ten years and still going strong, Area 51 has solidified itself as
the club to end all clubs in all of Utah.
Outlasting most upstart places that continue the come-and-go trend, Area has been able to adapt to changing times while still holding onto the roots that made it great. From 80's nostalgia nights to the monthly Fetish Balls, they've continued to be a mainstay in the SLC nightlife. I got a chance to talk with owner Alan Moss about the club, it's history, where it's headed and other random topics. All while taking pictures during the daytime. It's an odd feeling walking through the place with no Nine Inch Nails... and in daylight no less.
Gavin: Hey Alan! Tell us a little about yourself.
Alan: I’ve lived in SLC most of my life. I graduated from Brighton High and the U of U. My degree is in Biology, and I used to do genetic research and computer programming before I started AREA 51. I started as a DJ in the late 80’s doing church dances with a friend. The set-up was very ghetto – we mostly had cassettes and had to cue up the songs we wanted to play at home. When we got requests, we had an extra tape player which we used to cue up songs at the dance. I didn’t have much vinyl at the time and CD’s weren’t in use yet. I took a couple of years off while in college. My first year in college I came to like industrial music quite a bit. One of my friends had some Front Line Assembly and I was already into Nitzer Ebb, Front 242 and Ministry from the dance clubs I went to while in high school, namely the Ritz and the Pompadour. During the fall of ’94 I went to an orientation meeting at KRCL to see if they had any slots available for new DJs. There were about 100 people at the meeting, and most of them wanted the same thing. I thought my chances were pretty slim, but I did have some DJ experience, and I also wrote music reviews for the Daily Utah Chronicle for a while. I ended up being one of the 6 people selected for the DJ training, and the rest is history. I started on the air with my own show, Cranial Circuitry, in November of 1994. Cranial Circuitry has been on the air for over 14 years now -- in the same timeslot -- Sunday night / Monday morning from 1am to 3am. Not great hours, but it works with my schedule. I still remember the first two songs I played: Battered States of Euphoria by Mentallo & the Fixer and Targeted by Intermix. I did my last show on May 19th, but Cranial Circuitry will go on with DJ Viking, from AREA 51, taking over the helm.
Gavin: How did the idea of starting Area 51 come about?
Alan: In 1996, I was approached by an old friend about helping him DJ at the Ritz on Friday nights. They had started an industrial night and wanted me to DJ. I jumped at the chance and spun for a couple of years. We also had a night at DV8 for a while. I was going to start DJing at another club, Barbwire, but the week I was to start, the owner lost her liquor license, and consequently, the club. I had been looking for a building for several years and saw this as an opportune chance. A couple of weeks later, I had the lease and bought the equipment from the previous owner. AREA 51 opened in June of 1998 as a beer bar until we received our liquor license in August of 1998. Originally, AREA 51 was open Thursday though Saturday and only used one level of the building. By October of 1998, the club was doing well and we opened the upper level of the club. This allowed us to dedicate the lower level of the club to Industrial, Gothic and other underground types of music, while the upstairs played 80’s new wave and alternative music. AREA 51 is still going strong after 10 years!
Gavin: Were there any reservations about it in Utah, or did you feel there was a crowd here worth doing it for?
Alan: I had no reservations about opening a club in Utah. I have been involved with clubs in Utah for a long time, and I knew there was a demand for what I wanted to do. Through concert promotion and DJing, I had supported the industrial and gothic community for quite a while, and I knew there were many of us who wanted a place where we could dance and drink and listen to the music we enjoyed.
Gavin: What was the initial opening like and the reaction from people who started coming?
Alan: The initial opening was pretty successful. Everyone who came was excited to have a place that was established by someone who has been in the community for a long time. I wanted to have a place for the industrial, gothic, 80s and alternative music fans to call their own.
Gavin: Local acts seem to rarely play at the club. Where did the decision come to be more of a dance club than a venue? And do you wish it were the other way around or enjoy things as they are?
Alan: It is odd since I used to be in concert promotions, that we do not have more live music at AREA 51. I don’t think most people realize that most live shows in the gothic and industrial genres tend to lose money. You have to put on a concert as a labor of love. I was too busy running the club to continue promoting concerts, so the club became primarily a dance club with concerts as a supplement. AREA 51 has been lucky to have several people interested in concert promotion put on shows throughout the years, but most grow tired of working so hard and losing money. We are looking to do more shows in the future, but it will take a while to get going on that front.
Gavin: While we're on the subject, what is your opinion of the local music scene, both good and bad?
Alan: There are a lot of talented musicians in SLC. I don’t think most of them get good support from audiences in SLC, which is too bad. Quite a few local acts have been signed by decent record labels and performed all over the US and Europe, including several local bands that played at AREA 51.
Gavin: How have the liquor laws treated you over the years, and have you had any problems with the state over them?
Alan: The liquor laws in Utah are ludicrous, but that is to be expected with Utah’s cultural views regarding liquor. We have had very few issues with the state, since we run everything by the book. There have been a couple of slip-ups, but it is impossible to be perfect all of the time – we can only try our best. I think it is one of the reasons AREA 51 has been around so long. A lot of clubs do a lot of illegal things, and eventually, they get caught.
Gavin: The big thing Area is known for is the Fetish Nights. How did the conversation come up to start those?
Alan: I’ll have to disagree with the predicate of your question. I think AREA 51 is known for several things: fetish nights, 80s night on Thursdays, and gothic / industrial music. They were started by one of our former employees, Larry. He had a proposal for them, and I thought it would be interesting to see how they did. They have been phenomenally successful over the years. The AREA 51 fetish nights are a bit tame compared to some in other states, but the laws here are a bit strict, so we are very careful.
