“Goth culture is just being yourself and embracing it.”
It’s Halloween season in Los Angeles. The veil is thin and the Goths are out in full swing smoking next to the coat check line at Boardner’s in Hollywood. It’s 78 degrees and it’s dark out, barely a coat in sight. This is Bar Sinister on Saturday, L.A.’s long-standing weekly alternative dark night hosted at Boardner’s.
Local post-punk band Glaare is in bloody Halloween costumes, doing a line check for sound levels onstage before their set. There are fetish playrooms off to the side with DJs playing soft goth Kate Bush remixes, but you can’t reach them without a foray into the main room which hosts a cavernous industrial dance party. In certain parts of the club, cigarette smoke replaces any need for fog machines. According to promoter Tricia La Belle, who founded the nights, Bar Sinister hasn’t missed a week in 21 years, with DJs Tommy Jpeg and Amanda Jones as regular acts.
While Sioux, Smith and the band Bauhaus stand as the U.K. poster children trifecta for Goth in pop culture, Los Angeles’ Goth historiography from the ‘80s into the final year of this decade is ripe with so much more than meets the eye.
“It’s more accurate to refer to it as a scene than a genre,” says journalist and DJ Liz Ohanesian, who started DJing at dance nights and venues like Coven 13 in Los Angeles in the ‘90s which was home to dark dancing and live acts alike, including Sioux herself.
In the ‘90s, Goth parties in Los Angeles celebrated the gamut from Coven 13 to ‘80s dance nights in restaurants and pop-ups all over Hollywood, and from a post-punk bent with Release the Bats (which had its 20-year anniversary closing party last year) to Das Bunker led by promoter and L.A. native John Giovanazzi, both of which got their start in Long Beach in the mid ‘90s. Das Bunker’s move to L.A. and its long-standing weekly night at Jewel’s Catch One effectively melded European industrial acts with the club’s notoriously black queer disco scene for years. While it’s no longer a weekly, the sentiment lives on as Jewel’s hosts anniversary events and promotes bands of the current sonic era, such as an upcoming show from darkwave outfit Bestial Mouths on L.A.’s own Dais Records, also home to the dark sonics of Cold Cave, Hide and Drab Majesty.
“The scene ebbs and flows, and similarly there was less going on in the L.A. scene in the early 2000s,” Ohanesian says. “It had an early resurgence in 2010, perhaps because of the popularity of artists like Cold Cave. In the late ’00s and early ’10s, there were a few parties that injected new life and creativity into the dark music scene, although I don’t know if the promoters would consider their parties ‘Goth.’ Killing Spree and M/R/X-Wolfpak were both going on around this time and both parties were key in introducing new music, as well as unearthing older material that was beyond the conventional hits L.A. club-goers would know.”
Ohanesian is also a resident at Das Bunker’s regular ‘90s Goth Klub at The Lash alongside DJs Bractune and Gerber, inspired by Bruce Perdew and Jason Lavitt’s popular Coven 13 parties in the ‘90s. She also plays at the The Lash’s monthly party Fetisch (named after an old school Xmal Deutschland record), playing darkwave, EBM, DJing alongside DJ Malvada and Dark Chrystal.
“There are people who I’ve seen at the same parties since I’ve started going out, who probably started going out before I did, and I went to my first club in ‘95, so that’s a long time,” Ohanesian says. “There’s nights now where there’s been four or five ‘Goth’ parties going on in town so it gets broken up even more based on which DJs or bands you hang with, or whether you lean more toward electronic or rock.”
Although the Goth genre has had a vibrant scene for decades it isn’t easily categorized.
“‘Goth’ becomes this catchall phrase to mean a bunch of things that really don’t have to do with the music. In the end, it definitely is more about a scene, aesthetic and group of people than it is specific bands fitting into a genre,” Ohanesian says. “If you listen through Bauhaus discography, a lot of their music and the songs that I love the best are dub tracks. Siouxise also did all sorts of different kinds of music. There’s times when they were very clearly drawing from hip hop, and things that were going on in dance music, and they started off as a punk band.”
Fashion writer Gaby Herstik, author of the book “Inner Witch,” is also a frequent attendee of dark nights such as Cloak & Dagger, a weekly event that takes place every Tuesday in Hollywood. It’s invite-only. No photos allowed and the dress code is black.
“Siouxsie Sioux is a good medium between the goth and punk subculture — just like L.A.,” Herstik says. “We have the ethereal shiny shit and we have the darkness that’s reflected too.”
