Stephen “Psyko Steve” Chilton
If you’ve seen local music shows in the Valley in the past dozen years, chances are good Stephen “Psyko Steve” Chilton had a part of one of them. The veteran music promoter and Phoenix resident, 30, has been helping bring acts to local stages since he was 17, starting out by helping produce sets at Modified Arts and since booking concerts at everything from the Nile Theater and Crescent Ballroom to Hard Rock Cafe and Pub Rock Live. Chilton, who has a philosophy degree from Arizona State University, talked about his views of the Phoenix music scene and how he hopes to continue to build it up with his music promotion company, Psyko Steve Presents. Keep reading to hear five reasons why he loves living in the Valley, too.
What brought you to Arizona?
I’m a native, a sixth-generation Arizonan on my dad’s side, born in Mesa. I lived in Mesa and Tempe, attended Mountain View High School and ASU, and have lived in downtown Phoenix for the past 4 years.
How did Psyko Steve Presents get started?
I started doing shows in high school, mostly helping friends’ bands. I started doing shows at Modified Arts, volunteering and doing small shows. It just grew from there. Now, 13 years later, it is what I do for a living.
What got you first interested in wanting to help put on shows?
When I first started going to shows when I was 15 or 16, I got really into going to small shows. I was not super-interested in music until I started getting involved and saw that anyone could be a part of that. Meeting musicians, and seeing bands like Jimmy Eat World especially, made me realize there were guys I’d met who were making great music, that you don’t have to be some huge band on MTV to be talented. I started doing whatever I could to be a part of it.
What is the first show you remember going to?
It was a couple bands of friends from high school, Fightshy and October’s First Hero, who opened for Hot Rod Circuit in the Nile Basement. At that time, no one knew who Hot Rod Circuit was, and there were 50 people there. Half the audience was friends from high school, and I realized, “Hey, this is still a show, even though it’s not an arena.”
How did you get the name Psyko Steve?
That was a dumb name in high school that I never liked. When I started doing shows, I gave a friend’s band flyers for one of the shows I was doing, and he jokingly said, “You should put Psyko Steve Presents” on it. Everyone kind of laughed, and the next time, just as a joke to mess with them, I did — and it stuck.
Why did you decide to get a philosophy degree?
Who knows? Why does anyone get a liberal arts degree? I took a couple philosophy classes and enjoyed them.
Do you use your degree at all in your job?
Not in any sort of direct way, but philosophy is all about how to think and how to look at problems. I think you can apply that to anything, so it definitely helps.
How many shows have you put on?
I have no idea how to even come up with that number. Last year, as Psyko Steve Presents, I booked just more than 100 shows, and with various involvement, I probably booked another 150 on top of that. I work for Stateside Presents and Crescent Ballroom full-time.
What’s your typical week like?
Most days, I try to be at the office by 9 or 10 and spend all day at my desk working, answering e-mails and being on the phone and working on advertisements. I work there until about 5 or 6 or until I have to go to a show. When it’s busy, I probably work four or five shows in a week. In October, I worked 10 shows in 7 days.
What’s the booking process like?
Now, it’s more inboundwards. When I first started, it was completely me putting together shows or asking people who I wanted to play — hopefully, some said yes. Now, it’s turning more into people reaching out to me and deciding which ones I want to help with and which ones I don’t. It’s a lot of agents and managers who I like working with bringing me ideas. A lot of times, people will e-mail me and ask me to book a band. If I haven’t heard of them, I check them out and might book them.
What do you look for in bands you want to book?
First, it’s just something that’s interesting — does this sound good? I’m a music fan first, so it’s, “Do I like it?” and then, “Do I get the vibe that people care about them?” If it’s a band I haven’t heard of, I try to find out if other people are into them and ask around.
You have a diverse line-up of bands that you bring in.
I want to have a variety, be a broad spectrum. I don’t want to be the guy doing this kind of show or that kind of show — just anything that sounds interesting. I can appreciate a lot of different music. There are a lot of bands I may not necessarily be a fan of or be into, but I can see the value in it and why other people do like it. If there is quality there, I want to support it.
What are all the venues you book for?
Currently, Crescent Ballroom and The Rhythm Room. I also do Hard Rock Cafe, The Sail Inn, Pub Rock Live, Martini Ranch, Yucca Tap Room, The Nile, The Underground. I do shows in Tucson occasionally, at Club Congress or Plush or Solar Culture.
