A deranged Santa walks up to the camera in the middle of the desert, pulls a tomahawk out of his bag and lights it on fire. The crazed man in red throws the ax at his target, a stuffed teddy bear with a picture of Killers frontman Brandon Flowers taped to its head. It’s a bull’s-eye.
That’s the opening scene of “Dirt Sledding,” The Killers’ upcoming Christmas music video and annual charitable contribution to the (RED) Campaign. And the dirty, loony Santa (also our cover model) is none other than longtime scene stakeholder Ryan Pardey. The 36-year-old musician—and new Bunkhouse Saloon entertainment director—has played the role of ol’ Saint Nick three times before, two of the videos thematically related to “Dirt Sledding.” “The general idea for the first two is I’ve been chasing around The Killers, haunting them in their dreams,” Pardey says.
His connection to The Killers goes back to 2002, when he was booking shows at Cafe Espresso Roma. Then a 21-year-old college student, Pardey helped bolster a local scene inside the University District shop, making a name for himself along the way.
“Brandon and Dave [Keuning] came and played open-mic nights,” he recalls; they even performed demos of “Mr. Brightside” and “Under the Gun” there. And when The Killers signed with Island/Def Jam in ’04, they tapped Pardey to be tour manager.
With his large, scruffy-red beard and dirty old sailor’s hat, the Vegas-born artist and all-around free spirit took on the character known as “The Captain,” a mythic man whose job was to grill the band in a web video series called Questions With the Captain. Clips began with Pardey riding his bike and strolling local streets, pipe in mouth and fishing pole in hand. In one, Pardey sits outside Battle Born Studios with Flowers, quizzing him on Nevada. Capital? State animal? Where in Las Vegas did Michael Jordan get married?
Those videos helped build The Killers’ fanbase, the Victims, into one of the largest fan groups for a modern rock act. “The band went from being nothing to being the biggest band in the world,” says Pardey, adding that he was with The Killers for close to 300 shows. At the end of the tour the label hired another manager, but the band took Pardey back on the road, this time as a merchandiser.
“The band was doing the Big Day Out festival [in Australia], and the promoter took us out on a yacht … it was beautiful and amazing and they were serving us lobster and we were jumping in the ocean,” Pardey says of a vivid day on tour. But luxe life was losing its appeal. “I felt like I had seen everything at that point.”
Pardey eventually quit and returned to Las Vegas, setting out to make a record under his own band name, Halloween Town.
In addition to having no job during a crippling global recession, Pardey came home to find his father, Rod—a professional poker player with two World Series of Poker bracelets—having financial troubles.
“The life of a poker player,” Pardey laments. “We lost the house we grew up in, and I was homeless. I was also probably not making great decisions. I probably had way too much confidence. I thought, I’m going to make the greatest record ever, and I’m going to be fine and I’m going to do what I want, because I always have.”
Now it was the life of a passionate, struggling musician—writing songs, living on friends’ floors and in cheap hotels, taking odd jobs (including kayak guiding in Alaska one summer) to make ends meet. “I was making a record and playing shows, but I was struggling personally in terrible ways. My family all went from living here to not living here. I probably had a drug problem,” Pardey says. “It wasn’t until I met [my girlfriend] Adriana that I absolved that.”
It was 180 degrees from where he’d been just a year prior, living the life and touring with an international arena act. Still, he didn’t regret his decision to let it go. “I was over the nomadic life, and I was looking to find some normal ground at that point. … It’s difficult living in the shadow of someone else’s dream when you want to go down your own path.”
Before he was The Captain, Pardey had established himself as the guy to know, working with that storied Maryland Parkway café and throwing debaucherous dance parties at dive bars. He says he had no clue what he was doing when he took over Cafe Roma. The venue had been booking nationally touring acts like Bright Eyes, Q and Not U, The Weakerthans, Dashboard Confessional and Apples in Stereo, and with the help of promoters like Jennifer Ianni and Tommie Gonzalez, the coffee bar transformed into one of Vegas’ only indie rock venues. “There was no Beauty Bar at this point,” and Downtown nightlife was quiet.
