Launched in 2010 by promoter Todd P., the cavernous, laser-and-fog filled 285 Kent quickly became a vital, and vibrant, component of New York’s nightlife. It’s rare to find a venue that spans genres seamlessly, but 285 Kent did that: Titus Andronicus played here, as did Frank Ocean, Odd Future, DJ Rashad, Grimes, Mykki Blanco, Autre Ne Veut, Factory Floor and countless other acts. But 285 was also an off-the-books, DIY affair without a permanent license to sell alcohol and throw raucous, late-night-to-early-morning parties, and often saw unwanted attention from police, health inspectors, and other city officials. To the frustration of audiences, promoters and musicians, on a few occasions shows were shut down.
In another neighborhood, during another era, 285 Kent would have become a longtime institution: generations upon generations of sweaty revelers would have spilled out of the nondescript facade to smoke cigarettes and catch a breath of fresh air between sets; its walls would have been splashed with years of graffiti; maybe, decades from now, its bathroom would have been recreated at the Met. But its location on Williamsburg’s quickly redeveloping and highly desirable waterfront proved to be its undoing. Though somewhat more legal Williamsburg venues like Glasslands and newly-opened Rough Trade will continue to serve the neighborhood’s audiences, the closure of 285 Kent sends a clear message. As Estonian singer/producer Maria Minerva said during what was thought to be the venue’s last concert in late December: “We are witnessing the end of Williamsburg right here, right now.” Miverva’s sentiment is hyperbolic, but it’s partly accurate too.
On December 19th, Ric Leichtung, the founder of underground music and events collective Ad Hoc and the concert booker for 285 Kent set off a firestorm of speculation that end times were near with a tweet stating 285 had “not announced any other events,” beyond that night’s show. [Disclosure: FADER editor Emilie Friedlander is a co-founder of Ad Hoc.] Ahead of today’s announcement, we chatted with booker Ric Leichtung about 285′s history, why the venue will shut down before its lease ends and why, Williamsburg or not, DIY venues still matter. Two attempts to reach Todd P. were not immediately successful. [Update 1/9/2014: Later, Todd P. reached out for a lengthy conversation.]
What can you share about the history of 285 Kent? Originally, 285 Kent was an extension of the Domino sugar factory. It was a storage warehouse. Fast-forward many decades and I believe that it was the Shinkoyo Collective who set up [performance space] Paris/London/West Nile. It was a loft space with a lot of people living there. They had mostly experimental shows—people like Tony Conrad and Oneohtrix Point Never. The landlord kicked them out and then John Barclay took over the property. He basically took out all the rooms and the kitchen and everything else and turned what was once a 50- to 100-person loft into a completely open, 350- to 400-person capacity venue. But he was having a lot of problems throwing events because some of the things he was doing were really amazing and super ambitious. It was too much for the space. Todd Patrick ended up taking over in September 2010 and from that point forward Todd P. booked a lot of things there with Baby Castles, which is a homebrew DIY video game collective. They got a lot of great people to come. They got a guy from Wu-Tang to come, they got Andrew W.K. once…they did a ton of crazy stuff.
But there were some problems with their partnership with Todd and they were out by October 2011, which is when I left Pitchfork to take over the space with John Jacobson. John put on his last show in April and from then on it’s been a home for me and Ad Hoc. Ad Hoc put on all the programming since forever and we’ve been heavily involved with what’s been going on until it was really obvious that our time was running out for the space. We were getting so much unwanted attention from authorities that we decided to move out and move on. Ad Hoc spoke to Todd and basically came to the decision that we should probably go out with our heads up rather than be shut down or evicted.
So the lease isn’t up yet? The landlord isn’t open to negotiating a lease extension at this time. The lease is not over in January or February, March or even April. But at the same time, you look around and you see the presence of Two Trees, which is the real estate development firm behind the Domino sugar factory redevelopment, you see signs of them all over the neighborhood. Even across the street from 285 you used to be able to look out and see the Manhattan skyline and the water. Now, they started construction and there’s a Berlin Wall-esque structure in front of 285. It’s definitely a sign of the times in Williamsburg: time’s up for us.
