By Lisa Robins
“I am a Micro Stage with a lot of Macro Magic. I travel far and wide, with the help of That Guy (my assistant), to bring performers of all kinds, and kind performer watchers together in whatever space we can all fit together in (just about anywhere).”
Music Box Micro Stage, created by the one and only Billy Stobo, celebrated its 100th show on Friday, August 27th on the sand in Venice. Live music with supremely talented local musicians, outside, free, with an eclectic audience of locals and lucky travelers cheering, dancing—doing whatever we wanna do…what could be better? Isn’t this why we moved to Venice?
I became a Music Box devotee near the tail end of the lockdown, (last March), right after my first Pfizer shot. Stir crazy from being isolated for so long, yet socially rested, I ventured out to Windward, in front of a dark and empty Townhouse, across the street from our old haunt, Surfside. It felt like a ghost town, except for a gaggle of Venetians gathered around the “Box”, which resembles an old-fashioned phone booth with just enough room for one talented musician to fit inside. Other musicians fanned out before them. I saw (and even hugged!) friends who had been in hiding from Covid. We ate up the incredible music which ranged from balladeers to indie punk. MusicBox was my pearl of the pandemic.
I had the good fortune to interview the multi talented Billy Stobo, who created the Music Box Micro Stage scene during the depths of the Covid lockdown. Billy can sing and play anything! I’ve seen him sing Scottish ballads, punk, rock—I’ve heard him play the guitar, the drums and probably much more. In addition to being an unbelievably talented artist, he’s one hell of a producer.
Is this Friday really your 100th show???
“Yes, how odd is that? 100 shows in Venice. It’s magical and fortuitous.”
Billy’s lived all over California—born in Redondo Beach, attended high school in the Bay area. But his whole family came from Scotland. He has “A slew of brothers and sisters … 5, but who knows? Dad’s a merchant marine”. He’s a bit older than he looks (or acts) When I asked how old, he replied, “I was at the Summer Of Love”.
Where’d you learn how to play and sing like that? “Drums came first.” His Dad was a snare drummer in military Pipe Bands in the Royal Air Force…in kilts! Billy had sticks around as a kid, but lacked formal training as a musician. Although he had a musician father and grandmother (on the other side), Billy doesn’t even read music. He started playing for real in his late teens/early 20’s. He’d been a jock, (played baseball and soccer)—had a toe injury, got bored. A friend in a band said “Hey, I heard you sing.” He figured out how to play guitar. Would sit in his room and play songs. “Then the Rock and Roll got on me like a stink”. He finally had own band and made some records.
Did you perform a lot of gigs before Music Box??
Billy’s band, Golden Buddha, has been around since 1989. Earth Day 1990 at LMU was their first show. They mostly booked themselves- traveled in Europe in the 90’s for eight months per year by getting a major gig to get themselves over there—other gigs would follow. Billy was in other bands, including his own underground band, Stobo Band, in the early 2000’s. They booked pivotal gigs in Europe like the Montrose Jazz Fest, which led to other festivals, and big shows in the US, including Burning Man and Lalapalooza. It “Imploded when our drummer stopped living.” He refocused on Golden Buddha.
Billy had met Michael Jost in the early 2000’s through a mutual admiration for each other’s bands. They were involved musically and as friends. When the Stobo Band disbanded under tragic circumstances, Jost “gave support in hard times.” Billy considers himself Radio Venice’s “Biggest supporter”. Although he lived in Venice in the early 2000’s for a couple years, he was previously more involved in the Silverlake/Hollywood scenes. He considers Michael the “Kingpin” of whatever musical scene is going on in Venice, beyond just being a musician hosting Radio Venice. Billy respects and admires Jost’s persistence, and wants to be sure to credit him with what he’s doing now.
Throughout the 90’s and beginning of 2000’s Billy was a touring and traveling musician. He shifted from “night crawler/musician” to something more reliable to support his daughter, who’s now 13 and lives with her mom. I asked, “Is your daughter into music?” Billy responds, she’s “Talented -gifted ..I think she’s gonna rule the world someday…willed herself into learning Chinese- reading writing and speaking…maybe a lawyer someday”.
Billy’s trade is a finish carpenter—although didn’t necessarily set out to do that. He currently works for a custom home builder supervising construction.
