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Pehrspace: Experimental Music and Art in Historic Filipinotown

Pehrspace set-up. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.

Hubs & Hybrids is an ongoing series of interviews with those at the helm of some of L.A.'s most compelling artist-run and experimental visual and performing arts spaces.

Pehrspace occupies the end of a small salmon-colored strip mall in Historic Filipinotown. Scratched graffiti marks the right side of their unassuming stuccoed entrance, and a small smattering of stairs to the left fills up with tired-footed visitors on event nights. While Sue and I waited for a key with Lilly Estenson, Pehrspace's volunteer coordinator and the General Manager and a DJ at KCHUNG, we talked about the shifting demographics of the surrounding neighborhood. Estenson had just moved, and mentioned the rising prices and growing population of young people in the area, often marketed as Echo Park.

Pauline Lay arrived with a violin case in hand, politely apologizing for the delay. Pauline is the general manager of the space, overseeing the booking of artists and making sure things keep going. It wasn't long before she showed us a tiny tomato that she had just purchased at a farmer's market. It was about an inch wide, blushing red, with intricate, yet visible veins traversing its skin. She passed it around, and each of us examined the petite beauty. Pehrspace itself is a tiny jewel of a tomato in a garden of DIY venues in Los Angeles. Run by a few dedicated people and a team of volunteers, Pehrspace has managed to stay open since its founding by Adam Hervey and Darren King in early 2006.

Hervey and King originally opened Pehrspace as an office for their label, and the space transitioned into a low-budget art and music venue organically. Someone would install some art on the walls and Hervey and King's friends would play a show. Slowly, events began to happen on a regular schedule. As Hervey and King became less involved with Pehrspace's happenings, Pauline, who was an intern at the time, began to organize the venue's calendar.

Pehrspace offices.
Pehrspace offices.

With reliability, Pehrspace has been able to platform an expanding range of artists and musicians. Sean Carnage Monday Nights have become a Los Angeles staple, showing and promoting new bands every week. They've had experimental cinema nights, free clothes swaps, craft fairs, and exhibits. The continual transformation of their space isn't only limited to the types of events Pehrspace holds. The building itself performs multiple functions, acting as a rehearsal space and recording studio during the weekday and a venue at night. A variety of professionals from masseuses to voice teachers rent out the adjoining office spaces and often contribute to Pehrspace during their occupancy. Sue and I sat down with Lilly and Pauline to discuss their organic trajectory and the relaxed ethos that has kept Pehrspace going for the past several years.

-- Emily Anne Kuriyama


Sue Bell Yank: Maybe you can talk a little bit about the initial impetus behind starting this space? The why? And who was involved?

Pauline Lay: The start of the space has always been kind of incidental, accidental, maybe. Pehr is actually based on the label, Pehr Label, that Adam Hervey and Darren King founded. He's from a band called Timonium, and they had offices in Hollywood, and they needed a new space so they found this space, and this was going to be their label space and they thought, if we have all this extra room, why don't we show some art, our friends are in bands, they want to play, so why not? Adam himself is a fixture in the L.A. music and art scene, and they just both know a lot of people. More and more people got involved. Bigger people. When they had to stop and become less involved with the space, and I stepped in, the legacy of the Pehr name, just from the label and just from both of them as people, just kept coming. I mean I still get emails from people like, "Hey Adam" you know "Hey Darren, I want to do this with the space. Oh the space is still going on, that's awesome." Just the name Pehr means something. But then newer people know it as something else because of the space. There's always something good going on. I'm always surprised when new people come in and I ask them, "Have you been here before" and they're like "No." and I ask why are you here and they say, I heard this band was playing, and I thought I'd check it out. Or people come in off of the street all the time. It's strange because we're so remote, but, yeah, the space was never meant to be a venue or an art space. It was supposed to be an office, and it just happened. And that's how we're goin'.

Japanther, playing in April 2013. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.
Japanther, playing in April 2013. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.

SBY: Maybe you can talk about the different things that happen here?

PL: In this office, since April, they put in a recording studio. They've been recording bands in this main room during the day, because during the day we don't have events or anything, and it seems like a waste of time. It seems like the perfect time to have recording projects. They can edit sound and do whatever here. It sounds great. It's very echo-y, but contained at the same time.

