We're not scene. We're just music. - Subterranean A's Sami Yenigun
DIY musical performance spaces usually come with a promise of housing the mobility and positive development of youthful energy and rebellion through scene. American disco started in David Mancuso's Manhattan loft apartment, and Hilly Kristal's bar and club in Manhattan's Bowery that was intended for country, bluegrass and blues ended up as the world's punk rock launching pad. Don't tell the residents of the cavernous basement apartment at 1432 R Street NW in Washington, DC anything about this, though. They merely love live performance, and revel in that enjoyment. Their space, when not the home of three free thinking young DC residents, is underground spot Subterranean A, the most honest live performance space in our beloved capital city.
"We don't want to be the launching pad for any 'young adult revolution.' We just love live performances, and wanted to put on some great shows. We get people here of all ages. Adults, college kids, everyone, all races, backgrounds, it's a great mix" states 22 year old George Washington University grad, National Public Radio employee and lower level tenant Sami Yenigun. As a DJ with the 411 Warehouse Loft and U Street Music Hall party throwing Wild North rave collective as DJ Sami Y, the former GW student finds "getting involved in local music culture and supporting talented performers" as a personal goal. 22 year olds Phil Cohen and Matt Casey and 23 year old Adam Friedland opened the space 18 months ago (Yenigun moved in at the end of Cohen's lease), and a paltry 15 shows later, the space is the hottest commodity on the local underground scene. This isn't to state though that the operators are openly attracting top underground performers, as there is actually a refreshing lack of rhyme or reason to the acts that play at the venue. "We get tons of emails a day from a diverse smattering of bands," says Yenigun. "Phil sees a band he may like, and I may not be totally familiar, but having this space and an open policy definitely opens me up to music I'd otherwise not get a chance to listen to." To give a flavor of the unique policy for booking bands, the venue's first event was a March 26, 2010 date for folksy indie rockers Radical Face, which were Subterranean resident Adam Friedland's favorite band growing up.
The concert that put the basement on the map was an August 27, 2010 triple billing of DC's Underwater Peoples Records faves Family Portrait and Andrew Cedermark, and the internet Hype Machine darling buzz band of that moment, Denver's low-fi husband and wife duo Tennis. DippedinDollars.com's Selome Samuel stated that the acts performed in a "kick-ass basement apartment" and "lulled the sweaty, packed house into a sublime calm with songs that are light and sweet and irresistible." Major events have included a number of performances, including a number of events sponsored by DC jazz purists Capital Bop, as well as Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, an 18 piece Brooklyn jazz ensemble that played a post Kennedy Center encore performance in the ex-college students' home. When asked about the noise concerns of hosting live shows in one's basement, Yenigun was thoughtful in response. "It's a mix of good and bad. I love hosting people. It is a pain in the ass though. It's dark, it's a basement, and the pipes leak. It's funny. Everything that makes this apartment a cozy venue makes it not a very cozy place to live." Post college kids hosting bands in their basement also sounds like a surefire recipe for disaster with any tenant association. However, Yenigun proudly reports that the "neighbors are friendly," and that they "called the cops once, but we met with them, and no shows have been shut down." They do have a uniformed security team on site at all times, and states that the biggest issue is smoking on the patio of their apartment.
"We charge door money, but none of it comes to us. The fees we collect go straight to the artists," says fellow roommate Adam Friedland, 23. The altruistic measure defines the warmth and familial nature of Subterranean A before even making it one step past the door and settling into its comfy, adult house party atmosphere. There's a certain respect inherent in attending a show in someone's home which informs the venue with an air of non-rebellious decency that disengages it from any connection to the wild punk spaces of DC lore. Yenigun "loves the look on people's faces." "People expct a pretentious hipster douchebag spot, but they get something warm and welcoming." Tube lighting best seen on Christmas trees illuminate brick walls that give the venue solid acoustics and a lack of reverb, certainly suitable to the superlative live jazz of the JD Allen Trio last Saturday night, the atmospheric disco of local favorites the Future Times DJ collective and acts like pleasantly low fi Washington, DC indie rockers Hume. Subterranean A doesn't provide the creature comforts of small and mid size DC performance spaces like DC9 or the Black Cat like air conditioning and on site refreshment (no food or beverages are made available by the venue), but it does provide the ultimate location for people who seek earnest musical expression in an unadorned setting.
The crew states that they have "exciting things coming up," that they "love absolutely everything about what they are doing," and that things are "absolutely perfect." In a present musical environment where with increasing regularity DIY is a necessity, to see it done with such pretense-free inspiration is a reminder of the inherent joy in celebrating musical expression.