So instead of riding it out, you’re preemptively shutting yourself down. Before 285, I was a longtime resident of Market Hotel. I lived there for more than four years. But we got shut down so many times it was ridiculous, it was embarrassing and it was sad. Going out with our heads up and with dignity is definitely what we want to do with 285 Kent. The shows that have happened here are legendary. [We’ve been] compared to CBGB in its heyday. Someone else made a good point, saying that CBGB sucked towards the end, but I can say at the very least we didn’t suck toward the end of our run.
285 Kent’s closure coincides with the opening of Todd P.’s new venue Trans Pecos. Is this another sign that the DIY scene is continuing its march east across New York? A venue out in Ridgewood has been needed for so long. It’ll definitely fill a void. I do feel like a lot of the DIY venues have been pretty guilty of booking overground stuff, 285 Kent included—maybe. Trans Pecos can rekindle the old DIY spirit of the old Silent Barn days.
But you still have Glasslands in Williamsburg, and now you have Rough Trade venue too. The trend is now to come up with legal venues that have a DIY feel—Glasslands does a great job of that. It comes down to community and a wildly creative booking style. Both Bowery Presents, who are in charge of the Rough Trade venue, and Glasslands have definitely demonstrated some interesting curation. But at the end of the day, with some bookers a lot of decisions are fueled by who’s going to come, and how can we make our guarantees. Maybe this band didn’t get “Best New Music” so now we have to come up with a really strong anchor so we can give the headliner their incredibly inflated booking fee that their agent convinced the talent-buyer to commit to.
The fact is, DIY venues are where the most interesting, progressive music starts. To a lot of people this kind of music just isn’t worth a damn. Arca is a great example. Arca is someone we really harbored and worked with a lot that no one cared about a couple years ago. I can’t count how many times we had Arca to a room of 40 people. And now, he’s producing for Kanye West and he did that amazing FKA Twigs album. He’s basically the best producer out there right now.
What was your approach for booking 285 shows? Whenever someone calls me a promoter or a talent-buyer, my stomach just drops. I feel like that’s not what I truly am. I don’t just buy talent. It’s not like that. It’s about curating the best possible show under the best possible circumstances that we have. I am specifically always looking out for the most progressive artists in all mediums. We booked a lot of hardcore, but we also have a juke footwork show, back-to-back. And you’ll see kids being exposed to music they’ve never heard before and they love it. That’s what we really strive for: to bring everyone under one roof.
With how much music is being put out there and how easy it is for your musicians to be self-publishers on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, we’ve gotten to the point as listeners where we listen to everything. We don’t just think of things in terms of, that kid’s punk, or that guy only listens to techno. Now everyone who has a brain listens to everything. And that’s who we try to cater to: the person who’s seen everything and heard everything. We want to give them what we think is the best.
Are you upset about the closure or had 285 reached its date of expiration? I’m incredibly upset about it. I can’t tell you how much I’m going to miss sticking my hand down the toilet. Reading that in print you may think that I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I will miss this place so much. I can’t even tell you. 285 Kent is an endeavor that wouldn’t mean anything without its community and the people that work there. I’m sure that something good will come out of this. It’s the nature of this kind of thing. These DIY venues aren’t all up to code, and they’re not perfect and they’re constantly in danger. You can see it with the old Silent Barn, with Monster Island Basement, with all these venues. It’s something very transient and it’s too bad that 285 couldn’t go any further than a couple years.
Is it worth it to keep opening DIY venues? It’s absolutely worth it. Especially if you’re somebody who is really passionate about the scene and music right now. It’s vital. Not to ramble about DIY bullshit, but if you don’t do something, no one else will. Period. Maybe somebody will put together your dream show; maybe something will put something together that will be a fun Friday night. But honestly? Probably not. Things won’t happen until you make them happen.
Line-ups for 285 Kent’s last shows:
Autre Ne Veut
DJ Dog Dick