Jeffrey Liles' life story reads like a wide-eyed, music-loving teenager's wet dream. Over the course of his extensive career he has done everything from manage The Roxy Theatre in L.A., to prevent a riot at Trees by pulling Kurt Cobain out of a closet.
A North Dallas native, Liles was a major part of the Deep Ellum music scene during the height of its popularity, before he moved out to California. He returned to his hometown in 2007 while still working in L.A., but after only a few days back he was here to stay. "Out there, I was living hand-to-mouth, spending two hours in my car commuting 55 miles in LA traffic every day," he says. "Now it's a two minute walk to work every night."
Since then Liles has reinstated himself as a fixture in the local music scene. He's the artistic director of the historic Kessler Theatre, a job that owner Edwin Cabaniss offered him in 2008. The remodeled theater was is a hub of cultural and creative activity in the Oak Cliff district Liles dubbed "X+." Aside from giving local musicians a place to play and be heard, the Kessler features local art shows, offers dancing and guitar classes and even boasts a full bar and kitchen that serves up locally sourced ingredients. Thanks to the dedication and care of truly creative people like Liles, the Kessler has become a bastion of local artistic energy.
How has the music scene in Dallas changed since you moved back? Over the last three decades, three neighborhoods have always been the dominant hotspots for live music in Dallas: Greenville Avenue, Deep Ellum and Oak Cliff. During the last ten years, we've seen each of these areas reclaim some of the character and charm that had once given them a signature identity in the first place.
During the '70s and '80s, Lower Greenville was the center of gravity for popular music in DFW. The Arcadia Theatre, the original Poor David's Pub, Tango, DJ's, Nick's Uptown and an indie record store called Record Gallery showed the people of Dallas how nurturing a walkable neighborhood was essential to building and maintaining a vibrant scene. These days, the block has been spruced up (even more emphasis on easy parking and walkability), and things have come full circle; the Granada Theater, The Vagabond, The Crown and Harp, and Good Records are all seeing to that.
Deep Ellum was, of course, a thriving Prohibition-era juke joint district. After decades of dormancy, the neighborhood came back in the mid-'80s; right around the same time alternative music (punk, hip-hop, grunge, etc.) as a whole began finding a much larger audience. Twenty years later, after providing a sturdy platform for a number of great North Texas acts that went on to national and international acclaim, the national economy tanked and many of the beloved venues like Trees, Gypsy Tea Room, Club Dada, Bomb Factory, Prophet Bar, Club Clearview and Deep Ellum Live were all either shuttered, or running on fumes. Two key things happened that helped to course-correct the trajectory of the neighborhood. First, Russ Hobbs closed his venue The Door and took over the old Gypsy Tea Room space, bringing back the name Prophet Bar. Second, Clint Barlow successfully resurrected Trees, which subsequently would lead to a new Club Dada, as well as nearby venues like Three Links and Twilight. Now Barlow is bringing back the Bomb Factory. If it is as successful as the original one was, then you're probably going to see five or ten thousand people in Deep Ellum on any given Friday or Saturday night. Just like the early '90s.
Oak Cliff's identity is a bit trickier to explain. Besides the obvious geographical connection to artists who grew up here (the Vaughan brothers, T-Bone Walker, Edie Brickell, Ray Wylie Hubbard, the Gonzalez family etc.), the Bronco Bowl was arguably the best Dallas live music venue ever. (Say what you will about Deep Ellum, but acts like The Clash, Bob Dylan, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, D'Angelo, The Smiths, REM and U2 never played there. They did play at Bronco Bowl.) It was a sad day when the word came down that Home Depot had purchased the property and had plans to demolish the building. Now, a decade later, the City of Dallas allowed a vote to legalize liquor by the drink (OC was one of the last dry neighborhoods in Dallas), it passed, and two historic venues - The Kessler and Texas Theatre - are bringing dedicated culture seekers back across the river, just as the Bronco Bowl once did. And seasonal events like KXT's "Barefoot at the Belmont" and the North Oak Cliff Music Festival are literally giving people the opportunity to comfortably experience live music with the downtown Dallas skyline as a visual backdrop.
What was your first reaction to Edwin Cabaniss' offer to help him revive the Kessler? When Edwin first reached out to me in late 2008, I was here visiting from Los Angeles. Jesse Hughey, a former music writer for the Observer, had given him my phone number. Edwin mentioned that he had purchased an old theater on West Davis Street (right around the corner from the loft where I lived from '90-93). He explained that he wanted to do a live music venue, and that the building would also serve as a studio space for his wife's dance academy during the day. At the time, OC was still a dry neighborhood. My first impression was that this would all be very difficult to pull off. He asked me to at least come meet him to take a look at the building, which after having sat empty for over a decade, was in a state of terrible disrepair.
Candidly, given the state of the economy at the time, the whole idea seemed very implausible. It was going to be a huge undertaking, incredibly ambitious. Edwin explained that he lived here in the neighborhood, and was sincerely committed to helping nurture it along as a culture destination that was premised on an appreciation of the past. I was just about to head back out to L.A. when I mentioned all of this to my mom, and the first words out of her mouth, "Please don't go back out there, stay here and do this." And, of course, you always do what your mother tells you to do. After signing on, it took us over 17 months to get the building ready to open. As it turns out, this has probably been the most emotionally rewarding experience of my life. Edwin is a gifted businessman, and our production and promotions staff includes a number of people that I've either known or collaborated with for years. I'm sure that most of my co-workers feel just as thankful for the opportunity to contribute here.
