ALL-AGES DIALOGUES Part 8: Shannon Roach of the Vera Project (Arthur, 2006)

The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Shannon Roach
by Jay Babcock

In 2006, I spoke by telephone with Shannon Roach, executive director of the Vera Project in Seattle, for a piece on all-ages philosophy/history/yadda yadda. The piece kept expanding, so much so that it looked like it would have to be published as a series across multiple issues of Arthur. Some of the interviews ended up getting published; unfortunately this one didn’t, basically due to internal Arthur chaos in 2006-07. Anyways, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation. — Jay Babcock

Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)

Interview with Will Oldham

Interview with Jim Ward (At the Drive-In, Sparta)

Interview with Shannon Stewart (Vera Project, All-Ages Music Project)

Shannon Roach: I’ve been involved with the Vera Project since September of last year, of 2005, as a staff member, but I went to the first show that Vera ever had, in January 2001. It’s a big part of the music community here in Seattle. That first show was the Murder City Devils, Botch and the Blood Brothers. It was really fun.

Arthur: The Vera Project has moved around, right?

It’s the name of the organization, not a particular space. It’s named after an organization called Vera in Gronigen, Holland. The Vera over in Europe is a community center that’s over a hundred years old and its focus is on the popular arts: music, film, visual art. And it’s truly all-ages: people from the entire community participate in it. Totally government-funded. Things are a little different in Europe, you know. (laughs) The idea of Vera came from that. James Keblis and Shannon Stewart, who you talked to, they did a study abroad over in Holland and found out a lot about the Vera Project and then brought those ideas back here, and filled a specific need in Seattle, which was for all-ages music. 

Why was it needed?

Well, there was a law called the Teen Dance Ordinance (TDO) here in Seattle that prohibited people under 21 from going to see live music with people over 21. So audiences under 21 …the venues had to have a lot of insurance. It was basically illegal for people under 21 to see live music. So there really wasn’t much of an all-ages scene here, which is kind of crazy because Seattle is known for its music, it’s totally culturally rich in music. When I was younger, I couldn’t go to see live music shows. I had to go up to Vancouver or down to Portland, leave the city to see some music. A little nutty. The TDO prohibited young people from seeing music so there was really a need here in Seattle for a place for that outlet, for young people to see and to play music.

Vera initially did shows out of a union hall called the Local 46, a huge union hall. Every show that Vera had, volunteers and staff came in and set up a PA system. They would have to take all of the folding chairs down from the union meeting, set up the PA system, run the show and clean everything up and set all the chairs back up exactly like they were for. Like 500, maybe more. It was huge. That was a fine space.

Vera also did some shows out of a theatre over in the international district called the Theatre Off Jackson. It was a good space, it was a little bit smaller, and it was also a theater so it was set up to be a little more acoustically sound and conducive to music. In 2003, Vera found a space in downtown Seattle on 4th Avenue. That was also an old theatre, the Annex Theater. It was really cool, this old building that was probably going to be torn down sometime soon and Vera moved into it as is, and the whole community came together to help build out the venue, helped to put together the sound system, do a bunch of construction in there to make it safe for people. So then for the first time the Vera Project had a home, and it just totally exploded from there, because it makes it a lot easier to have shows. So there were MORE shows available. And then ot also expanded to have an art gallery, a silkscreen studio and night tech classes, and all kinds of community events that were a little more difficult to put on before. 

Who gets booked there? Bands that normally play bars, or bands that are on a completely different circuit?

Both. The thing is, Vera has really great shows. I don’t know if you’ve been to the website, looked at some of the bands that have played, but there’s a good mix between established bands that are gonna draw really, really well and then also it’s a place where people who are getting established can come and play. So there are some shows that there’s gonna be a line around the block and people are gonna be turned away. And there are other shows that are smaller and more intimate. It runs the gamut really. We get national and international touring artists, and then we get local people as well. 

Door price?

Never more than ten dollars. That’s part of Vera, really, is for it to be an accessible space so that people can afford to come there. It’s a small capacity, the stage is low, there’s all these opportunities for young people to be involved in everything from stage management to being a sound assistant to taking tickets at the door to helping book, so it provides people with direct access to artists with makes it a little bit unique.

It’s run as a non-profit?

Non-profit, yeah. It became a non-profit in 2001. Our space on 4th Avenue was slated to be demolished and so we thought that we were going to have to vacate. One of the things that’s really important to Vera is to be in a central location where people from all over the region can access us. That’s a little bit easier said than done. It’s really hard for a non-profit to find an affordable space in downtown Seattle. Our shows don’t make a whole bunch of money because we don’t have alcohol there and the ticket prices are intentionally affordable. So the Seattle Center offered us a space there, it’s this big conference room, a long-term lease, a really affordable price. It’s called the Snow Kwami Room. The Seattle Center is where the Space Needle is. It’s a big city-owned property where there’s a big basketball stadium, the Space Needle, the children’s museum, the science center, it’s one of those big huge fun municipal campuses. So it doesn’t really have the street cred a space in the middle of downtown would have but at the same time it’s still downtown Seattle, and it’s easy to get to, and the cool thing about it is we get to build up this conference room into our own space. We’ve gathered up a whole bunch of people to help us come up with concepts for it, and we’re working with architects and construction people to turn this huge 6,500-square foot conference room with linoleum floors and fluorescent lights into a venue and an art gallery, silkscreen studio, recording studio, all kinds of stuff. It’s going to be really nice. It’s very ambitious. But it’s also, in the 4th Avenue space, what I hear a lot from people who use it, is that once they had a place to call home, everything, all the opportunities expanded for everybody, no matter what they were interested in, it really did help for the Vera Project to expand. And so having a place where we can stay for a while and grow into it is going to really benefit a lot of people for a lot of years to come.

