The secret life of warehouse shows
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Sneak a peak at the California Cereals factory — a gray, boxy concrete sprawl looming over an otherwise peaceful West Oakland neighborhood lined with wood frame houses and a sugary spray of Victorians — and you immediately expect that mulchy aroma of processed wheat products to assault the senses. So why do you detect ... barbecuing oysters? But that's the overriding scent du jour — and the improvisatory, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-fun nature of the Cereal Factory, one of many unpermitted party outposts where the city's rock, improv, noise, and punk scenes have survived and even thrived in the Bay Area despite fin de siècle real estate insanity, party-killing neighbors, and ticket-threatening cops.
Scruffy, T-shirted kids lounge on the front steps of Jason Smith's two-story home, dubbed the Cereal Factory for the genuine, sugar-coated article churning out Fruity Pebbles and generic raisin bran across the street. Down a side path, in the small backyard, music scenesters, fans, punks, indie rockers, and cool dudes mingle on the grass and down the canned beer and grillables they've brought as CF housemate Daniel Martins of Battleship throws more oysters on the barbie. Double back, and in the basement you find a dark, humid, tiki-embellished crash pad, not uncomfortably crammed with bodies shaking to Italian punk-noise band Dada Swing. Or you catch Bananas, Mika Miko, or Chow Nasty killing the rest of the early evening for gas money.
"My whole thing is to make it free, make it so that people can go to it," the extremely good-natured Smith says much later. "If there's a touring band, I always run around with a hat and kind of strong-arm people into coughing up some change or a couple bucks to give them some gas, but otherwise the bands all play here for free. I just provide the coals, and I buy two cases of beer for the bands." As for the oysters, he adds, "shit like that happens! People are just, like, 'I caught this huge fish — let's smoke it.'”
Smith is one of the proud, brave, and reckless few who have turned their homes into unofficial party headquarters, underground live music venues. San Francisco and Oakland are riddled with such weekly, biweekly, and even more sporadic venues — some named and some known by nothing more than an address. But oh, what names: Pubis Noir, 5lowershop, an Undisclosed Location, Club Hot, Noodle Factory, Ptomaine Temple, and the Hazmat House. Some, like the Cereal Factory, are only active during the summer barbecue season; others, like LoBot Gallery, host shows and art exhibits year-round. Why go through the headache of opening your home up to a bunch of hard-partying strangers, music lovers, and the occasional psycho who trashes your bathroom? Some, such as Oakland's French Fry Factory, have bitten the dust after being busted for allegedly selling beer at shows. Others, such as 40th Street Warehouse and Grandma's House, have bowed to pressures external (neighbors, landlords) and internal (warehousemates), respectively. Why do we care?
CULTIVATING NEW AND UNDERSERVED SCENES
The Clit Stop can take credit for being one of the first venues in San Francisco to dream up the now-familiar cocktail of noise, indie rock, jazz, and improv. Ex-Crack: We Are Rock and Big Techno Werewolves mastermind Eric Bauer and Bran Pos brain Jake Rodriguez began booking shows in 1998 in Bauer's 58 Tehama space, once dubbed Gallery Oh Boy. Shows began on time at 8 or 9 p.m. so that East Bay listeners could BART back before midnight, and as a result Bauer and Rodriguez would often open, under assorted monikers. A May 2000 lineup at the Clit Stop (named after Bauer's band Planet Size: Clit by Caroliner's Grux) combined scree-kabukists Rubber O Cement with improv rockers Gang Wizard, indies Minmae, and Bauer's dada-noise Aerobics King; another bill matched the angsty indie-electronica of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone with the noise-guitar-funk of Open City and the jazz sax of Tony Bevan. The common thread? The fact that Bauer and Rodriguez both liked them. "It was kind of hard sometimes," Bauer says today. "We got requests from tons of shitty bands, and it was, like, 'No, no, we don't like you guys.'”
A year after Clit Stop began, Kimo's started showcasing the same combination of rock and noise characterized by such varied Clit Stop players as Cock ESP, No Neck Blues Band, and Nautical Almanac — a mix that has filtered to the Hemlock Tavern and 21 Grand and into the sounds emerging from Bay Area bands like Deerhoof, Total Shutdown, and the pre–Yellow Swans group Boxleitner, all of whom played the Clit. "The weirder and more fucked up, the better," Bauer continues. "We wanted to push boundaries — we wanted to annoy people." Bauer moved out in 2000, leaving Rodriguez to continue to book shows at the venue under, Bauer says, the name Hot Rodney's Bar and Grill. Bauer went on to put on the first noise-pancake shows with ex–Church Police member and Bauer's Godwaffle Noise Pancakes co-overlord Bruce Gauld at Pubis Noir, a former sweatshop at 16th Street and Mission. Gauld is expected to put out a DVD of Clit Stop performances this year.
GIVING UNDER-21 KIDS ACCESS TO CHEAP ART
"The cheapness factor is a huge part,” says Cansafis Foote, sax player for the No Doctors. “In Oakland right now, you have a lot of kids who are trying to make a go at being an artist or being a musician or whatever, and almost all of them are broke. But they're all really excited about people making stuff, so they'll go to Art Murmurs on the first Friday of the month or they'll go to warehouse shows, and maybe at the end of the day they won't have any money in their pocket — and we're still going to let ’em in to see the show. That, or they're underage."
