Mecca of Chill: Babylon LA
Mecca of Chill: Babylon LA
Lee Spielman Unpacks the Inclusive Ethos of the Los Angeles Skate and Streetwear Label
Interview: Jeff Weiss
Photography: Christian Werner
Lee Spielman should be stressed. In a few hours, he has a photo shoot for a lookbook. There is this interview to handle. And in the backyard of the Babylon LA shop, headquarters of the skate and streetwear brand he runs with Garrett Stevenson, a small team of carpenters is furiously hammering at a spacious wooden bowl. In about 12 hours, Babylon will host a BBQ in honor of their latest collaboration with Spitfire Wheels, an event that will feature dazzling aerial flights from legendary shredders like Lance Mountain and Eric Dressen.
Then again, Spielman and Stevenson are no strangers to multitasking — they’re also the lead singer and guitarist, respectively, of Trash Talk, a hardcore band formerly signed to Odd Future Records that predates Babylon. And while the band and brand are generally kept separate — “a beast on the side of another beast,” per Spielman — both are approached with the same commitment to DIY inclusivity and the don’t-give-a-fuck pursuit of what inspires them.
The mood inside the store reflects the permanent summer enshrined in Californian myth. Coffee shops selling $6 cold brew and boutiques hawking Free People rompers may have replaced the seedy utopia of Dogtown, but further east, on Highland Boulevard, a communal feeling still reigns. Babylon LA is a part of the new Los Angeles, an integral part of the creative boom that has echoed in the wake of New Yorkers and San Franciscans fleeing their cities’ steady transformation into unaffordable luxury playgrounds. By a quirk of sheer vastness and a propitious climate, L.A. has attracted artists like Spielman and Stevenson, Sacramento natives who rambled south in search of more fertile cultural pastures. Babylon LA is the garden that they cultivated, a welcoming vortex that’s been Instagrammed and Snapped to mesmerized audiences on every continent. This welcoming mentality sits in stark contrast to the too-cool vibe of similar shops. It’s what makes Babylon, Babylon. “It’s one of those things money can’t buy,” says Spielman.
In the sparsely decorated boutique space, an upside down peace sign hangs from the wall. In just 30 months in business, the brand’s logo has become a niche icon, emblematic of the brand’s aesthetic and ethos: serenity tilted on its axis, chilled out but not lobotomized. Shelves display high-top Converse shoes in white and black, one of Babylon’s many collaborations with the sneaker company. Skate decks bathed in electric pink light depict topless women bathing; others simply read “BABYLON.” You can purchase handmade zines titled “American Women,” “Hugga Dugga,” and “Best Wishes.” It’s the platonic ideal of a place you would’ve cut 9th grade math to hang out at all day, hoping that someone older would pass you the spliff or buy you a 40.
In the backroom, a half-dozen heat-dazed bros chill. Chick-Fil-A boxes sprawl on a wooden bench. A massive weed nug lies next to a grinder and Backwoods wraps. Someone plays Call of Duty on a Playstation. Another pets a shaggy, similarly stunned dog. There is a sign reading “Please Respect Our Neighbors.” Spielman seems to be the only one in the room expending energy — FaceTiming about his schedule, pausing that conversation to ask someone else about how much cash is in the register, gliding across the room on a skateboard. He describes Babylon as the “bad kids club of L.A.,” and without question, he’s their Rufio — hyper-intense but somehow still at ease.
“If you have to sit at a table and think about a budget to try to create a vibe with just real kids being themselves then you probably shouldn’t even try.”
Jeff Weiss: Every time I’ve been here, everyone’s always having a lot of fun. There’s a relaxed vibe. Was that essentially the concept from the start?
Lee Spielman: A lot of shops have this higher-than-thou feeling where kids feel mad awkward coming in. We’ve kinda tried to throw that out the door, as long as you’re not gonna be an asshole and are just gonna be yourself and a creative individual. Everyone wanted a spot to go when they were a kid they’d feel welcomed at and not wake up the next day and wonder if they should go back. It’s mad fun for us, because we get to make really nice cut-and-sew, made-in-America clothing, where it’s more than just printing on a blank t-shirt and calling it streetwear or some shit, but at the same time we’re deeply rooted in skating and punk and everything involved with that culture.
It definitely feels like a logical point in a continuum from DIY, skate, and punk culture into something financially viable that doesn’t repudiate itself from those ideals.
I won’t name any names, but there are massive companies that have full-blown meetings where they sit 20 at a desk and think about the type of budget they can come up with to create an atmosphere of youth-centered shit just like this. If you have to sit at a table to try to create a vibe with real kids being themselves then you probably shouldn’t even try.
Punk is an inherently rebellious art form, and it’s so easy for everything to get co-opted. It always brings up that question of what does punk mean, what does anything mean in 2017 when we’re so far down the rabbit hole.
It’s so all over the board here. Like, we played a show yesterday out of nowhere, and it was 75 percent punk kids and then kids from the shop, fuckin’ weird garage rock kids, kids who like rap, kids who just skate. I feel like this place has opened a door for a lot of these kids to be in the same place that they wouldn’t normally be in.
It seems like there’s a trust embedded into the concept of the store, expecting people to have fun but not be super extra, right down to the signs telling kids to respect the neighbors.