How’d you come up with the idea of Music Box? “It was originally built as a tool cabinet to hold bips and baps (carpenter lingo)…That’s interesting,” he noted after building it, “I can stand in this thing”. He noticed the acoustics while tapping his toe, “Sounds really great!”. Then he noticed his guitar fit in the Box. Ideas flowed. It spilled into becoming a personal performance stage.
It was a beautiful day in Venice, the day after Christmas, Boxing Day. “Scots celebrate that” Billy teaches me. After being exposed to the Venice music scene through Michael Jost, Billy thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny to bring Music Box to Venice for Boxing Day?” (He’s usually governed by things that make you laugh). He wheeled the Box onto the Boardwalk with a simple amp and no lights, and became a street musician. His Music Box sign became the nom de plume along with a separate sign which said Venice. At his first “Venice Music Box”- he didn’t even put hat out. People would walk by, hover…it became a photo op – $5 to take their pic in box- $5 more they could hold his guitar. Others noticed…. Billy realized, “There’s something magical about this box”. It begins connecting to observers by how it’s framed- He has a philosophy about framing everything. “Literally and figuratively… it made all the difference between playing the Boardwalk with and without the Box-that ‘s what drives people to come …”
After decades of being a traveling musician with no protection from a music label or manager, Billy needed to be self reliant, creative…courageous. His day job is to fix things- and utilizing his “Fairly creative nature” the lighting and presentation aspect of the Music Box evolved. The Box is equipped with 2 powered speakers and a mixing board. The monitor speaker is powered by 2 batteries. Billy schleps the MusicBox MicroStage to wherever the show is that night -sets it up, and breaks it down at the end of the night. Getting the Box off of the sand is a logistical adventure. “Thankfully i put wheels on it.” All the gears unload into the Box, which gets wheeled then strapped onto his trailer on the back of his truck or jeep. It’s, “Very very labor intensive- what’s keeping it unique is that no one is stupid enough to do the work it takes- it’s a good 1- 2 hours of labor… “When the box is on its back it has doors..due to the nature of how late it is- after drinking and facing the long drive home (he currently lives in Burbank)…Can put sleeping bags in – lay down close the door like a coffin and sleep inside the box”. Neighbors might think he’s homeless when they see his Box on the trailer on Saturday morning, and hear Billy snoring.
What kind of permits have you pulled?
How do you keep the cops from shutting it down?
“ Initially there weren’t that many people. When Music Box started- Pandemic wise- in front of the Bordello on Westminster- there were 10-20 people-wasn’t any big thing as long as neighbors weren’t complaining…” When it got bigger it moved over to Windward…Wasn’t really loud- not too many people- cops were cool…it grew slowly- never any problems…cops were used to it,” and Billy stayed on top of it as it was growing. When it got really big, Billy, “Didn’t hesitate- went up to them and said this is my name-this is what we’re doing…keeping everyone safe, etc.. It became haven for whatever….Sent quite a few cops over one night- supervisor came – shoulder shrug and they left.” Billy believes the police, “Appreciated that I was straight up with them- acknowledged them, thanked them for letting us be here- was respectful.”
Have you had any bad experiences with cops/locals/others? The Box had moved to Westminster one Friday…in front of Zelda’s cafe with the intention of bringing customers for their late hours. “Let’s make a little scene here with some music.” One neighbor complained. I happened to be there was there that night, and tried to reason with the cops, but unlike previous Music Box events, they were threatening, and ended up shutting the music down. The neighbor who complained came down and tried to talk to Billy who “read them riot act about being neighborly- everyone else is fine- everyone in the neighborhood”. “It’s so loud” they whined. “Friday night in Venice..Boo hoo.” Billy wanted them to know their complicity in shutting it down. I couldn’t agree more. “After businesses started opening up we got chased off the streets.” Billy moved the scene down to the sand. Even better in my book! However, at the end of Billy’s Westminster Beach days – the police became unfriendly- unaccommodating-told him if they come back out to the park they’ll tix and confiscate the box.
Have your personal gigs increased? —
“No not really…Decreased- just playing at Music Box…turning down lots of shows”.