Lilly Estenson: Before that, it was a voice teacher, right?

PL: For a very short time, there was a masseuse in there, but I think most of her clients probably thought it was dirty. We had a video editor in there one time, and that was pretty interesting. He painted the walls very very white, and he would come in at all hours. Mostly, we have shows here, music, and we'll have art shows, art openings. For the next year, we have hopes to be a little more centered around art and less around just bands and music, maybe incorporate, maybe alongside the style of what Machine Project does, which is have a theme and curate all the events and happenings around the theme, but that's a big thing to plan.

LE: We've had films. We had a craft fair. We've had queer swing dance nights with dance lessons. We had a clothing swap, just things that aren't the exact format of a concert or an art opening. It's a rehearsal space too.

PL: That's the main source paying rent right now. It's stable. We have four bands that practice here, and they pay to use the space each night that we're not having a show. We only have events maybe three times a week.

SY: That's a lot though.

LE: It's funny that your guys's reaction is that that's a lot, because in my mind it feels like a little. Our friends, our counterparts like the Smell have events all the time, and we have very set days that people can do things. I feel like that makes it more manageable, more contained. I can't imagine running a venue where there are events every night.

Moon Pearl, playing in May 2012. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.
Moon Pearl, playing in May 2012. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.

SY: Who's the audience that shows up for your programs? I'm wondering how you characterize different sorts of people.

LE: We found out a while ago that Pehrspace events are on the KCRW calendar. They're picked up by media. We're not actively putting ourselves out there to change a demographic. It's just different media organizations, not necessarily ones that we're deciding or curating into a group to send press releases to. We might not have thought of every organization that picks up on our events. In that regard, maybe if we think that our audience is one way or something is narrow, we're always surprised that our audience is more diverse than we thought. We do have people just walk in who are like, "What is this place?"

PL: Last night we had a band that had a pro skater in the band. I have no idea who he is, but they brought people and everyone who came with them was like, "This place is small. It's so cute." They were probably more used to clubs, but I feel like each show, depending on the band or the art or the personality of the show, brings totally different people. That's what I like about the space, that it can change with each event. Our art shows are completely different from our music shows. Sometimes the people that come to our art shows here have no idea that we have music here too.

LE: Sean Carnage's show is every Monday and some people have only been here on his night and have had a totally different experience from people who have been here on the weekend or for another show. Different bands and different artists and different shows bring different people. That's probably why Pauline wants to keep booking so diverse.

SY: How would you say the art and the music venue exists side-by-side? I imagine that it's hard.

PL: It's very hard. A lot of artists don't want to show at a space where their art might be touched and knocked over, so we get very brave artists here. They either make something a little more permanent on the walls or something bigger that can't be damaged. We do get a lot of younger artists here who are starting out. I feel like it fits in with the scene of the space a little bit more. It's just a lot of people starting out and trying to fine-tune their craft. We're not an institution. We're not a museum. We're not a bigger venue with a massive sound system. We just have a regular old PA, and it's good practice to have an audience.

SY: Do you end up having performative art or is it more art objects?

PL: More art objects. Dawn Kasper has been here, so she performed here a couple times, but through booking other performers. I don't personally know any performance artists, but maybe that would be a good thing to include next year. I mean, I have big plans for next year to switch it up a little bit more, because we're in this routine of music, music, then art, music, music, and it's so separate. I'd love to have everything a little bit more incorporated.

Hanging Art, May 2013. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.
Hanging Art, May 2013. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.

SY: It seems like there's a bit of a Venn diagram where there's some stuff in the middle.

PL: It would be great to have people be more aware of the space. Instead of oh I'm just here, and I'm going to throw my cup on the floor because I'm in a space where someone will take care of it. I feel like if they're more aware of the space that's including them in the art somehow, they'll have a different experience. Like, I went to a space and there was a shipwreck in the middle of the space and everything they did that month had to do with the shipwreck. It was Machine Project. Everything they did that month was maritime related, and I thought that was great, because you're so aware of the face that there's a giant ship in the middle of the room and you didn't forget about it, because of the event. The event wasn't just here's some guy making crazy noise.

