Back to Basics—and Sick Bass
Electronic-Music Bastion Baltic Room Renovates and Innovates
This may be one of the greatest examples of addition by subtraction in Seattle club history. By removing the behemoth of a bar situated dead center in its space, the venerable Baltic Room seems finally able to breathe deeply. As well-stocked and classy-looking as the bar was, it stymied optimal feng shui; it was clogging the club's arteries and causing nearly impenetrable logjams whenever attendance neared capacity.
The new layout—which also swaps out the booths along its northern wall for lightweight, low-slung sofas—greatly expands the venue's possibilities as a nightlife playground and brings a welcome spaciousness for greater ease of movement. Which is a damned good thing, as the Baltic essentially is about facilitating the graceful, rhythmic moves of its punters through the carefully curated menu of electronic-music nights. It's all about flexibility, as Baltic Room owner Jason Brotman stressed during our interview.
Brotman—who formerly co-ran the bigger, more mainstream Lower Queen Anne clubs Element and Level 5—bought the space from John Choi in 2007. Brotman sagely took the advice of Decibel Festival director Sean Horton to rid the Baltic of the unwieldy boozing station; the main bar—one of three in the place—now exists on the mezzanine near the entrance. The renovation pleasantly surprised this year's Decibel attendees, who reveled on the Baltic's new, larger dance floor.
Beyond the logistical advantages of this decision, other factors forced Brotman's hand. "When we walked in here, it still reeked of smoke; all the curtains had soaked up the [odor] from when you could smoke in a venue," he recalls. "There were ungodly things that you didn't want to see behind the bars. Even in the main bar, it was just soaked with water and liquor and years of neglect. It was literally falling apart.
"Even during the three and a half years we've had it, we've kept patching holes in the floor and making it so it can work," he continues. "When we actually did remove the bar, a lot of the stench of this place just went out."
But as much as the Baltic's changed, it's still evolving. "We're a work in progress," Brotman observes. "We could've closed down for a couple of months and done a full remodel and reopened with this big reveal. We almost did that. But we decided it was better to grow naturally and see how people react to the space. When we first took the bar down and had one on the dance floor, we realized that we couldn't have a bar over there. We started moving things around. We're going for a multifunctional space that allows for both lounginess and the ability to be more clubby later in the evening. Now thanks to Red Bull and some of our great promotional partners, they've allowed us the time to make those changes."
Along with the physical changes, Brotman's instituting some programming tweaks, too. While Jam Jam (DJ Collage's long-running reggae/dancehall night) and Drum n Bass Tuesdays (now 12 years old) hold down weekly slots on Mondays and Tuesdays, Wednesdays are starting to receive an infusion of new blood. Ill Cosby's Diff'rent Flex occupies the first Wednesday while Horton's Decibel crew handles the second, Bassdrop the third, and Harvard Street Mafia the fourth. Lost Boys and Sean Majors's Trashed (first Saturdays) and Ramiro Gutierrez's high-quality Uniting Souls (fourth Saturdays) form a formidable house-music team, and SunTzu Sound's upful, eclectic dance party TRUST will begin happening February 19. DJ Darwin's Fancy Footwork, Super Threat's Lip Service, Bamboo and Spinja's Joints & Jams, and the turntablist exhibition Skratch Lounge also add spice to the Baltic's dynamic electronic-music agenda.
"It's exciting," Brotman says. "There's a lot that can happen now that we have a proper space along with the proper sound." With assistance from vaunted Decibel technical director Vance Galloway, Baltic is planning to triple the power of its sound system and add a video component to its arsenal of entertainment options.
With guidance from Horton and Car Crash Set boss and hypervigilant DJ/producer Ill Cosby, Baltic is establishing itself as the city's foremost spot for future-bass music. Decibel hosted renowned British artist Appleblim on November 10 and has confirmed bookings for other catalysts in the ever-evolving genre such as Lazer Sword, Ramadanman, Illum Sphere, Bellingham producer Cedaa, and Jahcoozi's Robert Koch.
"I think the real test for the space will be our annual New Year's Eve party," Horton speculates, "which will be featuring Luke Hess, Lusine, and Jon McMillion. The sound, lighting, and visuals should all be dialed by then, and if the night goes well financially, I would guess that the coming year will see more renovations to the club. As Jason puts it, it's an evolution that will largely be determined by the level of support from the community. The more business picks up, the more he's willing to invest back into the club."
"One of the big advantages of the Baltic Room holding electronic-music shows is there has been a need for a club its size on the Hill for some time," Cosby notes. "For some shows, Neumos or Chop Suey are too large for a headliner, whereas other clubs are too small, making it difficult or not viable to bring in a headliner. The Baltic Room is a comfortable size that allows promoters to bring in national and international acts that couldn't play anywhere else on the Hill."
SunTzu Sound's Jason Justice, whose crew used to do a broken-beat event at Baltic, is stoked about returning to the venue. "Aside from the sound, it's exciting that the Baltic Room is going to be flexible in its setup so that each promoter can bring a unique vibe to their party—whether it's the configuration of the DJ booth or via the lighting and projections. The layout and bar changes will all improve the flow and vibe of the room.
"None of our previous homes for TRUST have been solely dedicated to the DJ experience," he continues. "And now we're excited to set up camp where all the details that go with that experience are going to come first."
On a recent rainy Wednesday, competing against UK dubstep luminary N-Type (brought in by Decibel, ironically), Cosby and fellow DJs .Spec and DJAO drew a respectably sized, young crowd. The mustachioed DJAO spun an especially wicked set of what appeared to be chopped-and-screwed hiphop, but instead of sounding sinister and morbid, it came off as soulful and blissful. It was a strain of Robitussin-enhanced funk that makes your brain swirl and swoon. This new bass music is so mercurial that it's hard to know exactly what to call it, but its speedy evolution makes for incredibly exciting DJ sets. With knowledgeable selectors like these manning the decks, Baltic is poised to lead the way in Seattle toward new heights in electronic-music innovation—just as it did back in the day with events like ROBO.trash, Oscillate, and Oy Vey!
"I've been criticized for [promoting my club] too slowly," Brotman admits. "People say you need to do a big grand opening and so on. But the buzz is enough right now that people are coming back and checking it out. The interesting part that they like is that every week there's something different, we've made an additional change. Once we finalize our new bar and our programming for the foreseeable future, we're going to do a much bigger PR/media push. But now it's kind of an underground push, to see if people come back in and use that buzz. We're trying to create a space that fits the neighborhood and the city, and to help keep the electronic scene growing and thriving."