PJ's Lager House Mission: Detroit Deserves Amazing Music

PJ Ryder has a rock 'n' roll calling.

The mission for the new owner of the Corktown bar Lager House? To keep promoting the longstanding tradition of exposing folks to quality rock music under the bar's roof -- albeit, with his own twist.

Ryder took over the garage rock standby about a year ago. By offering free shows, a newly renovated bar and band room, a more diverse lineup of acts, and paying particular attention to "treating people how they should be treated" -- apparently a rarity among many other, more infamous rock clubs out there -- Ryder and his Lager House staff are not only changing the face of what the bar once was, but they are altering the perception of what a music bar should, and could, be.

Match made in heaven

Perched along Michigan Avenue's cobblestone street, right off of Trumbull in Detroit's historic Corktown neighborhood -- just a hop skip from the half-demolished shell of Tiger Stadium -- the nearly 100-year-old Lager House building long has been a reliable source for hosting quality local and national rock acts, and everybody from the Von Bondies to Black Flag's Greg Ginn has graced its stage.

Ryder is also known around town as something of an institution. Perhaps most famous for running the still existing Ann Arbor record store PJ's Records, Ryder – who sports a would-be regal head of silver-colored hair, if it weren't for the "rocker approved" ponytail streaming down his back -- has had his foot in local rock tradition since the early 1980s.

In 1995, Ryder sold the record store and moved back to Detroit, where he'd spent most of his childhood, and started working as a real estate agent for Real Estate One. Though a bit more stuffy than selling vinyl to music rats in the heart of Ann Arbor, Ryder still found himself mingling with the local rock crowd, selling a house to the Sirens' Muffy Kroha, and advising on housing deals with the Von Bondies' Jason Stollsteimer, Demolition Doll Rods' Danny Kroha, and the Paybacks' Wendy Case.

In January of 2006, Ryder was restless. "I asked myself, do I want to do this for another 10 years? Do I want to do this for another five years? Do I want to do this for another five minutes? I called my wife, and she told me if I wanted to quit, I should do it. I decided I needed to get back to doing something I loved."

In 1983, Ryder told his financial adviser at the time that his dream was to open up a "music bar." Fast-forward over 20 years later, and word on the street was that the Lager House, one of Ryder's favorite spots to catch gigs and have a few drinks, was on the market. Fate, it seems, was knocking loudly on his door.

"The Lager House presented itself at the right time, and it was like a match made in heaven," says Ryder.

But soon, he realized that his dream situation would not come without a dose of reality. "Once we started, a whole new world presented itself."

Indeed, as a100-year-old building nestled in one of the oldest parts of Detroit, the Lager House was in need of a serious facelift.

Ryder set to work. He installed a new roof. He washed the ceiling, which was white, not the murky brown it'd become. He painted the walls in the bar's main room green, ripped up the carpet, exposing an elegant hardwood floor, reconfigured and updated the bar's wiring and electricity, and cleaned the hell out of the band room. Above all else, he raised the standards in the bathrooms -- once notorious -- by actually installing doors on the stalls.

In late November 2007, the newly scrubbed bar was ready to open it's doors.

Change you can rock in

Once the Lager House reopened, not everybody in town was delighted. Some local bloggers made a stink about every move Ryder made. Opening up the bar to a more diverse selection of acts -- including blues, bluegrass, and what Ryder calls "roots music" -- instead of just the usual garage and indie rock sparked outrage on the Internet. Giving bands an option to either charge for their shows or let fans in for free, and adding "PJ's" to the bar's moniker? Blasphemy!

Ryder did not let the criticism get him down.  "With change there is always skepticism," Ryder says. "There were lots of rumors going around. People hated me and didn't even know me. But my philosophy is: treat people right and sooner or later then they're going to come back.

"Some of the bloggers were very anti-Lager House. But they've since apologized to me, coming in here and telling me, 'I love this place!'"

Something good is happening

It's hard to argue with Ryder's approach. It's been a year since he purchased the bar from former owners the Weakley family (proprietors since 1977). His enthusiasm for the place continues.

"Among musicians and fans, the energy has always been great in this town. The talent is so deep it's almost a crime not to expose it to more people.

"(In Detroit) you can do almost anything if you put your mind to it," he says. "Just look at the Russell Industrial Center, or even Torya Blanchard's Good Girls Go To Paris crepe shop. That is an inspiration to me, and when I see things like that I get excited."

Ryder has major plans for the Lager House in year No. 2, including continued improvements to the band room. A new sound system was recently installed, and posters from past shows have started to overtake the walls like paper moss. He's also working toward installing a kitchen. "I'd like to start getting a paycheck, too," he says, with a laugh.

Ultimately though, Ryder's main goal is a simple one: "No matter what night of the week, when you come in, something good is going to be happening."

Ryan Allen is a musician and writer, and frequent contributor to Model D. Send feedback here.


The Javelins play to a packed house Thursday night at PJ's Lager House

PJ Ryder

The bar area

The Javelins

This is what happens when you take advantage of the cheap drinks!

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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