How Salt Lake’s Kilby Court became a steppingstone on the way to big-time fame

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Rilo Kiley performs at Kilby Court, photo courtesy of Sartain and Saunders

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Although Salt Lake City is often a stop on most major artists’ North American tours, the city has never been lauded as a music mecca in itself. However, several of today’s top artists to watch, like Ritt Momney, The National Parks, and The Backseat Lovers, are products of the local area. Salt Lake also draws big-name performers – think Diplo, Death Cab for Cutie, and Sylvan Esso – back to the valley, again and again, to perform at local festivals, concert series, or in their own tours. But whether these artists have local roots or not, they all have something in common: local venue Kilby Court.

“It’s a rite of passage, I think,” says Will Sartain, co-owner and talent buyer at Kilby Court, of the venue’s place in local music culture. “Kilby is great because it just provides that first step all the way up.”

The venue itself is nothing fancy. A faded marquee welcomes guests to the space, and once inside, wavy aluminum wall panels line the makeshift stage. Simply put, Kilby Court makes any garage band feel right at home.  

The venue doesn’t need to be fancy, though. Its list of stellar alumni speaks far louder than the slightly shabby décor. Boasting alumni like Phoebe Bridgers, Mac Miller, Doja Cat, and more, Kilby Court is Salt Lake’s very own incubator for blockbuster music talent.

Normally, venues like this don’t just happen, they are carefully curated by a team of music industry professionals with a keen eye for sound, burgeoning talent, and cultivating a specific fan base. That just isn’t Kilby’s style, though, and it never has been.

Kilby Court was formed in 1999 as a product of necessity. At the time, there weren’t any small venues serving Salt Lake’s indie bands, so founder Phil Sherburne transformed his garage and woodworking studio into a makeshift concert hall. The spot quickly gained popularity, and the next year Sherburne decided to make Kilby Court official, acquiring zoning permits to designate the space as a music venue.

Sartain and his business partner, Lance Saunders, bought Kilby in 2008, making it part of their local music presentation empire, Sartain and Saunders. Though Sartain and Saunders partner with larger ventures like the Twilight Concert Series, they’ve still kept Kilby true to its DIY, anything goes roots.

“We’re just a space. Our philosophy isn’t necessarily to curate certain things at Kilby,” Sartain says. “There’s no pretentious attitude about ‘We need to get this type of band or this type of audience.’ We’re not really focused on ‘Are they good enough?’ or ‘Are they a certain type of sound?’ It’s just more equal opportunity booking.”

Kilby’s hands-off booking approach might be why they seem to have an uncanny ability to attract and grow music talent. As Sartain puts it: “We get the acts that end up blowing up because we’re open to anything.”

They’ve also continued to push local artists to the forefront, and local band Dad Bod says performing at Kilby has inspired them. Michael Marinos, who is the lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for Dad Bod is a long–time Kilby regular; he’s attended shows at the all-ages music spot since high school. He says it was his first exposure to the local music scene, and for his band, it was a dream performance venue.

“When we first got a show there, it helped us realize, ‘Oh OK, we can do this,’” Marinos says. “I think it’s one of those big stepping stones to being able to play locally and move on from there.”

Dad Bod is a Kilby regular. After only three years performing in the local scene, they have graced the Kilby stage upwards of 30 times, Marinos says. The band is slated to take the stage with The Backseat Lovers – another locally born, Kilby-bred band who has recently found international success – at The Depot on December 17.

So whether bands are just getting started, or if they – like Death Cab for Cutie – return to the venue after achieving worldwide acclaim, Kilby is home.

According to Sartain, the space at Kilby is a place for local artists to express themselves, and it’s as essential to Salt Lake’s music community now as it was in 1999.

“There’s something memorable about that venue,” Sartain says. “It was just really needed [when it was founded], and I think it is still needed to this day. It’s just a really special, unique atmosphere.”

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