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RÖK Music Lounge and Pilllar Forum: Get to Know 2 New Twin Cities Music Venues

A pair of new spaces are offering opportunities to local bands shut out elsewhere.

Pilllar Forum|

A photo from late July, as Pilllar Forum concluded a run of 10 shows in 12 nights.

Devout readers of Racket’s music listings, which compile just about every single concert you can catch in the Twin Cities each week, may have recently noticed a few new venue names dotting the lists.

We caught up with the folks behind Pilllar Forum and RÖK Music Lounge—two spaces not designed for live music, initially, but which have become go-to show hosts for bands both here in the Twin Cities and beyond.

RÖK's Adam Prince poses with the vintage speaker wall that makes up the backdrop to their stage | Travis Wycislak

RÖK Music Lounge + Bar

When it opened in 2021, RÖK Music Lounge + Bar was RÖK Eatery—a Nordic and Japanese restaurant on West Seventh in St. Paul. But in May, owner Travis Wycislak and chef/partner Adam Prince announced a shift. RÖK would sunset its existing menu, switching to a more streamlined tacos-and-cocktails experience. And rather than operating as a restaurant, RÖK 2.0 would emphasize live music.

Wycislak says RÖK's music focus actually started about a year and a half ago, when he and Prince were trying to figure out a way to add a little vibrancy to their corner of St. Paul (and bring in some more guests in the process). “How do we make this cute little node on Seventh Street bloom a little bit more, and kind of live in the arts district that this space is?” they found themselves wondering.

RÖK started hosting shows on Sundays last summer, first with a series of outdoor events at their space in the Rathskeller building at Schmidt Brewery. As interest grew, music became a standard part of after-dinner service on Fridays and Saturdays. Wycislak and Prince assembled a sound system and built a stage. More and more shows filled the calendar.

For a while now, “We’ve been operating as sort of a restaurant and venue,” Wycislak says, which is why earlier this year—faced with the rising cost of goods and uncertainty over the future of their building, which is in foreclosure, along with adjacent Keg and Case Market—they decided it made sense to reorient themselves to focus on live shows specifically.

Wycislak and Prince wanted a way to share their “down-to-earth, human approach” with more of the community, and their space lent itself really nicely to hosting live music. Plus, Wycislak adds, he and Prince met at a show at the 7th St Entry, meaning music has always felt like a fundamental part of what they do. He sees RÖK as a "useful stepping stone" for artists who might not quite be ready to step on the stage at the Entry themselves.

“And honestly, making the pivot has been a really healthy thing for—not only us, but also for that intermediary artist selection in the Twin Cities here,” Wycislak says. “There’s such a beautiful, vibrant scene that just spans every genre possible. And there’s only so many venues out there, and there’s only so many that have a smaller-capacity room.”

Some folks who knew and loved RÖK as a restaurant have been a bit bummed about the shift, but Wycislak says there's been a “communal forgiveness.” Other than figuring out the ins and outs of booking, there haven't been too many setbacks. Quite the opposite, in fact: The space is currently booked out until mid-November.

“It’s so much fun,” Wycislak says. Their intimate space is set up in such a way that you almost feel like you're up there with the artist, or somehow part of the performance. "It doesn’t feel separate, and it feels almost… like, wholesome comes to mind?” he chuckles. “I feel really lucky that we kind of meandered into the variables that we have right now.”

He adds, “It feels really good being a seed in the garden of West Seventh’s arts district... to be able to showcase so much talent here, as well as being a safe, beautiful space for people to enjoy themselves. Honestly, I feel really lucky that we had the opportunity to make this shift."

RÖK Music Lounge
882 Seventh St. W., Suite 12, St. Paul
Find the upcoming show calendar here

A mid-July hardcore gig at Pilllar | Pilllar Forum

Pilllar Forum Cafe

Back when Pilllar Forum's Corey Bracken was playing in bands around the Twin Cities, in the early 2000s, there were many more show spaces available to young artists than there are today. "I did all of our booking, and there was a ton of places to play—like, small places," he says. "Christensen's Big V in St. Paul, the 400 Bar... just a bunch of small, little venues that up-and-coming bands, and even more notable bands, would play at."

It could be difficult for bands like his to find places to play even then, during that relative heyday for local live music. These days, Station 4, Triple Rock—"all of those places are gone," he says. And that makes it really difficult for young musicians today to find places to cut their teeth in the Twin Cities. Enter Pilllar Forum Cafe.

If Pilllar sounds familiar, that's probably because the Central Avenue coffee-slash-skate shop opened up last year, in a bold black building on the corner of 23rd Avenue and Central Avenue in Northeast. (Also: We once asked Bracken for his insights on the very-bad Minneapolis level of Tony Hawk Pro Skater, and he really delivered.)

Over time, Pilllar's social channels have started to fill with more and more photos of live music alongside lattes and skateboards. And Bracken is as surprised as anyone.

"With Pilllar, music wasn't really even on the radar," he says. Then, last year, the shop's manager asked about booking a friend's band. That went great, so they tried a few more, and last fall Bracken reached out to UnderCurrent to see if they'd let the local music community know Pilllar was open for shows.

"They did like, one post, and my DMs on Instagram just exploded," he laughs. "I mean, I could have booked basically every single day of the week for the next six months."

Pilllar isn't booked every day, but the show calendar is pretty stacked for a coffee shop. This month alone, there were more than a dozen concerts on the calendar, from locals like Linus and GRAMMA to visiting bands like Sweet Bike, Gosh Diggity, and Basketball Divorce Court. Oregon, Virginia, Tennessee—Pilllar has become known as the place to play for smaller bands, especially in the punk and hardcore community, from all over the country.

"I think with Covid, too, a lot of the smaller venues closed up," Bracken notes, "so a lot of those bands are playing more DIY and house shows." Pilllar offers an alternative for those who want it. Early on, he invested in a PA system, and over time Pilllar has shifted and evolved its setup, adding lights and reorganizing the space.

There's been a bit of a learning curve going from coffee shop to event space. Bracken was initially running every live event himself, which is a lot when managing crowds of 60 or 70 people; these days, he staffs the shows. It's also been a process to dial in what the venue's cut of sales should be. "We're a coffee shop, so we don't sell alcohol," Bracken explains, "so people aren't buying four, five, six coffees, like they might buy four, five, six beers."

Overall though, the last year has been an overwhelmingly positive experience—as evidenced both by the ever-growing show calendar and the number of local artists who return to Pilllar again and again.

"I get such good feedback from the bands, from the people that show up," Bracken says. "And what I tell all the bands is, as long as people keep showing up, and everyone has a good time, we'll keep booking."

Bracken says a friend recently helped him put into perspective just how important spaces like Pilllar are for a city that wants to have a vibrant music community.

"They were like, 'What you're doing here, these kids are gonna remember it forever.' Like, these are gonna be those core memories of 'Remember going to that show, and seeing that band, and moshing, and all that stuff, at that coffee shop?'" he says. "I totally remember going to those types of shows when I was in my late teens, early twenties... now I'm like, holy shit, now I've got a space providing those same memories for bands and people that are coming out to see the music."

Pilllar Forum
2300 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Find the upcoming show calendar here

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