Sk8bar: Skating, Music, Freedom
Updated: May 6
When Brandon and Jesse Rock first opened Sk8bar, they did not expect it to have such an impact on the local music scene and St. Joseph as a community. Located at 501 Francis Street, Sk8bar is home to punk rockers, skateboarders, and live music enjoyers. The bar’s Facebook page defines Sk8bar as a skate shop, rock bar that promotes skate culture and live music.
Inside Sk8bar is like stepping into a time-capsule, caught somewhere in the murky haze between the 1980s and 1990s, where skaters and punks ruled the alternative counterculture world. The walls are furnished with record album covers and posters. Even the couches are adorned with band patches sewn onto them. Past the bar, to the right of the stage are a couple of booths.
Owners Brandon and Jesse Rock started the business after looking for something new.
“We were living in Oregon and both working at FedEx. While it was beautiful there, we were tired of the manual labor we’ve both been doing for our whole lives, so we decided to come to St. Joe, where it’s cheaper to live, buy a house, and start a business,” Jesse Rock said. “We weren’t sure what we were going to do as far as the business goes. We just didn’t want a boss anymore. But one night, we just started throwing out ideas and pretty much built the whole idea in an hour or so, and we decided to just go for it.”
Brandon Rock has family ties with skating and punk music.
“My brother Garrett and I had skated in the past and we were both into skating and punk music,” Brandon Rock said. “St. Joe was definitely lacking in those things. A skate shop had never lasted more than probably like six months here, it seemed like. So, we decided to do that and wanted to create a music venue at the same time, with the bar, so we could keep the skate shop rolling. It ended up just being a lot more popular on the live music venue side.”
Sk8bar opened its doors in late January 2022. The original plans were to open the year before, but the turnout of the grand opening and first show was still successful.
“January 28th is when we opened it,” Brandon Rock said. “It just took a lot of red tape type stuff, especially to get the liquor licenses and everything. I mean, we were wanting to open around October of the previous year, but it just took six months to actually open.”
When Sk8bar first opened, it was not yet a fully-fleshed music venue, with most of the focus going to the skate shop side. Jesse Rock took on the role of running sound for the first few gigs.
“We didn’t have a stage and we didn’t have a whole lot of sound equipment,” Jesse Rock said. “We had a loaner mixer and I guess decent loudspeakers. We didn’t even have a floor monitor at the time. We just turned one of the loudspeakers towards the stage and then one pointing out. So, it was humbling to say the least.
“I had worked in a studio before doing sound, so I just kind of transferred some knowledge from that. I’ve never done live music before, so it was a little iffy at first, but for the first couple shows, it was kind of surreal that it was actually happening after all the bureaucratic business that we had to do before opening. It ended up working out just one day at a time. There was a lot of worries and stress, but we just kept kind of motivating each other to keep going with it.”
The lineup of the first show included a set of bands and artists local to St. Joe: Dakota Livingston opening, Zale Bledsoe, and Almost Enemies headlining. At the time of the show, the lineup of Almost Enemies was bassist Tony McCrorey, drummer Kyle Culp, and singer-guitarist Jake Wright.
Almost Enemies visited Sk8bar before it was officially open to run a test run of the building. The band was then invited to play the grand opening.
“Brandon was like, ‘You know what I’m trying to do, bring bands here to help me out with just getting the business started,’” Wright said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m in a band and, have you tested anything, like with the outlets and made sure all the gear is gonna work?’ We set up everything and we started jamming. . .Then like a week later, he was like, ‘I want to do the grand opening. It’d be cool if you guys wanted to be part of it.’ We were like, ‘Hell yeah, without a doubt,’ you know, ‘cause I grew up skateboarding and in the downtown area of all places. I spent most of my youth down there skating and that was ten, twelve years ago. So, it was really cool. . .We already had a decent following on our Facebook page locally, so it kind of helped him and it helped us.”
Culp, who was at the time the drummer of Almost Enemies and has since changed to be a second guitarist in the band, shares a similar enthusiasm about Sk8bar’s opening night.
