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'A long time commitment': Nightlight lives on through Triangle music community

lifestyle-nightlight-closing-legacy

In 2021, the dance floor of the Nightlight venue was often filled with fog and experimental tracks from a live performer. The floor, separated from the bar by a black curtain, provided a communal experience where dancers could exist in their own worlds.

When the "DIY venue" began hosting shows at 405 ½ W. Rosemary St. in 2003, the dance floor had to be cleared of the booths and bookshelves from the store that operated in the space during the day. The bar was a cooler that co-founders Isaac Trogdon and Lauren Ford would fill with beers, and volunteers operated the sound and manned the door. 

“Nightlight sort of took over a cultural space filled by people doing stuff in their living rooms,” Nightlight’s current co-owner, Ethan Clauset said.

But today, the venue itself is empty — faulty plumbing, a roof in need of repairs and an increase in rent resulted in what Clauset called "a void" in the Triangle’s experimental music scene.

In 2022, Nightlight’s co-owners, Clauset and Charlie Hearon, stopped hosting events at the venue as they navigated discussions with their landlords about rent and repairs. 

This January, about 18 months later, they officially moved their things out of Nightlight.

The alleyway leading to its entrance, which once belonged to other notable Chapel Hill music venues that have since relocated or closed like Cat’s Cradle and Rhythm Alley, is still as brightly painted as it was in 2003, and still covered in decades of graffiti. 

There are colorful posters plastered above a wooden bench facing the venue’s front door, and the Nightlight sign still juts out from the bright pink building.

And people like Clauset and Hearon are still filling the void, even if it’s not currently in 405 ½ W. Rosemary St.

‘Anything Goes’

When Trogdon was a student at UNC in the early 2000s, he lived in a bedroom in the basement of a house on Mallette Street, where the alternative music scene was right outside his door. 

He was inspired to start Nightlight after studying abroad in Berlin. He wanted to create a space for electronic, experimental and, above all, danceable music.

“It was about bringing the energy and sharing it, but it was also about sort of having a kind of clubhouse for like-minded people,” he said.

By day, the space was the Skylight Exchange, a sandwich shop that sold books, records, CDs and tapes. By night, it was a dance club, accentuated by the occasional bookshelf loaded with sci-fi paperbacks.

Nightlight’s initial goal was to provide a space for people who wanted access to music outside of the well-established rock scene in Chapel Hill, Hearon said.

“It came out of a need for something a little different than what other venues were up to,” he said.

Over the past two decades, shows at the Nightlight ranged from regular DJ nights to music that implemented performance art to old-time string bands, internationally-recognized experimental artists and groups formed by local musicians

The venue encouraged anything local and experimental, Ford said, and adopted an “anything goes” spirit. 

“Ryan and I would often talk about how much we love to be surprised,” she said. “That was another element of the joy of being a witness of what we were doing at Nightlight, was just that feeling of being surprised.”

Casey Proctor, a Carrboro musician and a member of the band Verity Den, said that Nightlight was a safe space that allowed for people to go to dangerous places with their music.

“The club provided a home base for people to perform and to be inspired to perform,” Clauset said.

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Ryan Martin became Nightlight’s first intern in 2004, and, later that year, became co-owners with Ford until 2006.

Martin now owns the experimental music label Hot Releases, and often organized or performed in shows at Nightlight.

For him, Nightlight was an ideal and unique venue for niche genres and bands with a smaller following, particularly because it did not require upfront fees from artists prior to shows. 

“I found that the best way to build creative communities or to foster people doing creative stuff, it’s usually in like places that are not bars," Martin said. "It's places like people's houses or warehouses or just places that aren't like commercial venues, because it becomes a bit more accessible.”

In 2006, Alexis Mastromichalis took over ownership of Nightlight, bringing more partnerships with local programs, artists and other venues to the club. 

Throughout her time as owner, Mastromichalis worked to ensure that Nightlight was an artsy, loving and safe space for all ages, cultures, sexualities and races.

Mastromichalis, a dancer, founded the SoundScape festival in 2006, which took place across nine venues in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area and encouraged collaboration between dancers, musicians and multimedia artists.

She strove to promote interdisciplinary art at Nightlight, a tradition that carried on through poetry readings and community-based events when Clauset and Hearon took over ownership in 2012.

‘Long-time commitment’

Since 2022, a portion of Nightlight’s usual roster of events have been moved to Clauset and Hearon’s record store, All Day Records, either in the Carrboro store’s front window or its back parking lot.

One such event is the Paradiso Reading Series, co-founded by Laura Jaramillo and Marta Núñez Pouzols in 2018. Both poets were already participants in the Nightlight community, and found it to be the perfect venue for writers and musicians to connect.

“Even amongst all the DIY spaces that I've been familiar with, Nightlight is very, very unique,” Jaramillo said. “And I think that partially it's that it's run by people who have a really long time commitment to being here.”

Clauset and Hearon began their relationship with Nightlight in 2003 as volunteers when they would help out with sound, staff training or creating posters for shows. 

“You’ve got to do the things that you want to happen in your town,” Hearon said.

'A germ of a hope'

When Martin first heard about Nightlight closing in 2022, he was inside the venue hosting the tenth annual Savage Weekend, a festival of non-stop noise and underground music played in 15-minute sets from a range of local and international artists.

He said that he did not feel a sense of finality when it was initially announced, and there was still a “germ of a hope” that the venue would be back to hosting shows soon.

Clauset and Hearon’s negotiations with the building’s landlords involved various solutions for repairing the building’s sewer line and replacing its roof, including raising money to make the repairs themselves in exchange for a reduced rent, or buying the space itself.

Clauset said they are actively seeking other locations for the venue, which has proved difficult due to the market rate, rent and short age of buildings.

"It's really luck that the music scene was able to exist here from the 80s to the 2000s, but it's going to be squeezed out of existence over the next decade or two unless performance venues are able to purchase their venues," Clauset said.

Even now, the community that used Nightlight as a gathering space is alive in the Triangle.

Paradiso still hosts readings in the front window of All Day Records. The Cave has picked up shows from artists that Nightlight used to host. Martin often holds shows at his own house.

"I have hope that because there are people here that still think that having a space like that is important that [the community will] figure out a way to make it happen again," Proctor said.

@eliza_benbow

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com


Eliza Benbow

Eliza Benbow is the 2023-24 lifestyle editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer university editor. Eliza is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and creative writing, with a minor in Hispanic studies.