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The Smell

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

Photos by Mathilda Barr

The Smell has become a rite-of-passage for Los Angeles youth, huddled together in the dim alleyway, waiting for the next band to take the stage. Truly embracing its do-it-yourself attitude, its history is quite literally written on into its bones, with the names, artwork, and stories of its visitors etched deep into the brick walls. What The Smell offers is the kind of escape that has defined teenage euphoria since the advent of the electric guitar: the power of music. The small venue, tucked in the alleys of Downtown LA is a landmark for locals, distinguished by the lettering that spells out Not My President across its front, characterizing the heart of a musical, gritty rebellion. Earning its name for the motley, mildew of an alleyway that the entrance is hidden in the energy of a show can be felt the moment you step past that “smell” and into the doors. Once inside, for just five dollars you’ll get a colorful wristband that lets you stay and listen to the night’s sickest sets.

Eagle Rock senior Lani Tunzi describes the space as “an amalgamation of ages and people.. A source of creativity and love.” Tunzi captures the pulse which radiates throughout The Smell, where teenage liberation reigns, and a new face can become a friend in an instant. In the knot of stress and struggle that defines adolescence, often all teens truly search for is a chance to discover themselves and their identity, especially in the vast jungle of Los Angeles. For Tunzi, the Smell brought “a profound outlet for not only being able to express myself. Everyone there is dancing and having fun. It’s a nice space to mosh out your feelings and stresses.” Without any social expectation, she stresses, the tiny brick building becomes a hub of blossoming expression, creativity, and community.

With each generation of LA youth, a new wave of cultural grit and expression is ushered, powered by the music that fuels it. Bands such as FIDLAR, No Age, Surf Curse, and other defining sounds of SoCal punk were born out of its walls, shaking the room and drawing crowds to a place where they could appreciate the music, connected to the energy and people around them by a sense of groundedness and community that hangs in the air. For Francesca Walker, who’s mom grew up on the punk scene of the valley, The Smell has opened up a whole new world of music and freedom. Her love for punk-inspired music was born from the early 2010s Arctic Monkeys sound, and she says, “I guess I didn’t really listen to much more punk music until I started going to The Smell, and I guess that was part of the teenage angst that everyone has to go through.” And that angst, a healthy static of youth and empowerment, and a gnarly love is what fuels the spark of The Smell.

In that little downtown alley, adults aren’t the only ones that take the stage. With its doors open to all ages, free from drugs or alcohol, bands such as Beach Freaks and Rocket 9 groove on the same little black platform, the crowd absorbing the power of their neo-punk teenage beats. For Francesca, “it’s really cool to see someone your age doing something so big and cool.” Seeing fellow teenagers capture the crowd with the sandy, steely thread of surf punk can be a powerful wave, or as Walker paints it, “the dynamic is so much different.. When there’s so many people your age and they’re all there for the same reason, it’s so nice and sweet.”

In 2016, that grunge magic of the Smell was nearly brought to a screeching halt with one crisp notice posted on its door: demolition. Owners of the property, L&R Group Companies were looking to tear down the little one-story hub and its neighbors, which included the New Jalisco bar and the Downtown Independent movie theatre in favor of building the parasitic housing developments that have been popping up across areas of downtown Los Angeles in the past decade. However, after an outpour of support and pushback from a community that had grown up on the sounds of The Smell, the venue managed to fight back through online petitions and benefit shows that featured rising LA punk icons like The Regrettes. With a collective effort from longtime patrons and supporters of The Smell, the venue has been further preserved, and stands to remain in place as a center of underground LA culture and history.

As the new decade dawns on our city, the spark of The Smell is still going strong, a timeless hideaway for the rising generation to feel seen while soaking in the sounds of surf punk, and it’s all just hidden behind the door in the grimey little alley off of Main Street.

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