On Friday, Dec. 2, I meet with Thomas Klepper at his artist studio downtown to discuss an underground space he co-founded, Music for Dancers (MFD), which was one of L.A.'s best DIY spaces for classic dance-party enthusiasts during its run from 2009 until 2013. In just a few hours, a horrific fire will consume an Oakland DIY space during a party, killing 36 partygoers, DJs and musicians. Klepper and I sit in his studio discussing the rise and fall of MFD, unaware that the eyes of mainstream America are about to focus on the politics of DIY spaces with an intensity not seen in years.
Writing about the underground is tricky. Most promoters don't want their spots to be blown up and won't talk to the press. Many people end up living in their spaces, regardless of zoning, out of necessity. It's a small, cliquey, sometimes competitive crowd that, for many reasons, rarely wants to speak on the record. But since MFD has been defunct for several years, Klepper and his partner, Josh Clark, agreed that now would be a safe time to go on the record about some of the highs and lows of running a full-time DIY space.
Raised in Santa Barbara County, Clark and Klepper were friends since childhood. Klepper's mother was Clark's art teacher. In the early 2000s they started coming down to L.A. on the weekends to catch Doc Martin's Sublevel parties, staying most nights until the sun came up.
Eventually, Klepper and Clark decided to move to L.A. to start their own party space. It was then that Clark's girlfriend, Erin Castle, became the official third member of the crew. Though she was not a DJ, she was a third of the MFD aesthetic and identity (and helped with all the unglamorous, shit-eating work of throwing these types of events).
The crew lived in a few temporary spots in West Adams and East L.A. before they found their true home on Kohler Street, where they started throwing dinner parties while trying to cull a crowd. At this location their ethos came together, inspired by the recently deceased David Mancuso, the godfather of disco and classic DJ behind the parties at his legendary New York space, the Loft.
"David Mancuso would reportedly have these parties in which chronological time was turned off and people existed together as a circuit," Klepper says. "And the circuit was the musical host, the music and the crowd." A feedback loop.
Mancuso was a purist. For his parties, starting in 1970, he would invite only a select list of friends. If you missed two consecutive parties, you were off the list. His sound system was impeccable and obsessively tuned. He would never, ever mix records, only play them end to end. Everything in the party was free, including the psychedelic treats. It was the stuff of legend.
Though Mancuso continued to oversee Loft-style parties right up until a month before his death, in November 2016, Klepper and Clark were never able to attend one. But it was the gold standard of intimate party perfection, the antithesis of mega-clubbing and the button-pressing, ego-stroking DJ culture of today. In fact, Mancuso didn't even see himself as a DJ but rather "a musical host," a term Klepper and Clark prefer over DJ.
"Larry Levan was blowing up the balloons in David Mancuso's loft," Clark explains. "Mancuso was sitting in his room with tapes he had made during his acid sessions. He just gathered 20 friends [and they would] sit in his apartment, listen to the tapes he made and trip out on acid. That's where he started. He was a crazy audiophile."
Mancuso's anti-commercial ethos was strictly enforced, Clark says. "Once you were inside, there was no selling. You'd get kicked out if you were selling drugs."
Armed with the blueprint of perhaps the best party in modern human history, Klepper and Clark collected Klipsch speakers, bought and modified a Urei 1620 mixer, got the same needles Mancuso did and implemented a balloon drop — all to honor the Loft style.
"It was all aimed toward offering something to your guest," Klepper explains. "So the sound needs to be clear. From the record itself — the recording quality and how good the pressing is — you've got to present to your guests the best that you have. Don't play crap or messed-up old records, because that would be a disgrace to your guests. From the record to needle to cartridge to turntable, the signal path needs to be as direct as possible from record to speaker, all in the name of honoring one's guests."
The MFD musical hosts often wouldn't mix their records, just playing tracks end to end, and they were usually marathon affairs. Clark remembers playing for more than 24 hours at one event. MFD encouraged attendees to bring their own booze. It was only later that they started offering a small makeshift bar, but you could still BYO. When the sun came up, they'd hand out free, fresh-squeezed orange juice and water. They had seemingly zero interest in making a profit and were lucky if a night broke even.
Eventually they had to let go of some of their idealism to pay the rent, and they started booking known DJs from the international underground circuit. Tiago was their first big one. They would even sometimes rent out their space to outside promoters. Things started picking up.
Not everyone appreciated what Klepper and Clark were bringing to the L.A. dance community. MFD once received an angry email from Doc Martin. "Basically he told us to fuck off and that we wouldn't make it in this city as, you know, competition against him," Klepper recalls. "That was a very notable night when Johannes [Auvinen, the Austrian producer known as Tin Man] did his first live set in L.A. Doc had wanted to book him, and he didn't go with Doc. He'd rather play this nice, intimate space with a nice sound system. We pissed off Doc but had Tin Man play."
