"DIY Will Never Die": An Exit Interview with 285 Kent's Ric Leichtung
Eugenics Council at 285 Kent on November 8th, 2012.
(Photo by Maria Sherman)
On December 19th of last year, Ric Leichtung announced via Twitter that Maria Minerva's performance at 285 Kent that night might be the Williamsburg venue's last. Though the news devastated many in the New York music community, it wasn't all that surprising: rumors that Kent was closing had been floating around since the NYPD raided the space on Leichtung's birthday in September. The nature of DIY spaces, which operate on the fringes of legality and rapidly gentrifying, expanding neighborhoods, has always been transient. "They're usually only around for a couple of years, so to a certain degree it's business as usual," says Leichtung. "It's a ticking time bomb where either the landlord could manipulate tenants into moving out or the developer or anyone else would just as easily snap up the property. It's an impending doom over the neighborhood."
But 285 Kent has held on, albeit under a rotating cast of different owners and aliases, for a remarkably long time. In 2006, music and arts collective Shinkoyo (which were also behind the original Silent Barn space when it was called the Raven's Den) opened the performance space Paris/London/West Nile, which hosted artists like experimental synth manipulator Oneohtrix Point Never and avant-garde filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad before closing in 2010. At that point, Bossa Nova Civic Club owner John Barclay came onboard until Kent started receiving unwanted attention from authorities and Todd Patrick, a/k/a Todd P, took the lease off his hands. Starting with 285 Kent, Patrick laid down the template for other DIY venues in the area, such as Death by Audio around the corner and Bushwick's Silent Barn; all have the same PA system, for example. In 2011, Leichtung stepped in with John "Rambo" Jacobson booking shows with him until the latter left in 2012. "At that point, I was basically doing everything," says Leichtung, who co-founded the music blog Ad Hoc in addition to booking 285, often working from 9 a.m. to 4 a.m. the next day. "I wanted to die, it was so overwhelming."
"I'm not really sure what the next step for me is," he adds, "but I could never stop doing this. It's what I love doing." In the meantime, Leichtung is focused on the imminent future of 285 Kent, which involves cleaning and re-purposing the space before its lease expires at the end of January. At the time of our interview he was also finalizing the dates and lineups for the venue's farewell shows in the middle of the month. These have since been announced, and you can find the full schedule and links to purchase tickets after the break.
We sat down with Leichtung at 285 Kent to discuss the encroaching developers, those famously disgusting bathrooms, and the uncertain future of New York's DIY spaces in general.
What is the status of 285 Kent right now? We're choosing to close right now because we want to end the space on our own terms. It's not because the lease is gonna be up this month, or next month, or even the month after that--it's ultimately about ending it with dignity. The last space I was involved in was Market Hotel. When we decided to close, a vacate order was probably around the corner because we were getting so many visits and getting shut down. It's just a nightmare to go through that. We went through it [at 285 Kent] in September.
The fact is the days are numbered, not only in the terms of the city, but internally with the landlord. Two Trees, the real estate developer behind the Domino Sugar Factory efforts, is developing across the block. When you were here to see Autre Ne Veut, for example, you could see the Manhattan skyline and the water, and now the developers have built this Berlin wall. That's definitely a physical manifestation of the sign of the times: a space like this is no longer sustainable in Williamsburg.
Why was there a health inspector here on the last night? I can't tell you for sure. We did have the health department come on another occasion, so this was an unscheduled surprise follow-up, incredibly serendipitous that they happened to come on the last day. This is yet another reason why we feel it's smart to have ended things on our own terms. If we hadn't, we'd be stuck with this financial nightmare. Even though we aren't like any other traditional venue, in order to get the shows we get, we still have to play the industry game to some degree. We put deposits down; we honor contracts. If there were some catastrophe to happen, it could be thousands of dollars and work just gone. We are constantly buying flights for our favorite bands to come out to play, so that would be thrown out the window.
How did you have a New Year's Eve show if Maria Minerva's was going to be the last one? In mid-December Todd [Patrick] felt it would be not a good idea to have a New Year's Eve show. It would be very high profile, and there are a lot of malicious promoters that, if they know if something is your final show, they will call the cops on you. It's surprising to me, but it happened to House of Yes a few months ago. The rumor is that there was a competing promoter that tried to stick it to them. We occupy the space between this DIY world and constantly competing with Music Hall of Williamsburg and Output. Not to say that they would specifically do anything, but it's just a precaution. At that point I was under the impression that [Maria Minerva] was going to be the last one. I didn't book it knowing it was going to be. I booked it in September.
