Monday, January 13, 2014
For fans of alternative rock music, The Casbah on Kettner Boulevard had been a promised land for 25 years. We talk to co-founder and owner Tim Mays about The Casbah's anniversary.
The Casbah serves up just what you’re looking for in a bar known for alternative music, punk and indie rock. It’s a little gritty, no frills, decent beer and really, really good music.
The first Casbah — which held 75 people — opened in 1989 down the street from the current location on Kettner Boulevard in San Diego's Middletown neighborhood.
The alternative rock scene was just about to break mainstream and San Diego was a part of it.
"That’s when all the San Diego bands took off in the early '90s and San Diego was being proclaimed the next Seattle," explained Tim Mays, who founded the club with a couple of friends. He still runs it today and books all the bands.
Mays was an avid music fan as far back as he can remember.
"I wanted to see bands that weren’t coming to San Diego so I started booking them," Mays said. "I was just fortunate that it turned into a career."
A career that brought bands like Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins to The Casbah before they became famous. Mays also booked a lot of local bands, helping them build an audience. Legendary San Diego bands like Rocket from the Crypt, Creedle, Inch, Uncle Joe's Big Ol' Driver played there.
But you might be surprised to hear that Mays originally wanted The Casbah to be a venue for R&B, bluegrass and Americana music. He’d been promoting punk shows throughout the '80s and wanted something different. There was a big skinhead scene in San Diego at the time and sometimes the violence at shows got out of hand.
"We wanted to do something light and easy. We actually had an espresso machine in the place!" he added, laughing.
But it wasn’t long before the espresso machine was packed away and The Casbah returned to a rock venue seven nights a week.
In 1994, the current Casbah space became available and so they moved two blocks up Kettner and doubled the audience capacity to 200. Since '94, not much has changed at the Casbah.
"People who haven’t been in for 10 years come in and say 'Wow, everything’s the same,'" Mays said.
Mays estimates that half of his 35 employees have been with him for 10 years and some have been there as long as 20.
As for all bands who've played there over the years, there have been some memorable ones. Mays says seeing then 75-year-old bluesman R.L. Burnside play The Casbah stage was a career high.
"One of my favorites of all-time was The Cult," Mays said, referring to the British punk band. They played under the name Tluc, which is Cult spelled backwards.
"They didn’t want people to know because it would have been too crazy," Mays said.
Some shows stand out for other reasons, like the night the Extra Action Marching Band from Oakland played the club after performing with David Byrne at Humphreys.
"During the show, the plumbing backed up. So there was an inch and a half of water in the whole place and it was packed," said Mays.
Despite the minor flooding, all 27 members of the marching band, including a drum corps and majorettes, kept playing. They occupied the entire stage and were spread throughout the club, where the water continued to flow.
"And it wasn't the most savory water coming out of the plumbing," Mays said. "But people were so into it, they were jumping in the water and dancing and going crazy. It was a complete nightmare, but really fun."
In some ways, running The Casbah for the last 25 years has been like any job. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it isn’t. Either way, it has been Mays’ life’s work. .
"Yeah, I don’t know if there’s going to be a gold watch at the end of it or not," he chuckled. "Some days it’s a real pain. But it’s better than having to wake up in the morning and put on a suit and tie and go to a nine to five, you know?"
The Casbah is hosting special concerts throughout the month of January. Artist Shepard Fairey designed an anniversary T-shirt and the city of San Diego has declared Jan. 14 to be "Casbah Day."
I just heard from a member of the Extra Action Marching Band who goes by Korntee. He says playing the Casbah that night was one of his favorite gigs of all time. Korntree remembers only playing one or two songs with David Byrne that night, so the band "was really ready to blast our brains out at the Casbah."
"I think all the water was clean coming out of the pipes, but it reconstituted the grime on the floor. We were so glad no one tried to stop the show, because we had so much fun just splashing while we played, and the audience loved it too. Thank you Casbah!"