Once upon a time in 2010, a band called The Soft Pack came to play King Tut's, the beloved, 100-capacity hole in Glasgow, Scotland, where Oasis were discovered. Interviewing the band backstage as a less schooled music journalist, I put to the punk critters that New York bands still had the edge over L.A.
The Soft Pack looked at me as if I'd shat on Joe Strummer's grave. Then they reeled off a list of bands, each sounding more insane than the next: No Age, Best Coast, Abe Vigoda, Mika Miko, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti. They called it “the Smell scene” and concluded, “There are a ka-trillion bands there right now.” The Smell — a venue at 247 S. Main St., not far from Skid Row — was their whole world, a microcosm like New York's CBGB or Liverpool's Cavern Club. To them, nothing else mattered.
This past Saturday, Jan. 7, at the Belasco Theater, not far from the Smell but considerably larger and more grand, was the second of a three-night benefit to save a venue that gave birth not just to bands but to a strong DIY family ethos. Here, to celebrate the Smell's 19th anniversary, was the weekend's most impressive lineup, a punk rock high school reunion of sorts featuring Vice Cooler, Ty Segall, Bleached, Health, Best Coast and No Age — all bands heavily indebted to the Smell.
The purpose of the benefit is to edge closer to a $1.4 million goal intended to buy a new building to house the not-for-profit space. On May 31 of last year, a demolition notice from the Smell's landlord appeared on owner Jim Smith's door without warning. “It caught me off guard, but it wasn't really a surprise,” Smith tells me.
The massive response from local artists and the wider community forced the landlord to backpedal, reassuring Smith that the demolition wouldn't be happening immediately. Just sometime in the future. Smith was offered a lease extension for one year. It ends on June 30, 2017. After that it's month-to-month — which effectively makes scheduling shows impossible.
Taking matters into his own hands, Smith began raising funds so he could shop for a new venue. So far $60,000 has been raised, largely from a GoFundMe campaign. “Our ideal objective is to raise enough to put a down payment on a building,” Smith says. “If that's not realistic, we're still planning to relocate, even if it's just a long-term lease. It'll cost money to renovate a new space anyway. So we'll put the funds toward that.”
The search for a venue has yet to begin. Smith's waiting till the end of this fundraising month. “We want to wait and see whether we'll be looking at the possibility of buying or leasing another property. If we can't find anything downtown, we'll work our way out. But it has to be accessible by transit and safe.”
Since 1998, the Smell has been run by volunteers, some of whom went on to form bands themselves. An all-ages club, it's provided a space for L.A.'s youth to break all the rules besides one strict policy: no alcohol. Cover at most shows is $5.
There's a cyclical nature to DIY spaces. Jim Smith opened the Smell as a reaction to havens like Jabberjaw closing. Last year the gallery Pehrspace closed after a decade. Nineteen years is a helluva run for any makeshift space. “Even five years is long for most DIY spaces,” admits Smith, who credits community spirit for the Smell's tenacious survival. Fan bases live and die there. No Age's Randy Randall met his wife there. Health recorded a whole album there — for free. Bleached's sisters Jennifer and Jessie Clavin practically dropped out of school to hang out there.
Formerly of the band Mika Miko, the Clavin sisters first met Smith when they were teenagers. “In high school it was this really cool venue that we daren't dream of playing,” Jennifer Clavin laughs. For kids like the Clavins, the space was essential as a creative nirvana, and the no-alcohol policy was a small price to pay for artistic freedom, a new friend circle and a canvas upon which to cause chaos.
“It was this dirty alley,” Clavin recalls. “Kinda scary … but there were all these cool people working the door, people I'd never seen before, and I wanted to know them.”
The Smell has been not just a gig space but also a venue to showcase art, launch local zines and host Record Store Days. “It was the local hangout I wanted to be part of,” Clavin says. “I felt invited.” She recalls Mika Miko playing in a hole in the floor because it had sunk one night. Another time she made a video of a friend's breasts and showed it on repeat during a gig. “No other venue would have been open to that stuff.”
At the Belasco, there's a sense of camaraderie and do-or-die spirit that's apparent from the moment you walk in and see John Famiglietti of Health selling his own merch. "It's a sick bill tonight, right? Let's hear it for the Smelllllll," shouts Vice Cooler, opening proceedings with his own hardcore, synth-thrashing pop. He jumps off towering amps screaming, “Melt your face!” — a reminder that nothing is off-limits here.
Throughout the evening, the vastly differing takes on punk rock on display are testament to the liberating setting of their birthplace. From the uncompromising riffs of Ty Segall to Health's skull-crushingly abrasive subwoofers, none of the venue's graduates are indebted to one another sonically. Segall, a messianic figure in L.A.'s alternative psych-rock scene, plays songs off his forthcoming 2017 album and generates the first mosh pit of the evening — at precisely 6:38 p.m.
Bleached get emotional onstage, throwing roses at the crowd. "The Smell is what made me and Jessie who we are," Jennifer Clavin says. "It fucking rules. We're so stoked to be playing with all our old friends.” They even break out a Mika Miko track, "I Got a Lot (New New New)," which they haven't played for five years.
The Smell has provided a safe space for all genders; throughout the night, more women crowd-surf than men. It's the ladies on the bill who impress the most, too. As Bethany Cosentino and her co-conspirator Bobb Bruno take to the stage as an “old-school,” three-piece version of Best Coast, they offer up a rare, timeless throwback set that's effectively the Best Coast show I've dreamed of seeing ever since that awkward interview with The Soft Pack. If this is a Smell graduation, then Cosentino plays valedictorian, opening with "Sun Was High (So Was I)" and breaking regularly for mini speeches.
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"The Smell is where Best Coast got our start,” she says. “It's super important for DIY spaces to stay open, safe and all-ages. And by the way … fuck Donald Trump, right?" By the time "Boyfriend" starts, fans audibly scream, then start chanting, "Save the Smell! Save the Smell!"
The finale is saved for two-piece No Age, whose lives have been intertwined with the very walls of the Smell. Playing new songs, drummer Dean Allen Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall take many trips down memory lane, recalling when they first met everyone here.
"See, the building isn't really the Smell,” Spunt offers. “It's you guys. So many individual weirdos coming together. The Smell is that spirit. Wherever it lands next, whether downtown or wherever, it's gonna take all you guys for it to be there. So thank you." In other words, home is where the Smell is.