Beneath Avenue A in the East Village lies an unmarked basement bar and venue. From the entrance, just about every square inch of the interior can be observed, save for the bathroom. It’s a narrow chamber sporting baby-pink walls covered in a series of symbols and characters. One corner offers open windows and precise blue tiling that looks like it was ripped from either a sauna or the walls of the Tron universe. When a band performs, it’s kept to an adjacent corner, where the lack of a stage promotes the same huddled togetherness as at a living-room show during a house party.
Since opening in March, Elvis Guesthouse has been carving out a solid reputation in the New York City nightlife circuit, booking DJs and bands and presenting them in an unfiltered, DIY display. It also marks a return of this kind of thing to Manhattan, following the closure of a handful of popular small-stage venues across the bridge in Brooklyn in recent years — and local bands are coming to appreciate the confines, which, while tight, nonetheless offer ample hospitality.
“I absolutely adore this place. I think it’s a wonderful, intimate space and I love that it’s in the city,” says Sarah Kinlaw of Brooklyn-based band SOFTSPOT. “I love the location, because I feel like a lot of the smaller spaces are in Brooklyn. The fact that they’re able to cultivate such a friendly, experimental place in the city is important. I say ‘experimental’ because it feels like a place where you can try things out. It’s good to adjust yourself and it keeps things fresh.”
Providing a musical petri dish to the local music community wasn’t the initial intention of Elvis Guesthouse co-owners Zachary Mexico and Billy Jones when they began work on the space last winter. Back then, the two partners — who also operate Williamsburg venue Baby’s All Right — owned another East Village dive known as Arrow Bar. After hearing the oft-embellished myth that Elvis Presley had faked his death and opened a bar in Nepal, Jones and Mexico decided to reimagine Arrow Bar with that eccentric inspiration in mind. To achieve their desired effect, they enlisted the eye of local artist and designer Isaac Nichols.
For the place’s distinctive design, Nichols drew inspiration from trends both past and present. The symbols that adorn the walls came directly from a nineteenth-century book on Native American art (Nichols refers to the scrawlings as the “original graffiti”); the blue-tiled side room was dually influenced by Matisse and Mark Whalen, a retro-minded, L.A.-based artist known for his rosy and symmetrical pieces. “I love his work and I met him through a couple of friends,” says Nichols of Whalen. “I never told him this, but that whole place is sort of like an homage to his paintings.”
Nichols initially thought Mexico and Jones were going for a chill happy-hour vibe, but he says that reimagining it as a music venue came naturally. “I was thinking this would be a cool bar with DJs where people would come after work and get a couple cocktails,” he says. “But I think when they opened it, they had this amazing black book of musical talent. They opened it and immediately fell back on what they felt comfortable doing, which was booking live music, and they’re great at it.”
Elvis Guesthouse quickly established itself as a vibrant, independent haven — perfect for festival showcases, release parties, and shows spotlighting local talent. Exploding in Sound, Seagreen Records, and Spectacles Sessions presented their CMJ events at Elvis Guesthouse in October. SOFTSPOT’s Kinlaw chose the venue specifically for her experimental series, the Living Library. DJ and producer Larry Gus held the release party for his album I Need New Eyes at the club, and psych-rockers Deerhunter have hosted two after-parties there following performances at other venues.
Still, in recent weeks, the music has come to a sudden halt due to noise complaints from neighbors living in the apartments above.
“It hasn’t been ideal,” says Jake Berman, who lives above the venue. “[The owners] could put up a sign so [Elvis Guesthouse patrons] are not going to my door.” Elvis Guesthouse is listed as 85 Avenue A. As it’s unmarked, first-time attendees have sometimes confused its location with that of Berman’s residence. Berman also notes that the long line of people waiting to get inside often gets noisy. He has not personally complained to his landlord, but he has spoken with other residents about the issue.
Discussing Elvis Guesthouse’s present predicament, Mexico is sympathetic to the concerns of the neighborhood tenants. “I understand that people want to preserve the right to exist peacefully — I think everyone deserves that,” he says. But he also acknowledges the frustration in consistently battling the city. For the past few weeks, Mexico has been in frequent meetings and court-ordered mediations with city officials. The veteran of New York’s club scene — he’s also worked at Pianos on the Lower East Side — says the lack of municipal support for nightlife is discouraging.
“I do think if you look at cities like Berlin and Amsterdam, you can see the mayor and the city government working together with the nightlife operators,” he says. “They understand that one of the reasons why people want to come to the city is to go out at night, see some music.”
He says he’s tired of living “like a criminal,” constantly on the phone with his lawyer and making court appearances just so the city can justify putting the squeeze on small venues. “We’re pitted against the government, as opposed to working together,” he adds. “Americans are generally prohibitive [and have a] puritanical attitude toward alcohol and culture. We’re happy to throw government support behind people that put up condominiums, but government support for live music in New York is nonexistent.”
Mexico is hopeful that these issues will be resolved by the end of the year. For the time being, though, Elvis Guesthouse’s live-music programming has been put on hold. (DJ performances have continued.) “New York is still great, that’s the thing,” says Mexico. “People deserve to see live music in small places.”
One band affected by the recent pulling of the live-show plug was Brooklyn-based group Controller, who planned to host an album release party on November 9. The show was relocated down the street to Berlin, a recently opened basement bar owned by local musician Jesse Malin. Jon Bellinger, the band’s singer, considered the release show a success, but he sees the dearth of live music at Elvis Guesthouse as another blow to the local scene.
“Each year it’s a little more difficult to operate a band in the same way [as] the year before, whether things are getting more expensive or there are fewer choices to play out,” he says. “I have mixed feelings, because it’s not like I’m totally down on the music scene in New York: There are still amazing things about it that are totally unique to this city. But I do think there is a question in a lot of New Yorkers’ minds: How long can I actually stay here and continue to do this?”