By Christine Leonard
CALGARY — It’s not every day that a music venue gets to celebrate a landmark 10th anniversary and such an occasion is even more impressive when that nightclub is one that caters to a predominantly hardcore following. Fortunately for the citizens of Calgary, the venerable institution known as Distortion has endured a decade of slings and arrows while playing an important role in carving out the city’s cultural identity.
“The struggle is really. It’s really real!” says co-owner Sean “Taco” Close.
“When we bought the first Distillery Public House (a.k.a. D1), at 839 – 5 Ave. S.W., none of us had owned a bar before. We had to find investors, take out loans on our homes and start moving with what was happening on the music scene. We started doing weekend shows and then suddenly we weren’t just a pub for the lunchtime suits anymore. The landlords didn’t want us in there, so when it was time to renew our lease they pulled out an old clause and denied us. Which was totally bullshit. But we had momentum, so we started looking for another location.”
As fate would have it, a hot tip led close to a hidden gem in the form of the old Lucifer’s Ballroom underneath Quincy’s Restaurant on 7 Ave. S.W. Soon The Distillery (a.k.a. D2) was up and running with a glorious domed ceiling arching above 10,000 square feet of blistering sound and throbbing lights. The spot became a speak-easy destination for metal and punk fans who favoured the underground bar for its heavy act packed calendar and ‘70s throwback décor.
“We called it our Rock ‘n’ Roll Ballroom and it rocked in there,” recalls Close.
“But it also came with its own set of problems. We had a couple of floods, pipes blew up, and yet somehow despite dealing with all those things, while trying to put up with our slumlord, we had four or five years of awesomeness in that place. Just when there was a light at the end of the tunnel the carpet got yanked out from underneath us and we got shutdown and kicked out.”
With commercial real estate at a premium in Calgary at that time the entire operation was put on hiatus for several months while the co-owners sought alternate accommodations. Concerts that had already been booked were diverted to other venues around town, as were loyal staff members, such as lifer Bonnie Parker, who waited to learn The Distillery’s fate.
“The whole bar was in the garage at my house; the sound system, everything,” Close recalls.
“Our backyards were full of chairs and all of the bar furniture, I even used one of our bar tables as my patio table, cuz there was no room for, you know, all this stuff. And then we found the bar in Eau Claire at 222 – 7 St. It was a small place, but it had a little kitchen and good potential and we thought we could make it work and called it The D.”
Sadly, the third incarnation of the venue was met with an unneighbourly shitstorm of political posturing and bureaucratic red tape that would make for an untenable situation.
“That threw us for a loop. We fought and figured out a way we could adhere to all the clauses and stipulations that were put upon us. But we had constant complaints from a handful of the community. They kept bullying us and it just came to the point where they severely restricted our operations. Our landlord knew we had gotten screwed, and had lost a shitload of money, so he broke the lease for us and wished us luck. We weren’t sure we were going to recover or if The Distillery would just fizzle out. Once again, the bar got packed up, but this time it was a longer haul. We spent almost a year discussing finding another space. We were selling all our stuff and trying to survive and keep the dream alive.”
Things seemed bleak indeed after the collapse of D3. Business partner and friend Philly moved away, while Close, co-owners Andrew Jay, Mark Russell, and general manager Katie Bevan picked up the pieces. Given the traumatic transplantations of the past, the crew realized that finding the right setting for a loud-as-Hell nightclub was essential to the fulfillment and survival of their collective vision.
“We looked at a whole bunch of places, and a friend of ours mentioned that the Atlantic Trap & Gill was closing down. And sure enough it was. So, holy shit! We decided to give it one more go! We got it put together and wanted to change the name but to retain the big D, so we came up with the name Distortion. When we went back to the city they actually welcomed us with open arms and gave us all our licenses without batting an eye. We’re two years at this address come April!”
Close continues: “This last year has been one of the hardest for the whole city, let alone to be up and running with a fresh lease, but we’ve always been DIY. The same staff has followed us from the old locations; our current team of ten is rad and has the same idea. We had to do a lot of cleaning and painting and soundproofing, so we all put on our overalls and jumped in there and did it ourselves. It’s really starting to feel like home.”
