Duluth has always had an active music scene, but in the past few years the city seems to have it going on. The Homegrown Festival grows a little bit larger every year, new talent seems to be springing up left and right, and albums recorded in the North Country are consistently ending up on year-end lists here in the Twin Cities.
Sitting at the center of a lot of this renewed excitement in Duluth music is Bob Monahan. Known to many as the founder and president of Chaperone Records, which has issued acclaimed albums by Actual Wolf, Retribution Gospel Choir, Southwire, and Charlie Parr, Monahan is also the force behind the brand new Red Herring Lounge, a hip music venue and bar that’s opening with a bang this weekend.
I called up Bob to chat about all things Duluth, what he has planned for the new space, and how he’s quickly become the kingpin of Duluth’s bustling music scene—even if, in typical Minnesotan fashion, he doesn’t want to admit it.
Bob Monahan: [answering phone ] Red Herring Lounge!
Local Current: Hey Bob!
Hey! That was the first time I’ve answered the phone Red Herring Lounge.
That’s awesome. So I’m looking at the press release you sent me, and it starts out by saying that the Red Herring Lounge is Duluth’s newest and artsiest entertainment venue. What’s artsy about it?
Well, that’s kind of the focus here, is the arts. Primarily performance art, music being paramount, but we’re also going to display art on the walls. Also, the bar itself is sort of a work of art—and I don’t mean just the bar, but I mean the entire interior of the place. Everything is handcrafted and artfully manufactured.
And the building has been there since 1886, right? Does it have the aesthetic of an older building?
It definitely has the old, industrial look. Exposed brick, exposed beams. Sort of urban, dirty, dingy. From the bricks, and the wear and tear on them, to the beams, which are relics of a time when you could actually get 2×14 beams that could run the entire width of your building.
When you say there’s going to be art, do you mean you’ll have rotating art shows?
Totally. We’re going to do quarterly openings. The most exciting part about that is that not only do I have a couple of my favorite artists inaugerating the place with their stuff—they’re from Kenspeckle Letterpress, who did the last Charlie Parr album—but then I’m going to follow that up with a show of my grandma’s stuff. Who has been dead for 20 years.
So when did you find this space, and when did you know that you wanted to turn it into a venue?
I knew I wanted to find someplace to put a venue sometime in the last three years, and had that idea gestating. But it came to fruition when I was standing across the street from this building, which we had all kind of looked in the windows and scoped out a few times, thinking, wouldn’t that be cool? I was standing across the street and I was like, you know what, I need to check this out. I called the City Assessor to find out who owned it, and Googled the dude and called him up and was like, “I want to buy your building.”
What was in the space before?
Originally it was home to the Lake Superior Fish Company. Which, interestingly, doesn’t have a connection to the name the Red Herring.
Oh? Why is it called the Red Herring?
I don’t know. It’s a bit of a red herring. [laughs] I’m kidding. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to name something; it’s nearly impossible. So when the Red Herring came along, I was like, that’s gotta be it. I’ve always liked that concept: that something is not what it seems, and is fact is a distraction. Also, you know the formula for naming restaurants and bars? You just pick an animal and a color, and then you’ve got it.
I’m trying to picture where the building is. It’s somewhat near Fitgers, right?
It’s near the Cozy. And a better landmark might be the Norshor, but [the Red Herring] on 1st Street. My back entrance actually is about 100 feet from the back entrance of the Norshor; we share the alley.
You’re obviously pretty involved in the Duluth scene and know the lay of the land. What did you feel was missing in the live music venue portion of the scene that you felt like you could add to with this venue?
As much as I want to be like “I’m cooler and my ideas are better,” it’s not about that. It’s not about trying to outdo anybody or anything. But it’s definitely about creating the type of space that I want to hang out in when I watch music. I felt like I could improve upon what was being done instead of complaining about it, or judging. So I feel like I’ve done that. I’m really happy with the way that this space has turned out. Yesterday we brought the stage in and it’s these four plywood boxes, and two of them are just straight-up rectangles and two of them have their corners cut off to create this rounded look. And we were laying them down and were like, huh, it’s going to be funky. And when it locked into place it was like, bam! That’s so cool! There’s this zigzag thing happening, and it was like a happy accident. And then we tested out the sound system, and it’s actually living up to what I had imagined it to be.
It seems, too, that when you combine this venue with your work at Chaperone Records, that you’re becoming a sort of kingpin of the Duluth music scene.
Off the record, that was the goal. [laughs] I’m just kidding. That worries me a little bit, to be honest. Because I don’t have any desire to take over and flex my artistic muscle.
You don’t want to run the town?
No! Because I’ll blow it, for sure. You start having a little success, and enough people are just wishing that you’re going to blow it that you eventually do. And then they pounce on you, like I knew it! He couldn’t handle it! That has happened to people, even in Duluth. I don’t want to be that guy. I guess I’m really happy to have it all under one roof.
So the label will run out of the same space?
Yep, I’ll have an office, and the recording studio will be in the basement. We’ll have the capacity to record live shows.
The Red Herring Lounge grand opening takes place tonight, Friday night, and Saturday night at 208 E. 1st St. in downtown Duluth. More info and full lineup at RedHerringLounge.com.