In 2000, Jim Smith moved his community of artists, musicians and weirdo youths into the decrepit skeleton of a former Mexican grocery store in downtown Los Angeles. His post-punk sanctuary, the Smell, had been operating out of a NH storefront but the frontier-like vibe of downtown L.A. better accommodated the authenticity that Smith’s scene strived to attain. Pushing against the preconceptions of La La Land perpetuated by shows like The Hills and Entourage — which shot a lot of their scenes in areas neighboring the Smell’s former location — the artists who contributed to the Smell wanted to depict a Los Angeles closer to reality. Their L.A. was struggling to regain its musical identity in the wake of Sunset Boulevard’s hair metal heyday, lagging in adequate measures to control air pollution, battling homelessness and could not have been further from the keyhole lifestyle that viewers of these shows sometimes assumed. The Smell’s reality and space — which has to be entered through an alley — is shady, hobo-ridden, and, yes, smelly, but its participants aren’t defeated by these circumstances.
The alcohol-, drug- and tobacco-free venue ignited a DIY scene across the country with its positivity and all-ages accessibility. In a room adorned with changing pastel murals and handmade posters, the Smell offers a handful of weekly shows near the cost of $5, a bookshelf with an assortment of free-to-rent books and ‘zines, and a delicious vegan snack bar. The house bands, most notably Mika Miko and No Age — who became a staple in 2002, first as Wives — blast percussive-heavy art-rock but, even within the moshing, the crowd maintains a peaceful and collaborative vibe. The Smell offers other styles of music too: from Abe Vigoda’s “tropical punk” to HEALTH’s glitchy and metallic electronics, Ancestor’s psych-descended drone rock and Captain Ahab’s chiptune, electro-punk, the Smell is a rainbow of musical creativity with different sounding bands occupying the same artistic and physical space.
Nonprofit and volunteer-run, visitors can meet Smith at the door, spot L.A. resident Steve Ellington (aka jazzy beat-maker Flying Lotus) in the crowd, or catch No Age’s Randy Randall leaving the bathroom with a wrench in hand. (Randall vowed to rig the plumbing of the venue’s trenched loo back in the mid 2000s but it still lacks a lock and reliable flushing.) But it’s not just these names and Smith’s lead that sets apart the Smell from other DIY venues and its successors. Spilling into the alley between 3rd and 4th streets or gathering beneath the “Weirdo Rippers” graffiti on Main Street, collecting admission, and spreading the word, The Smell’s collective residents are what’s keeping its doors open.
The Smell’s earliest players refined their squall-based sound since their early days, but their now-decipherable lyrics and percussion still hit with the force of a sound tower collapsing.
California’s immortal female band keep in punk spirit with menacing bass, metallic vocals, and off-kilter lyrics, all delivered in less than three minutes.
These steel-pan-slamming punks switched to synths for their latest release, Crush, proving their versatility and ear for melody.
Another band that nails a host of different styles, HEALTH work as remixers, dark disco producers, and noise rock tinkerers and covers the lot in their live show.
Frequently cited by No Age as a band to watch out for, Infinite Body creates ambient drones better than anyone else at the Smell.
David Scott Stone
Straying from the disco punk of his last band, LCD Soundsystem, David Scott Stone makes glitchy and cinematic drones on his modular synthesizer.
Their name is a fitting choice for these bluesy drone rockers, whose tracks borrow sounds liberally from older genres.
The Mae Shi
Formed a couple years after the Smell opened, the now-disbanded group created their blip-rock sound with electronics and solid rhythms.
Polishing their ’80s pop-informed dance tracks with auto-tune and bleeps, Captain Ahab has predicted trends in indie dance pop throughout the early to mid part of the 2000s.