The shows, do you run them earlier than a show in a nightclub would be?

They usually start around 8pm and are done by midnight. 

Weekend matinees?

Not very often. Usually we’ll only do a weekend matinee if it’s a performance that we can’t get any other time that’s really exciting. It’s nice to have a nightlife for all-ages. It’s so important. 

Urban kids don’t have garages. They NEED a place to go and play music and see music. It’s so important. It’s part of their culture. It’s so ridiculous for them not to be able to participate in it.

I think a big part of our success too is “No booze — no drugs — no assholes.” That really helps for the whole community to say, Yeah that place is okay. And the nonprofit model really helps too.

ALL-AGES DIALOGUES, PART VI: JIM WARD of At the Drive-In, Sparta (Arthur, 2006)

The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Jim Ward
by Jay Babcock

This interview was conducted by phone in late summer 2006, as part of a series of conversations I was doing with various folks regarding the history of all-ages, philosophy/ethic of all-ages, the state of play of all-ages, yadda yadda.

When we did this interview, Jim was 30 years old and operating his band Sparta full-time, continuing on from his work as a member of the legendary At the Drive-In, which he co-founded as a teenager in 1994 in El Paso, Texas.

This conversation shoulda been published long ago but stuff kept going awry and we didn’t get it in the mag. My apologies to Jim, and to the readers. Hopefully this piece will be of use to present-day readers. — Jay

Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)

Interview with Will Oldham

Arthur: When you first started venturing outside of El Paso to play music, how did you do it?

Jim Ward: Well, I got a copy of Book Your Own Fucking Life, and I just started calling. My grandparents has set aside some money for college for me, like a hundred dollars a year or something like that, it wasn’t very much. But when I graduated [from high school], it was a couple grand, and so I bought a van, a $1,300 1981 Ford Econoline, with some help from my parents who were really supportive of what I did. And, yeah, just started calling people.

Were you still going with the all-ages ethic?

Yeah, basically there were no bars and booking agents in there. You were just calling somebody who was doing shows at their parents’ restaurant after it closed, or at a community center or a house. Then you just went out and played those, and from those you would meet people who were somewhat like-minded. I was 18 when I started touring, so I couldn’t even be in the bars. In L.A. in 1996, it was pretty hard to be all-ages, so you would end up playing a bar and just sitting in the parking lot all night. You were allowed to go in and play and leave.

Like a servant.

[Laughs] Yeah, sort of. I mean, I understood the rules and it wasn’t really … we weren’t really there to party or anything, we were just there to play.

It must have been strange to play places where a bunch of people were excluded.

Yeah, whenever we would end up in bars or places like that, when you had to get that show, it was rare that anyone was there, or that it was very exciting… Which I understand now at my age: to go to a bar and have some loud, crazy band playing? It’s not always what you want to do on a Friday night. But when you’re 18, 16, 15 … that’s everything in the world to you. The louder and crazier and more abstract the better.

That’s the thing: The under-21s are open to stuff.

Yeah, you’re looking for something that’s yours. You don’t necessarily want something that’s established. You want to discover, that age is all about discovery. Which is why bands come out of that culture, because it’s this intense batch of people trying to find themselves and find each other, and I love it.

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Friday, May 29, Eagle Rock: BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT (all ages welcome)


Friday, May 29th
Brightblack Morning Light
Rio En Medio
William Fowler Collins
@ the Center for Arts, Eagle Rock
2225 Colorado Blvd
LA, CA 90041
$12 / 8:00pm / All Ages
Advance ticket link:

Brightblack Morning Light were interviewed by Trinie Dalton in Arthur No. 31 (Oct 2008), with photographs by Lisa Law. The magazine is available for $10 from the Arthur store. The article is available online here.

Brightblack were also interviewed by Daniel Chamberlin in Arthur No. 23 (July 2006), with photography by Eden Batki. Were almost out of copies of that issue, so it’s going for $100 from the Arthur store.

Daily Magpie – Tonight at The Smell


It’s a cavalcade of long-form guitar wailing tonight — Tuesday January 20, 2009 — at The Smell in downtown Los Angeles as Fuck Yeah Fest presents the epic heaviness of dopesmoking intergalactic Viking war historians ANCESTORS alongside the equally sprawling winter beach party jams of the LBC’s MAGIC LANTERN*. You can read all about the Magic Lantern guys over at the LA Record, who of course have been down with their “uninterrupted jammage” for some time.

Headliners Crystal Antlers manage to convey their squealy-squally guitar messages in a shorter format, but they make up for brevity with a second drummer who stands up and pretty much only plays a snare. We’re not quite sure what Slang Chickens are up to, but according to their M’Space page they really like ZZ Top, which is maybe a good sign.

As is the custom at The Smell, anybody of any age is welcome, as long as they got $5. Things get going at 9pm.

*While we’re on the subject, we just wanna say that the side project from ML’s Cameron Stallones, Sun Araw, is truly on some other shit with its queasy New Age tropical dub meltdowns and y’all should not be sleeping on that 2008 Beach Head album.

Greg Saunier of DEERHOOF on the ALL-AGES gig ethic (Arthur, 2007)

Deerhoof dude Greg Saunier on how all-ages is the gig that gives and gives

(originally published in Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007)

Deerhoof are an adventurous art-rock ensemble from the San Francisco Bay Area whose mix of playfulness, technical facility and unpretentious musical/conceptual ambition has gained them an ever-growing (and awesomely devoted) underground following. Not long after seeing Deerhoof play a giddy early-evening set to an all-ages audience of Giant Robotniks, punk rockers, noiseheads, pop geeks, art students and awed musos, I spoke by phone with drummer-keyboardist Greg Saunier about how the band’s insistence on playing all-ages shows has been crucial—perhaps even pivotal—to their continued artistic growth and commercial success. Following is part of our conversation.

