I can’t even remember how I heard about Sofar Sounds but the volunteer-run music organization that boasts secret gigs in 100+ cities around the world is no doubt fulfilling their mission of bringing the magic back to live music. And, well, they had me at secret gigs. While the advance planning of attending a concert is sometimes favorable, we also need to throw that all out the window once in awhile, step out of our comfort zone, and see what happens. I was pleasantly surprised when I decided to roll with it, RSVP online, await my day-of email confirmation for concert details and boom! I was ready for my first Sofar Sounds show. What I discovered was priceless: Los Angeles blues, roots-rock trio The Diamond Light. Their soulful performance featured spine-tingling harmonies that still ring in my head to this day. And the fancy pants Glendale banquet room was transformed into a cozy space with twinkling, low lights and attendees sitting side-by-side on the floor, spellbound in front of the band.
Other Sofar Sounds Los Angeles gigs have included artists such as The Colourist, Caught a Ghost, Avid Dancer, The Dead Ships, and James Davis, just to name a few. They have also featured special performances by larger, well-known acts such as Hozier and Karen O. There’s no telling what you may see or hear next, but with a Sofar show, chances are it’ll be awesome.
With a little research and chatting with Sofar volunteers, I soon discovered that this platform for showcasing emerging talent and developing musical communities in a “think locally, act globally” format, stemmed from the genius brains of two London music fans; one of them being co-founder Rafe Offer. I chatted with Offer to learn more about the early beginnings and future of Sofar Sounds, peculiar performance spaces, boss London artists, his impression of Los Angeles and more.
GG: You are one of the founders of Sofar Sounds. Tell us a little about yourself and your co-founder…how did you two get together and what inspired you to start Sofar Sounds?
RO: I am from Chicago. After school I worked in advertising in New York City before moving to LA to work in Marketing for Disney. Eventually I moved to London to try life abroad, that’s where I came up with the idea for Sofar. Still live here, with my wife and two teenage girls. Co-founder Rocky Start (real name!) is from London. Had a ‘posh’ upbringing where we went to school with Kate Middleton. First job was editing a Brighton-based City-Happenings magazine (like Timeout). He then became a consultant into the drinks business and subsequently entrepreneur with his wife Lucy, co-running her designer jewelry business. He and his wife live back in London with their young daughter.
We met through family connections because my father and Rocky’s grandfather wrote a book together years ago. We bonded through a love of music. I was at a gig in London in 2009 that we came up with the idea. Frustrated by a room full of people talking and drinking instead of actually listening to the music, we decided to bring the music to our houses and ask people to just listen.
GG: Sofar shows began in London in 2009 and it has since expanded to include volunteer run performances in 100+ cities around the globe. Tell us, is it all part of your plan for world musical domination? How did you connect and establish Sofar in other cities so quickly in a matter of six years?
RO: It was never intended to be in more than one city! We started it purely as a hobby, wanting selfishly to enjoy music with friends. After it got going in London, I started wondering if this was a problem in other cities. So I called a friend in Paris and another in New York and asked if they’d experiment with this idea in a living room there. They did and it worked, so we kept going. It spread because of YouTube and social media – people around the world started asking if they could start Sofar in their cities too. We interviewed people over Skype. We posted videos. It snowballed. We were surprised as anyone else.
Today we feel we are part of a movement to continue this work – bringing ‘magic’ back to live music because that’s what happens in intimate spaces with good music. Also included in this is the desire to truly help new musicians get a boost. Our global network enables us to spread the word.
GG: How do you go about finding performance spaces around London, as well as other Sofar cities? Which has been the most interesting space to host a show?
RO: At the end of most shows we ask the audience if they’d like to host. Most nights we get a few interested people. People also get in touch through our website. Houses are interesting no matter what – such a delightful and cozy vibe. However, we did do one in a carpet store in Paris that felt like Ali Babba’s cove, and a Tee-Pee in Austin.
GG: Sofar focuses on small, intimate living room style performances. What do you feel is the most important thing that sets that style of performance apart from larger shows at big music venues?
RO: You are in a home or quirky space and so you are curious about it – who lives or works here? You wouldn’t have ever been here otherwise so feels like a ‘one off’ chance to experience something new. And no one is pushing you to buy alcohol nor fight lines to get in. Plus the focus once the gig starts is just on the music – you rarely get that in traditional venues.
GG: What’s the worst music experience you’ve ever had in a large music venue?
RO: When I went to see Radiohead awhile back in London, I couldn’t see the band because the space was flat (in a big field), the sound system was awful. It was raining. And the only glimpse I got was on a TV screen high above the ground. I might as well have been home.
GG: Who are your three favorite local London artists and why?
RO: Reeps One – A beat-boxer who redefines the genre with his ‘house’ style. Usually he plays for 10,000 people but at Sofar he ‘plays’ unplugged, which is truly unique.
Wolf Alice – For her sheer rock n’ roll swagger, and the songs – glorious and memorable anthems.
Norma Jean Martine – She’s from New York but has lived in London for a few years. A cross between Amy Winehouse and Adele. Riveting; a rising star.
GG: What’s the most memorable Sofar show you’ve ever attended?
RO: Sofar Istanbul. We were looking over the sea and listening to Mosque noises in the background – it all felt so exotic! And yet, it felt like Sofar and the room itself could have been London, LA or anywhere. It was then I realized musicians and music fans are the same, everywhere.
GG: You recently visited and attended a Sofar show here in Los Angeles. What was your impression of LA?
RO: So utterly unexpected – you have the glamour and yet it looks very normal. This crazy mix of beautiful people, true characters and skid row – mixed with hills, flatland, desolate urban spaces and stunning views of the water. Hard to process it all. Probably takes years to truly get it.
GG: Sofar Sounds has been part of the Los Angeles music community for four years and has since built up quite a following. Does it make you proud to to see the Sofar concept develop and grow in the hands of volunteers here in the City of Angels?
RO: For sure! LA has such an incredible music scene and diversity of things to do. I’m honored and amazed that it’s actually ‘part of the scenery’ and hope it makes an impact, helping LA musicians get more awareness around the world via our network.
GG: What are the latest and greatest things we can expect from Sofar Sounds?
RO: More surprise appearances! We had Hozier play Sofar Manchester late last year and Karen O play New York. While we are focused on new music / emerging talent, a better known act helps the lesser known acts get discovered.
Meanwhile, more cities – we are adding one new city each month – soon Phoenix and Helsinki. Still kinda surreal.
Finally, we are starting to ticket in some cities. It’s mostly ‘pay what you want’ – but it will give us a chance to sustain and grow what we do. We were purely ‘pass the hat’ for four years but with all we have to do that is not enough to keep up with what people want. So we’re experimenting!
Words/Interview: Emily Saex
To learn more about Sofar Sounds, check out their website here.
To learn more about Sofar Sounds Los Angeles and to RSVP for their upcoming gigs on June 17th and June 27th click here.
The Diamond Light – “Fever Dream” at Sofar Los Angeles
The Colourist – “Wishing Wells” at Sofar Los Angeles
Hozier – “From Eden” at Sofar Manchester
Karen O. (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs) – “Rapt” at Sofar New York