Since opening in October 2013 in the former Mr. Fred’s Beds space in West Asheville, The Mothlight has brought a steady stream of acclaimed indie rock and experimental music to town, and provided a home for numerous local artists.
Then, on June 18, venue owners Amanda and Jon Hency revealed via social media that they were permanently closing their Haywood Road venue. The couple cited industrywide challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a shift in personal and professional perspectives after becoming parents to two sons. Since making the announcement, they’ve been met with an outpouring of love from an appreciative community, along with support for a difficult but thoroughly thought-through decision.
Setting the stage
“It began before COVID of just, ‘How can we pivot? How can we either hand over our responsibilities and be doing other jobs so that our lives are more on a family-friendly schedule? Or is it better to try and sell the business? Or is a better option to turn the business into something more sustainable for our lifestyle?’ Those were just the conversations we had been having for a long time,” Amanda says.
“And we had basically come to the conclusion that we wanted to try replacing ourselves and handing over those responsibilities because that just seemed like the least painful transition — to see if that was sustainable before making any more drastic moves.”
In early March, the Hencys recruited close friend and employee Lewis Dahm to start taking on more duties. Shortly thereafter, they and music venue owners across the country were forced to temporarily close as quarantine orders were implemented in hopes of slowing the coronavirus’s spread. Now, as industry members look for paths back to normalcy and some businesses reopen with half-capacity limits alongside copious safety measures, the Hencys feel that it would be extremely difficult for anyone to maintain The Mothlight with reduced attendance and decimated booking options.
“If every night was full 50%, we would have been fine, but there’s just no schedule to fill because people aren’t able to tour. If we had 75 metal fans in here every night, we’d be fine. We’d make it. But there’s no schedule. We can only do so many game nights and local bands — and I love my game nights — but I don’t think that that’s going to pay the bills,” Amanda says. “It just kind of felt like this is a ‘pause’ button that doesn’t have a clean ‘play’ button.”
(Ziggy) Stardust memories
Looking back on when The Mothlight was in full “play” mode, the Hencys understandably have a difficult time picking from among the space’s plentiful standout moments. One performance that Jon — who was involved in booking every show in the 300-person-capacity venue — says “kind of set the tone” for their business occurred in its opening months when members of Magnolia Electric Co. and Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor played one of only four tribute shows to Magnolia’s late frontman, Jason Molina.
Local artists likewise provided substantial thrills, including instrumental duo Ahleuchatistas playing to a packed house for a record release show; rockers Nest Egg refusing to turn off their fog machine (resulting in the fire alarm going off, a visit from the fire department and “a big fine” — all of which the Hencys now joke about with the band’s Jamie Hepler); and various appearances from Floating Action, whose music came on at random the day after posting the big announcement and provided Jon a welcome trip down memory lane.
“They’re good friends of ours, and all these emotions came through of Floating Action shows, and that moved into Coconut Cake shows — Michael Libramento [and his Congolese rumba band] — and then it moved to stuff outside of local stuff from there, like the world music we brought in. And I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know! This was a pretty cool place,’” Jon says with a laugh.
“Maybe Floating Action was kind of the perfect soundtrack for me having the time to reflect. I was working on some other stuff and other music was playing, and when that kicked on, all these memories started flooding back in. It was a beautiful thing. I’m glad to have experienced that.”
Free jazz groups from Chicago and New York City also brought Jon great joy. On those nights, he would be sure to work the door and run sound, and while anywhere from 10-40 people would typically attend, he feels that shows like it — and experimental nights that Tashi Dorji, Tom Nguyen and friends organized — established The Mothlight as a venue unafraid to push boundaries. With some booking overlap with other Asheville venues, but nobody doing quite what The Mothlight was doing, Jon thinks it could take an as-yet-existing music space to carry their torch.
“In a dreamlike world, in 2021, spring/summer, we’ll be out of this. There’ll be a new venue and it’ll just be picked right back up,” he says. “That’s the dream-case scenario for me — it’s just passed on to someone else. Someone else does it. Because [the supply and demand is] there — if we can get out of [challenges caused by the COVID shutdown]. Get a 200-300 cap room and we’ll be good.”
Jon’s diverse programming further extended to local fringe art shows (e.g. puppeteering from Keith Shubert and Madison J. Cripps); Xpress film critic Casey Ellis’ movie trivia nights; the Carolina Anarchist Bookfair; the West Asheville Tailgate Indoor Holiday Market; several friends’ weddings; and Urban Combat Wrestling, the brainchild of local hip-hop icon Davaion “Spaceman Jones” Bristol.
“[UCW] was honestly one of my favorite crowds,” Amanda says. “Every night has its own feel, and that crowd was just so high-energy, but so positive,” Amanda says. “Everyone was in on the fun, also in on the joke. And the mix of rap artists in between wrestling is just brilliant.”
For their post-Mothlight lives, Amanda is two semesters away from earning her teacher’s certification from UNC Asheville and will begin student teaching in August, hopefully at a West Asheville elementary school. Meanwhile, Jon has become passionate about carpentry — which he calls “banging nails” — and is working with their friend Jim Schmidt to transform the family-owned building into its next iteration. The Hencys envision a combination of artist studio spaces and possibly a retail space, a 50-capacity bar and a revamped kitchen, and are open to ideas from people who want to be a part of the project. But after making such a substantial difference in the lives of so many musicians, are they truly done with being music venue owners?
“Who knows?” Jon muses. “The way that we’re going to build these walls, it’s not like it’s going to be permanently fixed. Maybe in 10 years it’s like, ‘It’s a good idea! Let’s knock ’em down and get it back — get the good days back.’ So, I’ll leave that as a ‘maybe,’ because you never know.”