When indie rock duo The Kills were getting their start, dive bars were often where they got their inspiration—and their earliest audiences.
While recording their first three records in rural Michigan, singer Alison Mosshart and guitarist Jamie Hince didn’t have a lot of options for where to hang outside of the studio. According to Hince, they would cycle around to places like the Silver Dollar Bar Restaurant to write and talk and “get our ideas together.”
Dive bars weren’t just a place to hang. The artwork for their first album came from a photo booth in a dive bar. They were also the location for some of their most memorable milestones, like a show at The Empty Bottle in Chicago that Hince recalls as one of the first venues the band sold out. A dive bar was also where The Kills had one of their first major interviews and photo shoots—a setting the band insisted on.
“It was part of the stamp of the band,” Hince said.
But while jukeboxes are making a comeback, dive bars—like iTunes and CDs—are becoming a thing of the past. Rising rents in cities nationwide are forcing old haunts with their notched stools and cheap drinks to make their last call. In May, the Good Luck Bar in Los Angeles closed down after 25 years and will be replaced by a boutique hotel. Taverns in Wisconsin are lobbying state lawmakers for more regulation of nontraditional venues competing for their business. In Washington, D.C., a series of closures have shuttered several favorites in a neighborhood of the nation’s capital.
That’s why The Kills are helping to celebrate dive bars before they’re killed off.
“There’s always been this amazing heritage of rock ’n’ roll that’s part of dive bar culture,” Hince said. “I remember we’d go to New York and go down east and find some little dive bar, and there’d be like Interpol and The Strokes and us. And it was a real fan’s culture.”
On Sunday, to celebrate National Dive Bar Day, an unofficial holiday invented by Seagram’s 7 Crown, The Kills collaborated with the whiskey brand to remaster two of their early B-sides for jukeboxes in dive bars across the country. In addition to being available for free in more than 25,000 TouchTunes jukeboxes, the songs—“Night Train” and “Blue Moon”—were also re-released as a limited edition 7-inch vinyl record.
For the debut, Seagram’s hosted events at dive bars in seven cities across the country: Dallas, Denver, Jacksonville, Nashville, New York, Sacramento and Seattle.
According to Jason Sorley, brand director for whiskey at Seagram’s parent company Diageo, the campaign and the events around it were a way to raise the profile of dive bars as much as bringing “easy back to whiskey.”
“To save dive bars, we need to bring people into them,” Sorley said. “You need butts in bar stools. You can’t just go in and refurbish them or they’d lose their soul at that point.”
The campaign, which was created by Forsman & Bodenfors New York and Taylor Global, is also part of a broader push into new areas of marketing. Sorley said the brand is also spending more money on radio than it has in the past, a strategy that will be continued later this year with a follow-up campaign with country superstar Garth Brooks. It’s also building out an experiential plan with several “mobile dive bars” that can be driven around for events and tastings.
Sorley said dive bars and the music they play are as diverse as the cities they’re in. That’s part of why the brand is working with Brooks, whose new single “Dive Bar” with Blake Shelton is a far different sound from The Kills.
“If you go to a dive bar in Oklahoma and [hear] what’s trending there or one in New York or Los Angeles, it’s very different,” he said. “It speaks to the melting pot that a dive bar is.”
Experiential marketing is also a bigger area of growth for Diageo. This spring, it 3D-printed a bar for the Tribeca Film Festival to promote Bulleit Bourbon and last month created a pop-up for Smirnoff during Pride Month.
Along with building its own “dive bars,” Seagram’s is also donating money to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help preserve dive bars with historic significance.
Songs are often an annotation for memories, and that’s also the case for The Kills. Hince said remastering their earlier songs has allowed the band to remember those old dives and the music that came from them.
“In an obvious way you can’t help but think, ‘My god, how far we’ve come since those days,’” Hince said. “It was a small low-fi operation, and it’s like remembering and checking back and remembering how we wrote the songs. It came flowing back. The drum machine would start, and I would remember the drum machine I used.”
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