Finally ensconced in an ideal 280-person capacity locale beneath the Days Inn at 3828 Macleod Trail, the new-and-improved Distortion is a cozy opium-den of the west that also claims one of the most charming bathrooms on the nightclub circuit. At last the tenacious team behind the bar, where they might very well know your name, can take a moment to reflect on just how far they’ve come.
“Way back in the day I was just a promoter working with Calgary Beer Core and putting on shows at The Underground, Point on 17th, The Castle and then The Distillery,” says Distortion co-owner Mark Russell.
“But instead of just being a music promoter, I wound up getting into the business, as the saying goes. I went from working as head bouncer to one day being appointed manager at D2, and it has just sort of grown from there.”
Quick to commend his colleagues for their “No bullshit attitudes,” Russell appreciates how close the staff has become and the personal milestones that have arisen along the way.
“These are my family members; they’re not just friends anymore. And the fact that they’ve trusted me for so long, and put me in the position I’m in, means a lot.”
Echoing that sentiment of belonging and sense of community, Distortion’s general manager (and wife to owner Sean Close), Katie Bevan, has come of age along with the business and has helped build The “D” from the ground up more than once. A former waitress and bartender, who moved up the ranks to promoter and booker, Bevan has seen a million faces come through her establishment’s doors and the thousands of bands she’s put on stage have undoubtedly rocked them all.
“Our directory of bands and contacts has grown very large over the years, so that makes it easy. As does dealing with the same people,” Bevan reports.
“I probably get a dozen messages a week from who are looking to set up shows. I try to find a place for them and make sure I’m building bills where the bands are complimenting each other. Sean has to trust me; we’re married. In fact, we just celebrated our 10th anniversary!”
A rare opportunity to comb through a mountain of gig posters and photographs from the many performances that have taken place at their four sites, Distortion’s tenth anniversary is not just an accomplishment for the staff and owners, but a testament to the resilient character of the scene they have worked so hard to foster.
“It’s quite crazy when you think about all of the killer shows we’ve had through the different rooms,” reminisces Bevan.
“Everything from the electronic and hip-hop nights to our bread-and-butter punk and metal. I’ll never forget how insane and packed Del tha Funkee Homosapien was. I remember one of the first big name we had in was The Real McKenzies and I was like, ‘No way!’ Since then we’ve done seven shows and formed a relationship with them. The Bronx was a super-wicked fan girl moment for me. The Mad Caddies, too. Such a party. Meanwhile, I’m finding all of these amazing posters for Anvil and Napalm Death and Pig Destroyer and the festivals we’ve hosted like Sled Island and Noctis. We’ve had a blast and we’ve had our setbacks. It’s not easy rebranding yourself and getting your name out there. The scene changes so quickly, we’re keeping our ear to the ground and watching out for up-and-coming bands. My goal is pretty much to keep making Distortion bigger and badder. As long as the ‘Man’ doesn’t bring us down this time!”
Masterminding the metal-fueled anniversary celebrations, Bevan has racked up an evening of debauchery that will entail performances by a pantheon of bands who have all come together to toast the iconic venue and commemorate ten loud years of blood, sweat and beers with an epic party.
“Our ten-year show is going to be crazy! It all started with looking for a list of ten Calgary-area bands who have played the scene for ten years, or more,” she says.
“I thought it would be cool if they could come together and share this accomplishment of being a very small business in the city of Calgary for a decade. I started messaging the list and everybody was on-board. I even persuaded [hardcore beer chuggers] BDFM and [local stoner rock icons] Hypnopilot to reunite. It’s going to be a busy evening with a freak show, contortionists and an experimental second stage that’s sponsored by Long and McQuade. And, of course, plenty of that special energy that hasn’t been duplicated anywhere else.”
Celebrate the Distortion / The D / The Distillery 10-year Anniversary Party on Saturday, February 11th at Distortion. Hypnopilot, Bloated Pig, Caveat, The Press Gang, No More Moments, BDFM, Exit Strategy, and many more will perform.AB, Alberta, BDFM, Bloated Pig, Caveat, distillery, Distortion, Distortion 10-Year Anniversary, Exit Strategy, Hypnopilot, No More Moments, The D, The Press Gang