SY: It was all integrated.

PL: I think because we're a space that just sort of happened, each step that we've taken has been because we had to take it. I think after so many years it might be time to sit down and really think about, just get everyone together. How do you feel?

LE: I feel the same way. I feel like it's easy to keep doing what we've been doing, because it's sustainable and successful. It's not like we're not getting positive feedback for what we've been doing, and it's not like there's a lack of bands that want to play. There are so many people that want to play, but I think it would be fun and challenging to curate more selectively.

SY: Can you talk a little bit about the surrounding location and if it's been challenging or interesting to the way that the space functions?

PL: Well, there are two churches that are in the same strip mall as we are. They actually make more noise than we do when they have their sermons and events. And they're facing the street and they don't have any sound-proofing, just windows. I feel like that's our saving grace, because when the police drive by, they don't hear us. We have all these walls, so you can't hear anything. You'd just see a bunch of people in the parking lot standing around. From that side, it looks like we're not doing anything most of the time. Our neighbors haven't complained really unless the crowds outside are a little bit extra rowdy. We've gotten some emails, but we try not to interfere with the neighborhood, and they've been pretty respectful towards us.

Rachel Birke, playing on September 28, 2013. Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.
Rachel Birke, playing on September 28, 2013. Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.

LE: It's a good place to be, because they're mostly offices with daytime hours, and we have nighttime hours. We're in a good situation.

PL: And our neighbors during the day are wonderful. They get packages for us that don't fit in the mailbox. And they're always like, "Hey, are you guys having any music tonight?" They're very friendly. Across the way, there's a new business. They do screen printing and I've sent some bands their way. It seems kind of like a nice little family, maybe. Neighbors. We're friendly neighbors. This part of Glendale is pretty isolated, so nothing else happens really. There are some restaurants. The houses across the way are mostly empty, except one guy who practices drums all day. It's interesting. He makes more noise than we do. That one guy.

SY: Lilly was talking a little bit about how the neighborhood has changed over time. I wonder if you can speak to that. How have you noticed it shifting since you first got here?

PL: There were a lot more families here. Now, it's mostly younger people, younger people who end up coming to our shows. One of our email complaints was from somebody who had come to a lot of our shows, like, "I understand that you're having an event, but can you make sure that the crowd outside stays quiet if you're going to have a weekday event, because I need to wake up and work." And I understand. If I had neighbors that made noise all day, I'd talk to them. I have friends who live up the street. I mean, Echo Park in general is getting younger and pricier as a result. More artists, less families. I don't know if it's changed in the past year or not.

LE: It's very far gentrified at this point, and we're a little behind because we're south of the freeway. We're in Historic Filipinotown. I moved recently and I can see in the craigslist ads that this area is now being billed as Echo Park and the prices are rising. Even Westlake is being called Echo Park at this point.

SY: It's interesting that everything is becoming Echo Park.

LE: I feel like L.A. is a pomegranate and every neighborhood has a section, then one piece rises and you call that whole section that neighborhood, but there's actually tiny little seedlets of all these other pockets that are ignored.

SY: It's interesting how historic neighborhoods get subsumed by other neighborhoods as a result of gentrification. You have to name it and put up a sign that says Historic Filipinotown for people to remember that.

LE: Maybe we should do that. We've said Echo Park in the past, just so people have a sense of where it is.

PL: But we are Historic Filipinotown. Let's switch that on all our social media. I think what's interesting about Pehr is that we basically do nothing in terms of outreach. We do no outreach, except for volunteers. We'll post events on the calendar and maybe put it on Facebook, but people just pick it up. It just grows naturally. I think because the space is so laid back about itself, people are interested. You let people come to you sort of mentality.

LE: It's this cool, mysterious venue. It's hard to find. It's in a strip mall.

Installation shot of an art exhibition in Pehrspace. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.
Installation shot of an art exhibition in Pehrspace. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.

