When Kiki Schueler talks about what she wants, she sounds a bit like a squirrely kindergartner: She wants people to come over to her house and play.
In her basement.
For free beer and food, not to mention a room for the night and a little cash to carry over ’til the next gig.
At 48, Schueler isn’t a kid looking for a playmate. By day, she’s a UW-Madison biochemistry research assistant, and most of the rest of the time she is one of the city’s busier concert impresarios. In a residential area just off East Washington Avenue, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music has become one of the city’s go-to places for intimate concerts of touring musicians.
Despite a name that sounds as if it should have a bright marquee, the venue is just the basement of Schueler’s small post-war home. A full house is 50-60 people who heard about the show from an email, a Facebook post or word of mouth. Schueler doesn’t know them all, and that’s just fine with her.
“People think it’s weird having a lot of people in my house that I don’t know,” Schueler said. “But I say, ‘Well, they’ve got to be cool, they like the same music I do.’”
Since 2005, Schueler has hosted 130 concerts in her basement. She makes no money at it – concert-goers are asked to pay a suggested donation that goes straight to the musicians. Through word of mouth among musicians she knows or by checking tour schedules of her favorite bands, she might catch someone looking for a gig on a night off.
“I’ll do a show any night of the week, except I try not to do them on Wednesdays because that’s my volleyball night,” she said.
For those wanting to go to the show, there’s availability on a first-come, first-served basis that people can nab by getting on an email list. By not selling tickets or by not making any money, Schueler says she can avoid any city licensing or the watchful eye of the music publishing companies that hound places where music is performed.
“That’s why I even hate to say a show is sold out because I don’t sell anything; I just say we’re full,” she said. “People make a reservation and they bring their own beer.”
While house concerts – opening one’s home to a musician who gives an intimate show – aren’t an unusual concept, Schueler’s shows are notable both for their frequency and the level of talent that shows up. These aren’t acts that would pack the Kohl Center, but these aren’t people that generally play in basements, either.
“I’m not trying to get Neko Case to play at my house,” Schueler said. “I am trying to be realistic. And I’m all right with that.”
She might not get the indie darling to play in her basement, but Case’s backup singer and sidekick Kelly Hogan has been a frequent performer there. Two-and-a-half months before indie band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah played the Majestic, frontman Alec Ounsworth played in Schueler’s basement. A week before singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks was featured at the Marquette Waterfront Festival, he played in Schueler’s basement. She has a preference for singer-songwriters, the kind of acts that play smaller venues in general.
“I always say I book bands I love, and that’s it,” she said. “If I don’t believe in it, why should anybody else come see it?”
Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Jon Dee Graham played a show at Wisconsin Brewing Company earlier this month as it launched Big Sweet Life, a new beer whose name came from a song of his, and played at Schueler’s the night before. In fact, beermaker Kirby Nelson is a frequent concert-goer in Schueler’s basement and had her play go-between as he sought permission from Graham to cite the song.
It was Graham’s 11th trip to Schueler’s basement for a show. Alternative venues are a big part of his touring schedule – he’s played patios, parking lots, grocery stores and “a decommissioned snake-handler church” – but he particularly likes Schueler’s house.
“She loves music and musicians more than anyone I’ve ever met,” Graham said of Schueler. “She is a singular soul who has managed to cultivate a regular audience of people who love music ALMOST as much as she does.”
Schueler has cultivated musicians, too, by taking care of them. She’ll feed them before the show, sneaking in dinner during a soundcheck. Often, they’ll stay at her house, saving them the cost of a hotel.
“I have a key to her house,” Graham said.
“Lock the door when you leave”
Schueler said her job provides some flexibility of going in early or working holidays to bank extra time off. The show might run late, but Schueler is back to work the next day.
“In the mornings, I get up and go to work and say, ‘Lock the door when you leave,’” she said. “People say, ‘You’re so trusting.’ But I know where to find them, it’s not like I just picked them up off the street.”
Schueler has always been a huge fan of live music. She frequents shows in Madison and travels to see artists perform. She got to know many of the musicians just by going to their shows and striking up conversations with them.
It was at a festival in St. Louis that Schueler met Bill Swan, a music fan on par with her. He recognized her as someone he’d seen in the front row at tons of Madison shows and introduced himself. They struck up a friendship, and now Swan takes care of the Facebook page and other promotions for the show, ensuring him a place at all the concerts. Well, almost all the concerts.
“She keeps scheduling concerts on my son’s birthday,” Swan said.
Schueler said being single and not having kids allows her the flexibility to host the concerts, even though it’s something she never set out to do. She bought her house in 2000, and five years later a musician friend of hers, Tim Easton, said he was looking for a gig on a night off between Chicago and Minneapolis.
“He sent out an email blast that said, ‘Anybody have any ideas?’ and I said, ‘Well, you could play at my house,’” Schueler said. “He said, ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’”
Two years later, the label manager at Bloodshot Records in Chicago asked her if she wanted to host a CD release party for the Silos, a group once called “America’s Best New Band” by Rolling Stone.
“That was a crazy show,” she said. “So many people showed up and I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m going to do this all the time now.’”
To help promote one of the first shows, she had to come up with a venue name. She offered the name of the club she said she’d always open if she ever won the lottery: Kiki’s House of Righteous Music.
“Now I feel like I should have picked something less pretentious,” she said. “But since it’s actually my house, it’s a more perfect name than I ever would have expected.”
Schueler’s basement setup is a mishmash of chairs, with a couple couches and a futon thrown in. She pulls out coolers full of ice for the drinks that concert-goers bring. With the solid concrete block walls and concrete (and easy-to-clean) floor, Schueler’s basement is practically sound-proof; little can be heard outside her home once the music begins.
For the musicians, it’s a chance to play for a rapt audience. People aren’t there for the bar or to hang out with their friends; they’re there for the music and it shows.
“They know how to listen,” Graham said. “A rare quality nowadays.”
The music goes on for about 2 to 2-and-a-half hours, Schueler said, and she’s never had to tell anybody it was time to stop. And the show has always gone on, even if few people show up. The fewest she’s ever had in the audience is three.
“If it’s eight, 10 people, it can still be a really good time,” Schueler said. “The worst possible thing that happens is you only make enough for gas money to the next city.”
Schueler said she’s never gotten any complaints from neighbors, and makes a point to introduce herself to them. Because noise doesn’t carry from her house, she says the only thing that could bother anybody would be all the cars. She had been adamant to tell concert-goers to only park on one side of the street. Now there’s a sign telling people to do just that.
“I’m pretty sure that’s there because of me,” she said.
Schueler doesn’t have to ask a lot of musicians to play; they already know about her. She doesn’t even have a wish list anymore. She accepts that her all-time favorite musician, Bob Dylan, will never play her basement, but the top two on her list, Califone and Chuck Prophet, played at her house last year.
Schueler doesn’t make a cent with the concerts, but she doesn’t care. What she gets is the chance to live the dream of any avid music fan, over and over again.
“I get to hear my favorite bands play in my house and sometimes they become my friends,” she said. “What else would I want?”