A Conversation with Carmel Ophir

By Valentina Simon

Rumors around The Vagabond’s owner, Carmel Ophir, opening a new bar soon have been flying high. That being said, we thought it would be appropriate to publish on the web an interview previously printed by Alley Times – the one and only interview to date where Carmel shares any info on the new project, Barfly.

 First, please say your name and what you do.

My name is Carmel Ophir, and…well…I still don’t know what I’m gonna do when I grow up.

How was your summer?

It was hot; it was a hot one, literally. There were some exciting things that happened in the neighborhood. There was a two-month filming of ‘Rock of Ages’ with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Katherine Zeta-Jones. It was exciting to see Hollywood take a chance on Miami. It was exciting to see Hollywood invest in a full neighborhood set-design transformation. And it was really exciting to be right in the nerve center of it all; seeing it built, seeing the actual filming take place, being part of it within the set design. And working in conjunction with not only the Hollywood production team, but also a fantastic working relationship with the City. It was just a great marriage and I hope to see more of those happen.

What is your favorite Rolling Stones album?

Oh wow…that’s a tough one, but I have to say, Exile on Main Street. Followed by a close 2nd and 3rd by Sticky Fingers and Let it Bleed. But Exile…That’s the one! So raw, such a great back-story to how the album was made…You can definitely tell that it was Keith’s album.

So, what’s your favorite city in the world?

Would it be blasphemy if I didn’t say Miami? Ummm. [long pause]

I think that the notion of a favorite really depends on the quality of life. And with that, I have to say that it’s, hands down, Miami. I’m not playing it safe by any means, but there is a certain thing about Miami that is hard to pin-point and really put your finger on. I think the combination of diverse cultures, the access point hub of Latin America brings it an amazing cultural flavor. The burgeoning art scene that continues to grow and flourish; the beautiful sea, sun and sand that’s in our back yard; and an ever-present feeling of freedom in the bohemian sense. There are so many choices to explore in this city, in this environment, more than most people know. I’ve lived in several cities. I grew up in New York, and they say that you can leave New York but you can never take New York out of you. I can attest to that. As a metropolitan city it’s unbeatable. Nothing anybody ever says or tries to convince will ever change that. Internationally, my favorite city is Jerusalem, Israel.  I also have to add, not a city, but the country of Costa Rica.

Why is that?

It’s one place that I’ve visited that you have the opportunity, the rare opportunity, to enjoy 360˚ of heaven and earth and surrounded by the purity nature.

What’s your favorite night at The Vagabond?

Hmmm…These are tough questions because it’s like asking me who my favorite child is. And no, I don’t have any children (laughs). Maybe I’ll respond this way: Tuesday’s ‘Stone Groove’ is the Soul of the Vagabond. Thursday’s ‘Shake’ is the locals salt of the Earth, it’s the ‘305’ ‘786’ feel of the club. Friday is the cutting edge, finger-on-the-pulse, fashion-forward vibe of the club in which we’re always looking ahead but making sure we pay tribute to where we came from musically. And Saturday is our theatrical, colorful celebration-of-life night with hosts ‘Back Door Bamby’. Depending on who you are and what you’re looking for, it’s generally an overall feeling of “home”.

Tell me, how did The Vagabond start?

I guess I should give a little back story. When I first landed on the shores of Miami Beach, back in ’89-’90, there was that feeling of freedom; that feeling of leaving the concrete jungle of New York, to arrive to open sky and incredible climate. A  feeling of a creative explosion that was just beginning happen. It was a diamond in the rough, and this is in ‘Old Miami Beach’, which is what it was called before being tagged as ‘South Beach’. What was wonderful about it was that it felt as if when you are in high school and your parents left you home for the weekend; you had the house to yourself so to speak. And if you can imagine, an entire little city, a little community as a whole feeling like that all the time, man it was absolutely incredible. As with anything though, things grow and evolve and sometimes take certain paths that some might not wanna go down. In my case it was about 2005-2006, I started to lose a sense of relatedness to South Beach. The physical structure was all there, but the direction was drastically changing. The ‘mom and pop’ type businesses, be it cafes, retail stores, etc. were soon being taken over by more corporate brands, so you lost a little bit of that community feel. In regards to the music and nightclub industry, it went from incredible dance rooms, to being taken over by tables and bottles service. That became the new trend and still is that way now.

