Will the Stink of Success Ruin the Smell?
Timothy NorrisThe Smell of Abe Vigoda: Juan Velazquez, Michael Vidal, Reggie Guerrero, David Reichardt and Dane Chadwick play to a packed house on January 25.
View more photographs in The Smell slideshow.
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.
“Doing [No Age at The Smell] was fun because we were doing it all together,” Randall says. “I feel like being gone so much, you miss the parties, you miss birthdays, and then, after a while, I’m not expected to be there, so no one is bummed when you don’t show up. Last night I was thinking, ‘Where’s all the homies?’ Who am I to ask for that when I am not there? There’s been too many sacrifices. Too many little things that I didn’t know were on the line.”
The way people talk about Jim Smith, you’d think he was sanctified and risen. The story of every Smell-scene band, of every habitué-cum-volunteer’s gee-whiz excitement about working the door or the soundboard, hinges on Smith, who opened the club 11 years ago. A labor-union organizer by day, dutiful scene facilitator by night, Smith is taciturn, and almost freakishly humble. He dresses in working-man’s clothes and decries little — Smith has the gravitas of a man living by a code. He does not keep an office — in fact, there is no office between the heavily muraled walls of The Smell. Smith is often seen behind the large wooden desk at the door, stamping hands or talking to regulars. He is out and accessible, making rounds through the alley, keeping watch in front of the Dumpster like a sentry, advising kids not to stand under the spot where the pigeons like to perch. Smith has the quietest air of authority you can imagine.
Volunteers and Smell bands are all quick to note that Smith often closes the club at 1 or 2 a.m., then goes to work at 6 a.m., night after night. Without complaint. Or exasperation. Or even the slightest sense that these unpaid duties bring him anything other than gratification.
“This is my primary home,” says Smith, who, before the No Age show, had the privilege of moving a dying rat from a puddle to its Dumpster grave with a shovel. “I never planned it this way, but it’s my legacy.”
“We all try to paint him out to be a martyr, year after year making no money, but I think he gets a lot out of it spiritually because it gives so many people opportunities and love and respect,” says Pocahaunted’s Amanda Brown, who has been part of The Smell scene long enough to know. “For Jim, if a show draws a few people, it’s still worth it to open the gates.”
“If Jim hadn’t given us a chance early on, and been so supportive — put us on shows with touring bands — we wouldn’t be doing what we are today,” says Juan Velazquez of Abe Vigoda. “He’s facilitated so many things for [us]. We will always do whatever he wants; we will always be returning the favor.
“The whole thing is that The Smell is a drug- and alcohol-free place,” Velazquez adds. “When I was in high school I wasn’t doing any of that stuff, but a lot of kids see that as what you do for fun. Jim wants a space that isn’t about that, where people can really experience things and just hang out with friends. He has high standards and just wants to do positive things for people, for the kids who come there.”
The Smell’s guiding tenet, as personified by Smith, is inclusion — but it’s not merely an all-are-welcome mat, it’s the knowledge that this might be the only open door weird kids have. Such was the case for Michael Fierstein, 23, who began coming to The Smell four years ago and has since become one of the club’s de facto bookers. He’s responsible for many of the experimental-noise bills, including the Thurston Moore solo show later this month. “I started volunteering right away,” Fierstein says. “Jim is so supportive of anyone who
wants to help. It was an easy transition from coming to The Smell and working there — Jim made it seem easy that you could change things.” Six months after he first showed up, Smith let him start booking shows. “I had never thought I would be involved in music — how would I have even gotten started?”
Anna Gunder, 18, has been volunteering at The Smell for the past year, though she’s been coming since she was 14, when she came to see a bill of experimental dance bands. “I always wanted to volunteer, but you have to show up early — now that I’m older, I’m allowed to do more things with my time.” She uses the word “family” liberally when discussing The Smell, and she’s seen benefits beyond scene-borne bonds. “I don’t stutter as much now because I’m used to talking to people in bands, who come up to talk to me.”
The collectivism of how The Smell is organized (volunteers are coordinated via a sign-up sheet), how it is booked (a coterie of a half-dozen regulars) and how money is handled (a 70/30 split of the door between bands and the club) is not an unfamiliar concept in the punk underground. But as anyone who’s been around knows, all-ages collectives and show spaces are often plagued by their dogma and/or illegitimacy. Luke Fishbeck of outré dance duo Lucky Dragons has seen the death of many club spaces founded on similar principles — Lucky Dragons are transplants from the close-knit Providence scene, which had its own share of legendary show spaces. “The Smell is not hiding from the law. No one is living there. Transgression is not a part of The Smell. The rebellion is built into its legitimacy.”
Before they moved here, Lucky Dragons often played The Smell on their tours, and once they settled in L.A., the club became their home. “I could set a show whenever I wanted, because I was local and playing there. It was my space, too,” Fishbeck says. “That’s the hope with The Smell — that everyone who’s coming will have a band or an art show or start contributing somehow. How The Smell is set up encourages that.”
