COVID Can't Kill the Casbah

What does the return of the local music scene look like?

sounddiego casbah 1-24-12-110
Vito Di Stefano

Good news for local music fans: The principal owner of San Diego's beloved, iconic Casbah, the beating heart of the local music scene, said the legendary club will make it through the pandemic, no matter how long the wait.

Tim Mays doesn't really look any different than the last time many of us saw him, back in March just before public-health orders closed down the Casbah and all the other music venues in the state. After riding the COVID coaster for more than 10 months, his club on Kettner will emerge sometime in 2021 with its core team reconstituted, Mays told NBC 7 on Tuesday morning.

"We're in a good position to come back," Mays said "We were able to access loans and grants, enough to see us through for months more. Some of that stuff is forgivable and some of it is loans we'll have to repay, but we're not going anywhere. I'm committed, and I don't see what else I would do. I mean, my staff is there, my main players at the club are still all involved. They're all in, basically. So we will definitely be there."

Ever wonder how the Casbah got to be the way it is? So did we -- in the wake of the venue's 30-year anniverstary, co-founder Tim Mays sat down with us to answer all those questions we always wanted to ask.

While the landscape will change, with some local venues like Bar Pink not surviving, not all of the news is bad.

"Obviously, some clubs have closed and stuff in town, but … Soda Bar is going to be there too," Mays said, referring to the other music venue in San Diego he holds an ownership stake in. "We made a commitment over there to stick it out, however we have to, and we've been lucky over there, too, with loans and grants and stuff."

The Casbah owner has invested in a host of other properties as well, all of which Mays said would survive the pandemic: the Krakatoa coffee shop, in Golden Hill; the Starlite restaurant, in Mission Hills; and Vinyl Junkies, in South Park.

"My record shop is a real bright spot," Mays said. "We did window service and mail service for two months back in March and April and into May, and then we opened in June. We've been able to be open the whole time with very limited capacity and gloves, sanitizer and masks, and the shop has been doing crazy good business: 50% more than we did last year. So people are out buying records and turntables in huge numbers. It's really great."

Tim Mays' Pandemic Watch List

  • The Boys
  • Casa de Papel
  • The Crown
  • Lover's Rock
  • Lupin
  • Your Honor


One of the difficult aspects of surviving the dark times, Mays said, was negotiating the maze of PPP loans and other state, local and federal grants, paperwork he mastered himself.

"Originally back in March and April, everyone was scrambling to try to get PPP funding and [Economic Injury Disaster Loans] and all that in the application process for various city grants, county grants, all these different things, were rolling out, but it was all pretty much … the rollout was not smooth for any of that stuff," Mays said. "Nobody knew, you know, how to fill out the applications, who to submit them to. The banks weren't sure what to do."

A PPP loan and EIDL helped Mays make it through 2020, he said, as did a helpful landlord who waived nearly 15% of his annual rent both this year and last. Looking ahead, Mays hopes to secure a second PPP loan and also a grant from the $15 billion federal Save Our Stages program that was passed toward the end of last year -- it's still unclear what restrictions would come attached to that money and what the application process will look like, though. A Save Our Stages grant for a club could supply it with as much as 45% of its 2019 operating budget.

Tim Mays' Pandemic Reading List

  • "The Two Towers," by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • 'Do You Feel Like I Do: A Memoir?" by Peter Frampton, with Alan Light
  • "Young Marble Giants' Colossal Youth," by Joe Bucciero and Michael Blair


Mays said he has been spending his time like most pandemically minded people.

"Cook, walk, garden, all of the above, watching a lot of TV -- we've been cooking probably five nights a week. We've been eating really well. You can't see below the neck but it shows," Mays said with a laugh, referencing the interview done via a Zoom call.

Mays said he spent some of that downtime this year renovating the Casbah -- including both of the club's legendary bathrooms.

"We remodeled the office to make it more band-friendly as a green room, we completely painted and did the floors, and just did a lot of work at the club … now it's just sitting collecting dust pretty much," Mays said with another laugh.

But for how long is the question nobody has an answer to but all are asking.

The bands Feels, Wild Wild Wets and Scary Pierre packed our free SoundDiego LIVE party at the Casbah with a bash hosted by 91x's Tim Pyles and featuring a VIP happy hour sponsored by North County's Wild Barrel Brewing.


"We're just kind of waiting for something to happen," Mays told NBC 7. "I mean, with the holidays and the whole winter cold-weather thing, I don't anticipate any changes at all till the end of February and going into March."

Some might say that a March restart is unlikely, given the current coronavirus conditions, but with the vaccine ramping up, forecasting can be a fool's game. And even when live music is allowed, it will be a slow burn getting going, Mays said.

"So, say they let us open to live music with 50 people," Mays said. "We would do it and we would, you know, definitely the tickets would be more expensive. We'd expand our offerings with maybe some more comedy, show movies, have DJ nights, whatever, just to kind of fill the calendar, and get some bands to maybe do residencies -- like, do once a week for a month or something like that."

It's going to take much longer to fill his calendar with touring acts, though -- Mays said nobody wants to be the first one to light the fuse only to have COVID-19 blow the tour up in their face.

"It's going to be local bands and regional bands only; there's not going to be any touring bands [in the beginning]," Mays said. "It's going to take three to six months to get the whole touring apparatus back up and running…. It's not a stop and start kind of thing. It's a stop and gradual ramp-up. It's going to be an interesting scenario. Best-case scenario? We are able to start doing some major stuff by fall, end of summer maybe."

Tim Mays, left, with Eric Howarth, his Vinyl Junkies business partner
Kelly McCullough Mahon
Tim Mays, left, with Eric Howarth, his Vinyl Junkies business partner

Mays needed little time to dream-book a free reopening night for the Casbah, relying on San Diego bands with legions of fans, with Rocket From the Crypt as headliners, main support from the Creepie Creeps, and the Schizophonics opening.

Although he's not ready to retire any time soon, the thought has crossed Mays' mind.

"I consider it every day," Mays said with a laugh. "I definitely consider retiring, you know, maybe in a few years. I want to come back from this, actually, and get things running and get them up and going strongly again and then see what I want to do."

It hasn't been something Mays ever considered, letting the pandemic close out the legacy he's built for 32 years since the Casbah opened.

"I don't see any other way," Mays said. "I've had that mindset the whole time. It's been a lot of ups-and-downs over the months, but I've always said from Day 1 that we will definitely make it through this, and I think people do like to hear that, because I get a lot of people asking me questions like, if I run into somebody on the street, like, 'How's the Casbah? What's going to happen?' I'm like, 'We're not going anywhere,' and that's what I'm saying again today: We're not going anywhere."

PICS: SoundDiego LIVE Storms the Casbah

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