On the right-hand side of the north wall, in black letters ringed with brightly painted ovals, is the word "party." Painted zebras line the other walls. And as a band goes through its set in this small room behind the San Soo Kab San Korean restaurant in Charles North, the space pulses with club lights crisscrossing the faces of audience members, several flat-screen TVs play short, melodramatic videos normally reserved for karaoke, and on occasion a plume of thick smoke rises up from a fog machine.
This is Club K and, yes, it is as surreal to see a show here as you would expect. Somewhat improbably, in the span of several months, it has become one of the busiest small venues in the city, catering to everything from indie bands to DJs, from punk to noise.
The people running the space are fully aware of how bizarre a setting it is.
"The first time I came here, I was shocked," says Thor Buntin, who started promoting shows at the venue late last year. "The interior caught me off guard." But like many people who have gone through the fully visceral show experience here, Buntin came around to realize "this is awesome."
One of the other bookers, Michael Young, jokingly refers to Club K as "dive class."
As shows at bigger-name underground spaces such as the Copycat and the Annex have slowed to a trickle, Club K has popped up in the game of DIY-space whack-a-mole to fill the void. And thus far, it has been a large success, with a packed January schedule and shows booked as far out as April-a level of success the three bookers didn't anticipate.
Club K works because it is a hybrid, and not just in the juxtaposition of its glitzy nightclub decor and the grittier music of the acts performing inside. It is an above-ground venue, in that it is able to legally serve alcohol; but it's booked like an underground one.
Part of this is a function of space: Club K tops out around 100 people. But it also speaks to the mindset of the bookers. Buntin, 21, and Young, 31, are both in bands and have booked smaller shows in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. So in addition to bands from around town, they both know other small acts trying to grind it out on tour. With little overhead-Buntin, Young, and Phoebe Franklin operate the sound system, bar, and doors by themselves-and smaller expectations for covers paid and drinks sold, these are the bands that have a home at Club K.
Both Buntin and Young say they are able to mix up bills and use the club as a way to expose bands to new audiences and cross-pollinate different scenes.
"That's what I've always been into, doing something like that where everyone can come together no matter what their background is," says Young.
"Just integrating all the elements," Buntin adds, "the scenes within the scene, so there's something for everybody going there, and maybe seeing something different that they wouldn't have realized before this is something they'd be into before they saw it and discovered it."
For the bands themselves, Club K offers an underground feel without all the insecurity of unsanctioned gigs, says Adam Lempel of the garage duo Weekends, who recently played Club K, and notes that the last two shows he tried to play in the Copycat were shut down.
But there's also something about the unique atmosphere that gives Club K a different feel. When Lempel talked to his friends in the New York indie-pop band Ava Luna about booking a Baltimore show, they were excited to play a place outside the norm, a place reminiscent of their days playing warehouses.
"It has this kind of chaotic feel. I don't know why this is, but it feels chaotic and fun," he said. "It has fog machines and laser lights, it just feels like something that's new and fun."
As with many a successful venture, Club K benefitted from the right set of circumstances and good timing. At the start, the room attached to the back of the Maryland Avenue restaurant was used for smaller dance parties and karaoke events put on by a promoter known as Mr. Kim that drew modest crowds on the weekends.
Young attended several of these this past summer, only to find, a few weeks later, the space had shut down and wasn't being used. Through Mr. Kim, Young talked to the owners of San Soo Kab San about bringing in live music. After they agreed, Young was approached by Buntin about relocating an over-capacity hardcore show-with Dawn Treader, Burning Love, Mad Minority, and Nude Dudes-from his own house in late October.
They brought in a couple of PAs and mic stands and filled the rest of the space with people. The show went off without a hitch, and the restaurant gave them two to three nights a week. About mid-November, they were given the whole week for bookings, and it took off from there, so much so that Young and Buntin say they have been able to quit their day jobs and live off of whatever they make at the club. Language remains a barrier between the duo and the space's owners, but Young says he's able to communicate with them through Google Translate.
Now, there's already talk of knocking down the north wall and the bathrooms in Club K to expand the space, they say. In the meantime, they plan on bringing in a couch and more lighting, and installing a projector and screen to create even more of a visual mindfuck than the one that already exists. They may even dedicate a small nook to a TV and an old Super Nintendo.
"We're going to slowly increase the ridiculousness of the senses," Buntin jokes.
As an upstart venue and one of the only places in town where you can get your punk rock with a side of Korean barbecue and a Hite beer, it'll do just fine for now.