Things were moving along nicely. They had established a few MFD classics as part of their venue's regular soundtrack, such as the extended version of "Fantasy" by Earth, Wind & Fire (which Doc used to close his sets with), "End Games" by Desire and The Turtles' "Happy Together," which had special nostalgic resonance for Clark.
"My parents — all they knew was I was doing events and that I was a DJ," says Clark, who was raised Mormon. When his parents came down for a visit, he took them to Amoeba Records, where they bought him a Turtles album as a gift. "I brought them out to the warehouse. Put the disco ball on and put the Turtles record on. My dad had no clue. He never went to a party. He's never done drugs or anything. He didn't comprehend how that was a business. My mom turned to me and whispered, 'This is cool.'"
MFD did have a few scary reality checks, including two overdose situations. Both times medical attention was sought, and the people survived. After this, they made sure one of them was always sober (in addition to having sober security). And one night, a speaker started to catch fire. Someone on the dance floor noticed and the situation was taken care of.
The peak of the whole MFD experiment was having Douglas Sherman, an old-school New York guy who ran with Mancuso and actually played the records for the last few years of Mancuso's life. He and a half dozen of the Loft crew flew in to L.A. to help set up a party called Adventures in Flight. Preparations were intense. It took four days to tune the sound system.
Sherman also helped bring them up to code, getting some exit signs and making sure the doors open outward from the inside (to avoid stampeding). But there weren't two true exits, and Sherman said Mancuso wouldn't have approved if he had known about that. The guys' plan was to use a ladder to scale the back fence in the event of a fire.
By this time, tensions between Klepper and Clark were running high. They were living in the space and dozens of sleepless, debauched nights were taking a toll on their friendship and sanity. Klepper, a recluse by nature, began focusing on various music production projects. He was the idealist of the group. Clark was the pragmatist, the only one holding down a traditional job during much of this period. They were old friends who still had this sort of Odd Couple push-pull. It was already veering toward untenable when detectives from LAPD's Vice Division showed up one day.
Vice clearly knew they were setting up for a party. They took Clark's ID and told them that if they went on with that night's party, they would be cited and their gear confiscated (which is legal in California, by the way). The party was canceled. MFD would throw a few more small parties before calling it a day. The stakes had gotten too high, and after making it so far without any major disasters, they were unwilling to push their luck.
MFD was over in 2013. Clark and Castle broke up. They all moved out.
It was about a year before Klepper and Clark would talk again. Klepper is making art and music. Clark works a day job and, if he can get the money together, would one day like to buy the Kohler building. Besides making sure it was as safe as possible, he would make it into his residence, turn everything into private events and charge a membership fee.
I interviewed Clark separately from Klepper, two days after the Ghost Ship fire. "It's absolutely tragic and one of those unfortunate realities of doing something," he said. "Part of the magic of the underground is you're not restricted to these bullshit laws. On the other hand, you're entering at your own risk and it's up to people who throw these parties, like us, to make sure we put our fellow partygoers and patrons first, and never do something unless you feel safe and take as much responsibility as you can."
I noted that the Ghost Ship was on the local authorities' radar for a while. "I don't know the details," he replied, "but I would never sacrifice lights for a clearly lit exit sign. i would never throw a party just that has a shitty stairwell. While I do not know all the details, it's something I'd like to think I wouldn't do."
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Klepper, who knew a few people at the Oakland Ghost Ship party, had this to say, via email:
My deepest sympathies go out to those affected by the recent tragedy that occurred at the warehouse party in Oakland. I cannot fathom the loss felt by the friends and families of [those] who did not return from the party. I was relieved to hear that the names of my friends who were in attendance were not on the missing list. I hope that in the future we will give greater value to safety. Let us cultivate peace and spread love. We ought to put our efforts toward awareness of the spaces in which we gather and awareness of basic party safety: Are there exit signs? Are there two, or more, exits? Do the doors push open when exiting? Are there stairs? Please don't risk the lives of those you love in the name of love. As a host, hold your guests with the highest regard, the most respect and and honor. Life is fragile, as if hung upon a single thread. [When] we can choose to strengthen that thread, we ought to.
Whether it's backyards, house parties, warehouses or art spaces, the DIY circuit is strong throughout the country and here in Southern California, and will not suddenly disappear because of the Oakland fire. Over the next six months, expect a clamping down by police and fire marshals as they more aggressively inspect DIY spaces and shut many of them down. But once this travesty slides from the cultural memory, expect business as usual.
The underground may be burning, but it's not going anywhere.