For many of the bands who pass through First Avenue, he’s known simply as Conrad. The stage manager at the club since 1990 (and an employee there since 1988), Conrad Sverkerson is the first person an artist sees when they pull up to the club and the last to see them off at the end of the night, and is the one that ensures that their needs are met in all the hours in between.
“I look at it more as being like a babysitter,” he says, laughing warmly. “It’s fun, because every day is different. I generally ride my bicycle to work, and I’m, a lot of of times, going ‘what the heck is going to happen today?'”
When he’s working at the club, Sverkerson carries himself with an air of authority and has earned a reputation as an enigmatic, intimidating persona. But off the clock, the 52-year-old Minnesota native, who was raised as one of 10 children by Scandinavian parents, is a mild-mannered and soft-spoken individual who treats everyone around him with warmth. It’s that balance of kindness and unwavering resolve that has established Sverkerson as one of the most iconic behind-the-scenes figures in the Twin Cities community.
Sverkerson says he fell into his position as stage manager almost by accident. After working for years as a carpenter, he decided to pick up a shift working the door at the 400 Bar on the West Bank, and later working the door at the Entry for dance night House Nation Under a Groove. “I started taking some stage shifts because I was more available, and the stage manager at the time went on the road with a band and they kind of scheduled me to work as a stage manager,” he says. “The first show I did was for Soul Asylum. I didn’t know what I was doing, and just kind of got thrown right into the fire.”
Though he doesn’t know how to play any instruments himself, it’s Sverkerson’s skills as a delegator and intuitive “people person” that has cemented his role as an essential part of the club, which he lovingly refers to as “The Ave.” He’s become so integral to the building’s day-to-day operations that he even has a star with his name on it on the venue’s black-and-white painted exterior.
“I vividly remember this because they were painting the original stars, the old stars — when they were putting those on the building, I came riding down on my bike, and the timing was such where I actually pedaled up as they were doing that star, and I was like, no, I don’t want it,” he remembers. “And they were like, well, the star committee insists that you have a star and it be by your door [the door where he helps bands load in their equipment]. And then when they repainted it they put it right in the center of the door.” He pauses, blushing. “People think it’s bigger than the other stars. And I don’t think it is, it’s just because it’s there by itself, and I’m by no means a big star.”
I ask Conrad to further explain the “star committee,” and he laughs. “That’s what I just call it. I kind of try and stay out of it, because to tell you the truth that is a question that comes up with almost every band. ‘How do we get a star on the building?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m staying out of it!’ But that question comes up very, very often,” he says. “Another one is, ‘Does Prince still own the room?’ He never owned it. And those [backstage] scenes from Purple Rain were not shot at the club, they were shot at the Orpheum. That does come up. Sometimes I can tell when they walk in the dressing room, and I go, no, it wasn’t here. Nope.”
When asked about some of his favorite bands that have rolled through the club, Sverkerson sighs and drifts off in thought. “You know I have a mind full of memories,” he says. “It’s stuff that I just would have never imagined. I feel very fortunate, you know. Local acts like the Jayhawks — I love the Hawks. The Soul Asylum boys, you just gotta love ’em. Always such a great live show, and it was so sad when Karl passed, but it was so cool that he wanted to keep the band going. Run Westy Run, those days, jeez, if we could just get them to play again…”
Sverkerson says some of the newer local bands, too, have really impressed him in recent years. “I think Dead Man Winter is going to be a great band,” he says. “I’ve loved the Turtles, they’re awesome, I hope they can keep both ends of that thing working. I like Night Moves, they’ve kind of grown on me a bit. I don’t listen to a lot of music at home, because I get a fair amount of it at work, but I would have never been exposed to hip hop if it wasn’t for the Ave. To watch Atmosphere blowing up as he has, and P.O.S., and all the Doomtree people, I feel really fortunate to be exposed to it. Some of it I don’t like but some of it’s so great.”
Looking back on his 24 years spent working on the club, Sverkerson eases back in his chair and smiles. “I mean I still have fun doing my job, which — I don’t know if a lot of people can really say that. I still have fun. Sometimes it’s long hours, it can be a pain, and some people can be hard to deal with, but for the most part it’s still a pleasure to go to work.”
When asked how long he thinks he’ll work there, he shakes his head. “I don’t know what to do. It’s like I said to somebody once, it’s like, jeez, am I going to see Buckwheat Zydeco 70 times? I’m going to be 53 in a couple weeks so it’s not like I’m a spring chicken or anything. I don’t know what else I would do, and the club’s been great to me. We’re kind of a semi-disfunctional family that kind of functions, you know. Throughout the years the number of people and the number of friends, it’s unbelievable. I feel really blessed.”
For stories from Conrad about working with Chuck D and partying with Phoenix, listen to our audio interview from this week’s Local Show: