Sleater-Kinney, Market Hotel, and The Importance of DIY Spaces

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Last Wednesday, December 16, Sleater-Kinney played their last show of 2015. It was a raucous, sweaty set at a resurrected DIY venue in Bushwick, Brooklyn; the floors bowed and arms flailed as elevated subway trains rumbled past open windows. ’90s riot grrrl anthems resonated outward from the wedge-shaped building’s stage like a natural urban amphitheater. It was one of our favorite music experiences of 2015.

Just the night before, the same band played a different but overlapping set to a few hundred more people in the same outer borough of New York City. That show was at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, a Bowery Presents venue that takes the idea of the Bowery Ballroom to its logical, efficient, and pre-fabricated conclusion. Unlike the Market Hotel and Irving Plaza shows, this one didn’t sell out immediately, and the show reflected it. The band sounded tight, and poured plenty of energy out from the stage — it just wasn’t reciprocated. The show was packed, but outside of a few superfans crammed in the front row, few people were even moving. It makes sense that on a long tour, some nights are better than others. But how can an experience vary so wildly when most of the variables are the same? How can one show be a snoozefest and the next tear the walls down?

Back in November, we spoke with Sleater-Kinney guitarist and Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein about her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. Towards the end of our conversation, we asked her about the upcoming sold-out show at Market Hotel, the last of five consecutive nights in New York. The first night was at the majestic King’s Theater in Flatbush; then at Terminal 5 in midtown Manhattan, just off the Hudson river; to Irving Plaza, just off Union Square; then back to Brooklyn at the MHOW, before closing out at the soft re-opening of the long-shuttered Market Hotel. In her response, Brownstein cited David Byrne’s How Music Works as being an influence for the thought process behind the “Vanishing Tour,” especially his rumination on the specificity of space in performance.

“Each setting is unique,” Brownstein said. “I think we wanted to play with that and create different context for the shows, in hopes that they would change the perception and reception of the music.”

Byrne’s treatise (of which you can get a Cliffs Notes version at his TED Talk from 2010) explores the spaces in which music is performed, comparing West African drum circles to religious hymns in Gothic cathedrals. Byrne points out that the space in which Bach’s music was performed was smaller, so he could change keys without introducing dissonance, and how some bass-heavy music is made to sound great in cars, with a huge dynamic range of frequency response, from the rolling subs to the very high end. Even birds consider the space of their performance; certain calls work better high up in the trees, while others work better closer to the ground.

So what is it about Sleater-Kinney’s music that made it so much better suited to Market Hotel than to Music Hall? The band was born in DIY spaces in the Pacific Northwest, for one. But it could also be the ‘tweener status of MHOW; it’s not as intimate as a DIY space, but there was also not much room for the band to move or implement their high-tech light show. Everyone who attended that reunion show at the otherwise maligned Terminal 5 back in February raved about the energy; reports from the December date at that same venue were less enthusiastic. But when you get right down to it, the Market Hotel show was different because it felt like a DIY show. It was sweaty (in NYC in December), with a bar fashioned from old graffiti’d bathroom stalls and remnant murals from past residents. A friend of ours watched the first 20 minutes of the show from the J/M/Z train platform, and was even able to sneak in halfway through.

So if Sleater-Kinney @ Market Hotel felt like a DIY show, WTF is DIY? Market Hotel has quite a history, but these days it’s completely above-board, with HVAC systems, a lift for disabled persons, fire sprinklers, insurance, etc. Most of the higher-profile DIY spaces in Brooklyn closed in 2014. Even the current shithole-du-jour, Palisades, a club just a block from Market Hotel on the Bedford-Stuyvesant side of Broadway, is fully legal, and charges $6 for a Shiner.

DIY is transient by nature; the people who found these spaces don’t expect them to live forever. The next logical conclusion is spaces that are temporary by design. As we discussed for a bit in a guest appearance on Billboard’s Alt In Our Stars podcast, one of the best shows we saw during CMJ was an unofficial showcase put on by Adhoc.fm at Hand & Detail, a pop-up venue housed in an old carwash that was purchased by a real estate developer that plans to build a hotel. The space may soon house a Yotel and some condos with a sick view of the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but for a night in October, it hosted bands with names like Pity Sex and Perfect Pussy. Is that DIY? Is Palisades? Does it need to be in opposition with the law to feel as real? Must a venue be a fiery deathtrap to connect with the music?

Sleater Kinney’s performance last week proved that it doesn’t; a venue can be safe, legal, and run by adults, and still host timeless performances. What’s more important is inclusiveness; creating a safe space for young people, the LGBTI community, people of color, and people who already native to the areas that DIY spaces often encroach upon in search of affordable real estate. The show at Market Hotel was all ages, which is crucial for developing scenes; how can the kids hear new music if they can’t even get in the door? (It’s also helpful when you forget your ID). And Todd Patrick, Brooklyn’s Don of DIY, who has been spearheading Market Hotel’s resurrection (as well as running Ridgewood, Queens’ Trans-Pecos), has been collaborating with Sam Hillmer of the band Zs on daytime programming for local youth.

DIY in New York City has died a thousand deaths, and will live to die a thousand more. Instead of decrying Vice’s absorption of waterfront Williamsburg real estate, people that care need to start their own spaces. Most people don’t even bother going legal because they don’t think it’s possible, and with the draconian bureaucratic permit polices in New York City, it’s hard to blame them. But there are plenty of cities across the country that have unused spaces that can be reclaimed. And what if Market Hotel opens for real next year and is a wild success? Does it prove that DIY can be legal and still work? Because if it does, it’s got a way better chance of making a difference in a community than some shitty club that helped raise area rents for a couple years. Could it convince you to do it yourself?