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Spaceland at 10: A Birthday Toast 

Can I still get on the list?

Thursday, Apr 7 2005
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Photos by Wild Don Lewis
A couple Monday nights ago, I was in the smoking lounge at Spaceland, angling only for a solitary drink. I quickly found myself joining some loopy bottle brunette in taunting another guy, who was attempting to read Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I never got either of their names. Downstairs, the Lovemakers were performing (breakout shovels at the ready), before clearing the stage for a “secret” midnight set by Goldie Lookin’ Chain. They’re a new buzz band out of SXSW — a Welsh eight-piece hip-hop collective who present a mash-up of Beastie Boys on nitrous with The Full Monty (Part 2?). Between the Bondage and the bands, I can’t think of another rock club in L.A. where I’d experience anything like that.

Traditionally, Monday-night slots are a consolation prize for bands. At Spaceland, they’re the brass ring. Over the club’s 10-year history — an anniversary marked with a series of special shows in March — no-cover Mondays have become a vital proving ground, especially for bands with monthlong Monday-night residencies, including Beachwood Sparks, Stew, Tsar, Giant Drag, Midnight Movies and Moving Units, among others.

But it’s not the dressed-down A&R reps who make Mondays special at Spaceland. The showcase night has long been an unofficial meeting place for bargain-minded Eastsiders who come expecting to be unimpressed but, for the price of a $2 beer, are willing to be wowed. Monday has become the soul of Spaceland — and a useful model that’s spread to clubs across the city (see sidebar).

But the spirit of Spaceland is not as easily duplicated. Even on a weekend night — when the crowd might skew older, or sexier — if you were blindfolded, kidnapped and dropped here, you’d have a hard time guessing that you were in the fake-tits capital of the universe. Which gives me a sobering thought: Could Spaceland now be L.A.’s best club?

Ten years ago, that would have seemed unimaginable. Housed in a crumbling, Regal Beagle–ish bar with spongy floors, ’80s furniture and an indifferent jukebox, Spaceland didn’t have bad style — it had no style. In comparison to its scant Eastside competition — Jabberjaw, the Onyx and Fuzzyland — Spaceland didn’t even seem to be trying.

Spaceland’s owner, Mitchell Frank, has a similar manner. Back in 1996, the L.A. Times dubbed him the Mayor of Silver Lake. Now in his 40s, Frank seems more modest about his accomplishments: “I’m an idiot” is his answer when asked why the club is still in the same place, doing essentially the same thing, 10 years on. Bookish and suburbanite (though a native Angeleno), Frank may be many things — but he will never be a Rodney Bingenheimer, a Lou Adler, or even a Brendan Mullen. Promoter, yes. Businessman, sure. Impresario . . . not so much. Good or bad, there will never be a cult of personality around Frank, which may be why he has as many critics as admirers.

Or maybe it’s because he pied-pipered the hipsters into a neighborhood that once had more purist bohemian pretensions. True, Spaceland itself has changed very little over the years (relocated stage, better sound system, a funky space-age lounge theme in the backroom — though the bar business is still owned by the Wolfram family, not Frank). Still, nothing is more emblematic of how Silver Lake has changed from an artfully ramshackle enclave to the subject of Toyota ad campaigns.

Frank says his main objective with the club was to create “a sense of community” in Silver Lake. “But it’s a double-edged sword — people are elated and pissed off at the same time.”

“I think there’s a lot of resentment from people who remember Mitchell from before he was successful, and think they should have a piece of that success,” says Melanie Tusquellas, a former collaborator of Frank’s, and a co-owner of the Edendale Grill. “Spaceland put Silver Lake on the map for the music business,” she says pointedly, quickly adding, “I think Spaceland has a bigger name than Mitchell himself.”