“The grand opening of Sk8bar was one for the books,” he said. “It was amazing, possibly one of the funnest shows we’ve played. At the time there was no stage, no P.A. system, and no plan. We just went for it. We actually brought everything from our practice spot that night. It was a cold night, but the turnout was outstanding; it was packed front-to-back, side-to-side. It was a very successful night and I believe it helped set the pace to be what it is like today.”
As Sk8bar grew from the floorboards up, evolving to have a stage and sound system, the team of Sk8bar also grew. Videographer Mark Milton, of Milton’s Mayhem, had never done videos before walking into Sk8bar, but he had taken photos at other music venues in town.
“Before Sk8bar I didn’t really do videos, but I used to go around to the local venues – Unplugged and Magoons mainly because that was my hangout. I started taking pictures because, you know, where I work a lot of these people don’t get out much as far as I can see,” Milton said. “And if they do, it’s like going to the casino or some watering hole that doesn’t really have any excitement. And live music is always exciting, or it should be, so I just started taking pictures and posting them. And mentioning the band name and all that. . .I really dig it, and I’ve seen a lot of great music come through this town, even before Sk8bar.”
Milton’s enthusiasm for his work originates from his love for live music.
“I try to attend as many shows as I can,” Milton said. “I like to get the video documentation and I think the musicians love it, too. I’m not doing it just for me; it’s for everybody – fans, musicians. It gives me a sense of giving back because music basically shaped who I am, other than my mother. It’s like the soundtrack to my life and it’s gotten me through a lot of tough times. . .I’m not a musician, but this is a way that I can give back. It’s super exciting and with Sk8bar, there’s so many different genres going in and out of there. It’s broadened my spectrum, which once again is an example of how music just consistently gives and gives and gives, and it does it tirelessly. It never gets old. I just see it as a way to give back, as best as I can, what music has given me, which is pretty much everything.”
Milton played a key role in getting bands into Sk8bar by introducing Brandon Rock to a friend who knew how to help find bands that would fit the venue image.
“One day after work, I swung in there and Brandon and Jesse were working on the building. They weren’t even open for business, and I was looking around,” Milton said. “I remember I asked Brandon, ‘Do you ever think about putting bands in here?’ And he said he’d like to, but he didn’t know anybody. In that moment, the horns came out of the top of my head, I could actually feel them. I was like, ‘Hey, man, I know a guy who could put bands in here, punk bands,’ since Brandon is all into that. He seemed a little giddy about it. . .I showed up one day, snow all over the place in the blistering cold with Danny Phillips. He walked in and immediately being the true visionary he is, he saw the potential of Sk8bar.”
Danny Phillips, also known as Dr. 47, is the event promoter at Sk8bar. He has more than 25 years of experience as a music journalist and worked as a booking agent at Rendezvous Bar for five years before coming to Sk8bar.
“My best friend Mark that does all the videos had known Brandon since they were like 12. . .He happened to be by there one day and stopped and talked to Brandon before Sk8bar was even anything. It was just a storefront. Brandon says about having a skate shop and bands are brought up, and he said he didn’t know anybody. Mark said, ‘Well I know a guy,’ and I went in and met Brandon. . .I happened to know the right person that knew me,” Phillips said.
Phillips books local bands, as well as national acts who come through town.
“I’ve seen Sk8bar go from nothing in it, with a bit of a sound system and no stage – to a stage with a good sound system. It’s gone from a little place that could be something to an actual music venue in just short of over a year, which is unbelievable,” Phillips said. “We’ve had a ton of bands in there. My wife Louis did the math on it and with repeat performances, we’ve had somewhere around 500 performances for the first year. If nothing else, Sk8bar is giving St. Joe kind of the center of the music scene it needed to have for a long time.”
The history of Sk8bar has been documented not just by videographer Mark Milton but also by photographer Corey Anderson.