Are there certain types of bands that fit in with certain venues?
I’ve always like being independent so I can ask, “What room is right for this type of show?” If the band is going to bring all high school kids, and the bar’s not an issue, then The Nile. If it’s a band that no one under 30 is going to like, then it needs to be somewhere that does have a bar. Each venue has its own vibe and matching band that will make the best show. Sometimes, it’s matching up scheduling options, and sometimes it’s pairing the band with the right venue.
Are there a lot of times where you have to turn away a band?
All the time. Sometimes, you can’t get a venue that’s appropriate for the show, and you have to pass on it, especially touring bands, where they are limited to certain dates, and you can’t make it work, or you have to go to a venue you might not have wanted to.
When did you first start working for Crescent Ballroom and Stateside Presents?
I was working on shows at Crescent since before people knew shows existed there. For Stateside, it’s blurry, because I was working with (owner) Charlie (Levy) since he was at Nita’s Hideaway, and we’d do shows together. I’d help him on his shows, and it evolved from him calling me once in awhile for things, to eventually, the number of things I was working on with him was a full-time thing.
How would you describe the landscape of music promoters in the Valley?
There are quite a few promoters in Phoenix, and compared to other markets, everyone is rather cordial. Most of us are all friends and have worked with each other for years, so it feels a lot more cooperative than competitive most of the time.
How would you characterize Phoenix music fans?
Big-picture, there’s a lot of apathy. There’s a lot of people that just don’t pay attention to music and culture, in general. On the opposite end, there’s a group of people that’s completely die-hard music fans, and the people that do care really care. The music fans that are out there are awesome — it’s just the rest of the Valley that needs to pay attention.
What do you think is causing that apathy?
I think a lot of it is location. If you live in Cave Creek, you’re not going to drive 45 minutes to see a band in a bar on a Tuesday unless you really love them. The geography makes it a huge impediment to seeing five shows a month. If you’re going to drive 45 minutes from Glendale to Tempe in rush hour to catch a show, you’ve really got to want to see that show. I think the density downtown will help with a lot of that.
Is there one venue in town people should be checking out more?
I’m really excited about Pub Rock, just because it’s new. I’ve only done a few shows there since it’s opened, and the reaction has just been really great. I hope people notice what they’re doing. I’m really excited about Last Exit Live downtown — another quality music venue is going to be a great addition.
How would you characterize the live music business in the Valley?
It’s definitely growing. I think there’s more appreciation for it then there was a few years ago. It seems people are more aware than they were. After a few years of a downward economy and shows doing badly, it seems like they’re picking up again, and people are going out more.
How would you characterize the type of music that’s coming from local bands?
I think Phoenix has always had a diverse music scene. There’s no sound that defines music. You talk about Seattle in ’90, and there was such a definitive sound coming out of there. Nashville definitely has a sound. You talk about Atlanta and hip-hop, and everyone implicitly knows what that means. I think Tucson kind of has a sound, with Calexico and Sergio Mendoza, but in Phoenix, there are metal bands and pop bands and indie rock bands who are all doing great. I appreciate that.
Who are some local bands people should check out?
I love Andrew Jackson Jihad. They’re so hardworking and so humble, and it’s really exciting to see them doing so well nationally. They’re a band that’s trying to make this their career. I’m a big fan of Mergence — they work hard, they’re great people, and they’re great live. I love Sergio Mendoza — he’s always an incredible show. There is a new band from Tucson called Chicha Dust I have started bringing up here. The band features Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez. They play cumbia music, all in Spanish. I just did a CD release show for IAMWE. They are a great pop/indie rock band that is starting to do some big things.
What does it take to make a good music promoter?
Attention to detail and worrying about things that people don’t notice when they go wrong — it’s making sure everything goes right before anyone realizes it. There are lots of nights where something is going wrong, and I’m running around, and no one has any idea because it ends up running smoothly. That takes worry about the lights and the security and all the little things that music fans, when they’re done right, don’t even notice. So much of it is also artist relations and making sure the band is happy — all the little things that make a night good for the artist, that catering is on time and that everyone knows what’s going on. It’s all in the attitude.
Who’s been your most memorable national band you’ve booked?
