Since putting on their first show in November, The Church on York has become a pretty big deal. Their recent concert with punk band Hunx and His Punx sold out, and on Valentine's Day they're hosting the farewell show in L.A. for Vivian Girls, which is a seismic indie rock event.
This, despite the fact that the venue – based in an old Church of Christ church in Highland Park – has had no advertising to speak of.
Sure, it helps that owner Graeme Flegenheimer until recently had his own PR firm, which repped some pretty big names in the indie realm, until he disbanded it in order to devote all of his time to the Church. But then again Flegenheimer, whose first name is pronounced “Graham,” is only 22 years old. Some people call him “Baby Gatsby.”
What's the deal with this place?
It's not a stretch to say that the all-ages venue already has a cultish following. Sandwiched between two single-family homes on York Boulevard near Occidental College, The Church's exterior is unchanged from its days as an actual church, right down to a marquee out front with its name in English, Korean and Spanish. There are still some broken windows, and a full kitchen where chef Jezenia Romero plans to serve South American food.
The bands it has booked, meanwhile, are legit. On Thursday arrives venerated Detroit noise trio Wolf Eyes, and next month will be Ringo Deathstarr, from Austin. Before The Church, Flegenheimer booked the recently-re-formed African-American punk band Death for a backyard show. (The cops put the kibosh on the event before Death got to play, which Flegenheimer says motivated him to found a legitimate venue.)
But is The Church legitimate?
“My goal with this space is to make something that has a sense of community and that's legal so we don't get shut down,” says Fleigneheimer, a Vermont native who's lived in L.A. for half a dozen years. Until he can get long-term permitting for the space, he's been applying for special events permits for each individual show, and says he's working closely with the appropriate people from the city and zoning. “There's so many horror stories out there of D.I.Y. space after D.I.Y. space getting shut down or raided or busted or fined.”
For that reason and others, a million cool L.A. spots have come and gone. Still, Baby Gatsby has big plans, he tells us, speaking from The Church's attic-turned-office, which is adorned with framed concert fliers and resembles a small record label's digs, except that it's in a cavernous circa-1913 steeple.
Joining him in the venture is 24-year-old Whittier-raised Romero and 30-year-old Montreal transplant Evan Dubinksy, who's serving as general manager and talent booker. Right now, the issue is money: The trio is currently approaching investors in order to raise funds some $65,000 for permitting, licensing, equipment rentals, security systems and safety measures like sprinkler systems. Getting the hundred-year-old building up to code is a work in progress.
Flegenheimer maxed out his American Express card to lease the space, he says, but hopes that revenue from venue rentals, shows, and private investments can help make The Church profitable at some point.
But right now they just need to stay open. Unlike a handful of Silver Lake venues that have faced opposition from neighbors, leading to Hyperion Tavern's loss of live-music privileges, the closure of art gallery Echo Curio and Los Globos' ongoing legal battle with the city, Flegenheimer insists that Highland Park residents and officials fully support The Church.
“I think here it's different in the sense that we actually want to make this place long lasting,” says Romero. “Not just for shows and parties, but for a bunch of different things. Like if someone wanted to have their bar mitzvah here, I think it'd be great.”
They're also doing comedy and theater – maybe even puppet shows, about which they've had an inquiry. They already have a regular comedy show called “Church” and a monthly series called “Art//Noise,” in which an artist installs work in the basement and a noise band fills the main stage with feedback. Other programming proposals include an indoor swap meet and a drag bingo night.
Dubinsky, a childhood friend of Flegeinhemer's who worked as a booking agent in Montreal for about a dozen years before moving to L.A. to help run The Church, describes himself as the most financially conservative and business-minded of the group. “History's made by dreamers, but there's always some guy with a clipboard being like, 'That's a really stupid idea.'”
He references an upcoming show in their basement with experimental musician Felicia Atkinson, better known as her stage name Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier; that same night, upstairs will be an afterparty for the L.A. Art Book Fair, featuring Seattle all-girl surf rock band La Luz, Portland stoner rockers White Fang and West L.A.-based pop musician Colleen Green.
It's sort of how The Echo and The Echoplex book small and larger shows on the same night, that cater to different audiences. The Church might even be giving The Echo a run for its money by booking Burger Records bands like Cherry Glazerr and Meat Market, the latter of which played The Echo on Friday.
Last week, a crowd that included Huntington Beach preteens in Doc Martens and artsy Highland Park middle-aged couples, assembled into The Church's basement to watch a trio of Orange County garage bands: Lovely Bad Things, Audacity and Cosmonauts. Upstairs in the main space, which traditionally housed sermons and choirs in the church's former incarnation, the Danish electronic duo Quadron was rehearsing with an actual choir for a video shoot for their single “Avalanche.”
It's masterminded by a production company co-founded by Will Abramson, who moved here around the time Flegenheimer signed his lease for The Church last summer. “At the time it was a total dump,” Abramson says.
He seems confident of his friend's success.
“It's Graeme being in the music industry for a while, having a lot friends,” Abramson says. “It's indicative of the fact that he cares about the bands he works with.”
But it remains to be seen if The Church can live up to its stated promise, on its website, of “no crazy security, no barriers, no overpriced anything.” After all, putting on shows and operating The Church is not cheap. “We have to bring in rentals, pay a lot of people to do stuff that we can't necessarily do ourselves,” says Dubinsky.
Is it possible that, appropriate to its name, this whole venture is just running on faith? On this question the staff gets defensive. “I want to see this happen and I don't know how it's going to happen or how it's going to work, but I see it happening. That image is strong enough for me to be able to just kind of let go and go for it,” says Romero.
“It becomes your job,” Dubinsky says, though he adds that none of them are yet paid salaries. Dubinsky and Romero are living at others apartments – Dubinsky at Flegenheimer's spot nearby.
“This is something that's real,” says Dubinsky. “We're like knocking shit out of here and putting it in the dumpster. We're planning a venue together and we're all collaborating on, 'Oh, should we fly this person in to do this cool show? Should this play happen?' Should this comedy show happen?' It's a team mentality.”
“We got handed a dump and made it into, I think, a nice little jewel of creativity and expression,” says Flegenheimer. “Do you know the expression, 'Polish a turd, get a diamond?'”
He smiles his charming Baby Gatsby smile, the smile of a 22-year-old who's managed to transform an abandoned church into one of the city's most promising new venues. “This is our little turd.”