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Koos Café: Orange County's All-Ages Musical Feast

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Trail of Noise: Mapping Southern California's All-Ages Music Spaces. Follow Derek Papa's oral history project that looks at the history of grassroots-collective music space in the outlying communities of Southern California.

American folk singer-activist Marlvina Reynolds once sang, "God bless the grass that grows thru the crack, they roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back. The concrete gets tired of what it has to do, it breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through." During the 1990's, music-obsessed Orange County youth buckled the concrete when seeking performance space across the hard-surfaced suburban landscape. Self-determined Santa Ana native Dennis Lluy led the way and navigated through Orange County's endless built environment and organically grew an all-ages music community, a place where young emerging punk, indie-pop, and alternative bands could perform and be heard.

Lluy would eventually found Koos Café (1991-2001) of Santa Ana, an all-ages unconventional music/art space, and all around safe-haven for Orange County youth. But before Koos, he promoted shows in transient fashion across the county, and cut his teeth in grassroots concert promotion.

Lluy's moveable, all-ages feast, was based upon the simple idea that, as he says, "Nobody's was gonna give it to us. I didn't expect anyone to create it for me, I just felt I should create it. I just responded to my own person needs and did things I felt would improve my life, and it just so happens that it's what many other people needed as well."

Stay Gold performs at Koo's Cafe, December 29, 2001. | Courtesy of <a href='http://www.indecisionrecords.com/photo_gallery/ind_bands/staygold/index.html'>Indecision Records</a>.
Stay Gold performs at Koo's Cafe, December 29, 2001. | Courtesy of Indecision Records.

During the 1990s, Lluy remembers Orange County as a place void of musical outlets. "There would be backyard parties, but before we even got the chance to play, in most instances, the cops would break it up, so it got really frustrating. Most of the shows that we did have were at churches and non-conventional places."

Lluy began promoting shows wherever he could: backyards, Mexican restaurants, churches, the Elks Lodge, half-abandoned buildings, and hotel lobbies. Lluy's efforts created space for the young community to gather, express, and become inspired by music.

Lluy was born February 21st, 1973 in Los Angeles, California to Cuban immigrant parents. His parents immigrated to Southern California during the Cuban Revolution.

During the 1980s, he says that as a kid "growing up in suburban Orange County, there was really not much to do."

He remembers the lure of music at a very early age, saving their money and buying cheap instruments. "Music was our lives at that point. Anything from the Clash to Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Firehose -- a diver's pallet of bands." Skateboarding was the other outlet for Lluy and his friends. Although no designated skate parks existed in the area, he recalls finding a park with "a bunch of craters and just skating it. It was pretty much music and skating -- that was pretty much our lives."

Swing Kids flyer, Koo's Cafe. | Courtesy of <a href='http://fukschool.wordpress.com/2010/10/18/notes-from-the-underground-2/'>Fukschool</a>.
Swing Kids flyer, Koo's Cafe. | Courtesy of Fukschool.

As a youth obsessed with playing and hearing new music, Lluy quickly became frustrated by the lack of all-ages venues in the Orange County. There were a few all-ages venues in Southern California -- Spanky's in Riverside, the Macondo and Jabberjaw in L.A. -- but Orange County was void of established music space. The venues in Orange County "were always short lived, and they would always eventually get shut down."

Churches were host to many shows. At fifteen years old, Lluy recalls extreme measures taken to perform at the Victory Outreach Church on Palm Street in Santa Ana. Skateboarding one day with his friends, they heard metal music billowing out of the church. They approached and found a stage full of equipment. Hungry for a gig, they asked, "What do we need to do to play here?" The church staff said, "As long as you sing about Jesus, you can play here." Lluy and his band mates raced home, recorded a brief demo inserting Jesus into each chorus. Two weeks later they returned, submitted their demo, and were given a show. "They loved it," Lluy recalls.

Soon Lluy realized that his talents were better suited away from performance and towards promotion. "I was an okay drummer, but I really just felt that my purpose, my stronger calling, was to really just organize, be behind the scenes and really try to create places for people to congregate and express through music and art." He recalls putting on a show at the Elks Lodge in Fullerton. Pop-punk bands Gameface and Samiam were booked and "kids just went crazy." San Francisco band Samiam lit the hillside on fire with bottle rockets on their way out of town, drawing the attention of the fire department. "That show really sacred the Elks," Lluy recalls. It was clear that a legitimate music space that offered a safe environment for the youth was necessary.

