Café Racer is abustle with activity as owners Jeff Ramsey and Cindy Anne renovate the old Barça space on 11th Avenue a week before for its grand opening on September 11. Even their grade-school-age granddaughter is helping Ramsey to buff up a booth. They've been working long days all summer to relocate this beloved cultural shrine from the U District to Capitol Hill — right next to kindred spirit Vermillion Gallery & Bar.
A mirror from Ramsey's old Colourbox club hangs on the new Café Racer wall, and a brilliant mural by Rick Klu animates another. While the kitchen needs much attention (a fridge still stands in the middle of the floor on a hand truck), the sizable stage — replete with taxidermy cougar — looks ready to be commandeered by the Washington-based musicians whom Café Racer will exclusively book.
The pandemic lockdown forced Racer to shut down its old space in July 2020 and put all of its contents in a Woodinville storage locker. Their decision to move to a 145-person capacity joint on Capitol Hill was solidified when, as Cindy Anne relates, their 5-year-old granddaughter stood at the bottom of Barça's steps and told her, “Grandma, this is just like the old Café Racer.” “And then I could see it, just like that,” Anne says. “That's just the facts.”
Anne may be a grandmother, but she's one of the least jaded and most evangelical boosters of Washington state music you're likely to encounter. “So, Cafe Racer was the most lovely, loving, divine art space ever,” she says. “It was founded by Kurt Geisel. He created a community of love. [That spirit] was always there. And the trauma of a person with mental illness happening in the space [a man fatally shot four people at Café Racer in 2012]... and yes, there was good that came with that, changing laws in Washington state came from that one-day incident that changed all of our lives. Coming out of that [tragedy], the seed of love began to blossom. Community came together for love of each other, for love of art.”
While Café Racer was in limbo, a loyal customer named Dan Thiesen suggested they could maintain the venue's camaraderie through a radio station. Café Racer Music was born, its mission to broadcast music made by people from and in the Evergreen State. Ramsey and CR music director Nellie Albertson air music 24/7, with four DJs currently hosting shows and dozens more applying for slots (more on that process later). “It's a community radio station and it's genre fluid,” Anne says. “Jeff started downloading music all the way back to the '50s. We started to get books about Washington state music history.” She also credits Albertson—“the heart and soul of Cafe Racer's music community”—for influencing the station's direction.
Before booking live music for Café Racer, Albertson threw house shows in Olympia while they were attending Evergreen State College in the mid 2010s—in their bedroom. They say sometimes their shows would draw 300 people. After graduating, Albertson moved to an artist co-operative in Belltown called The Apex, where the crew did open-mic nights inside of their home and they strategized how to pull music into the co-operative. Albertson also was playing out as a solo musical act called Power Strip. Seeing the music scene through the lens of a performer inspired them to want to start booking shows again at venues. They started organizing one-off shows at Racer and then parlayed that into a full-time gig there in 2019.
Several times during our interview, Anne called Café Racer a “DIY music temple.” The space's stage will thrum with all sorts of live music Thursday through Saturday, and then in October Albertson expects the vaunted Sunday avant-garde-jazz-oriented Racer Sessions to return. Monday nights will feature Baby Ketten hosting karaoke, Tuesday nights will bring open-mic/open-jam shenanigans, and Wednesdays will be taken over by artists-in-residence who can do with the venue what they like — within reason, of course. Anne says that the latter will generate a “random, whackier” feeling to Racer. On Thursdays, every bill will include at least one act who's making their live debut, while Fridays and Saturdays will spotlight musicians with higher profiles.
Many of the bills Racer has posted on its social media contain obscure acts. Albertson and Anne say that the primary goal is to book new, up-and-coming artists and to give them a platform to express themselves.
Most of these artists come to Albertson's attention through Bandcamp, which she scours daily. “Bandcamp is The Way,” they enthuse. “For the radio station, that's how I find everything. On Bandcamp's home page, you can set up the settings to see what's recently been released out of Seattle. Every day I check that. There's so much.” Washington musicians are advised to get on Bandcamp if they want a shot at using Racer's new Behringer X32-Mix console and S32 Stage Box, JBL speakers, and array of Shure microphones.
