like a corner bar and it feels kind of like a tavern – and then the people that work here and make the experiences happen really make it stand out. It goes back to making the bands feels comfortable, making them want to come back because it’s so chill. There’s no heady bullshit, and I think it’s kind of unabashedly itself. The Empty Bottle is unique in that way where it’s like its own cultivated energy that abides in the wall. It sounds cheesy maybe, but you can really feel that.
MUSIC IS A BIG PART OF THE MAGIC OF EMPTY BOTTLE. ARE THERE ANY SHOWS THAT STAND OUT TO YOU IN PARTICULAR OVER THE YEARS?
So many. First ones that come to mind – I always love seeing Lightning Bolt here. Chicken is wild. Angel Olsen started playing here before she blew up – those are always incredible. What else? W.I.T.C.H. was great. One of the best shows I’ve seen in recent memory is this duo Called Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul – from London, I believe. Phenomenal new record that came out in 2021, it’s called “Topical Dancer,” and the record’s great – I’ve never heard anything quite like it – but the live show blew my mind. Like, totally should be in a stadium; phenomenal energy. Usually people have a good time when they’re here, but having a sold out show and having them on the stage looking around everyone was smiling and having the best time.
SLOW & LOW IS SPONSORING THE “FREE MONDAY” SERIES THIS YEAR, CAN YOU EXPLAIN MORE ABOUT THIS NIGHT AND HOW IT CAME TO BE?
Free Monday is almost as old as the Bottle, which is like 33 years, I think, so it’s been going on a really long time. My business partner, Bruce Finkelman, started it as a way (and it still holds up) like the code of conduct for having free shows – like everybody deserves to see live music, even if you can’t afford it all the time. Having a free night in Chicago – where we can have smaller touring bands, local bands that are new, and even some bigger bands that just wanna play a free show – available to the community and to cultivate a Chicago music scene that’s available to everybody is really important. I’ve definitely been super broke and [couldn’t] afford tickets to a show but wanted to go socialize. Having a free show is great and helps support that community aspect. And it’s really good to have cheap drinks available, like Slow & Low on special that night, so everyone can have a good time. [Without] diving too much into it, I think the mental health aspects of being able to go to shows is kind of underplayed a lot, where not everyone wants to go socialize just at a bar; but going to a show kind of allows that community feeling without having the social anxiety for some people – or, you know, just be hanging out and forced to talk to people. It’s like you’re a part of something and able to still feel the community and have a shared experience.
CAN YOU SHARE 3 SONGS THAT SUM UP THE EMPTY BOTTLE/FREE MONDAY EXPERIENCE?
That’s tough. First one that comes to mind – and I think this a very situational question because everybody experiences the place and life differently, so it’s hard to not put a personal spin on what it means to me through three songs, but trying to generalize it – I would say “Live to Win” by Motörhead, that’s one. I think the Lenny vibe and the Bottle are very similar in terms of unabashedly wild, loud, but also pretty friendly and nice. What else? I would say “Dead Moon Night” by Dead Moon. And the other one would be “Caribbean Queen” by Billy Ocean.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE WHISKEY DRINKING SONG?
This is an interesting one; it sparks up a story from my early 20s – I drank a lot of whiskey. Loved it. But, I would say, that Foghat song “Slow Ride” – stupid fucking classic rock shit, but it has a whiskey story from a friend that passed away a few years ago, so that’s my whiskey drinking song. It has a summer-y sort of feel to it I like about classic rock – being outside, drinking whiskey in the summer – it is very nostalgic to me.
LASTLY, WE KNOW THAT OUR FURRY CAT FRIEND, PEG, IS REALLY THE ONE IN CHARGE… WHEN DID PEG BECOME A MANAGING PARTNER? ANY FUN STORIES YOU WANNA SHARE?
Peg became managing partner and the real boss early on in the pandemic lockdown. In late 2020 we adopted her, and she was the guardian for the closure period of time. Once we reopened, she really started to shine as lead security and has just been making all the right choices since then. Like, she’s a wild one. She loves sitting in the merch booth in the other room by the pool table. Whenever bands set up their merch it’s usually around 5-5:30, when they load in. And that’s the perfect sunny spot so she’ll go and watch the merch for them as they’re setting up. Loves hanging out there. She interacts with everybody – right about when the show ends at 11:30 or midnight, she’ll just pop up on the bar, and seeing the expression on people’s faces is endlessly enjoyable. Because not everybody knows that Peg is here all the time – so it’s 5-6 people who are like, “holy shit, a cat’s here!?” It’s great.
BE SURE TO CHECK THE CALENDAR FOR ALL THE UPCOMING SHOWS AT EMPTY BOTTLE https://www.emptybottle.com/ AND SWING BY @EMPTYBOTTLE AND GIVE PEG A PET & HAVE MATT BUY YOU A SLOW & LOW ; )