Creation of the Casbah

Tim Pyles

"Nirvana, the White Stripes, Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, the Black Keys."

Casbah owner Tim Mays could go on. As a matter of fact, he wants to but stops himself, knowing that even the fascinating list of bands that once played to half-capacity or less in his small clubs by the airport is far from telling the full story.   

Born in Los Angeles, Mays moved to Barstow when he was young, shortly after his parents divorced. He came to San Diego to attend SDSU in 1973 and fell in love with the city. A self-proclaimed "huge music fan," he continuously attended concerts and soon started making the trek back to L.A. to see the onslaught of punk rock shows there in the '80s.

After awhile, he decided to ditch the commute and began to try to bring those same punk rock shows down to San Diego. And it worked. Sort of.

"I started as a punk rock promoter," Mays said earlier this month. "I put on punk rock shows in the '80s at venues all over town. But you didn’t own back then; you rented. And I did that for five years or so. And, really, there weren't a lot of places to book shows at that time. You'd be at a place for awhile and then the neighbors -- or the police, or somebody -- would get upset, so you'd have to move on and find a new location. I worked my way through venues all over town. Then I got tired of it for awhile, because of all the violence and the skinhead problem: It wasn't good, and it really took away a lot of great opportunities, so I quit."

Mays didn't leave his place in the music business for long, though.

"I ended up opening a bar with a few friends called the Pink Panther," Mays said. "It was really successful, and it gave us the opportunity to buy another place that had the license for live music, and that was the first Casbah [which was just up the street from where it is now]. And before we knew it, the opportunity came along to triple our size and buy the location we're in now from a woman who was running it as a lesbian bar. So we bought it and moved here. It gave us a full liquor license and gave us the patio, which wasn't a big deal back then. But then they passed the no smoking rule, and it became a huge asset. It was during that time we started doing shows at other locations as well. So now, we develop bands at the Casbah, and when they get bigger, we work with them at every level that we can beyond the Casbah."

As evidenced by the appearance of the club's ubiquitous crescent moon and star logo on show ads all over town, Mays regularly secures gigs at venues throughout the city for bands that have outgrown the Casbah. And while he enjoys seeing those same bands extend both their fan base and need for performance space, Mays has no interest in anything but keeping the Casbah exactly the size that it is now.

"People ask me that all the time, but I like this size," Mays said. "There are a lot of nights where there are only 40 or 50 people in the club. On any given month, maybe we'll sell out 10 or 15 shows. The rest of the time, it's less than capacity here. And if the place was bigger, it just wouldn't work. Plus, we have the opportunity to book the bands into bigger clubs when they outgrow the room. And they're willing to work with us because we develop the bands from the ground floor. I'm perfectly happy with this size. I’m content."

Part of that satisfaction comes from the "huge music fan" in Mays, who can routinely be found in attendance of many of the shows he's booked. And while it would be impossible for Mays to name all of his favorites over the years, he doesn't let that stop him from trying.

"There's just so many of them: the Jesus Lizard, Jon Spencer, the Breeders -- I could go on and on," Mays said. "I mean, Gene Vincent's Blue Caps came through when they were in their 70s and put on a fantastic show. RL Burnside was here and it was insane, amazing stuff. And right when they were getting back together, the Cult played here, and it was incredible. We've just been lucky to get a lot of good bands or bigger bands that come down to do a warmup gig for a tour or something. The proximity to LA helps in that respect."

Whatever it is, the Casbah is now into its third decade of existence and shows no signs of slowing down.

"It's amazing," Mays said. "We’re on 22 years right now, and during that time, we've developed a lot of acts. And people can expect a lot more of the same. We're always working on a number of things. I've got shows on hold through the summer, and there's always some great stuff coming through the pipeline."

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