Narcoleptic Youth and The Aborted flyer, Koo's Cafe, 1998. | Courtesy of The Aborted.
Narcoleptic Youth and The Aborted flyer, Koo's Cafe, 1998. | Courtesy of The Aborted.

After the Elks Lodge, Lluy approached the Ice House in Fullerton, an old ice factory down by the train tracks, on the outskirts of downtown Fullerton. Lluy paid the landlord rent on a show-by-show basis. The Ice House struggled to last. With little control of what he "could and could not do" and a series of violent episodes the Ice House was a short-lived venture. In desperate need for a venue for bands on the local grassroots indie circuit, the Ice House quickly faded.

Lluy brought short-lived organization to the Ice House. "I hired an architect to help me, created a stage and brought it up to code, set up a lighting and audio rig and started doing concerts there." But Lluy's "do it yourself" resourceful efforts soon hit a wall when reoccurring violence at hardcore punk shows squelched any hopes for a long standing all ages venue.

Lluy remembers the nineties being a "weird time for the Orange County music scene. There was a lot of racial tension between skin heads -- a group of them would show up to our events and start fighting, and cause problems."

The last show Lluy put on hosted hardcore punk band the Vandals. A gang of Sharps and Skinheads showed up. A skinhead was stabbed seven times. "He was bleeding, I had to wrap my sweater around him to keep from bleeding."

Lluy was convinced that Orange County's all-ages music community needed a stable home. He would find that in an old tattered craftsman house on the outskirts of downtown Santa Ana.

"My heart was in a grassroots project, I shut down the Ice House, and I worked on a place like Koos which was smaller and more of a community-based project."


Koos Café -- All Ages Music Finds Home in a Craftsman

"One of the things I learned with Koos is nothing brings people together like music." Reflecting back on one of the most memorable events at Koos Café, Lluy describes a show played by Mesa, Arizona's Jimmy Eat World: "There were over 400 kids,people were singing outside with the band. People were watching the band through the windows from outside. It was chaos; kids everywhere, outside, overflowing into the front and back yard."

When Lluy and his two young business partners walked into the tiny craftsman-style Koos Café for the first time, they were greeted with thick layers of flaking wallpaper, and grease infested carpet. Previously a Chinese take-out restaurant, the building was owned and occupied by a long-standing local Chinese family that "seemed open to rent to us." He continues: "The health inspector had a list of a hundred different items that we needed to improve to get our permit. We had no money so we all got together, scrapped it all together, with a lot of elbow grease." Lluy and other volunteers scraped off the wallpaper, demoed the linoleum, and ripped out the greasy rugs. In its place came brightly painted walls of blue, maroon, purple and green. The floors were hand painted with celestial themes, crafted by the hands of volunteers that made up the cohesive Koos collective. "It was always a collaborative effort. Many people inspired that venue."

When asked why he picked the Koos building Lluy flatly states, "they were the only ones willing to let us do it." Because the city did not have any classifications for their business model, they "came under the premise of a coffee shop, we just called it a coffee shop." So under the guise of a coffee shop, and with the backing of a few local officials, especially Don Crib. "Don Crib convinced the mayor to give us a chance," Koos Café opened its doors in the fall of 1991.

Koos Café was a collective in every sense of the word. Volunteers started attaching themselves like barnacles from the very first day. "We were a volunteer-run group, a lot of kids would just help us, pick up a broom and help out." It was DIY in every sense of the term. "None of us knew how to make coffee. We had to find an espresso machine. I found one at a garage sale for twenty bucks. Luckily I am pretty technical and was able to fix it myself."

Everyone inside Koos was on equal footing. Koos was a "stage-less" venue. Often a characteristic of punk-style venues, the absence of a stage erases any hierarchal suggestions between musician and audience. With no stage, the environment at Koos was exceptionally intimate. Fans could be inches away from the bands, and this proximity often lead to a participatory engagement between the audience and musicians.

To add to the collective spirit, there was no cover charge at Koos; however, donations were strongly encouraged. All donations at the end of the night were split up to keep operations running. They were also used to pay the bands so they could get to the next show in their tour schedule.

Toys That Kill flyer, Koo's Long Beach, 2004. | Courtesy of <a href='http://www.flickr.com/photos/lifeontheedge/'>Marshall Astor</a>.
Toys That Kill flyer, Koo's Long Beach, 2004. | Courtesy of Marshall Astor.

