The worst part about running a metal venue out of your home is the mess.
The proprietor of South Central club the Black Castle regularly puts on shows for hundreds of raging metalheads. He also lives in the facilities, which are housed in a former custom-car shop. Additionally, he’s a one-man janitorial crew. He complains about the expense of the toilets he’s had to replace over the years, but that’s far from the grossest task he has faced.
“One time I was trying to figure out for weeks why it smelled so bad in here,” he says. “Then I lifted up a floorboard on the stage and there’s a rotting pig’s head under it.”
The proprietor will give only his first name: Josh. He regards outsiders with suspicion, and says he fears that divulging too much information about himself will lead to “retaliation.” When a reporter visited the Black Castle recently, Josh opened the heavily reinforced door wearing a long black coat, his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. He beckoned his visitor inside and quickly shut the door behind him. Josh is extremely secretive, and even those who make his acquaintance can’t get much of a read on him. “I’ve met him for sure, but I couldn’t point him out to you,” says Pete Majors, frontman of L.A. black-metal trio Harassor.
In its seven years of existence, the Black Castle has become one of Los Angeles’ longest-running DIY venues for extreme music, and a focal point in the L.A. metal community. It can be hard to get people out to this particularly desolate stretch of Manchester Avenue in the Vermont Knolls neighborhood, but the dedicated find their way.
Once the shows start, the Black Castle turns into a hurricane of flying fists, studded bracelets and banging heads. Concerts have involved musicians “opening themselves up” — i.e., cutting themselves onstage — mock crucifixions, animal carcasses and lots of blood. Real blood.
“The Black Castle has always been really good at booking bands from a broad cross-section of extreme music,” Majors says. “People feel more in their own environment there. You can go check out the music you dig without dealing with some pretentious scene.”
The exterior and interior of the venue are covered in layers of black paint. From the outside, it looks like a rotten, black tooth sticking out of the ground; inside, a weak white corona from a single spotlight above the stage makes the space navigable, revealing Josh’s heavily tattooed arms and the neatly trimmed beard that outlines his jaw. He’s thoughtful, soft-spoken and seems almost organically connected to the space.
“That’s new,” he says, pointing to two human-sized cages on either side of the stage. In addition to concerts, Josh hosts private events, extreme performances that involve, among other things, body suspension. “The hooks will have embedded microphones, so you can actually hear the pulling,” he notes.
Josh leads the way into the green room, which he built and which gives musicians easy access to the stage. The small space also serves as his makeshift living room, furnished only with a couch and a lamp. His bedroom is adjacent, less than 10 feet from the stage.
Josh is in his early 30s. He has remodeled the rented space into a performance venue and studio in which to make his art. “I just need a lot of space to work. I couldn’t do it in a regular house,” Josh says, showing off one of his projects, a giant handmade wheel painted with symbols. The wheel originally was intended for use by Josh’s black-metal band, Sein und Zeit. “It was supposed to spin onstage using an engine,” he explains. Unfortunately, there were too many kinks in its operation, and he scrapped it when he deemed it a hazard to concertgoers.
Normally, however, such precautions are not at the forefront of his mind. Fights have been known to break out at shows, and while Josh has friends who work as bouncers there, they’re not the most vigilant. “When I was going to shows a lot as a kid, it was always a drag when you had an entire staff of security people watching your every move,” he recalls. “You couldn’t even scratch your balls without them looking at you. [Our security] are accessible if you need anything, but they aren’t here to police you.”
On the few occasions when the actual police have shown up to investigate complaints, cops have commented on Josh’s odd living arrangements. “They’ll come around and be like, ‘What kind of house is this?’ I’m like, ‘What kind of house do you live in, bro?’?”
The Black Castle’s semi-lawless vibe is part of its appeal. “As long as no one dies, that’s a victory for me,” Josh says, apparently only half-joking. He has staged hundreds of shows here over the years, featuring acts including Tampa blackened death-metal outfit Angelcorpse, Australian black-metal band Gospel of the Horns and Seattle black-metal act Inquisition.
During performances, he controls the soundboards from a barely lit pulpit in the back, staying in the background and making sure everything is as it should be. “A lot of people who come here, I start to recognize, but they never know who I am,” he says. “I like that people have a good time here. They create new memories. They go home and post their pictures online.” He pauses and stares into space. “They don’t know who I am, but I know who they are.”
Josh may seem like a character from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but he grew up in Boyle Heights and came of age going to backyard shows, getting high and getting into trouble, he says. He hated school but discovered a knack for ad hoc engineering, building intricate contraptions and fixing the inner workings of his broken toys. He’s long loved art but couldn’t afford to go to college to study it. Nowadays he works a day job as a plumber in big commercial buildings, but he’s otherwise dedicated to the Black Castle, his band and his inventions. He uses any type of material he can find, including glass, recycled tubes, computer parts and scrap metal.
In underground metal circles, his tinkering and preference for anonymity have earned him the nickname the Engineer.
He now pulls out a pipelike device with light bulbs and circuit boards attached to it. It looks like something from a sci-fi movie, but it’s actually a bracelet he used to wear when performing with his band. It doesn’t do anything other than look cool. He also built a head cage to wear onstage, but, like many of his inventions, eventually it broke and he got tired of it, so it was recycled.
Going forward, Josh hopes to throw gatherings that are even more centered on his love of black metal and extreme performance. Audience members will have to sign a waiver, “to cover my ass,” he says. He doesn’t have it all mapped out yet, but the shows definitely will involve fire and blood.
“It’s about designing an experience,” Josh says. “I basically want it to be Burning Man for metalheads.”
Given that the Black Castle makes Burning Man look like a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm, he’s well on his way.
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