If Jim Smith is The Smell’s heart, No Age are its arteries. The story of L.A.’s Zeitgeist art noise–cum-pop duo is intertwined with the club’s evolution; in the hype surrounding the band over the past year and a half, The Smell has been cast as the
house No Age built. Putting aside the fact that The Smell has been around since January 1998, there is some truth to the sentiment, both literally and figuratively. Randy Randall lamented in early October that though he and Dean Spunt had helped to break concrete for what would become the club’s new/second bathroom, they weren’t there for its completion.
It’s for this reason that being a fan of No Age is about something more than mere fandom. They are the Barack Obama of punk. They stand for something bigger than themselves; No Age stand for punk hope and promise and big ideas — or rather, the big ideology of simple ideas: Have fun, include everyone, be positive, do good work. It’s an active rejection of adult cynicism and the credo of the ultracool. You could call it anticapitalist, but there’s no indication anyone involved has given it that much thought. This is the same tone The Smell seemingly imparts to everyone who passes through its piss-soaked doorway. And so it could more rightly be said that No Age are the band The Smell built.
Like most of the kids who’ve found purchase in The Smell’s hallowed din, Randall and Spunt were refugees from L.A.’s rock-club scene. “One of the first places I ever played was The Cobalt Café, in the Valley,” Spunt recalls. “They’d do a bill of six local bands, and when you walked in, they asked you what band you were there to see and, once you got over 50 people for your band — which was impossible — then you got 50 bucks and dollar a head after that.”
Spunt adds, “They made you really feel like a kid.” Never mind that he still was one. “The first time playing The Smell, it was the antiversion of that.” No booze. No tickets. No backstage. No bullshit. No security hassling you. No pay to play. The Smell is the very definition of anticlub. “At The Smell,” Spunt says, “you were treated as an equal.”
Explains Smith, “The kids who come, they are people, not ‘patrons.’”
When Randall and Spunt discovered The Smell, it wasn’t the province of queerly coifed hardcore kids but a dingy venue colonized by the experimental-noise-scene old guard. Along with two partners who eventually left the scene, Smith started the club after the closure in 1997 of Jabberjaw and the Impala Café. “Jabberjaw and Impala and a few other similar places were the inspiration in the beginning,” Smith recalls. “We wanted to keep that spirit going, and also build on it.” But where Jabberjaw had a ton of wasted people and mayhem, The Smell and its strict booze-free model felt like the antithesis of those other clubs. “A strict no-alcohol policy is not what people normally have in mind,” Smith says. “[Kids feel] at home here, safe. They’re not going to be hassled by anyone who works here or have some drunk idiot fight them.”
Spunt felt at home and promptly began booking shows for Wives (his pre–No Age band with Randall), and then, as he puts it, “We took the place over.” They began booking punk bills, including an all-female crust band from the Valley that would soon become the hot terror now known as Mika Miko. Exit old-noise dudes, hello excitable 10th-graders of the Inland Empire.
Spunt’s devotion was instant: “The first time I went there I thought, ‘I want to be here every day!’ And until about a year and a half ago, I was.”
Randall and Spunt joined the ring of people around Smith who are involved in keeping the place open. A turning point came in 2002, after the Great White club-fire tragedy in Providence, when, like many venues around the country, The Smell was closed by the fire marshal, and remained so for six months while it was brought up to code. During that time, Spunt moved all the shows that had already been booked to a squat in Hollywood where he was living. Almost every night for six months, there was a four-band bill in his living room, and almost every day he’d be down at The Smell, putting on new doors, building and painting, along with Smith, Randall and the rest of the regulars.
“Anthony Berryman from Sodamm Insane came down to the video store where I worked and said, ‘Look, bros, you have to be there. Jim can’t do this alone. You guys are going to get the keys, and you need to be there. I don’t want to hear that you are flaking on shows you booked or not showing up.’ That was 2003. That was when we had to step up. I had to learn how to do sound, how to put the mics up there and run the soundboard, every night,” Randall remembers. “Jim would try to pay me, and I would avoid him — he’d try to slip a twenty in your pocket somehow.”
“And then we did the same thing to Mika Miko,” Spunt says, “because Wives were going on tour for four months. We told them they had to step up, but they were there every day and playing twice a week anyway.”
In the years since The Smell’s rebirth, the venue’s stakeholders have gone from being just a few trusted bands and regulars to the scene at large. The door was thrown open for everyone to get involved, and it wasn’t simply an issue of good intentions; No Age began to tour frequently (often with Smith in tow), as did Mika Miko, Abe Vigoda and longtime Smell booker/comrade Brian Miller. Smith made a What Would Jim Do book, and a few sets of keys were entrusted to volunteers. The Smell transitioned from the hands of a few to any and all willing hands.
