More than 300 concerts in, basement-show host Kiki Schueler takes a break but vows to go on.
These days, the sounds of Kiki Schueler’s basement aren’t unlike the sounds of most people’s basements. There’s the hum of the washer and dryer, the splashing water of the shower or the echo of Schueler’s footsteps as they go up and down the stairs.
There’s just one problem with that: Schueler’s basement isn’t supposed to be a basement. It’s supposed to be Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, or just “Kiki’s basement” to music fans around Madison. It’s supposed to reverberate with the sounds of Jon Dee Graham’s story songs, the Bottle Rockets’ roots rock or the Flat Five’s sweet harmonies and general shenanigans.
But … a regular old basement? Where people do laundry and hide from tornadoes? That’s just so wrong.
While venues sit quiet and empty all over Madison, the fact that Kiki’s House of Righteous Music is just a regular basement right now instead of the city’s most unique place to hear music only adds to the weirdness of our times.
Yet true to her nature as an optimistic, seemingly inexhaustible music fan, Schueler has perspective. Her concert list got stuck on No. 314 on February 20 when the Trapper Schoepp Band played the basement. She was scheduled to host four shows in April, six in May, including an April 18 release show for Madison power-pop band The German Art Students’ new EP. Instead, the chairs are stacked and the beer fridge is clean.
“It makes me sad, but it’s not a hardship,” says Schueler, who is still working at her job in a biochemistry lab on the UW-Madison campus. “I’m not losing income and I’m not in danger of going out of business because of this. It’s all a hobby anyway.”
Since 2005, Schueler has hosted concerts in the basement of her postwar house just past the intersection of East Washington Avenue and Stoughton Road. About 50 people fit in the space, and over the years they’ve been treated to some top talent in a quiet, intimate, friendly, BYOB setting. Like Schueler’s personal taste, the lineup is heavy on country and folk, with an emphasis on Bloodshot Records artists like Robbie Fulks and Jon Langford. Other noteworthy musicians to play the basement over the years have included Damien Jurado, David Bazan, Jason Narducy, and Califone. Schueler has also built up quite a following through word of mouth and an email list, and often shows are sold out weeks or even months in advance.
It’s easy to not stress out too much about the pause, Schueler says, because aside from not having music and a bunch of people in her house, she’s not out anything. People pay $10 to $20 to nab a seat, but Schueler gives every dime to the artists.
“It’s not like I’m going to have to shut down because I can’t have shows,” she says. “We just have to wait it out.”
Music is still part of Schueler’s world, just in a virtual way. She’s not on social media, but a friend keeps tabs of who is playing when so she checks out online shows when she can. Which seems to be often.
“I’m probably watching eight, nine, 10 a week. Who knows?” she says, continuing to support the artists with the virtual tip jar or “admission” fee. “I don’t watch all of every show, sometimes you can just turn it on for background music.”
She spent one Friday night bouncing between three shows—basement stalwart Fulks, Gerald Dowd and Matt Pond.
“On a real night I would have had to pick which show to go to, now I have an option to see all three,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, he’s talking now, I’m going to go see what the other guy is doing.’”
She’s been a faithful viewer of the streaming shows Graham, the self-proclaimed “King of the Basement” after 21 appearances, hosts. He performs music and also reads children’s books in a segment called “Story Time With Uncle Baggy Pants.”
The quiet basement isn’t just strange for music fans. Schueler’s mom was worried about her, too.
“She said, ‘What are you going to do? You’re always so busy, you’re going to go crazy,’” Schueler says. “I said, ‘No, it’s OK.’ It would be different if I were sick or broke my leg and there were all these shows I couldn’t see. But there’s nothing happening, so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.”
Schueler is already working with artists, rescheduling Fulks and Walter Salas-Humara shows for November and December, but nothing before that yet. She has also been collaborating with the annual Sessions at McPike Park series on an annual night, and this year’s installment, with Chuck Prophet, Ha Ha Tonka, and The German Art Students, is still on the books for August 13. She hopes that when things come back, people will be so starved for entertainment that every show in her basement will be full of people seeking music and community. In the meantime, the chairs stay stacked and Schueler’s recycling bin isn’t as full as it usually is, concessions to a world that, at least for now, bears no resemblance to the one that existed two months ago.
“It’s different, but I’m not that sad,” Schueler says. “It’s the way it is. There will be shows. It will happen again.”