Welcome back to The Barkeepers, a monthly column dedicated to the men and women who work behind some of Seattle's hottest bars.
[Photos: S. Pratt]
Ocho has a lot of fans, and for good reason (lots of them, actually). With an excellent bar menu full of Spanish-inspired cocktails, some of the best small plates in town, and an atmosphere that feels at once intimate and hopping, it's a pretty sexy place to sit down. And then there's the always hat-clad Jeff Fielder, who doesn't actually spend a ton of time behind the bar.
While he makes a mean cocktail, has a great palate for incorporating slightly challenging and crafty ingredients like Cardamaro (a liqueur made from cardoons and thistles) and has some of the best stories ever, the professional session musician is frequently on tour or in the studio. It's a true treat to sit at the bar while he's slinging drinks and stories. Here's proof.
How long have you worked here?
Four years. Before, okay, let's start at the beginning. Right before I turned 21, I was like "I should get a job," because I had worked in construction. I played gigs and all, but I didn't have a daily. So, I went to bartending school. It was called, like, Bartending Academy. And the teacher was like this old lady, the kind you would expect to be working in a bowling alley. She was like, [puts on a Simpsons-quality old lady New York accent] "This is how you make a Harvey Wallbanger?This is a Seabreeze." And it was expensive! You had to go for, I think, three weeks! It was like $200.
My first job right out of that — because they were supposed to place you, but of course they didn't — was at Red Lobster in Federal Way. And after that, I worked at Hoolihan's in South Center. It was a transitional period for me, and they hired me when I had long hair. Then about six months in, they were like, "Dude, you need to cut your hair." And I was gonna, but they hired me like that, so I was kind of like, "Eat it." So I left there.
Then, I worked at Planet Hollywood for five years. That was my major education. Sixth and Pike. Planet Hollywood was an adventure. We all know Planet Hollywood for what it was, which is really just touristy. And it was beyond its time already when I started there. Whoopi Goldberg wasn't showing up anymore, so they were kind of hemorrhaging money, and it was this massive, massive room. Management went to corporate and was like, "We have this huge space, and I want to make it into a nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights." And he got the okay, which was unheard of.
So, we started with, like, a house type of vibe. And then the people would show up with glow sticks, but no one would drink because they were high on ecstasy. We did that for two weeks. And at the time — this was like '99 — we were like, "We're going hip hop" and there were all these hip hop clubs but they would try to open and they'd get shut down over a weekend. But we had all this corporate backing. I mean, we were Planet Hollywood, and they couldn't shut us down. And within six months, we were the biggest hip hop club in Washington. It was huge, we were doing mad crazy numbers. And all of a sudden, all of us guys who were barely making it, we were raking it in and we were in the trenches every night, you know, because you're making 50 Midori sours at one time, and 30 Hennesey and Cokes.
It was like all these celebrities. Patrick Ewing was there every week, all the Sonics, A-Rod was there all the time. It was a thing. And then we were shut down. It went out of business, the corporation. It was over. But we were all like ,"We'll just get a new job." But that was September 9, 2001. And then September 11 happened, and then after that, there were no jobs. For like two years. Luckily, we were laid off, so we got unemployment.
So, the promoters (who had run Planet Hollywood) were opening a new club, and to make a long story short, they ended up running the biggest ecstasy ring on the west coast. And all our phones were being tapped, and we were never called in. The FBI and DEA had tabs on us, but they knew we didn't know anything.
And after that, I worked at the Firehouse, which was the worst job I've ever had. I won't go in to detail.
Then Ponti, which was funny. And to be in fine-dining from starting where I did, well...I had real short hair, tie, the whole thing. Anyway, the reason I always worked for restaurants, as opposed to bars, was because I needed to have Fridays and Saturdays off for gigs.
I was at Ponti for about a year. That was around 2005-2006, when (Ocho owner) Zack (Harjo) started at La Carta, Matador opened, and Ballard started to go through its first metamorphosis and departed the sleepy side of its world. It was kind of the germination process of Ocho, when the cocktail culture was popping up.
How did you meet Zack?
I had known Zack since I was 12-years old. We met in junior high. We were buds by high school, you know, but we were a little trepidacious of one another in junior high, cuz junior high sucked.
I had been in Wasilla, Alaska. That's where I grew up. That's where Sarah Palin's from. We were neighbors. When I left, she was Ms. Wasilla, but I didn't know that until much later.
Then, I was at Chow Foods. I worked at Atlas in U-Village.
You know that movie Waiting? They nailed it. I worked at Atlas and they were slammed from 8 am to 3 pm, but they had healthcare and so I worked floor shifts, too, because of that.
