When it comes to L.A. nightlife, “the Valley” has always been an ugly stepsister, a less-than-cool suburban no-man's-land that pales to the glamour and grit of other parts of town. Yet its history for inspiring music, and as a breeding ground for badass bands, cannot be overstated. There may not be any “hot spots” in the Valley, but for many that’s a good thing. (And anyway, the region's bar quotient is more than impressive — and yeah, I kinda know what I’m talking about.)
Audacious mixology, velvet ropes and celeb sightings? Who needs ’em? Strong liquor and loud music done right are all it takes to get a lively crowd, and Tim Cook, the man behind Tarzana's Maui Sugar Mill Saloon, is proving it.
The venue’s live music bookings have actually been good enough to get fans bound to the usual rock clubs and bars (guilty!) to bust out of their bubbles and hop on the 101 North into the Valley … the deep Valley, no less. And it’s been worth it. On recent visits I’ve seen punk legends DJ, surf-rock girls make waves and garage rockers grind it good at the Mill. Unfortunately, I’ve missed a lot of the legends who’ve graced the place too, but I’ve definitely heard about them — everyone from Valley resident Dave Grohl joining Taylor Hawkins when Chevy Metal and The Birds of Satan played, to Ron Wood hanging out and watching some blues pals jam.
It’s been a slow but smooth ascent into rock & roll club contention for Cook and his wife, Linda, both hard-core music fans who possessed an astonishingly huge ticket-stub collection before purchasing half interest in the place in 2007 and full interest in 2011. Maui Sugar Mill Saloon has been around since 1976, with several owners along the way, though it’s only been showcasing music since the 1990s. Between then and the Cooks' arrival, however, it was a different vibe altogether.
“At the time it was in its 'lounge act' incarnation,” Cook recalls of his and Linda's early days, “with singers performing Neil Diamond, Sinatra and cheesy ’60s/’70s pop. Think old cruise-ship entertainment. Getting to where we are today has been more evolution than revolution. The place had no entertainment on Sunday and Monday nights, so we started there, with a blues jam, which is now the weekly blues event in L.A., and rockabilly on Sundays. Over time we eased out the other acts and added music we liked on a budget. Each change brought new business.”
When the pair bought out their partner in 2011, Cook says, things started taking off. “We've never had a 'plan' to create a great music venue. Linda and I are big music fans and we simply sought out the bands and sounds we like personally. Each successful booking led to another step forward.”
The no-cover policy at Maui surely helped (bands share in the bar's revenue), as did the dive's unchanged interior, including copper-top bar, oak paneling and copious branded booze neon, all of which made for a fitting backdrop to the increasingly raucous shows coming in. Ample parking — it’s in a rather large mini-mall — hasn’t hurt either.
But how is Cook getting such great shows? Why do bands want to do gigs at his 120-capacity space, with only a 13-by-9-foot stage? “I have a group of bookers/promoters that I work with; usually each takes a show or two each month so they can give it their best,” he explains. “Cadillac Zack handles Monday's Blues Jam, Dave Bernal handles Wednesday night country shows. I book about six to eight shows a month personally. All shows are no cover, over 21, with a two-beverage minimum. Bands are guaranteed some cash for their performance.
“On a couple occasions we found out bookers were keeping all the revenue; they no longer book shows at the Mill,” he adds. “We’re no pay-to-play, no tickets, no advance sales, with rare exceptions where bands require it. We only ask the bands to help promote the event. We have no idea if we're doing it the ‘right way' but it works for us.”
Indeed, some great local bands, many used to much bigger and definitely better-known venues, have taken the Sugar Mill’s tiny stage, including The Woolly Bandits, Prima Donna, Go Betty Go, Billy Bones' new band The Sold & Bones, The Knitts, The Blasters and Slim Jim Phantom. Minuteman Mike Watt and Fur Dixon of Hollywood Hillbillys and Cramps fame are on the bill this weekend.
Cook rattles off some of his fondest memories at the bar thus far: “Anything with Rikki Styxx drumming, seeing Slash perform a set of deep blues with Jimmy Vivino, Dave Grohl joining Chevy Metal for a two-hour set of ’70s glam rock, John Doe of X strumming his guitar and performing solo acoustic. My God, that was the Chambers Brothers performing 'Time Has Come Today' live on our little stage, too. There's been so many the last couple years.”
With a list like that, dare I say this place is making the Valley, um, cool? “I don't know. I guess I'm oblivious to boundaries. I'm aware of the 'scenes' in downtown L.A., the Strip, Northeast L.A., the OC,” muses Cook, who’s originally from New York. “But I just book good bands. The Valley has a lot of people. We like music too. Keep in mind, the Valley used to have great venues hosting national touring bands and stars, like Palomino's, the Country Club, Devonshire Downs. Talk to Rodney Bingenheimer or Chuck E. Starr. The Valley was hopping. Linda, who’s from L.A., saw so many great shows back in the 1980s right here in the Valley. The Clash, X, Prince …”
Cook and his wife obviously have good taste, but maybe it's their booking naivete that helped the bar take off. “Not knowing the business of live music was and is an advantage,” he says. “We constantly think, 'Wouldn't it be cool if?' and then find out if it's possible. I'm not afraid to be told ‘no,’ so I keep asking.”
They also consider themselves fortunate to be proprietors of “a place everyone comes into and immediately likes. Plus, the hills along Ventura Boulevard are where so many musicians live, so they are aware of the Sugar Mill down the street. The biggest stars all started out playing little shitholes in their hometowns. They remember how fun that was, when it was simpler. We try to treat everyone with respect, from the kid with a garage band in Reseda to the rock star sitting in on drums.”
Los Angeles native Lina Lecaro has been covering L.A. nightlife since she started as a teen intern at L.A. Weekly (fake ID in tow) nearly two decades ago. She went on to write her own column, “Nightranger,” for the print edition of the Weekly for six years. Read her “Lina in L.A.” interviews for the latest nightlife news, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
More from Lina Lecaro:
Goths, Galleries and Gentrification: The Year in L.A. Nightlife
Everyone From L7 to Nirvana (Yes, That Nirvana) Played '90s DIY Venue Jabberjaw
A Q&A With Gun N' Roses' Duff McKagan