The Smell: Los Angeles Underground

The Smell feature

944 Magazine Los Angeles

Full story:

It was just two years ago in the summer of 2006 when I moved to Los Angeles and became exposed to the cultural zeitgeist of The Smell scene.  At that time, it was approaching the culmination of media attention it would soon garner.  I started frequenting Fort Cool II, Bill Gray’s dark, vault-like apartment turned D.I.Y. performance space—one of the unofficial supplementary venues to The Smell.  One band I vaguely recall seeing for the first time there was HEALTH.  I had no foresight at the time that two years later, this noise band, playing then for a roomful of people, would today be performing in front of crowds of thousands.

Fort Cool II is dead now, but the venue that inspired it of course lives on.  For 10 years, the youth of Los Angeles have been discovering The Smell, realizing it to be a haven that could expose them to experimental music and support their own artistic pursuits.  Bands like The Mae Shi and HEALTH formed with the sole intention of playing the venue, with very little expectations outside of gaining an active involvement in its culture.  By 2003, the band Wives was already a fixture in the scene and the venue’s punk following was strong; but it seemed to be the arrival of Mika Miko that set the momentum in motion.  More and more kids were traveling to Downtown L.A. from all areas of Orange County, East L.A. and the Inland Empire to watch and play shows at The Smell.  These bands’ goals were simple at the time: “To play music we like and have fun,” says Jennifer Clavin of Mika Miko.

More than a venue, The Smell is a strong community for these young musicians and artists.  “[The Smell] is where we developed everything,” says John Famiglietti of HEALTH.  “Without a scene to call home, especially in a city like L.A., its hard to survive as a band without any artistic validation or support.”  Jim Smith, owner of The Smell, maintains an environment in which these kids can cultivate their talents and have an outlet to communicate with like-minded individuals.  He gave HEALTH a set of keys and allowed them to record their first full-length album there after-hours.  A longtime supporter of Dean Spunt and Randy Randall when they were in Wives, Jim has certainly been a benefactor to the success of No Age.  Spunt says: “He never asks why we are motivated to do something, he just says ‘sure.’ He really believes in us like we believe in him.”

Now with the media frenzy surrounding the once “underground” venue, the scene has been able to expand internationally, and opportunities for these artists are flourishing.  No Age appears on MTV with Pete Wentz; HEALTH tours with Crystal Castles; Captain Ahab gets a song on Snakes on a Plane; labels are beating down Abe Vigoda’s door.  There are a handful of theories on what is behind this phenomenon in recent years.  Talent and execution: “An incredible number of bands coming out of the Smell are straight up amazing. Not only groundbreaking, creative bands, but also [bands] willing to work hard and fine-tune these crazy ideas into works that the world can love,” explains Brian Miller of Foot Village.  Ambition and business-savvy: “All of the bands signing to labels that put PR dollars behind them,” suggests John Famiglietti.  Then there are outlets like Youtube and Myspace that have made it easy for bands to promote their own music.  It’s really a combination of all of the above.  These musicians are smart; they know that it is entirely possible to do it their way, and they have been lucky enough to find labels like SubPop, Lovepump United, and Moshi Moshi who facilitate that.

Now that many of these bands have found label support that fit with their aesthetic and musical aspirations, they won’t evade mainstream popularity as long as creative freedom can remain intact.  “I think if we were actually pursuing fame, we wouldn’t make abrasive music,” explains Famiglietti.  So how does this music translate so well to audiences internationally?  The only answer is the most obvious one: it’s simply about good musicianship.  “There are people all over the US making new sounds, but it is rare to see bands that are as well-conceived and actualized as what has been happening at the Smell for years now,” Brian Miller says.  Watching HEALTH play, you witness firsthand the dedication that has bred a flawless show in which not a single drum beat is missed.  You hear a Mae Shi song on Indie103 and their instinctual expertise in producing pop songs is palpable. These bands work hard to maintain their unique vision; the resulting recognition of their efforts was always inevitable.

Perhaps Smell bands have caught a wave, but they won’t allow it to affect how they make music.  Instead, they take on the challenge and responsibility of keeping the music interesting.  True commercial success is irrelevant, though they wouldn’t exactly take offense to a teen drama referencing their work. “The stakes are raised when that many people know who you are, and you become a cultural reference point. You got to keep doing awesome work and rocking hard,” says Brian Miller.  What’s unique about The Smell scene is the fact that it’s punk, but because of its proximity to the Hollywood scene, those involved are not so impervious to popular culture.  Many, in fact, love it.  This synergy of opposing cultures is reflected in the music that comes out of The Smell.  To the outside world looking in, these strangely exploratory bands are very accessible.  The fact that they have been able to reach a pretty enormous audience is icing.  Ultimately though, they just create for themselves and those involved in the scene that nourishes them.

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