Sam Chammas and Joe Austin opened Live Wire 25 years ago, and the rocker dive bar with a killer juke and beer list has pretty much embodied San Diego culture ever since. We spoke to Sam Chammas to look back at how Live Wire has impacted this town of ours.

The Name
Sam says the name Live Wire was inspired by their time at San Diego State. “Joe and I met at KCR, the college radio station,” he recalls. “The tag line was KCR — The Live Wire.” When the friends reconnected after college, and decided to open a bar, Joe said, “We should have it feel like the old college radio station, but with beer taps.” He suggested the name Live Wire, and it stuck.

The Jukebox
Naturally, a couple of college radio guys were hugely supportive of the local rock scene, which became the soundtrack of the bar. “The jukebox really put live wire on the map when we opened,” remembers Sam, “There wasn’t another juke in town that had a lot of local music on it.”

Local rockers heavily featured in the jukebox rotation when Live Wire opened included Fluf, Rust, and bands on Cargo Records, such as Drive Like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt. Sam remembers the Rocket record Circa Now being especially in demand. “I thought that CD would melt from getting played so much.”

Local musicians embraced Live Wire back, adding to its dive mystique. “The bands would practice, and then come to the bar,” recalls Sam, “Or they’d come drink after playing a show at the Casbah. It felt like we were the rock scene’s living room.”

The beer
Of course, music wasn’t the only thing happening at Live Wire. Sam says, “We were also big into beers at the time, and into big beers.”

At that time, good beer primarily meant UK imports, and a handful of early craft brands such as Sierra Nevada and Pete’s Wicked Ale.

25 years ago, there were fewer than a handful of San Diego craft brewers. However, Live Wire poured Karl Strauss Red trolley early on, and the first beers released by Pizza Port. Sam says Live Wire was among the first to serve Ballast Point, debuted an early version of AleSmith’s Speedway Stout, and bought the first keg of Blind Pig IPA from a pre-Russian River Vinnie Cilurzo.

Sam says Live Wire became one of the first bars to showcase San Diego craft beer almost by accident. “We didn’t know what to think of them,” Sam says, “We just dug how they tasted.” Nevertheless, he says, “I’m really proud that, for a time, there was only one bar in North Park with craft beer, and now it’s a scene that numbers hundreds.”

The beer backlash
Live Wire only served pints when it first opened, and refused to serve what are now called big beer brands like Coors, Miller, and Budweiser, because it wanted people to try these other beers they were bringing to the neighborhood. But kind of like the criticism levied at burger bar Neighborhood 10 years ago for not serving ketchup with its fries, there was a backlash. “It helped define our personality,” Sam recalls, “We were beaten up for not having Bud in a bottle.”

When their 5th anniversary came around, Live Wire had a firm reputation for not serving big beer, so Joe had the idea to clap back at that backlash: Live Wire start serving Bud in bottles. These days, craft beer and cheap beer go hand in hand at the bar. “Beer unites, beer is the great equalizer,” says Sam. “You can find Pliny the Younger or a Tecate tall boy. I think that’s something that’s unique and special to Live Wire.”

The youth movement
Looking back, the thing that amazes Sam most about he and Joe opening Live Wire in 1992 is that they were very young, still in their 20s. He marvels how many young entrepreneurs are leading the way among small businesses in San Diego today, because 25 years ago, it was rare. “We kind of didn’t know any better,” he says. They’d seen Tim Mays open up the Casbah’s precursor bar, the Pink Panther, so they assumed it could be done. Both Sam and Joe worked day jobs, then opened up Live Wire at night and tended bar. “The bar was a hobby,” Sam laughs, “But it was really cool to be the same age as your customers.”

Joe Austin and Sam Chammas, Live Wire opening night, 1992.

The past ten years, bar manager Thaddeus Robles is the guy keeping the Live Wire zeitgeist alive — and its taplist relevant. Sam and Joe co-own Golden Hill coffee shop Krakatoa with Tim Mays, and Sam owns Whistle Stop Bar and The Station burger joint in South Park. Joe has continued his career as an educator, having become that rare high school principle that secretly owns a cool dive bar.

Congrats to Live Wire on 25 years!