What goes on behind the scenes of the notorious Sunset Strip? Who are the people that really run the show; the movers and shakers that keep the wheels of Sunset turning? And what are the tales they have to tell? This new series of articles will give you an insider’s look at the real Sunset Strip through the stories of those who know it best.
Tommy Black has been slinging drinks at the Viper Room for more than 8 years now. Having been in a number of successful bands from Sparkler to Palo Alto/Golden State and now Scott Weiland, the Viper often touts him as one of their “Celebrity Bartenders” (a phrase coined by former talent buyer Joe Rinaldi). Get to know your favorite silky haired bartender/bass player a little more…
Can you take us through the early days of arriving in L.A. and getting into the music scene?
I first moved out here with all my stuff in the back of a Datsun 240Z. The Sunset Strip was packed with hundreds of people every night handing out full page 8 ½ x 11 flyers for their shows… Back then you found a band by looking through the Recycler or Music Connection classifieds. I first played in a band called The Gutter Cats. This was a time when guys like Scott [Weiland] and Zach [de la Rocha] from Rage were also playing in the same club scene.
How has The Strip changed since you first came on the scene? Have the bands/music gotten better or worse?
Well the flyers have definitely gotten smaller. Ha! The music’s about the same. There’s always been good and bad. Actually, the music’s probably gotten better, not as much quantity [of bands] as there used to be, less garbage. You have to remember that this was during the “Gold Rush” period when G N’ R was blowing up and there was an influx of bands and musicians all moving to Hollywood trying to get signed, the same thing that happened with Seattle for grunge.
You recently parted ways with your long time band Golden State. Why the split?
Ah, no comment really. Just looking for a change. I want to start a new chapter in my life.
How did the Scott Weiland gig come about and how many songs did you have to learn to prep for touring?
The gig came about through Weiland’s assistant Scott Hopkins who actually managed Golden State for a time. He suggested me to Doug Grean who’s Weiland’s guitarist and band director. Doug actually co wrote many of the songs on the record. I jammed with Doug and the rest of the band two or three times before I got the gig. After having to learn 20-30 songs I finally know how to play bass!
Tending bar at the Viper Room you see a lot of bands. Who are some of your favorite locals right now?
I don’t want to sound like an asshole but seeing four to five bands a night, four times a week…after a while unless it’s something real special you tend to not pay attention. After bands get off stage, they often ask me, “Hey man what’d you think of my set?” My standard response has now become, “You were really up there… You were really doing it!”…At the end of the day though, the quality of music at the Viper is really high. We have some great shows coming up with Ace Frehley and Joe Perry. And there are actually a couple bands that I really do like…off the top of my head, Gram Rabbit and The Vacation.
What advice would you give to local bands trying to build a fanbase in L.A.?
Well the usual MySpace, social networking stuff…being out a lot, being visible. It helps if you know a lot of people… Bands used to have big parties after their shows. Those after-parties seemed to really help build a fanbase. It doesn’t seem like that really goes on anymore though. In the end, making good music is the best thing you can do. That should be your priority.
The Viper often refers to you as a “celebrity bartender.” What’s the best part about bartending at such a famous venue? What’s the worst part?
I didn’t know I was a celebrity: fame without fortune! The best part…you get more shifts. It’s just a great fun, social job. People that come in to the club forget you’re working. The Viper also makes it very easy for me to leave for tours and still come back to a job. The worst part…people that act like it’s their first time in a bar; don’t know the proper etiquette.
If you could play bass with any band, at any moment in time who would it be and why?
I know it’s a weird answer but I’m really happy right now playing with Scott. The band is like a family and Scott is a really cool guy, totally respectful.
I’m sure you have countless stories about adventures on The Sunset Strip; anything you’re legally allowed to share?
It’s weird cause The Strip isn’t considered cool right now, and I don’t have a proper visa to go to those Eastside clubs. I’m a “No-sider”! But I think things like the music festival are really helping to bring people back. It was really fun when I was doing Frankie and Tommy’s Social Club [a night co-promoted with legendary sound man Frankie O’Reilly]. There was one night when we had shows at both the Viper and Roxy. It was pretty cool seeing our names on both marquees.
-- Brent X Mendoza