Mug & Brush Sessions: Old North barbershop's music video series documents city's growing scene

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Two men huddled in a barbershop on a frigid Wednesday evening in mid-November, both sporting long brown locks and facial hair that combined to suggest it had been some time since they last set foot in such an establishment.

A trim and a shave weren’t to be on this night, either. Rather the pair — Keith Hanlon, house engineer at Musicol Recording Studios, and singer-songwriter Josh Krajcik — were awaiting the rest of the crew in order to film the latest installment of the Mug & Brush Sessions, an ongoing music video series launched in August 2013 and shot on location in the barbershop with which it shares a name.

The series is the brainchild of Mug & Brush owner Jim Morris, who purchased the store in October 2002, making him the fourth to helm the space since the Old North shop opened in 1968. Morris, a longtime music fan, modeled the initial concept off the famed television series “Austin City Limits,” eventually pitching the idea to a handful of musician clients, including members of the Floorwalkers and Nick D’ & the Believers (both bands filmed early test sessions for the series) and Hanlon, who was immediately taken with the project, and now serve as its audio engineer.

By launching the sessions, Morris, who was born in Columbus and has been cutting hair in and around the campus area for more than three decades, hoped to preserve a snapshot of a music scene he viewed as flourishing.

“There certainly was kind of an archival thought,” said Morris, seated alongside Hanlon in the booth of a barbershop-adjacent diner for a mid-November interview. “I thought about the Stache’s era (the legendary north campus venue closed in the late ’90s) and the various times in Columbus history [when music thrived], and I thought it would be cool to archive the best of what Columbus has to offer now.”

Fittingly, the fast-growing series reflects the city’s musical diversity, and has included performances from experimental composers (Brian Harnetty), jazz collectives (the Brett Burleson Band) and reggae singers (Mark Hunter of the Ark Band) alongside a smattering of rock-leaning groups, including Connections, Way Yes and Lydia Loveless, who belted out a simmering version of “Hurts So Bad” that bled like a cut vein. In late November, Mug & Brush released a limited-edition vinyl LP collecting one song each from the first 10 performers, with proceeds going directly to the Clintonville-Beechwold Community Resources Center, a community-based social services agency. Additionally, all of the performances are archived and available for round-the-clock viewing on the Mug & Brush Session YouTube channel.

Despite the eclectic collection of performers, the videos maintain a consistent look and feel — a trait Morrison and Hanlon attribute in large part to videographer Kevin McIntyre, who served as director of photography on early sessions and has since shifted into a more supportive role as the project has grown in size and scope (Mug & Brush now features a rotating cast of “seven or eight” cameramen, according to Hanlon, three or four of whom participate in the twice-monthly shoots).

“I went into it looking at the space as opposed to looking at other video series. I was concerned with: ‘How does the room look?’; ‘What are the cool angles?’” McIntyre said in a phone interview. “The DLSR (digital single-lens reflex camera) video aesthetic is pretty popular now. It’s authentic. It doesn’t feel overproduced. We’re not bringing in fake lights. The lead singer might fall out of focus for a second, and that’s OK, because they’ll come right back in.”

It’s a point echoed by Counterfeit Madison’s Sharon Udoh, who played alongside Way Yes during its session in addition to filming a late-summer solo turn.

“You get a good idea how people perform because they’re not on some ornate stage,” Udoh said in a November phone interview. “There aren’t pyrotechnics or lights. It’s just the musician in this natural state, and it’s beautiful.”

The crew also made the decision to film each performance with multiple cameras rather than relying on the single-camera setup utilized by the popular NPR series Tiny Desk Concerts and the Black Cab Sessions, a strikingly intimate video series filmed with the band members crammed into the backseat of an in-motion taxi.

“The one-camera [setup] is fun and cool, and it’s easier, for sure, but it isn’t visually as interesting,” McIntyre said. “We wanted to make it look as cinematic as we could, and still have it feel like this is what you would see and hear if you were in the room.”

