Around 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 27, the cops showed up at Club Pop—a biweekly 18-and-over electronic-and-rock-music dance night at Chop Suey—and told them that they were being too loud, according to Chop Suey management. The sound engineer turned it down a bit, but the booming bass of songs like Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." crept back up. At around 12:30 a.m., 15 minutes into the set of their national headliner Tim Sweeney, the cops showed up a second time and demanded they turn it down again. When Chop Suey complied, at least half of the night's 240 paying customers left, after having paid $10 for tickets. (By press time, The Stranger was not able to get a police report from that night.)
"The thing about this kind of [electronic] music is that when people go out to hear it, they are paying for a great sound system. Otherwise, they could just listen to it in their bedroom," says Club Pop promoter Michael Yuasa. The end-of-night exodus didn't surprise him. "If you can't feel the bass in your chest, no one wants to dance."
In the past couple of weeks, clubs along south Capitol Hill between Broadway and 15th Avenue say they've noticed an increase in visits from city and state officials. Considering the area's longtime reputation for nightlife activity and its relative distance from any housing, the reported rash of officers touring clubs and telling businesses to reduce noise is strange. Especially since there are no current rules regulating the decibels a club puts out.
Neumo's, a nearby nightclub, says it's been visited many times lately by the police, the liquor board, the city attorney's office, and the fire department. "During the month of March, we've been visited by Seattle police two or three times a week," says co-owner Steven Severin. "Sometimes they come back twice in a night, and twice they have come in with five officers." He reports the city told him that Neumo's was also being visited by undercover police.
Attributing the increased attention to recent violence on Capitol Hill, the police department simply said: "SPD should be in the establishments checking with owners and looking for issue or violations"; the liquor board said that it's been to Neumo's four times since the beginning of February—twice to respond to written complaints and once at the behest of the club. Overall, they consider Neumo's to be a "good licensee." City Attorney Tom Carr and Council Member Nick Licata's office (which oversees the nightlife committee) say that their offices have no direct focus on any of the south Capitol Hill club strip.
Severin is still confused about the noise rules and the police presence. "They've told us that Neumo's is too loud, but we are asking, 'what is too loud?'" The current rules for noise come from the Seattle Municipal Code, which bars "loud and raucous, frequent, repetitive noise," from an amplified or unamplified source—there are no decibel standards, and no difference between a nightlife establishment and a house party. If it sounds noisy, cops can demand it be turned down.
Neumo's is in a relative dead zone for housing—there are no residential units within a block of the club, and the closest ones are above another nightlife establishment, the Wildrose. "Without an actual decibel-meter reading, we're not going to turn it down," Severin says. "If we are breaking [a] law, then we'll turn it down."
Chop Suey owner John Villesvik says that every time the police have shown up, the employees have asked for a noise reading so that they can compare it with their own in order to monitor their own noise. In the eight visits from police they say they've had since March 13, they've never received a reading. "We want to establish a baseline so we can compare and keep our noise down to a nonsubjective level," says Villesvik. "Right now, [the police] are making a judgment call. It's a puzzle for us." When the officers showed up to Chop Suey last Thursday, they reportedly weren't carrying a decibel meter. "Our sound person took a measurement with our decibel reader and asked to compare it to the officer's," says Yuasa. "The officer said that she left her meter in her locker that night."
On June 1, the new nightlife ordinance will go into effect which will make it "unlawful for a person to have allowed to originate noise from the property that is audible from inside the residence of a person of normal hearing." Chop Suey is covering its bases. It is installing a few thousand dollars of structural improvements, and swapping out some of the sound equipment, which it rents. "With the new ordinance coming in, we're upgrading our sound system to be ready," says Villesvik. The upgrades should "sound exactly the same inside the club, but have a shorter throw, so the sound doesn't go as far outside."