“I was at Champagnes Cafe with my friend Ben Coy—most of the world knows him as Rex Dart. My other friend was turning 21 and wanted to have a birthday party there, so we thought, ‘Let’s DJ.’” Pardey hadn’t DJ’d before, but like most things leading to that point, he winged it. The party was an immediate hit in Vegas’ indie scene.
From that bash grew the Bargain DJ Collective, a group of alternative DJs that still exists today, helmed by Rex Dart at the Double Down. After Bargain’s stint at Champagnes in 2001, Pardey landed at Fruit Loop bar Sasha’s (which became Tramps) for a dance night called Trash. Pardey still refers to those 18-and-over days as the biggest thing he’s ever orchestrated. “This is right around the time The Strokes are coming out, The Raveonettes, The Rapture, so I’d mix that in with my ’80s set of dance, new-wave stuff,” he remembers. Among his sets were bands like The Cure, The Smiths, Kraftwerk, early R.E.M., The Sea and Cake and David Bowie. “Every week there were girls dancing all over the place. People would go there and dance their asses off.”
And Pardey was still running Cafe Roma. Sort of. “I was a kid with ambition and no fear. I’m surprised I didn’t get in trouble for breaking all sorts of laws. We were more just squatters,” he says of his management skills. “I didn’t know about books, I didn’t know about nothin’. I got a lot of mileage out of that place, [but] it became obvious that we were out of our league.”
The night before Thanksgiving in ’03, the café was robbed, and Pardey gave up on the already-sinking ship to focus on DJing. The shop shuttered for good, marking the end of one of Vegas’ most unique music venues. Pardey continued with Trash at Tramps, but “like all good things,” that event also came to an end. A loss for the local scene, it fortunately played into the beginning of Pardey’s wild ride with The Killers.
In 2010, after Pardey stopped touring with The Killers, he began working with the Royal Resort, and did that for the next two years. In 2011, he also finally released Halloween Town’s debut album, Zafra Ct., named for the street on which he grew up. Co-produced by local musician Mike Stratton (formerly of 12 Volt Sex) and Louis XIV frontman Jason Hill, Zafra Ct. also featured musical contributions from The Killers’ Mark Stoermer and Keuning and Louis XIV’s Brian Karscig, with album artwork by “Dirt Sledding” director Matthew Gray Gubler (Criminal Minds). The album twists and turns through bleak realities of life and love, damaged yet encased in bright, sweet moments of hope. But even with all-star collaborators behind it, Zafra Ct. fell under the radar.
“Nobody bought it. Nobody cared,” Pardey says. “It was weird. It was a songwriter’s record. It was a good record. I’m proud of it.” Years after its release, Pardey’s soaring indie-pop gems are still as warm and honest as the desert itself.
There’s something resonant in the thought that Pardey, who has reinvented himself again and again, is now entertainment director for a Downtown venue that’s shape-shifted more than any other. The third incarnation of the Bunkhouse looks markedly different from its smoky, punk-fueled roots, but since Pardey’s start at Cafe Roma, Downtown has changed drastically, too. This bar embodies the scene’s resilience.
When asked if re-establishing it will be an uphill battle, he’s blunt.
“I 100 percent know this,” he says. But under the operation of former Artifice manager Jillian Tedrow, the Bunkhouse is turning away from owner Downtown Project’s first model, trying to weave a little of the original saloon’s flavor into a state-of-the-art space. Sure, the appealing “seediness” has been buffed out, but if there’s one guy who can rally Downtown support, it’s Pardey. His goal is creating a community—with game nights and drink specials and TV screens for Rebel basketball. Where gaming drove the old Bunkhouse’s success, Pardey says this model will need to rely on bigger things, from corporate events to his bread-and-butter: indie dance nights.
The schedule won’t be in full-swing until March, Pardey says, adding that he hopes for a “grace period” with patrons as the crew figures out what sticks. Of course, his plan for himself extends beyond the saloon doors.
“I’m hoping there’s more to come and this is just the beginning of another chapter. I want to be an actor. I still like playing music. I don’t want to be in a bar the rest of my life,” Pardey says. But his calling for now is to help the Bunkhouse flourish. “Am I going to be successful? I don’t know. I’m going to try. I’m going to do my best.”