Deerhoof ‘s latest album, Friend Opportunity, is available from Kill Rock Stars; a DVD of the Courtney Naliboff-adapted ballet version of Deerhoof’s 2004 concept album Milk Man, featuring students from the K-12 North Haven Community School in Maine, is available from —Jay Babcock

Arthur: What is Deerhoof’s policy regarding playing all-ages shows?

Greg Saunier: Basically we try to play all-ages shows wherever we can. It’s not always possible. I have some friends who have bands that are 100 percent insistent, but by demanding that every show be all-ages, they sometimes go for long periods without playing any shows. Or they aren’t able to play certain cities, period. But wherever we can, we try to do it.

Why is it important?

Greg Saunier: Our music, and I think music in general, is not just for people who are a certain age or who have necessarily already experienced certain things. We aren’t trying to make music that’s meant to be an in-joke, just for people who’ve already lived through certain things or already are familiar with certain bands of the past. We try to make music that could have something to say to any kind of person—or at least any age of person. We’ve had quite a few shows where a kid and her parent will come, and both claim to be fans, which is really mind-blowing to me, and really gratifying, because I want it to feel like it’s not exclusive to a certain clique.

What were some of the shows you saw as a teenager?

Greg Saunier: I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. One of the first concerts I saw was the Police, at a basketball arena. And it occurs to me that the same is still the case—when Christina Aguilera plays a show, she plays arenas so she play all-ages every time. Within the world of pop music, it’s not even an issue. It’s only in this world of—I don’t even know what this world is, but it’s some other world where music is only associated with bars and with drinking and with people over a certain age and with a certain world-weariness already built in, a certain jaded quality. Of course that’s not everybody, and you can retain that kid-like innocence about new things in music your whole life. But I don’t even drink, so the last place I thought I’d be forging a career would be in bars! I actually don’t mind playing in bars, but if we do it’s always about trying to transcend the surroundings and the normal association with bars and what it’s there for and what it’s meant to do.

Were there shows that you wanted to see as a kid that you couldn’t because you were not of age?

This is going to make it sound like as a teenager I was completely obsessed, but actually I remember Andy Summers, the guitar player from the Police, did a solo show one time at the 9:30 Club in D.C., and it was an over-21 show. I remember just being crushed for several weeks that there was no way I was going to be able to go to this thing. I got really involved in starting to listen to classical music a lot, and classical music shows are always all-ages. That’s what I was getting fed by my parents and I gobbled it up and got a lot out of it.

That’s a good point, that classical music is not a “beer experience.”

In a way, it is another alternative music culture. I was totally dependent on either friends or my parents to get around as a teenager, and there was no place to see a concert in the town where I grew up. Any concert-going required going to D.C. or Baltimore. I felt like a rebel, honestly, in my teen and high school years because of the fact that I listened to classical music. It didn’t really make any sense to any of my friends, and I definitely felt like a real oddball. At the same time in high school, as I just barely started to get a slight awareness that there was underground rock music and punk music, I started to make friends with a few people who were into that and I identified with them in a very strange way. The hardcore scene of the early ’80s and classical music scenes obviously couldn’t seem to be more opposite, but for me and my punk rock friends, it served a very similar purpose. It was something that wasn’t already figured out for you. It wasn’t thrust upon you with the sheen of the mainstream, and the mainstream was the only other choice available to kids.

I remember hearing about this straight-edge music and I was absolutely fascinated. I was very much a late bloomer as far as understanding that there was anything called punk rock. I mean, when Minor Threat was going I was listening to Top 40, I had no idea. I later discovered another band from the area called Void, and they are actually from my hometown. They were just a hair older than I was, and looking back, I bet I knew some people who did go see them. But I was just totally entranced when my friends would describe these Minor Threat shows where kids were going there with the express intent of not drinking, and they would never say bad words and everybody was really nice to each other. I just couldn’t believe it, you know? I never experienced it firsthand, so my mental image of it is untarnished: I have a fantasy of this utopian situation where somebody put the kids in charge and they’re doing so much better than when the adults were in charge. Everybody’s getting along and it’s creative and everybody’s happy and everyone’s accepted. I think that I’ve been kind of seeking the re-creation of that fantasy ever since, you know, when I go to show or especially when we play shows. We want to create that kind of feeling.

Was that part of the original impetus when Deerhoof began?

In the beginning we were desperate to play and totally innocent of how to set up shows or tour. And we were very shy people; it was just two of us at first and then [vocalist-bassist] Satomi joined to make three, and she didn’t make the band any less shy than we already were. Basically, if another band asked us to play a show with them, we’d be like ‘Yeah!’ and be unable to sleep for the next week or something! So in the first couple years of Deerhoof we didn’t have the gumption to dictate anything or make any suggestions. We basically just followed whatever was handed to us and felt lucky if we got to play at all. But what ended up happening was we didn’t play all-ages shows, and the first several years of the band, we had no kid fans seeing us, it was all people our age or older. Satomi and I realized that there was something not satisfying about this. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life just playing in bars and having the success of the night be judged merely on how many drinks we got everybody to buy, you know? Probably in 1998 or ’99 I started to feel like this was a dead end. It wasn’t a stimulating situation, always playing with the same bands, playing the same songs to the same people just passing time in a smoky little room. My first impulse was to go back to school so I could get back into classical music. So I went to graduate school for music, and felt very frustrated there too. In both cases, it’s a mutual admiration society. It’s an ‘in’ crowd. The people who go to see Deerhoof, or the people who are studying music at music conservatory, both can have the sealed feeling where everybody’s patting each other on the back. That’s their only audience, you know? So that was a turning point for the band, too, where we felt like ‘We need to start branching out.’ And frankly, that feeling has never gone away. We have managed for the most part to be able to play all-ages shows everywhere we go, but even then it can feel … we still feel confined in some ways.

