Jon Taffer of Bar Rescue on running rock clubs, the science of BPM, and Van Halen’s boozy business affairs

“Running a bar is not just a business — it’s a science… nobody knows more about bar science than Jon Taffer.” Three seasons in, that opening voiceover to Spike TV’s Bar Rescue is undoubtedly the most recognizable on the current reality television landscape. Taffer, a bar business veteran, takes on the tired, the angry, the bitter, and the dejected who are desperate to find a savior even if, like doubting Thomas before them, they at first don’t believe. Much more often than not, the boisterous, Svengali-like Taffer is able to take establishments in disrepair and turn them around with a new look, sometimes a new name, and always with an attitude of positivity that few can match. That’s led to a book deal; Raise the Bar drops this October and is available for pre-order now, as well as another show on Spike, Hungry Investors, which is set to debut next spring.

But way before he was a pop culture touchstone, Taffer was a music man. He played drums with a band called Hollywood Joe so long ago it’s next to impossible to find more than grainy press photos or whispers of reverence and secondhand tales of their Sunset Strip days. Vanyaland caught up with Taffer at his home in Las Vegas last week, just before he was about to go out on the road to film more Bar Rescue episodes, with a fourth season beginning this fall. We talked about the role music plays in bars, a genius patent that Taffer has taken out, and what he believes to be the real reason Van Halen and Sammy Hagar went their separate ways.

Michael Christopher: How does music play into where you’ve come from and what you do today?

Jon Taffer: Years ago, I was a musician; I took nine years of drum lessons and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. Onstage, playing in places like the Troubadour, the Whisky, the Roxy and all those places, I got to feel the energy music had on environments – and it was very profound for me. Years later, the Knack played the Troubadour, and they had a song called “My Sharona.” When they played that song, I had never seen anything like it in my life – to this day. People stood on tables [mimics the iconic opening to the track], they just went, excuse me, fucking nuts! The energy and dynamic of this music was incredible.

One day the owner of the Troubadour, Doug Weston, threw me a key ring and said, “Ahh… you can have this place,” and the next day I was running the Troubadour. I went at this business with a love of music and an insatiable desire to create frenzy, energy and dynamics through music.

I own the only patent issued by the federal government to achieve the desire ambiance in a musical program in hospitality properties – it’s a friggin’ patent! I took 72,000 songs, color-coded them by energy level and then chose a number of things; beats-per-minute, instrumentation, distortion levels, then categorized them by female vocalists, male vocalist – put them into key and line them all into type, content, demographic and energy. Then we would design grids with beats-per-minute curves at a certain rate where we have these 45 minute sets; if they were too high or too long you’d get fried and go home early. Too low, too long you’d get bored and go home early.

Then I started working on the science of beats-per-minute. I have an incredible passion for human behavior; getting you to come to my place, getting you to stay longer, getting you to eat what I want you to eat, getting you to chew faster, chew slower, blink faster, blink slower, talk more, talk less.

Music is such an integral part of the bar experience whether it’s a live band, a jukebox, iPod nights, DJs…

Look at DJs today – Tiesto, $20-plus-million contract as a resident DJ in Las Vegas. The DJs are making millions and millions of dollars in Vegas. Every billboard when you drive up and down the strip, it used to be for restaurants and hotel rooms and suites; every one of them now is for a frickin’ DJ.

Where do you think bars make the biggest mistake with music?

I am not a DJ, I’m much too old for that now. I will allow a DJ to pick songs, because they’re better at that. But I am a nutcase when it comes to managing music. Some people might take offense to some of this, but I am absolutely right, I’ve got 35 years and a track record to prove it.

You got a gang problem in your bar? Every third song should be a female vocalist – they’ll be gone in three weeks – end of frickin’ discussion.

You got a gang problem in your bar? Every third song should be a female vocalist – they’ll be gone in three weeks – end of frickin’ discussion. That’s the power of music. Content swings; for example, a DJ thinks he’s doing great, man, he goes into a hip-hop set for an hour and a half, the dance floor stays packed – I don’t make any money off the frickin’ dance floor. I make money when the cash registers ring.

Every 15 minutes a DJ, to be effective, he must make a left hand turn. That left hand turn must be a shift in music type to the point that one audience that likes one type of music walks off the dance floor as the other type walks on. That left turn causes a surge at the cash register that will make my night successful. DJs have to learn that their job is not to play to dance floors but to play to rooms; their job is to move people on and off the floor – not keep them on the floor all night long.

You’ve talked about the power of music. Is there any truth to the rumor that Bar Rescue is set to go on hiatus so you can get back together with Hollywood Joe and tour the world?

I can’t believe you just said that – that’s a funny thing. There are some tapes and videos out there – somewhere! And I keep in touch with Joey to this day. He’s now in his 60s but son-of-a-gun, Joe is going to go down with a guitar in his hand trying until the last minute [laughs].

How long did you play?

I have a drum set in my office right now. I have a Marshall Mini Stack in my office with two guitars; one of those is a Hendrix guitar that I bought from off Buddy Miles [drummer in Band of Gypsys]. He got into some drug problems and it’s a matter of fact that he inherited a bunch of Jimi’s guitars and I bought one of them and it’s one of my prized possessions. I have a Roland V studio-quality drum set in my office, the finest electronic drum set you can buy, it has real heads on it – it’s not those rubber pad bullshit sets.