A number of the performances reflect this intimacy. The Receiver, for one, initially believed the concept required bands to adopt a more minimalist pose, so the brother-brother duo stripped its music back to the studs for its late-summer session, performing a pair of songs with only a keyboard and an electronic drum pad.

“I thought the whole objective was to film a more acoustic-style performance, so we planned on doing it that way,” Receiver singer Casey Cooper said in a phone interview. “Normally when [drummer] Jesse and I play we have a full drum kit and I’m playing bass guitar and we’ve got loops going. For this, I thought it was the perfect opportunity for us to take a couple brand new songs and rewrite them to be played minimally.

“You’re just in this room, and you might have a few people watching you, but you’re not up on a big stage or trying to play to a crowd. Being in a small space, we played a little quieter — or at least I sang a little bit quieter — and that plays well with what makes [Mug & Brush] unique: the intimacy.”

This intimacy was on full display during a two cozy sessions filmed in mid-November. Krajcik, accompanying himself on keyboard and guitar, performed a pair of solo songs: a melancholic holiday tune (“I’m feeling so low,” he sang in a shallow rasp as seasonally appropriate snow flurries swirled outside, “I wish it wasn’t Christmas at all”) and a fiery rendition of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.” A few days later Nashville-based singer-songwriter Greg Trooper, in town for a November concert at Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza, worked through a pair of acoustic numbers, including “Amelia,” a heartbroken ballad where the musician sounded utterly alone in spite of the dozen or so folks occupying the space.

Both Krajcik and Trooper worked quickly, nailing one song in a single take and a second with only one additional run-through, embracing the shaggy nature of the haircutter confines. Said Trooper after knocking out his one-take performance: “There’s a couple notes I didn’t hit, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna hit ’em [if we go again].”

“I just love the idea of playing in this little barbershop,” said Krajcik, who first appeared on the series in February, belting out a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay” alongside the Wet Darlings — a collaboration that helped Mug & Brush reach its widest audience to date (the video has now been viewed more than 20,000 times). “I’m guessing other acts would agree that there’s just a vibe this shop has that contributes to the quality of the performances.”

Counterfeit Madison’s Udoh similarly trumpeted the locale’s blue-collar appeal.

“I like that it wasn’t in a special hall … and that there are sinks crowded with scissors and shaving cream [cans],” she said of the Mug & Brush, a colorful, eclectic space decorated with music posters, stickers and assorted barber-centric oddities. “It’s a very routine thing for people to get their haircut, and there’s something about my songs that is very every day. Every once in a while people feel pain. Every once in a while people feel like yelling and punching a wall.”

Though Morris and Hanlon initially conceived the sessions as a means of documenting the Columbus scene, Mug & Brush has gradually started to catch the attention of national artists, attracting the likes of Califone, Peter Case and Vertical Scratchers for one-off performances.

“It started out that way, but I don’t think we ever thought of it as exclusively local,” said Hanlon, who was born in New Jersey and grew up with a fascination for technology inspired in part by his father’s employment at an RCA vacuum tube plant. “And, who knows, maybe someone who turns in to see Califone will check out Counterfeit Madison.”

In addition to the unique setting, the barbershop offers these national acts — a bulk of which filmed sessions while passing through on tour (Califone, for one, opened for the War on Drugs at the Newport the evening before its shoot) — something that might come in handy during an extended out-of-town stay: the potential of receiving a haircut.

“I’m [usually] quite phobic of having my hair cut by someone unfamiliar,” wrote Vertical Scratchers John Schmersal in an email (the band reached out to the Mug & Brush at the recommendation of Merge publicist Mike Caulo, who viewed the Connections session and was struck by the uniqueness of the setting). “But [Jim] was great … and gave me exactly what I wanted: the same haircut I had, just a bit shorter.”

For still other musicians, it’s a rare chance to visit a locale they’re unlikely to hit up during normal business hours.

“I never get my hair cut,” said a laughing Krajcik. “This is the first time [I’ve been a regular in a barber shop], but you can see these guys are all fun to be around … and even this room just has a real soul to it.”