The smell of burned glue filled the U Street Music Hall on Monday night. Fallen glasses lined the floor behind the bar. A bottle of Ketel One crashed from the shelf.
“Dude, we just knocked the liquor license off the wall,” said DJ Will Eastman, one of the owners of the recently opened club.
Moments later, DJ Jesse Tittsworth, Eastman’s main business partner, was blowing bubbles.
We were there on what otherwise would’ve been a dark night for the club, testing the limits of its sound system by seeing whether it could move physical objects—pieces of paper, stacks of cups, piles of glitter, a rubber ball, a Radio Flyer wagon taken from Washington City Paper’s storage closet. And bubbles. Lots of bubbles. This is what passes for excess in the rarefied sphere of bass-happy audiophiles.
“This is what the First World’s about,” said Adam Weiner, a co-owner of Innovative Transducer Implementation who helped install and maintains the music hall’s sound system. “You don’t get to do this in the Third World.”
“This is a step away from Caligula right here,” said Brian Miller, another U Hall partner, who designed the space.
That the club sports some serious bass—it devotes about 17,500 watts to just the 65Hz-and-below range—is both a source of amusement and a challenge. Much of the DJing equipment now sits on padding; after the club opened last month, DJs noticed that their gear was vibrating across the soundboard. Some of the bartenders complained, too, Miller said, which means they’ll soon be adding some fencing to the bar’s shelves.
But as his Red Stripe danced across the main surface in the DJ booth, Eastman could only smile—a combination of benevolent, almost fatherly, amusement and wicked inspiration.
Early on, Weiner leaned over to hold a tissue to one of the subwoofers that emerges from beneath the venue’s large DJ booth. “It’s OK, I’m already wasted,” he said, referring to the most obvious collateral damage of playing with sound for a living—his hearing. “Hold your head up anyway,” said Tittsworth.
He hit a series of deep notes in a touchtone program on his laptop, causing the tissue to vibrate before breaking in two. We smelled glue, a sure sign that, mere minutes into our experiment, we had to give the woofers a rest. I asked Weiner and his business partner Bill McClure if they were there to facilitate the evening’s games or make sure Eastman and Tittsworth didn’t blow out the system. They said both.
Tittsworth played a few songs—a new cut from the D.C. DJ duo Nadastrom, and one of his own beats—but mostly released pure, deep bass. The effect was as hard on the ears—those of us not wearing earplugs had to muffle our heads with our hands—as the chest and stomach. “It changes your breathing and everything,” Tittsworth said. “That’s fucked up.” Sometimes when the bass is pumping, he said, “your eyeballs are being rattled in your skull.”
Later, we attempted to knock over cups—easy, depending on the spot on the bar. Glitter wasn’t a problem, either, until Eastman declared that it had gunked up a bubble-blowing contraption that Tittsworth had bought at CVS earlier that night. “We need a gabba gabba public service announcement,” Eastman said. “Glitter and bubbles do not mix.”
The final test involved a concoction of water and corn syrup that Miller was particularly excited about—he had hoped, earlier in the evening, to place it atop a woofer so that we could see the vibrations move through liquid.
Later, we made Miller’s elixir bubble and ooze on a tipped-over trashcan placed in front of a subwoofer. Tittsworth ran around from behind the DJ booth to see what he had wrought: “Was it like some Terminator 2 shit?”
Photo and video by Ted Scheinman