A fixture on West Michigan’s music scene, Nicole LaRae has brought an impressive roster of national stars to Grand Rapids while bolstering local acts in all genres. Local Spins profiles this champion of the arts.
A pleasant breeze rolls down Bridge Street’s flourishing West Side corridor in Grand Rapids.
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Just beyond the I-96 overpass coffee shops administer espresso to hiply dressed 20-somethings. The sidewalk is scattered with signs advertising specials in fluorescent chalk.
Further down, the newly opened Bridge Street Market serves as a kind of oasis. It’s pristine and well-stocked. Aisles are flooded with eager customers. It’s the newest neighborhood landmark and it feels like the entire neighborhood is here.
Nicole LaRae is situated at a table in an ironically cozy corner of the bustling market, leaning intensely over a laptop and typing furiously. She’s busy maintaining a frantic inbox, responding to an exhausting number of agents, artists and bands.
She looks like she could be in a rock band herself: shiny black combat boots strapped to her feet, blonde curls spilling from the confines of a beanie, tattoos occupying her wrist and forearm.
“Did I think I was going to make a career out of music? Not necessarily. It was something I was doing on the side that was really fun and interesting to me,” says LaRae, 37, reflecting on early memories.
“I was an only child until I was 12 so I didn’t really have a lot of company. Music was my company. I grew up on MTV, I listened to tapes and records. When I was a kid, I used to make these radio shows on cassettes where I’d record songs, I would do the commercials, I would have a news program, all this stuff. And I created stacks and stacks of those tapes.”
Fast forward a few decades and LaRae has become a true icon of the West Michigan music community. She’s fast-paced and carries herself confidently, a “certified badass” as others are quick to point out, but she also unflinchingly calls people “honey” in conversation and has a warming presence about her.
‘THE DRIVING FORCE’ BEHIND SOME OF THE MUSIC SCENE’S MOST IMPORTANT GEARS
“Nicole is one of the hardest working people I know. She is the driving force behind some of the most important gears of this city’s music scene, but she does it purely for the love of music,” said Grand Rapids musician and longtime friend Jes Kramer.
“I’ve been lucky to have her in my corner on numerous events and projects, and there are few people as strong and driven as she is. But that’s the thing about strong women like Nicole: Often times they’re too busy to stop and get caught in the spotlight. It can’t catch them.”
“Busy” is an undeniable factor in LaRae’s day-to-day. Between being the booking manager at The Pyramid Scheme, running her own record label at Dizzybird Records, going on-air as a volunteer programmer at WYCE-FM (where she also worked for years as the station’s community relations coordinator), contributing to Grand Rapids Magazine and serving on various music committees and boards, she has little time to slow down.
And April marks an important milestone: the eighth anniversary of The Pyramid Scheme, being celebrated Saturday with the sold-out return of Grand Rapids’ own La Dispute and on April 27 with Talib Kweli. (Details at pyramidschemebar.com.) Indeed, 2019 also brings the fifth anniversary of Dizzybird Records and LaRae’s 14th year as a WYCE programmer.
“Every day looks different, every show looks different. It’s been eight years (at The Pyramid Scheme) and I love it every day. As long as they’ll have me, I’ll be there. It’s really satisfying to look around and see a full room of people happy to be there and singing along,” she says.
“It’s the most satisfying thing. All of the work that goes behind one show, I think people underestimate what that looks like. So when the band is playing and the room is full, you can look around and go ‘OK, we did it.’”
THE PYRAMID SCHEME SET TO BE ‘HOME FOR A LONG TIME’
Growing up in Grand Rapids, LaRae was involved in the music scene before Grand Rapids became any kind of destination, before the influx of development or investment, before it became trendy or hip.
“It takes certain people who are making new art and music and involved in any other creative industry to stay and invest in that,” says LaRae, who hold’s a bachelor of arts degree in marketing and operations management from Grand Valley State University and an associate’s degree in photography from Grand Rapids Community College.
“And I think we’re seeing people who have been doing that for years who have stayed and continue to do that. And we’re also seeing people who see the opportunity and are coming in. People are paying attention.”