Speaking of the sound system, the Behringer has the ability to record live sets. Ramsey and business partner Dennis Tevlin, who runs Seattle Houseboat Studio, are building out the system while training two employees to work the controls. Upstairs, behind where the booze is stored and where the infamous OBAMA Room (Official Bad Art Museum of Art) will exist, Racer's installing a recording studio. “It helps the DIY musician full circle,” Anne says. “Our sound system is set up so, when we have the recording studio, the music can be played on the stage, and engineered in real time, and pushed out on the radio show with perfect quality.”
Given Racer's emphasis on upstart, relatively unknown local artists, one might think there'd be concerns about drawing enough people to pay the artists, keep bar and food sales at a sustainable level, and make rent. Anne waves away such worries. “We're on Capitol Hill, so we have location to help us. What our 15 years as Café Racer have taught is we have a following. People [support] us for the community and love of it. [In the new space], we're really focusing on the music rather than the visual art. Audiences need music and musicians need audiences, and I could not see how this could go wrong. This is a music temple. We're here to help each other, to grow together. I believe the money will come and we can pay our staff, which are mostly musicians. It really is all about the DIY musician.”
As for Café Racer's radio station, prospective disc jockeys should conceive some kind of theme, Albertson says, keeping in mind the Washington-centric rule. “It doesn't have to be a genre-based theme, but a mood, or some big idea, or era,” Albertson says. “One of the shows I'm bringing on is called Kitchen Tapes, which imagines a world in which we all still listen to cassette tapes picked up from local artists at local shows. We're also looking for consistency, shows that will happen on a weekly basis. The radio will be our house music, so it'll be playing inside the venue when people are here. So we want to synchronize the schedule of the radio shows with the atmosphere we're trying to create within the venue. We'll be thinking about the energy we want to bring to the space. That will help me to figure out where to slot people's shows. I'm super-open to hearing ideas. There are so many artists around who have these expansive radio-show ideas.
"I wanna hear a fun show name, a fun bio that shows a strong concept, I wanna hear examples of bands that they'd want to play, I want to know that they'll have enough bands to pull from, to consistently have an hour or two a week of music. I've been running my own show for the past 50 weeks and I'm realizing I have to be constantly digging and researching so I can have a variety on my show. I'm looking for people who are really into digging for music."
One other benefit of Café Racer moving to the core of Capitol Hill's entertainment district is its proximity to several other DIY businesses with seemingly similar aesthetics and missions. The (forgive me) synergy with Vermillion Gallery seems especially fortuitous. “Yes, 100 percent,” Albertson agrees. “There's a synergy among the whole block, actually. There's also Blue Cone Studios, Studio Current, and Crybaby Studios, with all those bands literally right below us practicing down there. I just came back from a meeting at Vermillion with a few people on the block, even from the thrift shop across the street, Throwbacks. There are things we're working on to have collective events that are pulling people onto the block.
“Forever Safe Spaces and Blue Cone Studios have been working on throwing block parties that happen on the 11th of every month: 11th on 11th. The last couple of weeks being here every day, I'm meeting so many people and everybody knows everybody else and everybody's involved in art in some way. There are all these hidden things in these buildings that I didn't even know existed, like there's a fiber studio."
When Café Racer decided to move to Capitol Hill, it gave a lot of people hope that it might turn around the blandification and superficiality of nightlife in the neighborhood over the last five-to-eight years. Anne says, “Julie-C from Blue Cone Studios talks about the change and when it happened and talked about how Paul Allen sold property to Amazon. You can see the change when tech comes into an area. Instead of art for expression, its art being made into a commodity, and is your commodity good enough? She addresses it very well.
“If you go back to Cafe Racer Radio, Sunday mornings at 10 she's going to have a show and it'll be about equity and art and what happens in a city when something like the Amazon evolution happens.”
Albertson interjects, “What's happening on this block is actively trying to combat those changes that happened in the city. We're intentionally working together to keep the arts and culture alive on the block. Take back the neighborhood, take back the city, take over the world.”
Café Racer's Grand Opening kicks off on Saturday, Sept 11 at 8 pm. Velvet Q, Taylar Elizza Beth, Moroccan Dog, Mt. Fog, and DJ Marvelette will play. Mask and proof of vaccination (or a negative COVID-19 test) required.