There it is. The Rock House. Smack dab in the middle of what’s considered old downtown Glenview in a location that is becoming a hub of activity for music, art, and theater lovers.
The Rock House is a place that draws in different folk for different reasons.
For me, it’s a mid-morning writer’s sanctuary where I order green tea and purchase house-roasted coffee in bulk. For my daughter, it’s a place to take guitar lessons and sing karaoke with friends on Friday nights. It’s a place for casual business meetings. It’s a rollicking weekend Honky Tonk. It’s a place where I have seen ladies in dark sunglasses sneak in after an exercise class to rendezvous with Bon Jovi–one of the mouthwatering gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches on the café menu.
Maybe it’s got something to do with the playlist that features music from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s; but when the nearby school lets out, The Rock House turns into a modern day dimestore: Middle schoolers with frappes instead of cherry phosphates in one hand, cell phones in the other, eyeing their crushes from across the room and sharing secrets between friends.
I sit in an old church pew, re-purposed as seating in the café, waiting for inspiration to strike. It doesn’t take long for my words to start to flow. In the background I hear songs that define my childhood, songs that I have not heard for decades, but nonetheless can sing by heart.
Songs that played on the AM radio in my family’s station wagon. Songs from my mom’s high school collection of 45s. Songs that made up the jukebox catalog at the Moose Lodge and the VFW and Wayne’s City Lanes in my hometown. Songs with a slight twang and a bluesy undercurrent and honest vocals–The grassroots of classic rock ‘n’ roll.
And within this cozy space, amidst my musical nostalgia and the backdrop of a bare stage, a creative kinship with my surroundings has formed.
It’s local. It’s authentic. It’s a lot like its multi-faceted owner Chris Karabas:
Family man. Frontman. Recording Artist. Songwriter. Talent Rep. A fill-in guitar instructor who sparked my daughter’s interest in B.B. King and showed her that music lessons could be FUN.
He and his business partner, Rob Mueller, have locked into something special with their Rock House concept, providing both Glenview and Wilmette with a place to gather ’round and get your drink on.
In the following interview, Chris tells us about his background, his many creative outlets, and his vision for bringing the community together through music. He is my most enthusiastic (and talkative) interviewee to date. A man of many words. And thank goodness for that.
When you meet him, you think Nashville. Read on and find out why!
Rockin’ and Roastin’
Q: What is The Rock House? CK: It’s a lot of things! Ostensibly it’s a music school with an attached espresso/wine bar that has a stage for live music. Beyond that it’s a place for the community to come together. It’s where new friendships are created and there’s a sense of old fashioned social networking.
Q: Where did this coffee concept come from? Is it in your Greek genes? CK: Well, I’m half Irish so I guess that’s why the beer found it’s way onto the menu, too! The coffee shop idea came to me when I heard a Springsteen song as a kid, called “Rosalita.” In it, he says “there’s a little cafe where they play guitars all night and all day…You can hear I’m in the back room strummin’.” Since hearing that song in the ’70s I wanted to have a place like that.
Q: What are your biggest challenges of being a local business owner? CK: You know that mildy stressful feeling you have when you’re hosting a dinner party? Well, that’s every day. Each day, hundreds of people we know come into the shop. We want it to be perfect. But you know nothing is perfect…So there’s that sort of pressure when something goes wrong. We have a tremendous staff, but everyone makes a mistake now and then…and when that mistake happens, it’s likely happening to someone we know. The good part is: We have the most loyal and supportive customers EVER. They understand; therefore, over the years that pressure has dissolved to a great degree.
Q: Rock House stands in stark contrast to Starbucks/Big Coffee in terms of vibe/atmosphere–Is this intentional or is it just a natural extension of your personal style and musical interests? CK: Without Starbucks there’d likely be no Rock House Cafe. Starbucks created the notion of going to a separate shop to get your coffee. However, as they grew, it turned into a factory. The customer experience was awful. You’d get in line with tons of merchandise begging for your attention…I always felt coffee, if it’s part of your daily life, should be one of the best parts of your day. So I wanted to create a place that was cozy… interesting…something that would wrap its arms around you when you’re there.
Rise & Grind
On this website I blog about living with purpose and following one’s passions. Q: How does your life/work reflect these principles? CK: My loves are: Family. Friends. Community. Music. My life is full of all of these things on a daily basis.
Q: You seem to be juggling many different creative and business ventures right now. Was this always your plan? CK: I’m notorious for not planning. I think I just have a big appetite for things I enjoy and figure out a way to fit them all in.
Q: Did one project naturally lead to the next? CK: In regards to my music, my focus shifted from being a recording artist, to being a writer. I still enjoy playing live; but writing is my true love. My focus became finding representation in Nashville for my song catalog, which I’ve done.
