The Smell, and Its Neighbors, Deserve Better Than to Be Replaced by a Parking Lot
John Famiglietti of the band Health, performing at the Smell in 2009
Photo by Anna Webber
Let's be unequivocally clear: If they demolish the Smell, it's the gentrification tombstone piledriver to downtown L.A. The killing of culture in favor of coffee shops selling $7 cold brews. Another meaningless triumph for real estate philistines who would rather build another parking lot than preserve one of our city's most seminal cultural hubs.
If you've avoided social media lately, you may have missed the existential peril of the Main Street DIY institution. Late last month, Jim Smith, the proprietor of the all-ages venue, woke up to the notice that at some vague point in the future, the place that birthed No Age, Mika Miko, The Mae Shi, Abe Vigoda, Best Coast, Health and innumerable other innovators will likely be turned to rubble. As though to add a farewell "fuck you," the demolition notice declared, "Public comment will have no impact on this project."
"It's a real community built around expression," says Dean Spunt, the drummer and singer of No Age. "It was never about any sort of scene or style. I felt so moved and inspired by what the place had coming off the walls that I dropped out of college, because I figured I found my peers."
The cover of No Age's canonical Weirdo Rippers featured the Smell front and center. The image underscored the band's late-'00s art-school vision of a reimagined L.A., one as original and far removed from Hollywood as San Pedro's Mike Watt and D. Boon seemed three decades prior.
No Age, one of countless L.A. bands that got their start at the Smell
Courtesy of the artist
No Age were the most recent iteration of the "our band could be your life" ideal; the Smell was their crucible.
"It was everything we needed, and [we] felt that it was a welcoming space for music that had an experimental slant," Spunt says. "We weren't playing popular music, and the Smell nurtured and encouraged that."
The conventional one-sentence cliché of the Smell as a punk rock and noise mecca is only part of the story. Lesser known but equally important is the space's role in incubating experimental acts of all genres. Nosaj Thing might be more closely aligned with the Low End Theory orbit, but his first live show was at the Smell, where he spun ethereal beats off a laptop and controller.
William Hutson of the Sub Pop–signed noise-rap group clipping. estimates that at least 10 of the band's first 15 shows were there.
"The sad thing is that one of the reasons there is a downtown revival is because of the Smell," Hutson says. "Developers see some weird kids going to shows there, which gives them the impression that it's safe. And the next thing you know, the Edison goes up next door, and they're blaming the Smell for everything from noise to drunk drivers — even though the place doesn't serve alcohol."
Understandably overlooked in the mission to save the Smell has been the potential closure of its neighbors, including the Downtown Independent cinema, the New Jalisco Bar and the Five Star Bar. The latter has hosted some of the area's best underground metal shows, while the Downtown Independent served as the ideal venue for beats performances with dazzling audiovisual components. During the late '00s, it housed the Brainfeeder sessions, where I once saw Kode9 play a sorcerous 1 a.m. Sunday night set to about 40 people.
In a rapidly gentrifying city, it seems crucial to preserve the few remaining spaces that offer room for artists to experiment, free from corporate sponsors or commercial pressures. The Smell was never about being cool, merely about being creative. No one needs another parking lot.
If you'd like to contribute to the Smell's GoFundMe, you can donate at gofundme.com/thesmell.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.