LaRae first got involved with WYCE as a programmer in 2005 and still hosts her own radio show every Tuesday afternoon, which she tags as her “alone time,” even if is broadcast across the airwaves to a vast listenership. It was her uncle, an avid WYCE listener, who stoked her early interest in music, and ultimately inspired her to begin working with the community radio station.
Then, as a bartender at the now-shuttered Westside bar, Jukes, she took it upon herself to book small DIY shows. A few years later, while working at The Meanwhile, LaRae befriended owners Tami and Jeff VandenBerg. When they mentioned opening a music venue, LaRae showed immediate interest in getting involved.
The Pyramid Scheme opened in April of 2011 and she was offered the role of booking manager on the spot.
“I remember the place smelled new, everything was new,” LaRae says, recalling The Scheme’s first show, a local bill that included Ghost Heart, Chance Jones and Charles the Osprey (she’s fairly certain about that anyway, although there have been quite a few shows since).
“I remember looking down at the zigzag floor and thinking, ‘This is going to be my home for a long time.’ I just kind of felt that. I got a little emotional about it. I thought, ‘This place is going to be so special and I can’t wait till it’s beat up a little bit.’ And that’s where we are now. There have been so many people who have passed through those doors.”
FROM FUTURE ISLANDS TO GHOSTFACE KILLAH TO CHARLES BRADLEY
Over the past eight years, the 420-capacity room has remained one of the few independent venues in the country and hosts roughly 200 shows each year, as well as political rallies, yoga classes, benefits, comedy shows and weddings. The club even put on an outdoor music festival in 2013 called T-Rex Fest, which took place in the parking lot and featured Frontier Ruckus, Pinback, dead prez, El Ten Eleven, The Men, Jon Connor and Leslie & The LYs.
The Pyramid Scheme also has curated events outside its walls, like Claudio Simonetti’s GOBLIN performing the live score to the horror film “Suspiria” at The Wealthy Theatre last fall.
In a subsequent interview at The Pyramid Scheme, we talk over punk rock and clanging pinball machines. She’s repping a black Coffin Problem band tee, a nod to one of the countless bands to have taken the stage only a few feet away.
The venue’s esteemed alumni include artists like LIZZO, Future Islands, Andrew WK, Hum, Melvins, of Montreal, Ghostface Killah, Talib Kweli, Shakey Graves, David Ramirez, Noah Gundersen, and the late Charles Bradley, a passionate soul singer LaRae regarded as “an absolute hero with a big heart.”
As for improvements to the scene? She just wants to make sure folks are supporting artists and not angling to get into shows for free. “You have to support the arts. If you want art to come to your town, you have to pay for it,” she said. “We’re an independent place, so we need that support as well.”
When she’s not busy filtering through emails or in the front row at shows rocking out, LaRae leads “a pretty chill life,” spending time with her 6-year-old daughter.
“She’s a funny, smart girl. I can’t believe how lucky I am. She’s just such a great kid. Any minute that I can spend time with her, I do,” she says.
WATCHING MUSICIANS ON STAGE ‘SUCH AN AMAZING THING’
“I do a lot of crosswords. That’s kind of my way to wind down at the end of the day. I love my garden in the summer. I like to follow a lot of women who are doing great things in government and politics right now. They are so inspiring. My band T-shirt collection is out of control. I could probably wear a different band T-shirt every day for a couple years. Any of my local ones are my favorites.
“I like to read a lot about music. I love discovering new music. I spend a lot of money going to see live shows.”
As the bar begins filling up, we’re interrupted by a few regulars who recognize LaRae and stop to exchange a smile and a few welcoming words. The pulse of a kick drum can be heard through the walls and the pinball machines carry on with a steady cadence. I wait for a break in the noise before squeezing in a final question: How do you keep from getting jaded after doing this for so long?
“I think that I can be some days, but I just love music, and I have an appreciation for the art form of it. I don’t ever see how I could get sick of it. And you know, just watching people share their craft with the world is such an amazing thing,” she says, her face lighting up.
“We’re talking about something that can be so personal for so many musicians. And they’re just up there sharing it with everyone, and that takes a lot of heart and courage to do. And I admire them.
“As long as those people are around, I’m willing to work with them and continue to do this. Everybody that’s been on the stage, and will be, are inspiring to me. As long as people keep making beautiful art and music, I’m in!”
Copyright 2019, Spins on Music LLC