Northeast punk, jazz and psych-rock venue Cafe NELA closes its doors for the last time on Sunday as Permanent Records prepares to move in, but there’s still time for a few killer shows over the weekend. One of the last great punk rock hangouts, NELA will be missed. We chatted with owner Dave Travis about the ultimately short-lived but memorable place…
L.A. WEEKLY: When did NELA open, and what was your mission?
DAVE TRAVIS: We opened in September 2013 — our first show was on September 21, 2013. A lot of it was, I’ve been in bands and putting on shows since the ‘80s and after Mr. T’s and Al’s Bar closed down, our bands needed a place to play. Also it was during the economic downturn so it was hard to find work for me and my friends too. So this property became available, a distressed property real close to my house, and I could put my life savings and get this, start a business to employ my friends and have a place for my band and my friends’ bands to play.
There really was nowhere like it…
There wasn’t even any venues in Northeast L.A. when we opened. There’s Columbo’s that does jazz shows but other than that there was the American Legion Hall. Since we opened there’s the Offbeat, Lodge Room, Highland Park Bowl, Hi-Hat — all those venues opened but at the time there was really nowhere except for Columbo’s and then sporadic shows at the American Legion Hall. Still, even with those places open, most of those places won’t have a lot of the bands that play at Cafe NELA.
So why are you closing?
It’s mainly financial. We give 100 percent of the door to the bands, so all our revenue comes from selling beer and so our revenue’s pretty steady but the costs of running a business in L.A. keep on rising. I tried to sustain it as long as I could. I’ve had friends that ran venues and clubs to the last possible moment and then they ended up closing with a ton of debt and for me it was better to quit while I’m ahead than quit when I’m underwater. But we did over 1,000 shows and made it through this decade. Most of our customers are getting older, so they go out less and drink less. I’m getting older too and I work eight shifts a week to keep the place running. It’s getting harder and harder to sustain working that much but we don’t make enough for me to replace me. So when the offer came in and it was someone actually doing a music thing, not buying it to tear it down and make a development, it seemed like the right time to do it.
What is it going to be?
Permanent Records is taking it over. They have two record stores on York and one on Sunset. So this will be their one on Cypress, but we’re set for the live music so they’re buying the beer license off of me and applying to the city to get their entertainment license since there’s been an entertainment license on that property already. So then they could actually do in-stores when the bands come in to do promotion. The place is set up with the stage and PA. Buying records, drinking beer and watching bands.
What have been your highlights over the six years?
There’s a lot of highlights. We’ve had bands from all over the world, really good Japanese bands and bands from mainland China. A lot of old school bands that came back to play here like Redd Kross, The Blasters, Alice Bag. And also seeing bands like Pedal Strike develop. Always having bands like The Gears play. The Gitane Demone Orchestra shows are always interesting, where she has like 15 musicians and 40 people singing. The people from Frank Zappa’s band played here like Don Preston and Ike Willis. A lot of good stuff happened.
You’re really going out with a bang…
The last show on Sunday is Midget Handjob, which is Keith Morris and also Danny Frankel, an amazing drummer. We have Los Creepers, which is an old school band from Northeast L.A.’s chicano punk scene. Pedal Strike, The Gears and Black Widows play last.
Saturday is a repeat of the first show had. Out of the 10 bands that played at the first show, we’ve got seven of them back. Carnage Asada is my band. We have Atomic Sherpas, another of the man bands that played Cafe NELA often. Nostradumass, Garretson & Gorodetsky, the Eric Potter band — it’ll be really good.
Friday, it’s Dirty Ed Friday. Dirty Ed’s 73 years old, and he’s been a Hollywood fixture since the ‘70s. He was the soundman at Bar Deluxe and the Garage and the Redwood before here. Besides doing sound, he would also book shows. This will be the last Dirty Ed Friday, at least here. So it’s Motorcycle Boy, Brainspoon, Crazy Squeeze. He gets a lot of the bands that have been with him since he was doing stuff in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
What’s next for you?
Monday I’ll try to rest, then Tuesday through Thursday I’ll be getting all my stuff out of here. I have to be out by the end of next week. After that, dealing with the aftermath of this, then plan what to do in 2020.
Would you take on a venue again?
Possibly. But not for sure. It would depend on the situation.
Go to cafenela.net for all of the info about this weekend’s show, plus an archive of the bands that have played there.