It was bitterly cold last Thursday night, but a sandwich board outside of Sunnyvale promised: “Free shot if you prove you went to Pumps!” Aside from the strip club, some lonely looking art studios, and hot corn smells emitting from the tortilla factory, there’s not much nightlife at this industrial edge of East Williamsburg. But walking inside the multi-purpose venue that opened its doors earlier this month, I didn’t find a throng of strip club patrons clutching lap dance receipts (which they probably thought were only good for “business lunch” write-offs until now) and clamoring for oversized pours of Jose Cuervo. Thankfully.
Instead, I happened on a warm, inviting bar– one that’s sophisticated enough so you can have an after-work drink without feeling like a scumbag, but not so much that you’d mistake the place for having any airs. Even better, Sunnyvale is what co-owner Alexandra Lukens calls “a professional-grade venue with the spirit of a DIY space.”
And yet, there’s much more than just a DIY feeling here, or the ghosts of DIY past. Sunnyvale’s home inside the solid block of a brick building at 1031 Grand Street was once the boiler room section of a “pre-1900” paper and lithography factory. But more recently, it was a gritty DIY venue called Delinquency. “I used to do sound there,” said Tim Pioppo, another co-owner and Sunnyvale’s general manager. “It was a summer.” Eventually, Delinquency was shut down by the cops.
“We had to start from absolute scratch,” Tim recalled. Pretty much everything was built by hand, from the stage, to the bar, and the cushy benches that line the walls. “So it’s literally a DIY space,” Lukens said.
It’s a fitting past, seeing that Sunnyvale is essentially one pocket of the DIY community’s first born baby– the six core partners have put some backbreaking effort into making sure everything at their pride-and-joy is just so. Almost everyone here draws either a direct line to at least one DIY space or a meandering zigzag through many over the years.
“I was involved in sound, then I started booking, and playing music and that’s how I got involved in this,” Pioppo explained. He was involved at the Bushwick DIY space Cheap Storage, among others. Pioppo and Lukens, as well as a couple of other staff members, play in The Love Supreme, a 14-strong soul/psych/garage band.
Lukens guessed that she’s been involved in the DIY scene for some eight years. “I started out at the old Silent Barn, I lived at Market Hotel, I lived at Cheap Storage with Tim and I worked there, I worked at 285 Kent, Monster Island. All the old stuff.” After dipping in and out of the city for a while, Lukens finally settled on Sunnyvale. “I wanted to find a way to do this professionally,” she said.
Pioppo claimed responsibility for bringing in the slew of core staff members, all of whom contribute their own special expertise drawn from a DIY upbringing of some kind. John Weingarten, a member of Psychic TV, deals with tech and hospitality, while Conor Brook, an actor, manages the bar, drawing from his background in the “high-end cocktail world.” And then there’s Jesse Green, the master carpenter whose hand is all over Sunnyvale. “He builds fucking everything,” Lukens said.
The only partner who’s not connected to music or DIY in any real sense is Dr. Pooyan Aslani, a professor of engineering at NYU who owns Cafe Nadery, the Iranian ex-pat hangout in Greenwich Village. Aslani takes care of the business and paperwork side of the operation. “We call him the LLC Overlord,” Lukens explained. “He’s the adult here.” But Tim emphasized that all the partners held equal sway at Sunnyvale. “Everyone here is an investor by sweat or by cash,” he said.
Having an adult around has certainly given Sunnyvale a hint of refinement, though you’d be crazy to call it fancy. Basically anything that’s not so amazing about DIY venues, Sunnyvale has banished or learned to do better. But everything there is to love about grungy little show spaces has been lovingly preserved. “We’re trying to make it a fun space, but not a shit-show, or dangerous or illegal,” Tim explained. “It’s absurdly fireproof.” In fact, the venue bled out a horrifying amount of cash to cover the walls in special fireproof paint. “It costs $180 a gallon,” Tim said, clearly pained.
At 2,500 square feet, Sunnyvale feels sprawling, and unless there’s a show, you probably won’t ever have to worry about finding a seat (in which case you should be standing anyway). It’s one of the very few venues in the North Brooklyn area (besides Market Hotel) that has earned both the “big” and “cool” badges of honor. “The opening was absolutely, phenomenally packed,” Lukens recalled. “But never uncomfortable.”
