Sydney’ unlicensed venues by Alyssa Critchley

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The death of well-known venues around Sydney does not mean the death of independent music. It never has. Instead, a culture adept at adaptation, and by very definition one which makes its own opportunities, has found refuge in places legitimised—galleries, record stores and organisation headquarters—and in places you’d perhaps never have imagined.

If there’ one moment, one shard of memory that has come to define the zeitgeist of 2009 for independent venues in Sydney it is this. We’re parked on Illawarra Road, Marrickville, and he gets a call. He answers and I can hear the overflow of voice from the phone speaker clearly audible in the bubble of the car interior. Dirty Shirlows has been shut down. The show cancelled. Limited Express, the Japanese punk band set to arrive in Sydney for two aborted shows need your help. Can you find us a venue? We’d thrown around names of places that night in a kind of frenzy fuelled by the shock of the loss of a few venues in quick succession. As I sat at the kitchen bench and listened to him enquire about Cosmo’ Rock Lounge, the Humanist Society and finally Jura Books, I had remembered clearly sitting upstairs in the only building in the industrial area lit with warm light, a warehouse that took its name from the crooked sign, a street that is a thick spread of asphalt. Brooke of Dirty Shirlows had spoken about the shock of Maggotville’ eviction, how shows had been shifted to different venues, most of them to the space out the back, the room that looks over the Sydenham reservoir. And now it too had been shut down.

It’s not quite yet a year on when I speak to Brooke again, this time on the phone. We’re going fine, she says. We’re doing a couple of shows a month, we’ve spaced the shows out and kept them very low profile. True to what she had promised following the threat on Shirlows last year, when she had replied to my email of condolence following the news of their demise with a defiant guarantee—we will be back up and running by February—the venue has slowly gained momentum again after a period of hush. Her voice eases her words, it is not panicked or harried, sliced with anxiety like I had remembered from last year. We’re just coasting, she will reiterate later in our conversation. We cancelled shows and it was a really quiet time of year anyway. So we had a break and a change of flatmates and slowly it started picking up from there. We had an incident recently, she says, and she relays the story—the knock at the front door in the bitter of early morning, the wasted “patron’ and the cops all at their front door, sniffer dogs straining on taut leashes. The police said “We know you have parties here’ but it seems weird, maybe that things are slightly more relaxed around us. She contemplates the climate for warehouse spaces in Sydney before she qualifies the statement, “I’m not sure if you heard St Petersberg got shut down a couple of weeks ago.”

Though Shirlows seems to be tolerated, the space is currently no longer serving the diverse communities it once did. She misses the punk shows that would happen on the concrete slab in the back room, they don’ happen anymore. We’re not the only place in the world, she knows this. Experimental music is happening in galleries and the punk shows must be someplace else. Though Brooke is happy to chat I’m aware that answers are at times prefaced with “you probably shouldn’ write about this” and information is given with a disclaimer. People are wary. Caution is exercised lest fledgling venues are “ratted out’s or exposed too hastily before they even have a chance to become established. I understand that. Shirlows hasn’ had too many problems with Council or the police, probably because it’s clear they don’ make a profit out of it, and they’re not really visible. “at least I hope not”, Brooke adds.

As far as other new venues, there are plans for a hip hop venue, she says, and before she finishes our conversation she asks to double check the article before it goes to print. It is palpable this vigilance, a wariness that is shy of hostility but is prudent with the information it discloses. “We keep a very low profile now,” this is a reiteration. Though, recently, Brooke has seen their unlicensed venue in glossy magazine ads, in popular radio broadcasts. “The lucky trilogy” she jokes—Vice magazine, Time Out magazine and Channel V’ gig guide. It’s pretty funny, she says. Surreal, I imagine, and slightly unnerving. I try to decipher the tone she takes.

I miss the punk shows at Shirlows, too. The nights when, between sets, people would slip through the back door to a narrow space where the night would be lit with the pinpricks of burning cigarettes and the lights from warehouses on the opposite bank, dancing on the surface on the reservoir. Afternoons when we’d wander through the desolate landscape, the ugly utilitarianism somehow brightened with the amplified strum of a sound-check and the rap of drumsticks against skins pulled taut, a spur to return to the show…quickly. I miss the wide open space where people would nab a seat on the mismatched collection of furniture arranged in the corners or stand with a longneck in hand while Ella the white pup would bound through the space with a punctured soccer ball. But even without Maggotville and without shows at Shirlows, without Louies and without 22 or Paint It Black, punk shows are not extinct and the punk community has not shrivelled.

