The New York Goth Culture Examiner, Lady Zombie, had the opportunity to interview Big Lee Lloyd and Sasha LeStrange Lloyd, the owners and operators of Big Lee’s Place – The Hard Swallow, a dive located at 140 1st Avenue, right off of St. Marks Place.
Upon entering the bar, I was greeted by old school rock on the speakers, and an attractive rocker gal at the bar. Big Lee and Sasha were ready to dig deep and spill the details of their newest venture with me. As a couple, they are well suited – tattooed, loud, and lots of fun.
LZ: What can you expect to see walking into The Hard Swallow on a “normal” weeknight? What’s the crowd like? The music?
BL: What kind of fucking question is that? [Lee gives his hearty booming laugh.] It’s a fucking bar! [He laughs again.] Walking into The Hard Swallow is kind of like a time machine. We’re taking it back to an old school East Village… back when booze was cheap, music was awesome, and you didn’t need a fucking coat check to party. When you walk up to the front of my bar, the first thing you see is my huge, tacky, red, glowing, neon lights, looking like some old Times Square sex shop. That catches your eye, but the music draws you in. We have an old school CD jukebox with selections ranging from Black Sabbath, The Ramones, and ACDC, to Peaches, Reverend Horton Heat and Marilyn Manson. We definitely have a little something for everybody, and the crowd reflects that. We get a nice mix of people; mostly neighborhood folks during the week, and we have regulars that range from 24 to old as dirt. Our bartenders are cute and friendly, and they like to drink, so they keep those glasses full. With our $3 Tall Boy beers and Big Metal shots, you definitely get more bang for your buck!
LZ: Is this your first time owning and operating a NYC bar? If not, what are you doing differently this time?
BL: No! [Deep laughter.] This ain’t my first rodeo, and it is a vastly different experience. I am a nightlife Veteran. I worked as security and managed at a few places, most notably, Coney Island High and also Hogs and Heifers. Collectively, I have about 23 years of experience in the nightlife world. My first venture was a live music, heavy metal bar in Spanish Harlem called Wild Spirits. Now, I know you might think, “Gee, did you really think that was gonna work?” But, it did. For 3 year. In 2007, the construction of the 2nd Avenue subway forced us, and many of the surrounding businesses, to close. It was my baby, and it hurt like hell to close her doors. But, as the song goes, “You gotta know when to fold ’em.” Wild Spirits was a loud, in your face, no apologies kind of bar, and that is who I am, so I’m being true to my own nature. The Hard Swallow has a lot of that same character… just without the bands. This time around, we’re just a local dive bar with big personality, serving cheap booze and free laughs.
SL: This is technically my first venture owning and operating a venue, but I have been a bartender and a part of the industry for 12 years. Wild Spirits is where I met Lee, and where we fell in love. I was his bartender there, and Wild Spirits became my baby as well. When people walk in to The Hard Swallow, they often say it feels like it has been here forever, even though we’ve only been open for 4 months. I think that’s really because this bar is an extension of us… 2 eclectic, born and raised New Yorkers, with huge personalities. This place comes naturally for us, because all we wanted was to recreate a tiny alcove of what New York was and will always be for us: gritty, sexy and non-apologetic.
LZ: You recently had a 4 day Halloween celebration. What was that like?
BL/SL: [In unison, with laughter.] Oh, boy!
BL: Holy shit, what a shit show! We had just come home from New Orleans, and we had literally 2 weeks to put the whole thing together. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was a really good turn out and a great mix of people. Everyone got into the spirit and added to the fun. We had some performers from the Coney Island Freak Show come through, and a good time was had by all.
SL: Yeah, it was a good turn out! Halloween is our favorite holiday, and Lee and I want to make an annual event where we celebrate not just Halloween, but also Devil’s Night, All Saints Day, and the Day of the Dead as well.
BL: Yes, like an annual Festival! This was our first, and we had limited time to plan. It was still a great party. Next year will be so much bigger! Baby girl, you don’t even know… Big black daddy has a lot in store for you guys… and remember… [shouts] you heard it here first!
SL: Yes, yes… next year will be bigger. I don’t know if we’ll survive it [laughs]. Our porter certainly wasn’t happy about this one. All jokes aside, our was staff was great. They all dressed up and got into the spirit, and they even whipped up some smoky cocktails. They really shined that weekend, especially Katie. She really outdid herself decorating and helping us prepare for the weekend.
BL: Yes, shout out to Boss Moss, my favorite drunk!
LZ: You’re both “from the scene”, so are you actively catering to the subculture?
BL: Ohhhhh shhhhh [Lee puts a finger to his lips and shushes me, and then exclaims] Abso-fucking-lutely! Just don’t tell the neighbors. However, that being said, I don’t plan on excluding anyone, except assholes who can’t handle their liquor, and you can find that in any scene.
SL: What he means is all people are welcomed, and as we said, this bar is an extension of us, so of course we have plans to do many collaborations.
LZ: Performers are not uncommon… What sorts of shows can we see at the bar?
BL: [Chuckles mischievously] I’m sorry, mama, I can’t give you everything, but I will say this… I like to mix shit up and keep people guessing, so I am always looking for the next great act! A lot of what happens at our place is organic. Even when there are no performers, you can always count on a good time.
LZ: Plans for the next 6 months?
SL: [Singing] Party and bullshit, and party and bullshit!
BL: I’m in talks with a lot of people about parties and such. Our main focus in these first 4 months has been the look of the place and staffing. I think we have a decent crew in right now.
SL: At least a good looking one. [Laughs.]
BL: Yes, a good looking crew, and they work well together! So now, we’re fine tuning our music selections and getting our name out there, and letting people know we’re open and we are NOT Spanky and Darla’s or Cheap Shots. We have relationships with various communities, including the burlesque community, the sideshow circuit, and others. I’m all about bridging communities, and when I see something that wows me, be it a contortionist or a DJ with a new flair, I want to share it with my nation of drunks. Everything we do has to fit the style and overall vibe of our bar, so I’m working with people to create custom acts to take our parties to a new level, where we are different from the rest, because it’s new, and innovative. So, it’s evolving. The next 6 months are gonna be very interesting.
SL: It’s never the same party twice, and now, since the venue is ours, it’s gonna be an interesting task to keep it fresh, but if anyone is up to the challenge… it’s definitely Lee.
LZ: Where can we find you online (social media links)?
BL: That would be you, Sasha. [Laughs]
SL: Our website is still in the development phase, and we should have it up in the next few weeks. The best way to find us right now is to follow us on Facebook [http://facebook.com/thehardswallow], Instagram @thehardswallownyc, and on Twitter @TheHardSwallow. Also, if there are any specialty acts and performers who are interested in joining our showcases, they can reach Lee by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
LZ: Final thoughts?
BL: Get ready for one hell of a ride, cuz I’m about to punch this “new” New York City in its fucking face, and bring it back old school.
SL: [Laughs] As my husband so colorfully put it, we’re excited and have a lot of plans for the future. We’re thankful to everyone who has partied with us and supported us thus far in our journey, and we’re not finished yet! Stay tuned.