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Get Off The Couch

written by: on September 3, 2012

It’s too uncommon that we hear about a successful grassroots campaign for the common good of the community. And it’s even more rare to learn it has no concern for money. Get Off The Couch has been happening in Chicago for about two years, and since it doesn’t bother spending money on advertising, we haven’t heard about it until just now.

The show is a monthly showcase of local singer-songwriter talent, hosted at the Ace Bar  in Lincoln Park and previously at Villians’ Pub on Printers Row. It centers on an intimate, stripped setting with little accompaniment of the singer and the songwriter. August 29th’s show was nothing short of amazing, either. Four unique and diverse singer-songwriters, took to the stage equipped with lyrics and guitars and stunned the modest fifty-person crowd. It wasn’t about notoriety or promotion, either. It was about true talent in an intimate climate. Something about the show made audience members feel lucky, able to witness the art of music in a raw setting, free of distorted noise and superficial gimmicks. One performer was himself the curator, Sam Wahl, who put it all into perspective when we chatted with him a week before the show.

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Pop ‘Stache: What inspired Get Off The Couch?

Sam Wahl: The reason I started this was because I was personally motivated to meet people. I wanted to meet people and network with other musicians in Chicago. We started the showcase with a sort of “Field of Dreams” approach. You build the field, the players will come, and they did. It’s been great.

P ‘s: Why Chicago?

SW: I moved here from Nashville, Tennessee and having worked for years in the music business throughout the country and mostly out of Nashville. I  moved around a few different times, and coming to Chicago, I was really excited because I really loved the city and enjoyed my experiences visiting here. There’s a lot of different boroughs of Chicago, and each neighborhood seems to think that it’s hipper than the other. It almost seems to feel like there’s a different music scene budding in every area.

P ‘s: How does the show usually run?

SW: I usually start the show out by singing a song myself, and I’ll just get up in front of a room full of people and start finger plucking as quiet as can be. I always choose my most intimate, most personal song that sets a precedent that says, you know what, this is about you listening to what every single person has to say. And you didn’t have to pay that much at the door. If you didn’t have to pay that much at the door, at least pay attention to the artist. That’s our little motto.

P ‘s: How would you describe your process as a host and producer?

SW: I try to keep the show really informal. I do care a lot about people knowing who these artists are. I like to talk about some personal aspects when I introduce them. I like to share a little about who they are and where they’re from, what they’re doing here. Sometimes you’ll hear me make cracks, like after an amazing song I’ll walk up and say, “Can you believe you’ve probably seen this guy on the street before?” And I’ll just walk off.

We have fun, we laugh, we make fun of ourselves and our audience members sometimes. It’s great; it’s pretty lighthearted.

P ‘s: What would you say about the songwriter as a contributor to Get Off The Couch?

SW: For some people, it’s their first time ever being intimate in front of people with their songs. For a lot of people, it’s the first time stepping away from their rock band. I’ve had people come in there, who usually play in front of thousands of people, trembling to play acoustically because that’s a lot scarier than it is to get up with a huge band.

P ‘s: Is that separate from the performance?

SW: I think that for some people it’s what they do, the acoustic thing. I think for some people it is an opportunity to come in and shine and showcase what they do. Intimate showcasing is an entirely different thing than what a lot of people are used to doing, so I require them to perform solo or with one accompanist. But it all has to be acoustic. No tracks, no bullshit.

P ‘s: Is everything original?

SW: You’re not allowed to do cover songs. All original.

P ‘s: What about the energy in the room?

SW: You know, we’ve actually stumbled upon a culture that wants the same thing, it’s that they want to support and experience the intimacy of Chicago performance and artistry. Those are the people that are showing up. People know who we are now.

P ‘s: How do you choose between performers?

SW: I’m going to be completely honest with you. I try to choose performers who work as a show, and you asked about my approach as a producer– there is producing involved. You’re still putting on a show. You make art and you produce shows. If people show up and there’s nothing entertaining or cohesive or exciting happening, if there’s no dynamics to a show, they’re not gonna come back. So I choose who’s playing a show based on a lot of criteria. And I’m not afraid to admit that I enjoy the privilege of choosing the quality based on my personal opinion. I’m not getting rich doing this, and so at the end of the day, if you suck, you’re not playing Get Off The Couch.

P ‘s: Do you have a range of experience among acts?

SW: Well, the whole idea of having headliners performing with lesser-known musicians is because we want to create a showcase where a young man can get on stage with a man in his fifties who’s established who can share a showcase together, having their audience meet one another.

A lot of people don’t think about that. Your people show up to see you play, his people show up to see him play and her people show up to see her play. And these are people who begin to recognize one another. As a result, the entire community wins in a showcase like this.

P ‘s: Is it part collaborative, part networking, part music? Or is it all about the performance?

SW: I guess what I’m saying is that this is a networking tool for artists in Chicago and that’s really what it was meant to be. As a residual, because there’s so many fucking great songwriters in Chicago, we have these amazing shows. I’ve been in tears so many times, where I get up between the artists and have to stop because I’m in tears. I’m blown away by artists all the time.

P ‘s: How do you choose your performers?

SW: Most of them I find them on the Internet, and I’ve heard one or two recorded songs that blew my mind. I don’t know where they’re coming from but you don’t know that someone’s just gonna rip your head off, you know what I mean? You just don’t know.

P ‘s: What’s the biggest compliment anyone can give you regarding your show?

SW: When I see people sharing our event announcements, that’s an enormous handshake because the show is grassroots. It’s just about telling people.

P ‘s: How have you seen the show evolve?

SW: I’d like to say, humbly, that over the last few years, it’s become one of the most popular showcases to be a part of. I’ve got a list of people in line waiting to be booked on Get Off The Couch. I don’t have to look for people anymore.

P ‘s: What’s the significance behind the name of Get Off The Couch?

SW: Villains has this giant victorian couch. The name actually wasn’t my idea, it was a friend of mine’s. When we were brainstorming about the formatting of the show, we thought that when it’s time for everyone to get up when it’s their turn, we’d get the whole audience to start shouting at them to get off the couch. And it was done. That’s exactly what our tradition is, when it’s time for someone to go up (if it’s their first time especially), we get the whole audience to say “get off the couch!”

P ‘s: We imagined the name would be to urge people to get off their sofa and go see some live music.

SW: That’s the incidental play on the show’s title. It works for everything.

P ‘s: Strategic.

SW: It really wasn’t! But it was a, (umm), a tragic success.

Photography by Lucy Hewett