There are about 15 people milling around the Smell on a warm early March night, evenly divided between shaggy teens and noise-scene longhairs, all waiting for a two-piece of drums and sax to take the stage. Then there's Jim Smith, standing outside in his buttoned-up Oxford shirt, brown hair trimmed close, leaning against the venue's battered outside wall.
"A lot of people who have lived or worked downtown for decades didn't know we existed, until all the publicity around our demolition. I think —"
A musician interrupts to ask if she can start playing. Smith runs inside to set her up.
"I think," he continues after a moment, "that kind of exposure can actually help. What we're doing is a good thing. The more people see that, the more help we're going to get."
Smith, 48, the Smell's soft-spoken owner, serves as steward of the nearly 20-year-old venue, which has become Los Angeles DIY culture's symbolic locus. In that time, the Smell has played a part in launching everyone from Ty Segall to clipping., and earned its stripes as one of America's vital underground venues.
In the year since the city pasted a demolition notice on the venue's front door — the work of their new landlord, a parking lot company — Smith's mission has expanded. It now includes not only running the venue but saving it, by organizing fundraising shows, allying the Smell with other underground venues and getting the word out about the space's good work. And as DIY spaces around the city continue to close, Smith's fight has come to symbolize a bigger struggle for the future of off-grid music spaces in L.A.
Unlike the underground venues recently shuttered by the city, the Smell is fully permitted, and maintains its DIY cred with a stage accessible to up-and-coming bands, a no-frills downtown space and its longtime alcohol-free policy. The policy means that, unlike the vast majority of music venues in L.A., every one of the Smell's shows is all-ages.
There wasn't any place like the Smell for young Jim Smith. At least there wasn't until Jabberjaw, the legendary under-the-boards rock club, opened in 1989, when Smith was 20. The venue sparked his interest in community-driven music venues.
Years later, Smith, who was working at UPS at the time, opened the Smell in North Hollywood with a couple of friends. They moved downtown two years later; Smith later became the sole owner.
"DIY wasn't even a term," Smith says. "It was more like, 'We're going to be all-ages, we're going to be volunteer-run, we're going to be focused on the music and the art, and it's going to be a community.'"
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Smith is famous for giving out keys to the Smell so bands can practice or record there. In turn, the sound of the venue became the sound of a movement. In 2006, when Smell regulars No Age and Health broke out, their records sounded like a show at the Smell, full of splintering noise and reckless independence.
Smith now works for the local Teamsters union and admits that, between his two vocations, he doesn't get much sleep. He says the secret to the Smell's longevity has been letting the venue define itself. Most of its shows now are booked by volunteers. "It's not just me," he says. "There is no shortage of people signing up to volunteer to do whatever needs to be done. I couldn't do it if it was just me."
On this night, the venue is a swirl of sax and drums, complicated by the sound of blaring cumbia seeping in from the bar next door. It's the type of night that makes you proud to live in this city, to participate in a moment so free.
Smith is proud to think of this creative incubator — its future still uncertain but bolstered by continual waves of loyal support — as his legacy. "It's hard not to think that way of something you have done for 20 years of your life," he says. "I get satisfaction out of seeing young artists develop, and I get satisfaction out of their careers."