Like, why do shows always have to be so late at night? And why do they have to cost $18?

Yeah. Even when you call a show quote-unquote ‘all-ages,’ obviously if it’s late at night on a school night and it’s really expensive then no kid’s going to be able to go. So we’re always looking for something other than just the prescribed venue, or the prescribed way that we’ve been told our music is supposed to be presented. That’s the crazy thing about kids, and the many adults who have an open mind: they don’t conform to any marketing person’s concept of their target demographic characteristics. They look for something that’s cool, they look for something that strikes them a certain way, and maybe as they grow with it they figure it out in a more sophisticated way. Kids surprise adults all the time, because adults would never have guessed what kind of styles that kids would come up with. You think of clothes as the obvious example, where adults are constantly rolling their eyes: ‘What are the kids wearing nowadays?!’ But it’s the same thing with music, and it’s very exciting. And that’s another great advantage of playing all-ages shows: sometimes we can play with under-21 bands.

A couple of years ago, we played in Minneapolis, and Minneapolis is actually very difficult for all-ages shows, but there’s one venue called the Triple Rock where we have often played that will do all-ages shows early; basically, before the “real” show that they’re still going to have that night. Anyway, John has an old friend, Milo Fine, who does only free improvisation. The guy’s possibly in his 50s … real hardcore. He doesn’t do free improvisation for fun, but has for decades been cultivating this and only this and refuses to play a single note of written music period, you know? Extremely obscure, but in his tiny circle, he is sort of a legend. Basically, ultra avant-garde and not the type of music that you would normally associate with kids liking. We asked him to open for us. He was playing percussion with another guy in an improvisational duo, and we were talking before the show, and he was sure that he was just going to bomb. The place was filled with kids, and de was like, ‘This is not my normal audience, I normally play in bars.’ So he came out and played and you could hear a pin drop. The kids were just so focused, they were just totally taking it in. They didn’t judge things the same way that a mob of adults might. There were just no preconceptions. After the show he was just kind of stunned, and really really happy. And I felt so proud, too, that we had managed to put this bill together.

Oh! Here’s a story that totally illustrates how important all-ages is. We played on a tour opening for Unwound, and Unwound was one of those bands that insisted on all-ages shows. That was kind of our introduction to the whole concept. We played at the J.C. Hall, just a tiny shack of a room in Biloxi, Mississippi. There’s no stage, we just played on this linoleum floor. A lot of kids were there. There was this one 16-year-old kid who came up to our merch table after we played and he’s like, ‘I want everything, give me everything.’ It was the first time in however many years we’d had the band going where somebody had ever come up to the merch table and wanted to buy everything. Two days later, our show is in Pensacola, Florida, and not only does he show up but he’s so excited he brings his kid brother, who’s 14 and sick with the fever at the time! But they still felt that it was enough of a priority that they needed to come see this band again. We ended up keeping in touch. And that was Chris and Steve Touchton who very soon after that, decided to form their own band, XBXRX. Later, they moved out to the Bay Area and they live here now and are quite successful.

The music XBXRX make doesn’t really sound like Deerhoof—it’s their music, that somewhere deep inside he wanted to make but couldn’t find the permission anywhere in his universe to do what he really wanted to do. When you see something that’s not the mainstream shows, which are the only ones you’re allowed to go to, that’s what can inspire you to say, ‘I’m going to do my own thing, too.’ A person can do something that’s really different and creative. All these rules that I thought were there aren’t really there. [Those rules] are just from tired musicians and tired, bored marketing experts who are just going on some kind of endless rote, trying to recapture the success of last year’s successful band and think that there are all these rules of how your music’s supposed to sound and what’s going to make it sell.

You really want to make sure technically that the show can include people under 21, but once you’re there it’s like… You’d have to actually step back and say, well how would this be different if the ‘kids’ weren’t here? I really can’t tell who is above 21 and who’s are under 21 in a lot of cases. But it’s great at shows when I’m chatting to somebody who came to the show, and I can tell by looking at them that they’re quite young, and they’re telling me that they came because they’re a fan of our music and that they’ve been listening to it, and I think back to when I was at that age and what music I was listening to. And I say to myself, ‘Whatever music I was listening to, that music totally just re-wired my nervous system.’ I just know how important the music that I listened to in those years was to me. And when I think, ‘Wait, here’s a real human being standing right in front of me, for whom that music is our music!’ well you can’t imagine the overwhelming joy that I feel. You want to inspire people, you know?

originally published in Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007


Originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 25 (Dec 02006)

Let the Kids In Too: A History of All-Ages, Part II
By Jay Babcock

For whatever reason, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized the best music events in Los Angeles were missing something really crucial: people under 21. That is, under-21s—let’s call them ‘kids’—are routinely excluded from seeing of-the-moment bands and old masters, in relatively accessible and human-sized settings, at an affordable price. These kinds of shows almost always happen in over-21 bars; or in tiny clubs, in sketchy environs, late on schoolnights. Occasionally they happen in Clear Channel/Live Nation-managed venues—amphitheatres, sports arenas, football fields—but even there it takes heavy change ($65 to see The Mars Volta open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 18,000-capacity Forum?!?), and most of the time all you get is an accountant’s idea of spectacle. Put simply, kids today are deprived of the formative live music experiences that previous generations of human beings—of almost all cultures, from here back to the cave days—experienced as a matter of routine. Music: intimate, intense, performed as something deeper than mere commerce, and received by the community of listeners in the same way.