Billy gets satisfaction from Music Box, usually playing first when no one is there. “Come early!” he urges. I’ve seen him close shows as well, with everything from soulful ballads to rock and roll. His record label- forktonguerecords.com feature his versatility. When he started playing solo -he had to break up his music into individual pockets to sell…All the different acts on the label are him. Check it out, it’s amazing! Golden Buddha, Spiel (Michael Jost), Brother Billy (country), Campbell Antrim (Scottish), and more.
I’ve noticed him filming many of the acts. Are you making a movie out of all of the wonderful performances you’ve hosted? “YES!!! A docu-series—-long documentary- Venice as the home base…About the travelogue of the Music Box…need a pitch reel to get funding – big lofty goal- tricky while working a day job…have confidence it can go that far and beyond..Illusions and delusions of touring Europe and beyond…Creating community …All this music stuff is just a primer for all the movies I’m gonna make…”.
How can we help you get paid for all of your efforts?
Billy does private parties once a month or so- brings the Box performs himself mostly.
But he cares much more to be able to bring this to people, to gain support (spread by word of mouth), raise his profile; to be “Hero for the night”. Billy could have easily have had a Venmo account with a sticker on the box to request tips, but he tells me he’s not doing it for financial gain. “Gives me a platform to play my music..I get paid much more than counting tip[s…corruptive nature of counting tips…” He has a bigger plan, galvanizing the Music Box Micro Stage logo as a brand, to make it a show with a budget, and needs real investment- a support system. He has “Lots of irons in the furnace” He does, however, encourage tipping the bands!
When I asked Billy what local artists has he enjoyed working with, he replied, “I’m absolutely flabbergasted how consistently cool and talented all the artists who came through the Music Box.” He had issues with only three. (My calculation is 100 shows, at least 3 musical acts per show- sure, some are repeats…but that’s a lot of musicians!!). Some are stars wanting to support the Box. Some are enthusiastic artists Billy wanted to give a boost..The attitude of everyone, “Exceptional …grateful …gracious”. He noted that some artists deserve success- “Prepared – at the level they could step off into stardom”. I’ve seen so many great artists! A few of my personal faves: any of the many bands Billy’s in, Harlan’s Truck Box, Moon in the Milk. Peter Demian, Lizz Vega, Brothers. and Stanley Behrens. Our Diva Divine, Suzy Williams, often graces is the stage. And Michael Jost is the Music Box resident angel- lending his support both musically and otherwise.
Do you know how grateful the music lovin’ folks of Venice are for your unmatched contribution to the pandemic’s virtual destruction of the live music scene in Los Angeles? “I have a good idea…Everyone’s really expressive.” Music Box helped the community stay connected and bond, “Because of the metaphor- framed almost like a beacon- reliable and predictable”. And the community stepped up when his work truck was robbed at one of the shows. Pro car thieves who “knew what they were doing- took every tool”. Billy blamed himself. “Parked in part of the hood i shouldn’t – had it happen before…” He wanted to just let it go….take responsibility. But the MB community donated via a GoFundMe campaign, “Throwing the love blanket …Manifesting love…It helped.”
Billy took a hiatus this September to work on other projects. Well deserved after a year straight of shows every week, sometimes twice a week.
Will you continue the beloved Music Box Micro Stage?
He has one show planned for October 8th at Pour Vida on Lincoln, and is toying with the idea of once a month instead of once a week. Billy tells me that now that things are open he’s feeling need to pull back-give clubs space to revive their thing- get back on their feet. The Music Box will continue, but not in same capacity (unless we quarantine again). He’s committed to supply music to keep everyone sane.
At the 100th show we partied like it was 1999! Suzy Williams and Michael Jost were a spiritual experience. Every artist wowed the crowd. The grateful audience was a mix of old and young— a rainbow of hungry Venetians out for a good time. It was a fitting climax. I can’t describe how grateful I am to Billy. Being an artist myself, I know what it takes to find a venue to express yourself, and here he’s done it himself, and helped others as well—a true Venice hero!
Billy has been single handedly responsible for keeping the flame burning.
Thank you Billy!! And thank you Music Box!!
I look forward to the next 100 shows!!
To find each week’s location and artists- Music Box Micro Stage on Facebook.
To connect with Billy- firstname.lastname@example.org
to watch videos of previous shows – Music Box Micro Stage on YouTube
To experience the range of Billy’s talent- forktonguerecords.com