Carlos Wells recalled the first time he stepped into the space. “As soon as I walked in, it was immediate,” he said. “I already could see a stage here and thought we could do a show there.”
Four years later Wells is operations manager and co-founder, along with Slate Ballard of The Grove, of The State House, a venue opening on State Street between Chapel and Crown Streets later this month.
After a tour of the new venue during its ongoing renovations, Wells talked about his vision for it, his own history as a part of the city’s music scene, and his hopes for its future.
The soon-to-be State House is an extension of the building on 760 Chapel St., but is accessible from State Street. It was last used by A Broken Umbrella Theatre briefly a few years back.
“Slate and I got together last year when the space became available again and tried to come up with whether or not we could make it work and how we could refine our project idea,” Wells said. “After winning a grant” — through the Elm City Innovation Collaborative — “we were off and running and started meeting with contractors and subcontractors.
We started building out and designing it in September 2017, and we’ve been working towards opening in late June.”
The approximately 4,400-square-foot space has two floors. The entrance is at ground level through a parking lot on State Street (where parking will be available after 5 p.m.; there is also street parking nearby, a parking garage right next door, and the State Street Train Station stop diagonally across the street), through a vestibule which will hold a ticket booth.
The sound booth and bar are to the right of the entrance and two handicapped bathrooms are to the left. The performance area encompasses the back area of that level, and the stage will be modular, allowing for it to be “as big as 8 by 24 and as small as nothing” Wells said, “so if we want to keep the whole floor open and have a big dance party, or even have just a podium up for a speaker.”
Maximum capacity for patrons allows for 300 to 375 depending on the size of the stage. For certain events there will be seating available, but most events will be SRO. There will also be a projector hooked up and a screen available for PowerPoint presentation and screening type events. The bar will serve beer, wine, and non-alcoholic drinks. There won’t be food prepared on premises, but Wells plans on working with local food trucks to bring them to the patio area located on the side of the building.
The patio will be “a work in progress,” Wells said, through the summer as they concentrate on getting the main stage area up and running. Downstairs will hold the bathrooms, an artists’ lounge area, and an artists’ changing room with its own private bath.
Since all these areas are still under construction, the first few shows — including the first two scheduled on June 14 and 16 — will be held at The Grove.
“They’re kind of our warm-up shows,” said Wells. “We were champing at the bit to start booking some events and had some friends coming around who wanted to have some shows, so we told them there might be an alternate space and they were totally fine. Most of these things are doable as long as you give people enough notice and are as up front as possible. I’ve been doing this too long, and I know you can’t fool people.”
Wells has been part of the city’s music and bar scene for about 18 years now, beginning at the old Rudy’s on Elm Street handling booking and music entertainment there while also being involved with Monkey Power records. He followed that up with a stint at Cafe Nine bartending and booking shows there as well. For the past 15 years he has been the bar manager at Firehouse 12 and since 2004, has been a part of Safety Meeting Records, where he has put out records for local acts such as the Mountain Movers and not so local acts such as Acid Mothers Temple. His involvement in the scene has without question shaped his vision for how he would like to add to it through the State House.
“Ideally we wanted to try to have this multiuse space that was all about being heavily involved in community, putting together speaker/lecturer series, after-work meet-ups, and a hefty amount of music,” said Wells. “As far as the programming goes I kind of feel that there’s a lack of venues that really appeal to the diversity of this town, so for that we wanted to book a lot more world music acts, reggae, and hip hop, as well as a smattering of punk, psychedelic, indie rock shows. New Haven is such a big town. There are so many people, and they’re not 100 percent catered to. I don’t know if we will be able to do that full-on but were gonna give it an attempt.”
Wells has already booked Cheick Hamala Diabate, a West African storyteller and musician from Mali, paired up with 75 Dollar Bill, which plays blues/psychedelic rock, on June 22. Mokoomba, an Afro-fusion band from Zimbabwe, plays with the Mountain Movers on July 3. Orquestra El Macabeo, a seven-piece salsa band from Puerto Rico that Wells describes as “outstanding,” will play on July 14.
“We want to help round it out as far as the music scene,” Wells said. “We want people to come down and dance to an incredible cumbia band on Friday and then come back for a weirdo psychedelic show on Sunday and then Saturday have some kind of speaker/lecturer series that we can get behind.”
Wells was quick to add that the space will not be exclusively for music.
“We definitely want to have a lecture series, arts and culture as well as tech and entrepreneur.” Co-founder Ballard is connected to a network of “entrepreneurs that are constantly looking to have these type of meetups and lecture series, so that’s what he’s going to be introducing into the venue.” One event already booked actually combines music and lecture: Thomas Dolby, presented by Fernando Pinto and booked for August 5, will perform and use the projector and screen to show the audience what he is doing while he does it.
“He is going to take you through how to build his songs,” said Wells.
Wells and Ballard are currently in the final throes of work on the State House before the public gets to see it. “Right now it’s a mad scramble to get everything together and get the doors open, but at the same time book a lot of stuff,” Wells said. He and Ballard are calling it “our soft summer” and are planning a grand opening in September.
“However that’s not to say you should not come down during the summer,” Wells said with a laugh. “We’re really going to be throwing everything at the wall and hoping people come check it out.”
Wells spoke fondly of the city and the places in Ninth Square where has worked and played for years. He’s eager to be able to contribute to it in a new way.
“To be honest I’m pretty lucky,” Wells said. “I’ve been promoting shows and putting out records since 2001 in this town, actually promoting shows since 1996. I have a long history of working with Paul [Mayer] at Cafe Nine, who is great, and so many others, and everyone I’ve talked to is pretty much on board for this.”
Wells will be leaving his position at Firehouse 12 at the end of June, “which is bittersweet because I’ve really come to love that place. Nick Lloyd, who is my boss over at Firehouse 12, is one of the best guys I’ve ever worked for,” even helping Wells design the audio package at the new venue.
“I kind of believe one of the big draws with doing a show in New Haven is the city itself. You can go into a show, check it out, and walk out and walk up the street to one of the many bars and restaurants, make a whole night of it. And as an older guy I can tell you if I hit more than one place in a night, I whoop it up, like ‘that was a big night out!’” he said with a laugh.
On that note, Wells mentioned that this venue will offer patrons varying options for show times as well.
“Weekdays we’re going to try to have the bands wrap it up around 11,” Wells said, “starting shows around 8 or 9 p.m. Some shows will be a little bit different, start a little earlier, end a little later. We started talking about doing a lot of daytime weekend shows there also.” Though the idea is to keep the bar open a little later than that. “That way it gives the bands an opportunity to load out on their own time and also be able to sell merchandise and relax, as opposed to that usual thing where it’s last call and guys are hustling to get out and trying to sell records as they’re leaving. It’s like, ‘let’s all take a minute here, and also most of us would like to get some sleep before work in the morning,’ so why not? For those who want to keep it going all night we may have somebody there spinning records, or they may want to head down the street and hit another bar or venue.”
Wells is pleasantly hopeful and sees the potential not only for his venue, but for the city and its arts and culture scene as well. “We default to comfortable, but we also want to get a bigger view of the world,” he said. Though the only way to get that, he added, was to make a conscious and positive effort to do so and to “put your head down and work.”
“You don’t have to tear something down to build something up,” he said. In the case of The State House, this is true both figuratively and literally.
The first three shows are scheduled for The Grove. For information about those as well as future shows and updated information about the opening of the space itself please visit The State House website here or their Facebook page here.