“I got involved in Sk8bar by just randomly remembering it existed one day and going out there. I didn’t know anyone or know what was going on, but I just kind of swallowed my anxiety and went downtown. I paid my cover and didn’t know anyone to talk to, but I just randomly started taking pictures of all these bands with no idea of what I was doing. That’s pretty much where that started,” Anderson said. “From meeting new people and making new friends, documenting a very important part of Saint Joseph history with the music scene – both local and touring bands that come through here – it’s fundamentally changed my life as a whole and I will forever feel grateful for that.”
Sk8bar has also changed the life of Osiris Gray. Gray has a combination of jobs at Sk8bar: collecting the cover charge, working sound, and working the bar. Gray is also an artist.
“Sk8bar is wild in a good way,” Gray said. “Although it’s not like Sk8bar came out of nowhere. . .I was kind of in a bad place in life before, but then I came here. It’s the community that’s built along with this venue, the bar and skate shop. I feel like I want to stay in St. Joe longer than I would because of Sk8bar. It is just this entity. I can see a lot more art coming out of St. Joe. It’s different and unique. It’s all in downtown itself that definitely brings uniqueness and a difference from the norm than the entire town of St. Joe. The downtown essence is great, and Sk8bar is a part of that downtown essence.”
Sk8bar started as a punk bar, but it has grown to feature artists of many genres. This includes metal, country, rap, and synthesizer-based music, although the Rocks had the initial idea of Sk8bar being a punk bar.
“I think it definitely has a lot more people interested in punk music, even though that’s very broad with pop-punk, metal, the kind of bands we usually have. But we also found ourselves finding a lot of these bands that we really like in so many different genres. Even though it started out more punk and metal oriented, I think where we’re at now is having a lot of different genres, and we’re having a lot of fun mixing it up,” Brandon Rock said.
Every Thursday, Sk8bar has an open mic for musicians to perform. This can involve band members from other bands jamming with one another, solo artists trying out a new song, and people who just want to dip their toes into music.
Musician Olivia Malita regularly attends Sk8bar shows, but she also has performed at their open mic.
“The open mic they have every Thursday is really nice. It’s a great place to just sound ideas off of other musicians in this scene or try out some new covers you’ve been working on or a new original. This has been a great place to do that because there are other young musicians in the scene. It’s giving me an opportunity to connect with other people my age who are also musically inclined.”
The Rocks’ impact on the local music scene has given a place for performers to play styles and genres that they may not be able to play in other venues.
Musician Jason Baskin of Bard Eclectic, a lo-fi jazzy art rock band, includes improvisation in his set, something that Sk8bar has given him the opportunity to perform in a live setting.
“I love the openness, like performing in open mics and jams, with the collaborative side,” Baskin said. “I think of myself being somewhere between a jazz musician and a classical musician. I love improvisation and having that space to do an improvised set is something I’m really getting into and have the freedom to do at Sk8bar. . .I think the openness of it gives me a confidence boost to try more experimental things, whereas in some other venues, I would want to go in with a more organized or predetermined performance. I feel a lot more comfortable and confident doing that at Sk8bar.”
Sk8bar had its one-year anniversary show on January 28th this year. Almost Enemies played this show, after they had played at the grand opening. The Getaways, The Uncouth, and Sidewalk Celebrity also played.
Looking back on the year, The Rocks had taken a step in a different direction than they were used to, but it blossomed into a community of freedom, music, and skating.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself through this process and before starting it,” Jesse Rock said. “The business world was kind of out of reach for me and Brandon, being from backgrounds of working-class families. We weren’t sure if we could actually pull it off. . .Realizing that it’s possible was pretty important. . .Just seeing this community come alive in St. Joe of all places has been pretty spectacular. That’s the coolest part, seeing new relationships being formed because of something we created. It’s kind of magical, honestly.”
“Sk8bar has given me a lot so far,” Brandon Rock said. “I’ve always been into concerts and now we have five shows every week for the next three weeks, so it’ll be 15 shows in three weeks. Going to work and getting to listen to live bands is pretty sweet, and then also skating. I’ve been skating on and off for like 30 years, but it’s just hard to keep going when you’re by yourself. . .This has definitely allowed me to skate every day and have fun and not get bored doing it.”