“285 KENT wasn’t afraid to be a place where you could get laid.”
You’ve been involved in so many venues over the last twenty years. What made 285 Kent special? Well, in a couple of ways. For all the good intentions out there about being welcoming and being diverse and trying to invite other people in—things that “DIY” spaces tend to believe in—I would say that there isn’t a lot of achievement there. But 285 actually successfully and regularly pulled in folks who were not necessarily white, straight, or privileged. I think that’s a big deal and it’s because 285 went a little contrarian against all of the DIY mantras out there. We did not shun electronic music; we did not shun DJs.
We’ve always had a real good sound system in there, despite the mythos. It’s actually a far better sound system than in any other comparable space—unfortunately it’s a concrete box and is hella boomy, and the acoustics can be shit until it’s full of people. We really went out of our way to bring in legitimate hip-hop. We sought out terrific electronic musicians. We didn’t shy from club culture or hosting “DJ parties.” I’m not saying we didn’t do any indie rock shows. But we focused on quality, and we tried to reach across the aisles to other movements in music. That was going on since the induction of the spot, but it really came into fruition when Ric Leichtung took over the lion’s share of the booking. Having come up through Ad Hoc and Altered Zones, Ric is a voracious consumer of recorded digital music. One of the strengths of the way music is being disseminated these days is that if you have an appetite, you can find a lot of quality out there that’s not necessarily in your comfort zone. Ric took that attitude, which came out of the bedroom blogger universe, and applied it to showcase producers of all stripes. That means including people from the noise scene, the metal scene, the hip-hop scene and the straight-up electronic music scene, and really breaking down genre barriers and creating a scene of just quality.
At the same time, it was about not being afraid to bring the party. Quality on the one side, but not afraid of debauchery too. If anything, the DIY all-ages movement, if you consider there really is such a thing, has a bit of a wholesomeness problem. It’s so god-damn earnest that I don’t think it really appeals to many younger people, you know? Unfortunately that whole approach tends to accentuate the fact that it’s a bunch of privileged white people with safe lives, which is something 285 wanted to get away from. If there’s anything unique we did, I think that’s part of it.
What does 285’s departure mean for Williamsburg as a neighborhood? In general, that neighborhood is becoming difficult to run things in and it kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you know? It isn’t turning into a standard-issue yuppie neighborhood, but a hyper-media saturated yuppie neighborhood. It’s like Brooklyn’s never existed before. It’s really quite something. You go there and it’s Times Square for guys in khakis. It’s weird. I don’t want to be there anymore, on a lot of levels. I think a big venue there could work—like someone can try to do something independent there on an even larger scale, that could be cool—but 285’s scale was becoming unsustainable.
Was there anything that could have been done to make 285 sustainable? There are structural and institutional issues with that building and our situation that make it impossible to make the improvements we’d like to make to give that place a longer lifespan. Barring those things that we would’ve loved to do, what can we do? Do we keep running a place that’s not up to par in terms of sustainability, especially given the change of tide in that community? Or do we go on our own terms? That’s what Ric and I decided to do. Both he and I have future plans elsewhere. We see the writing on the wall. We want to go out the way we want to go out rather than being forced out. We could eek out a little more time, but I don’t think that’s what we want. If we could make the changes to the space that would make it work long term, we’d do it in a heartbeat. But unfortunately it’s impossible. It’s just not going to happen. So we made a calculated decision that we were going to wind this thing down in 2013.
But the lease isn’t up in January, right? The lease is up soon enough that raising the investment it would need to make the space compliant the way we’d like would be irresponsible, and coupled with that there are structural things that would have to change in the building that we have no control over. For us to make the investment needed to give the space a longer life would require a longer life built into our lease terms. And we don’t have that. Pouring the kind of dollars it would take would be foolish and there are enough variables that no matter how much money we try and pour into it, there’s no guarantee it would work. Even if we got another lease it would be very brief, it’d be a couple of years. [The owner] is going to knock that building down—it’s obvious. They’re building a 40-story condo development across the street. Not to mention, do we want to be neighbors to a 40-story condo development? Even if by some strange confluence of events the owner decided to hold onto the building in its current status for a long period of time, it’s not the same place. A plot of lands means something based on the things around it. And that neighborhood isn’t what it was a year ago, and it’s certainly not what it was ten or twenty years ago.
It’s funny, two years ago I had these same conversations about Monster Island, right down the block. At this point it’s a pile of bricks. And if you go over there and think about attempting to resurrect it, in that spot, it’s ridiculous. It wouldn’t work. It’d be silly. You wouldn’t want to be there. It wouldn’t be fun.
What are you planning on doing between January and when the lease is up? We’re looking into what we can do to try and pay off the rent and not have to break the lease. But that’s not yet decided.
These DIY spaces seem to have short shelf-lives. Is that just their nature? I don’t know if these spaces have short shelf-lives. Three years is kind of the average for these things. I had Monster Island for seven years. I’ve had the Silent Barn space, which is now Trans Pecos, since 2007—that’s not that short. There’s a media narrative that people like to tell about things being so transient. And yes, they are transient by virtue of the fact that New York’s always changing and night life’s changing. But honestly, places that stick around for a long time are places that tend to fail, or at least become stale. People get bored. As much as people bemoaned that CBGB closed, most of those people didn’t actually hang out at CBGB—ever. By its last couple of decades it wasn’t a place that was at the forefront of anything. Do I want to own a place like that? No.
