Live and direct from the center of the universe: an interview with Matthew Clark

Matthew Clark, also known as “Jolly Baba,” poses for this undated headshot.

By Jerene-Elise Nall

As I walked into the House Cafe, 263 E. Lincoln Highway, to interview manager Matthew Clark, Monday’s Open Mic stage was already being set up. There was activity everywhere– surprising, considering the weather. 

Even on the snowiest wintry nights, the House Cafe draws people in, and Clark is a huge part of making that magnetic magic happen. Clark (also known as “Jolly Baba”) discusses a busy winter break at the House Cafe and the fascinating roads he’s traveled to take root here and bring DeKalb the best entertainment, live and direct from the center of the universe.

Matt Clark: So, cool! We’re friends on Facebook now! If you saw my name on there, you’d know it’s Jolly Baba!

Northern Star: Yes, where does that come from? Is that something you just came up with?

MC: Jolly Baba came through about, oh, seven years ago when I opened up a second-hand store here in DeKalb.

NS: What was it called?

MC: Jolly Baba’s! It was vintage clothing and things I’ve collected over my eighty years of existence. Well, not eighty, but it sure feels like it sometimes. We had it open for about two years, and that’s where Jolly Baba came from. It’s like, the happy grandfather.

NS: And it just kind of stuck. Especially with the beard.

MC: Exactly! So it came up that I was always by my name, and a lot of the work I do on Facebook is promotion for different events, and every time I posted an event or did something it was under my own name. And you know, it is me doing some of this work, but it’s a lot of other people, too. Including the artists, including the interior decorator, including the fans that are showing up, including the baristas, the owner. It’s just like, the happy people. Jolly Baba.

NS: I like that. That’s a neat story for a Facebook name. Did you do anything interesting over the winter?

MC: I was here, full time. My hours are sort of “fool time;” so many hours. But it’s good, because during the winter, things slow down here. People take vacations, people go away to visit relatives and things. And, there’s a market within that time that needs to be tuned into what we’re doing. Concerts, shows, promotions; all these things are happening. So, it’s important for me personally to be on Facebook, on MySpace, on the House Cafe website, telling people what’s going on. Also, getting people to co-create what’s going to happen. It took a lot of my time this break, but I’m happy to give it, because it’s just what I do. It’s how the Baba stays jolly.

NS: Sounds good.

MC: Very good. We had a very good break here. Every year they just seem to be doing a little bit better. This one’s success was the variety. Blues, bluegrass; we even had some jazz. We had some hip hop. The Open Mics were well-attended on Mondays. You had a group of people that were DeKalbanites that were attending school elsewhere, Sycamorians that were attending school elsewhere, a lot of local people that go to school elsewhere that were back in town. A good amount of them were coming to the House before they left. They started coming a few years ago, went away to school and then came back. They’re musicians, they’re artists, they want to throw parties with their friends.

NS: Kind of like a homecoming.

MC: Exactly. They want to get involved. The seasonal group; that December to January group. We had some really successful shows. We stayed busy. The locals came out, people from out of town continued to come out. The eighteen-and-unders. The homeschool kids came out and had little gatherings. The sixty-five plus group came out on Dec. 26 for some Dixieland jazz. It was a nice break.

NS: I was wondering what happened with the House during break, with all the college students gone. But apparently it’s not that big of a problem.

MC: No, check out my December calendar. Each day has an event. The cool thing is, each one of these shows brought out a different group to the House Cafe. In December, we stayed quite full with an event every night. Foxy Shazam played over break, that was a big show. The Open Mics did well. We had a Metalwest Fest, you know, like the Middlewest Fest.

NS: Very cool.

MC: And then locals. I worked a lot on the local scene. A lot of locals came through. On Jan. 2, we had a really nice local event with a potluck and local music. We’ve been busy. And, look, I’ll give you a flash into the future! Are you ready?

NS: Yeah, sure! I think so.

MC: (Flipping through calendar) Look at that, we’re already in July 2011! Let’s go to Dec. 21, 2012. Let’s go through it into 2013. People joke about the end of the world on that date, and I say “well, I already have events booked into 2013! It’s not happening.” The show must go on.

NS: Exactly! We’re sticking around.

MC: We’ve got to! Anyway, that’s sort of what happened here at the House Cafe over break. Things sometimes got slow, but it’s fun during the break. I’ve experienced this at the House Cafe with every break. You do have a group of people that are leaving the community, but you do have people that are rejoining the community.

