On Nov. 1-2, Soda Bar celebrates its 10th anniversary with two shows headlined by Cults -- whose drummer, Cory Stier, co-owns/books the club. Has it really been a decade already? Not too shabby for the intimate Normal Heights live-music venue.
"Hey, it's not nothing," Stier told SoundDiego over the phone Tuesday.
Weatherbox, Positioner and DJ Alexandra Frank fill out the Nov. 1 lineup, while Jacob Turnbloom and DJ Nathan Aguilar -- both bandmates with Stier in Mrs. Magician and Hideout, respectively -- are booked for the Nov. 2 event along with Beating (fka Beaters). [Watch the SoundDiego video premiere of Turnbloom's new single here]
"[The shows] are like, more or less, the inner circle of friends," Stier said. "It's like all my friends were willing to do a show, so it's great."
It's been an eventful 10 years for the beloved 230-capacity spot at 3615 El Cajon Blvd. Originally owned by Adam Cook and Cuong Nguyen (who also own North Park's Bluefoot Bar & Lounge) and envisioned as a quasi-sports bar that would also host live music, Stier had other plans for it when he came aboard in its infancy.
"I was like, 'Let's just do music,'" Stier said. "I wasn't really interested in doing the other bar stuff like happy hour events and all that other crap."
After he eventually took over its booking operations, Soda Bar pivoted from full-time bar, part-time venue to full-time venue, part-time bar.
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"If we don't have a show, we're closed," Stier explained. "That's kind of the change that I had, and that was important to me to implement. Casbah is really the only other [local] bar that does it that way; they're only open when there's a show and it just kind of makes sense. Also, both venues are located in weird spots, you're probably not going to go out of your way to cruise in for happy hour."
It's worked. With Stier putting the club's monthly calendar together, and eventually branching out to present shows at other venues around town, Soda Bar has become a steady fixture in the San Diego music scene, where up-and-coming local bands can rub elbows and open shows for both buzzy, independent acts on their way up or established touring bands looking to put on more intimate performances. It's a venue by musicians, for musicians.
"I guess I always just kind of looked at it as a touring musician," Stier explained. "When you're a bar and then a venue, you have a happy hour and all that -- it becomes more of a loungey kind of situation. Bands don't have any privacy to roll up in their sweatpants, get set up, and get ready at their leisure. They'd have to roll into a place and then have a bunch of random people just drinking. And then you gotta try to kick [those people] out at showtime. Some of them might be trying to stay in there to sneak in because they don't want to pay for a ticket, or others might just be having a drink. Every place is different, I just thought it'd be easier to do it that way."
In 2018, after an acrimonious, three-year dispute between the building's landlords and Soda Bar's then-owners, the club was purchased by Big Soda LLC -- comprised of Stier, Casbah owner Tim Mays, Andrew Montoya (Beaters, Teach Me, the Sess) and Soda Bar bar manager Angie Ollman. The addition of Mays, the long-time local booking magnate, to Stier's well-oiled operation seemed like a best case scenario for both -- after all, the two would often compete to book the same shows and while there's always been a healthy respect between the two of them, joining forces under one roof felt a little like Kevin Durant joining Steph Curry on the then-reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right?
"[Mays] is just the longest-standing guy and he's super reliable and so, with that sort of [booking] history, it was always hard to go against him," Stier said. "But I guess I gave him a good enough run that he wanted to do it together."
In other words, game recognize game?
"I guess so. I was flattered by it. We kind of get each other. We talk to each other at least by email or phone like every day. He's great, he's super easy to work with and I would hope he would say the same about me. I have a great deal of respect for him and now, it's like you just kind of sleep better at night. You're not worried about competing against that club. We just kind of work together to put the best shows we can in both the rooms."
With hundreds of shows under his belt, Stier understandably paused for a moment when asked if there was one in particular that still stands out to him.
"The first time I saw the band Diarrhea Planet at Soda Bar, I was sitting up in the booth and just watching it," he reminisced. "It could've been an early weekday and there was a pretty good crowd there, but to see them -- it was like six or seven people all crunched up on stage -- and the crowd of like probably 100 people just going off just as much as the [band was] the whole time, I just couldn't stop smiling. It was pretty fun. I was like, man, it's like a Tuesday night and it's 11 p.m. and these people are partying their asses off. It was really satisfying and they brought it. There's been a lot of [memorable shows] but that one was really fun."
Toward the end of our conversation, the Soda Bar co-owner/booker recounted the single most important thing he's learned over the last 10 years of operating a live-music venue.
"Everything at the club is going to break so always buy a backup."
Tickets for Soda Bar's 10th anniversary shows on Nov. 1-2 are available here and here for $20 each (plus fees). Doors are at 8 p.m. and are both 21-and-up.
Dustin Lothspeich is SoundDiego's senior associate editor, a San Diego Music Award-winning musician, and talent buyer at The Merrow. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.