Once an eccentric backwater of the downtown music scene, Williamsburg receives the movement’s first mothership.
The Knitting Factory has been at its new location on Metropolitan Avenue and Havemeyer Street for all of three months. And this indeed is a nice little bow tie on the loopy tale of two of the city’s most enigmatic art scenes of the past twenty years—downtown music and Williamsburg.
The “warehouse movement” that started in Williamsburg in 1990 was a network of unlicensed clubs, lounges, events, and environments that bore not the slightest resemblance to either the galleries or the nightclubs of Manhattan at the time. It was a cultural movement really, which amounted to a kind of alternate universe of aesthetic experience. But what the warehouse artists did take from lower Manhattan was the legacy of that genre-busting, iconoclastic music and performance juggernaut that has been known for nearly half a century simply as “downtown.” And it was the Knitting Factory that in 1987 provided the downtown scene with its first permanent venue, first on Houston Street and later in Tribeca.
What places like the Kitchen, the Knitting Factory, and other venues in Manhattan did between 1971 and the beginning of the 90s was to ensure that music and sound would become more a part of the daily life of conceptual art, installation art, and the business of aesthetic hubris in general. And this development reached a peak in Williamsburg in the first half of the 90s.
For the Knitting Factory today, the picture is bigger than Williamsburg or downtown or conceptual art. The variety of programming has increased over the years, and so has the reach. “The Knit” has venues in Hollywood, Boise, Spokane, and Reno. They run several record labels, an artist management division, and they recently signed an exclusive concert promotion agreement with the Warsaw Theater in Greenpoint. This will allow the Knit to put some of its artists before much bigger audiences than the Metropolitan Avenue location can accommodate.
“A primary focus of ours is to grow artists from a grass-roots level to a 1,000-capacity venue and beyond,” says Chris Moore, senior VP of Knit Touring. “Adding the Warsaw to our repertoire of venues continues with that mission.”
The Knitting Factory today appears to be putting an interesting business model in place: a national organization that can manage a great number and variety of underground acts and subgenres, and get them to the mainstream or to new markets with a certain efficiency heretofore only dreamed of in this industry. I asked senior East Coast talent buyer Chris White it this is the case. He replied by email: “I’m not sure our goal is to propel anything into the mainstream as much as to have a long-term and sustainable business built on presenting and promoting quality events and artists. The Knit has a long history of producing events outside of its owned and operated venues. The Warsaw relationship is an extension of that, the same way any ‘Knitting Factory Presents’ shows we do will be.”
Staff at the Brooklyn Knit are circumspect about the new reach of the organization. “This is still the hub,” says Zach Jeager, a manager at the Brooklyn venue. “We still do everything we’ve always done, and more. We’ll always have the John Zorns, the Gary Lucas’s. But we still have a lot of variety. And the programming is completely different at each Knit location.”
The “downtown” or “experimental” music with which the Knitting Factory first made its name is usually defined as music that is unfettered by genres or preconceptions, and which might roam freely between jazz, rock, pop, classical, folk, muzak, spoken word and poetry, and even raw sound or what is sometimes called “concrete” music. In its first decade the scene was a renegade contingent, awkwardly negotiating fixed-genre rock and jazz venues like CBGBs and The Blue Note; until Michael Dorf and Louis Spitzer opened the Knitting Factory in 1987. Dorf moved the club to Tribeca in 1994, and with the recent move to Brooklyn there is no longer a Knit presence in Manhattan.
In 1998 the gravitational center of the downtown scene shifted to a new club on Norfolk Street called Tonic. When the beloved Tonic closed in April 2007, twenty years on the money after the Knit had opened, it felt as if downtown music may have lost its base in its ancestral homeland of downtown Manhattan. There has since been a downtown Diaspora to places like Zebulon, Glasslands Gallery, and Death by Audio in Williamsburg, the Tea Lounge in Park Slope, Issue Project Room, Galapagos, and to John Zorn’s space The Stone on Avenue C in the city.