Did you book it before the police raid? I booked it after. We were still going strong after that incident, but had been kicking the idea around, trying to figure out a way that it could work. We took little steps--like, the Ad Hoc team works in here, but we took a precaution to get another space because if there was a vacate order on the door, and I leave my computer here, it's up for grabs. Silent Barn got broken into after it got its vacate order. We definitely took a lot of time discussing it. I really wish it didn't come to this but the nature of the DIY scene is ultimately incredibly transient. Do you ever get frustrated with how transient it is? Oh, yeah. Thinking, "I'm hesitating to buy this flight for Wolf Eyes to come in because maybe I won't have a venue to do it in, and I might lose all this money." It's very trying, and there's so much effort that goes into the production of these shows even though we have such a small team. It's literally me putting together and booking these shows, Kaitlin Brown who runs the events, and Siobhan McDonald, who basically is the bar manager, she's the safety net to make sure everything is okay. We have the luxury, because we're so small, of not booking events around financial gain. I can't tell you how many times we had Arca play for 40 people a year and a half ago, and now he's huge. It is transient and incredibly frustrating, I guess [laughs]. What are some of your favorite memories from 285? One was definitely this power electronics band called Eugenics Council. I think it was Inauguration Day [ed. note: it was Election Day], and it was Monday, and it was raining. Ten people came, if that. They're bands that use power tools, and one of the guys in the band who makes handmade explosives put it inside our broken air conditioner. Another guy had this big grinder and took this sheet metal and shredded it, and there were sparks flying everywhere, and the third member, this big, hulking, burly guy, he was just in the middle of the room spiraling around with a sledgehammer. I though, "I'm going to die, or this place is going to be set on fire, finally." It was definitely ten minutes of the most horrifying thing that I've ever seen.
What's the future of the DIY scene? With Kent leaving, there's going to be a big gap. There is just not a place that's consistently doing events like these of this size. In general, what it would mean for Williamsburg is that there are not many places left to see interesting, progressive music. Death by Audio is still around, thank god, but the problem with that is they're in the same building we are.
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It's going to be farther away, like Bushwick and Ridgewood, and it's probably going to be tougher to get the same size shows as we do. We were able to get these crazy underplays because we're so close to Manhattan. Like, Beach Fossils played Terminal 5, which has a capacity of 3,000, and they played a 350-capacity venue just because. So, that kind of scenario will definitely be rare because people working in the music industry are going to make sure, if they do some kind of cool underplay, that it's not too far out for journalists and everybody else who want to see them.
Trans-Pecos has a ton of potential. The size of the room is really nice, and I heard the deal for the bands is really good, so there'll finally be another experimental haven in that neighborhood since the original Silent Barn closed. DIY will never die because someone will have to do something if they don't have major backing. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars--getting the liquor licenses, the beer and wine, your C of O, your place of assembly permits, cabaret license--it's very, very expensive to open an establishment with live music.
Do you know what's in the future for you? I'm going to be doing shows at a bunch of different places. I've set some up at Baby's All Right. A lot of the events that have happened there have a similar taste set to 285. For example, every band on their New Year's Eve bill played at 285 in the past month: Potty Mouth, Nothing, Lodro, Blood Orange. It feels like they're a kindred spirit. When we close there will be a community that is somewhat lost, but I do think people will be going to Baby's. Glasslands are also old, old friends of mine. I'll be booking at the new Silent Barn. I'm sure I'll be doing things at Trans-Pecos. But I am looking for a home and a place to call my own. I've never enjoyed going to faceless venues. I've always liked going to interesting events in bodegas or lofts or warehouses because that's my taste. I think that's cool, I think it had personality, and a lot of these places have a sense of community I feel is absent in other, larger-scale venues.
Do you think the bathrooms will ever be memorialized like CBGB's? God, I hope not. The bathrooms are such an interesting, funny symbol for the venue. I would like nothing more but to just triple the number of toilets and make it so they're nice. If anybody finds value in those bathrooms, please reach out to us so you can buy the door and sell it to a museum [laughs].
285 Kent Farewell Shows Schedule January 11 2:00 Maximillion Dunbar 1:00 Laurel Halo 12:00 Special Guests 11:00 Autre Ne Veut 10:00 Ital 09:00 Bookworms Buy tickets here
January 17 2:00 DUST 1:00 Special Guests 12:00 Dan Deacon 11:00 DJ Dog Dick 10:00 Ava Luna 9:15 Tonstartssbandht 8:30 Uumans Buy tickets here
January 18 1:00 Special Guest 12:00 Wolf Eyes 11:15 Noveller 10:30 Alberich 9:45 MV Carbon 9:00 Lussuria 8:15 Sugarm Buy tickets here
January 19 12:00 Fucked Up 11:00 DIIV 9:15 Guardian Alien 8:30 LODRO Buy tickets here
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