The Cog Factory lives on in the memories of the hundreds (if not thousands) of people who worked, performed and hung out there. We spoke to those very people, including those that ran the venue.
Robb Rathe opened The Cog Factory in 1994. His art projects were outgrowing his basement, and he wanted somewhere to showcase his art and let his friends’ punk bands perform, as he told The World-Herald when the venue closed in 2002.
Rathe: “My art got taller than my ceiling would allow, and my friends’ band got louder than my neighbors would allow. It wasn’t intended to be a commercial business operation. I kind of wanted to prove that money didn’t have to exist in order to justify something like that operating.
“I tried to use that place to prove the underground sense of the music scene to kids. I want to see kids having fun at shows just like I did when I was a kid. I enjoy punk rock music. I don’t care about getting paid; I like to see kids having fun.”
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For awhile, Frontier Trust was something of the house band of the Cog Factory. The band used the Cog Factory as its practice space, and therefore spent a ton of time in the dingy venue, said Gary Dean Davis, Frontier Trust’s frontman, co-founder of Speed! Nebraska Records and now an elementary school principal.
Davis: “When Robb Rathe opened it, we were kind of the house band. We were working hard at trying to get good. There would be a show, and the band that was playing would be like you wanna play at the show too? It was certainly a godsend for us because of that.
“It was wonderful for what it did for our scene — to have a club that all-age kids can go to and all-age bands can play at and don’t get hassled by people that want to run a bar.”
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Chris Esterbrooks performed at The Cog with the Carsinogents and saw many more bands there as a fan.
Esterbrooks: “It was a pretty basic room. It had no great heating or AC. Pretty crummy bathrooms. But it was a good place. I feel like it existed to have the bands play where there was nowhere else for them to go.
“It was feast or famine. Only 10 people would be there, or it would be jam packed with 150 or so.
“Any band had the opportunity. They could play a show there. That was a real positive thing. I don’t think the music scene in Omaha has seen anything like it since. The Ranch Bowl was kind of the nemesis. It was hard to get shows at the Ranch Bowl. They had a different mentality and I don’t blame them. They were there to make money.”
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Chris Harding Thornton worked the door at The Cog, made coffee, handed out earplugs, ran sound and pretty much everything else — all as a volunteer. Harding Thornton: “From early 1996 through the end of 1999, I may have been at Cog Factory as many nights as I wasn’t, so a lot of the actual shows are a blur. I volunteered to help out for roughly two and a half years and then did booking for a short while, when that involved long distance charges and an answering machine. I still had a rotary phone.
“For a good chunk of that time, I lived about three blocks away, and I had no TV, so I’d walk up there to work the door and watch the bands. I wasn’t necessarily totally altruistic in volunteering. I really liked to see bands and didn’t have any money.”
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Drinking and drug use weren’t allowed at The Cog. It was an all-ages venue, and for it to stay open and away from the scrutiny of the police and other watching eyes, everything had to be on the up and up.
Zack Link, guitarist for System Failure, told The World-Herald in 2002 that everyone was on the lookout for violations of the policy.
Link: “Anytime somebody would show up with alcohol or drugs, basically the whole place would tell him to get out of there because everybody knew that if one person messed up, they were going to mess things up for everybody.”
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Davis said Rathe was, if not feared, greatly respected by the patrons of The Cog. He would happily give people their cover charge money back and kick them out of the venue if they crossed the line.
Davis: “Kids weren’t doing drugs and there was no drinking going on there. Because of that, well it’s giving kids something to do.”
Rathe: “The only thing to keep that place going was to keep it clean. We were militant about it. I don’t care what you do, but go somewhere else to do it or you’ll ruin it for all of us.”
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Jim Minge, a World-Herald reporter from 1995 to 2000, saw countless concerts at The Cog, but he’ll always remember Wesley Willis, whom he called “a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic from Chicago who made music that had its own genre.”
Minge: “I saw Willis’ spring 2000 performance there, when he was starting to create a mild buzz on the back of Rick Rubin’s American Recordings. Willis ... was known musically for his humorous but honest lyrics accompanied by the same auto-tune riff from his over-the-counter Technics electronic keyboard.
“He sang songs with titles like ‘Jello Biafra,’ ‘Alanis Morissette’ and ‘Kurt Cobain,’ which were brief ditties where Willis repeated each song’s namesake and “sang” about how they could ‘really whip a horse’s ass.’ The dude was an odd bird, but that’s what made him so likable. And so approachable.
“After that Cog Factory performance in 2000, Willis sat off from the stage and greeted fans that lined up to get a headbutt. That was his thing. ‘Say “rock,”’ he told us. ‘Say “roll”’ he instructed. Then came the friendly headbutt. It wasn’t like a Jean-Claude Van Damme headbutt – more like a buddy bump. But it was hard enough that there was a dozen or so of us walking out onto Leavenworth Street afterwards rubbing our red-marked foreheads.
“‘Dang, that was kinda hard,’ we muttered.
