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Mike Thatcher: “It Has That Real Magic, in a Space That Kinda Seems Illegal.”

September 24, 2015

MichaelThatcher2015OnlineAs part of our partnership with Philly Beer Scene magazine, we’re documenting Philly’s relationships between music and beer. For the most recent issue of Philly Beer Scene, G.W. Miller III caught up with Mike Thatcher, the production manager at Underground Arts.

Mike Thatcher weaves through the crowd at Underground Arts, the basement venue on Callowhill Street in Philadelphia’s Loft District, and navigates the dark labyrinth with an expertise few people share.

He helped physically create the popular club, putting up walls and building the actual stage that has since has hosted everyone from Philly guitar phenom Kurt Vile to hip-hop legend Rakim.

“This place was absolutely scary the first year,” Thatcher says.

Located on the bottom floor of the Wolf Building, the 12,000 square foot space had been used primarily for storage for many years. But the building’s owner, Gary Reuben, began allowing arts groups to hold rehearsals and then performances in the vast space. By 2010, bathrooms were installed, a seating area was established and theater groups held regular events in the rooms.

In 2011, Reuben called Thatcher and said, “I’m getting a liquor license. This would make a cool venue.”

Thatcher and others cleared out the debris, installed the sound system, built a bar and kitchen and began being officially a part of the burgeoning local music scene.

“I dig it because it’s got that dirty, CBGB’s kind of vibe,” says Thatcher, who is now the club’s production manager. “It has that real magic, in a space that kinda seems illegal.”

The décor is simple – a few concrete pillars in the otherwise wide-open room, with exposed pipes and conduits along the dark ceiling. The two performance areas – a 650-person main room and the 250-person area called The Black Box – create an intimate experience with the performers while being spacious enough to dance and move around.

“I really wanted to give it the basics of good sound, a good stage,” says Thatcher, “and make it a place where local artists can get their act together.”

Three years ago, Bonfire/Electric Factory began booking shows at the club, bringing the talent to a whole new level.

The father of four girls ranging from 4 months to 18 years old, Thatcher, 47, allows a handful of local acts – like Tutlie, The Districts, City Rain, and Vita and the Woolf – to use the venue for rehearsals. A guitarist who has performed in numerous bands over the years, Thatcher previously owned Sonic Studios. The studios, located on Delaware Avenue near Frankford, were the home of Sonic Sessions performances and recordings, which aired on WDRE and then Y100.

“I’ve always tried to help bands,” he says. “That’s been my thing for more than 20 years.”

The dedicated crew at Underground Arts continues to support the local arts scene, having been the home of the Fringe Festival’s Late Nite Cabaret, and they’ve hosted numerous Philly Beer Week events.

“The craft beer scene is just insane,” says Thatcher, who likes to chill with a Philadelphia Brewing Company Walt Wit in his down time. “It’s similar to the way the club scene has exploded. Back in the 1980s, there were a handful of great music venues. Now there are dozens. Back then, what did you drink? Now we have so many great options.”

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