Dylan Rogers unlocks the back door of the dilapidated, vacant bar on the outskirts of Old Town, and slowly pushes it open.
“Hello! Anybody here?” he shouts, carefully entering, crowbar in one hand, flashlight in the other. Then the stench hits— the kind of unpleasant odor only found in a building after years of neglect and vandalism. Thanks to Rogers and his wife, however, that odor is now ever so faintly covered up with the aroma of household cleansers.
We’re inside the former Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern, 611 E. Grand River Ave., which closed in 2009 following the death of owner Paul Czubek. The broken windows may be boarded up, but you never know who or what may be lurking in the distance (hence the crowbar.) Rogers and his band, The Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle, are taking their chances with a possible squatter/family of raccoons to record their new album, utilizing the empty building’s unique sound qualities.
"The acoustics are great," Dylan said. "We had the option of working the Temple Club, but we picked Zoobie´s even though it was smaller and required some work. There´s this big old wooden bar that absorbs sound nicely, and is just what you want in a recording studio. Having the original bar still in there and a bunch of surfaces that weren´t just parallel walls really helped the sound. Something that fits the whole kind of rust belt, vacant building, and drinking establishment-vibe. It shows the pride we take in coming from Lansing.” In that vein, it’s perfect.
Zoobie´s was built back in the ‘20s by Czubek’s father, Ed, who operated it as Ed´s Bar until 1973. After 73 years of keeping it in the family, however, the Czubek family decided to sell to Old Town developer Alan Hooper, who also owns the Temple Club. (Hooper, who gave the band his blessing to use Zoobie’s, hasn’t yet announced what his plans are for the building.) Rogers said it took some elbow grease to get it up to par before his theatrical 12-piece band — which he calls a blend of “Americana, gypsy-jazz, blues and vaudeville” — could lug their equipment inside. Rogers, the band’s songwriter, is working with indie producer John Krohn to produce this, the band’s second album.
“We wanted to record the whole thing essentially live,” he says. “When we perform live, we mix in some theatrical gimmicks. We do this whole shtick with a back-and-forth between the chorus girls and me, and although we can’t really capture that on our recording, we wanted to keep that energy.”
The band’s old-fashioned sound is inspired from long-gone legendary performers.
“I take a lot of inspiration from Cab Calloway,” Rogers said. “Really, it goes all the way up to guys like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and all that.”
If recording an album at Zoobie’s will accomplish anything, it should be some raw recordings. A few minutes into the interview, Rogers began swatting at his shoes — a swarm of fleas had begun attacking his ankles. Apparently, the place had become infested since the sessions wrapped last week. The interview was quickly moved back outdoors into the grimy, deserted parking lot out back.
“It was just like years of piss and decay in there,” Rogers said of the interior of Zoobie’s before the exhaustive cleaning process took place. “People had broken in and just totally used it. My wife, Jeana, and I rolled up with crowbars and respirators. We ripped the carpet out and used a gallon of bleach on all these surfaces —we turned the place from rancid stench to what it is now. We even polished the bar.”
Now that the band’s sessions at Zoobie’s are over, Rogers said it was worth the hard work.
“We had recorded that first EP in a little bit more sterile, studio kind of setting,” Rogers said. “We put that out, and that was pretty good, but we felt like some of that energy was lost in a studio. I think we captured it at Zoobie’s.”