PL: Who runs it? No one knows. I don't know. The other day, someone asked me if I run the space, and I said, "sorta." I've known this person for at least five years, and he had never put that together. That's the whole point. Why would I be associated with the space? It just what it is. You shouldn't think, "Oh that's Pauline's space." It should be, first, the space and what's happening here.

LE: People will come to me and ask, "Who's the guy in charge?" I mean people ask us, but it's right in front of their eyes. They see us with keys. They see us cleaning up. They see us telling bands to play. They see us but they don't recognize it for whatever reason.

SBY: It's funny that people assume that there's a guy, but it's natural to assume someone is orchestrating things. A lot of the spaces we've talked to are collectively run, so there isn't a single person, there's seven people or something. What role do you think Pehrspace is playing in a larger ecology in L.A.? Is it fulfilling a need that's out there or maybe there's some lack that Pehrspace is contributing to?

PL: We're a place for people to play. There are so many bands and so many creative people who want to show their work. We're just a small part of that. I don't know what we're contributing to other than good times. I hear people talk about older spaces like Jabberjaw, remembering what a great space it was, and it didn't last very long. It was a café. I never experienced it, but a lot of bands played there, and everyone speaks so fondly of it. It's a memory and a source of inspiration for people. Let's pretend it's ten years from now and maybe Pehrspace is running or maybe it's not, people can always look back and think that maybe it made their life a little more fun at the time or more interesting. It takes a lot of ego to say that we're totally changing the art or music community, because I don't know if we are, but just the act of doing something changes the community. I think that's what we are, we're doing stuff.

LE: The fact that we're stable and sustainable helps others.

PL: It does. There are groups of people who will come up to us and ask us how we keep the space going, because we've been around for so long. You have to be cautious. You can take risks, but don't jump the gun. Don't start throwing giant shows or attracting a lot of attention before you're ready. Don't too many things right away, because you'll get burned out. You have to have balance and be cautious about people who are involved. It's sad to say, but there are a lot of unreliable people who want to get involved who say they want to do things, but then don't follow through, and your event falls through. Then other people who were relying on that person don't want to work with you anymore. Same thing with payment. If people make donations at the door, bands will get their fair share of the money. Our shows will happen. We won't cancel on you at the last minute. The art will go up. We'll meet you at the right time, so you can come in and set up. We follow through. I'd say in the seven years we've done Pehrspace, we've only canceled a handful of events, because of things out of our control, but we usually follow through. Try to. I think that appeals to a lot of people and brings in a lot of people. I bet we could have the worst PA and the dirtiest walls and keep going because we're reliable. It's a bonus that we clean the space. We have Sean Carnage and he's been a fixture in L.A. for a long time. He's had events for around eight years, picking out bands that no one has ever heard of, and bringing in old bands that have gotten bigger. He's been a contributing factor to that too. Having that sort of person involved with the space has been so beneficial. We respect the people who come in, so they respect us. It's mutual.

Bounce house from Little/big, Alex LeGolvan's one-day installation on October 11, 2013. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.
Bounce house from Little/big, Alex LeGolvan's one-day installation on October 11, 2013. | Photo courtesy Pauline Lay.   

SBY: You've talked a little bit about your ambitions for the future. What does success mean to you for this space and moving forward?

PL: I just want people to want to do things here and keep having events. Making more of an impact on the art community, maybe, but what does that mean? I don't really know anyone in the art community. I casually know people, but what's the aim of any space? It's just to have a community, a creative bed, a creative space that keeps creating. I think that's what success is, to keep going and bring new ideas to the space.

LE: Pauline talks a lot about Pehr as being a blank canvas for local musicians and artists, both metaphorically and literally since between art exhibits we repaint the walls white and keep them empty and the space is a very blank space. I see Pehr in a similar light, in the same way I see KSPC or KCHUNG or other egalitarian media organizations--as a platform for bands and artists that's intentionally malleable. Every band or artist transforms the space with what they contribute and who and what they bring. If we are able to give someone a chance to showcase their work in a positive environment, that's success. Even if only 10 people come out for a show, if those 10 people are having the best time ever and the band or artist is happy at the end of the night then that's success. Also, maintaining good energy, knowing that people want to be here, and feel like they've gotten something out of their participation and time. It just feels good.

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