I haven’t been to Los Angeles since I was 15, but I already feel at home at The Smell. It is a decrepit, dilapidated hole of a place, with water-damaged brick and concrete walls. Strange artwork is everywhere. And the venue’s titular odor likely features top notes of sweat sock, with stale malt liquor and dried vomit undertones. You see, although I have never set foot inside it, The Smell feels exactly like my own favorite DIY performance spaces, from Baltimore’s Floristree to Brooklyn’s Market Hotel and Silent Barn. In fact, The Smell contains within it every well-loved warehouse venue in America. Its story is the story of how great independent music is surviving – and thriving – in the 21st century.
It is to director Bob Bellerue’s credit that his documentary, Live at The Smell, managed to get across such a powerful point without putting those words in anyone’s mouth. The film is nothing fancy: It’s simply a series of Smell performances, roughly 10 to 15 minutes at a time, plucked from 10 bands. Instead of selecting the most popular songs, Bellerue highlights each act hitting its sweet spot. The camera work and editing are basic, incorporating only the simplest of effects and switching seamlessly between grainy, washed out and higher-quality video. There are no talking-head interviews, no song titles flashing across the screen for our edification. Bellerue’s genius is in convincing us of The Smell's vitality simply by compiling the ultimate mix of performance footage, collected over a single month in late 2008.
Live at The Smell kicks off – wisely – with locals, the motherfucking Mae Shi, a band whose untimely (and hopefully temporary) demise last summer nearly put me out of commission. The guys bounce around uncontrollably, like five hyperactive preschoolers who have never had to pee so badly in their lives. Packing onto The Smell’s tiny stage, they bark like dogs and join their audience under a giant, multi-colored parachute. And the crowd gives all the love and energy back to them, in spades.
The rest of film features most of L.A.’s best bands (No Age, Abe Vigoda, HEALTH, Gowns), as well as a few kindred outsiders (Brooklyn’s High Places, Baltimore’s Ponytail). While The Smell is famous for helping to reignite that nebulous genre now known as “lo-fi punk,” the aesthetic of the doc’s acts vary. Most could be said to combine the aforementioned punk, noise, and “indie rock,” but that’s as far as our generalizations can go. Foot Village, with three drum kits set up in the middle of the floor, creates a raucous racket. Noisy, avant-garde Gowns perform only one song, the long, dark, and breathtaking “White Like Heaven,” singer/guitarist Erika M. Anderson’s vocals verging on spoken word. In some moments, she looks like she’s channeling; at others, she seems near tears. In a rendition of “The Song Is the Single,” BARR provides a sort of meta-commentary on the business of music and the absurdity inherent therein. Then there’s a shirtless, long-haired beardo named Captain Ahab. Like a possessed Girl Talk, he dissects hip-hop tracks via laptop, inspiring the most menacing dance party I’ve ever seen. And Ponytail’s electric imp Molly Siegel pauses in between two revelatory psych-punk songs to lean into the crowd and give voice to what all of us at home are thinking: “This feels really great! And I’m not even in it!”
Siegel’s tossed-off comment stumbles on the most important thing about venues like The Smell: They’re as much about the audience as they are about the performers. These are people who live for the music they’re hearing, who volunteer and join collectives and steal photocopies from their jobs to promote shows. Together, the artists and fans embody everything independent and underground music should be. They're not the coke-snarfing, photo-snapping, architectural hairstyle-sporting hipsters the band Titus Andronicus recently condemned in an intelligent, well-publicized blog post about VICE’s horrific-sounding Halloween party. They are actually working towards something new. You can see it in the way the artists close their eyes onstage and give into ecstatic chaos, in the way they wring the strangest sounds possible out of their voices and instruments. Notice that the audience doesn’t hesitate to jump up and down, sweat profusely, or scream lyrics. This is not about coolness. It’s about art, community, and the sublime space where the two meet.
You might protest that Bellerue didn’t edit enough, that two hours of straight concert footage is overkill. But the sheer amount of material speaks to the filmmaker’s exuberance for his subject matter. If you don’t like it, I bet your DVD player has a fast-forward button. And it’s true that we learn nothing about the venue’s history or the bands (besides what they sound like). But if you like what you hear, the internet is a better source of raw information than any documentary will ever be. What Live at The Smell provides is something much more rare and exciting: It actually recreates the feel of being at a beloved DIY venue – any beloved DIY venue, circa the late 00s. And for those of us who have had the endless pleasure of participating in these spaces and the communities they create, it is an indispensible record of our not-so-misspent youth, no less valuable than any Woodstock documentary our parents might dig up.