Cloak & Dagger is co-founded by Adam Bravin of post-punk band She Wants Revenge and his partner and producer Michael Patterson. Goth here is more about style than genre and spins even Stevie Nicks and New Order amongst darker music selections.
And that’s just barely scratching the surface of what once was, and continues today. On the other side of town, in downtown L.A., there’s Lethal Amounts gallery where founder and promoter Danny Fuentes hosts evocative art shows with music scene crossovers such as the most recent “Pandrogeny” exhibit celebrating the work of artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, front person of seminal industrial band Throbbing Gristle.
Lethal Amounts has also branched out into multiple spots around town like The Monty and Precinct with roaming dance nights such as Sado Maso Disco, and Sex Cells — which is currently touring with Marc Almond of English synth-pop Soft Cell on his first U.S. tour in 20 years.
While many of these nights bank on a sense of nostalgia for their main draw, the current music coming out of Los Angeles is no carbon copy. Bands are using the conventions of dark ‘80s music to anchor us into new realms while breaking down cultural — and emotional — barriers.
Aurat, a local band of South Asian descent named after the Urdu word for woman, often get classified under a darkwave banner because of their minimal leanings and synth sounds, but they are so much more. With ornate traditional saris and fierce bass lines drawing inspiration from Mike Watt of The Minutemen, the duo behind Aurat weaves a multitude of countercultures into their rich musical heritage with ominous vocals sung in Urdu tongue.
“I do my eye makeup in a super exaggerated black,” says Azeka Kamal, singer of Aurat. “That’s where I grab the ‘Goth’ look and mix it with South Asian culture — my family being from Pakistan, it’s just so near to my heart that wearing a sari becomes a way for me to educate people. You tend to get people staring at you but you can’t really think about that, you gotta be yourself. Goth culture is just being yourself and embracing it.”
During their two year career as a band, Aurat has also brought their dark tones into alternative spaces throughout the city such as the seasonal roaming party Discostan, self-described as “a love letter to the Disorient.”
“Discostan really does break down barriers because with the music scene in our genre, it’s predominantly white,” Aurat says. “For us to go out there and show ourselves as a band with a South Asian front woman is huge because places like Discostan value it and connect to it. Which is why we started Aurat to begin with.”
Aurat has also cut their teeth at Part Time Punks, which has brought the post-punk, new wave and shoegaze scenes together for almost 15 years. Run by promoter and DJ Michael Stock at the Echoplex, Part Time Punks also regularly host Depeche Mode, shoegaze and Smiths nights.
“Going to Part Time Punks is like going to church.” says Sky Madden, a Part Time Punks veteran who is the bass counterpart of the shoegaze dub duo Chasms. “You can go dance in a corner, you can be weird by yourself, you can go with a big group of friends, or you could go on a date, and you’re probably going to hear a song that you like or hear something new.”
Madden is also an avid DJ with a strong spiritual affinity for techno, a genre that perhaps best speaks to the way Goth is merely a sentiment — and not a signifier — for describing L.A.’s evolving dark music scene.
“There isn’t a Goth scene, and yet the symbolic darkness of Goth has survived and it’s been imbued in these other genres like darkwave, techno, industrial. The foundation of what it means to be Goth is to be different. And to be accepted despite that otherness and that darkness,” Madden says. “Techno is where the intersection of all the genres are happening right now. Whereas with The Cure or Siouxie or Depeche Mode, the lyrics are a literal catharsis of an emotional darkness, with techno it’s more of a subconscious body experience. There’s something about the kick drum in techno that to me mimics the heartbeat… connecting something internal with the dancer or the listener that is also dark, working things out on the dance floor.”
Black Marble, a Los Angeles band by way of New York, is also a notable band in the scene. Their latest album “Bigger Than Life” seems to embrace a lighter palette on the West Coast, both with warmer synth sounds and primary color album artwork, a small departure from their more minimalist past which garnered comparisons to ‘70s coldwave.
Black Marble is playing Substance Fest alongside dark electronic duo Boy Harsher early in November. The festival blends a lineup of nostalgia for the ‘80s culminating into what feels like, in this cultural moment, a warmer apex of sound. Boy Harsher, although not from L.A., seems to best embody of what’s happening with dark music in our city at the end of 2019, particularly with their single “LA” released this year on their record “Careful.”
“Boy Harsher writes songs that have a whole mythology that includes Los Angeles,” Madden says. “It’s blending sounds of New Order, classic ‘80s, techno, dance and also their own aesthetic. The magic of artists like Boy Harsher is there might be something in there that’s nostalgic for you and familiar, but it’s old and new at the same time.”