The Casbah at 30: Iconic San Diego club thrives with top music talent, homey vibe
The Casbah, San Diego’s legendary indie-rock music club, turns 30 this year. Casbah co-founder Tim Mays and several musicians reflect on the iconic venue’s storied history. Check out the full interview here.
Since opening 30 years ago this month, the Casbah has hosted performances by everyone from St. Vincent, Nirvana, White Stripes and the Black Keys to Arcade Fire, Smashing Pumpkins, The Killers and No Doubt.
The pioneering San Diego alternative rock-music venue has also showcased scores of San Diego area bands, including Rocket From The Crypt, Three Mile Pilot, Creedle, Pinback, Earthless, Little Hurricane, The Schizophonics, The Redwoods Revue and Tijuana’s Nortec Collective.
Many fans proudly embrace this cozy nightclub as a local treasure that has deservedly earned a national reputation. Casbah co-founder Tim Mays says the 175-capacity venue’s intimacy is a key reason for its longevity.
Check out the full interview:
“To me, the Casbah is my home away from home. I could walk around here, blindfolded, and not bump into anything. … When I come here to see a show, it’s like watching it in my living room,” said Mays, a 1980 San Diego State University telecommunications graduate who grew up in Barstow.
That homey feeling is also cherished by longtime Casbah-goers and recent initiates alike. It’s a feeling the Casbah’s three co-founders — Mays, Peter Verbrugge and Bob Bennett — nurtured virtually since the club’s inception.
“To me, the Casbah is family at this point and it definitely feels like home,” said guitarist Andrew McKeag, 49, who was still in high school when he first performed at the Casbah with the band Liquid Sunshine.
“It was like I met my favorite new older brothers that I didn’t have! I mean, Tim and Bob and Peter became mentors, in a way. They knew cool clothing. They knew cool music. They knew cool cars. They threw cool parties! It just seemed like a natural fit and really it was a place to hang with your people. … After I turned 21, I went to every show there that I could.”
In addition to now leading his own group, McKeag is a member of Dirty Sweet, Lady Dottie & The Diamonds and Uncle Joe’s Big ’Ol Driver, which performs Saturday at the Casbah and is one of nearly a dozen San Diego bands reuniting to play this month as part of the club’s monthlong 30th anniversary celebration.
The lineup also includes Dani Bell and her band, The Tarantist, which performs Jan. 25 at the Casbah. Bell, 25, is several decades younger than McKeag and Mays, but the club’s allure for her is much the same.
“There’s no backstage, so you end up hanging out with everybody until you play,” Bell said. “It definitely feels very intimate and special in that way. ”
On Monday, the city of San Diego will present a plaque to the Casbah in recognition of its 30 years as a vital part of the city’s cultural scene. This follows the 2014 proclamation the city issued in honor of the club’s 25th anniversary.
“We certainly never thought we’d get that kind of official recognition when we started,” Mays said, chuckling. “It never crossed our minds.”
There are few other indie-rock music clubs anywhere in the nation that have endured — let alone thrived — for anywhere as long as the Casbah. Its longevity comes as no surprise to many area musicians, including veteran San Diego drummer Chris Prescott, who will perform at the Casbah this month with Pinback, the reunited No Knife and as the leader of his own band, the Montablan Quintet.
“The Casbah has stayed around so long because bands get a fair deal with Tim,” Prescott said. “A lot of times, there’s not even a (financial) guarantee, even if the show is sold out, but you know Tim will take care of you and treat you right. If Tim wasn’t here, it might be a different story.”
The devotion musicians have to the Casbah is partly demonstrated by the fact that a dozen or so dormant San Diego bands are reactivating to perform as part of the 30th anniversary.
No Knife’s Ryan Ferguson is flying in from Salt Lake City. Gary Heffern, the lead vocalist in pioneering San Diego punk-rock band The Penetrators, is coming all the way from his longtime home in Finland, where he lives near the Arctic Circle. His trip will require four separate flights each way.
Heffern made the same lengthy journey when The Penetrators reunited for the Casbah’s 25th anniversary. This time around he’ll do two shows at the Casbah, one with The Penetrators on Jan. 18 and another — billed as Gary Heffern’s “Last Waltz,” featuring such guest artists as Ray Brandes and Cindy Lee Berryhill — on Jan. 28.
“Gary says it’s the last show he’s ever gonna do, but I don’t know,” Mays said. “Gary and I go way back. I mean, he lived in my garage back in the early ’80s! (Beat Farmers front man) Country Dick (Montana) lived in the garage for a little while, then Gary moved in when Dick moved out.”
By design, the Casbah is a frills-free venue whose appeal has everything to do with its earthy vibe and appealing lack of pretension.
It’s the kind of place where rapper-turned-TV-star Ice-T was turned away from a sold-out 1994 Korn show because the Casbah doorman had no idea who he was. Mays ran after Ice-T and his entourage to invite them in. They accepted.
In 1995, just as Alanis Morissette’s career was taking off, her management decided a good way to boost her already questionable indie-rock credibility was to have her film an MTV interview and sold-out show at the Casbah.
“It was perplexing why they decided to do it here,” said Mays, who was tending bar at the barely 18-month-old Casbah that night. “We weren’t going to say no, obviously, but it was very strange ... because she’s pretty much a mainstream artist.”
Thanks to Mays’ largely unerring musical instincts, the Casbah has sustained its reputation for being ahead of the curve, year after year. By any standards, the number of acts the club has showcased that went on to become major stars is formidable. That is precisely why performing there has long been a badge of honor.
“I joined a band called Boychick, and we played shows all around town while I was still under-age,” Bell recalled. “We finally got to play the Casbah, and that was definitely a big deal for us.”
The Casbah’s success has enabled Mays to expand beyond the club. He is the co-owner of the Soda Bar, Starlite restaurant, Vinyl Junkies record store and Krakatoa coffee shop. He also books concerts at an array of San Diego venues — small, large and in between. But the Casbah remains his first love.
“I’d like to lessen my workload over the next five years, but it’s hard to teach somebody how to book (shows),” Mays said. “It’s something you have to just learn. ... There’s no book, no manual. The thing is trying to figure out how much a band is worth and to offer them however much money you think you can make on the show, without losing a ton. And that’s hard to teach. It’s still hard. We lose money on shows all the time. …
“(This) was a hobby. … It was fun, and then I started booking bands that weren’t coming here, because they were bands I wanted to see. And, you know, there were obviously monetary aspects to it. But I would make money on some shows and lose money on others. I had no idea it was ever going to be (my) livelihood.”
The Casbah: A thumbnail history
The Casbah was opened in mid-January of 1989 by Tim Mays, Peter Verbrugge and Bob Bennett, who named the venue after his favorite nightclub in his native Pittsburgh. Mays and Bennett had previously owned the Pink Panther, a bar on Morena Boulevard in Bay Park.
The original Casbah location was in Middletown at 2812 Kettner Blvd., now the home of Kava Lounge. In 1994, the Casbah moved to 2501 Kettner Blvd., the former site of Club, a lesbian bar, and — before that — Bulc, a gay leather bar.
The now 25-year-old “new” Casbah, located directly under the flight path of planes landing at nearby Lindbergh Field, consists of the front music room, a back bar and an outdoor patio that connects the two. Its total square footage is about 4,500 square feet.
Bennett died in 2015, one year after the Casbah celebrated its 25th anniversary. He was known as “Back Bar Bob,” in recognition of his tradition of holding court while mixing and serving drinks every weekend at the Casbah’s rear bar.
Pinpointing the exact day the Casbah opened in January of 1989 is a bit tricky, even for the club’s co-owner.
“There’s some debate about that, because we had a couple of private shows first for friends and family,” Mays said. “But our first public show was with Romy Kaye & The Swingin’ Gates and C.L.A.”
Did you know?
The Casbah originally opened as a coffee house.
“We had an espresso machine, if you can believe that!” recalled Casbah co-owner Mays. “And windows that opened to the daylight.”
Rock the Casbah
The following is a partial list of some of the now-deceased artists who have performed at the Casbah over the past 30 years.
Soul singer Charles Bradley
Blues singer and guitarist R.L. Burnside
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
Pinback/Boilermaker mainstay Terrin Durfey
Accordion wizard Lou Fanucchi
Steve Foth of C.L.A.
Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower bassist Willie Graves
Frightened Rabbit front man Scott Hutchison
Soul singer Sharon Jones
Blues and swing singer Candye Kane
Ford Madox Ford co-founder Tony Kinman
Organist Mighty Joe Longo
Jonathan Fire*Eater front man Stewart Lupton
Kitten With a Whip guitarist Audrey Moesch
Beat Farmers vocalist and drummer Country Dick Montana
Blue Cheer bassist and singer Dickie Peterson
Album Leaf/Via Satellite drummer Timothy Reece
Steve Rodriguez of The Dragons
Steve Soto of the Adolescents
Mighty Joe Young/Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland
Proto-rock guitarist Link Wray
Singer-songwriter Pegi Young
The Casbah 30th anniversary schedule
Where: Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd., Middletown
When: Doors for all shows open at 8:30 p.m. and performances usually begin between 9 and 9:30 p.m.
Tickets: Prices for each show are listed below
Phone: (619) 232-4355
Tonight: Melvins, with hepa-Titus, $25
Friday: The Dragons, Drip Tank, Shake Before Us, (sold out)
Saturday: The Dragons, Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver, Deadbolt, Madly, $18
Sunday: The Mattson 2, Mapache, $20
Monday: “Casbah Day Celebration,” with The Creepy Creeps, Beehive & The Barracudas, Low Volts, The Loons, DJ Richard Whig, DJ GirlGroupGirl, (free)
Tuesday: Tamaryn, Cold Showers, DJ Jon Blaj, $12
Wednesday: Howlin’ Rain, MONARCH, Garcia Peoples, $15
Jan. 17: The Donkeys, The Blank Tapes, Bitchin’ Summer. $15-$18
Jan. 18: The Penetrators, The Schizophonics, The Dinettes, (sold out)
Jan. 19: Adolescents, Death Eyes, Alvino and the Dwells, Space Force, $20
Jan. 20: Mustard Plug, The Phenomenauts, Lexington Field, $12-$14
Jan. 21: The Districts, Deeper, $15
Jan. 22: Via Satellite, Goodbye Blue Monday, Dewey Defeats Truman, $12
Jan. 23: Pinback, Swollen Brains, $26
Jan. 24: Pinback, Montalban Quintet, $26
Jan. 25: Transfer, Dani Bell and The Tarantist, (sold out)
Jan. 26: Buck-O-Nine, The Downs Family, Unsteady, $15
Jan. 27: No Knife, Buckfast Superbee, Systems Officer, Miss New Buddha, (sold out)
Jan. 28: Gary Heffern’s “Last Waltz,” featuring Ray Brandes, Cindy Lee Berryhill, David Doyle, David Fleminger, Victor Penalosa and Kevin Ring, with The Dils, Manual Scan and Executives, $12-$15
Jan. 29: Emo Nite, featuring various ‘90s emo music DJs, $12
Jan. 30: The Silent Comedy, Mrs. Henry, Julia Sage and The Bad Hombres, $20
Jan. 31: Three Mile Pilot, The Dropscience, Physics, Space Horse, $22.50-$25
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