Amongst bridal boutiques and empty shopfronts I search for the newly set up Black Wire to Common Ground on Parramatta Road. This is the reincarnation of Paint It Black, a record store which used to occupy two different spaces on Enmore Road, just up from the hub of Newtown. The site of the former store, where once racks of vinyl and CDs were lined up against walls plastered with gig posters, is now a stark convenience outlet selling stuff like energy drinks and condoms.

I wander past these wholesale stores and factory outlets on Parramatta Road and it seems fitting for Black Wire to now inhabit this stretch. The independent music scene has always found venues at the fringes, in places not yet comfortable for anyone but the brave to inhabit. It takes me a good twenty minutes to find the small doorway, each allocated shop space demarcated by the spatters of pigeon shit under awning supports that gives the impression of a Jackson Pollock. An overhead sign has not yet been painted and so the space is virtually unmarked, just a number on this stretch along the highway. Black Wire is a decent sized space. Black curtains hang in the window, but behind them I can see people who’ve turned up for the show scheduled to start soon sitting around a coffee table. Upon burgundy walls are gig posters I remember from Paint It Black, shows I remember seeing, shows advertised for places that appear as simple names on the paper—22, Mgtvle, Louies.

A couple of bands play that afternoon, and in the space heads rock forward in unison. I stick around for a bit and am told that there are plans for the space, some sort of development beyond just a record store. Indeed, this store is not an HMV, like warehouses spaces—Mgtvle or Shirlows—people live here. It serves a purpose beyond making sales. At the desk by the doorway is a pile of photocopied papers, old notes from a pharmacy text book on one side, the other side detailing upcoming punk shows. I notice Black Wire listed as a venue; a house show in Newtown; familiar venues like Jura Books and pubs that have continually hosted music or used to host music years ago, like the newly renovated Sandringham Hotel, or the Town and Country. Toward the end of the listings for June I come across a venue that is simply a street. The author of the guide is standing near the front door organising the gear for the bands and I point at the listing and question whether this is a new venue. You know where Shirlows is? The footpath there where the graffiti is…? And I imagine the concrete path that snakes away from the street, through long grass. A show is being put on in the open there, he tells me.

As I am about to leave, I find myself speaking to Luke, a member of the Jura collective, the bookstore and HQ of the anarchist community in Sydney, which is literally a minute’ walk down the road from here. We crouch in an alcove, the entrance to an empty shop front. It’s a highlight of 2009, he says, that Limited Express show. Eight bands in four hours. Limited Express, Ni Hao, Holy Samolly, To The North and Hira Hira had been crammed onto an existing Juraccoustics night that had morphed from a few soothing ballads of voice mingling with strumming, into the upstairs library heaving with an audience craning over heads and shoulders to watch pint sized vocalists scream into tightly grasped microphones. That was when I first noticed it, he says—and he means Jura’ compensation for the lack of autonomous venues for independent music shows.

“That’s when it first really started, when Mgtvle stopped having regular shows and when Shirlows was on a break and before the Red Rattler really began”. Twice a month since that time, windows on the narrow two storey Jura building will remain lit into the night. Peering inside from the highway where cars and buses stream past, figures can be seen reading the titles stacked along the walls, or slowly moving around the tables in the middle of the downstairs room running fingers over book covers or leafing through the crisp pages. There will be someone at the desk near the small set of steps who will accept a donation, there will be people moving between the lower level, the narrow staircase that twists up to the kitchen and library upstairs and out to the back carpark—a swathe of concrete, steps and low brick walls. Once they had a show out back, the space that backs onto the quieter streets that are buffered from the constant cycles of traffic. Some people got angry and threatened to call the police and we just wrapped up the show. We try to limit the shows to two a month and always try to finish shows at 10.30 because there are people living next door. A lot of other groups use Jura, not just people playing music or punks, we want to make sure those people don’ get disadvantaged by us making too much noise or whatnot. He is generous with his thoughts, a smile stretches his lips wide, his hair matted into dreads is tied back. He speaks with a voice seemingly buoyed by laughter or excitement rising in his throat. I’m not really sure why we haven’ got the unwanted attention of whatever. We always tell people not to hang out the front – that seemed to be one of the main problems with warehouse places. Luke points to another downfall – the propensity of warehouse venues to cluster and proliferate in seemingly fertile enclaves (Hibernian House and Marrickville). Places like Shirlows and Louie’ are all in the one area, so once one was found it drew attention to the others. What the independent music community has found in Jura is a legitimised refuge—a building owned, no landlords, with a legitimate business running within it. Performance inside can be seen as an addition to an already legal operation.

