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Inside the Cozy Castle: A secret warehouse space mixes music and performance

November 10, 2010 |  3:25 pm

Milo Gonzales braces his arms in a handstand on a fuzzy pink platform, and his legs arch backward, dangling over his mop of rainbow-colored dreadlocks. He looks up as his spine contorts into the letter “C”. Musicians sway behind him, serenading the stunt with twangy, acoustic jams inspired by the Far East.

The audience -- more than a dozen slack-jawed twentysomethings -- cheers wildly, surrounded by candlelight, tie-dyed tapestries, bohemian knickknacks and glowing Chinese lanterns. It’s the kind of scene that Tony Peluso, 23, always looks forward to at the Cozy Castle.

In less than a year, this Mid-City venue, tucked inside a drab warehouse district, has struck a chord with scenesters seeking reprieve from L.A. clubs. Despite the threat of being shut down because it’s not a licensed venue, the makeshift Never Never Land services a dedicated swath of artistic souls.

“It’s everything I’ve ever needed in my life in one place,” Peluso said.

Cozy He discovered the dilapidated building in March through Craigslist. In 2006, Peluso moved to L.A. from Connecticut for college. A year later, the drummer started the group Insects Vs. Robots and needed a place to practice. The frenetic sextet constantly scouted spaces where their epic, percussive opuses could be free from noise complaints.

“I just wanted to have a place within this really urban environment to get back in touch with what it’s like to be a human being,” said multi-instrumentalist Micah Nelson, whose father happens to be Willie Nelson.

The IVR line-up also includes vocalist Maggie Lally, violinist Nikita Sorokin, bassist Jeff Smith and Gonzales on guitar.Their psychotropic soundscapes, sprinkled with funk grooves and sitar, hint at the type of dwelling they had in mind: A carpeted stage littered with amps and drums anchors the 1,500-square-foot space. It’s surrounded by a flotsam of painted canvases, Christmas lights and Mardi Gras jewelry, sagging like ivy from the rafters. The high ceiling mimics the feel of an underground big top.

The Castle vibes are consistent with the band’s bio. Four of the six members perform regularly as musicians, contortionists and stilt walkers with the famed L.A. freak show the Lucent Dossier Experience. And the fact that some of their parental influences include original Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski (Gonzales’ stepdad) and Willie Nelson probably adds to IVR’s creative -- and decorative -- tastes.

The obscure art/rehearsal space caught major buzz after hosting its first awe-inspiring  production in April. Dubbed “Freaks of Rapture,” it advertised an amalgam of fire breathing, sword swallowing, prog-jazz, electro and acoustic folk. The Castle’s reputation for envelope-pushing entertainment quickly incited local artists, who saw the shows as a way to contribute to this untamed hippie kingdom in whatever way they could.

“We’re into all kinds of art and fusing the processes to bring everything to a focal point,” said Gonzales.

Aspiring videographer Alec Singer, 19, came to “Freaks of Rapture” as a stranger to the Castle. By the end, he was hooked. Soon, he was recording almost every performance, gradually submerging into this world of noise bands, aerialists and fire breathers.

“I hadn’t ever been a part of the local music scene,” Singer said. “But coming in with all these people, I really did start feeling part of something bigger than myself.”

July saw the Castle’s biggest show to date: A festival of 15 bands and numerous circus acts called “Cozy Fest.” At its peak, Peluso counted 300 people cramming into the warehouse. The next day, cops temporarily shut the venue down.

“We just outdid ourselves,”  Peluso said. “Too many bands, too much drinking, too many people.”

Peluso says the Castle has received approximately 20 noise complaints for its high-decibel live shows. Local authorities have threatened to evict Peluso and his band if complaints continue. Given the recent demise of established L.A. venues such as Echo Curio and the Waterfront Restaurant and Concert Theater, it’s a chance Peluso won’t take.

“I don’t mind toning it down and I don’t mind following whatever rules we have to to keep it open,” he said.

Recent shows swapped the ruckus of twin tube amps for acoustic plucking and ambient synth swells. But Peluso says the new format is a positive change for Castle patrons favoring artistic curiosity over keggers.

“The shows are so mellow that people would be turned off if they came to party,” Peluso said. “They wouldn’t feel like it was the right atmosphere.”

Though the music is quieter, the circus performances still persist.

Still, regulars  such as Singer -- immersed in the Castle’s culture from the beginning -- hope the warehouse will return to its old ways.

“As awesome as it is being mellow, I can’t wait for a time when they’ll be able to throw some really big shows again,” said Singer. “People were leaving thought-provoked...they were seeing a new life.”

Tyler Norton, of local experimental trip-hop duo Wave Hands Like Clouds, is impressed with the Cozy Castle’s ability to exist.

“It truly is just a community of artists responding to the fact that there wasn’t a place like this, so they felt they needed to create it,” said Norton. “It kind of serves as this creative magnet.”

-- Nate Jackson

Top photo: Maggie Lally swings at Cozy Castle. Credit: Cozy Castle

Bottom photo: Insects Vs. Robots perform at Cozy Castle. Credit: Jackie Phillips