The Smell is celebrating its 17th anniversary this weekend. For an all-ages DIY venue in L.A., lasting 17 years is equivalent to Darby Crash making it through a set without bleeding. In that sense, the Smell is a miracle, surviving well beyond the life expectancy of other DIY venues like Echo Curio, the Church on York, and East 7th — all of which left nothing more than a stain on the scene before closing down.
After moving from North Hollywood to its Downtown L.A. brick building in 2000, the Smell has been marinating in thick gutter-punk perfume (i.e. hair spray and unwashed thrift-store garb) long enough to breed bands like Girlpool (who met at the Smell) and serve as an open mic of sorts for SoCal rockers like Together Pangea and The Garden.
It's also where Sean Solomon formed the folk-punk band Moses Campbell when he was just 16 years old. That was around 2008, right after experimental punk bands like Mika Miko, No Age and Abe Vigoda turned the Smell into most talked-about DIY venue in the country.
Moses Campbell would go on to become a mainstay at the Smell from 2008 to 2014. At one point, Solomon was booking shows at the venue in the role of their “folk-punk booker” — a byproduct of the Smell's volunteer-run community. Solomon also played the 14th anniversary show with his former band Heller Keller, and two years later, he played the Smell's Sweet 16 show with Moses Campbell.
The smelliest of Smell kids now fronts Moaning: an experimental grunge-pop three-piece (with members of Moses Campbell). In just their second show, Moaning is scheduled to play night one of the 17th anniversary of the Smell.
In anticipation of the gig, we caught up with Solomon to talk about his memories from the DIY venue, the scene it birthed, and the time Randy Randall of No Age shoved a vegan hot dog in his face and said, “Dude, you gotta' try the vegan hot dogs…they're delicious!”
L.A. Weekly: How did you get involved with the Smell?
Sean Solomon: Around 2006, when I was 15, the punk scene at my high school in the Valley [Taft High School] was filled with kids doing drugs. I wasn't trying to do that because that scene was destroying my life. I think the Smell was a safe-zone for me because there was no alcohol. So I started going there all the time; I didn't even know what band was playing. I just knew if they were at the Smell, they were automatically good.
What was so cool about the Smell?
It was like a clubhouse where you're sitting in on a band practicing. You could see No Age play a new song for the first time. That was something you could only get at the Smell. Plus every band from the 2006-2008 scene sounded so different. It was like anyone could go on stage and just voice their opinions.
Do you remember the first show you saw the Smell?
It was the 10th anniversary show, I think Blackblack and Devon Williams were playing. But my favorite band at the time was Abe Vigoda. My dream was to play the Smell with Abe Vigoda and No Age, which is crazy because I remember playing the 16th anniversary show with No Age. And then the first Moaning show in December was with Roses, which is Juan's new band [ex-Abe Vigoda].
How did you start playing shows at the Smell with Moses Campbell?
I remember seeing No Age at the Ukrainian Culture Center for the first time, and Randy from No Age walked up to me and told me try the vegan hot dogs. That was when I was 16, and knew I wanted to be like those guys. They showed me that successful bands don't have big egos. I think it was around 2008 when I started messaging [Smell owner] Jim Smith on MySpace to play a show at the Smell. Our first show was Moses Campbell and Haim.
Wait, your first show was with Haim?
Yeah, they were pretty rock 'n' roll then. I knew them from high school. Now they're on like a completely different level.
So besides booking shows there, how did the Smell help Moses Campbell create such a loyal following?
Oh man, the Smell was everything for us. Moses Campbell was like this folk-punk band, and the Smell was probably the only place to meet other similar bands. When I was 18, the Smell's label [OlFactory Records] released the first Moses Campbell album on vinyl. Moses Campbell's last few shows were at the Smell, which all sold out. It was like we had accomplished what we came to do. Moses Campbell was like our internship at the Smell.
What was the craziest show you ever saw at the Smell?
I saw the Mae Shi there. During their set, they threw this giant colorful tarp over the crowd and everyone from the band, except the drummer, came underneath and forced everyone to sing together. There's just something special about everyone screaming together in a small venue that holds 200 people.
How did the Smell change your life?
If wasn't for the Smell, I wouldn't have my band or my job. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a cartoonist, so when I was at the Smell, I made all our flyers and zines. I submitted one to get into Cal Arts. Even my essay to get in was about the DIY community at the Smell. During my second year, a creative director at Fox saw a zine I had made and said he wanted to meet with me. That inspired me to pitch Adult Swim and Cartoon Network, and it eventually helped me get my job working in animation. I took the same DIY thing I learned at the Smell and brought into a new enviornment.
What's it like being booked to play the 17th anniversary?
It's the coolest thing ever. It's just our second show as a band. When Jim messaged me to have Moaning play the 17th anniversary show, I knew all the work we put in with Moses Campbell was worth it. It all comes full circle, and now we're playing a show that gives you a sense of how the Smell evolved over the years. Dunes are playing, which includes Kate Hall from Mika Miko. Juan from Abe Vigoda is playing with his band Roses. And the freshest of Smell bands, Girlpool and Cherry Glazerr are playing. I love how Jim curated the lineup to show all that.
The Smell's 17th anniversary weekend begins on Friday, January 2, with sets by Girlpool, Cherry Glazerr, Surf Curse, Roses, Moaning and Sacred Destinies.
On Saturday, January 3, sets by Sissy Spacek, Subtitle, Carla Bozulich, Fig, Dunes and Mia Doi Todd close out the festivities. (Note that since the above flyer was printed, Dunes and Sacred Destinies have swapped nights.)
Tickets can be purchased at the door for $12. Two-night pre-sale passes are available here for $17.