The new Shibuya Hi-Fi bar wants to make Ballard a destination spot for elevated DJ culture, focused listening on an elite stereo system, and sophisticated cocktails. That's an ambitious and risky goal, but if anyone can pull of this herculean feat, it's owners Brian Rauschenbach and Quentin Ertel and musical director DJ Supreme La Rock (aka Danny Clavesilla). They form one of Seattle's most powerful and experienced teams of local nightlife lifers.
Rauschenbach and Ertel have worked together in Seattle clubs for 20 years. The former's a DJ who just retired after 30 years behind the decks and formerly owned Capitol Hill hip-hop-oriented club War Room. The latter owns Havana and formerly the Saint, managed Chop Suey, and bartended at the Showbox. The globetrotting Supreme is perhaps Seattle's foremost ambassador for vinyl DJing and record collecting, as well as being half of the excellent '90s/'00s electronic duo Sharpshooters and catalyzing the city's hip-hop scene since the '80s.
Opening on September 21, the 236-capacity Shibuya has been in the planning stage for years. With the old Cedar Room location on Leary Avenue NW vacant, the trio pounced. “[Ballard] feels perfect now, because there are restaurants and bars and live entertainment just around the corner from us, but we're sort of a block off of that,” Rauschenbach says in an interview that took place in Shibuya's awesome listening room (more of which later).
The main impetus to open Shibuya originates in Rauschenbach's family: his parents met in a Korean vinyl cafe. “My mom was a DJ, my dad was a GI. My mom played 45s [in the cafe], and my dad would request songs. I never related to the experience that basically created me. Traveling abroad and getting exposed to a lot of stuff in Japan and seeing what was left over from American GIs, and talking to Supreme, he's been to all of these vinyl-listening bars in Japan—it really is just a more slowed-down vibe.”
While Ballard is surely a music-mad neighborhood, with Sunset Tavern, Tractor Tavern, Conor Byrne, and Sonic Boom Records in close proximity, it isn't known for its embrace of DJ culture. But Ertel and company aren't concerned about that. “As far as people in Ballard being receptive to it, this is such a vibrant neighborhood—maybe even more so than Pike/Pine... just in a different way, at different times of day,” Ertel says. “I feel like everyone in this neighborhood is a vinyl aficionado.”
“We've seen a resurgence of people loving vinyl,” Rauschenbach says. “We've had plumbers come in here and say that they have a 500-record collection. If we go to the Ballard hardware store around the bend and have conversations with people, they all have record collections. I can't remember a time during my life in Seattle where I've been surrounded by people loving vinyl again. I don't know if that was a [result] of COVID, when we spent more time in our homes and couldn't go out to nightlife, so we were listening to records again. I know I did.”
Whether this anecdotal evidence of enthusiasm for analog delivery systems translates into hordes of thirsty, booze-loving folks populating Shibuya's opulent rooms remains to be seen, but the owners' optimism is contagious. And speaking of those rooms, they're testaments to Rauschenbach and Ertel's scrupulous attention to detail, though they are still works in progress. The main room's concrete floor and mirrored walls have proved sub-optimal to their audiophile ears.
The DJ booth, however, might be the best I've ever seen... and I've seen a lot. Two Technics SL-1200 MK2 turntables flank a Bozak AR-4 mixer, while two deep record bins frame this set-up, so DJs don't have to stoop to flip through their stacks (Shibuya's a vinyl-only venue, in case you didn't notice). An anti-fatigue mat keeps legs and feet comfortable. There's a last-call mic that looks like a telephone receiver. And if a DJ brings platters in milk crates, Shibuya's built a shelf for that. “The music's going to be all the stuff that we wish we could play [in our regular DJ gigs] at clubs and bars, but the crowd's just not tuned in that way,” Rauschenbach says. “This is going to be a DJ's DJ bar.”
The booth looks out onto the well-stocked bar, whose shelves hold not only high-quality liquor but also records, which bartenders play in the 5 pm-10 pm zone, before the real disc jockeys take over. “We'll have a lot of original cocktails, but we'll also have stuff that's pulled out of really old cocktail books,” Ertel says. “There's dozens of them. Some of them are Gentlemen's Companion. On the current menu, there's one item from the Death & Company book, an item from the PDT book. There's a book of cocktails from 1910. And then there's stuff I made up along the way over the years. At the back bar, we'll have some specialty bourbons. We're going to try to get some bottles that you can't get at other places or maybe in very few places.