With respect to The Rock House, in the back of my mind, I always wanted a place where people could come together with music as the core reason. The coffee shop aspect seemed to be a natural fit. A coffee shop with music is not a new idea. It’s just an idea that needed reviving and I’m glad we did it.
Q: Currently, what is your main focus? CK: As always: Family. Nothing comes before that. I have another business representing film directors in Hollywood and London which requires my day-to-day attention; but I love doing it. I feel fortunate that it rarely affects my family life.
Q: Are you an entrepreneur/businessman who happens to be a musician/songwriter? Or is it the other way around? CK: While I have yet to make a living from it, I’m a songwriter. I feel most comfortable when I’m in the company of other writers. With the exception of being with my family, I’m most happy when I’m sitting at a piano, or with a guitar, writing a song. Every occupational decision I’ve made has been made with the thought of “Will this job allow me the freedom and time to continue to write music?”
Q: How do you define success? CK: Having the flexibility to attend my children’s various school functions, sporting events, etc., without allowing “work” to get in the way.
Q: What can you tell us about your experience with music in general? How does it relate to The Rock House? CK: The Rock House was created largely out of my experience with music. Ask almost any adult and they’ll say, “I used to take piano or guitar lessons.” However, few adults actually still play. The reason is, I think, their experience was horrible. So I thought, if we could teach kids in a way that was exciting, we’d retain them…and they’d grow up to be capable musicians.
I think traditional music lessons are geared for making GREAT musicians…I think there is a lot of joy to be had from being an average musician. I am a self-taught piano/guitar player. I’m average. However, I’ve had a record deal, I perform with a great band to full houses, and live music on a daily basis. I think I’ve gotten more out of music than most people who can read music. I learned that if we took my approach to music, and mixed it with some traditional elements of teaching, that would be a great combination. And that is what The Rock House Method is all about.
Q: How do you see Rock House in 5 years, 10 years? CK: With some luck, we’ll have several brick and mortar locations with a healthy wholesale coffee business.
Q: You and your business partner, Rob Mueller, have a long and storied history together. How/When did this cross-collaboration start? CK: Rob and I worked together at a film company for a few months. Through that, we learned about our shared interest in music. So he and I started a band with some advertising guys. Years later, we were each reps for film directors: Competitors. I remember chatting him up, saying, “Let’s do this together.” He was thinking the same thing, so it happened quickly. Then one day at our office I asked him, “What do you think about starting a music school?” With equal speed that happened and it all grew from there. It’s been a great partnership all the way around. We’re having a blast. And our wives work together, too, which is nice. While Rob and I are working on our film biz, we know The Rock House is keeping that family vibe.
Q: Is the neighborhood concept in keeping with your business model? Or is it merely a function of where you are raising your kids? Do you have plans to expand into other towns/neighborhoods? CK: Absolutely. We exist for families. We like that we’ve helped revive the old parts of downtown Wilmette and Glenview. We like “old,” it has soul. The trick to growing will be maintaining our soul. I feel my heart and soul is in each Rock House location, as does my partner. But there’s no way to continue that if we expand. So I feel, when we do expand, we need to find someone who is a part of the neighborhood, the way I am, so each Rock House will have that “locally owned” feel. My partner and I are both musicians with wives who are active in the communities. I think each Rock House should have that. That way we can enjoy the benefits of franchising without losing the soul of what we’ve created.
A Cup of Inspiration
As a fellow writer, I am really interested in your craft. Q: When did you write your first song? CK: College. “Everybody’s Got Their Troubles.” Original idea, I know!!!
Q: As a songwriter, what is your process? CK: I sit down with a guitar and start picking some chords. Lyrics or melody at the same time usually; but I’m working on trying different methods that might help me be more prolific.
Q: Where/when are you most creative/productive? CK: I don’t have the luxury of writing whenever I want, so it tends to be when the kids are all asleep. I used to write during the day which seemed to bear the most fruit for me; but with kids, I don’t like to sacrifice time with them for writing, so I do it all at night now.
Q: Do you draw from personal experience or from universal truths about Life, Love, Loss, etc.? CK: I try to be honest whenever I’m writing. I have changed since I was a teenager. But when I write, I put myself in my shoes at various stages in my life. When I write songs for a younger crowd, I write the truth as I knew it at that time of my life. When you’re married, you don’t write about a first date obviously, so you have to dig in and remember what that felt like. There are also times I can write from someone else’s point of view; but even then I try to draw from real emotions I’ve had, even if the situation is one that’s foreign to me. One of my favorite songs is one I wrote about a girl I knew who was dating a man, and she learned he was married…Obviously, I have never been in that situation but was able to find an angle in that story that I could write about.