Experimental music seems to be happening in galleries, Brooke had said. An observation that resonates when I think of Serial Space and now as I see the bold signage for Hardware Gallery from up the street. And I think of the shows advertised here at this commercial gallery in a stretch that seems an afterthought of Enmore Road—a tattoo parlour, bike shop and a purveyor of vintage wares scattered across the way. From inside the slick interior, sitting at a small coffee bar, looking out onto Enmore Road, I speak with Lew about the monthly experimental music nights—Sound Series—that have filled the white walled space with noise and chatter and movement and young people. From a manilla folder Lew produces the black and white photocopied flyers, names like Collarbones and Justice Yeldham—who had left the floor strewn with blood and glass—upon them in a typewriter font. There are dates booked every month for the rest of the year and it was mid last year that the first music performance took place. It was less setting the gallery up as a venue and more an evolution of the space and the gallery’ events. When a wall from the room downstairs was removed the space revealed itself as one which could host performance. It was then after the demise of venues that Romy, an artist who works with Lew, proposed the monthly nights of musicians and artists. A night that Romy says is easier to operate because it takes place in an established gallery and, in that sense, has security of tenure. Though most spaces are fleeting, there seems to be something going on—spaces like Serial Space, Jura Books and Red Rattler look well-placed for longevity, she thinks. My friend is in negotiations with a local council about securing a new space in the Inner West to use as a community/arts centre for a year while the owner is pushing development plans through council. Negotiations with a mayor sympathetic to the anarchist community, who has been seen amongst the press of bodies between the anarchist titles in Jura Books. A project that requires wading through bureaucracy, that is not yet ready for publicity.

Last year, the independent music community farewelled a space in Hibernian House. Yvonne Ruve was left in order to pursue a space named Vox Cyclops in Newcastle as part of the Renew Newcastle project. Where in Sydney, independent music and the people who live in and run the venues inhabit the hollows of buildings haunted by the ghosts of industry, in the spaces in between, at the margins, in Newcastle spaces are provided for art to invigorate a ghost town. Where, in Sydney, venues cluster like the myriad of spaces with Hibernian House, some still hosting shows, others failed, Newcastle’ sparseness distributes spaces along the stretch of Hunter Street. Zine stores, record stores, art galleries are dotted between vacant shops, boarded up shops fronts, surf shops and dour office buildings.

When I speak to Grant about Newcastle, about independent music and the secure spaces that are provided as repositories for a cultural injection, he acknowledge the help. It has definitely become a lot more supportive, he says. But prior to Renew Newcastle similar things were happening, there just weren’ spaces for it. Grant had made a home and venue of a warehouse on Annie Street, where once every two months they would have interstate bands play and which after around two years was reclaimed by the landlord. In years gone by, music has happened in a now defunct ARI named Sushi and Cigarettes, in a small bowling club where old Croatian dudes go, The Croatian Wickham Sports Club. Stuff’ always going to be happening under the radar, he says. What Renew Newcastle has done is provide independent endeavours with security, legitimacy, legality. It acts as an umbrella organisation where places like Vox Cyclops and ARThive are covered—legal stuff and insurance not even a worry. Though, it seems that Sydney sits down the coast as some sort of shimmering mirage, somehow more appealing and I must always remind myself that these places that host independent music are more than their host buildings. It is always and will always be about the people involved. With people involved, there’ always something that is going to open up. This is something Grant has not forgotten: that at the very core independent music, musicians and those who run these venues, have to do things themselves.

Image credits: Mikey Hamer and Lucien Alperstein

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  • Anthony

    great article a terrific insight into the ups and downs of sydney’s underground scene

  • jayrad

    Nice article.. im a dyi promoter and looking for some smaller less known venues. I only knew of jura and shirlows. Ill check the others out too. If you know of any places that are punk/ metal and alcohol friendly, id love it if you could hit.me up with some places i could check out.
    nitro.vo@gmail.com
    Cheerz