So, when you lose the element of what it means to go out, to lose yourself, to leave your problems at the door, and then flip it around to becoming about what one looks like, how many bottles will be purchased, and just a general sense that you were pissing your money away, literally, only to feel that you were paying to be treated like crap…well, that just didn’t jive with me anymore. Although it was an economic floodgate for many of the businesses, through my eyes me, it lost something extremely special…it lost it’s soul. The cross demographic of crowds, the gay, straight, models, rockers, house-heads, and street vibe were being segregated and I just lost touch to my own town and industry that I loved so much. To be clear, I’m not knocking it by any means because these businesses are very successful, but on a personal level, the honeymoon was over. So, if you flash forward to around 2007, I had come full circle in a sense… When I first moved to Miami one of my first stomping grounds was on the mainland, the legendary ‘Fire and Ice’…It was just incredible…Alternative in every sense. The music was so different and the crowd was so real. So I came full circle, and I decided to seek spots and places that felt comfortable with. This spot kind of drew me. It was formerly a club called I/O, a place I used to hang out at a lot. When it closed and sat vacant for several month, my partners (Rodney Mayo and John Digweed) and I decided to throw the dice and begin the creative process of The Vagabond.

What we used to know as PS14 back in the day, and more recently as Max Fish and then Bar Black is closed. It is rumored that you may be developing that as a new project… Tell me a little bit about that.

Would you hate me if I didn’t give you a whole lot of feedback on that?

Say what you wanna say…

Yeah, it was PS14 and then Max Fish and then Bar Black. We’ve contemplated whether or not we wanted to take on that project. First and foremost there was a structural scenario that needed to be addressed in the sense that it was neglected for so long and kept in such bad shape that we needed to give it some ‘love’.  We’ve been working diligently on getting it to a good place structurally and in doing so we’ve gained a little bit of an attachment to it. So, here goes… We’ve decided that we’re going to move forward and develop the new project. We don’t have a specific date yet, I guess whenever it’s ready. The notion of a cool bar as a ‘watering hole’ gathering place versus a high energy club in which you kinda loose sight of the one-to-one is important. I love them both, but this will be a bit more on an intimate level with a strong focus on the relationship between live bands and the audience. Aside from that, the specific details are kind of in an organic process and growing in that way… What I can tell you is that there is a certain spirit in the air…an influential element from one of my favorite writer/poets, Charles Bukowski that’s taking me down that road. A true barfly… There, the cat’s out of the bag!

I read a lot of newspapers changing words, quotes, and content or concept of what people say. I understand that you’ve recently experienced that yourself with the closing of Bar Black. How do you feel about that?

My position is very simple. I just feel that if there is a story to be told or there is some journalistic component that is inquisitive, then report it as it is, and report it accurately. Period! Rather than trying to create some sensationalism out of something that doesn’t exist, whether is it through innuendo or whether it’s through embellishment. Miami is a funny place in that arena. In the case of my personal experiences recently, there really wasn’t much of a story, but it quickly turned into one. There were half-truths, misquotes, and blatant fabrications that were put out there, but when when the actual real story came out, nobody wanted to talk about it because it didn’t seem exciting enough. The notion that the Vagabond as an organization shut down Bar Black is a complete fallacy. It created a scenario in which social media and blogs got their rocks off by slinging shit our way because the writers of these articles wanted a soap-opera reality-show throw-down. It affected my staff morale, escalated to vandalism, and peaked with actual physical injury when someone threw a firework over the fence and landed in a customer’s shirt, burning his back.