John Zorn, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Shelley Hirsch, Alan Vega, Elliot Sharp, William Hooker, Yuka Honda, David Moss, Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori, Michael Formanek, Raz Mesinai, Toshio Kajiwara, Tom Surgal, Drew Gress, Toshinori Kondo, Uri Caine, Ralph Alessi.
That’s a short list of avant-garde artists from among the many who have played at the Knitting Factory over the years. It’s also a short list of artists who have worked with dj Olive.
Gregor Asch (dj Olive) was a co-founder of the Lalalandia Entertainment Research Corporation, which was a mainstay of the warehouse scene in Williamsburg. Asch coined the word “illbient” to mean a darker, “sicker” permutation of ambient music. He is a member of the group We™, with Ignacio Platas (Once 11) and Rich Panciera (Lloop). Their CD releases are classics of the 90s after-hours culture — startling, delicately funky works of modernity that satisfy the downtown canon as well as any definition of the warehouse movement.
Apart from being the best endorsement for duct tape the city has ever seen the warehouse movement raised the bar on after-hours culture. Consider the fact that in the mid-80s a derivative theme club called Area was the hottest ticket in town. A decade later a wholly original and much more unearthly environment had overtaken after-hours scenes across Brooklyn and Manhattan, with tags like “Omnisensorial Sweepout,” “Webjam,” “Zion Bubble Party.” This was thanks to technology and a booming economy, but it was also thanks to Williamsburg and the rise of audio culture within downtown music.
In 1989 the Lizard’s Tail opened at 99 South 6th Street, fast by the Williamsburg Bridge. The following year they started producing enormous one-off blowouts in the warehouses along the waterfront. In 1991, another group of artists started Keep Refrigerated at 90 North 11th Street. Out of “the Fridge” came Lalalandia and later Fakeshop. These spawned more than a dozen environments around Williamsburg in the space of five years, including clubs, lounges, a restaurant, and even a school bus “shuttle” to get around to them all. There were performance and theater companies that provided spectacle, rappelling down the sides of grain silos, and even providing some buoyancy now and then in the East River.
As much as possible, music and performance were required to support the whole environment, blend with it, become a concrete part of its idea. The conceptualist Ken Butler took ideas about concrete music and prepared instruments, and extended them to fully-realized “hybrid instruments”—a cello made from a rifle, for example. Butler is also a Knitting Factory veteran who has recorded on its label.
At the Knitting Factory on October 30 was Jonathan Kane’s February, a blistering avant-blues quintet. The set was awesome and rather cinematic. The only catch was that one of the band’s guitarists, Peg Simone, is really hot and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. But this band is smokin’. I got a quick word backstage with the virtuoso drummer himself, and it turns out Kane was in the Sirens with Dina Emerson. Also a Knit veteran, Emerson was the downtown music diva of Williamsburg in the early 90s. She also collaborated with Ken Butler for a time. Brian DeWan and Billy Basinksi are two other names to check from the early downtown/Williamsburg frontier.
Williamsburg has generally not been known for movements. It is a pluralistic culture, and the rise of the neighborhood as an art center corresponds with the end of an era that required neatly packaged movements. Yet the warehouse scene was a strikingly collaborative and stylistically consistent enterprise. Writing in 1998 in Domus magazine, the architect Suzan Wines perhaps best summed it up as “immersive culture.”
The movement has fanned out into the world and inflected the culture. One of its descendents is Galapagos, which was on North 6th Street between Wythe and Kent avenues, until it moved to Dumbo for twice the space at half the rent.
So how difficult is it to get a gig at the Knitting Factory, and also, do they allow bestiaries, or is it primarily just for bands?
“It’s not that hard to get a gig,” says Zach Jeager, the manager at the Brooklyn Knit. “On the other hand, we’re not Bowery priests. We are curators, we work off our taste, and we’re into growing and developing acts. We’re not going to be that venue that’s trying to make revenue by booking five bands a night, with each band bringing in 20 people.
Any plans for amphibious life?
“Yes. We are definitely open to burlesque.”