For years, the space at 940 Blackstock Drive in Knoxville’s Warehouse District has struggled to find its niche.
As The Electric Ballroom, the concert venue hosted a number of major touring acts and local events. The Valarium followed suit, only to shut down after five years. Blackstock, the most recent occupant of the building, lasted barely a year before closing a few months ago.
Now, Brian Coakley hopes the key to the success of the latest venture in the building — now known as The International, which opens to the public tonight (June 5) — is love.
“I think a lot of making it work is just putting some love into it, if that makes sense,” Coakley told The Daily Times this week. “We’re going into it wanting to improve things and make things look nicer and treat people well. We want to have a very friendly connection with the community, and we just want to make sure everybody has a great experience between treating the fans and customers with love and respect and bringing in the most top-notch talent that can be bought and raising the level of production. Those are really the main things we’re trying to change, and it’s coming together well.”
Thursday’s “housewarming party” is a free, all-ages event that will feature performances by local cover outfit The Pop Rox and the jazz-funk band Baseball. It’s designed to let local music scene fans know that the establishment is now open for business, as well as to showcase some of the changes Coakley and his crew have made to the venue.
“It’s not like we’ve torn the place down and rebuilt it,” Coakley said. “Just the permits and inspections we’ve had to get have been insane; doing serious demolition and construction is not something we had the time or money to do. In the long term, we want to expand and do major construction projects, but for now, what people are going to see and feel is like they’re in the same place, but new. Everything looks different — the counters, the lighting, the decorating, the floors — and when people see the lights we have on the stage, they’re going to be blown away.”
The venue — which includes the adjacent, smaller-capacity club known as The Concourse — was first built in 1907 as the regional headquarters for the tractor and truck company International Harvester. The International portion of the building went up in the 1920s as a truck repair facility, and over the years, The Concourse was home to the Great Atlantic Shoe Company in the 1930s, while the Hartman Beverage Company, which would go on to develop Mountain Dew, purchased The International.
Coakley, who moved to Knoxville in 2006 and was a part of The Valarium staff during the entirety of the venue’s run, said he wanted to capitalize on the music scene in which he’s immersed himself to build a business that’s smartly run but also audience friendly. After operators of Blackstock ran into problems, he convinced the building’s owner to let him take over the lease; as founder of Midnight Voyage Productions — a company that’s brought a number of electronic acts to Knoxville, mostly in the Old City for the past year — Coakley has developed a long list of contacts and connections in the music industry ... but he’s emphatic that The International will play host to a diverse array of genres.
“Midnight Voyage is a completely separate company,” he said. “The goal is really to become as diverse as possible and explore as many different genres as we can. We feel like we can host a real wide variety of talent and make a wide demographic of people comfortable when they come down.
“You’ve got to keep people entertained, to keep them on their toes and make them feel like when they go there it’s not going to be the same old thing. I think the idea, and also the biggest challenge, is to be able to continue progressing and expanding to an extent that keeps people interested in what you’re doing.”