Gavin: What was the first Fetish Night like?
Alan: I wasn’t there because the first fetish night was held at Sanctuary, another club I used to own, and I was busy working at AREA 51 that night. From reports I received, the night was quite successful, increasing the patronage that evening significantly, so they continued as a monthly event to this day.
Gavin: Putting you on the spot, what's the most outlandish outfit you've seen at one?
Alan: I can’t tell you how many outlandish outfits I’ve seen over the years. Some outfits can not even be allowed in the club. We have had to tell quite a few people to cover up because of the laws in Utah. We provide electrical tape to them so they don’t have to go home.
Gavin: For years Club DV8 seemed to rule the “alternative club” scene, but as it declined Area appeared to take its place, and in some cases it became the best club in all of Utah. What's your take on that?
Alan: DV8 was in decline by the late 90s, and it seemed to be not that well maintained. When I DJed there, we had to keep one of the amps on by using a straw to hold in the power button, and there was a roof leak that would drip on the dance floor (and customers) when it rained. I think the opening of AREA 51 was the death knell for DV8. AREA 51 has been recognized many times as the best club in Utah by City Weekly and a few other publications. We have received international attention for our 80s nights on Thursday. I am very proud of the recognition we’ve received and I know it wouldn’t be possible without many dedicated employees and incredible customers.
Gavin: A little on the flip side of that. The feeling over the years from the Goth community has been that Area was once the place to be, and now the club's best days are gone. What's your take on that opinion, and how do you feel about your place in the Goth community over the years?
Alan: I feel bad that opinion is out there. I’ve done everything I can to support the Gothic community. I run some nights at a loss just so there is a place to go out to listen to gothic and industrial music. I don’t charge a rental fee for most gothic and industrial concerts because I always want there to be a place for them. I volunteered for 15 years playing music on KRCL to have a way for people to hear that music on the airwaves. I know some people have grown tired of AREA 51 since it has been around for 10 years now, but I can’t do much about that. I hope to be around 10 years from now as well. I’ll continue to do everything I can to support that scene, even as other clubs come and go.
Gavin: In more recent years there's been more of a shift in the music trends at Area. From my personal experiences I can remember stuff like KMFDM, White Zombie and Lords Of Acid on the dance floor. Now we're hearing more pop and hip-hop related stuff like Kanye West, Fergie and even Madonna. Do you feel like you're turning off the main audience that used to come and now don't because of the music selection, or do you think the crowd that comes for that kind of music makes up for the loss?
Alan: I wish we could survive by playing all alternative music, but the reality is that we need to play some pop music to survive. If you listen to the alternative stations, there is not as much danceable alternative as there once was. When alternative music went into an alterna-rock format for a while, we had to supplement with a bit of pop music. I hope the pendulum has begun to swing toward danceable alternative, and I think we are seeing some, with bands like Ladytron, Fischerspooner, Fall Out Boy, Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, etc.
Gavin: If you had to pick, which DJ do you feel best represents the spirit of Area 51?
Alan: That is an impossible question for me to answer. AREA 51 can not be represented by just one DJ. Right now we have DJ Miah, DJ Radar, DJ Evil K, DJ Viking, DJ B-Module, and DJ D/C. All of those DJs bring something important to the multifaceted AREA 51.
Gavin: I remember Area used to have more of a biohazard/alien theme to the place, complete with the white light on the roof. But in recent years you've had designers come in and change things up on both floors. First, what brought about the original design ideas?
Alan: Originally, a couple of us brainstormed lists of potential club names. Several of us had AREA 51 on our lists, and aliens, X-Files and the like were very popular at the time. We went with a theme that matched the name, and that sufficed for a while. We have been in a perpetual state of upgrade / remodel since the beginning. We are always trying to keep AREA 51 changing and improving. We have never had any designers come in; all of the work has been conceived of and carried out by our employees with the exception of a small portion of the downstairs done by some of our customers.
Gavin: What's been the general opinion of the new look around the place?
Alan: The customers have been overwhelmingly positive about the new look. I would say the response has been over 95% positive.
Gavin: What brought about the Dark Arts Festival coming to Area?
Alan: The Dark Arts Festival is put on annually by a committee of volunteers who wanted to do something exceptional. It is a great time to enjoy some gothic and industrial music, vendors, spoken word performers, artists and more. This year’s Dark Arts Festival is June 6-8 and is headlined by London After Midnight.
Gavin: What can we expect from Area the rest of the year?
Alan: This year is the 10 year anniversary of AREA 51, so we are going to plan a huge 10 year anniversary party in August. We have several theme parties slated for the rest of the year, plus our huge Halloween and New Year’s Eve parties.
Gavin: Where do you see the club in say... five years?
Alan: I see AREA 51 retaining its position as the top dance club in SLC for anything alternative. I think alternative music will enter a period of resurgence as people get tired of hip-hop and look for something else. Our 80s night will stay strong since Utah has a nostalgic love for all things 80s. I am confident AREA 51 will be around as long as we continue to do our best to make our customers happy.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug while we're here?
Alan: I’d like to tell everyone out there who hasn’t been to AREA 51, or hasn’t been to AREA 51 in a long time to come check it out. The club is so diverse, there is bound to be a night you will enjoy. AREA 51 is a lot more than just an alternative club, an 80s club, a gothic club, etc. It is all of these things and more that makes AREA 51 greater than the sum of its parts.