Zebulon, the onetime Brooklyn cafe, bar and concert venue that gave an early platform to TV on the Radio, Sharon Van Etten and scores of lesser-known and woollier outsider acts before it closed in 2012, is set to reopen in L.A. in April. And as underground venues across the city continue to shutter, it may come at just the right moment.
“A lot of times when you book an artist, the first thing they’ll say is, ‘We’re going to pack the place,’” says Tyler Nolan, booking manager at Zebulon and a member of the group involved in its L.A. rebirth. “This is a business, and it’s something to consider. But that’s not our priority. What’s more important is: ‘What are you doing?’”
The team behind the new Zebulon includes Jef Soubiran, Joce Soubiran and Guillaume Blestel, the owners of the original Williamsburg, Brooklyn, location, along with Nolan, Jean-Pierre Plunier and Andy Factor of L.A. label Everloving Records, and L.A. musicians Jesse Peterson and Mia Doi Todd. All of them, minus Todd, sit around a table on the venue’s Frogtown patio on a sunny late-March morning.
“Music coming from [L.A.] is getting a lot of attention in other parts of the world, and there aren’t enough places here to present it,” says Peterson, a guitarist and Todd's husband. “[Mia] and I both felt like bringing something to L.A. like what they were doing in New York would be very valuable at this point.”
They say the venue will be dedicated not only to adventurous music but also to cinematic, theatrical and literary events, among others, that might not otherwise have a home.
The new digs are divided between a bright, welcoming cafe/dining room (which will serve food) and a sizable performance space — overall, a significant upgrade from the smaller, shaggier Brooklyn venue. The 3,000-square-foot public space’s capacity, once finalized, will be somewhere between 200 and 300. The DJ booth is already packed with vinyl, a sampling of the crew’s deep record collection. The Brooklyn venue’s original bar has been reinstalled, too.
It’s a rented space, a onetime bakery most recently used as a storage facility for Altamirano Records, the distributor of regional Mexican music still headquartered next door. (Mario Espinoza of Altamirano is Zebulon's new landlord.) It sits on the outskirts of a Frogtown on the rise, as chic restaurants and upscale retailers continue to pop up nearby. Last year, the sit-down taco restaurant Salazar opened next door.
“We had no business strategy
Blestel and the Soubirans originally hail from France, and moved to New York in the late ’90s. They're devout fans of New York jazz, and in 2003 that devotion led them to open Zebulon as a venue for freewheeling musical experimentalism.
“I would never have done it if I hadn’t encountered the jazz in New York, and the [performers] of that music,” Joce Soubiran says. “Charles Gayle, Butch Morris, Frank Lowe, Denis Charles. We were very close to those guys. Charles Gayle — the first time he came to Zebulon, he stepped out of the bar, looked at the place, and said, ‘Joce, I feel like I’m at the Five Spot.’ We really met some people who showed us the way.”
Much of Zebulon's booking featured these New York jazz legends and their heirs, like Ravi Coltrane and Kenny Wollesen, whose own drum set became part of the venue's backline. But Zebulon covered a wide strand of worldly adventurousness, and in time became a welcome space for a small indie-rock crowd that also embraced its intuitive curatorial attitude. Everyone from guitarist Steve Gunn to saxophonist Colin Stetson to indie-rock bands like TV on the Radio and Dirty Projectors used the venue as a friendly, familiar environment in which to grow.
“Strategy, we never had,” Blestel says. “A hunger, maybe — to reach, to guide, to share. It’s more something like this than a strategy. We had no business strategy, and if we made [certain] move[s], maybe it was because we didn’t know anything about what was needed to open a place. We learned on the spot, and we did what we could with what we had.”
It was largely the owners’ unconventional attitudes, including what New York publications described as their “Parisian” sensibilities, that contributed to Zebulon's success. They never charged a cover. Artists were often allowed to play as long as they wanted, and were paid with crumpled bills from a passed basket plus a cut of the bar — a combination that could be quite lucrative.
The venue closed in 2012 — the result, the owners said at the time, of the changing neighborhood, and their own reluctance to change Zebulon to suit it.
Zebulon might not be a familiar name to many Angelenos, but the connections the group made after 10 years in Brooklyn ensure they’ll be able to book compelling shows from the get-go. They've already lined up a show featuring David Grubbs, the influential guitarist, composer and writer who is also a fixture on the New York scene. And they hope to host some shows that might previously have fallen under the purview of L.A.'s DIY spaces. (Full disclosure: A show I planned at now-closed Non Plus Ultra has been relocated to Zebulon.)
Peterson and Todd will serve as conduits to the local scene. “A lot of the places in L.A. that weren’t totally to code and permitted [haven’t been] able to survive in the current environment,” Peterson says. “We felt like it was really important that someone — lots of people, ideally — make an effort to present music and arts in a way that invites people into community space.”
Which is not to say, of course, that the path has been an easy one. Obtaining the permits Zebulon needed to host concerts, for instance, was an expensive, two-year process involving community meetings, zoning reviews and fact-finding, among other things. “It is a huge risk,” Peterson says. “And it was very difficult to do. I don’t want people to misunderstand that. I would advise people to do something like this because I think it’s needed, but not necessarily because it’s a good idea for personal sanity.”
Unlike before, Zebulon will sell tickets to some of its events, which will allow it to attract artists who can’t book shows without being able to project attendance and earnings. (Joce Soubiran cites legendary saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders by way of example.) Some events, including music, will still be free.
What won't change is Zebulon's dedication to putting artists first; to providing a platform for underground art that other for-profit venues might be unwilling or unable to support. And while that idea has often been the purview of L.A.'s beleaguered DIY venues, Zebulon could soon prove that a bar with a “hunger to share” and a willingness to take big risks could be just what lovers of fringe art and music in this city need.
Check zebulon.la for updates on the new Zebulon as it gets closer to opening.
[Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published to include Zebulon partners Jean-Pierre Plunier and Andy Factor.]