Though we’ve never spoken before, I’ve been a Clay Harper fan for years. His Fellini’s Pizza was a mainstay of my Little 5 Points hangout back in the ’80s, and the paella at his La Fonda Latina chain is simply out of this world. And did I mention he also happened to rock?
Perhaps better known today as one of Atlanta’s coolest independent businessmen, Harper has also played an influential role in the city’s alt-rock scene, first with iconic ’80s band The Coolies and later alongside Rob Gal (now better known for producing Sugarland) in Ottoman Empire. He and his brother Mark have also released several children’s records, and a few years ago he wrote/produced a critically acclaimed concept album featuring vocals from Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’s Kevn Kinney.
Now, Harper is about to release his first proper solo album in well over a decade, Old Airport Road, an eclectic collection of tunes that finds him surrounded by some of Atlanta’s coolest musicians. We recently spoke with the rockin’ restaurateur about food, music, money and the connection between them.
Tell me about your early interest in music.
My brother and I were really into music and always explored a bunch of new stuff. We used to see every punk band that came through the Agora Ballroom or wherever they happened to be playing. That’s what really inspired me. In the early ’80s, when Fellini’s first got started, we placed local music and then the local musicians started coming in to eat. I started making friends, and eventually started The Coolies with four other guys.
How did you get onto the restaurant path?
When I was 12 we moved to Carrollton from Philadelphia, and there was nothing to do there. It was a real culture shock. I wanted to make some money, so I got a job at a French restaurant in Carrollton as a busboy. I always tell my daughter, “Be careful where you work first, because you usually can’t shake it!” When I was 18 (circa 1977) I moved to Atlanta and worked at Franco’s Pizza, which was across from Brookwood Station. That was when I realized that I really liked the pizza business.
When did you start Fellini’s?
May 5, 1982. So we just had our 30th anniversary!
What was the Atlanta the music scene like when the Coolies first started out?
In a way, the vetting process was a lot harder back then. If you got a little record deal—even if you got on DB Records, which the Coolies were on—it was a big deal. Radio stations were more open to indie labels because there weren’t so many of them. If you got on a decent record label, radio stations were going to play it, people were going to write about you, and you were going to get some notoriety. You only had to be 18 to drink, so people who were more typically interested in music were able to enjoy it more. The 688 club was a hell of a scene. It was an exciting time, because people were interested in what was happening artistically, and this was a perfect venue to find your tribe.
Do you think being a part of that tribe fueled the success of your restaurants?
Actually, I think it was the other way around: The food helped the bands! I knew so many people from working at Fellini’s. When we got really popular, I think it was a snowball down the mountain on both sides. The band got popular and the restaurant got popular. Thank God…
The Coolies record Doug was a rock opera about a guy who steals a chef’s recipes and becomes a world-renowned celebrity. Did you envision yourself becoming this institution in the restaurant business?
No, it was a complete grassroots effort. We worked at restaurants at night, and took whatever money we made and bought three pieces of wood the next day. When we finally opened up, it was slow. Anne Boston from the Swimming Pool Qs lived next door and helped paint our sign, Tony Paris started writing about us in Creative Loafing, and it slowly started growing. But did I think it was going to become this? Hell no! I was going to go out of business in a couple of months and move to France. But then it became fun to open restaurants, and I’d get inspired when I saw a great new location.
How did your restaurant success benefit your music? It seems like it would be a relief not to worry about the financial side of the music business.
The financial success of the restaurant is a double-edged sword. Never in my life did I think of music as an avenue towards money. I just think of it as what I like to do. It’s very fulfilling to take an idea and take it to fruition that way, but I never had to worry about having to support myself. One time I started a 45-of-the-Month club with Cosmo Vinyl, who managed The Clash for a while, and the first one was named single of the month by MTV. This record company guy called me and I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if I made a pile of money doing this crap?!” Then I started fantasizing about it and, of course it didn’t happen. Now, I don’t think about money at all. To me, the success of a record is whether I like the way it came out or not.
What can you tell me about your new record?
I think it’s very good. It’s called Old Airport Road, and it’s been in the works for three years. On the last few records I’ve done, I’ve been more of a writer and producer rather than a performer. This is the first record I’ve done in years where I’m the singer. I worked with some great people, and nobody was interested in getting it done if it wasn’t done right, which took quite a bit of time. It’s somewhat eclectic—definitely a departure for me—and has beautiful songs with a despairing look at the world. It comes out on Terminus Records around the same time this article comes out, and it features guests such as Col. Bruce Hampton and blues singer Sandra Hall. I really feel great about every aspect of this one….