One night in the late ‘90s, Dave and Jenn Bats were sipping drinks at Que Sera, their usual haunt, when a proposition was dropped on their laps: Would they like to curate and throw the bar’s upcoming Halloween party?
It was an easy yes.
“We put our heads together and thought ‘old school,’” Dave said recently from their Long Beach porch. “Let’s do it like we used to do it a long time ago.”
Dave and Jenn met as teenagers during the heyday of Helter Skelter, a legendary death-rock and industrial night in Hollywood that championed bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Cocteau Twins early in their careers and kept hardcore culture alive in Southern California well into the mid ‘90s. When the opportunity came to throw a Halloween party in their hometown, the couple knew they wanted to recreate their favorite club night.
On Halloween 1998, illuminated skulls adorned every corner of the small dive bar, black fabric covered the walls and the air sat heavy and brooding with fog. The night was a huge success, and the bar asked the couple to continue their goth night as a monthly residency. Release the Bats was born.
In the 20 years since, Release the Bats became Long Beach’s longest continually running club night and the most popular death-rock/goth event in Southern California. This Friday’s anniversary celebration will mark the club’s final show.
Release the Bats earned its reputation by picking up where Helter Skelter left off. It served as a launching pad for a number of SoCal’s underground death-rock bands, such as Cinema Strange and Mephisto Walz and provided a sanctuary for generations of goths and industrial lovers. The club’s fan base is even international.
“It’s a gathering of like minds,” Jenn says. “It’s always worked out nicely because everybody is there for the same reason. Nobody comes and acts like an asshole. Nobody comes to pick on people or be weird. Everybody just goes to have a good time.”
For 240 Fridays, Release the Bats took on a mantra of “new band and old records,” booking only one live act per month to perform and then inviting DJs to spin the classics the rest of the time. The idea was to give the band control over their own night, let them have their own stage and decorate the bar however they wanted to present themselves to the community.
The format resonated in Long Beach and beyond. Several years ago, the couple was on a train in Berlin when their eyes caught a familiar sight on the back of a stranger’s skirt: she had hand-sewn the Release the Bats logo (originally drawn by Dave) on her skirt. The moment made them realize that Release the Bats was part of a worldwide movement.
“Guitar-driven music got pushed to the back because of cyber goth,” Dave said. “So [nights like ours] were happening in England, happening in Germany, happening here, Canada, Mexico. We weren’t the only ones doing this, not at all. There were others, but we all became friends and it became a worldwide thing. And we all DJ’d each other’s clubs.”
Despite the global network that Release the Bats has cultivated over the last few decades, Dave and Jenn are closing out the monthly night this month. The Halloween-time show will include a set from Michael Stewart, a DJ from the Helter Skelter club that first inspired it all.
“It’s been 20 years. It just feels right [to end it], Jenn says. “It’s time for something else to happen and a new Dave and Jenn to arise. Let’s see what they got.”
Though the club is ending, the spirit will stay alive through Dave and Jenn’s other curatorial efforts. In addition to helping throw an annual two-day goth/post-punk festival in Brooklyn called A Murder of the Crows, the couple also throws tribute nights at Que Sera. For the fifth year running, they will also be hosting Que Sera’s all-’80s New Year’s Eve party this year and have no plans to stop.
“In other words, the Que Sera is not getting rid of us,” Jenn says, laughing.
The couple also has plans to publish a book of Release the Bats memorabilia in the coming months: 20 years’ worth of fliers, handwritten setlists, film photographs, napkin drawings, and the like.
It will be one-part love letter, one-part tribute to the community of Release the Bats, which now includes fathers and sons, married couples who first met at the club and hosts of friends in Southern California and beyond.
“We have this whole gigantic family now, all these people that we consider really close friends,” says Jenn, “and none of it would’ve happened if it wasn’t for Bats.”
Release the Bats’ 20th anniversary and closing show is Friday 8 p.m. at Que Sera in Long Beach. For more information, visit Facebook.com/releasethebatsclub.
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