If music succeeds in connecting to kids today, it is in spite of the music industry, not because of it. How do we know this? Because that’s what some of us have experienced for ourselves, and, more importantly, because that’s what those who came before us tell us—see the comments by blues-jazz scholar/poet/MC5 manager John Sinclair in Part I of this series, published last issue, and see the following conversation with a punk rock legend…


Chuck Dukowski played bass and wrote several key songs for seminal American punk rock band Black Flag in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Besides being (to quote the writer James Parker) the “attitude engine” of Black Flag, Dukowski played an integral role in the day-to-day operations of California-based SST, the independent record label that was arguably the most artistically and culturally significant label of the ’80s; besides Black Flag, its roster included the minutemen, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Opal, Saccharine Trust, Screaming Trees and Soundgarden. Today, Chuck rocks the nation as bassist in the Chuck Dukowski Sextet, an acid rock/freakout four-piece featuring his wife Lora, his son Milo, and legendary L.A. reedsman Lynn Johnston.

Arthur: What were the first shows that you attended?

Chuck Dukowski: The very first ones were giant arena concerts. Long Beach Arena in particular. And then shortly subsequent to that, movie theaters being used as the venues that could hold in the hundreds. You’d see bands like Little Richard, Captain Beefheart, Spirit … bands that weren’t filling the arenas. They were all-ages, no booze involved.

Arthur: Was there a rule about where Black Flag would play?

CD: We tried to play all-ages venues as much as possible. Because ultimately, we could play to 3-4,000 people in all-ages here in Los Angeles as early as 1980. We’d play to that many people, and turn around and play a place with an age limit, and we’d be cutting the audience to 250-300—a huge difference.

Arthur: What about outside of Los Angeles?

CD: In the beginning of my touring in Black Flag in the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, there were quite a few states where the drinking age was 18. And so you’re playing Ohio, where the drinking age is 18, and there’s piles and piles of piles of people there. Once you get to 18, it’s harder to differentiate [laughs], and so things open up. It’s harder to tell the difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old or a 19-year-old, so they kind of let everybody in who wasn’t obviously young, really young, say, 13. But yeah, if you were 16, you were probably getting in.

Arthur: So they were essentially over-16 shows. Now, when the national drinking age was raised to 21 in 1984, bands had to make a choice about which audience to play to: the over-21 bar scene, or the all-ages situation. And nightclubs could outbid all-ages venues to hire bands, so bands would end up playing there to the degree that they needed—or wanted—the guaranteed money.

CD: I can remember booking artists at SST. The bars would have a small room, 200 people, and be able to offer bands thousands of dollars to be there because they could figure on selling so much alcohol. Booze is the vice, the crack, of the live entertainment world. Look what’s happened to jazz. It’s moved into supper houses. They’re technically all-ages, but those places can be expensive situations to get into, which limits that music’s audience to the people who are affluent enough to become part of that. I think it’s rough for young people to get involved in that. At least the punk rock scene and all the offshoots has some more open-ness and more alternative venues, and anybody can play anything. Places like the Smell and Il Corral in Los Angeles today, where anybody can go and hear all kinds of music too. Ultimately, the more vital music is happening in the more open-ended situations. When I play an all-ages show these days, there’s more people there than if it weren’t all-ages, and they’re more involved and open to what we’re doing. They’re people who are interested in learning new things, not just getting what they had yesterday.

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JOHN SINCLAIR (MC5, etc) on ALL-AGES SHOWS (Arthur, 2006)

originally published in Arthur No. 24 (Oct 02006)

Let the Kids In Too: A History of All-Ages, Part One
by Jay Babcock

After this spring’s ArthurBall, someone posted to our website saying, “Hey, how was Growing? I really wanted to see them, but I’m only 17.” Now, if anyone needs to see Growing—a drone duo who are making a very challenging, contemplative sound right now, not unlike the first Fripp & Eno album—it’s a 17-year-old: talk about raw material for a formative experience. And yet, he—or she—was denied, because ArthurBall was an 18 & over event. Which meant that I was partly to blame.

That wasn’t a happy thing to realize. I’d been 17 once. I still haven’t recovered from my own formative experience back in 1988 when I saw the Mirage/Huevos-era Meat Puppets at Variety Arts Center in L.A. I was a teenaged square amidst 1500 freaks of the universe at a cheap, all-ages gig headlined by true goners: enduring the Kirkwood brothers’ 20-minute encore cover of the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” left a much deeper, richer impression on my tender, gradually opening mind than seeing U2 and the Pretenders at the Coliseum a couple months before. That was a painfully loud, stage-managed spectacle, a queasy mix of overwhelming power, machine precision and mass audience; the pajama-clad Meat Puppets, on the other hand, were… well, they were fun. They operated on a scale that was recognizably human. They seemed genuinely off-the-cuff, in-the-moment, willing to misfire. Their single stage prop, a pair of Playboy bunny ears spontaneously draped on a microphone, resonated with me in some deep, pleasantly weirdifying way. That Meat Puppets show pointed to a way out: a different way of leading one’s life—of embracing your idiosyncrasies and weird visions and interests rather than suppressing them. It was like some beautiful rite of passage, an initiation into art and imagination and other people—a sideways welcoming into a more creative, fertile, vibrant, rich way of being. Years later, I’d find out that, of course, I wasn’t the only one who’d undergone such an experience: almost everyone I know who is involved with music as a performer or enthusiast or whatever can point to some bizarro show that changed their life when they were a teenager, that lit up new paths.

I wonder if that kind of experience is readily available anymore to those who want it. I mean, the Mars Volta are amazing, but you have to pay $65 to see them open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a basketball arena. Growing are cool, but Arthur Ball is 18 & up. And so on. The sad truth is that although exciting music is regularly performed all over L.A.—at backyard barbecues and loft district rent parties, dive bars and supper clubs, nightclubs and art galleries, high school football games and homecoming dances, city parks and Sunday morning church services, street corners and subways, outdoor amphitheaters and baseball stadiums—maybe the only time when a good number of people of all ages can gather together to witness quality music, at an affordable price, with a good sound system, is when an artist plays an in-store set at Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. Kudos to Amoeba for providing this basic public service to arts-starved Angeleno teenagers, of course—it’s more than the public schools and mainstream broadcast media do—but surely it’s not a positive indicator of a culture’s health when the best venue for all-ages music is a record store. ‘Dancing in the aisles’ should mean something more than grooving politely in the Used Funk/Soul section as cash registers ring in the distance.