That’s such a hard question. One that’s been really rewarding is Frank Turner. I booked him at Modified in ’08, and there were 20 people there, and we were so excited. Since then, we sold out the Rhythm Room and then the Crescent, and kids are singing his songs. That’s where it’s most rewarding — it’s not that I was working with artists when they were huge, which is awesome, but it’s really rewarding with people like Frank, who I was bringing to the Valley when no one knew who he was. Now, he’s really starting to develop and played the Olympic opening ceremonies. I went to London and saw him at Wembley Arena. He’s selling out arenas in Europe, and I was helping him play Phoenix when he was playing bars in London. I remember kids would come up to me when Frank was starting to get buzz and ask why he wasn’t playing here. I would have to ask, “I’ve brought him here four times. Where were you?”
Is there any band you wouldn’t want to work with again?
There are a few. I don’t want to name names, but I’m at a point where I work with people I want to work with and who want to work with me. If it’s more of a headache, I don’t want to do it. I want to support people I want to support. I don’t like bad attitudes or egos. You meet all these bands who are huge and selling out amphitheaters, and they’re the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Then there are some bands, who no one knows who they are, and they have egos. It’s kind of the irony where you’re trying to help someone, and they’re so unappreciative, and you work with someone who doesn’t need your help, and they’re so appreciative.
What are your goals with Psyko Steve Presents?
Just keep growing and get bigger and better shows. I don’t know if I see myself having it for forever. I don’t know if 5 or 10 years ago, I would have seen myself still doing Psyko Steve Presents, though — who knows? Right now I am helping with entertainment for a number of events that are more community-driven. That is really exciting.
Do you have any musical background yourself?
No. I used to want to learn to play, but not anymore. I’ll let other people do that part.
As a fan, what types of music do you really like?
Calexico is always one of my favorite bands live. It’s always a different show. My musical tastes are all over the map. I just bought Hot Snakes to town, which was incredible. They are an old punk rock band that was awesome to work with.
How do you discover new music?
It’s mostly through friends or people I know telling me about new bands. It’s no different than anyone else — I just have way more conversations about it than other people might. When it comes to local bands, it’s often through other bands and musicians telling me who they’re listening to.
For people who are interested in becoming music promoters themselves, what advice would you have?
You have to really believe in the kinds of shows you’re doing. It’s so many headaches and not an easy job — you really have to enjoy it. The rewards are not financial — most of the time, so you have to really believe in what you’re doing, or you won’t have any fun. It is one thing to lose money on an event you believe in. It is far more frustrating to lose money on an event and have to ask yourself why you did it in the first place.
Watch everything. Be a fan of everything — you learn so much stuff from so many different shows. If you only go to one kind of show, you won’t see what works and what doesn’t work and why. See shows in lots of different venues.
Do you see Psyko Steve as continuing with smaller scale shows, or would you like to do bigger venues?
Obviously, I’d like to do bigger and better shows, but I like working with bands that are really interesting — and everything interesting seems to be happening at an underground level. It’s working with those artists and helping them get to that next level.
How do you define underground?
That term means so little today, I don’t even know. Everyone listens to everything now. I think years ago, there was much more of a distinction of genres, and what is underground now is such a blurry distinction. There are so many bands that, outside of their fan base, no one knows they exist, but they can sell out huge places. There are other bands who everyone knows, and they can’t sell tickets because no one really cares. I want to work with artists who are about something.
We’re doing your photo shoot at Modified Arts. Why is this venue so meaningful to you?
It’s a venue I started out at where anybody could play there or book a show there. In high school, I would just call them up and ask to book a show, and they said yes. I didn’t even know how to book a show, and they let me. So many great bands have played there, from Arcade Fire to the Decemberists, to Alkaline Trio to The Postal Service — all these bands that are gigantic, but when they played Modified, no one else would book them. Modified was a place where anyone doing anything interesting could do that there, regardless of the economics.
Why should people come out to see a Psyko Steve Presents show?
I think people should come out if they like the bands. My shows are always about the bands. There are some promoters where you know what their shows are going to be like, whether it’s a party or this or that. My shows are very much about the artist, so if you like the artist, come out, and you’ll enjoy yourself. Hopefully the music will be presented in a way you’ll enjoy. And if you don’t like the bands on one of my shows, that’s OK — come to another one, and you might like those bands better.
Is there anything about the name “Psyko Steve” that accurately describes you?
I like to think it’s ironic. So many people are surprised when they meet me. When I was in college putting on metal and hardcore shows, bands would walk in and be like, “Wait, you’re Psyko Steve?” I was this nerdy college kid with no tattoos. I like to think it makes no sense.