Music by VICE

Why Embattled LA DIY Venue The Smell Is So Important

After LA's DIY music venue The Smell was threatened with a demolition notice, we spoke to some of the bands who came up performing and hanging out there.

by Peter Holslin
Jun 3 2016, 4:24pm

Jim Smith, the owner of The Smell, stands at its entrance. Photo by the author

Reed Kanter first started coming to The Smell as a teenager because he needed a place to stay sober. He'd spent six months in an intensive rehab program for drugs and alcohol, and now he was back, struggling to readjust. So he and his friends started a record label called Danger Collective, putting out releases by their and their friends' bands. They'd also make regular pilgrimages from their homes, in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, over to this all-ages music space at the edge of Skid Row in Downtown LA.

There, they were embraced by the city's most enduring DIY music institution—The Smell—where drugs and alcohol are forbidden, but where punk values and boundless creativity are celebrated.

"No one's drinking," Kanter, now 20 years old, told VICE. "It's just, like, cigarettes and moshing."

The Smell has become something of a home base for Danger Collective in the last three years, and they're not the only ones. Some of LA's best-known bands have launched from the venue, including No Age, Mika Miko, Abe Vigoda, and HEALTH, to more recent acts like noise-rap trio clipping and folk-punk band Girlpool. But last week, regulars faced news that The Smell's building has been targeted for demolition by the venue's landlords. Now, just as the latest generation of Smell devotees are making their mark, they face the possibility that the beloved downtown space they've embraced may at some point become a pile of rubble.

On Noisey: Despite Demolition Notice, LA DIY Institution The Smell Won't Go Down Without a Fight

Joe's Auto Parks, which owns The Smell's building, issued demolition notices to all the tenants on the block (which also include the New Jalisco Bar, the Downtown Independent movie theater, a nightclub, and a CrossFit gym). Kevin Litwin, Joe's Auto Parks chief operating officer, told VICE that the company has no immediate demolition plans, and that the landlord was "merely considering the potential for demolishing the building at some point in the future." He insisted he was sympathetic to The Smell's stature in the music scene.

"We want to figure out how to keep the music playing," Litwin said. "I'm a big music fan."

The band Casinos playing at The Smell. Photo by Patrick Jewett

But that doesn't provide much reassurance for Jim Smith, the venue's indefatigable owner, who is now laying the groundwork to achieve total autonomy. This week, they launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise a whopping $1.4 million to buy their own building.

"We want to try to avoid this kind of situation again," Smith told VICE. "We're going to do everything in our power to stay in this location as long as we can. But if we are forced to move, we don't want to be back here in the same place, you know, five years from now, ten years from now, where we're facing eviction, demolition, and scrambling to find another location—this whole circus that we're going through right now."

As of Friday morning, the campaign had raised nearly $17,000, and even Smith recognizes that $1.4 million is a lofty goal. If buying a new building isn't possible, the venue could seek official status as a historic-cultural monument (HCM). That would pave the way for public hearings, and if approved would make any demolitions or major alterations to the building subject to a significant review process.

Ken Bernstein, manager of LA's Office of Historic Resources, told VICE he's not familiar enough with The Smell to guess whether it would meet the criteria. But he said anyone can nominate a building, and in order to win HCM status, the particular site must be deemed emblematic of a facet of economic, social, or cultural history of the community. Several movie theaters in LA have been designated under these criteria, as well as LA's Black Cat Tavern, which received HCM status for being the site where one of the first LGBT riots against police harassment took place, predating New York's Stonewall riots of 1969.

People hanging out in the alley near The Smell. Photo by the author

Anyone who's spent time inside The Smell's cavernous red-brick space can speak to the venue's profound impact on the Los Angeles music scene.

"I feel like it's what made me who I am today," Jennifer Clavin, a co-founder of Mika Miko and member of the trio Bleached, told VICE over the phone from Germany, where her band is currently on tour. "I don't know if I'd still be in a band and be here in Germany talking to you if it wasn't for The Smell."

At first, it doesn't look like much. Its entrance is in dingy alley, next to a dumpster.

"I was scared as fuck," said Aaron Jassenoff, another Danger Collective member, of the first time he visited The Smell. "There's this grunge puddle and this trash can. And there are all these kids smoking cigarettes and stuff like that, and they're all huddled up, and they look mean."

But as he and the other Danger Collective boys became regulars at The Smell, they discovered those kids outside weren't mean at all. They were teenagers and 20-somethings, introverts and music lovers, just like them. And inside, Smith had taken great care to make the space inclusive for all—there's a vegan snack table, cheap cover charges, and a no-alcohol sign out front.

If The Smell does end up having to relocate, a lot of memories and history would be left behind. But some of the Smell's younger adherents seem to be taking this all in stride, certain that no matter what happens, The Smell's philosophy and community are here to stay.

"Everything's temporary. CBGB is a fucking John Varvatos store now," said Kreider Dane, singer-guitarist for Casinos. "I can't get that attached to a place. Its ideal is always going to live on, even if it's in a new space."

Follow Peter Holslin on Twitter.