Matt Fuller has a young face rather at odds with his long, thinning hair. The message on his phone answers, "Hello friend, you've reached Matt, 1985, Mesa Records, and the Corner Pocket." It's a peculiar greeting that I've gotten to know well: Fuller is a difficult man to get a hold of. He isn't big on answering his phone. Or returning calls. Or responding to e-mails.
He's an employee at Atlas Clothing, a vintage clothing store on Capitol Hill that's been hosting covert all-ages shows in its back warehouse. Fuller is extremely cautious, even paranoid, about media attention for the shows at Atlas. But they haven't exactly been a secret: The place has been advertising shows on MySpace, on posters, and (the latest) on a sandwich board in front of the retail shop. We've even previewed a few in The Stranger's Up & Coming section. But the operation is still somewhat underground, unlicensed, possibly not up to fire code, and Fuller is worried that any press will prematurely expose and destroy the labor he's been pouring himself into for months just as the would-be venue is on the cusp of becoming legit.
After a handful of unanswered calls ("Hello friend...") and unreturned e-mails, Fuller initially declined to be interviewed, preferring to keep Atlas as under wraps as possible. Even after agreeing to an interview, he was comically hard to get a hold of. After a while, the impression he gave off was one more of flakiness than of pointed concern. Fuller says he's just a little overworked, clocking 40 hours a week at his job and probably spending 20 or so working on these shows.
The shows at Atlas started casually. Last summer, Fuller and some other employees threw a fashion show and live concert in Atlas's back warehouse featuring Partman Parthorse, Casy and Brian, and others. The space was still functioning as a wholesale warehouse at the time—there was no stage and the place was crowded with cardboard boxes, which the party's planners stacked into a faux castle wall for the event. It had a scraped-together, DIY feel, and it was a success: The place was packed, the party went off smoothly, and the store even made some money.
It was meant to be a one-off event. But when the store lost one of its largest wholesale clients in January, the store's owner, Jamie Hoffman, started looking for other ways to make that space work. Fuller and the Atlas crew convinced Hoffman to let them throw all-ages shows there. (For his part, Hoffman doesn't seem especially committed to the idea.) Capitol Hill lacks a dedicated all-ages venue, and such a space would be great street cred for the store and maybe even make it some money.
Since February, they've booked all-ages shows with bands like This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, the Dead Science, Mount Eerie, Fall of Troy, Pit Er Pat, PWRFL Power, Calvin Johnson, and many others. Upcoming shows include the Holy Ghost Revival, Get Him Eat Him, Mika Miko, and Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu. They split the proceeds from local shows roughly fifty-fifty between the bands and the venue.
They've built a wooden stage in one corner of the warehouse; the walls have been brightly painted and hung with art; the boxes of clothes have been stowed up in the warehouse's loft; some lights and a PA system have been worked out. It's not a bad place to see a show—the stage is high, the sightlines are good, the sound is surprisingly professional, and the place kind of has the atmosphere of a magic, cartoonish cave.
At a recent meeting in the clothing-strewn storage room in between the warehouse and the retail store, Fuller and seven other employees/volunteers (including volunteers from the Vera, the Paradox, and the SS Marie Antoinette) gathered to go over both the immediate logistics and their grand schemes for the space. The meeting had the casual, lazy pace of a student-group discussion or a communal house meeting. The conversation was somewhat scattered.
There was speculation that some older, odder attendees at recent shows could've been undercover cops, but someone else weighed in that "they'd send the fire department before they'd send an undercover cop." There was some discussion about what exactly might need to be done before an inspection happens—this constantly looming inspection, even more than the business's bottom line, has been a driving concern for the Atlas collective. (It still hasn't happened yet.) Fuller brought up the fact that they could use the extra cash from the banquet-licensed liquor sales, because Hoffman, Atlas's owner, has been "on our case for only making $600 last month."
"'Cause Jamie is kind of a capitalist business dude or whatever," Fuller says. "So it's important to him to make money. We're supposed to be making $3,000 a month. Just doing all-ages shows, that's probably not feasible."
The following night, for Fall of Troy, the retail store remained open for business during the show, which was a first, and concertgoers entered through the retail space. Fuller's thinking: "Hopefully people will buy a lot of shit, so it takes the pressure off of us." It worked. Fuller estimated that Atlas "did like $230 worth of retail business in two hours, which is a bit above what the store tries to average."
Atlas can't guarantee bands much money, and at the meeting the assembled group talked about how to make up for that with good hospitality. They talked about making it "a community space" instead of a retail space, about the long-term possibilities of seeking nonprofit status, and about countless little improvements they want to make. They talked about the importance of all-ages, DIY venues, and the rarity of such places in Seattle, especially on Capitol Hill.
But the reason such places are scarce—and why they tend to either seek out nonprofit status or operate completely underground, usually in residential basements—is because all-ages shows are notoriously unprofitable for venues, promoters, and bands. Three thousand dollars a month in revenue isn't just "probably not feasible"—it's impossible, especially on Capitol Hill. (Remember the Hi-Score Arcade?)
"The show space is not making money," admits Hoffman, the owner. "We've got to pay the artists that play here, and there's the costs of operating the facility—Capitol Hill's not an inexpensive place to have real estate."
For all the volunteers' vision and hard work, it's only Hoffman's continued support and investment—rare from a business owner—that will make shows at the tenuous new venue possible. He seems far less concerned than his employees and volunteers, both about the impending inspections and the venue's lack of profitability—although Fuller maintains there's "a constant pressure" on the shows to make money, and that if Hoffman's not worried, it's news to him. Hoffman says he believes in what the Atlas crew is doing, and he thinks that it will add a certain "intangible" value to his business.
"For me, it's big picture," Hoffman says. "Our goal is to run a successful enough business around it that the financial aspect of the shows doesn't matter."