One thing I’ve realized about this shop is I honestly feel comfortable enough that I can leave with no employees here and the kids would run this shit themselves. I always say, “Our house is your house,” but it literally is. If someone’s in here being weird, these kids are gonna tell him to stop before I will. The other day I was like, “Oh, we need to clean the shop,” and there was one of my employees working, but there were eight kids cleaning. It’s their fucking shop. A lot of kids have gotten opportunities from this shop. Now it’s like you fuckin’ flip open these Japanese magazines and it’s all the kids from L.A. skating. All these kids are taking street snaps and doing every brand’s lookbooks. It’s funny because other brands won’t say it, but they pull from these kids. They seek them out and pull from them because these fools are the real deal. It’s not a company paying a model to put on some skate shoes and hold a board. These kids are actual skate rats.
It’s interesting, too, how you’re doing it in the shadow of Hollywood and Highland, which is basically the worst.
One thing I like about Hollywood is that it’s shitty as fuck. From the outside, you’re like, “Oh, Hollywood, glitz and glamour,” but nah, Hollywood is crackheads, piss, and shit. It’s the nastiest place on the planet. I like that we’re in the middle of that, riding the fine line. The Red Line’s right here too, so every fuckin’ kid hops on the train whether it be heading from Compton or heading from the Valley. But you also get all the tourist dudes who come from Europe, like a Swiss family on vacation and their kid’s like, “We must go to Babylon.” And then you get all the Japanese and Chinese dudes. Everyone comes to Hollywood, you know?
Was it on Instagram that the brand took off?
The brand has exceeded the band now. I would say 80 percent of people who buy Babylon shit have no idea what the band is, which I kinda like. Some of these kids who skate here are like, “What the fuck? Lee has a band? That’s crazy.” To me, that’s tight. I don’t know how many years I’ll be able to throw my body off a stage, but I can for sure skate and create cool shit ‘til the day that I die. I’m chilling.
Do you feel like the dominance of the internet has made actual stores more important because there are less of them?
Fuck yeah. Everyone can make cool t-shirt designs and sell them online, but what more can you provide than a t-shirt? What can you do for people that’s not just fucking selling clothes? Because any idiot in the world can slap a sick sign on a shirt and sell a million of them, but you can’t really create an atmosphere. You can’t purchase that. The physical brick-and-mortar is 100 percent the driving force behind our brand. A lot of people come here that aren’t from here and buy a shirt, but they’re buying into the idea of the lifestyle of California youth skate culture in general. A wooden backyard bowl in the middle of Hollywood in a building that looks like a house? That sounds like it’s out of a fucking movie, but it’s not.
Was part of the idea to channel that classic, Californian skate and punk culture?
Yeah. You listen to a band like Black Flag or Circle Jerks or anything like that and it sounds like fucking sunshine and skating. It sounds like a wooden bowl in a backyard to me.
Was it difficult to all of a sudden be managing a thriving business?
No. I was used to doing it through booking shows and touring. I always trip when people act like work is more than just doing logical shit. The floor is dirty, so of course we should clean the dirty floor. You just apply yourself, you can figure it out.
But I think you have to know yourself, and that’s probably one of the reasons this has thrived — it comes from a very secure sense of self.
We’re definitely 100 percent with this shit, trying to please no one. If you like it, you like it, cool. If you don’t, go find something else. It’s not a big deal to me.
What are the ethics that you hold most important?
A lot of people are just like, “How much money can I make?”, and it’s so not about that. Yes, money’s cool, we all have bills to pay, but at the same time I wanna feel good about this shit in 20 years.
Have you been approached by potential collaborations that you turned down?
Yeah, all the fucking time. We all know what’s right and what’s wrong. We’ve done collabs with massive corporations. But at the same time, we did it our way, so that’s not selling out by any means because that’s us taking our resources and instead of fuckin’ jerking ourselves off we rented out the parking lot at the Palladium, built a bunch of ramps, and did a sick street jam. If you can do something sick and give back then fuck yeah, more power to you.
“What can you do for people that’s not just fucking selling clothes?”
Were there skate companies or brands you were drawn to as a kid?
I was mad drawn to board companies like Antihero and Krooked. I remember when I was a kid, going back-to-school shopping going at the skate shop, my mom would let me pick out three shirts. It would usually be Antihero — I was a massive fan of John Cardiel and Andrew Reynolds. I would buy into anything those dudes did.
What was the genesis of the Babylon logo?
I used to do graffiti — I mean, I still tag shit, like a sick freak who can’t stop. But you’d have problems with someone and you’d just put a big ass, upside down peace sign over their shit. It would just be war all the time. So I adapted that into our shit and it just kinda stuck forever. I hope that one day the Babylon logo and the upside down peace sign and burning palm tree are up there with a Stüssy logo or a Spitfire logo, but who am I to say? I get so hyped when kids show us their tattoos of the upside down peace sign or show up with it spray painted on the back of their jacket. It’s everyone’s. It’s like, take it and do what you want with it.
Does that logo help remind you of what it was like to be a kid?
Whenever I have a horrible day or some shit I can just come here, watch a bunch of kids skate, and realize the world is not as bad as I think it is. Like, these kids have no cares in the world. They’re just fuckin’ themselves, comfortable in their own skins. As you get older you have so many more things to deal with. The shop for sure helps me get back down to ground level and realize that what I think is the end of the world is not actually the end of the world.
Interview: Jeff Weiss
Photography: Christian Werner