The bottom line is this:

  1. Their lease was up in February 2011, and were operating on a month-to-month term.
  2. As a complete surprise, on June 29th the State of Florida DABT (Department of Alcohol, Beverage and Tobacco) shut them down for operating without a liquor license.

As it turned out, the liquor license was sold on April 1st and they were operating illegally for three months.  You’d think that would be something the press would report but I guess it was like, ‘Oh, that was the real reason?! Well, that’s not exciting.’ [laughs] It was more exciting to create this fake war that just didn’t exist. The irony is I like everybody that worked there and am actually very good friends with the guys that were under a management contract there. I just wanted you to clear the air with the people who didn’t know the truth. The fact is, I don’t think anybody really cares. I think it becomes something that’s hyped up for the moment while it’s on the radar, but that quickly subsides on to the next exciting, sensationalistic thing out there to chatter about.

How do feel about these publications writing things that weren’t true?

I think like anybody else would feel; a feeling of distrust. It simply puts me in a position to be selective with whom I discuss anything with.

In the future when you read these publications, are you gonna take them seriously?

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. I am a big believer, no matter what, even if I read something online on CNN, or Huffington Post, or I watch any channel on TV, that if I get one story, and if I’m REALLY interested in it I’m gonna look at three or four different sources to make sure I get a well-rounded perspective. You can have the same story told from many different perspectives, but assumptions are not stories. Emotional factors in journalism should never come into play when you are the reporter. What’s that famous line? “Just the facts ma’am”?

The Vagabond, Kill Your Idol, Sweat Records, Shake, Stone Groove…  I like to call these ‘The Band of Outlaws’. How do you call them? Why?

(Chuckles) Band of Outlaws… I like that!  We’re in the business of fun but we take our business very seriously. We put a lot of care and concern in the quality of anything that we put out there. More importantly, we all have a very deep rooted relationship in how we work together and the trust that we instill in each other. Outside of business we’re all friends and we’ve been friends for a very long time. We care about each other and look out for each other, support each other. I think that’s paramount, you know, it’s rare that you have that kind of privilege. I feel very privileged to be surrounded by amazing people and hope that I’m able to translate my experiences, my passions onto them as well.

Any life advice to people who want to follow in your steps?

You gotta love it. You really gotta love it. If you’re in it for being passionate about the love for the music industry, the hospitality industry…and can put up with the late nights, non-traditional hours, unorthodox lifestyle…then yeah, you are in the right place. But you really gotta love it, ultimately.

Are you here, on 14th street, every night?

Practically. Every day, almost every night, yeah. You know, a lot of people use the word “family.” It could sound cliche. The reality is that I use that in a very serious sense because I spend more time with my staff, my partners, colleagues, than I do with my own real family. I don’t know if that is a bad thing, per se, but it’s just the reality of it. They say your friends become family… Yes…if you’re lucky.

Tell me about the spirit of The Vagabond…and the spirit of the new project Barfly.

The Vagabond as a word, in layman’s terms is basically a bum, it’s a hobo. But in a more substantial sense, it’s one who wanders; one who is in search of, one who is never really home, but the journey itself is the home. When we were first building this out, what organically blossomed was a place for all the wanderers out there in the creative world, the music world and so on…that they have a place to call home. That’s really the spirit of what The Vagabond is. Barfly…ohhh, to be a fly on the wall and to observe and listen to other people’s conversations or observe people’s actions. What a thing that would be?

Barfly in its definition is one who is a bar regular. One who likes to sit at the bar and indulges in conversations that start sober and end up in a whole other arena from the intake. In the spirit of Charles Bukowski, an unapologetic alcoholic, cynic, author/poet who’s screenplay later became the movie ‘Barfly’ starring that Mickey Rourke. It is a semi-biographical story of him and it sort of captured the notion of one who wakes up sober, seeing life through those lenses, and how differently those lenses change under the influence. I think we know quite a few of those. There are a lot of barflies in Miami. Yeah, you’re sitting next to one. And many vagabonds too…