True — and fair enough, since Frank didn’t do it alone. For the past four years, Spaceland’s principal booker has been Jennifer Tefft, who’s got a tough-cookie rep, to put it delicately. “I’m not afraid to say what’s on my mind, and I like being direct,” Tefft says after several minutes of happy happy joy joy. “I think you can be tough and still love music.”

Frank is more candid. “We play good cop/bad cop. I like to have strong women around me.”

He always has, including Liz Garo (who started at Spaceland in the ’90s, moved to the Knitting Factory and HBO, then returned to book Spaceland’s sister club, the Echo) and Tusquellas, both of whom share credit for first introducing touring acts to Spaceland. (Disclosure: Tusquellas was my fiancée at the time.) And then there’s Frank’s first partner, Nancy Whalen, who ran the club Pan with him at the same bar, a year prior to Spaceland’s inauguration.

(Accounts of Pan’s rise and fall are as varied as the Gospels, but none of them ends particularly nicely.)

Since then, Frank has been accused of other club-owner crimes: underpaying artists and, more recently, turning his back on the local scene. The former, whether once true or not, is a charge as common to promoters as chlamydia to college dorms. The latter may be true in some sense; at the same time, Spaceland’s rising national (and international) stature has been a boon to local bands of a certain level, and Monday is probably the best-attended new-artist night in the city. Interestingly, Spaceland has a copacetic relationship with its closest competitor, the Fold, run by Scott Sterling (who brings his club to Silver Lake Lounge, Tangier, El Cid and Hollywood’s King King). “I think we both benefit from each other,” Sterling says. The promoters often share bands.

Spaceland Productions is constantly expanding, now booking the Echo and the forthcoming X-Plex (both co-owned by Frank and Garo), as well as the Barnsdall Art Park Theater. They also turned the Henry Fonda Theater into a consistent music venue, only to lose their contract recently. (“That’s what happens when you get a place popular,” Frank says with a rare tinge of bitterness.) Spaceland will now move its large-capacity business down the street to the Vanguard. Frank sees this expansionism as a way to “take a local band and really give them some attention,” but it’s also really the only way to build his business, since Spaceland’s capacity is 260.

And the club? Referencing the ’96 Times article, Frank says, “If we were to really ‘set Silver Lake on fire,’ we probably wouldn’t be here anymore. When $200,000 houses turn into $2 million houses, the buyers of these houses don’t want the most popular club in the neighborhood down the street from them. It’s stopped us trying to have sellout nights every night of the week.”

Considering the list of artists who’ve headlined Spaceland (Elliott Smith, Pavement, Mudhoney, Guided by Voices, White Stripes, the Killers, the Shins), done secret shows (Foo Fighters, Weezer, Ween, Zwan, Arthur Lee & Love), or been nurtured by the club (Beck, Ozomatli, Possum Dixon, Jurassic 5), it would seem that Spaceland’s biggest threat is its own success.

“Do I think Spaceland will be there for the next 10 years? Will the neighbors let it? Good question.”

Thanks to Spaceland and copycats, Monday's the new Friday

The Cheap Drunk's Guide to Free L.A. Rock

MONDAYS: The Fold at the Silverlake Lounge hosts monthly residencies, $3 beer (April: Depression Party). Same residency-type deal at The Echo (April: Viva K). Indie 103.1 FM presents Check . . . One Two at The Viper Room: tonsa local bands and a drink ticket for $8 (which supposedly equals a net loss of $1).

TUESDAYS: Lovedrug brings Brit-rock-styled DJs and monthly residencies to The Derby, $2 beer (April: Mojo Filters). Ruby Tuesday at the Key Club (co-sponsored by Indie 103.1): Indie rock all ages night (no drink minimum) featuring live bands.

WEDNESDAYS: Star Shoes presents Radio: DJs and (sometimes) bands. Moscow at Boardner’s features electro/indie “hipster shit” DJs and bands. Free till 10:30.

THURSDAYS: Kibitz Room: month and half-month residencies (April: The King Cheetah, et al.).

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