Jump-Started

The Engine Room is one big sumbitch.

Clocking in at around 6,000 square feet and costing upwards of $100,000 to renovate, the Engine Room is a metropolitan roadhouse, a dark, smoky dive located not too far away from where the chic people hang. You know, the ones who get all dolled up and leathery but, for some reason, refuse to wear jackets when it's windy as hell outside. The room looks like the kind of place that would kick their asses to the curb and let in the dregs, the freaks, the punks, the nobodies, all those who were turned away at the trendy clubs. It looks like a haven for the rabble who just want to get liquored up.

But it's not.

As Mitch Burman, the frazzle-haired owner of the Engine Room, will tell you, it's a music venue first and a club/bar second. "I'm trying to offer a place for people to play and a place where people can watch music," he says. "And I think it comes down to a state of the music scene across the country right now, because people are not just going out to see live music anymore like they were. I don't know when it changed, probably in the early '90s. I just don't see people saying, 'I'm gonna go out tonight and see music because I wanna see music.' I see people going to specific shows and not really seeing what's happening with upcoming bands or anything like that."

Despite the place's grungy demeanor and marked aesthetic intent, Burman still insists the room is a work in progress. "I don't think it's anywhere near its potential yet," he says. "I don't think we've gotten enough shows in there for enough people to see the room yet."

Burman claims he's not seeking to entice the trendy NoDo clubgoers who haunt hipster outlets like Prague or Tonic. Instead, he has his sights set on the audiences of the more revered music venues like Fitzgerald's. "They're outbidding me, actually, on a lot of shows," says Burman, who adds that he's looking to work more with Pace/SFX to snag national acts. But, he says, "I think it's gonna come around. I think people are gonna realize it's a really good room, and it's good for the bands. It's set up well; the band can set up easily and get to the stage easily; the sound system, dressing rooms -- I think those are the kind of things that eventually are gonna weigh out."

The 34-year-old former Bostonian has had a hell of a time getting the Engine Room revving since its opening last July (see "Room to Grow," by Anthony Mariani, July 27, 2000). Actually, Burman has had a hell of a time, period. Two months after his new place opened, Burman's best friend and longtime partner, Tinna Powell, died in a car accident. One month later he shut down his first club, Instant Karma. The lower-Richmond music venue would've celebrated its fifth anniversary in December, but Burman decided to close up shop and leave quietly. "Our lease was up," he says. "I did not feel I had a good deal there with my lease and the landlord. The decision first was to get the Engine Room really off and running."

It's not that Burman's intention was to padlock Karma and join the stampede downtown. Rather, it was all of the above -- not to mention his second career as the bassist for goneblind -- that weighed all too heavily on Burman's shoulders. "A lot of things were happening at the same time: the end of our lease at Instant Karma, you know, [Powell] dying, me -- somebody who's really busy with goneblind and running two clubs at the same time," he says. "I think something had to give, and I think that's what gave right there. I feel that was something in my life that had to go."

As for his work with goneblind, Burman and the rest of the five-year-old guitar-rock quartet -- vocalist/guitarist John Curry (who replaced former front man Joe Paul), lead guitarist Aristides and drummer Mark Archer -- have spent the past year striving with some success to escape the local bar-band circuit. "I think we've established ourselves by getting out of Houston more," says Burman, whose band has played recent gigs in New York and Los Angeles. The group has secured L.A. management and is working with an entertainment lawyer (who has represented Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins and 311) to get goneblind's name shopped around.

They've even added uniforms -- all-black long-sleeved shirt-and-tie outfits -- to foster an image. It's something that Burman feels is necessary if you really want to be noticed in this business. "I think it's not anything unbelievable, but I think it still sets us apart from a lot of bands," he says. "I think [if] we have an image or a look and a sound, especially when we're on the road, [then] we stand out from a lot of bands."

If and when goneblind inks with a major label, Burman wouldn't think twice about abandoning his Engine Room duties. "I think if goneblind is signed and we have to leave, then yeah, I'm gonna go and do the band thing," he says. "I have some really good people working with me that can keep the place running."

At this point, Burman is just looking for some positive reinforcement after all his mental, physical and personal turmoil. "It has definitely been up and down," he confirms. "The past five years of my life have been really tough mentally. I've gained and I've lost a lot of friends. I've made some decisions that people haven't liked, and I've made some decisions that people have liked. And it's definitely affected me in a way I never thought it would."

"When I moved here," he continues, "I wanted to be a part of helping the music scene, and I still feel that way. And I think that the bottom line is that's what it's all about. Just like playing music; I think the bottom line is still about playing music, even though we're all about the business end. But it's still about playing music."

Burman shrugs, realizing perhaps that 2001 can be no worse than 2000. "The year 2000 ended up being a lot of disappointing times for me, and it can only get better. It can only get better -- for me, the band and everybody. Everybody around me, I think. I think it's just a more positive attitude in the air right now."

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey