[Music Issue 2014]

As the Bunkhouse readies to reopen, the Weekly gets inside for an exclusive first look

Illustration: Hernan Valencia

When last we saw the inside of the Bunkhouse Saloon, it looked roughly the way it had throughout its near-decade run as a Downtown music hub, give or take a few wall hangings. Those came down during some open-bar-fueled looting, at the end of an eight-band blowout last June 30, a few hours before its longtime owner handed his keys over to the Downtown Project. And a few months before, it was said, the place would reopen with a fresh coat of paint and other cosmetic improvements.

Close to a year later, the Bunkhouse remains quiet. Once its new proprietors got inside, they say, they discovered asbestos in the ceiling, a dilapidated kitchen and structural issues in the adjacent apartments, transforming a remodel into a full-on rebuild, and delaying the relaunch indefinitely. Or rather, it was indefinite, until DTP’s booking team began lining up acts for late summer and fall, with August 25—and veteran indie band Built to Spill (with support from local foursome Rusty Maples)—now officially pegged for opening night. We stopped by for an exclusive tour of the grounds in May, with new GM Michael Stratton guiding the way.

Pulling up to park on 11th Street south of Fremont, the Bunkhouse seems the same. A construction-site security guard sits outside, but otherwise the old front porch looks unchanged, its short staircases, desert landscaping and wagon-wheel wall decorations still in place, along with the elevated, pole-topping marquee promoting drink specials and live music. As Stratton walks us along the north side of the property, however, familiarity fades.

The Bunkhouse's familiar front exterior has been preserved by its new owners.

Glancing back toward the building that once hosted psych-rockers Dead Meadow, alt-rapper Sole and noise freaks Melt-Banana—not to mention hordes of local acts during a late-’00s boom for the Downtown scene—we catch our first glimpse of it: the emptiness. The Bunkhouse has been hollowed out, from its stage to its bar tops; its roof and rear wall no longer exist, either. What endures of the Western-themed saloon are three exterior walls, two doors and a slew of dusty memories.

“I think reopening fast was the original intent, and very quickly that changed,” explains Stratton, who made his name locally as the guitarist for ’90s Vegas rock band 12 Volt Sex. “Once [Downtown Project] went in, they realized we had two choices: try to fix everything that’s wrong and reopen in a few months, or step back and look at everything as a big picture. And it became obvious that they had to do things correctly.”

For DTP, that meant building a brand new Bunkhouse—without completely razing the old, 1953-built version. “It might have been cheaper to knock everything down, but the idea was to keep anything we could that added to the feel,” Stratton says. “We’ve worked hard to work around that stuff, even if it costs more to keep it.”

Plans call for giant, decades-old trees in the “backyard” to twist around and over new façades, for the old front door and patio to stay standing and for relics rescued from the closing-night bash—yes, including the iconic deer head that once hovered over guitarists and keyboard players—to be rehung and repurposed. “We kept everything that wasn’t destroyed or stolen,” Stratton says. “The old Bunkhouse was really cool. Why would you get rid of it all?”

The Bunkhouse interior, three weeks after our tour of the grounds and three months before opening night.

But understand this: The new Bunkhouse is also very much intended to feel new, from its stage—shifted to the southeast corner, which used to house tables and a long sofa-bench—to a vaulted ceiling designed for acoustics far beyond those of the makeshift old setup. “This will be a proper venue,” Stratton says, promising “crazy, awesome sound” inside the 250-capacity room. “The music is not an afterthought anymore. It’s the first thought.”

The curved stage will stand wider and a bit taller than the old one, tables will run along the south wall and might occupy floor space during more mellow performances, and the bar will look roughly like it did before—U-shaped and bisecting the room, though without the TVs and video-gaming that formerly drew chain-smoking regulars during odd daylight hours. The new Bunkhouse will operate from evening to late night, seven days a week.

The back of the Bunkhouse has been extended by some 20 feet, and the new kitchen and bathrooms will sit roughly where the old ones were. The old front door will still lead out to the smoking patio, but guests will now enter through the north-side door, previously used almost exclusively for band load-ins. As before, a door near the bathrooms will lead to the backyard.

Food and drinks will be served indoors and out (through a service window), and Downtown Project’s food and beverage director, Dan Adams, elaborates on the menu when reached later by phone.

Michael Stratton, the new Bunkhouse's GM.

“The food will be fun and casual, but we didn’t want to do traditional bar food,” he explains of the decision not to offer burgers, wings or nachos. Instead, choices will include four Sloppy Joes (pork, beef, turkey and vegetarian), a shortrib sandwich, salads, deep-fried pickles, deviled eggs, and “dirty” fries. And “it’s a very low price-point,” Adams promises. “Eighty percent of it will cost less than $10.”

As for beer, well, look out Pabst Blue Ribbon—you’ve got competition. “We’ll have six taps, with retro beers like Schlitz and Hamm’s, the ones with the jingles. To be able to offer a $3 pint of beer is a great thing,” Adams says. “And then we’ll have lots of different cans—craft beers and tall boys, no bottles.”

Stratton shows us around the backyard, pointing out the spot he hopes will eventually house an outdoor stage for crowds of more than 1,000. Future plans also include replacing the crumbling structures on the property’s north side—with a production office, a green room, more bathrooms and a multi-purpose event space—and converting the buildings on the property’s south side into living spaces, which Stratton says would be available to local musicians at affordable rental rates.

For now, though, the project is focused on the Bunkhouse proper, and the jolt its operators say it will bring to the music scene. “We’re gonna get all the bands that never come to Las Vegas,” Stratton says excitedly.

Built to Spill will headline the new Bunkhouse's opening night on August 25.

Built to Spill will headline the new Bunkhouse's opening night on August 25.

Downtown Project’s chief music booker, Mike Henry, elaborates on that last point when we meet up a few days later. “Fundamentally, it’s what you would call an indie-rock room, but we’ll do everything from electronic to hip-hop to punk shows. I can also see us doing alt-comedy, spoken word, multimedia stuff, film screenings, turntablists and DJ stuff in there, especially early in the evening,” he says. “There’s a level of credibility we’ll strive to uphold. Past that, anything goes.”

Henry, who moved to Las Vegas six months ago after 23 years in Austin, where he owned and programmed first the Electric Lounge and later the North Door, says the Bunkhouse lured him here. “That really sold me, getting to be involved in what I think will be one of the great midsized venues in the country.”

Above all, though, Henry says he considers the Bunkhouse a local music venue. “I want it to be home base for the local scene,” he says. “I want it to be where your friend’s band plays and where they drink when they’re not playing. For every touring show, I’ll fight for a local opener. And there will be more local programming than touring. It has to start there. That’s the foundation.”

Whether that local foundation re-embraces what in many respects had been its Downtown clubhouse, or if a sense of loss over the musty old Bunkhouse keeps it from rushing back to the shiny new one, remains to be seen. Henry has just one request for anyone on the fence.

“We get that people felt a sense of ownership. They’ll show up skeptical, and that’s fine,” he says. “We just ask that you don’t say f*ck you until you get there and see it for yourself.”

Photo of Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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