The lengthy wood bar is lacquered-up enough that it could be used as a slip-n’-slide. At the same time, the auxiliary tables and benches are far enough from said bar that your awkward Tinder date is guaranteed out of earshot and you’re assured safety from the freaking hooligans who think it’s a good idea to belly flop onto the bar. (No confirmation any of this has actually happened. Yet.) This isn’t your typical boxy venue, either– it’s wide open, for sure, but there are little nooks and corners that make for a more dynamic space. There’s a charming sort of disarray thanks to clashing bar stools and mismatching lamps (some have lost a few stained glass pieces, but it’s cute, kind of like a kid missing a tooth or something). Among the trinkets perched behind the bar are a framed photo of Ricky and Julian (characters from the Sunnyvale’s patron TV show, Trailer Park Boys), a sequined Santa Muerte statuette, and a bizarre figurine that seems to shape shift between one particularly offensive Star Wars character and a souvenir from Jamaica.
As ready for raging as Sunnyvale may feel, they’re not quite finished. “We’re still building out every day,” Tim admitted. And that food menu, well, it’s gonna be a while. Apparently the space they planned to use for their kitchen wasn’t as big as they’d anticipated.
Nevertheless, Sunnyvale’s first show opened the venue with a bang and offered a hint of what’s to come. Cassie Ramone (née Vivian Girls) DJ’d while Genesis P-Orridge and Psychic TV’s drummer Edley ODowd presented their “hyperdelic” DJ set. In the near future look for shows featuring bands like Conflict from the UK (they’re having a reunion show here in March) and a monthly installment called “Granny Takes Another Trip” headed by Genesis P-Orridge and ODowd. Alexandria described the recurring event as “Genesis doing whatever the fuck s/he wants to do.”
In fact, as Tim said, there’s more than a small chance you’ll see someone from Psychic TV whenever you walk in the doors at Sunnyvale. “We’re like the Psychic TV bar at this point,” he laughed.
Recently, Genesis paid a visit. “S/he just wanted a quiet place to drink her vodka, so we made her the Genesis P-Orridge Commemorative Vodka Closet. S/he sat here–” Alexandria pointed to a little room adjacent to the bar, cordoned off by a curtain– “with a bottle of vodka and a bottle of orange juice on a filing cabinet and s/he would occasionally pull the curtain back and go, ‘The guitar’s too loud.'”
“Now that’s DIY,” Tim said.
As far as booking goes, Sunnyvale shares a master calendar with some other local venues like Bossa Nova and Market Hotel, which they venue will be teaming up with to do exchanges. “If we want to throw a bigger show and we can’t fit it here, we’ll do ‘Sunnyvale Presents’ at Market Hotel or ‘Bossa Nova Presents’ at Sunnyvale,” Alexandria explained. “Again, it’s big-time collaboration, no more competition. We’re all friends with each other from many years back.”
“That’s one of the ideas we’ve been really inspired by– there’s no reason for the smaller venues to compete,” Tim added.
And events aren’t just limited to music. Sunnyvale has its first burlesque show lined up for Tuesday, March 9 (led by Dotty, a dancer at Pumps). There are also comedy showcases, movie screenings, and karaoke events on the docket. The venue even hosted a screening of the premiere of Scorsese’s HBO show, Vinyl. “We’re eclectic but curatorial,” Tim said.
“It’s not any one thing,” Alexandria chimed in. “We’re not an indie venue, and we’re not Bossa Nova’s tech stuff.”
Sunnyvale is also making an effort to run their business with the people who make it all happen in mind– the musicians, the patrons, and of course the staff. The backline, or the instruments and equipment available for bands to use, is stocked with exceedingly nice stuff. “Everything there is meticulously maintained, there’s a Fender Deluxe, a premiere drum kit,” Tim said, listing off a number of fancy instruments, speakers, and a killer recording system. “That’s in the interest of making it as easy and fun as possible for people to play here.”
Before the calendar is completely packed, it’s not a bad idea to saddle up to one of those mismatched barstools with a pal or two and order yourselves a couple glasses of “I Am The Liquor,” a highly potent potable that, at about 2.5 drinks worth of booze, “will get you fucked up,” Tim declared. “It’s basically a trailer park Long Island Iced Tea.” I nodded, not really knowing what that means, but also knowing exactly what that means.
See menu below.
Sunnyvale is located at 132 Grand Street in East Williamsburg. Check Facebook for events.