The Smell: 24 Years of DIY! An Interview with Jim Smith
Since 1998, The Smell has stood as a welcoming space for the art and music community in Los Angeles.
Photo by Quynn Lubs
Originally, The Smell was located in North Hollywood on the intersection of Magnolia Blvd. and Lankershim Blvd. However, this intersection quickly became the center of the North Hollywood Arts District, causing rent prices to skyrocket. So, The Smell moved to its current location, 247 S. Main St. in Downtown Los Angeles in 1999.
The Smell was founded by three friends; Jim Smith, Ara Shirinyan and Jarett Silberman. The DIY venue was created to offer an all-ages, alcohol and drug-free space for punk and experimental music. The Smell is a nonprofit and is entirely volunteer-run.
“I went to shows growing up, and then all the way up until [The Smell] opened and, of course, ever since,” said Smith, one of the original founders and current sole owner and manager of The Smell. “Obviously before I was old enough, I grew up going to all ages shows. Right before we opened the space, there had been a few really good DIY all ages venues in L.A., that had all kind of closed around the same time, so that’s what kind of inspired us to open the space and keep that vibe going.”
The inside of the venue was built entirely by volunteers. It was built in stages, years and years of renovations and upgrades. “It was definitely a group effort,” Smith said.
“When we first moved in here, it looked a lot different,” Smith said. “We kind of built it out a little bit, but it wasn’t anything like it looks today — no stage, just a really basic PA. The room configuration was a little bit different, we had actually like a smaller main room, a middle room that was kind of like a gallery space, we added a bathroom… all that took place over many years.”
The Smell has volunteers to run sound, the door, and the snack booth at each event. If an event does not have enough volunteers for all of these tasks, Smith runs each aspect of the show himself; taking tickets at the door and selling waters, vegan snacks, coffee and tea.
“We find a way to get everything done,” he said.
The outside of The Smell is extremely recognizable, with a mural on the front stating “Not Our President,” along with people holding various protest signs — such as “Trans Rights,” “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice No Peace,” and more. This mural was done by musician, animator and artist Sean Soloman, who also played at The Smell in his band Moses Campbell in the venue’s early days.
The Smell’s walls, inside and out, are covered in murals, graffiti and other artworks by various artists.
Another iconic aspect of The Smell are The Smell Dogs. Smith brings his two dogs along to nearly every Smell show, who sit by the ticket booth up front waiting for passersby to offer belly rubs.
“They love coming here, they love interacting with people. That’s like their favorite thing,” Smith said. “I love being around them, so if I don’t have to leave them at home for any reason, might as well bring them.”
Countless bands have taken the stage at The Smell over the past 24 years since its opening. When asked what bands stick out to him, Smith mentioned No Age, Mika Miko, Ty Segall, Best Coast, The Locust and Moses Campbell as some classic Smell bands from back in the day. More recently, bands like Rocket 9, Kuromi, Rick n Dick, Shock Therapy and more have consistently played at the venue.
“I've been going to The Smell since March of 2016,” said Ohad, singer and synth for the band Rocket 9. “I was 13 at the time. It was the second show I ever went to and my friend and I fell in love with the space. I started going really often during high school.”
Rocket 9 has played The Smell a total of 12 times, always walking away with a good experience. The Smell is a very open, welcoming environment for all — making the venue stand out amongst other larger venues in Los Angeles.
“I've seen infants and five year olds hanging out there, where else do you see that?” Ohad said. “Also no one really cares if your set is awful, they're still gonna let you play again another night. It gives artists a chance to experiment and try all the things they wouldn't do at a bigger venue yet. This leads to why it's so eclectic there! It isn't too uncommon to watch someone play an acoustic set with a friend playing flute immediately after some punk band.”
When asked about any specific memories of The Smell that stand out to her, Ohad shared, “I'll never forget the first time I crowd surfed, playing a sold out show on my birthday, meeting countless incredible people and even my partner! Other things that come to mind are the super intimate shows that have very few people, or even unplugged acoustic sets. One time my friend Austin booked a show and one of the bands had to cancel last minute so they had everyone sit on the stage for a lovely quiet and super personal set. There's so many more [memories] that come to mind, too.”
The Smell offers much more than just a space for musicians to play.
“The benefits The Smell and other DIY venues have to the community is impossible to overstate,” Ohad said. “Many nights all the door money goes to charities, community funds, or other great causes. I remember early on into COVID — maybe summer of 2020 — The Smell had a donation drive for the homeless community. It brought so many people to bring supplies to people greatly in need. I remember one night there was a harm reduction group handing out Narcan and testing kits. Until they expired my band carried Narcan to all our shows, the help that The Smell brings to the community branches outwards!”
Photo by Quynn Lubs c. 2018
The Smell being an all ages venue allows for artists and art lovers from all walks of life to attend shows in a safe and sober environment. A DIY space like this in any art scene is vital.
“I think it’s just important that the artistic music community has a space, or multiple spaces, where the focus is on the art and the music — not on a bar, or any other, what I would consider, just distractions from the art and music. It’s important to have a space that the artists, and the audience, and all the other participants are involved,” Smith said. “Organizing the shows, playing the shows, attending the shows, working at the shows… I think it’s just really important to have that kind of cohesion and that community for the scene to thrive.”
The Smell is an iconic spot for Los Angeles musicians and the music scene. From hanging out in the alley by the entrance to discovering your new favorite artists, The Smell holds a dear place in all of our hearts.
“It’s all about the people that come here and what they contribute,” Smith said. “They’re the ones that have created what it is, both literally, like everyone’s graffiti in the bathrooms; we didn’t stand there and paint all that ourselves, it was layer upon layer over the years, that’s what created that. I think the same goes for anything here that people think about when they think of The Smell.”
The Smell has been utilizing the same sound equipment for the past few decades. This equipment is in desperate need of an upgrade, and as members of the community that The Smell provides for, it’s time we do what we can to elevate this space. We will be holding a fundraiser show for The Smell this Saturday, June 11, in order to help the venue make any needed upgrades to the facility and the equipment. All proceeds from the door will be going to The Smell!
We at JUNK! would like to thank Jim Smith for all he has done for our scene. It’s not easy running a venue, and the fact that he has remained at The Smell for 24 years is commemorable. Thank you for all you do for us, Jim! We hope we are able to help you as much as you help us!
Watch the full interview below!