A group of people dressed in black and platform boots smoke cigarettes near the corner of 11th and Harrison in San Francisco. For someone just passing by, it can be an intimidating scene. But they’re not causing trouble; they’re actually standing outside what is quite possibly the most tolerant and accepting nightclub in San Francisco, Death Guild.
“We get people in business suits, we get people in preppy clothes, we get people in gothic clothes, we get people in fetish clothes,” says Brian Von Reber. “Basically, anything you can dream of, it's here.”
Von Reber checks coats at Death Guild and says he’s been here since its very first night in 1992. The club started as a showcase for alternative music, including Goth, Industrial, and Noise music. For Von Reber and many others, Death Guild is a family where you can find a home, even if you’re a person who isn’t used to fitting in.
“The people that have been coming for a long time, we’re all sort of broken machines to varying degrees,” says Von Reber. He says Death Guild regulars often relate to each other because of this feeling. “We can dance and sort of forget everything that made us broken,” he says.
Inside the DNA Lounge is dark and almost foggy. The music is loud and pulsing. To some it might seem chaotic, but it feels safe. People dance on a stage, and a suspended balcony surrounds the perimeter. The vibe creates a sort of collective energy. People dance with finesse and grace. It’s cathartic, but hard to get used to at first.
Colin Barton, a Death Guild regular, explains the different styles of dancing and music. “Classic Goth,” he says, “which is every thing from 80s to modern, [is] often called Swirly Goth.” That explains some of the people swirling around to the music. Barton is more of an Industrial music fan, though. He describes that as “aggressive pounding electronic music.” It’s a style of music that matches his preferred style of dancing, which he calls, Industrial dancing.
The people at Death Guild go out of their way to connect with both regulars and newcomers. Nobody at the club acts dismissive and that’s possibly because the people who go Death Guild aren’t normal club-goers. Some are shy, some are misanthropic, and many of them consider themselves nonconformists. For them, this is the only place where they can be assured to talk with other people in a friendly environment.
DJ Decay, or DK, is responsible for creating and sustaining the mood. He’s also one of Death Guild’s founders and promoters, and the night manager for the DNA Lounge. He’s a tall and broad figure, with a partially shaved head and red-colored braids cascading down his back. He wears tall black boots and a black sweater.
King bought the club in 1992. He says there’s an ongoing debated with another club in London, called Slimenight, about which is the oldest Goth/Industrial club in the world. King knows where he stands in that debate. “As far as having a cohesive night that has been consistent on a weekly basis through out the years I think Death Guild has them beat,” he says.
The way King runs it, the environment is intentionally low key – and he doesn’t care for stereotypical labels. “I look at Death Guild as something that encompasses anything that is alternative,” he says. In fact, King has put his philosophy into words in and an unfinished history of the club on its website:
“It was home for the disposed, the oppressed, the truly absurd in mind and appearance, those who didn’t give a damn and just wanted to dance to Gothic, industrial and alternative eighties all night. Or to those who wanted to drink all night to forget and even some who wanted to remember. We had everyone from the sub-cultures represented. It was a sanctuary to those who sought such.”
The black-clad smokers out front of the DNA Lounge are part of a 20-year anti-authoritarian tradition at Death Guild; but don’t let the dark Goth atmosphere throw you. This is an alt club that’s for everyone.