The Smell's toilet at 17.EXPAND
The Smell's toilet at 17.
Photo by Art Tavana

"We Didn't Want to Play Songs Tonight": The Smell's 17th Anniversary Party Got Weird

The Smell 17th Anniversary Show - Night Two
The Smell
January 3, 2015

No Wave goddess and spitfire revolutionary Lydia Lunch should have been there on Saturday, kneeling against the brick walls of the Smell (like it was New York, circa '78) and hurling expletives at the tiny audience. On the other side of that same wall, on a freezing night, amid a half-marathon that created gridlock on 2nd Street, you could hear loud techno rattling the butt cheeks of male strippers next door — like a lurid sex scene out of Lunch's book, Paradoxia: A Predator's Diary

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About 50 people were in attendance for night two of the Smell's 17th anniversary. They had come to see experimental noise performances by former Lunch collaborators Nels Cline and Carla Bozulich, who played the North Hollywood incarnation of the Smell when it first opened.

It was a departure from night one, headlined by Cherry Glazerr and Girlpool, which filled the place to capacity with what is now the Smell's core audience: teenagers who first saw No Age at FYF 2013, not the Smell. The same kids who think local pop-rock duo Girlpool is a punk band or worse, "riot grrrl." 

The second night of the Smell's 17th anniversary wasn't booked to draw the teenagers. Instead, it was carefully designed for a mature audience that, sadly, never really showed up, at least not until Nels Cline, now best-known as the guitarist in Wilco, took the stage with his noise project, Fig. It was as if the second night was curated to satisfy a Smell audience that no longer exists; the same people that saw Mika Miko and No Age there in 2006 — or even further back, some 17 years, to the NoHo days. 

Photo by Art Tavana

Dunes, the unlucky opener, were originally scheduled to play night one — which in hindsight, should never have been changed. But kudos to Dunes, a band rooted in the Smell's punk glory days (with ex-Mika Miko member Kate Hall on drums), who managed to bring their lush sound into focus for about 10 people. Littered with jangling guitars, a calming tone, and lead singer Stephanie Chan's post-punk sensibility, Dunes sounded like they belonged on night one, playing with more pop-sounding acts like Moaning

Carla Bozulich (right) and Tara Jane O'NeilEXPAND
Carla Bozulich (right) and Tara Jane O'Neil
Photo by Art Tavana

But most of the night was a trip into Lydia Lunch-like disdain for normalcy. Cline and Bozulich, the night's biggest stars, played freeform noise designed for prodigious guitar masters attending CalArts, or really well-spoken drug addicts. Bozulich used a steel bowl full of voice-bending toys to turn her vocals into distant demon cries. She was joined by Tara Jane O'Neil on guitar, who played the whole set on the ground, discovering the right chord, with the right effect, on the fly.  

Fig (Yuka Honda, left, and Nels Cline)EXPAND
Fig (Yuka Honda, left, and Nels Cline)
Photo by Art Tavana

During Cline's similarly off-kilter set, which also featured Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda, it seemed like he was soloing with feedback the whole time, while Honda used a pink laptop to add effects under his hypnotic tone. Occasionally, Cline's guitar mastery would shine through with some actual rock 'n' roll, juxtaposed against Honda's tribal drum beats and laptop noise. The experimental mind-fucking of Wilco's guitar god wasn't something we'll ever see again. The set was created specifically for the Smell's 17th anniversary.

John Wiese's noisecore band Sissy Spacek pounded on their instruments for 15 minutes straight, without a lead singer, which seemed to go on forever. When we asked Wiese why their singer Sarah Taylor (Youth Code) wasn't there, and why the band just slammed metal and strings together for one long song, he grinned and said, "We didn't want to play songs tonight."

Daniel Wright-Fresco, the Smell's infamous "homeless security guard," provided the unintentional highlight of the evening. A documentary about his role at the venue played like an inside joke that everybody (except for Daniel) was in on. Prior to screening the seven-minute film, Daniel gave what seemed like an impromptu speech about how "nobody else" could do his job — that is, standing outside the Smell and saying weird shit to teenagers. 

Photo by Art Tavana

The strange, DIY Twilight Zone experience culminated in what was inexplicably the best set of the night. Giovanni Marks, aka L.A. underground rapper Subtitle, with a broken toe and a war-torn laptop, performed a spoken word session of stories about his life (mostly fictional, like when he told everyone he was "a pop star in the '60's"). "There's PCP in these speakers," he said, which led the circle of onlookers down a rabbit hole of warped sci-fi beats, a Cutting Crew sample, and a flow that got faster with every verse. 

By the time closer Mia Doi Todd, who had performed at the Smell during it's short NoHo run, took the stage, she was playing to about 15 people. Her mythic vocal range was drowned out by the techno music next door, which she laughed off in a gesture of pure class. It was sad to see, but for the six of us that cared, Mia Doi Todd's vocals sounded heavenly, and seemed to connect, like we were at her cozy apartment for a holiday jam session.

She even played a new song for the first time, which was a fittingly spontaneous way to wrap up the Smell's 17th anniversary. Whether for 20 people or 200, the Smell remains L.A.'s open-mic for geniuses, homeless people and bands looking to fuck with their audience. If the clueless teenagers stayed home for night two of the party, maybe that's just as well.

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