The Rise of Valhalla
By: Dillon Collins
Gene Browne is objectively and universally considered to be one of the most dedicated single individuals to ever lend his heart and mind to Newfoundland and Labrador’s music scene. That is not up for debate or discussion, but what was evident was that after years of allowing a venue for bands of all genres to hone their craft, one that often led to him putting the cause above his own best interests, Browne was burnt out, physically and mentally.
The Levee, Browne’s longtime fixture in Holdsworth Court in Downtown St. John’s, was put up for sale earlier this year. It was, no mistake, the end of an era.
Filling the void, Chris Carter, Justin Dean and Ken Power – three men who like Gene care more about musicianship and the good of artists than the bottom-line – made a mutual decision to partner-up and purchase the bar, re-branding as Valhalla Tavern in June.
Sitting down with Carter on a muggy and unseasonably hot Monday, Rock Eden delved into the creation of one of St. John’s newest hotspots, where the craft of music, the artistry and the positive growth of all involved, take precedent over industry greed and gain.
“The biggest reason for doing it is to maintain that same heritage for the music scene, to keep it a live venue, to keep it fostering the scene and other avenues of the arts,” says Cater. “We stepped in and retained all of these things that The Levee has done before us.”
Make no mistake Valhalla aims to continue to foster all that made The Levee unique amongst a region bursting with bars and venues. They will carry on that legacy, while also forging a venue that is independent of the pack.
“Gene did shoulder a lot. He did immense things for the scene and for music as a whole in Newfoundland. Gene himself had suggested that it was time for him to move on, so it’s just a bit of new blood,” says Carter. "It’s the same thing. It’s not going anywhere. It’s all with the love of creating something, but Gene was tired. We decided to pick it up and to put some money into it.”
The three-way investment has alleviated some of the pressures that come with owning and operating a bar/music venue and likewise has allowed Carter, Dean and Power to put the onus back into elevating Valhalla for the musicians and patrons alike.
“Most of our investments have been to do with things that impact musicians the most,” Carter said. “Things like a backline, taking away certain aspects of costs to musicians that predominately have been there. Another thing is reinvesting back into the all-ages scene. In order to continue having live venues and having people interested in bands, you have to look at where it started. We’re doing this so we can have a music scene in 10 years. That’s what we’re trying to build on."
“We recognize the industry is in a bit of a dip,” he adds. “It's the way microeconomics works and basically we’re in a recession. Are you going to spend 100 or 180 dollars downtown tonight or are you going to pay your heat bill? We’re looking at that and we’re trying to lower costs … This is a three-man investment and this is not our primary source of income. The bar pays for the bar.”
The multi-pronged re-branding effort that sees Valhalla put great emphasis into creating a haven for musicians also calls for a greater push for all-ages shows and a hot button topic for the downtown core, the changing of opening and closing bar and set times. Valhalla has already made a point to end the bulk of their events at 2:00 am (against the grain for the common 3:00am closing time), but it will require a broader effort municipally to see a long-standing change in attitudes.
“Until it’s fixed at a municipal level, until it’s shut down at 1:30 am, we have to compete,” Carter says. “That’s not to say that I’m not willing to do earlier shows or to change the dynamic on my end. We try not to do shows that have more than three bands so I know I can open those doors at 10 pm and be out by 1:30-2 am. I’m losing money but at the same time, I’m encouraging the shift as well."
“We feel that musicians don’t want to be dragging their gear out to the curb four o’clock in the morning, dealing with drunks and everything else,” he adds with a laugh. “That’s why we have a backline. You don’t have to drive your $3,000 amp down here and be harassed while you wait for a cab. Bring your guitar, your symbols and snare and you’re done. It’s within your hands and your grasp. It’s easy.”
So the big question: why Valhalla? It’s an answer that contains multiple layers – our provincial connection to Viking settlements and heritage, the owners combined love for heavy metal and Viking lore – but above all, brotherhood.
“It’s about brotherhood,” says Dean, who joins the conversation. “That’s what Vikings were about. It was about brotherhood, always standing up for each other and looking out for each other. That’s what it means for us.”
Visit Valhalla Tavern on their official Facebook page for event details and much more.