We lose something as a society when we don’t allow our youth to experience music—by which I mean real, living, breathing music, as opposed to commerce-driven pop—in a decent, accessible, affordable, relatively intimate setting where music is given the opportunity to be truly experienced as music. Something has gone wrong here. But what has happened, exactly, to get us to this point? And is it just Los Angeles, or is it nationwide? What can we do about it? What did they do in the past?

I decided it was time to call John Sinclair.

During the 1960s, John Sinclair founded the Detroit Artists Workshop, managed the MC5, headed the anarchist White Panther Party and got thrown in jail for 10 years for giving two joints to an undercover cop. He was freed after serving two years due to the intervention of John Lennon, who wrote a song for him and appeared at a 15,000-plus arena rally to bring attention to Sinclair’s case (check out the “The US vs John Lennon” documentary for more details). He is a renowned poet, scholar, deejay and journalist, and at 64, still a towering presence. We talked about all-ages shows outside a brandname coffeeshop in Culver City over half-finished crossword puzzles.

John Sinclair: Here’s a point I want to make about this right off: This whole ‘age’ thing is a function of the whole white American culture—it isn’t a universal thing. When I was coming up, you had no congress with anyone more than two years older or two years younger than you, unless they were your brother and sister. You had no congress with adults, with anybody but your own age peers. Everything you did was around that; we were alienated from all the others.

Now, I grew up listening to blues and R&B on the radio in the Fifties. I’m not into country music. I avoided it like the plague. I came from a farming community, and I didn’t want no part of that! Once I heard black music on the radio, I wanted to be where those people were. They were having a lot more fun than anybody I knew, and then when I started going to their dances. It was a beautiful thing. They had big shows in Flint, Michigan. Rhythm and blues shows. I saw everyone that came to Flint between 1955 and 1960. I went to these rhythm and blues shows and there’d be 3,000 black people and 20 white kids who were music freaks and liked to dance. The thing that hit me the hardest about these shows was that there were people of all ages there: little kids, grandmas, and most of the crowd was young adults who were older than us. The teenagers like us were only a stratum. There were people in their 60s, people in their 40s, the finest women you’d ever seen in their 20s just dressed to the nines, red dresses and shit. Knock your eyes out. And there’d be little kids running around and it was no big deal. And the people who wanted to have a drink, they had a flask in their pockets. If they wanted to smoke a joint, they had a joint. It was just like going to a different planet. It was so much hipper. And they were also so accepting. It wasn’t like you would be nervous about being there. They’d let you have your fun, you’d dance with the black girls. It was just like being in heaven for me, man. Because where I lived, I hated everything.

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Feb 1, 2007 Los Angeles Times

ID? No way
Clubs for the under-21 set are coming of age. Besides giving kids a place to hang, they are often barometers of the next hot thing.

By Jessica Gelt, Special to The Times

The tiniest boy to ever don a Misfits T-shirt hops onto a raised platform above a writhing mosh pit at the Allen Theatre in South Gate. His doe eyes are wide and dark and his tight gray Dickies bunch around his small behind. After a breathlessly fast number, the lead singer of the up-and-coming Latino and Filipino punk band Defied says, “We’re gonna speed it up,” and the pit erupts in howls. Round and round the rockers go — in a knotted, fist-flailing circle — while the boy watches with unconcealed awe.

The littlest Misfit is not yet old enough to realize that the wild people in the boiling pit below him are just kids themselves. Beneath the Mohawks and the leather and the metal-adorned attire, there are likely pairs of underwear washed by Mama.

All-ages clubs — not empty warehouses or skating rinks or dumpy basements, but proper venues with snazzy sound systems and snack bars full of salty-sweet savories — are a relatively new phenomenon. They have cropped up mainly during the last decade and have since become uncannily accurate barometers of what is about to become hot in music. The reason is simple: They provide a safe, alcohol-free place for young people ages 10 to 20 to see the bands they love, something the jaded 21-and-older set takes for granted. This is approximately the same excitable demographic that, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, was responsible for more than 20% of all music sales in 2005. They are also the MySpace generation. Through them trends flow like white water.

The Allen Theatre is a monument to faded glory; its hundreds of royal-red seats are stained and torn, its floors are soda-sticky and its bathrooms ooze mildewed character. In short, it is the perfect place for rock ‘n’ roll. The neighborhood kids feel that instinctively.

Teens at the show say they come to the Allen regularly, and a number of them say they know the security guards and the owner. “I’ve been here before,” says 17-year-old Walter Ticas, who came with his 24-year-old sister. “I like it because I get to see the bands up close and have fun.”

Owner John Riley opened the Allen because he recognized the need for a teen haven. Ten years ago one of the kids in his neighborhood was fatally shot while sitting on a street corner on a Saturday night.

“It was like he died because he didn’t have anywhere to go,” says Riley, who, with his wife, Cory, began running shows out of a signless building they called Our House before moving on to the Allen. “I’ve done this long enough to see how the kids are developing and what paths they’re taking. One of our bands, Left Alone, is signed to Hellcat and doing really well.”

Brian Defied, the 20-year-old singer for, you guessed it, the band Defied, remembers when the only shows his band could get were in friends’ backyards: “No one wanted to give us a chance. This was the first place that had us come and play. John, the owner, and I are good buddies. It’s like family here.”

