The first time Brandon Burkart set foot inside Bigfoot Lodge East, shortly after moving to L.A. from Austin, he fell in love with the place. “It's like drinking in Twin Peaks,” he says. “Which is totally my vibe.”
Fortunately, the bartender/musician already worked for the 1933 Group, which owns Bigfoot and several other popular L.A. bars, including Thirsty Crow, Oldfield's Liquor Room and the recently opened Highland Park Bowl. In 2014, he began managing the national park–themed bar in Atwater Village, which does indeed give off a slightly Lynchian yet still cozy vibe with its log-cabin walls, deer-antler chandeliers, taxidermied animal heads and a sign over the bar that reads, “Bigfoot Doesn't Believe in You, Either.”
In part because of the presence of Burkart, who is also bassist/vocalist for psych-rock group The Saint James Society, the Lodge has become a popular hangout for musicians, both local and touring. It's also become the best Eastside joint at which to catch those musicians performing in an informal, living room–like setting.
Once or twice a week, the bar staff clears some tables and tree-stump chairs from a corner next to the fireplace and a band sets up and plays. On a recent Thursday night, that band was a trio led by one Princess Frank. Wearing a shirt with no vest and looking stylishly androgynous in fingerless gloves and high-heeled boots, Frank played a set of loose, scuzzy blues-rock that included an impromptu cover of “Money (That's What I Want).” The room, with an official capacity of 105, is so small, and the wooden walls provide such good acoustics, that you could hear Frank singing even when he stepped away from the mic — not that there was room for him to stray very far from it.
Burkart says it was “the most natural thing in the world” to start booking bands in the tiny space soon after he began managing it. “It was more circumstances, just seeing who was coming to hang out.”
The first performer he booked was an old friend from his Austin days, Christian Bland of The Black Angels. “This is a really cool space,” Burkart remembers Bland saying on his first visit to the Lodge. “Do you have bands?”
“'Yeah, if you're ever in town and wanna play,'” Burkart replied. “And then he did. It was really that simple.”
A thousand bars in L.A. book live music, but what makes Bigfoot feel special — aside from its intimate, hunting-lodge vibe — is Burkart's laid-back approach to booking. Most of the bands that play are friends from his Austin days, such as The Blind Pets (which he describes as “cool party rock … third time [they played here], it was wall to wall”), or locals like Future Shoxxx, True Ghouls and Joel Jerome. Start times are loose and shows are sometimes announced only a few days in advance. It feels more like watching a private jam session for friends than a full-blown show.
“It's casual,” says Burkart, though he's also quick to note that bands do get paid. “Which I think makes people more interested in doing it, because it doesn't seem rigid, like a show.”
He'll occasionally book a bigger name — like Lydia Lunch, whom he met through a film director he's worked with a few times, or Eagles of Death Metal's Jesse Hughes, who lives in the neighborhood. (“You'll see him on his tricycle dressed in red pants, red shirt, black suspenders and his mustache and shades.” Wait, Jesse Hughes rides a tricycle? “It's a full-sized tricycle. A tricycle for a man.”) But because the space is so small, Burkart prefers to keep the focus on friends' bands and up-and-coming acts.
Often the bands come from within the family, so to speak. Two members of Facial, a frequent booking, work at Thirsty Crow. The Lodge hosts “a lot of bartenders' bands,” Burkart says. “It's actually a real glimpse into what life's like for a musician in L.A. You're gonna play at bars you hang out at, you're gonna work at the other bars you want your friends to play at and hang out at. It's a really symbiotic relationship.”
At Bigfoot, even the bar backs and door guys are frequently musicians moonlighting for a little extra cash between tours. On the night L.A. Weekly meets Burkart at the bar, one of the bar backs is in the band Qui. The doorman is Kevin Rutmanis, formerly of The Melvins and Mike Patton's Tomahawk. Members of The Warlocks and Thee Oh Sees have worked the door, too. The DJ, spinning vinyl on a pair of Stanton turntables set up on the end of the bar, is Autry Fulbright, bassist for And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Cat Power's Gregg Foreman is the regular DJ on Fridays.
Burkart, a lifelong musician whose own career has seen its share of ups and downs (his first group was a “terrible” nu-metal band that was signed to Capitol when he was just 20), says that even for successful musicians, working a second job, often in the bar scene, is the new reality. “You're not getting paid to do [music] anymore, unless you get a few placements in commercials or TV,” he notes. “You're not really getting paid to play.”
That's why, for him, hosting shows at Bigfoot is a small but important way he can contribute to the Eastside's teeming music community. “Just get here and we'll take care of you,” is how he explains it to bands. “You'll get some money, get some drinks. Bring your friends and let's have a party.”
Princess Frank returns to Bigfoot Lodge East Thursday, March 12, at 10 p.m. Other shows coming up include Terminal A (May 21), The Vigils (May 26) and Prissy Whip (May 28). For more information, visit bigfootlodge.com.