How venues like Drkmttr and The Glass Menage spring up, and why Metro is cracking down
Photo: Lance ConzettLess than 48 hours after a fire consumed the DIY artist space, concert venue and off-the-grid commune known as Ghost Ship in Oakland, Calif., earlier this month, an anonymous email signed by “A Concerned Parent” arrived in the inboxes of a list of Metro officials and members of Mayor Megan Barry’s administration. The subject: “33 Dead In Oakland, How many could die in Nashville.” (The death toll in the Ghost Ship fire ultimately rose to 36.)
The email, which was soon circulating among Metro public safety officials, warned that these “ ‘illegal clubs’ already exist in Nashville” and reported a Dec. 5 show at Drkmttr, an all-ages music venue operating out of a former barbershop on Indiana Avenue a couple of blocks off Charlotte Avenue. That night, Drkmttr was hosting garage-pop-punk act Nobunny when the fire marshal showed up and shut it down. The show would go on, once it moved down the street to Betty’s Grill, but the increased scrutiny on DIY venues set off a chain reaction, with other popular spots announcing they would go dark for the time being.
In Nashville, and around the country, the Oakland tragedy has brought increased attention to underground venues that are critical to the community members who frequent them, but often unknown to or misunderstood by many people in the cities surrounding them.
For those unfamiliar with such spaces — and tizzied by sensationalized local television news coverage — it could be easy to lump them all together. But essentially, music venues exist on a spectrum, stretching from Bridgestone Arena to, say, the Cannery Ballroom to a place like Drkmttr to your friend’s basement. Those on the less-established end — places like Drkmttr or other local DIY spots like The Glass Menage or Queen Ave — are often among the few all-ages venues where anyone can see a show and just about anyone can play one. They are not, in many important ways, like Ghost Ship, an old abandoned warehouse where people had also taken up residence. But in some cases, they do operate outside the law. Even still, they are the fertile soil from which a local music scene grows. Did you catch Diarrhea Planet on Late Night With Seth Meyers or JEFF the Brotherhood getting a post-performance handshake from Jimmy Fallon? Bands like that have spent a lot of time playing in places like these.
The Glass Menage was born when Ryan Pelham wanted to throw a Christmas party and couldn’t find a place in town where the rental fee wasn’t outrageous. He cleared out his unassuming green one-story home on Lynwood Avenue south of downtown and hosted the party himself, with a band for entertainment. Soon friends’ bands were asking to practice at the house or put on shows of their own. Pelham has been hosting shows for the better part of a year.
“The No. 1 thing I saw that made me think our space was needed in the community was the amount of local and touring bands messaging me on the Glass Menage Facebook [page] saying they couldn’t find a place in town to play,” Pelham tells the Scene. “For one reason or another — usually because of age or lack of notoriety — no traditional venues in Nashville would book them.”
If it sounds odd that a band could struggle to find a place to play in Music City, you can believe it’s maddening to people like Pelham. So while their DIY status oftentimes runs afoul of city ordinances, it also makes them beacons for the underground music scene. Many touring bands travel large swaths of the country, bouncing from converted house to former barbershop.
“DIY venues are important for this city for many different reasons,” Pelham says. “The No. 1 in my opinion being the lack of venues actually willing to pay bands for shows. Most places around town will make lesser-known bands actually pay them to perform at their venue. I think the term is ‘pay to play,’ which, let’s face it, just fucking sucks.”
Photo: Lance ConzettWithout commercial concerns or age restrictions, these spaces serve as the unsung incubators of the type of music scene that later gets written up in GQ — the type of attention that cities like Nashville covet and on which they are eager to capitalize. Daniel Pujol, a poet and musician who currently serves as the frontman of the punk outfit Pujol, moved to Nashville from Tullahoma in 2006, and shortly after that moved into a house in East Nashville with his bandmates in the now-long-defunct punk trio MEEMAW, along with one other friend. The home, christened MEEMAW House, was a popular underground DIY space — a “collective living/creative space,” as he calls it.
“New bands need places to play where they don’t have to shell out $150,” he says. “If you want to have a good music culture where you live, you’re going to have to have places that are not economically tied to selling alcohol. [Places] that people want to go to, to where new bands and new touring bands can go and do their thing without there having to be some kind of strict monetary concern or immediate overhead that needs to be addressed at the end of the night, every night. New things like that, they’re not a sure moneymaker, and the great stuff at the very beginning is not going to be a moneymaker.”