That sense of devotion is key to the success of all-ages venues, most of which are not big money-making endeavors. “Labor of love” is how owners describe their work, which is why within a 50-mile radius of downtown L.A., only a dozen or so such places (with the wherewithal to mix touring bands with local acts) exist.

“Everyone wants the alcohol, because that’s where the real money comes in,” explains Andy Serrao, 24, the booking agent for Anaheim’s Chain Reaction. Serrao matriculated from being a patron of the club to working as a security guard before taking over his current duties. On a recent Saturday night, indie-pop favorites Meg & Dia and Daphne Loves Derby attract a capacity crowd of 240. Mini-hipsters roam the black room in tight, giggly cliques with a perfection of style that comes from hours spent self-consciously grooming. A shy couple holding hands shells out $2 for a Slushie at the well-lighted snack bar.

Over its 10-year existence, Chain Reaction has gained legendary status among all-ages clubs. Like most venues of its kind, it has a reputation for being tightly run and well-policed. Its tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster, and the bands who’ve paid their dues there read like a who’s who of modern rock: My Chemical Romance, AFI, Jimmy Eat World, the (International) Noise Conspiracy, Transplants, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fall Out Boy, Avenged Sevenfold and Panic! at the Disco, to name a few.

Tim Hill, the club’s owner, says that one of its original success stories was Capitol Records’ signing of the band Yellowcard onstage after a show. In fact, major labels have looked to Chain Reaction and its ilk more than a few times for the next big thing. On this particular night, the vice president of a major label is at the show with a red Harvard baseball cap pulled low on his forehead.

“That really says something, for someone from Hollywood to come down to Orange County to get the pulse of the nation,” says Vincent Pileggi, the manager of the band Reel Big Fish, who, with Hill, has started a cottage industry around Chain Reaction. Next door is a record and lifestyle shop called Off the Chain, and a soon-to-be-opened cafe in its rear will be called Food Fight.

Twenty miles east in Pomona, the cavernous Glass House has also opened up an adjacent record shop. In addition, one of its owners, Paul Tollett, is the president of promotional firm Goldenvoice and founder of the massively successful Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.

“Paul uses the venue as a tester for up-and-coming bands. It’s a gauge for Coachella,” says the Glass House’s manager, Erick Palma. “The band tonight is Black Lips, and they’re really blowing up.”

Palma continues, “Jack White from the White Stripes says this is one of his favorite venues in America — Conor [Oberst] from Bright Eyes, Conrad [Keely] from Trail of Dead, the Hives — every band on their way up comes through here.”

Out front of the venue a jocular group of fans of the band the Hitchhikers gathers to talk. These fans are old enough to be at a bar, but they’ve chosen to come here, which highlights another aspect of all-ages clubs that makes them special: They really do draw all ages. Rick Randow, 27, who claims to be a “super Hitchhikers fan,” says he is 19 days sober, a feat easily sustained during a night at the Glass House.

The lack of alcohol at these clubs creates a different atmosphere. Drunken aggression is replaced by a sort of attentive Zen. In this way, all-ages audiences are like harmonious tribes.

The more niche-market the sound, the more tribal the audience becomes. Il Corral, a raucous all-ages art space near Melrose and Heliotrope that specializes in “experimental and noise” music, attracts avant-garde eccentrics ranging in age from 13 to 40-plus. James Edwards, a 26-year-old UCLA grad student in musicology, waxed poetic about the scene at a recent show featuring the ironically named Smooth Grooves and the acoustic stylings of the shirtless John Thill. “I have yet to think through whether it’s legitimate,” Edwards says, “but this is the closest you can get in L.A. to a more self-sufficient and less alienating artistic culture.”

Aaron Goodell, 48, with his salt-and-pepper hair and black fanny pack, puts it more simply: “It’s beautiful. I’m not sure what they’re doing here, but it just looks like it grew organically in this building.”

Sean Carnage, a mustachioed 35-year-old promoter for the venue, says that one night Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers hung around for a show. “The great thing about all-ages is that it brings out older people who wouldn’t go to Spaceland or the Silverlake Lounge — maybe they’re burned out and this is where they come,” says Carnage, who recently directed a documentary about the club and its scene called “40 Bands-80 Minutes!”

Inside, Thill, with his small white pastry-puff of a belly, balances on a chair beside the venue’s climbing rope. As the entranced crowd gathers around the 24-year-old library assistant, he croons a ballad of destruction: “The day I started laughing at the motorcycle crash, on the shoulder of I-10 / I knew I’d committed the cynic’s sin.”

Freedom of expression — or at least the sense that adolescent angst deserves a forum — is vital to such venues, which is why a hole in the wall called the Smell in Harlem Place Alley just off 2nd Street in downtown L.A. is the stuff of legends.

“That was the whole point from the beginning,” explains Jim Smith, one of the Smell’s founders. “To open an all-ages club that was strictly geared toward the art and the music without all of the things that got in the way of that, like alcohol, the bar atmosphere and bouncers. We just wanted a space where people could hang out and be creative.”

The Smell has been run by volunteers for most of its nine years; Smith keeps a day job as a union organizer. With its CBGB’s-worthy, spray-painted bathroom, vegan snack bar and well-lighted bookshelf full of political zines, the Smell has never concerned itself with the next big thing, an attitude that has made it a magnet for just that.

Jaime Lopez, the brazen lead singer of the hard-driving all-girl band Traeh (“heart” spelled backward), says, “I saw Le Tigre here when I was 16 — it was a really important show — I still remember that show. The power went out, like, three times; everybody was sweating.”

Lopez remembers a now-closed all-ages incarnation called the Alligator Lounge. “Their Monday night house band was Incubus, and I read an old journal entry of mine where I was, like, ‘I hate that hippie house band Incubus.’ “

Every venue secretly dreams of nurturing a house-band-makes-good like Incubus, and owners seek out that special sound. At the just-opened Wire in Upland, dedicated husband-and-wife team Donavan and Rachel Foy took out a second mortgage on their house and sold both of their cars to showcase the musical hopefuls of the Inland Empire.