There’s something exciting about new places. The sheer scale of , those walls, kept us from changing the look of the place as much as I originally planned. Plus I’m feeling a kind of “post-mural” vibe. But I would’ve loved to have seen that place just completely reinvent itself visually month to month. That’s the future I see in some of the other spots I’m involved in. People, especially here in New York, are spoiled for night life. You have to keep it exciting, you have to keep it moving. That was one of the things that was unique about 285. We were not afraid to play the game when it came to night life and what people were looking for in a party. And we weren’t afraid to play the game when it came to media coverage and hype. A lot of people in the punk and DIY scene see that as a really taboo thing to do. But you know what? You try to run a 400-500 seat place under the ethos of ‘screw the media, screw the press,’ and guess what you have? An empty venue. You have to learn to manage the media—that’s something that 285 did in a way that was up there with how big night clubs operate. Little, weird, made-up media Twitter wars we’d create, secret appearances—we were always doing things to keep it exciting, things that standard-bearer DIY clubs would think distasteful. But why? What makes that tacky? I don’t know. It works. It was fun, and it felt much fresher than running a mural-covered space with a bunch of four-piece rock-and-roll bands. To me, this felt like a next-level thing.
How will Trans Pecos and Market Hotel compare to 285? Trans Pecos is a different kind of beast. Trans Pecos is a deliberately avant-garde music space. It’s an esoteric music venue that doesn’t have to worry about turn-out. We’re not concerned with whether a show sells out, we’re concerned with whether the venue is doing music that’s interesting.
When Market Hotel reopens, there will be more of a spirit of getting people to come there. We are deliberately trying to push kids to come who are not necessarily white, straight, and privileged. That doesn’t mean shooting for some kind of multicultural, touchy-feely horse shit, it means actually looking for results. It means approaching it with the idea that there is quality music made in these demographics, which is different than some kind of affirmative action attitude. Rather than saying let’s give this a leg up, it’s more like, shit, this is awesome and there’s some really great stuff out there. And also there will be the idea of approaching electronic music and DJing as an art form, and not just as a way to pack the club.
In December you tweeted, “now that he’s out of office and can’t throw inspectors at me: Bloomberg was an incompetent, vindictive, piece of shit plutocrat boob.” Can you elaborate on that? Bloomberg came into power and people thought he was going to run the city like a business. But in reality, very little changed. The city is still extremely corrupt but now it’s also very bureaucratic. I don’t believe this guy was ever a good force for business. As somebody who has to navigate the Department of Buildings, the Department of Health, and all the city agencies that regulate small businesses, it’s a nightmare. It is unconscionable that this guy was reelected three times for being a businessman. He didn’t help small businesses whatsoever. There’s a problem in this town of too many guys inspecting too many things all the time and making it hard for people to run their businesses. And honestly, if you complain about it you’re a target. I hope that changes under our new mayor.
Did you feel 285 was targeted? No, I don’t think 285 was targeted. We had a different issue at 285. Bloomberg’s signature achievement is the 311 system. But there’re a lot of negatives that come along with an anonymous complaint system. You have a lot of people calling in phony or trumped up complaints all the time and they don’t have to say who they are. And the city comes to inspect and they’ll find a problem no matter what. That’s an issue that 285 Kent had. But I should point this out very clearly—it was no more of a problem here than in any other club. The problem is that in business it’s become part of the game to tattle on each other constantly—sic the authorities on the competition. I’m not trying to imply that anyone targeted 285, but the climate in this town is businesses trying to get each other in trouble, and that’s the Bloomberg legacy right there.
But with Market Hotel you’re going completely above board? 100 percent. Everything is above board.
Why? It’s not just New York, or the DIY scene, or rock & roll—everything is becoming more regulated. As the City’s tax stream, like everywhere else’s, is pulling less and less revenue from taxing the wealthy, or corporations, the City has to find other ways to fund itself and that means they’re looking toward small business to pay fines and make sure that they’re paying taxes. That’s how it is. You’re exposed if you’re not working above board. All the spots that came up in the last 10, 15 years are the beneficiaries of a legacy of DIY spots that came into being in the 80s—venues that didn’t get shut down even when the cops were aware of them because the people running them were the right skin color. That’s how it goes. If you did the same kind of space by people who weren’t principally white, it would get shut down very quickly. And I don’t want to be a beneficiary of that situation.
It’s important for me to figure out how to [set up venues] the other way. I hope that with Market Hotel and Trans Pecos we can demonstrate how to do it without spending an obscene amount of money. I may personally have access to that kind of investment and capital, but most people don’t. The hurdle of entry to opening your own space shouldn’t be that you’re rich or you know rich people. There’s a rising tide of enforcement and I think this shit’s going to go away. When it goes away, it’s not going to be gradual, it’s going to be fast. And I don’t want to be swept up when it happens, nor do I want the whole scene to evaporate. So I’d like to demonstrate a way to protect ourselves against that kind of situation without spending ungodly amounts of money. And also without making the places lame, which is equally important. Just doing it isn’t enough, you have to show that it can still be cool, still be sexy. And that’s what made 285 special. Unlike so many of these other spots that tried to legitimize one way or another, or keep themselves under the radar, 285 wasn’t afraid to have a little debauchery, it wasn’t afraid to be a place where you could get laid. That may sound tacky, but it’s fucking real, and that’s what people are looking for. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with any of that.