Brian Scott Teasley has given Birmingham not only a new music venue, but lots of reasons to sing along.
Written by Lindsey Osborne
Ask Brian Scott Teasley, owner of Saturn and Satellite, why he does what he does, and his answer is probably the same one he would have given eight years ago, when he opened the now iconic Bottletree Café, or 20 years ago, when he traveled the world as a touring musician. He does it for the music. He believes in music. He always has. “I doubt I would have made it this far in my life if it hadn’t been for music. It has always been a coping mechanism, a welcomed diversion, and a healing instrument for me,” he says. “There are songs so powerful in the structure of my life that some can bring me to tears in moments and some remind me of the happiest moments of my life and some instantly give me a sense of hope that the universe can make sense in some greater way.
“No matter what your worldview, musicians throughout time have at least given the human race a great soundtrack, and I think that is something of which to be very proud,” he continues. “It might be possible that aliens thousands of years from now (after the human race has become extinct, of course) will say, man, these people sure did war a lot and cause each other so much suffering, but damn did they write some good tunes.”
When the aliens come, Teasley will be on the list of contributors to the great galaxy of good music. For some two decades, he toured internationally, playing in such bands as Man or Astroman? (which will eventually be working on a new record, Teasley says), The Polyphonic Spree, and St. Vincent. “I love Birmingham now, but I shot out of here like a rocket out of hell when I was 18, and then I lived in Athens, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, and Dallas. I also toured in over 40 different countries,” he says. Once, he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for three hours and shut down the Dallas Airport—they thought a microphone he had was a pipe bomb. And that’s not even the most impressive thing about him. In addition to touring, he’s performed on shows like the The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, among others. He’s opened for David Bowie and The Rolling Stones and once got Green Day to perform in a friend’s kitchen in Auburn, Alabama. A writer as well, he’s written for CMJ and The Onion, as well as for Cartoon Network and The Jetsons, among others. And much to his surprise—and our good fortune—he made his way back to Birmingham.
Though this is a story about Teasley and how he’s impacting Birmingham now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the part he played in sharing the light that shone from Bottletree Café, which was opened in 2006 by Teasley, Merrilee Challiss, and Challiss’s brother, Brad (it closed in March of last year, when the property was sold.) Many consider the part played by the music venue (and restaurant) in propelling Birmingham’s music and cultural scene forward to be integral—or more than that, even. Legendary. “Bottletree was an insane maelstrom of inspiration, creativity, and willful delusion—sort of like the crazy boat ride in Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka film where everyone is completely on edge but ultimately gets out on the other side and receives an Everlasting Gobstopper,” Teasley says. “I honestly think Bottletree shined so brightly that it became very hard to sustain the inspiration and love we put into it with such a small staff. I don’t really know what we were thinking other than we personally wanted the kind of place Bottletree was to exist in Birmingham. There are so many people who made it happen, and I don’t want to take too much credit for it, but I do think Bottletree will always be a cultural landmark for the city.”
After moving on from Bottletree, Teasley began conceptualizing the idea of a new music venue. What resulted was Saturn, the music venue, and Satellite, the adjoining coffee shop, which is managed by Carl Ratliff and serves Stumptown coffee. “I was really wanting to have a place that was a creative hub for people to meet and sit around to do whatever, whenever,” he says of why he chose to open both components. It lives in Avondale, not far from Bottletree (and incidentally, not far from where Teasley lives: “Some weeks I spend less than $10 on gas,” he says.) Though it’s been open less than a year, Saturn, managed by Charlie Smith, has already made a name for itself, both on account of the music it brings to the city and the way it treats those bands that travel through. “Saturn is hopefully the actualization of what I’ve always wanted a venue to be from my own touring experiences,” Teasley explains about the way Saturn treats traveling bands (Teasley and the team try to make their experience as comfortable as possible.) As for the music, Teasley lauds his partners—John Moore and Jim Glancy of The Bowery Presents in New York City—as well as Patrick Hill out of Atlanta, who does much of the booking. “When we decided to work together on this project it really made sense in so many ways. I had personally always had great times at the other venues they maintained and having someone to lean on who has vast experience and weathered a lot of storms really gave me confidence to move forward,” Teasley shares of partnering with Moore and Glancy. “Patrick booked a small room in Atlanta called The Earl, which was similar to Bottletree, for 15 years, so he really understands what we’re trying to do. I think the main goal for our live shows is to have awesome national and local bands that people are excited about and give them a high quality and intimate experience for everyone to enjoy.”
The intimacy of the experience is not only something Teasley strives to maintain, but something that has inspired him on a professional and personal level over the course of his career. For him, it’s not just a nice aspect—it’s an intrinsic component of the live music equation. “For me (and this is just an internal connotation I have), once you get over around 400–500 people in a large room, it suddenly becomes a ‘concert’ and not a ‘show,’” he explains. “My heart is connected to putting on those intimate shows that don’t have a massive security staff and barricades in front of the stage and all those things that come with larger productions. I’d ultimately much rather affect a small amount of people in a huge way than a large amount of people in a nominal way.”
Teasley’s role as the owner of Saturn and Satellite means that he’s “in a common-law marriage with with [his] laptop,” and there was the learning curve that comes with embarking on any new venture (particularly regarding the coffee). The hours are long—he’s up at 6 a.m. answering emails, and the shows can extend late into the night. “That said, I like to work, and the work I do is rewarding to me. Really, a lot of my job is just bringing together very smart, talented people and making sure they are put in a position to be able to do what they do well,” he says.
Teasley is adamant that what he’s doing for Birmingham is modest; nonetheless, he does believe it matters. “I’ve never wanted to be more than a small piece to the puzzle of how brilliant of a city Birmingham is becoming,” he says. “I am merely providing a physical space for talented, creative people to gather, interact, perform, and exchange ideas. I do feel that such a thing can be a powerful springboard for the ongoing cycle of being able to have cool stuff happen in Birmingham. It can define a city. A lot of people exclusively associate cities with their music scenes or at least as much as they do sports, visual art, or food.”
But at the end of the day? It’s the music. That’s why he does it. “Music truly is an age-old universal language,” he says. “It’s immensely personal and at the same time extremely cross-cultural. The gravity and power of a stellar live musical experience means everything to me. That’s all there is—the experience. There is no band, there is no audience, it’s just that moment of forgetting everything and hearing the sound of it all and having it all make sense. There is nothing I know more intense and vital that I have ever personally experienced than those perfect moments of sight and sound where a roomful of people are alive together all connecting on the same sonic wavelength.”