Backstage after No Age’s show in London in late October, a post-teen girl has been waiting, impatiently, for 30 minutes since Spunt and Randall got offstage, to interview them for her Web site. They are soggy and winded from their set and trying to get it together to walk across the street to play a second, “secret” show for 120 die-hards at a 90-capacity sushi bar. Despite the fact that the girl is openly resentful and has a list of 40 terrible questions, they indulge her. With smiles. They are unwaveringly polite. It is the California way to never offend anyone, but their gentleness, removed from the context of The Smell’s downtown alley, becomes immediately recognizable as the spirit of Jim Smith. After 10 minutes, they have to go. They invite her along — she carries the cymbal stands.
At the packed sushi joint, kids are blowing up balloons, Smell-scenester Vice Cooler is deejaying R. Kelly too loud. The band heads backstage — a stairwell to the roof — where I watch them learn The Misfits’ classic “Where Eagles Dare.” Someone had dialed up the guitar-tab on their iPhone, learned it and proofed it against the collective memory of friends and magazine editors in the stairwell. Five minutes later, Spunt and Randall open their set with it, and seething, swarming, ebullient fans scream along: “I AIN’T NO GODDAMN SON OF A BITCH! YOU BETTER THINK ABOUT IT BAY-BAY!” The floor begins to flex scarily under the bouncing people, so, at the behest of Randall, everyone sits down so as not to fall into the basement below, an instruction that sparks a pig-pile pit, people lying on each other, singing along and writhing. At the club show they played just an hour before, for 1,200 composed Londoners, they were great — a truly fun band. But to see them play a party at this too-small spot, heavy with die-hards and drunks clamoring for requests, is to see No Age at their incandescent miracle-band best. It is then that you get that they are so much more than a band, they are deliverance — they are everything everyone says they are — everything we’ve wished and waited for in punk.
Since its inception 30-odd years ago, punk has had a spotty history of living up to its best intentions, which is, in essence, its charm. Periodically, there have been bands — most notably Crass, Fugazi, Bad Brains, The Ex, Bikini Kill — or labels (K, Dischord) or scenes that sprang up from all of the spitting, drunken nihilism with a radicalized notion that inspires a paradigm shift. It is a matter of inspiration — and great records or live shows are necessary to back it up, to wrap people up in the big idea — the pugnacious do-it-yourself dogma is transmogrified into something urbane and empowering. It’s a rare sort of once-or-twice-a-decade thing, this adjustment, where a band shows us we can be more than fans, and that this can be about something other than entertainment, getting wasted or getting laid, and that community can come true. It is an alchemical shift, where music becomes exactly what you believed it was when your heart was 15 and pure, and all the hope and time you’ve given it pays out. The Smell is home to one of these coalescent moments, No Age its symbol.
Christopher Tipton, who runs the U.K. label Upset the Rhythm! and releases albums for several Smell-fixture bands like BARR and Lucky Dragons, booked No Age’s birthday party–themed secret
show in London. “Musically there’s no real common thread, but that is what makes it great, seeing that a scene can become more than just a signature guitar sound, for example. There is also a generosity from [the L.A.] scene — artists who are supporting each other, supporting people who work to allow them to make music.”
“I don’t want to bring too much attention and pressure on the other bands and the other people. Like what about Bi Polar Bear, who have been playing The Smell for years, too?” Randall notes. “You know, are we assholes because we’re doing stuff and they aren’t?”
Is the scene treating them any differently?
According to Spunt, it’s not so much the kids as the other bands — No Age started getting many more requests from people who wanted to open their shows than they could accommodate. “And we had to say no to a lot of bands. And it sucked. You know, when the kid in the audience yelled, ‘You’re on MTV!’ all you can do is say, ‘Yeah!’ Jim thinks it’s funny. Our friends get it and think it’s funny, our parents think it’s neat, but then in the bigger picture, people might think it’s lame.”
It is January, the first time No Age have been home for more than two weeks in almost a year. Their year was capped by an event Randall characterizes as “utterly surreal” — their album, Nouns, was nominated for a Grammy. Granted, it was for their record’s art and packaging rather than its music, which includes a photo of Randall with an anticorporate screed scrawled on his face. “I know everyone says this, but it’s an honor to be nominated,” he says, laughing about the curious places their talent and hype are landing them. “It’s weird that something I think is good is actually being recognized by other people as being good.”
Since being home, No Age have stayed busy, ping-ponging between their little scene and the macro. Spunt and Randall have been trying to reconnect with their personal lives and friends, who have spent the past few months on hold while the two toured the U.S., Europe, and the U.S. again — they’ve just finished helping to record, mix and master the new Mika Miko album. They’ve started writing a new album and have done a deal with Emerica to design a No Age shoe. They are even back to hitting up shows at The Smell.