Q: Has your music/style changed over the years or is it firmly rooted in its original incarnation? CK: My perspective has changed over the years, for sure. As an adult, I’ve become a much more interesting writer, I think. The irony is, radio is looking for stuff that is more on the shallow side, topically. Like partying, chasing girls etc…
Q: Are there any songwriters that have influenced your style in particular? CK: Willie and Bruce.
Q: Have you discovered anything new about songwriting along the way? CK: Every time I sit down to write I learn something. The one thing I learned in Nashville was not to wait for inspiration. Do it every day. It’s like a muscle…You have to keep training it for it to get stronger.
Q: How do you set your songs apart from others? CK: Current country music largely ignores the adult market. To me, adulthood brings about much more meaningful subject matter than drinking and dancing and chasing girls. The issues we deal with make for great songs. I think if a record label focused on that demographic; they might be surprised to see a new audience, which has been largely ignored.
Q: Do you have a signature style? CK: I lost my record deal because I sounded too similar to Springsteen. I don’t think I’m half as good; but I’ve heard that comparison a lot.
Q: Do you write with other vocalists in mind? CK: Sure. When writing material I plan to pitch to country artists, I often have one in mind. I recently wrote a song “Ain’t Flyin’ Full Staff Anymore,” which is a politically-themed patriotic anthem that Toby Keith would be ideal for.
Q: What do you do when you get stuck writing? CK: My version of “stuck” is a bit different. In my mind there are always a handful of ideas begging for my attention. The hard part is focusing on one. Song ideas are like kids: They all want attention…and they WILL get it. Whether it’s in the middle of the night or when I’m in the shower, the songs do find a way of getting my attention.
Q: What has been your best musical moment as a performer and/or songwriter to date? CK: As a performer, whenever the curtain at House of Blues opens and the place is packed: That’s a great feeling.
CK: As a writer: Recently I’ve had a couple songs being closely considered by Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton. They eventually turned them down; but knowing that I’m writing songs that are considered at that level is a great feeling. It lets me know I’m on the right track.
Q: Who are your musical influences/inspirations? CK: Elvis made me want to sing. Springsteen made me want to be a performer. Willie Nelson made me want to be a writer.
Q: Do you have a creative muse? CK: It changes. When it comes to writing songs for other artists, I have to step into the shoes of another person. It’s like acting. Country radio wants songs that appeal to kids in their teens, so when writing for them, I have to remember what that’s like. It’s a challenge; but that’s what good writers do. You have to remember their insecurities, their priorities, and their overall carefree attitude and ability to PARTY! haha. In terms of music I write for myself: When I was younger my muse was the girl I couldn’t have. Now it’s the girl that I do.
Q: Do you have a mentor? CK: After being away from the Nashville Scene for many years, I went back there to record some new songs I wrote. I hired a drummer, Eddie Bayers Jr. He was the Country Music Association’s Drummer of the Year for over 10 years in a row. Upon hearing my songs, and playing on them, he took an active role in getting me back into the network of Nashville. Through his introductions and support, I now have people I can run ideas off of. My song publisher, Janie, is great about that. She’s worked with a lot of country legends so I respect her opinion immensely. Also, the session guys I use. They play on all the hit records, so I always turn to them for advice.
Good to the Last Drop
Q: Where did you grow up? Where have you been? Where will you end up? CK: I grew up in Des Plaines. Lived in Chicago and Nashville. I’ll end up in Wilmette, where I currently live. I would love to have a place somewhere warm and another in the mountains…But ideally: A home in Hawaii, next door to Willie Nelson. That’d be ideal.
Q: Best concert experience? CK: Through a crazy set of circumstances I was in KC for a Springsteen show. I was hanging out in the arena during the day, visiting a friend. I was sitting in the stadium waiting for him when, all of the sudden, the band took the stage. There I was, in the front row, watching a private show for 90 minutes as the band did sound check. It was mind blowing.
Q: What is your all-time favorite recording in terms of artistry/arrangement? CK: I’d say the album Born to Run. It’s like a movie.
If you had three wishes:
Q: Who would you like to work with? CK: Willie Nelson.
Q: Who would you like to have coffee with? CK: The customers that come to The Rock House.
Q: Who would you like to jump on stage with? Springsteen and Willie.
Q: Defining moment in your professional life? CK: In my film career: I’d say negotiating the most lucrative deal in advertising history at the time. I represent Woody Allen, and secured the largest fee for any director/celeb doing a commercial. It made industry news and we had a good time working on that.
Q: Life lessons learned? CK: Don’t take crap from anyone.
Q: Do you have a motto or philosophy that guides you? CK: I truly believe if you’re not pursuing your dream, you’re helping someone else pursue theirs.
Q: What is your end game? CK: I think I’m living it. I’m doing a lot of things, all of which I love. I can’t imagine formulating a plan that would change that.
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