Located on 2nd Avenue in quaint downtown Upland, the Wire is clean and professionally run, with art-covered walls and a fabulous sound system. Donavan, who taught middle school science for five years, told his wife, “I didn’t want to be a burned-out teacher who made life miserable for his kids.” Rachel laughs. “He kept his word.”

“We could have done a nightclub, not a place for all these kids to go,” Donavan says. “Nothing against anyone who does it differently, but we didn’t feel it was the right thing to have alcohol — we could certainly make more money if we did that — but it takes away from the bands.”

The Foys’ idealistic strategy is beginning to take off. “We’ve been having between 120 and 150 kids show up for four to five shows a week; and we’re starting to get people who are up and coming and on their first tour as a signed band.”

For every indie kid who shows up at the Wire, two hard-core fans might appear at the much larger Alley in Fullerton. The decade-old venue, run by intense, beanie-clad James Barnum, attracts distinctly iconoclastic fans.

“The crowds we bring to downtown Fullerton are the kids that may not express themselves well in the classroom or on a football field,” Barnum says. “These are the kids that express themselves better on our stage in front of a crowd.”

From 1997 to 2001, the Alley played host to bands such as Linkin Park, Hoobastank, Alien Ant Farm, Strung Out and Zebrahead.

Outside the high-ceilinged, sweat-stained club on a recent night, a young man with a shaved head stood before a semicircle of tattooed compatriots screaming inarticulately about the uselessness of the Iraq war. One monkey-sized hanger-on stood behind him extending his middle finger; the kids listening to the diatribe shooed the interloper away in anger.

The political discourse at all-ages clubs may be shrill, but it’s as important as the music. The lead singer of the punk band Resilience, who goes by the name Fury, says: “People who are working 9 to 5 get really jaded. We’re singing about world change, so it’s better to hit them when they’re younger.” Adds the band’s guitarist, Skut: “Playing to one kid with a lot of heart is better than playing to 100 fans without that energy.”

After all, it’s raw, unaffected energy, that elusive zeitgeist of change, that drives musical revolution. At the Cobalt Cafe, the 15-year-old all-ages haven in Canoga Park, the scene smacks of youthful anarchy.

The dingy storefront room resembles somebody’s bed-ridden aunt’s house, replete with a dirt-stained carpet emblazoned with pastel flowers, a white cottage-cheese ceiling and mismatched faux-leather furniture.

On a sleepy Wednesday night, the venue’s owner, Dave Politi, is sick and there are no adults visible in the Pleasure Island-gone-mad interior. About 20 or so patrons flail around the room to the wailing of singer Chris Sanders of the New Jersey-based hard-core band Anchors for Arms, which had a show fall through and was booked at the Cobalt at the last minute. “We play all-ages clubs about three-quarters of the time,” Sanders says. “When [fans] get to be a certain age, [they] stop caring about these sorts of things.”

Maybe. But through the years, all-ages venues have spawned many a dedicated fan who returned to the scene of his or her rock baptism.

Next door to the Cobalt Cafe, Chris Funk, 29, tends bar at a low-key pub called Scotland Yard. “When JFA [Jodie Foster’s Army] played there, there were 40-year-old dudes rocking out with 10-year-old kids, and everybody knew the words,” Funk says. “When I was in high school, I was going there too; it’s the only place you can go when you’re under 21 to see punk rock bands in the West Valley.”

Indeed, such venues supply the sugar to feed the musical sweet tooth of their teen demographic.

“This is the melting pot of all the original music that goes on in L.A.,” says Aaron Buckley of the experimental band Anavan, which recently played to dozens of screaming fans at Il Corral. “Places like this are prime, because everybody who comes to them really, really wants them.”

Calling all ages

The Allen Theatre, 3809 Tweedy Blvd., South Gate, (323) 249-9775. A giant old theater run by a dedicated husband and wife who set out to create a place for neighborhood kids to safely blow off steam.

The Alley, 139 W. Amerige Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6934. A sweaty, all-out rock venue located in downtown Fullerton. In April, the Alley will open up a fenced-off beer garden for patrons who are 21 and older.

Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-6067. The darling of Southern California all-ages clubs. If you’ve heard of a band, it has probably played at Chain Reaction at some point.

Cobalt Cafe, 22047 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 348-3789. Kids roam free in this tried-and-true venue, which is never too full of itself to give unknown touring bands a chance.

The Glass House, 200 W. 2nd St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802. This giant venue is located in the Art Colony of Pomona and is co-owned by Coachella founder Paul Tollett, who uses the space as a testing ground for the festival.

Il Corral, 662 N. Heliotrope Drive, Los Angeles, no phone. An all-ages art space that hosts live music special events. The draw here is “noise and experimental” sound, and the crowd is a bit older and more eccentric than at your typical all-ages venue.

Koo’s Art Center, 530 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 491-7584. Once a Santa Ana mainstay, Koo’s has relocated to Long Beach and promotes creative expression, including visual and performing arts, and live music.

Showcase Theatre, 683 S. Main St., Corona, (951) 276-7770. Kids from downtown L.A. to Whittier drop the venue’s name in casual conversation about their weekends.

The Smell, 247 S. Main St., Los Angeles, no phone. It smells like teen spirit in this nitty-gritty performance space in a downtown L.A. alley. The neighborhood is swiftly gentrifying, making punk shows here feel even more punk.

The Wire Music and Art Venue, 247 N. 2nd Ave., Upland, (909) 985-9466. One of the most well-maintained of the venues on this list. A young husband and wife who care about kids and music hope to keep it that way.