Interview: Jesse Peterson, on Zebulon’s collectivist approach, wide-ranging fare

Mia Doi Todd and Jesse Peterson of Zebulon Cafe Concert (photo by Paul Anderson)

In the six months since it opened, Zebulon has proven the most eclectic room in Los Angeles, on one level embracing liberal tastes with its programming and on another simply serving as a hip hangout in booming Frogtown. If it were a movie theater, it’d be an art house.

A dual café/lounge and 300-capacity concert hall, Zebulon has its roots in Brooklyn, where from 2003 to ’12 it was a hole-in-the-wall venue for experimental music and outsider indie rock. As the Williamsburg neighborhood changed, the venue decided to close rather than compromise their integrity. The owners saved the bar and put it in storage, perhaps knowing that one day Zebulon would rise again in some form.

It did, though not without clearing some hurdles.

When co-owner Jef Soubiran moved to Los Angeles, he teamed up with musician-couple Jesse Peterson and Mia Doi Todd — along with partners Joce Soubiran and Guillaume Blestel from the original Zebulon, Tyler Nolan and Jean-Pierre Plunier and Andy Factor of Everloving Records — to re-imagine Zebulon, located in a 1930s bakery that most recently was a warehouse for Altamirano Records, headquartered next door. The collectivist approach to helming a venue appealed to Peterson and Todd.

“They care about their culture here,” she said at the venue’s soft opening in May. “This will be a magical place … a place of many voices, for musicians, by musicians.”

While the new spot is certainly a bit “fancier” than the original, not to mention three times its size, the team maintains a philosophy towards booking acts that excite them, not just established bands that sell tickets. With eclectic programming, nice digs and tasty things to consume, Zebulon has received a warm embrace from the local music community.

Since Peterson played a key role in the two-year process of getting Zebulon renovated, permitted and opened, we wanted to know more about his experience with the space and how things are going.

How did you originally get involved with Zebulon?

Jesse Peterson: Mia and I both played at the original Zebulon in Brooklyn. I was also a patron during the time I lived in New York. We appreciated the diverse community and attitude towards musicians, as well as the film and theater programming. Our now-partner Jef moved to L.A. with the bar in tow, and we thought L.A. could use a Zebulon of its own. From our travels as musicians and audience members, we knew venues in other parts of the country and world. The all-under-one-roof idea of the SESC’s in Brazil and the Casa del Popolos in Italy were inspirations, as were the venues of our younger years (mine in Austin and Mia’s here in L.A.). We saw echoes of these places in the original Zebulon, which, somewhat ironically, grew out of our French partners coming to New York and deciding to create the home for avant-garde music that they had hoped to find when they moved there, but which was ceasing to exist in the late ’90s/early 2000s.

L.A. has depended on underground venues to provide a home for many kinds of music. For various reasons, this has become less feasible, so we thought it was important for a place like Zebulon to exist here.

Was there a void you were hoping to fill, and do you feel like you’re on track with that mission?

It seems like the audience for what were once more-obscure kinds of music has been growing here. To some extent, showing that it can work goes a long way towards encouraging others to follow suit with their programming. It also further increases audiences through direct exposure. We wanted to have a place where people would come whether or not they knew what was happening on a given night, hence the front café and patio, where you can come hang out whether or not you plan to check out the show. We knew that it would differ from the old Zebulon in that we would need to sell tickets to some shows, but we didn’t want to lose the spontaneous and inclusive vibe of the old place, which was smaller and didn’t need to charge cover (they passed a hat to pay the musicians, which usually turned out pretty well because of the appreciative audience they had built). We made every effort to do things ‘by the book’ so that we could be sure that we were creating something sustainable. In the past, L.A. has depended on underground venues to provide a home for many kinds of music. For various reasons, this has become less feasible, so we thought it was important for a place like Zebulon to exist here.

How does being a musician influence what you’re trying to do at Zebulon?

It makes us appreciate the focus on the music and understand the value of supporting. It’s a cliché, but music has the power to bring us together. We hope that Zebulon, and other places like it, will increase the perceived value of live music in the community, both bringing people together from different walks of life and helping those of like-minds find each other. Of course, sound quality is very important to musicians and there’s still some work to be done on the technical side, but time and finances permitting, we’re doing our best, improving as we can.

We book by committee, which is somewhat unusual.

How would you describe your booking philosophy? What kind of balance are you hoping to strike between genres?

We book by committee, which is somewhat unusual. We each come with our own interests and feel this helps represent the interests of a wider audience. We also draw on friendships with other musicians and programmers to widen the net even further. We’ve had some nice nights where unexpected juxtapositions have resulted, like a beautiful performance by Lazaro Galarraga morphing into a Cinespia afterparty with Questlove as the DJ. Obviously, it’s just one place that can only host so many things, and we have to pass on the vast majority of shows, but I’ve felt good about the programming so far. Luckily, there are some other new venues opening, because there are a lot of worthy musicians out there looking for places to play!

What’s been your approach to promotion?

We’re doing what we can with what we have. Social media is handy, seems like a lot of people are using it. Our friendships/partnerships with Dublab and Jacknife Records have given us some much-appreciated connections to their audience/patrons. Friendly writers at various publications have helped get the word out. Hopefully, positive word is spreading among musicians and listeners alike.

What have been some of your favorite shows so far?

There have been quite a few master musicians who have played already: Joyce, Martin Rev, Peter Brotzmann, Yoshi Wada, Roedelius, Keiji Haino, Don Preston, Luis Perez Ixoneztli, Seun Kuti. It’s been an honor to host these greats. It’s also been great welcoming musicians who haven’t played so much, if at all, in L.A. — Mdou Moctar, King Krule, Krystle Warren and many more. Monday night residencies are off to a great start with William Tyler, The Entire Universe and Molly Lewis so far having done a month each. We’ve also had some great shows with old friends from Zebulon in Brooklyn, like Juini Booth, Hiro Kone, Mike Wexler, Janka Nabay, Psychic Ills, Endless Boogie, Grizzly Bear, Jesse Harris, Tunde Adebimpe, Innov Gnawa …

Is there anything you haven’t done yet at the space that you’re eager to see on stage?

We had a great time doing the Dublab Anniversary Party. I’d like to do more daytime programming, myself, both with music and all the arts. Also, there’s a strong interest in doing more recording (they recorded every show at the old Zebulon). There are lots of shows coming up that I’m looking forward to: Colleen, Wolf Eyes, Lee Ranaldo, Busdriver, Buyepongo, Acetone with Hope Sandoval …

It took an enormous amount of effort to open Zebulon. … It almost didn’t happen.

In booking, have you been able to keep musical creativity & experimentation as a priority over booking bands that are popular to pay the bills?

Yes. If we weren’t able to do that, it would be pointless.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced since opening? And what’s been the most unexpected positive?

It took an enormous amount of effort to open Zebulon. There were many hurdles and we never took it for granted that we would be able to open it as we intended. It almost didn’t happen. Now that it’s open, it takes a lot of constant work, but overall, it feels like a blessing for it to be here and doing what we hoped for it to do. There’s always room for improvement, but I’m very appreciative to everyone that helped us bring it into existence and hope that it will serve its purpose for many years to come.

||| Also: Zebulon’s show calendar may be found here.