Rich Man, Po Boy

In 10 years, Memphis has become the center of Orange County's hipperati universe

And, sure, this is coming from someone who was just 14 years old and about to begin her freshman year in high school when it opened, but isn't that also sort of the point? Memphis had been around for nearly half my days on this planet when I turned 21, and yet I knew without having ever been there after the kitchen closed that it wasn't a tired, overdone has-been, but rather a place where I wanted to—in the most un-clichťd sense possible—see and be seen—a place worth checking out. Kind of like how, I'd imagine, Costa Mesans now in their 30s must have felt when they first sat down at the bar—and how they still feel today: Memphis is not so much a relic of their younger days but a cause for celebrating them—and their older ones too.

"It's always incredible. You don't go there and think, 'Oh, wow, this place was really cool in the late '90s' and stop going," says Schwab, who first began dropping by Memphis when he was 23 and working at the then-open Tower Records Alternative at the Lab. "It's a solid idea for a restaurant/bar, and I think it's held up. As long as they're around, I'll continue to go there."

And yet: there are drawbacks to becoming an institution, especially in Orange County, where it's easy to hate things—even good things—because everything around you at first might seem to be a strip mall, or a stucco house, or a combination of the two. And it's even easier to hate things—specifically the good ones—when they total a number you can count on one finger, a predicament that became more complex in the fall of 2001, when the Memphis owners formed the Memphis Group, solicited other investors and opened Detroit Bar on Costa Mesa's West Side.

The Memphis Group, then and
now: (L-R) Jason Valdez,
Dan Bradley, Diego Velasco
and Andy Christenson
Photo by John Gilhooley

After purchasing and renovating Club Mesa—a fixture of sorts in the county's punk rock scene that (depending upon whom you talk to) you either had the fortune or misfortune of attending ("You would go to try to see a punk band, and it was always a nightmare," remembers Schwab, "the kind of club you wouldn't want to bring your girlfriend to")—in October the Memphis Group launched Detroit, a lounge/bar combination with an Ikea-meets-Eames look and a cool if somewhat isolating feel.

Early reports suggested the bar would infrequently, if at all, host shows by live bands—opting instead for DJs, virtually a guaranteed moneymaker in OC's house/dance music heyday in terms of packing a club and selling drinks—but if night after night of DJs and prerecorded music was what they were after, the Memphis Group made some serious missteps in hiring former Stab You in the Back Records co-owner and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (among others) road manager Chris Fahey, not to mention inviting British and French analog/samba rock giants Stereolab to headline a show on the bar's opening night.

"It was magical, actually," Bradley says of that first night. "I remembered seeing Jesus and Mary Chain playing Safari Sam's when I was younger, thinking, 'I can't believe these people are playing here—I'll remember this for the rest of my life.'

"And yet here's Club Mesa, this shit-kicker dangerous dive bar with a lot of fights, and to be able to transform that into a venue that would host Stereolab and those sorts of bands?" he continues. "I was just hoping we could sustain that—the 'Oh my God, I can't believe I saw this' shows."

Today, bolstered by a solid lineup of weekly, biweekly and monthly DJ nights—deep house staple Bristol Sessions, hip-hop/all things groove club L_ephunk, live hip-hop party Abstract Workshop, as well as the OC base for LA hip-hop/soul club Root Down—Detroit Bar has hosted such big-name acts as Elliott Smith, Broadcast, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Modest Mouse, the Breeders and Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest and established itself as the go-to venue for both indie/rock & roll bands traveling through the county and local acts tired of the routine pay-to-play/all-ages/sub-par-sound gigs elsewhere in the county.

In the process, it has also become the nexus of what is the county's emerging, yet-to-be-titled New Sound: an impressive mix of lo-fi singer/songwriters, jangle pop bands, '70s rockers, twangy alt.-country acts, '80s synth groups, prog-heads and all things deliberately not affiliated with the punk- and ska-based Old Sounds. "Between Richard Swift and Innaway and Jessica Dobson and Matt Costa and now Cold War Kids, something may be happening," Chris Ziegler wrote last month, and whether or not Detroit was the genesis of it is undoubtedly a chicken-or-the-egg? debate that could go on for years to come. But as to the Memphis Group's role in the local music community, ask yourself this: Without Detroit Bar, where else would you voluntarily go to see your friends' bands play?

* * *

"There are so many goals and things we want to accomplish," muses Memphis Group co-owner (and marketing/public relations director/resident Souled Out DJ) Jason Valdez when I ask him what the future holds for the Memphis Group. "People and bands [in LA] are finally starting to look our way, wanting to know how they can get into our scene."

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