“I have been trying to get down there when I can and appreciate the time I can spend there,” Randall says. “It’s ironic, the more attention we get as a band from this scene, the more opportunities and tours we get, which take us away from here. I think people identify us so much with this place, that we’re still playing here every weekend or something . I’d be candy-footing if I just said, ‘It’s great!’ But there is a real sadness that we aren’t here so much anymore.”
It is Jim Smith, more than anyone, who insists that all the attention on No Age and The Smell is not having a corrosive effect. Despite what naysayers may predict, The Smell isn’t losing its vortical tension. While a lot of the regulars insist that shows regularly sell out now — which would have been a freak occurrence in the past — Smith is reluctant to cop to any discernible shift, in attendance or otherwise. “Sure, The Smell is in transition,” he says, “but it’s always been that way, since the beginning — evolving and growing. Fundamentally nothing is different. We still operate on the principles by which it was founded. The energy is still there. We have remained intact.”
“The Smell is still dirty and uncontrollable,” Pocahaunted’s Brown says. “Sure, some of the bands have found success, but you know, it’s still grungy and it has its low nights, when it’s just family and a few people — and you wonder if anyone even knows it’s there. But no one wants it to be a party spot.”
Such scene consideration and pragmatism are surely informed by The Smell’s context in a city and a music underground where “being someone” and wrestling your due fame like Jacob did the angel are the convention. But convention has never been The Smell’s practice. “At a certain time on the Sunset Strip,” Brown says, “it was like this — everyone knew each other. You can look at the clubs in Silver Lake getting blown up and stupid, and we can look at The Smell and go, ‘That can’t happen to us.’ We can’t predict, so we’re just trying to have that not happen. It wouldn’t be a catastrophe, but everyone wants to preserve their little slice of the underground here. It helps that you can’t just identify this place as one thing, as a single scene — once you do, it doesn’t get to keep its anarchy. Everything in L.A. gets tagged and gentrified, and we still keep on getting all this attention, but everyone here is still having the times of their lives.”
HEARTS OF DARKNESSES AND LIGHT IN THE SMELL’S BACK ALLEY
The Brooklyn band finds its L.A. spiritual home
This past fall, a few days before Halloween, Brooklyn’s Hearts of Darknesses rolled their chainsaw/computer-scratch/Pixies-spastic digital mess into downtown L.A. Earlier in the evening they’d played a show at the Henry Fonda in Hollywood, with tour-mates Girl Talk and Grand Buffet. In the big room of the Fonda, however, Darknesses’ sound had failed to register with the mostly underage (as in junior high), spandexed American Apparel girls, who were no doubt confused by the band’s non-sensical beats and macheted melodies. Eager for Girl Talk’s steady thumping fun, Hearts’ stuff is a bit tough to digest at first. It takes about 10 listens before you can speak the language — you know, the good kind of music.
Mere hours later, however, the group walked quietly into The Smell, gear (computers, hard drives, amps, effects) under arm, to play a secret midnight show with club mainstays Anavan. The alley had been filling up since Darknesses had stepped off the stage at the Fonda, and kids milled around talking quietly, throwing glass bottles against walls and wandering in and out to sit on the brown punk-house couches across from the coffee stand. Some clutched LA Records, others handed homemade mixtapes.
Anavan took the stage first, and the sonic synth blast transported the crowd back to the early 1980s, when most of them were maybe alive but too young to experience firsthand. A pulsating wall of dance-death-disco-shred filled the all-brick room, and sound bounced all over the place. The pack of kids erupted with slamming. The band’s sheer volume pushed people back into the front room — where they continued to thrash.
After Anavan finished, kids floated back into the alley, where an older man arrived in a limousine. The father of Hearts of Darknesses lead singer Frankie Musarra parked the limo by the back-alley entrance to The Smell, and began hocking Heart of Darknesses T-shirts to the underage punks, homeless wanderers and sullen A&R guys smoking outside.
It was into this scrum that a young girl spun from the club, exuberant, sweaty and flush with color. She immediately made her way toward the shirts: “I’d like one,” she announced, out of breath and reaching into her duct-taped wallet.
Old-man Mussara smiled and waved the money away with a dismissive hand. “Nah, it’s cool. Just take one.”
She looked around, beaming. “Really?”
“Sure, sure,” he answered, and handed her the plastic tub so she could find her size. “That’s what it’s about, right?”
When the younger Musarra emerged from The Smell an hour later, the tub of T-shirts was empty. Instead of inquiring about the money, he smiled at his father, patted him on the back and thanked him. The crowd of kids still loitering in the alley clung to their shirts, some proudly pulling them over those they were already wearing. One sheepishly approached the younger Musarra, “That was great, man.” Others smiled, offering waves and nods. Then the limo drove away and fans dissipated back into the streets, taking with them the ephemera of something done right.
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