“We want the bar program to match the approach to hi-fi and music. Giving people an experience they're comfortable with, but maybe pushes the boundaries. It's Ballard, so of course we'll have beer on tap. We'll always have one or two beers from the breweries around here. We have wine on tap from a local winery, Proletariat. We're going to do a water menu and some non-alcoholic beverages, also.”
What's unusual about Shibuya is its focus on the enclosed back room, where, for a fee, 25 patrons at a time participate in 30-minute listening sessions. (Rauschenbach had DJed 10 times in this building when it was the Cedar Room without even realizing that it existed.) The cozy space has the same wooden slats that dominate the main area, but the cushiony sofas, chairs, and booths, afghan rug, and arty chandeliers procured from Benaroya Hall's Founder's Lounge conjure a vastly different, more chill vibe. You must remove your shoes before entering, to help facilitate a mental reset.
Seattle artist Christy Hopkins's brilliant 135” x 75” abstract painting looms over the early Technics 1200 MK2 turntable and Marantz 2325 receiver. Mid-'70s Klipschorn speakers courtesy of Hawthorne Stereo round out the elite vintage hi-fi setup. Inspired by architects Roland Terry and Kengo Kuma, Ertel says, “We decorated this room with elements in the natural world to reflect the universality of music.”
Shibuya's reference records so far have been by Funkadelic, Herbie Hancock, Beck, James Brown, and Miles Davis. The latter's “Flamenco Sketches” particularly has been blowing customers' minds. “Quentin and I have probably heard this song, collectively, over a thousand times,” Rauschenbach says. “This is where I said I felt like I'd cheated myself my entire life. I had never listened to music this way. It was so refreshing and disturbing at the same time. I got goose bumps, then I got mad at myself right after. Then we kept on buying more Klips speakers every week for a couple of weeks. I never realized that this could sound so warm and so spacious, that you can actually feel like you're in the session with the recording artist.”
Ertel adds, “This room communicates the essence of what we're trying to do, which is highlighting the idea of listening to lots of different kinds of music in a different way. Even hearing a record that you've heard hundreds of times before through these super-rare [Klipschorn] speakers, that's going to be a different kind of experience.”
During our interview, Supreme insists that we hear a song from a Russian record he'd brought from home. None of us can read Cyrillic, so we don't know the artist or the title. Shazam only brought up a single word in that alphabet; after some sleuthing, I discovered that it means “labyrinth” or “maze.” The song's a stunning species of psychedelic rock and jazz, featuring fuzz-toned guitar and some of the most lethal bass playing ever laid down behind the Iron Curtain. Hearing it on Shibuya's phenomenal system is so mind-boggling, it'll make you toss your earbuds in the trash and curse your digital listening habits. An awestruck Ertel says, “I never would have heard that record unless we were sitting in this room together. And that's exactly the experience I hope people have at Shibuya.”
Supreme's impeccable judgment will also apply to the DJs who'll spin in the main room on Thursdays- Saturdays, starting at 10 pm. On the agenda so far: Darren Jones, Skeme Richards, Ge-ology, and the Brazilian Nyack, with many more to come. Supreme plans to give DJs carte blanche with their sets, but some themed nights centering on Brazilian, psych rock, library music, and more will eventually materialize. Record-release parties and label nights are also a probability. Whatever Shibuya does, it will counter, as Rauschenbach says, “the same prescription everyone's following, which is mash people in here with whatever's popular on the radio or on Spotify.”
Supreme elaborates on that theme. “I know so many people, like me, who have dug for records their whole lives and have all this amazing stuff that we would not normally be able to play out anywhere. But we can do that here. It's like, you don't know what you're missing till you get it. Brian was saying he shortchanged himself his whole life, not listening to records the correct way. I think a lot of us have. I just want to bring something good, different, and unique.”
That philosophy seems like a winner to folks who abhor lowest common denominator programming. Seemingly almost every detail in the Shibuya business model trends in the opposite direction of modern club culture's default settings. So, it may be challenging to consistently pack in crowds who value the sophisticated experience Shibuya's offering. But the power trio running the show have shown enough tenacity and savvy in their previous endeavors to instill confidence in its success.
Ertel predicts that Shibuya is “going to attract people who love incredible music collections and good records. It's going to attract people who like great design and art. But it's also going to attract people who are curious and want to have a good time and might leave here a little more enlightened or happier that they'd been exposed to something [new]. That's the ultimate reason to be in the hospitality business—you're making people's lives better in this incremental way that can be super-impactful down the road.”