Former Brooklyn venue Zebulon enjoys a welcome reception in Frogtown
For any New York-to-L.A. transplants nostalgic for the vanished Zebulon music venue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, you can now belly up to the bar again.
The new incarnation of the experimental music space now has an airy perch next door to Salazar in the fast-flipping Frogtown neighborhood. And you can sit at the actual bar itself — the same huge slab that has been waiting five years in storage for a return to the stage.
“Everyone gets a little emotional when they sit behind it,” said co-owner Guillaume Blestel. He slunk into his chair on Zebulon’s outdoor patio and mimed the gesture: “It’s like, ‘Ahhhh’.”
If L.A. must endure the flood of beleaguered New Yorkers coming here for the usual perks of more space, better weather and America’s best arts scene (admit it, folks), the Zebulon crew is an especially welcome addition.
The venue is a big bet that L.A. has plenty of room for new music spaces, and that a Parisian-minded locale with avant-garde sensibilities can thrive outside the Goldenvoice/Live Nation axis and avoid the struggles of more underground, do-it-yourself spaces.
Zebulon comes to town with a serious pedigree.
From its 2003 opening to its 2012 closure, Zebulon became one of Brooklyn’s most beloved holes-in-the-wall while doing almost everything counterintuitively.
The founders — Parisian brothers Joce and Jef Soubiran and friend Blestel — had a penchant for noisy jazz, never charged covers (they paid bands with cash from the bar and a tip jar), and set times were more of a vague suggestion than a rule.
Yet it took off, especially with the mid-00s wave of creative indie New York bands like TV on the Radio and Dirty Projectors, who found a hint of old, weird New York in its sweltering walls.
Even though the Zebulon crew had the rare gift of owning its building in New York, as the neighborhood spiffed up it got tired of noise complaints from newcomers and a changing community that seemed more interested in $30 eggs Benedicts than in Eric Dolphy.
“We’d see advertisements for new apartments by our building, saying ‘close to bars and music venues,’ but then they’d call with noise complaints,” said Jef.
“I’d walk outside and see everyone with shopping bags and feel trapped, it didn’t reflect what we needed in the neighborhood,” added Blestel.
So they packed it in, found other jobs, and put the expansive bar in storage to figure out their next move. They headed west.
After making a few local connections (including musician Mia Doi Todd and husband Jesse Peterson, and bringing over talent booker Tyler Nolan and Cinefamily programmer Kalyane Lévy), they renovated a too-good-to-be-true location.
It’s also the rare building whose owners were excited to have a music venue move in — the distribution warehouse for the Mexican label Altamirano Records. It took a couple years to square away the permits and build it out, but the new Zebulon is a much more expansive project than the old one.
The actual venue will top out with a 300 capacity, but the indoor-outdoor industrial vibe makes it a rare spot where you can come for lunch at its quaint front-room cafe, tuck in for a few beers at the side bar and end up staying until the last notes ring out in the main room.
The bookings are, true to form, eclectic. They’re selling tickets at the door now (they have much bigger bills to pay here), but in just the opening weeks there’s been a harp-driven tribute to the religious music of Alice Coltrane, winsome country-folk from Jolie Holland, a documentary screening on French electronic music and a set from co-founder Todd. It’s a grown-up sensibility (A.P.C. jackets and salt-and-pepper beards abound, on owners and crowd alike), but they’re still booking whatever piques their interests.
And in a time when un-permitted venues like the shuttered Non Plus Ultra are on the city’s radar, a fully legal venue with an outsider sensibility could be a godsend. Especially for musicians who don’t fit in at warehouse raves but might be too experimental for normal rock venues.
“We do want to book everything, in a good way,” Nolan said.
“We’re still figuring it out, but we’ve always been very open that you can’t put us in a neat box,” Jef added.
Of course, the owners aren’t naive about the fact that the same dynamics that made Brooklyn inhospitable to them could someday happen here in Frogtown.
“If we do our jobs, the place should speak for itself,” said Nolan.
Peterson agreed: “We chose a spot that was owned by a fellow music lover who was so excited for us to move in here.”
So as long as New Yorkers fleeing to L.A. promise to open more venues like Zebulon, then sure, we guess you can stay.
Zebulon, 2478 Fletcher Drive. zebulon.la, (323) 662-0966
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