There are very few people who can say that they have helped shape the musical, dining, and entertainment cultures of a city. It’s hard enough to penetrate one of those realms–but three? Forget it. And, within a big, spread out, metropolis like Los Angeles? Double forget it. Somehow, Mitchell Frank has done just that: assist in defining the musical, dining, and entertainment culture for much of Los Angeles.
Mitchell’s name may not be very familiar, but you definitely know what he has produced: have you heard of Malo and Mas Malo? The Echo and The Echoplex? El Prado? Spaceland? He–along with business partner Jeff Ellermeyer–are the men behind them and are responsible for many huge dents in Eastside (and LA!) culture–and they are still carving more dents into the landscape. On the eve of KCRW’s Are Friends Eclectic? show a few weeks back, we caught up with Mitchell during some downtime prepping for the show that he was producing.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, the city was never that remarkable growing up to him. Thankfully, he and his friends found ample ways to keep their minds occupied. “We cut school to go to museums and to galleries or to the Downtown Library,” he explained. “This is pre-Internet so the Downtown Library was like our Internet. We’d go there or to the Glendale Library, Barnsdall Park, and similar places. We’d entertain ourselves with movies at New Art, where we could see Fellini, Goddard, etc. We’d stay there for triple bills since a friend worked there.”
Music, though, was an integral part of this. “I started playing in a band when I was fifteen years old. We were kind of the school band,” he said, “We played out in the quad almost everyday…I was kind of a band geek.” Being in a band and a huge fan of music attracted Mitchell to the Sunset Strip, frequenting places like Whiskey A Go Go and The Roxy, “around the time that punk rock and the post modern movement was hitting.”
Going to the Strip and museums were all in an attempt to make LA interesting to him. “LA was kind of culturally vapid,” he said of the city. “We hated but loved LA. There were all these interesting aspects, but no one would really do anything that I would call cool or culturally interesting at the time–it was all coming from New York or the UK.”
After high school, Mitchell skipped college for the time and kept up with the band he was in while also getting a full time job in finance working for a money manager as a day job. He starting getting good at music production items like recording (cassette to cassette recording, that is).
This did not immediately translate into running a venue, though. “Before I started my own club, I had a recording studio, where I was recording all of our music and all of my friends band’s music,” he said. Even then, he nearly switched paths, trying out film directing and business for some time. “I went to AFI, got my business degree, was still working in fincane, and said, ‘Screw this: I want to make my own money,’” he explained.
Things didn’t really work out as planned, though, because the film industry was less than exciting. “I hated the people in film,” he said laughing. Thus, he returned to music, getting involved with Tiny Lights, a recording studio that he became a partner in. “I got quite good with Pro Tools and started doing radio edits for different record labels,” he said.
The studio eventually went private and bought him out of his equity. “That is when I started Spaceland,” Mitchell furthered, “This was in 1995. I started a club before then called Pan but it didn’t do much.” Momentum was picking up and Mitchell started a label with the Dust Brothers called Nickel Bag which evolved into Ideal Records, which led to his next big project: The Echo, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this month.
The spaces started building momentum and audiences. “I started doing these residency with some of the bands I had been recording” he shared, shining light on practices. “There was a free Monday night thing on the Strip that I thought was cool, which led to my starting a free Monday night thing at Spaceland. I thought, ‘Well, we can do this residency program’ because I always thought it’d be great to play the same show at the same place on a weekly basis, to work on my material and my performance.”
The residency program started in 1995 and still continues to this day. The program has been a practice ground for lots of great musicans like Silversun Pickups, The Airborn Toxic Event, and–most recently–Foster The People.
Restaurants came soon after clubs, when Mitchel wanted to diversify some. “I wasn’t sure about the concert industry and I wasn’t sure about the record industry, so I thought it would be best to start a restaurant,” he said. “I was a fan of Mexican since I was a kid, when I’d ride my bike down to Manhattan Beach to go to my favorite Mexican restaurant. I’d been chomping at the bit to start my own restaurant! I had a couple of partners as well who wanted to get involved–Jeff Ellermeyer and Courtney Holt–so we all jumped on board with this idea and made it happen. It was kind of by the skin of our pants, learning it as we go, but we did it.”
Mitchell works very hard and, naturally, overseeing multiple venues and establishments can be hard–but he loves it. His profession paired with being a native Angeleno and proud Eastsider has also given him a primetime view to watch it grow and change–a change he is determined to make for the better. “LA has always been a city of transition for me because it just seemed like nothing really stayed here,” he said, “I was determined that, if I was going to stay here, I was going to make something out of it. I think that a lot of people felt the same way so we pushed for change–and its been amazing.”
“I remember there were days, years ago, when there was nothing to do in LA,” Mitchell says. “You’d just sit at the top of Mullholland and look over the city because there was nothing to do: it was culturally vapid, without an identity or soul. And, whatever soul there was, it was just pockets. Now, you drive down the street and it’s vibrant: you can just feel the city vibrating. Downtown is vibrant, Silver Lake is vibrant, Echo Park is vibrant, Eagle Rock is vibrant–everything is vibrating and it seems that everyone has the same mindset, thinking, ‘Why live here unless it’s going to be amazing?’”
And, things have come a long way for East Los Angeles. “It was the wild wild West,” Mitchell described, detailing that just under two decades ago there you’d have to duck for cover walking on Eastside as shots were fired not too far from where you were. “There was a lot of police action and, with the riots, things were completely eye opening and scary: the giant awoke. The crime stats in Echo Park in the eighties were over a thousand homicides and, now, it’s about ten percent of that. People have become more respectful.”
Mitchell was also a part of this change as he chose to get involved in the community. “I felt that I wasn’t being represented by our elected officials so I made a conscious decision to get involved,” he said. “I became president of the Echo Park Chamber and have been for a few years now. I’m doing a business improvement district in Echo Park and have been going local with my energy. I spend at least a day per week working on community issues and quality of life issues.”
He feels the Eastside has come a long way. You could say he is one of the main factors of change, but he doesn’t feel he is the person behind it all. “I can’t take responsibility,” he says, “I think it was in the air. People were just fed up with the way things were going and how things were happening: we had to fix it on our own.”
Similarly, he’s watched the music industry change quite a bit, returning to the art. “There was this structural thing that happened where everything was so fake and so phony.” he explained. “Record companies were just buying airtime and forcing bands down people’s throats–you can’t do that anymore. Those people are out of commission now because there are people like Arcard Fire who don’t care. Music has gotten better because the structure has been dismantled, leveling the playing field so its the art that counts.”
Mitchell never thought he’d be where he is today as he says he never really “had a master plan” he was trying to figure out. His success has evolved naturally as a result of hard work and little sleep. His establishments have grown from “one man shows” as he called them (“When I first opened Spaceland, I was doing the door and selling tickets and sound and lights…”) to a more collaborative process that seems to involve the entire community.
The Eastside is engrained in Mitchell as is Los Angeles (since, aside from briefly living in San Diego, he hasn’t lived anywhere else). The future won’t pull Mitchell away from the city but it will definitely push things further East. “The progression of the migration East is pretty easy to see,” Mitchell says, “Look at real estate prices: artists go to where it’s cheapest. There are these amazing little pockets out here.”
As for The Echo, will it see its twentieth anniversary? “I hope so,” he says, assuring there will be more establishments coming soon enough. “If the neighbors let me and if the music is still there, of course. I don’t sleep much so there will be more stuff coming. There will always be more stuff.”
Portrait by Justin Sullivan; office photos by Scott Grover.