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Rebirth Issue Feature: Babylon LA

A Place To Call Home

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“Hollywood in 2016 is gross as fuck,” Lee Spielman laments over the phone. “It may be nice once you get towards Beverly Hills, but actual Hollywood is piss and shit and crackheads. It’s one of those things that’s hella funny to me when I have a friend visiting from out of the country or whatever. They walk around and realise ‘Ah, fuck. It’s not like the Hollywood they put in the movies. It’s completely the opposite’.” I’m on the phone with Spielman – frontman of Trash Talk, the hardcore band – to talk about a skate shop he opened in Hollywood in April last year. The shop, which he co-owns with Trash Talk guitarist Garrett Stevenson, isn’t your average. As well as selling skateboards, zines, and apparel, it plays host to gigs, movies nights, and features a sizeable skate bowl, which is open 12-7pm every day. The bowl is the centrepiece of the operation, and underlines the community-based, DIY philosophy the pair have adopted for the space. If this place was a church, the bowl would be the altar. The store “aspires to be the antithesis of the gaudy tourist vortex up the street,” according to an LA Weekly article written about its opening. Good.

In step with Spielman’s assessment of Hollywood, while most non-natives envisage ‘Tinseltown’ being carpeted in glitz and glamour, the neighbourhood has, according to the Los Angeles Times, a median household income of $33,694 – which is low for both the City of Los Angeles and the county. That’s not to say an area full of low median income households is automatically sketchy, it’s just a bit of context. Regardless, it’s here, in the quote unquote “piss and shit” of modern-day Hollywood, that Spielman and Stevenson chose to set up their shop (inside a former weed dispensary, no less): Babylon LA.

For Spielman, the idea of starting a store that’s more than just a store had been a long time coming. After 10 years of touring the world with his band, sharing warehouses with friends, bouncing design and merch ideas off his bandmates, and forming “creative collectives” with people he met along the way, it seemed only natural to take these abstract ideas and turn them into a physical space. “Babylon is almost like an evolution of Trash Talk in a sense,” he says. “It’s always been there, but this is like us finally stepping aside and being like ‘Yo, we’ve been doing this for so long, why not just create a brand around it with the same kind of ideals as punk rock?’”

Situated on a fairly nondescript street somewhere between the famous Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards, Babylon’s primary intention is to offer a safe place for local kids to hang out, be creative, and make friends. “That’s the whole idea of Babylon: to be more than just a store,” Spielman explains. “There’ll be a kid who’s into garage rock or some shit, and he’ll be on the bowl skating and he’ll make friends with a kid who only listens to crazy ass rap music, but they find a common ground in skateboarding – and now they’re best friends. That’s more important than selling clothes and all that type of shit: the community aspect. Being able to have a place where kids can come together, be themselves, and meet other people.”

When you look closely at the path Spielman’s life has taken, digging into the minutiae of what he’s done and why – starting a punk band, starting an independent record label (Trash Talk Collective), setting up a shop – it becomes evident that it all started with one thing: skateboarding. Growing up in Sacramento, he started skateboarding at the age of 12 after his brother gave him his board (or he might have stolen it off him – he can’t remember). He soon found himself with a group of friends he met through skateboarding – many of whom he remains close with to this day. He learned about doing things for himself (“If you want something done, you can just go get it done yourself, you don’t need to wait on somebody else.”), about the importance of community and – perhaps most importantly – skateboarding introduced him to punk rock.

Through the punk scene, Spielman uncovered a set of life lessons and experiences he says changed his life forever. “I feel like I learned more through going to shows and skateboarding when I was a little kid than I ever would have learned through school,” he says. “Punk rock has taught me everything I know. It’s one of those things where it’s like, as bummed as you are and as hard as life gets, if you walk into a room and a band is playing and you dive off a stage, for those five seconds you forget about how bad your day is. It provided me with something to take my mind off just life in general.”

It follows, then, that the adult manifestation of Spielman would go on to attempt to introduce other kids to the same philosophies and ideas that so influenced him as a youth. He tries to be present in Babylon as much as he can (“It’d be weird to leave it in the hands of someone else and walk away and hope it runs right.”) and spends time with the kids that come through – talking to them, getting to know them, and even taking them along to gigs and art shows (if he has room in the car). “It’s just about trying to share our knowledge with other kids,” he says. “And at the same time they teach us shit. I haven’t missed a new rap song that dropped since last April. We kind of offset each other with stuff. I’ll tell them about old shit and they keep me up on whatever the fuck is going on now.”

I haven’t been to Babylon myself, so before our chat, I pay a visit to the Babylon website. There are some photos on there of the store. It looks nice; kind of like a house. It’s white. There are skateboards on the wall. Some clothes. And of course: the bowl. Navigating the website some more, I take a peek at the Babylon threads. They’re minimal and designed by the same designer the band use for their merch and album artwork. My favourite one is called ‘FUCK RACISM TEE’ and features a black and white checkered swastika with a sword in it. Heavy! Under the ‘BOOKS’ tab of the website, I find a selection of zines. Interested, I ask Spielman about that aspect of the store. As well as simply stocking titles they like, he and Stevenson also encourage kids to make their own zines and put them up for sale in Babylon. “That’s one of the main basis of the shop,” he says. “Take something away from it, go home, flip it, make it your own and come back.”

Even having had no contact with Spielman until today, he’s easy to talk to. Where some interview subjects take a while to warm up and get comfortable, he’s straight into it: opening up about his thoughts, ideas, and inspirations on Babylon, skateboarding, punk rock, and life in general, without hesitation. It’s easy to argue that his capacity to be this candid paired with his life trajectory so far makes him a solid role model for kids coming into the store. Can you imagine having your local skate shop run by the frontman of a successful hardcore band? I can. I imagine it’d be pretty cool.

During our conversation, Spielman is never more animated than when he’s talking about the kids. He believes that city councils (and adults in general) have a responsibility to make sure young people have access to supportive and creative environments. “It’s insanely important!” he says. “One, for the creative aspect and for kids to have other like-minded individuals to bounce ideas off, but also just giving kids a house so they don’t just have to be on the street and be a bad kid.”

“Some kids come through and you think, ‘Fuck, if they weren’t on the bowl, they’d probably be in fucking Compton doing some weird shit they probably shouldn’t be’. Everybody wants to complain about crime rates and people going to jail, but why doesn’t anybody help that out from the jump? If a kid had a place to go when he was 14 then he might not pick up a gun and do something stupid.” And in a world where kids pay more attention to brands and musicians than governments and politicians, Spielman also thinks it’s on these people to provide more than just products. Much more, in fact: “Provide inspiration, provide experiences, provide something for a 14 year old that he’ll look back on when he’s twenty-fucking-seven and thinks ‘Damn, that was fucking ill.’”

With Babylon, both Spielman and Stevenson have created something they wish they had access to when they were kids. And by now, hundreds of kids (and adults) would have been through its doors. Some might have visited once and never again, others might stop through every day. I ask Spielman if there’s one thing he’d like people to leave the shop thinking or feeling. He pauses for a moment. Then he speaks: “I hope people realise that they can do whatever they want. You don’t have to go to college and slave away for something you don’t truly believe in. If you believe in something, just go one hundred percent and do it full force. I hope people leave with a new sense of inspiration, and a desire to get off their ass and actually do something. You can build your own world without having to listen to what other people tell you.”

Babylon LA

This story first appeared in the Rebirth issue – available now.

  • Author: Oliver Pelling
  • Photographer: Alice Baxley
  • Photographer: Ryan Baxley

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