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This past October, the morning after what should have been the triumphant return of No Age to The Smell, the seminal all-ages club the band considers home, guitarist Randy Randall is trying to process exactly what went on last night. It’s been a big year for him and drummer Dean Spunt, with whom he formed No Age in 2005. Their Sub Pop records debut, Nouns, has the underground — and the overground — hyperventilating with glee. The band has been profiled in The New Yorker, and the week before they played on Craig Ferguson’s late-night chatshow here in L.A. in the fall, they did MTV. After months of touring, they’re on break for a few weeks, and as a way of giving back to the downtown scene that helped make them, they have booked a hush-hush show at their favorite club.
Before the set, Randall is in the alley opposite The Smell, leaning against the chainlink fence where you will often find the club’s owner, Jim Smith, as well as 23-year-old long-timers and teen smokers. Kid after kid approaches Randall, nervously introducing themselves, adding that they know a friend of a friend of a friend, or someone in the band that opened for them in Pomona last spring. The kids are awkward, tongues a-tangle in orthodontia, and their relational qualifying underscores their newness to the world of No Age — they are not used to being able to walk right up to their rock heroes to offer up a stick of gum. Both Spunt and Randall assuage each exchange with a thick cover of jocularity, engaging every question as best they can, taking gum, dispensing mints and matches in kind.
No Age shows at The Smell have historically been a frenzied crush of kids screaming along with the music. But tonight, when Randall and Spunt finally take the stage, something is different. Everyone has their personal space, and many in the crowd appear to be curious newbies glancing peripherally for cues on whether to dance and how. In a pocket of strange silence after the third song, a kid yells giddily from the middle of the crowd, “You were on MTV!” Behind the drums, Spunt smirks and exchanges a look with Randall as they count off into the next 4/4 blitzkrieg. A handful of kids pogo, but the rest gawk, motionless.
“We were in our home,” Randall says the next day as he tries to explain the weirdness and the toll exacted by their recent fame, “but there were a bunch of strangers in it.”
The Smell — like most clubs, a depot of questionable haircuts and loud bands — doesn’t at first glance seem remarkable. But many consider it a different kind of place from other clubs that came before it. It’s an all-ages, no-booze, not-for-profit operation that shuns most of the hierarchies of cool and is staffed by punk-minted teenage volunteers, legit and steadfast. And right now, it’s at the center of the worldwide underground, a positive role model for the DIY ideals of community, safe space and inclusion. Plus, it books some of the country’s most exciting bands, with No Age, Abe Vigoda and Mika Miko its sweaty ambassadors. The Smell makes good on punk’s long-unfulfilled promises and offers a working model of what community can be.
The Smell not only gave No Age and other bands a place to play, but it also indoctrinated the musicians on how to approach their careers, gave them an ideological toehold in the scene, and fostered them amid equanimity and fellowship. So what becomes of you after you exit that community? What happens when the dogma of “no hierarchy” is eschewed, and you are assigned a new role, as kings of the scene?
The band, like the club itself, is being held up, rightly so, as an emblem of positivity, of a new Los Angeles, and with that comes a weight to bear. “In one sense we are a band, we want to play and do our thing, but the success and visibility, it puts a lot of stress on people around us, the community of L.A.,” Spunt says. “I hear it jokingly from friends, that we raised the bar so high for everyone else, but I know there is some seriousness behind it. I have to wonder, like, did we fuck something up?”
“After last night, I was bummed,” Randall says after the secret Smell show. “This morning I was trying to get clarity on it and I cried. All of our friends were busy — Mika Miko was playing a show, Abe Vigoda was doing stuff, everybody is doing stuff on a bigger level, so ...” he trails off. As No Age’s profile has risen, so has that of other Smell bands, including Mika Miko and Abe Vigoda, who now both record for Spunt’s PPM label. Often, the press has portrayed both bands as No Age’s retinue rather than the close-knit cabal they are.