An improv seminar leader at Northwestern University and onetime music teacher in Chicago, Foote was accustomed to instigating music- and merrymaking when he took the lease in February 2005 at Grandma's House in Oakland. "Everything was kind of funneling out of that experience and just having the background with Freedom From [the label the No Doctors ran with Matthew St. Germain] and free exploratory music." Grandma's House had already been putting on shows in the massive warehouse it shared with Limnal Gallery (and at one time the Spazz collective), and Foote threw his energy into doing two to three shows a month — including performances by Sightings, Burmese, Hustler White, Saccharine Trust, and Warhammer 48K — until March, when, he says, an especially loud show by USA Is a Monster brought the police on a noise complaint. Foote, a.k.a. Grandpa, was already bummed because housemates who had initially said they'd help with shows "totally weren't coming through on that. So I was sitting in my car and watching the gate while everyone was watching the show and I was, like, 'What's the point of doing this? I don't even get to see the show.' So I took a ladder and put it outside the window. I thought it was fun too, because it was like a clubhouse and people could come up the ladder and through the window into Grandma's House, and then the cops came, and one told me they'd unlock the seventh door to hell if I did it again.
"I was actually kind of excited — should I allow him to unlock the seventh door to hell for me? Is there going to be a special fire-breathing dragon there for me? It was amazing. It's, like, 'Dude, there's some 16-year-old kid who's going to shoot some other 16-year-old kid down the street — go deal with him.'”
The next show was the deal breaker: police returned twice to open that door as a brouhaha broke out at a Grey Daturas show between audience members and various warehousemates. Warehouse denizens put pressure on Foote to halt the shows, and now he's moving out: "It was the only reason I was living there. It's not real glamorous to be living in a warehouse with little mice and weird bugs in the summer."
BRINGING ART, THEATER, MUSIC — AND STRAIGHT-EDGED VEGETARIANS TOGETHER
House-party spaces have come and gone, but one of the saddest passings had to be 40th Street Warehouse in Oakland, which put on rock, folk, and hip-hop shows, queer cabaret, and art events from 1996 until the collective shuttered last winter with a last loud musical blowout (This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb headlined) and a commemorative zine. From Monument to Masses guitarist Matthew Solberg lived there for three years and recalls that the onetime auto mechanic shop's shows were initially started by members of the experimental Noisegate.
By 2003, Solberg says the Temescal space was putting on shows, plays, or benefits every weekend, with an emphasis on rock and metal: Parts and Labor, Tyondai Braxton, High on Fire, Ludicra, Merzbow, Masonna, Melt Banana, a Minor Forest, Lesser, Curtains, Neon Hunk, Hair Police, Deep Dickollective, Thrones, X27, Soophie Nun Squad, Toychestra, 25 Suaves, Monitor Bats, the Intima, Lowdown, the Coachwhips, Hammers of Misfortune, the Vanishing, Mirah, Gravy Train!!!!, Eskapo, and Microphones (last on the Microphones bill, beneath Loch Nest Dumpster, is Devendra Banhart, described as "acoustic ardor from San Francisco's shyist [sic]"), with bands like Numbers getting a running start with multiple performances there.
The schedule, however, took its toll. "People would move into the warehouse and be really stoked to have that autonomous space, but they didn't really know what they were getting into. They usually lasted six months, and then they'd be, like, 'I can't stand this anymore!'” Solberg says. "But certain people adapted because they were passionate about being able to create that sort of space and making it work: a DIY show space where 100 percent of proceeds went to the bands — and obviously, we'd cover some expenses, like electrical and providing food for the bands. But apart from that, the house didn't take any money. It was all done out of, I dunno, community service."
The collective itself got a reputation as a straight-edged vegan cabal that forbade hard drugs and meat in the fridge that sat on the outskirts of the barnlike communal show space. "We didn't want to succumb to the crash pad–flophouse thing," Solberg explains. "We just wanted to preserve sanity."
All that came to an end when in 2004 the Oakland City Council passed the Nuisance Eviction Ordinance, which took aim at crack houses but covered "noise" as a reason for eviction. "The people at 40th Street all believed that was the reason we got so much police attention the last year we were there," Solberg says. After joining his fellow tenants in a winning fight against their landlord, who had given them a month's eviction notice in order to convert the space to condos, Solberg moved to Ptomaine Temple, which continues to stage experimental noise shows.
BACK AT THE FACTORY
And despite the rewards, good times, and appreciative bands that get play and earn gas money to their next show, shutdowns are still a threat, casting a shadow even over spots like the Smith-owned Cereal Factory. After a neighbor began objecting last year to the soused kids milling in the street and lined up out the Factory's front door to go to the bathroom, the Mothballs drummer slowed the shows, built a discreet bathroom in the basement, and then carefully began the music once more. Why bother? The chuckle-prone Smith, who works in the live-music department at KALX, bought the house with the intention of having shows. "At the risk of sounding like a stupid hippie, I think it's important to contribute things," he says before the last show of summer 2006 on Sept. 16, with Them There Skies, Sandycoates, and Dreamdate.
This last show likely went off smoothly: the model property owner checked in with his neighbors that evening during his walk home. "I said, 'Donny, we're having a barbecue show this Saturday.' And he said, 'OK, OK, baby, you're cool. You're cool.' I'm hoping to have everything done by 9 o'clock, and that's pretty tame on a Saturday night," Smith explains. It's guaranteed there won't be any problem on at least one side of his summer house party — "there's this Argentinean woman named Pepper and she's fucking awesome. She'll be, 'Aw, yeah, it better be fucking loud because that's how I know you're having a good time. You gotta live life!' SFBG