Drkmttr, which has been operating for going on a year-and-a-half, was originally located in a blue two-bedroom house guarded by a chain-link fence on Third Avenue South before moving to the old barbershop on Indiana Avenue. The new place is more accommodating, with a small stage, acoustic treatments and an actual HVAC. But it’s still off the grid, hence the visit from the fire marshal that Monday night.
Kathryn Edwards, one of several people who head up goings-on at Drkmttr, wasn’t there that night. But she says since then, she and other organizers have been meeting with Metro codes officials “to see what we need to do to make sure that we can start having events again.” And she says it’s going well.
“A lot of people I feel have been [in] panic mode, I suppose, and we just kind of wanted to simmer that down, because speaking with them and even the people who were there that night who talked to the fire marshal — they just were like, ‘Here’s these things that need to be fixed,’ ” she says. “We went to the codes office and asked them what exactly would we need, and they gave us a list of things. So now we just have to work down.”
That list includes things like more proper signage, an exit plan and a few permits. Edwards says that in moving to the new location, Drkmttr had hoped to become a more legitimate space anyhow, distinguishing it from the caricature of DIY spaces that spread after the Oakland fire, the perception of them as mere squatting communities with occasional music.
People like Edwards would appear to have a potential ally in Mayor Megan Barry, who has long been a booster of the local arts and entertainment scene. She also has experience navigating the gray area that some areas of the music industry occupy. As an at-large Metro Council member, Barry sponsored legislation to carve out an exemption in the codes for in-home recording studios, a ubiquitous home feature in Nashville that was also technically illegal. That issue, of course, didn’t come with the safety worries that accompany the discussion of DIY music venues. Hence the measured statement her office sent to the Scene regarding her level of support for the underground and perhaps underappreciated infrastructure of Nashville’s local music scene.
“Mayor Barry is a strong supporter of live music in Nashville, but those operating venues need to do so under the rules and regulations designed to promote safety and safeguard the quality of life in Nashville,” says Barry spokesman Sean Braisted. “Owners of venues seeking to come into compliance with codes or permitting are welcome to reach out to the executive director of our Music City Music Council, Justine Avila, to see how we can assist in that process.”
Whatever the law, though, the fact is that the fire and codes departments largely enforce them when a violation is reported to them. The fire marshal’s office did not agree to an interview for this story, but Bill Herbert, a zoning official with Metro Codes Administration, says his department hasn’t done anything different in the days since the Oakland fire. Rather, reports like the one emailed to officials from an anonymous “concerned parent” have prompted visits to local DIY venues.
“We’re on the lookout all the time for unsafe conditions, and we do our level best to make sure that the buildings and structures are safe for occupancy,” he says. “But when we’ve got a structure that the codes department or the fire marshal’s office don’t know is being inhabited under our records — maybe it’s listed as vacant — there’s no way that we can enforce on things that we don’t know about.
“So when we get an email from a concerned citizen that says, ‘You really need to be looking at this, this is an issue, here are some locations that are being used for these purposes, I’m concerned for the safety of the people using it,’ of course we’re going to look at it. And if it looks like there’s any reliability to what’s been reported to us, we’re absolutely going to check it out. We have to check it out — it’s our duty.”
The former barbershop on Indiana Avenue that is now home to Drkmttr previously had a fire, he says, and had not been renovated since.
Herbert doesn’t soft-pedal the enforcement of codes and regulations designed to ensure safety, but he does sound almost regretful at the idea that these sorts of spaces would cease to exist. His tone seems to line up with Edwards’ impression that Metro officials don’t have a desire to shut down Nashville’s DIY scene, a tight-knit community that is also connected to others around the country. Edwards notes that she is only a degree or two removed from people affected by the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland — a tragedy that caught many off guard, in part, because the existence and crucial role of such spaces were unknown to too many.
“I am glad that now there is a conversation happening,” Edwards says, “where we’re talking about noncommercial spaces where art and music happen and how to make those places safer for all of the people who are attending, without having them not exist.”
Additional reporting by Steve Cavendish, Adam Gold, D. Patrick Rodgers and Stephen Trageser.