Funk Soul Brother Sister
For the sibling owners of Iota Club & Café, life revolves around good coffee, good eats, good beer and great music.
Sitting down to talk with Iota owners Jane Negrey Inge and Stephen Negrey about their live-music-venue-turned-coffeehouse-turned-best-kept-secret-for-Clarendon-brunch (their breakfast bread pudding, made with artisan breads, scones and pastries, is addictive) can actually be a bit of a challenge. They don’t sit.
Jane, 58, is between interviews with prospective employees, and is eager to show off the new art hanging on the front porch. As the head barista for the club’s daytime coffeehouse, iotaday, Stephen, 45, keeps jumping up to pour espresso and steam milk for lattes. It’s 2 p.m. and the smell of gumbo wafts from the kitchen while the bartender checks the taps and cuts up limes behind the bar. Sound check for tonight’s show is at 6 p.m.
Get them chatting about music, though, and they both take a breather. Suddenly engrossed, Stephen describes Noam Pikelny’s new instrumental banjo album—which is filling the venue on this rainy weekday afternoon—as “the opera of bluegrass.” Jane rattles off the set list from the first time Ryan Adams graced Iota’s stage in 1997.
That passion, and their rapport, has kept the Yorktown High School grads and self-proclaimed “best friends” together in the music business in their hometown for 17 years. Iota has live music seven days a week and has billed the likes of John Mayer, Norah Jones, Jason Mraz and Rufus Wainwright.
Who are your favorite bands? What do you find yourself wanting to listen to over and over?
Stephen: Every now and then I say, “That band is in my top 100.” But I never make the list and I never put it in order. This day and age, there’s just so much great music.
Jane: I like it all. Before, I was a little more closed-minded and wasn’t big on country music. Then one of the most superb alt-country bands ever, Whiskeytown (founded by Ryan Adams), played here. Since then, country has become really important to me. Now I’m a big fan of stars like Lucinda Williams and Dale Watson.
Are you musicians yourselves?
J: I grew up playing the organ, the violin and then the guitar.
S: People ask me if I play an instrument, and I say ‘yeah.’ [He plays guitar.] People ask me if I’m a musician, and I say ‘no.’ I’ve written 200 to 300 songs over the years, and maybe two or three really halfway-decent ones.
You were always set on Arlington being the location for your music venue. Why?
J: We didn’t really want to go anyplace else. We both live within blocks of Iota. We love it here.
S: Whenever we have an amazing show, it’s exciting to think that we brought this talent or artist to our club—and, more importantly, to our community. This is home.
How do you divide up the responsibilities of owning the business together?
J: Now that we’ve expanded our hours, we both have to be more involved in the nitty-gritty. For example, he’s the barista right now, but he also does most of the booking and producing of the shows. I do a lot of business planning, but I’ve gotten more involved in operations as well, so right now I do the beer buying…which is a blast!
So you’re not writing each other memos.
J: Oh God, no. Whenever we talk about our roles, we’re reluctant to throw out a hard line. We share everything and it just works out. We spend a good part of our day talking about music, who to book, what beers to add, how to develop the coffee business.
Live music is a business for night owls—but now you’re running an early-morning coffee shop too. Do you ever sleep?
S: We’re both here by about 7:30 a.m., seven days a week.
Are there any big-name stars you’d love to book who are out of reach?
J: It’s not really like that. It’s more about what’s going on in music right now, who’s touring, who’s got a new CD. We’re interested in our customers seeing a really good show, and no matter the genre, we want them to be very glad they walked in our door.
What’s the most outlandish demand you’ve ever had from a band or act?
S: We’re aware of the folklore surrounding musician requests, but we’ve been able to work with their requests just fine.
J: They are hungry, and Iota Band Pasta cures all ills. Band Pasta is on our menu too.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received about the club?
J: Some people have said, ‘I would move away if it weren’t for Iota.’ Now that’s a real mind-blower right there.
You’ve seen some dramatic changes in Arlington growing up here. What do you think about its transformation?
J: We have the Metro, we have the new Capital Bikeshare and there are lots of people out walking around, so it’s great. We really want Clarendon to do well. We’ll do well if Clarendon does well.
Some say the “old Clarendon” was funkier. Are all the newcomers to the neighborhood coming in to see live music? Are they your demographic?
S: We offer so many different genres of music that we’re multi-demographical. We have regulars for indie rock, alt-country, straight country, power pop, chamber rock, bluegrass and straight-up rock and roll shows. We have a lot of different people coming to see a lot of different shows.
Rebecca Cooper is a freelance writer covering food, real estate and other topics throughout the Washington, D.C. region. She lives in Rosslyn.