There’s participation and we saw appreciation with returning people. Santa Claus also managed to visit two times: once for Open Mic he came and opened up the night, and another time during a pop punk show and ended up crowd surfing. I think the House Cafe is a favorite stopping point for Santa, because he knows this is where all the good kids come.

NS: Of course!

MC: I mean, you walked in. You saw, you heard. People were singing and hula hooping.

NS: It’s always a great atmosphere, very friendly and welcoming.

MC: Most of it is within the architecture of the venue. There’s not a lot of black in the venue. Black tends to suck your energy a little bit. There’s a lot of action, a lot of color. A lot of honoring of intelligence.

NS: Very cool. Do you do anything differently in the winter here? It seems like the vibe changes a little bit.

MC: It does. We decorate, that’s one thing we like to do, especially around the holidays. We actually had three Christmas trees here. We love the Christmas season because afterwards, all the lights go on sale. And then we go and buy 200 dollars in half-off Christmas lights!

NS: There are plenty of lights up around here!

MC: There sure are. And, it seems like people are ready to celebrate. People are coming out more. We’re not recession-proof, but people did come out this winter, especially for the night time events. More people came in during the day and relaxed a little bit longer. Not as much “can-I-have-this-to-go?” It was more like, people hanging out, staying to look at the place.

NS: There is a lot to look at in here.

MC: Yeah, we have a couple art shows up right now, and we’re getting ready to rotate in February with an NIU visual arts student. I’m seeing a bit of momentum, a lot of walk-in traffic during the winter break. It could be the eye candy, it could be the food.

NS: There was one more thing I wanted to talk to you about. I heard some rumors about a rapping career, what’s that about?

MC: Well, I’ve been known to enhance the dance at some points in time. For this one, we have to go way back in time to 1986. That’s pretty much when I got my introduction to the entertainment industry. Back in high school after the football games, we used to be able to go to the pep assemblies, which were really more like late-night mixers.

There used to be a jukebox, but the jukebox would break, so one day me and my friend said, “look, we have enough equipment,” and the Beastie Boys were just coming out, so we would stand in front of the mirror and practicing our beat boys poses, and we started up a production company called Pop Master Crew. That was a couple cassette decks, some realistic turn tables and a little PA system.

We started throwing the parties after the basketball games. We packed the place. Eventually, I got hooked up into wedding DJs. So, when you do weddings, you have to spend some time on the microphone. The DJ is there to do some entertaining, like… “ladies and gentlemen (you know, with the [Chicago] Bulls theme playing in the background), please put your hands together for the new Mr. and Mrs.!”

I used to get paid to do this stuff. And then, going to college, I got into clubs around my college. And the fraternities and local bars needed DJs, so I just continued what I was doing. I grew up with a little hip hop, so I was no stranger to doing a little “yo!” or “throw your hands in the air!” sort of thing or “grow your beard real long!” sort of thing on the microphone. This was back in the ‘80s. I pretty much paid my way through college with it, and after college, I didn’t go with my degree, I just continued with the entertainment business.

NS: What was your degree?

MC: It was in criminal justice. I was going to school to become a police officer at the time. But then, after my junior year of college, my friend asked me to go see the Grateful Dead and I was like, “the Grateful who?” and I went and had a really wonderful time. It sort of changed my perspective a little bit, but I still had an interest in the social work aspect of things. It wasn’t so much my kind of thing.

NS: Understandable.

MC: After college, we ended up coming to DeKalb, and we started booking for Otto’s Underground. I met the original owner of the House, and we ended up opening this place together. So, there’s been more than one opportunity when I’ve had a microphone and I’ve done some hip hop. It’s fun for me because I don’t call myself a hip hopper. I don’t have a performance, it’s just kind of on the glow. Just having fun with folks. I’ve emceed some hip hop open mics, and occasionally when time has to be filled, I’ll have some fun. It’s the entertainment aspect of it, and keeping people’s ears and hearts open and participating and having fun.

NS: Yeah, I was blown away when I heard it mentioned. I remember saying to myself, ‘wait, his what? Hip hop?’

MC: It’s a lot of fun. That’s mainly what it is with me, just fun. There’s a lot of good talent out there. I’ve been blessed to be a part of this Dekalb scene.