“Willis died three years later from cancer. He was 40. I miss him. And I miss the Cog Factory. They both could really whip a horse’s ass.”
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The Cog Factory wasn’t in a very good neighborhood. Regular attendees remember it being a safe space, but it was across the street from a seedy bar.
Whipkey: “I saw some dudes have a knife fight across the street outside of the old Crosstown Tavern while we were playing basketball on makeshift hoop on a light pole on Leavenworth. ... I think those knife fights were a daily occurrence.”
Davis: “The Crosstown, that was a bad scene. I’ll never forget the sound of a human skull being bounced off the pavement.”
Rathe: “It was such a delicate relationship with the city. The city didn’t really understand. There was a little bit of looking the other way with us. We had a couple police officers on our side, too.”
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It seemed like everything at The Cog Factory was always about to fall apart.
Harding Thornton: “Sometimes I did sound, though I had no idea what I was doing. I just turned everything up as loud as possible until it hit feedback, then nudged the knobs down a smidge. I did other duties as assigned. When one of the inputs was shot on the PA, my job was to really quickly unplug the jack, spit on it, and then plug it back in. I had to do that through someone’s entire half-hour or so set.
“That was kind of how the place was, in a nutshell. Everything was rigged to get us through that particular evening. The furnace was terrifying. The plumbing had some kind of teleportation thing going on that was pretty eerie. And if you tested forty mic cords before the show, two might work.”
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Thad Steady, who ran the Cog for several months after Rathe moved to Portland, Oregon, told The World-Herald in 2002 that the venue never made money.
Steady: “A lot of times we were in the hole for the month, so the month after that, (any) money would go to the month before. If we needed paper towels, somebody would go to the store and spend their own money on it.
“It meant a lot to me. I made all my friends there. We had similar tastes in music, we had similar values. You could be yourself.”
Davis: “The Cog Factory was never trying to make money. If five people came, you still got paid for those five people. It might be $4, but you got paid.”
Omahan Keith Binder played in bands, and he saw dozens of big-time bands before they went onto bigger things.
Binder: “My first show I ever played at Cog Factory, I was 14 and in a terrible metal-core band, and we opened for a 16-year-old kid named Conor Oberst and an ‘older dude’ named Simon Joyner. There were maybe 20 people there at the most. It was nice back in those days because shows were mixed genres.
“I booked Desaparecidos’ second or third show ever and their first show at Cog, they opened for The Appleseed Cast and some other bands that were less memorable. I’ve seen Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint several dozen times playing to rooms of 10 to 20 people, and it was a great time to be into independent music.”
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Harding Thornton remembered the night The Faint went from being a guitar-focused indie band to being the band we all know now: Careening electronic rock full of heavy guitars and lots of new wavy keyboards. She knew something was up when frontman Todd Fink asked her to borrow a keyboard.
Harding Thornton: “Keyboards were still pretty much verboten in bands with guitars. We were all still scarred by the runoff of keyboards’ and the saxophone’s influence on mainstream music in the late ’80s, I think.
“Anyway, so they walked in that night, and I’m not going to swear by my memory, but here is how I remember it: They were all wearing black, which was not normal. Not common. And they weren’t really talking to anyone. They were being very focused, very conscious of setting up, kind of evasive. The crowd, which was substantial, was buzzing with fairly quiet, nervous confusion. The scene was not unlike the initial gathering around the monolith in ’2001: A Space Odyssey.’
“Then The Faint got up there, and they launched into their first song. I have zero recollection of what song it was. I just remember standing in the sound booth and that whatever happened was very, very loud. Very jarring. And danceable. It was extremely loud, abrasive and danceable. Which was absurd. No one did that. And if I recall correctly — I probably don’t — they got through one song, everyone replied with stillness and shock, not knowing what the hell just happened, what they just saw, so The Faint launched into the next song with a loud pound of a noise, and then — snap — silence. They’d blown up the system. They’d just blown it up. All in the room knew they’d seen something strange and surreal and momentous, and that whatever (happened) was too much for the circuitry. The Faint had just blown everything up. It was ridiculously metaphorical.”
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Though many remember the building, including Rathe’s steel art furniture and the barely working (sometimes not working) bathroom, most recall the friends they made.
Esterbrooks: “The Cog, you hung around and met people. It was a community. All your best friends from school were in one spot. I remember going to shows not caring about who played, but you saw 10, 15, 20 of your friends. When it was fun, it was really fun.”
Rathe is humble about the effect The Cog had on Omaha’s scene and Saddle Creek Records. In his view, the scene would be alive and well in Omaha without the Cog Factory.
Rathe: “It’s easy to paint that story, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily true. If they had raw talent, it was gonna happen regardless. I met Conor Oberst when he was 10, and he was a ... genius. That guy could live in the desert, and he’d be a rock star.
There were way more people who saw shows there than were in bands. The biggest impact was on the memories of people. The question is, ‘Are you getting people involved that otherwise wouldn’t be involved?’ I think that’s true.”