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Friday, August 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chop Suey embraces techno, plugs into success

Seattle Times staff reporter

How do you know when a club has arrived? The greatest single sign — more legit than a radio station's crowing, far more sincere than the glam-crowd's studied posing, better even than limos lined up in front — that a Seattle nightspot is the real deal: A hot-dog vendor sets up shop outside. They can sniff the sweet smell of success, these vendors, and top it with onions.

This spring, Chop Suey was given the official "hot-spot" stamp when Sifellah Bachir started selling dogs and sausages outside the Capitol Hill club. It had to happen sooner or later, as the Chop has been drawing huge crowds for bookings ranging from touring acts — like DJ Spooky, the experimental jazz/hip-hop fusionist who flashes his intelligent skills on Saturday — to top-notch local bands.

If you're into diverse music and diverse crowds, this is the place.

Yet earlier this year, the club was in mass confusion ... indeed, it looked like Chop Suey might be destined to become a Chinese restaurant. Linda Derschang and her two partners who launched the club — converting the punk/indie rock house Breakroom into an attractive, multi-use club just a year before — abruptly sold the Capitol Hill club, off to open a new place (the Battery Bar, soon to be open in Belltown).

"The reason I came here was to work with Linda, so I was pretty bummed," recalls Steven Severin, the Chop Suey booker; he had previously worked at RKCNDY, which closed while he was there, and I-Spy, which closed shortly after he jumped ship to Chop Suey. Would he become known as a serial club killer?

The original Chop Suey owners sold the club to Chris Dasef, the proprietor of Pioneer Square's Temple Billiards who had, in terms of true nightclub experience ... well, Temple Billiards. Then, Quentin Ertel, the club's general manager, jumped ship to join Derschang and company.

A dazed Severin was walking down Pike Street when he crossed paths with Frank Nieto, one of the Crocodile Cafe booking agents. "I asked him if he knew anyone good who would want to be our G.M. He said, 'Yeah, me.' "

And so, pretty much just like that, the humble and well-liked Nieto left what many would feel to be a dream job, booking local bands into Seattle's best rock club, for the challenge of joining a new team. Nieto's presence gave the new Chop Suey instant credibility. Severin's solid reputation for booking national DJ's and electronic acts combined with Nieto's grasp of the local scene made a strong duo.

"I never was able to get a show here," said Dolour's Shane Tutmarc, after a recent performance at Chop Suey. "Then, when Frank came over, I got a show right away."

Jason Holstrom of Wonderful — and its popular side project, United State of Electronica — says that band did its CD-release show at Chop Suey "mainly because they were the ones who called us up and wanted to build a bill around a Wonderful show. We like it there, it's good looking, and they have a really friendly sound staff."

"Chop Suey is the only saving grace in Seattle for high fidelity music since I-Spy shut down," says Bre Loughlin, singer of the Seattle trip-hop band Kuma. "Steven has pulled in acts like LadyTron, Supreme Beings of Leisure, Broadcast, and Goldfrapp. ... The world adores such acts, but Chop Suey seems to be the only venue in Seattle to embrace bands with electronic and DJ components. Steven has taken a chance with us from the beginning. I understand that successful booking has to be about the numbers, but it seems that he has also managed creative booking, business sense, and a belief that there needs to be a home in Seattle for electronic and technology-based music."

As for the new owner, he has made a few minor but helpful changes, raising the floor in the bar area to create better sight lines, improving the lighting, etc. Mostly, he has stayed out of the way of his dynamic duo. "I give him all the credit," Dasef says of Severin.

This week's lineup is an excellent example of the club's diversity. London drum-and-bass star MJ Cole spins underground garage beats — with live vocalists — to the former auto-parts shop tonight (10 o'clock, $10). New York's acclaimed DJ Spooky, aka "That Subliminal Kid," does his thing on Saturday (10 p.m., $12); Spooky is a DJ-turntablist-producer-musician with an ever-searching experimental spirit that often finds him melding jazz and hip-hop in profound ways; live, you never know if he's going to play the turntables, a laptop or a stand-up bass (or all of the above). Sunday (9 p.m., $7), it's straight-up local hip-hop with the "Yo Son!" crew — break dancers, DJ's DV One and Scene, and guest MCs.

Monday (9 p.m., $6), Chop Suey hosts what will be one of the best rock shows of the year — albeit under horrifically sad circumstances. The Briefs, the Girls, Rotten Apples, Earaches and a handful of other top local punkers will perform in a salute to the Exploding Hearts, the Portland pop-punk band recently devastated by a van crash that killed three of the four members.

Venezuelan DJ Kid606 mans the decks with his fusion of techno and punk on Wednesday (10 p.m., $10), then local band the Drop 6 rocks hard on Thursday (9 p.m., $6).

The varied bookings draw what is perhaps Seattle's most diverse club crowds; while the rock shows are, like most local rock shows, predominantly white, the DJ and especially hip-hop nights bring out a variegated house. The "Yo Son!" nights (produced by Stuck Under the Needle) are in many ways Seattle nightlife at its finest.

With DJs DV One and Scene spinning and b-boys pumping up the crowd, "Yo Son!" has become one of the best things to happen to Sunday nights since "The Simpsons." By 11, the club is usually packed to capacity, with a long line waiting to enter.

"I've been here before on Sunday nights, it's always a good vibe," Kristen Young, a 23-year-old waitress at the Paragon, was saying a few nights ago, as DJ Scene warmed up the early-night crowd.

Young's friend and co-worker, Heather West, eyed up the place with a typical former-New Yorker's gaze: "It looks good ... but it's a little too much red lights for me. I mean, sometimes you want to see who you're talking to!"

Gyasi Ross, coincidentally now living in New York after many years here, took a break from a chess game with his friend DV One to analyze the club. "I think it's dope," the 28-year-old attorney stated. "I like the ambience — it's a lounge feel, not a real club kind of place."

The linebacker-sized Native American was dressed casually, his braids falling over a white sweatshirt, and said he liked the fact that Chop Suey is not a flashy, dress-to-impress type place. "The females are good," he said, watching intently as ladies of varying hues streamed in. "It's not the flesh-showing kind of crowd ... but they're good."

Bachir, the hot-dog man, is more interested in size — appetite size, that is. "Sunday is always good," he says, grilling another sausage outside the club. "Sunday crowds, they like spicy."

Fittingly enough, as Chop Suey itself is spicing up the Seattle nightline.

The club's Web site is www.chopsuey.com.

Tom Scanlon: tscanlon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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