How often do you play? You’re just bored one day or you just need to clear your head and pick up the guitar or you sit behind the kit?

I tend to play the drums a lot more than guitar these days; because of Bar Rescue I travel and I really don’t get to play the guitar consistently, so I don’t have the callouses on my fingers anymore. Drums I play all the time. I’m heading out on the road next week for four weeks for Bar Rescue, so I’m gonna play my brains out the next couple days and get it out of my system so I don’t need a fix while I’m gone.

What sort of style are you into?

I’m a different kind of drummer. I’ll put on my headphones and I’ll play a George Benson set and the next album I play will be a Hendrix album. The next album I’ll play will be a nostalgic album and the next one I play will be a Broadway soundtrack album. I still like to keep my chops together, so I will play a Broadway side, a jazz side, a rock side – I’ll drop some Van Halen on.

Your playing covers various styles. Are your tastes in music just as eclectic?

I’m a purist. Candidly? And please excuse my language, I fucking hate produced music. I hate that people can sit in front of a computer – even DJs – they can take a very simple bridge and synthesize it and build a song around it with a computer program and no musicians involved. That bothers me. I believe that five guys should walk into a room and make music.

Do you get out and see a lot of shows?

I’m in Vegas and I’m well-connected so I get to see anyone I want. Black Sabbath is coming to town, so that’ll be fun. I’ll give you an idea of my tastes; I’ll go to a Jeff Beck concert in a minute, I’ll go to a Metallica concert if they’re in town. I’ll also go to a Beach Boys concert if they’re here.

Great music is great music. I’m extremely in awe of anyone that can build a big catalog of music with hooks that sells.

I know you’ve worked with Sammy Hagar before, but when it comes to Van Halen, are you a Dave guy or a Sammy guy?

[Laughs] Let me tell you a quick, funny story about when Sammy and the guys went down to Mexico and decided to open Cabo Wabo – this is years ago. They had left a titty bar and they watched a local drunk walk into a light pole and knock himself out. Sammy turns to Eddie and says, “That’s the Cabo Wabo!” and they have a big laugh. The next morning they wake up and decide they want to open this nightclub next to their favorite topless bar. They find a local architect [Marco Monroy] and tell them that they want a 12,000-square-foot nightclub. Being rockstars, they leave two days later and go on a 10 month tour.

They come back after the tour and the club is 12,000 square meters, which is 32,000 square feet – so this club is almost three times the size they expected. First year it loses one million dollars and is a huge frustration in the band. Sammy goes ahead and buys out Eddie and his brother and now he owns 100% of it and he gives half of it to the architect, Marco, and his wife, to run in Cabo.

Marco’s wife becomes promoted to the VP of tourism to the port of Cabo. The next morning, there are buses pulling up in front of Cabo Wabo from all the cruise ships to buy t-shirts, and suddenly they’re doing $50,000 to $60,000 a week in t-shirts when the month before the place was losing a million a year.

Sammy’s got the tequila going, he’s got the club going, he’s making all this money and he’s perceived as the coolest guy in Van Halen, and the Van Halen brothers have none of this.

Now the Van Halen brothers are out, Sammy owns the place, it becomes successful. Marco comes up with the idea to make a Cabo Wabo tequila, they move 140,000 cases a year in sales and Sammy later sells it for, give or take, $80 million. All this is going on while the band had broken up over, what I believe, Cabo Wabo. Sammy’s got the tequila going, he’s got the club going, he’s making all this money and he’s perceived as the coolest guy in Van Halen, and the Van Halen brothers have none of this.

Eight years later, the band gets back together with Sammy for a summer tour. At this time, I’m working with Sammy on a Cabo Wabo New Orleans. In the contract that Sammy signed to go on tour with Van Halen, it said specifically that he’s not allowed to say Cabo Wabo, wear Cabo Wabo shirts, do anything with Cabo Wabo onstage whatsoever.

He signs the contract.

Next day, Sammy goes out and gets the biggest fucking Cabo Wabo tattoo on his arm he can possibly get. Every promo picture has Cabo Wabo in it. Halfway through a planned world tour they were ready to frickin’ kill each other and they [didn’t go overseas].

The theory is that Sammy hoodwinked the Van Halen brothers, had a plan to buy them out while the club was doing poorly and then turn it around and make all the profit for himself.

Can I be honest with you? I know Sammy Hagar – he’s not that smart. It didn’t happen that way. They opened the place – it failed. They wanted out, Sammy bought them out. The cruise ships started showing up; that’s the side of the story I believe. And Sammy’s not a bad guy – I’m not suggesting he is – Sammy Hagar did not wake up one morning and decide to fuck the Van Halen brothers.

However! That said… I gotta go with Diamond Dave.

I’m right there with ya.

When I used to run the Troubadour, Diamond Dave used to come hang out and I remember a lot of wild Diamond Dave nights that I won’t get into. There were some amazing stories at the Troubadour and he was involved in quite a few of them, actually [laughs].

Tune in to Spike TV this Sunday, September 1 for its annual Bar Rescue marathon starting at 11am and running past midnight.