Musically, the Koos Collective refused to limit themselves to certain genres. "I purposefully book events with different genres," he says. "I started to notice that bands would start collaborating with one another -- hardcore, punk, Spanish rock, many kinds of metal, emo, indie, hip-hop. There was a band Zebrahead that got their start at Koos they kind of meshed it together -- metal and hip hop." Koos' open-minded philosophy helped previous divergent genres cross-pollinate and form new sounds. "It was really about developing a space organically, and seeing where it would grow from there."

Lluy and Koos Café encouraged the collective to grow even stronger by recruiting the youth into innovative youth programs like ATAC: Awareness Through Arts and Community. ATAC was a volunteer program with hundreds of kids involved. "ATAC was a program centered around running the operations of Koos. We had a lot of high school and College students who wanted to get involved through hands-on experience, with the booking, marketing, running the kitchen. They wanted to be part of the behind the scenes of running a place like Koos." Organizations like ATAC also succeeded in breaking down misconceptions of youth culture in Orange County.

The success of Koos as a youth collective proved that kids could spend there time productively and out of trouble.

"I was sensing this fear of young people in Orange County congregating. When Koos first opened, there were hundreds of kids just hanging around this house." Lluy remembers the first impression from the neighborhood and police was that Koos was selling alcohol and drugs to the youth. Soon this misconception was broken down.

Performance at Koo's Cafe.
Performance at Koo's Cafe.

"We had the 17th Parallel break dance program," he says, "and we had kids from all over Santa Ana that were mentored by the original rock steady members." Koos was a safe haven for the hip-hop, break dance scene. "We also had the graffiti wall, touring graffiti artists that would tour through, it was a rotating canvas. We asked the young people what they wanted to do, and we supported it. We would have offered ballet if they wanted that, but they didn't want that."

Koos hosted over 2,500 events. All day events included guest speakers, educators, intertwined with musical performances. Lluy welcomed organizations such as "Riot Grrrl," a musical coalition for female empowerment through music, and Planned Parenthood. Food Not Bombs, a grassroots organization that targeted community hunger issues, used Koos' kitchen to prepare food for the homeless. "All these organizations approached me. I sure didn't know where to find them." It was clear that Lluy was fostering an organic link between music and community organizing.

Amidst the sprawling suburbia of Orange County, Lluy continued a long American tradition of carving out space for the community to gather and enjoy music, and a space for emerging genres to be solidified within mainstream pop culture.

Much like juke joints were musical oasis' throughout the American South, all-ages grassroots venues were a relief for a musically parched youth that existed in suburban environment that catered mainly to the conventional needs of the adult population.

Throughout American music history, unconventional music spaces have cradled the infant stages of emerging genres. When rock n' roll was emerging as a commercially recognized genre, Elvis Presley performed his earliest shows from a flatbed truck in the Katz Drugstore parking lot in Memphis, Tennessee. Unconventional music spaces hosted the emergence of Seattle's grunge music. In Mark Yarm's book "Everybody Loves Our Town, An Oral History of Grunge," Mike Dillard, former drummer for proto-grunge band the Melvins, recounts his performance in the Thriftway parking lot in Montesano, Washington. "We found this outdoor plug from a building next to the parking lot. We just drug a big extension cord over there and plugged all the amps and stuff in and set up at about seven o'clock on a Saturday night." Kurt Cobain was present one of those Saturday nights and, according to Yarm, the future Nirvana frontman thought: "This is what I was looking for."

Thanks to Koos, emerging bands could cut their teeth in an underground railroad-like collection of venues. As Lluy proved, it is up to the youth to carve out the space -- these grassroots all-ages venues -- that fosters the infancy of new music.

Narcoleptic Youth flyer, Koo's Cafe, 1998, by Joey Bondage. | Courtesy of <a href='http://www.gigposters.com/poster/1295_Titty_Twisters.html'>Gig Posters</a>.
Narcoleptic Youth flyer, Koo's Cafe, 1998, by Joey Bondage. | Courtesy of Gig Posters.
Microphones flyer, Koo's Cafe, 2004, by Ryan August. | Courtesy of <a href='http://www.gigposters.com/poster/29528_Microphones.html'>Gig Posters</a>.
Microphones flyer, Koo's Cafe, 2004, by Ryan August. | Courtesy of Gig Posters.

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