MORE

Selling Really Weird Music

It’s a club. It‘s a brand. It’s a religion. It‘s the Knitting Factory, and it’s coming to Hollywood.

KnitMedia, the Knitting Factory‘s corporate entity, is an exponentially reproductive mini-empire named by Inc. magazine as one of the nation’s fastest-growing companies. Okay, now put that fact alongside the New York club‘s activities: It originally showcased extreme improvisational musicians like Cecil Taylor, Charles Gayle and John Zorn, and soon broadened to include such totems of cultural redefinition as Allen Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass.

If that combination of rapid growth and weird-ass art grates against the postmodern intuition, it’s because we‘re used to thinking of art and philosophy as flaky decals on a global machine driven by force and commerce. But philosophies can still make revolutions.

The philosophy of ’60s-inspired free improvisation actually meshes well with an e-commerce world. Improvised music is spontaneous, mutable, inclusive. Like Christianity and the Internet, it survived underground. (A homeless Gayle played his sax in subways for years.) Now we get to find out how much of this philosophy carries through into the Knitting Factory‘s apostolic era.

Michael Dorf started the Knitting Factory in a small East Village Manhattan space in 1987, when he was a 25-year-old former law student from Wisconsin. In 1994, he was able to move it to a large TriBeCa compound with multiple stages and advanced audio-visual facilities. The soon-to-open Hollywood club has become the first Knit extension, with one in Berlin planned for 2001 and future eyes to London, Tokyo, Sydney and the moon. Along the way, CEO Dorf’s KnitMedia has grown a record label, a recording studio, a concert producership, a booking agency, and a multifingered Web distribution and information presence. And he‘s just getting started.

“We’re looking at a medium where the line between the physical and the virtual is blurred,” says Dorf, conducting a one-on-one tour at the Knitting Factory‘s Hollywood Galaxy site in April. (After a number of push-backs, as of this writing the club is scheduled to open in mid-July.) As Dorf gestures toward bare girders and describes where elevators and stages are going to be, the Knit seems more virtual than physical.

But he’s serious about the blur. Climbing quickly up and down ladders and speaking in an eager clip with a smile behind it, Dorf unscrolls a vision of a Knit community that extends beyond the walls of the club. He imagines people going home and logging on to www.knitting factory.com so they can buy CDs of the artists they‘ve heard -- often on Knitting Factory Records, whose one-stop recording-packaging-distributing methodology cuts musicians in at unprecedented percentages of the sale price. And while leaning at the bar, Hollywood attendees will use ubiquitous monitors to focus on performances happening in the New York space (and eventually all over the world). And they’ll be able to strike up electronic conversations, through DSL, with drinkers thousands of miles away.

Asked if he‘s working on a way you can rub thighs with a patron three time zones removed, Dorf is unfazed. “Yes, we are. We’re trying to digitize beer. There‘s nothing gonna touch this club.”

In fact, with its supertech Meyer sound system, restaurant, three bars, two stages and party room, split into three levels with maximum attention to unobstructed sightlines, there really hasn’t been anything like the Hollywood Knitting Factory before. And so that the stages can be used as studio spaces, both for live recordings and in daytime hours, the building-within-a-building has been designed to float inside its host structure; Dorf picks up and demonstrates one of the many little rubber-and-spring mounting devices that will prevent any vibration from transmitting directly through the club‘s acoustically prepared floors, walls and ceilings to hard surfaces -- those sound waves will obey.

Was conceiving and building this dream club a kick? Damn straight! “But now that we’re having to figure out how to pay for it all,” says Dorf, “it‘s not as fun.”

Dorf jets all over the world hunting up investors for KnitMedia, the organization that funds the Hollywood Knitting Factory and all other Knit projects. His plan goes thus: “This is gonna be the first smart club. If we can figure out a way to pull it off, then we can really show the investment world, ’Look at the scalability of our business.‘ It’s not cookie-cutter, we aren‘t thinking you can just place something like this in every town in America. It has to be a cultural city.”

A cultural city. That would be us, right? Well, a lot of folks, not just Dorf, hope like hell we fit the description. Hollywood is in the grip of yet another redevelopment battle, this one predicated on the solvency of the mammoth TrizecHahn Hollywood-and-Highland mall installation (scheduled for completion next year just a a couple of blocks up the street from the Knit), which will plunk numerous stores, restaurants and clubs into a neighborhood that previously couldn’t support a J.J. Newberry. But this is a new Hollywood, don‘t ya know, where crime is way down, and rents and leases are way up. For half a century, it’s been a destination where tourists from Singapore and Omaha would tumble off the bus and be informed by the nearest vagrant that he has “got your Hollywood right here.” Many found that traveling thousands of miles just to plant their Reeboks on Marilyn‘s heelprints at the Chinese Theater didn’t cut it. Now tourists will discover a galaxy of venues in which to bleed their Visas.

