"DIY Will Never Die": An Exit Interview with 285 Kent's Ric Leichtung
On December 19th of last year, Ric Leichtung announced via Twitter that Maria Minerva's performance at 285 Kent that night might be the Williamsburg venue's last. Though the news devastated many in the New York music community, it wasn't all that surprising: rumors that Kent was closing had been floating around since the NYPD raided the space on Leichtung's birthday in September. The nature of DIY spaces, which operate on the fringes of legality and rapidly gentrifying, expanding neighborhoods, has always been transient. "They're usually only around for a couple of years, so to a certain degree it's business as usual," says Leichtung. "It's a ticking time bomb where either the landlord could manipulate tenants into moving out or the developer or anyone else would just as easily snap up the property. It's an impending doom over the neighborhood."
(Photo by Maria Sherman) Eugenics Council at 285 Kent on November 8th, 2012.
But 285 Kent has held on, albeit under a rotating cast of different owners and aliases, for a remarkably long time. In 2006, music and arts collective Shinkoyo (which were also behind the original Silent Barn space when it was called the Raven's Den) opened the performance space Paris/London/West Nile, which hosted artists like experimental synth manipulator Oneohtrix Point Never and avant-garde filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad before closing in 2010. At that point, Bossa Nova Civic Club owner John Barclay came onboard until Kent started receiving unwanted attention from authorities and Todd Patrick, a/k/a Todd P, took the lease off his hands. Starting with 285 Kent, Patrick laid down the template for other DIY venues in the area, such as Death by Audio around the corner and Bushwick's Silent Barn; all have the same PA system, for example. In 2011, Leichtung stepped in with John "Rambo" Jacobson booking shows with him until the latter left in 2012. "At that point, I was basically doing everything," says Leichtung, who co-founded the music blog Ad Hoc in addition to booking 285, often working from 9 a.m. to 4 a.m. the next day. "I wanted to die, it was so overwhelming."
"I'm not really sure what the next step for me is," he adds, "but I could never stop doing this. It's what I love doing." In the meantime, Leichtung is focused on the imminent future of 285 Kent, which involves cleaning and re-purposing the space before its lease expires at the end of January. At the time of our interview he was also finalizing the dates and lineups for the venue's farewell shows in the middle of the month. These have since been announced, and you can find the full schedule and links to purchase tickets after the break.
We sat down with Leichtung at 285 Kent to discuss the encroaching developers, those famously disgusting bathrooms, and the uncertain future of New York's DIY spaces in general.
What is the status of 285 Kent right now?
We're choosing to close right now because we want to end the space on our own terms. It's not because the lease is gonna be up this month, or next month, or even the month after that--it's ultimately about ending it with dignity. The last space I was involved in was Market Hotel. When we decided to close, a vacate order was probably around the corner because we were getting so many visits and getting shut down. It's just a nightmare to go through that. We went through it [at 285 Kent] in September.
The fact is the days are numbered, not only in the terms of the city, but internally with the landlord. Two Trees, the real estate developer behind the Domino Sugar Factory efforts, is developing across the block. When you were here to see Autre Ne Veut, for example, you could see the Manhattan skyline and the water, and now the developers have built this Berlin wall. That's definitely a physical manifestation of the sign of the times: a space like this is no longer sustainable in Williamsburg.
Why was there a health inspector here on the last night?
I can't tell you for sure. We did have the health department come on another occasion, so this was an unscheduled surprise follow-up, incredibly serendipitous that they happened to come on the last day. This is yet another reason why we feel it's smart to have ended things on our own terms. If we hadn't, we'd be stuck with this financial nightmare. Even though we aren't like any other traditional venue, in order to get the shows we get, we still have to play the industry game to some degree. We put deposits down; we honor contracts. If there were some catastrophe to happen, it could be thousands of dollars and work just gone. We are constantly buying flights for our favorite bands to come out to play, so that would be thrown out the window.
How did you have a New Year's Eve show if Maria Minerva's was going to be the last one?
In mid-December Todd [Patrick] felt it would be not a good idea to have a New Year's Eve show. It would be very high profile, and there are a lot of malicious promoters that, if they know if something is your final show, they will call the cops on you. It's surprising to me, but it happened to House of Yes a few months ago. The rumor is that there was a competing promoter that tried to stick it to them. We occupy the space between this DIY world and constantly competing with Music Hall of Williamsburg and Output. Not to say that they would specifically do anything, but it's just a precaution. At that point I was under the impression that [Maria Minerva] was going to be the last one. I didn't book it knowing it was going to be. I booked it in September.
Did you book it before the police raid?
I booked it after. We were still going strong after that incident, but had been kicking the idea around, trying to figure out a way that it could work. We took little steps--like, the Ad Hoc team works in here, but we took a precaution to get another space because if there was a vacate order on the door, and I leave my computer here, it's up for grabs. Silent Barn got broken into after it got its vacate order. We definitely took a lot of time discussing it. I really wish it didn't come to this but the nature of the DIY scene is ultimately incredibly transient.
Do you ever get frustrated with how transient it is?
Oh, yeah. Thinking, "I'm hesitating to buy this flight for Wolf Eyes to come in because maybe I won't have a venue to do it in, and I might lose all this money." It's very trying, and there's so much effort that goes into the production of these shows even though we have such a small team. It's literally me putting together and booking these shows, Kaitlin Brown who runs the events, and Siobhan McDonald, who basically is the bar manager, she's the safety net to make sure everything is okay. We have the luxury, because we're so small, of not booking events around financial gain. I can't tell you how many times we had Arca play for 40 people a year and a half ago, and now he's huge. It is transient and incredibly frustrating, I guess [laughs].