The scene in Oak Cliff is thriving, but what are some other changes you'd like to see in the rest of Dallas? I'd like to see the various cultural movements continue to be driven by the creatives, rather than by real estate agents and speculative developers just trying to make a buck. Look at Trees and Three Links, owned and operated by people like Barlow and Kris Youmans, both of whom are lifelong musicians. Most of our Kessler employees are writers, photographers, music producers or musicians, as well. The Texas Theatre is also owned and operated by filmmakers and musicians.
When people ask me why I use "X+" as a shorthand nickname for the creative community in North Oak Cliff, I usually tell them, "because it's the kind of name that a real estate developer would never use or understand." Hopefully the name helps to provide that kind of platform that exists outside the typical promotions protocol, as a sort of code to help identify this particular place and time. It's been five years now, and we've never spent a single penny on print advertising or radio promotion for X+. And that's by design. Never made a penny off of it, either, again, by design; it's not about money. It's about protecting and providing a safe haven for this flourishing cultural community. Those who are just trying to get paid here are bewildered by the name, and that's perfect. That means it's working. Also, it's not so much about promoting this community to people who already live here; it's as much about using social media to introduce our style and culture to the like-minded creative people who live in, say, Berlin or London or Tokyo or Brooklyn.
You have a rather eclectic resume, but have you decided to finally put down roots at the Kessler? For now, yes. Absolutely. Back in 2010, I gave Edwin an unofficial three year commitment. We're almost five years in now, and our core management crew - Edwin, technical director Paul Quigg, bar manager Melissa Hennings, office manager Diana Prevenslik, lighting director Graham Sinclair, door manager Graham Brotherton and myself -- is still very much intact, and we're selling out shows every weekend. Things are just getting good. Everyone who works or performs here realizes that this is really something special. (Austin-based artists always seem to say the same thing during the late-night load out: "Man, I wish we had a place like this down there!") If the quality of our presentation ever begins to noticeably deteriorate, then the time will come to either evaluate and make necessary changes, or walk away and begin focusing on something else altogether. Until then, it's all about polishing this gem to its ultimate perfection. The trajectory is still moving in an incredibly positive direction.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
What is the next step for you? Ideally, I'd like to find the time to write and record another Cottonmouth, Texas record. Or collaborate with Paul on another Decadent Dub Team album. Not sure how we'll ever find the time to do it, but I've tried to be involved with at least one recording project every ten years or so. Maybe this summer we'll set aside a month or so to see what we can come up with.
What keeps you here in Dallas now? Family and friends first, of course, the opportunity to help contribute to the reclamation of Oak Cliff's cultural heritage, second, the Cowboys, Rangers and Mavericks, third. Not ashamed to admit that I'm a rabid sports fan, and always have been. I've lived here when our local franchises have won five Super Bowls, a Stanley Cup, two American League championships and an NBA championship, and I just love what it does to our collective self-esteem as a city. It seems superficial to many of my creative friends and co-workers, but I feel like it's part of my DNA. I'm also especially thrilled that The Kessler has really connected with people like Eric Nadel and Babe Laufenberg. We keep a football stashed in the front box office; whenever Babe shows up, I like to drag him out to the front sidewalk to toss it around with our bartenders before the show. Edwin and I were also lucky enough to see Eric get inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame a few months back. These guys really love live music. Worlds are colliding, in the best possible way. If you come to a show at The Kessler, chances are there is also a game happening on the television behind the bar.
What do you look to for inspiration? I don't actually look for inspiration; it tends to reveal itself at the appropriate time. For instance, I had fallen into a pattern of not reading as much as I once did. A year or so went by where I didn't read a single book. Then two new bookstores opened in our neighborhood; The Wild Detectives and Lucky Dog Books. Since then, I've purchased probably a dozen new titles and read half of them. Sometimes inspiration just parks itself right in front of your face and is impossible to ignore. Another source of inspiration is pure silence. When you work in a live music venue, you obviously hear a lot of loud music. I'm also one of those people who likes to leave the TV on 24-7, because I hate to be out of the loop about anything. So now I'm finding just how important it is to balance all of that out with moments of meditation and clarity. Most of my original ideas tend to happen when I'm not being bombarded by overwhelming amount of outside stimulus. And I'm pretty sure any other creative would probably agree; if you want your body of work to exist without being obviously derivative, it has to come from the blank slate within, not as a reaction to something else.
100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson 35. Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot 34. Music Innovator Stefan Gonzalez 33. Triple Threat Giovanni Valderas 32. Cultural Connector Lauren Cross 31. Critical Artist Thor Johnson 30. Delicate Touch Margaret Meehan 29. Fashion Forward Charles Smith II 28. Dedicated Artist Carolyn Sortor 27. Political Cyber Banksy Wylie H Dallas 26. Dance Preserver Lisa Mesa Rogers 25. Rob 'Ain't No Creative Like A Bow-Tie-Wearing Creative' Shearer 24. Scholar of the Stage Susan Sargeant 23. Photographer of Record Justin Terveen