Mr. Independent

Tony Leong keeps his cool and almost takes a few punches while running one of San Francisco's hottest music clubs.

May 1, 2008

PLUMES OF SMOKE usually hover over the crowd at The Independent. Sticking out might be a 6-foot-1-inch Asian American guy with a mohawk. Or, you might notice him chatting onstage with the band, or on his cell phone weaving through the masses between sets. He is Tony Leong, production manager and house manager of the San Francisco club since 2005. Leong was only 22 when he started, and three years later he still oversees a space that is now an important part of San Francisco's music scene.

If The Independent is the Mushroom Kingdom, Leong is its Luigi, one of the primary inhabitants of the venue's 4,500 square feet. Tall and lean with a slight slouch, he constantly glances around to see what's going on and what fires need to be doused. He is The Independent's superstar according to general manager Ruth Carlton, and has the reputation of being "the one that works the most."

Every part of the club is Leong's world-onstage, backstage, coordinating logistics, making nice with the bands, and in some cases, taking flack from them. "Anton Newcomb [of the Brian Jonestown Massacre] threatened to hit me," Leong says of his run-in with the eccentric frontman. Luckily there have never been any incidents that severe. Still, Leong's job is to ensure shows run as planned regardless of weird, diva-ish behavior or personality conflicts. "The band comes first and everyone else comes second. They might be rock stars, but they're definitely regular people too. So it's important to chat and interact with them, to show them you can do your job and do it well, and at the same time not be freaked out," he explains. "It's a part of selling your club."

Now 24, Leong's managerial acumen might be attributed to his time at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied business, but is probably due more to his early start and up-by-the-bootstraps beginnings. He worked as a stagehand and a runner in Berkeley venues while he was still finishing up his senior year. Post graduation, he traveled with a band called the Matches, managing their tour. After that experience, Leong was approached by Another Planet Entertainment, a concert production firm, to manage shows at The Independent. He downplays his precociousness. "It's totally what you make of it. I wanted to learn how to do sound, so I did. I wanted to learn how to run shows, so I did," he says.

Behind it all though, was a love of music. "Music is my savior," he says with a sarcastic smile, "I played in bands in high school and college. Then I realized I worked better behind the scenes. I knew about bands before they got big, and having the idea of seeing them play to actually getting them to perform-it was a cool thing I knew I could do."

Another reason for his early success is having the support he needed, for which he graciously thanks his parents. "They've done a really good job teaching me, which is why I don't come in cranky like it's work. It's what I want to do. Everyone knows Asian parents want their kids to become doctors and lawyers and stuff, and what I do is the polar opposite of the 9-to-5. And I don't know any other profession that would let me have a Mohawk."

Leong may have the hair and the savvyness, but what he doesn't have is an attitude-it's that laid-back quality that makes Leong, and The Independent, so approachable. The Independent lacks the pretension of more established concert halls-it's hip without being elitist.

Before Leong's domain reopened as The Independent, it was the Half Note, a venerable jazz venue part of the "Harlem of the West" scene, a stage for Miles Davis and other legends. It went through multiple other transformations over the years, changing with the neighborhood and with the times: The VIS in the '80s and the Kennel Club after that. The "big black box" was most recently the Justice League, a hip-hop venue that was specifically during the late-90s boom. In its current form, the venue is one that artists ask for by name, specifically because of the vibe it gives off.

Graced by acts like M.I.A., VHS or Beta, Kid Koala, Mike Relm, Lyrics Born and Vienna Teng, the space's continual reinvention of itself appeals to up-and-coming artists that prize it for being the perfect size for a distinctively intimate show. Teng has played at The Independent eight times. An established artist with roots in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has done larger places, but feels a special connection to this particular venue.

"I feel like it's my homecoming show. I know what to expect when I play there. They say I've outgrown it, but I say, 'No! I really love it.' It's a rare breed." Teng remembers Leong as the guy that makes it all run smoothly. "I always thank Tony profusely whenever I play. He and the staff really put a lot of thought into how to transform the venue based on the artist that's playing."

While Teng admits that older Asian American crowds tend to be slightly less responsive, they are just as lively. "It's been pretty fascinating to see the composition of her crowd change over the years," Leong says. The audience at Teng's early shows was mostly Asian American. Several years later the crowd is more mixed, as she's gained wider popularity. Leong is happy to see artists like Teng and Lyrics Born ("That guy knows what he's doing-he's the most business-conscious artist I've ever seen") pack in the crowds.

As for Leong himself, he has left behind his 80-hour weeks, having already mastered the art of running the show ("My bread and butter"). He's taken on more challenging projects like music festivals and coordinating the San Francisco Bay Area's larger venues. "What I'd really like to do is manage a band," he says. Aspiring musicians, take note.

Christine Vilar is Hyphen's music editor. She spends her time making the websites and playing the musics.

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