Local dance rock group Controller were excited. They had just finished up their new album, No Future EP, and were all set for its release party at the East Village bar and venue Elvis Guesthouse, but in a matter of days everything spun out of control. First, they lost the lease to their Williamsburg rehearsal space, and then the Elvis Guesthouse booker called to inform them the venue can no longer host live music. Controller’s singer, Jon Bellinger, was crushed.
“We were really stoked to play there,” he says. “We loved it because it’s one of those venues that kind of felt like an older venue that used to be all over New York. You know, pretty DIY, you’d see the same people there, and it felt like it was almost run by the bands that played there on a regular basis. It actually felt like a little bit of a scene and something we’ve been missing in the last couple of years.”
Controller’s show was one of the first live music acts that had to be relocated due to recent complaints from residents living above Elvis Guesthouse. Since opening in March, the venue has steadily grown into a popular hotspot for intimately spaced and carefully curated concerts. For Bellinger, this was exactly the type of environment his band was seeking.
“We wanted that Elvis vibe. We chose that venue in particular. Name another venue that’s even remotely like that in the city – there really isn’t,” he says. “We wanted a certain kind of show – a show that’s getting harder and harder to put on – a show that feels like a family [gathering].”
Bellinger says the booker at Elvis Guesthouse, Alex Lilienfeld, was extremely helpful and quickly worked on finding an alternative venue, and their release party took place on the scheduled date at Berlin just three blocks away.
Elvis Guesthouse co-owner Zachary Mexico says the suspension of shows was something he and his business partner Billy Jones — who also operate Williamsburg venue Baby’s All Right — were expecting.
“It’s kind of been a cup of coffee that’s been brewing for a long time. If you look into the origin story of the bar, I think you can look in there for clues as to what the future may hold,” he says, referencing the colorful tale of Elvis Presley’s fabled fake death that decorates the club’s website. The legend states Presley covertly fled to Kathmandu, where he opened a small bar that was eventually demolished by the landlord in order to make way for a shopping mall. “I think they had these same kind of problems in Nepal back in the day,” says Mexico, grinning.
Mexico says Elvis Guesthouse will keep the bar open, but its live music venue status is on hold for the time being. “Are we allowed to have bands? Sure, if we want to. Does that threaten the continued operation of our place? Potentially.”
Before opening as Elvis Guesthouse in March, 85 Ave. A was the location of the watering hole Arrow Bar. After stumbling upon the Presley folklore and meeting local designer Isaac Nichols, Mexico and Jones decided to reimagine the space and Elvis Guesthouse was born. But with the club’s increasing popularity and volume, surrounding neighbors began to complain about the noise generated outside on the street.
“There was a bar there that wasn’t very busy, but then it became a bar that was pretty busy, and people were not used to having people out there and they got upset – that’s it,” Mexico says succinctly. “Anywhere where the real estate value – both of commercial rent and apartment rent – is this high, it’s always going to be difficult. Neighbors complain. And when neighbors complain all kind of other stuff starts happening.”
On November 16, noise rockers Perfect Pussy are scheduled to perform at Elvis Guesthouse, and Mexico says that show will indeed take place. But for the time being their concert calendar slows to a halt. Mexico is working with the city and landlord daily to resolve the conflict and expects to reach a resolution by the end of the year.
“Our landlords are not bad people. They’re just trying to protect their tenants. And the tenants aren’t bad people, they just live in a building on a crowded street and don’t like people hanging around smoking and being loud,” reasons Mexico. “Everything can be worked out. Everything can always be worked out.”