One night in August a few years back Dave Chappelle, Jeff Ross, Hannibal Buress, and Sarah Silverman were in Pittsburgh for Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival. It was 1 am and a dance night was happening on the second floor when Lou Ickes, owner of Brillobox, got the call that the group was on their way. Almost instantly Brillobox went from having a few dozen people in the building to around 450. Dave Chappelle brought his DJ and Lou set him up then let him DJ until well after closing. Lou knew he might get in trouble if caught but it was too good an experience to pass up. It was that rare magical night that can only happen unexpectedly at a small local bar like Brillobox.
Lou Ickes, along with his wife Janessa, own Brillobox, a music venue, dance club, bar, and restaurant on Penn Avenue in Bloomfield. They have been running the space for thirteen years and have owned it for the last two. Lou was gracious enough to sit down with me and talk about the history of Brillobox, how it remains successful as Pittsburgh changes, and what the future holds. In his own words, “My long-term strategy is to stay short term cool!”
As Pittsburgh experiences urban renewal, business owners like Lou are successful by staying relevant, finding that new cool factor, while still supplying a trust-evoking atmosphere that keeps Pittsburghers coming back year after year. “We make an honest attempt to try to stay unique, and that’s difficult sometimes. As long as I keep trying to put money back into it and I’m concerning myself more with the overall product, rather than on making money, because I don’t know that there is any money to be made in this business, we’ll be a success,” Lou states as he chuckles a little.
When Brillobox first opened, Bloomfield was a much cheaper place to live, and Lawrenceville was yet to be the ‘it’ destination it has become. The neighborhoods were a little edgier, and artists and musicians had a much easier time living nearby. It was easy to gain attendees for music events because the art and music communities were tighter and less fractured. “You could book a band from Texas on a Tuesday night and have thirty people show up, just because they were interested in seeing what was going on,” Lou says recalling the bygone era.
As Lawrenceville has become a hip shopping and restaurant neighborhood, rents have skyrocketed, and the artists and punks have been priced out. The cost of opening any venue to smaller unknown bands on a weekday is cost prohibitive, as the demand for live music has changed.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
The vision Lou has always had for Brillobox is one of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He has always wanted to help bands right on the verge of doing something great. And on the other side of the stage lights, to offer an intimate venue where a showgoer might reminisce about that one time they saw such and such powerhouse with only one hundred people in a dimly lit room. But there are always bills to pay. It costs money even to open up the second-floor venue so “until that [vision] comes back, we will do whatever it takes!”
Whatever it takes still includes live metal shows with local promotors Winter Forge, live post-punk shows from local record label Play Alone Records, and other random Rock ‘n’ Roll events. Right now though live music takes up one or two weekend nights a month. There is even a local comedy night that has been going strong for over a decade. But dance parties take up most of the prime weekends.
It makes more sense monetarily to have consistently strong attendance with regular dance parties than to have live music every weekend. Dance parties bring in about double the dollar amount a live music event brings in right now. Brillobox has dance nights as diverse as trap music, 80’s goth, post-national dance and a classic hip-hop night. Lou remains optimistic that things will always change and that the live music scene will come back strong. His hope and future plans are to make the second floor of Brillobox bigger to accommodate those audiences.
Brillobox, Keepin’ It Going
Lou said that what happens to most music venue owners over time is that they just “tap out”. They do it for so long, just keeping things going but not really making money, that there comes the point when they ask, ‘Is this worth my sanity?’ I asked Lou what keeps him going and any anxiety at bay. For him, it’s his wife, his dogs, a little painting, and Jiu-Jitsu, which he swears by. “There is nothing like getting an ass beating on a daily basis. Every day it’s humbling. It has really helped me with the stress of running a business. Specifically, one involving alcohol, where emotions tend to run high.”
He recounted a recent dream he had where he sold Brillobox. “For people who know me, I’m always grouching around: ‘I gotta get rid of that place.’ But in this dream, when I sold it, I was heartbroken. I remember waking up the next morning like, well that just answered it. As much as I say I want to sell it sometimes, I don’t want to sell it. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Part of what keeps Brillobox going strong is the delectable food. Lou says they try to keep it simple while making the best bar food possible at the most affordable price. That means the menu is small but packed with the tastiest morsels to keep you dancing or rocking all night. Brillobox always has vegetarian and vegan options, so there is something for everyone. They change the menu once every four months, so they can add some seasonal items.
In entirely too modest a tone, Lou stated that, “We don’t do anything but pour the beer you ask for and give you the burger you want. It’s the people that come here, the people that have events here, they’re Brillobox man, not me. I’m an old dude that likes to sit on his couch with his wife and his dogs and not worry about it, even though I do worry about it, nonstop. Ha. It’s the life I chose. It’s not what we’re doing, it’s what the people that come here are doing that is important. We just give them a home for it.”
Also, be sure to check out our post on the Top 10 Best Pittsburgh Music Venues, including Brillobox.