Koo’s Café is one of those places that has enough history to fill a few books. If you ask 10 different people about their experiences with the place, chances are that you’ll end up with 10 completely different stories. Once nestled in downtown Santa Ana, the coffee shop/venue is mainly remembered as one of OC’s biggest hubs for indie and punk rock throughout the ’90s. Among the bands who performed there are Death By Stereo, Jimmy Eat World, the Four Letter Words and Reel Big Fish. Eric Stefani—who’s best known for spearheading the third wave of ska with his onetime band No Doubt, featuring his sister Gwen—was also known to frequent the space. However, Koo’s was not the average punk venue: It was the nucleus of a much larger counterculture, transcending racial, musical and societal boundaries. Here are some lesser-known highlights of its labyrinthine history.
A GREASY BEGINNING
Before the Victorian bungalow at 1505 N. Main St. became an alternate universe for weirdos and artists alike, it functioned as a Chinese restaurant called Koo’s Chop Suey for almost five decades. When Dennis Lluy, Lou Bribiesca, Dan Montano and Alan Benavides signed the lease for the building in 1994, they were tasked with getting it up to code and removing the thick, grease-stained carpets before it could house the art-and-coffeehouse they had envisioned. Thanks to both its historical significance and the steep cost of renovating the space, the group elected to keep the old signage, which read, “Koo’s.” Thus the café was christened as such. According to an informational pamphlet from 1999, Koo’s Café was “built on the foundation of love for creative expression and [as] an answer to the senseless loss of young lives to drugs, delinquency and depression.”
AN OPEN SPACE
It wasn’t long after Koo’s Café started serving coffee that it also began hosting open-mic nights. Although other coffee shops in the area offered similar events, none was comparable to what was happening at Koo’s. With his unorthodox, consciousness-piercing productions, resident performance artist Squelch embodied the expressive freedom that Koo’s was all about. “Wherever a coffee shop would open and do open mics, I would be there, like, fucking shit up,” he says with a nostalgic tone. “I would go with a strobe light, a radio, smoke bombs, whatever—just demanding attention.”
Many of these establishments were quick to impose constraints on Squelch’s performances, but Koo’s encouraged his artistic expression. “At Koo’s, I had free rein to do whatever I wanted to do,” he recalls. “There was no one sitting there saying, ‘Oh, shit, you’re gonna get the place closed down.’ I don’t think anyone worried about that because it had kinda always been threatened that way.”
BRIDGING THE GAP
As a former member of political punk band Resist and Exist, Squelch was well-versed in visual art and activism. However, it wasn’t until he met graffiti artist/ b-boy Seth Wilder (a.k.a. Meex One) at an anti-racism march that the two realized the full potential of the “blank canvas” that Koo’s offered. As the café evolved into a regular stop for touring bands, the pair seized the opportunity to materialize the cross-pollination of their influences. “Koo’s was basically an open venue. So all us weirdos ended up gravitating there. Before that, it was a coffeehouse, with, like, a mellow, quiet vibe,” Wilder says with a chuckle.
“When I found it, it was just a place to be free,” he continues. “I met Dennis [Lluy], we got to talking, and he asked me, ‘Do you wanna quit your job and help me do this thing?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, fuck it.’ So I kinda became the hip-hop arm of Koo’s.”
While a thriving hip-hop scene and an expanding punk community coexisting may not have seemed so easily transposable, it didn’t take long for the two camps to embrace their ethical similarities. “Punk had their own approach to doing things, and hip-hop, at that time, was more about going through the music industry,” Squelch explains. “But Seth and I were like, ‘What about just doing it our own way?’”
While the café was undoubtedly responsible for a large chunk of OC punk-rock history, it also welcomed such hip-hop greats as J Rocc, Living Legends and Aloe Blacc into its open-mic nights and (often spontaneous) ciphers.
FOR THE COMMUNITY
As the events at Koo’s increased in both size and frequency, more kids from the surrounding neighborhood started hanging out there. Wilder noticed a significant amount of tagging in the area and decided to dedicate some of the wall space in the café’s back yard to graffiti. It soon became a destination for street artists traveling from all over the country. “It was just like touring bands,” Wilder says. “That was their link to one another: meeting there and hanging out. It became a cultural center for that.”
When Wilder discovered that many of the neighborhood kids were interested in break dancing, he organized 17th Parallel, who described themselves as “a troupe of local youths who employ their skills in break dance to communicate their feelings about their surroundings.” There were weekly lessons and classes at Koo’s, and performances at other venues garnered the group some commercial attention.
Of course, not everyone was a fan of the café. While Koo’s did have the support of Santa Ana Council of Arts and Culture president Don Cribb, who was crucial in the establishment of what is now the city’s Arts District, others were skeptical of its graffiti wall and loud music. One of its biggest opponents was Ted Moreno. “When he was running for City Council, he started condemning all the art that was going on,” Squelch recalls. “He was saying that it was conflicting with the neighborhood. So he was trying to create all this tension between the Latin Santa Ana community and the arts.”
“He had it out for us,” Wilder confirms. In a somewhat satisfying twist, Moreno was later convicted of extortion.
DEFENDING THE ORANGE CURTAIN
More suspicion arose around Koo’s Café as it started to host more political events from groups including Food Not Bombs, Riot Grrrl and the Black Panther Party. Though the café itself espoused no particular agenda, it had somehow turned into something of a political threat. “It shook a lot of people up,” says Wilder. It was apparent things had reached the boiling point when Wilder allegedly caught undercover police breaking into the space. “I tried to get names, but they all scattered,” he says. “It was over before I knew it.”
A LASTING INFLUENCE
It’s been well more than a decade since Koo’s Café closed its doors, but its influence still permeates Orange County culture. Bands who frequented the space inspired local musicians, and the space later had an effect on Fullerton’s Burger Records. “Lee [Rickard] came for the punk shows, but he was also intrigued by the graffiti wall,” Squelch says. “That’s why they used bubble letters in the Burger logo.”
Koo’s Café was not only a reflection of its community, but also the manifestation of artistic and social unity.