The Man Behind the Fenix
November 2, 2017
Merl Saunders’s version of an embarrassing moment is probably quite different than yours or mine. While the humiliating stories of some people might include falling in public or getting food stuck in your teeth, the situation Saunders describes is slightly more glamorous.
“There was this one time when we were going through the airport…our limos pulled up outside the airport, and then someone from the airline would come to escort us through the airport and put us right on the plane. One of my friends from school saw all of this happening…I was mortified,” laughs Saunders.
Then again, having a father, Merl Saunders Sr., who was in the Jerry Garcia band and a regular pianist for the Grateful Dead is bound to lead to some rather exceptional childhood moments. From skipping school for weeks and touring with the Grateful Dead to hosting celebrity athletes, musicians, and talk-show hosts regularly at his family home, Saunders’s childhood was a whirlwind of creative energy. At the same time, the contrast between his father’s massive public persona and presence as a caring parent was initially somewhat confusing for Saunders.
“Growing up on the ‘inside’, you’re removed from the public persona thing. When we would go out in public, people would run up to him, which was really odd as a kid…We would see him on TV, we would see him perform, but it didn’t really make sense until I was a teenager,” he recalls.
One thing that has always made sense to Saunders, however, has been his inherent passion for creativity. He quickly discovered his talent as a young child, participating in choir from sixth grade through his senior year in high school. When he was in eighth grade, Saunders wanted to be a graphic artist. So, he did what any other twelve-year-old would do — he asked to design the back cover for his father’s newest Fantasy Records album, calling it “a collage of [his] father’s life,” clearing the artwork with the President of the record company and getting paid a grand total of twenty dollars.
When he was interested in pursuing acting, Saunders flew to LA every weekend to hone his skills, delving deep into the nuances of his craft. And at age sixteen, he sang with the San Francisco Symphony in front of 6,000 people. Saunders performed constantly growing up; he recalls his father bringing famous musicians to attend his choir performances and theater productions and being somewhat self-conscious of their presence.
“It took me a long time to realize it was co15-year-old year old, it was just embarrassing to have the hippie counter-culture show up at your choir performances,” he says.
After a while, however, Saunders realized that he didn’t want his career to be entirely dependent on “pop culture and on people liking [him].” Having been exposed to the behind-the-scenes work integral to the career of a successful musician, he decided to start pursuing an occupation in music production and management.
“My father brought my brother and I into his business at a very early age,” Saunders remembers. “I learned about booking — I was booking his band at 16. We did merchandise, we were associate producers on most of his records, we were in the studio process — he showed us the business from the inside out.”
Saunders took this invaluable knowledge into his career from then on out. By age 18, Saunders was traveling with bands, and experienced working several different positions: tour manager, production manager, audio engineer, and stage technician. He toured with Michael Jackson (!), Frank Zappa, David Crosby, Robert Cray, the Jazz Crusaders, and the Hawkins Family, to name a few. Although these were incredible experiences for Saunders, he emphasizes that his work was extremely tasking at times.
Saunders recalls being on tour with Michael Jackson, at a stadium with 80,000 people in Japan, when all of the sudden, a monsoon started.
“How do you do a highly technical show in a monsoon? We had to make sure everyone was safe. We were running out with towels trying to wipe the stage so [Michael Jackson] wouldn’t slip. You could get electrocuted, you could fall, things were exploding…but the show must go on!”
This motto has carried Saunders throughout his professional career. After working as the Director of Marketing and Artist Relations at Gibson Guitars, and being an executive director for the GRAMMY’s, Saunders settled into his current role as Executive Director of The Fenix, a supper club in downtown San Rafael.
As I ask Saunders what “Executive Director” means, I’m met with his signature hearty chuckle as he says, “I guess it means I’m in charge of the experience for the night.”
And although the Fenix isn’t an 80,000 person stadium where the career of Michael Jackson is on the line, Saunders reminds himself that “the show must go on” nearly every night. It’s just one of the many things that’s made him so successful — and something that he wants to share with others.
“One of the most rewarding things is to pass on the opportunities that I’ve had to others,” he reflects. “It’s incumbent upon people who are successful to light the path for others…You have to be authentic and open to giving.” Saunders remembers a man coming up to him at a high school reunion, saying that he had never seen people of color sing classical music. Recognizing that he could be a source of inspiration for young people has been a defining factor for Saunders.
The Fenix, Saunders believes, serves a similar purpose of inspiration for anyone who enters through its doors. It’s more than an elegant, modern supper club with incredible food — “It’s the music, it’s the ambiance, it’s the interaction between the audience and performer…By the end of the night, you’ve filled your cup with everything you could have wanted for that evening,” Saunders explains.
“People may walk in strangers, but they’ll walk out friends. That’s the kind of experience the Fenix offers. When it works, it really works.”