You'll find them scattered throughout Los Angeles, bumping everything from house tunes to classic rock on any given night. If you don't know how to get there, chances are there's a friend of a friend who does. While Doug Liman's movie "Swingers" poked fun at the manufactured mystique of Hollywood's unmarked hot spots, some of the best places to enjoy music in an intimate setting remain placard-free.
Bustop at the Room in Santa Monica certainly fits that description. Lights are absent from the bar's facade, and you won't see a queue lined up along the boulevard. But swing around to the back entrance, and your ears will perk up to the rumbling, four-on-the-floor tempos emanating from the unassuming structure. If you didn't know what you were looking for, chances are you'd walk right on by.
Bustop actually debuted in an even more low-profile setting. Back in June 1999, Kjel Johnson and Ian Waisler organized a small birthday party for fellow musician and friend Jordan the Janitor at a two-story loft in downtown Los Angeles. The intimate gathering soon grew into a full-fledged Friday night out each week, complete with a full bar, cover charge and e-mail guest list. Attendees would park in a nearby lot and wait in groups for private vans to wheel them through the seedy neighborhood into the gated complex--hence the name Bustop. The music was always soulful--jazzy house with the occasional funky break until 4 a.m. at the earliest--and the vibe was always relaxed. But Johnson and Waisler lost the venue late last year and had to line up an alternate destination for the downtown faithful.
So Bustop traded its park-and-ride aesthetic for a Westside address, but, as Johnson points out, very little was lost in the transition.
"The loft was a very private venue," the 21-year-old DJ and promoter explains. It had to function as a private party, he said, in large part because they had alcohol present after 2 a.m. But the Room feels equally underground to him, and he has no problem throwing Bustop in an open-door setting. "What I'm looking for is people who want to go for the music, and that's what we built down at the loft: the people and the music."
Johnson's partner, 28-year-old Ben Martin, was introduced to Bustop during its first incarnation, occasionally dropping by to spin a few platefuls of airy French house. When Martin procured monthly Thursdays at the Room last April, he tapped Johnson to share deck duties. Since then, Bustop has expanded from one Thursday a month to two, which both DJs indicate is the right way to grow. They'd rather throw Bustop twice as often than in a place twice as big.
"Most of the time when I'm going out, it's more bar- or restaurant-style," says Martin in a thick French accent. "I don't like huge crowds." Johnson shares that sentiment. "It's hard to find this sound," he admits. "People that want to go out, people that are into this sound, they don't trust most of the fliers that are going around."
L.A. has been good to the electronic music scene in 2000, but most successful clubs showcase harder, trancier beats. The Room's small space fits Martin and Johnson's deep house selections like a glove. While there's no designated dance floor, patrons can shake it up in any corner of the 170-capacity venue. A narrow island separates a few elevated, U-shaped booths from the curvy bar, and thick curtains sequester a pair of rooms at opposite ends of the space. Outside, three wooden walls and a thatched awning provide cover for a candle-lit smoking section.
Tune-wise, the sound system is thick and punchy, but you won't have to bust your friend's eardrum to make conversation. "It's a very, very comfortable environment to dance in, and it's not an intimidating place," says 22-year-old Justine Boyriven, who has frequented both Bustop locations. "Apart from the layout, not much is different."
You can thank Jeremy Thomas and Ashley Joyce for the Room's relaxed atmosphere. As well as taking over the Santa Monica spot in June 1998, the duo is responsible for other Hollywood staples, including the Burgundy Room ('90) and the original Room ('93), both on Cahuenga Boulevard. Cafe More, their latest venture, on 4th Street in Santa Monica, moves their operation further west.
"There wasn't a lot going on down in Santa Monica," says Joyce, "and we were kinda established in Hollywood. There's been this unfair mentality that Santa Monica's not cool, that Santa Monica's for the yuppies."
It's a stereotype that Joyce, Johnson and Martin hope to do away with in short order. For Martin, Bustop is the first step toward bringing quality house music to the Westside. For Johnson, it's a way to keep the free-flowing, underground spirit of downtown alive. Thankfully, all three men are on the same page.
"We're a low-key operation anyway, mostly word of mouth," explains Joyce. "I think if people know it's a venue for music, they'll travel. That's what we provide here. That's what we've always been about. We're no signage, no fliers--just good music in a good environment with a diverse crowd."
* Bustop happens the second and fourth Thursday of every month, 10 p.m.-2 a.m. at the Room, 1323 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. Entrance in rear of the building. The Room: (310) 458-0707. Bustop info line: (323) 960-7970.