After that all, I vowed never to work anywhere with any sort of dress code at all. When I worked at Planet Hollywood, I wore a short sleeve button down with all sorts of stuff on it, like planets and rockets. It was awful.
Do you still have it?
No, we burned those things the day we got layed off. It was awesome.
So, then after Atlas, I had to go on tour (with Sera Cahoone). I was gone for three months and they couldn't hold my job, so I had to quit. That was 2008. I spent that summer on the road, not making any money, really.
And, that started a trajectory of two things: The music sort of taking precedent over other things, at maybe the detriment to my livelihood, and me coming to this place. Because that was exactly when Ocho opened. And Zack saved a shift for me, or he had one for me, but I thought it was too close. Everyone I knew worked here.
*Fun fact: Owner Zack is a vegetarian, and though more meat has been incorporated into the menu since the original (which only had one chorizo dish), there will never be chicken on the menu. It's one of Zack's rules.
I came back from tour and went to Atlas and asked if they had my job still and they didn't. So, I worked at the High Life for about 6 months, which used to be the Firehouse, so, yeah, full circle. And during that six months, I did a lot of life searching.
I took Zack out for lunch and said "Look, bro, do you have anything for me? At all?" And he did, he had Sunday nights. And once I worked a couple months I thought, how did I wait so long to ask? And around then is when a lot of things started to happen for me with music, and I got the work with Mark Lanegan and others. So, yeah, a good year all around.
Obviously you think of making music as an art. What about making drinks?
I mean, traditionally I've thought of bartending as a job, as a means to facilitate other things. But Ocho has become kind of a family thing. And the way my life is structured, it's become so hectic. So I've started to think of this as actually very therapeutic. I feel very comfortable here. As soon as I walk out the door, it's all nuts. So, I come here to chill.
So how often are you here now?
I work two proper shifts. But this is the last one before I go on tour with Mark Lanegan for two months. I'm very lucky that I have that flexibility. (Saturday day and usually Sunday close).
Do you play with other musicians?
Yeah, I do this for a living. For tours, I've been with Amy Ray, she's one of the Indigo Girls. We made a record, which will come out in January 2014. I made a bunch of records this year, actually. Sera Cahoone, Star Anna, Mark Lanegan, Mark Pickerel. If there's gigs to play from those records, then if I can play, I will.
What's the weirdest/most awesome thing that has happened to you, music-wise?
I guess the weirdest/most awesome thing that has happened to me was the same. Duff McKagan called me up just randomly. I don't know how he got my number. I was really into comic books and rock and roll, and so all those guys were like super heros to me. They were kind of not real, and so to have one of those guys call me on the telephone, like, freaked my shit out. He had written an autobiography and was doing a book release and wanted people to play behind him. So, we would play interpretations of kind of what he was talking about. When he talked about the early days, we played acoustic versions of The Stooges. And then when he was talking about Guns 'n Roses, we played a low version "Paradise City" behind everything. And then he'd, like, pick up his bass and play "Sweet Child o' Mine." So now we're like buds [giggles]. He's one of the most genuinely nice guys ever.
What is it about Ocho that makes it so popular and unique?
I feel like, after working for years in restaurants, it was sort of the kitsch of it at some of those places. And after years of that, really terrible wells and sweet, sweet triple sec and all that...I really do feel like with Ocho, with Zack being an artist and me being an artist, I really do feel like this place was at the forefront of a lot of what's happening now. There was definitely something happening in Seattle, but there was never such a small place. People just didn't think to do that.
There's artistry here. And it's somewhat devoid of pretense, and it's authentic without being too?I don't know. It's still got kind of a rock 'n roll vibe to it.
What do you drink?
Beer, but also our margarita. I think it's the best margarita in town. It's just unadulterated, with the El Tesoro Anejo. And the Donkey Tongue. Tequila is so misunderstood, because people have memories of getting wasted on El Cuervo, and that's not really fair to it. It's a fine liquor.
What do you gravitate towards when you're in town?
I like the Tin Hat, Hattie's Hat, Canon. I really prefer a punk rock feel, just laid back.
What do you eat here? Elsewhere?
Everything is great, but I always gravitate toward the broccoli, the deviled egg is crazy awesome, there's always a great salad.
Eslewhere, Mexican food, especially burritos at El Camion. And Señor Moose. The Huevos Divorciados is so good. And Delancey. I'm so glad there's good pizza near me. Georgetown, too, I like the feel of it. Smarty Pants. I just really like sandwiches. The Honey Hole, Oddfellows. I wanna be a foodie guy, but I can't say that I am, because I'm not all about it.
— Julia Wayne is a freelance writer, Assistant Editor at Wetpaint, and former bartender.