If you've gone to Echo Country Outpost - the Echo Park non-profit music venue on Glendale Boulevard - in the last four years, you may have seen old-timey country rock n' roll acts like Christian Lee Hutson, Blackwater Jukebox and Little Lonely. But the spot shut down in March, after cops learned that the turquoise-colored space didn't have the proper permits and wasn't zoned for live entertainment.
Husband and wife team Chris Hajek and Erica Forneret are the Outpost's directors. They live on site, along with several artists and musicians who rent studios in the building. They emphasize that they weren't closed by the cops, but rather they themselves stopped holding shows until they could figure out how to make Echo Country Outpost legal.
Unfortunately, as we've said on these pages before, that's a nearly-impossible task in L.A., one which would require applying for a conditional use permit to rezone the building for live entertainment; since it's housed in a former auto body shop, it's only zoned for retail. Then, they'd have to upgrade the facilities to meet requirements for handicap accessibility, capacity, and parking, among other standards.
"Most people open a space naively and then they get in trouble and start trying to figure out if or how they could be legal, afterward," says 35-year-old Hajek, when we meet over beers in their back patio turned tiki bar. A Chicago transplant who attributes his straightforward business dealings with his Midwest upbringing, Hajek resembles a young Jerry Garcia, thanks to his tie-dye shirt and unruly mane and beard.
His wife Forneret, a 33-year-old L.A. native with Southern roots, wears a vintage dress, platform heels and sparkly nail polish. She adds: "We were never under any belief that anything we were doing was illegal or wrong."
Until an LAPD inspection three months ago, Forneret and Hajek believed that Echo Country Outpost was complying with the law; they had a valid liquor license and day permits for hosting charitable fundraising events - since they were a nonprofit. The events included vegan brunch parties, blanket fort-making competitions, an annual fish fry, and live music. Former Pixies bassist Kim Deal performed at the Outpost in 2012, and Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke there during a workshop called "Rethinking Glendale Boulevard" earlier that year, while he was still a District 13 council member.
Hajek and Forneret, both of whom work part-time jobs from home, say the venue has always intentionally kept a low profile and it's never made any money. Even when they founded it as a small vintage gift shop on Echo Park Boulevard in 2009, the couple always lived at the space - initially sleeping in storage closets or on a pallet on the concrete floor - which allowed them to keep costs down. They say they've never received a noise complaint from their neighbors. But the cops were tipped off about them via an anonymous call, which makes them wonder if it was from a music venue worried they were encroaching on their business.
In any case, Hajek and Forneret have decided to cut their losses and move Echo Country Outpost into a new location once their lease ends next year. The move was probably inevitable: their landlord has said he'll eventually sell the building, possibly to the same developers who have been buying up neighboring plots of land to build high-rise condos on Glendale Boulevard near the 2 Freeway.
In the meantime, they're planning to join forces with a downtown L.A. non-profit that has what they need: a fully-licensed warehouse with a live entertainment permit and a nearly 400-person capacity. In exchange, the Outpost has agreed to book shows, decorate the warehouse, supply a liquor permit and build up community awareness for the partnering non-profit, whose name they've yet to announce.
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They're also organizing Camp Outpost, an inaugural two-day summer camp for grown-ups this July 4 weekend at Lake Piru in the Los Padres National Forest. The sold-out campout will feature performances from more than a dozen "Outpost bands" including RT n' the 44s, Christian Lee Hutson, Burly Temple, Donna Bummer and Blue Bird Bandits, plus the traditional Outpost fish fry, which is inspired by Forneret's grandmas' creole cooking.
Hajek and Forneret are eager to escape their city troubles for a weekend, but they hope that L.A. might someday restructure its laws to accommodate grassroots venues like theirs. "We continue to dream of having everything that we have now, and it's a place where everybody can hang out," Hajek says. "I already know there's nothing like this in L.A., but if we could be legal, too? Holy shit. It'd really be a dream."