 

But the new businesses on the block will encounter many obstacles. In 1986 Catalina Popescu opened her own jazz club, Catalina Bar & Grill on Cahuenga Boulevard, a short walk from Hollywood and Highland. Also a daytime resident of the area, she says the traffic‘s already bad enough: “When I’m driving, I take any street but those two.” She‘s earned her club’s reputation as a top stopover for major artists, established her clientele and locked into a favorable long-term lease. So she‘ll just sit back and see if the Knitting Factory offers competition, raises the area’s profile to her benefit, or swirls down the porcelain portal like other ambitious regional establishments such as Billboard Live, Planet Hollywood, the Cocoanut Grove and the Hollywood Athletic Club (from the last of which Dorf has hired general manager Elizabeth Peterson and “fusion chef” Mike Borassi).

Guitarist G.E. Stinson, who took over booking New Music Mondays at various locations for a couple of years after series originator Nels Cline stepped down, has a notion of what Dorf will face: “He‘ll be up against the same entrenched complacency that’s here a lot. Outside of that, it‘s not a city that goes out at night -- it’s not like San Francisco or New York. People go home and watch television or they go to films, they don‘t go to clubs. I think his idea is fairly good, having it in Hollywood and trying to tap into that tourist thing -- especially the Japanese tourists. How do you get Angelenos interested in really weird music? I’m still working on that koan. But he‘s actually opening a club in L.A. built around improvised music. You have to give him his due.”

Drummer Alex Cline has been curating the Open Gate Theater series of new-music concerts, first in Pasadena and now in Eagle Rock, for several years, and has scoped out the turf: “I think the location definitely detracts. I’m not a fan of Hollywood. There‘s the traffic, and such dense, intense, diverse energy there that I feel I’m descending into a lower astral plane. But if Dorf is looking to have name people finance the local alternative talent and get them paid decently, he‘ll get support.”

Matt Piper, who books the Bel Air jazz club Rocco, says, “I hope their promotion of bands will help everybody, and energize the music scene in L.A.”

Violinist Jeff Gauthier, president of Cryptogramophone Records and instigator of the Inner Ear concert series, is pragmatic: “I live in hope that the Knitting Factory will support the new-music scene. But because I live in hope a lot, I started a music series just in case.”

Not everyone looks upon Dorf as the savior of improvised music. When the Knitting Factory sponsored the Texaco Jazz Festival a couple of years ago, a large number of musicians demanded sharp increases in their fees after finding out how much the Knitguy was pearling in. Some a have even suggested that he’s built his prestige out of musicians‘ integrity, while leaving lumps of coal in their Xmas stockings. But one thing seems pretty clear: However little cash these former pariahs of popular culture are making now, they were making less before the Age of Knit.

Exposure means a lot. And if the postponed first two months of the Knitting Factory’s calendar are any indication, the club intends to be a permanent Edge Festival. The main room (which can hold up to 500 customers plus a 30-piece onstage symphony) was set to host Bill Frisell, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Roy Haynes, Diamanda Galas, Frank Black, Nels Cline and Van Dyke Parks, while the AlterKnit Lounge (max capacity 75) would have had local veterans Vinny Golia, Alex Cline, Dr. Art Davis and Bobby “Lee” Bradford. (“My middle name actually is Lee,” chuckled Bradford at a recent Rocco engagement, “but nobody ever calls me that.”)

The national-visibility acts will be brought in by Glenn Max out of the New York office, while Keith Buckingham, newly arrived here from Vancouver, B.C., where he booked the Starfish Room, will be handling the rest. What does Buckingham know about L.A. talent? “I have a lot of homework to do,” he says quietly.

 

The way the parking situation shakes down will be crucial. With the Knitting Factory‘s various rooms and restaurant capable of holding some 1,000 customers and staff, and the movie multiplex, the Hollywood Entertainment Museum and other Galaxy attractions accountable for several hundred more during peak weekend hours, the built-in parking structure could find its 670 spaces severely taxed, though there are more lots in the neighborhood. In New York, people take cabs, subways, buses. Here, guys and gals date in separate cars. And among strollers, the legend of nighttime Hollywood danger will die hard.

If anyone can make the Tinseltown Knitting Factory succeed, though, it’s Dorf and his longtime team of enablers. On one hand, he holds uncommonly mystical notions of a Knit community whose members, drawn together through love of artistic challenge, will be thrilled to videotoast distant lodge brothers even if they don‘t know the names of their next-door neighbors. On the other, Dorf owns a hardcore business sense.

“We’re not that pure of an Internet company that we don‘t care about profits,” says Dorf, emphasizing that, first and foremost, the club needs to make money, which means providing an atmosphere where folks feel comfortable sloshing down beverages. Accordingly, the Knit religion is far from Islamic, having sponsored festivals in partnership with Player’s cigarettes, Johnnie Walker, Dewar‘s and Absolut.

Well, nothing goes with jazz like booze and cigs. But you have to be a trifle nervous about the future when, as he frequently does in interviews, Dorf begins to rhapsodize about the organizational mastery of Disney Co. It may be no coincidence that his first foray away from New York has landed the Knitting Factory only about three miles from the little house where Uncle Walt had his first studio back in 1923.

And if, when in town, Dorf craves the kind of Magic Kingdom inspiration he might draw from a flick at Disney’s El Capitan Theater or a browse through the Disney Store, all he‘ll have to do is walk out the door. They’re almost right across the street.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >