As the golden-hour sunlight ignites the inner workings of the burgundy, colonial-era box that is The Love Inn, there is already a line of early evening regulars at the bar. Co-owner, Dave Harvey, looks on as we discuss his Stokes Croft venue as part of the crucial nightlife of Bristol. “There’s a gap between the big club, and the little club”, he explains, “and I guess we fit in the middle of that”. For the next hour or so, I hear how Harvey’s role as a major businessman takes heed from his acute awareness of what an accessible, tasteful, developed music culture should look and sound like, and how this has been channeled into The Love Inn to make it one of the South West’s most important small venues.
Anyone who’s ever taken one step inside Bristol will understand that it’s one of Britain’s more forthright fortresses of culture. A lot of what makes it so driven is largely down to its confined geography and, of course, the bohemian, tight-knit nature of its population. Given its size, contrasting areas lie in defined but close proximity, situating people often only a single digit’s walk away from friends and, crucially, from party centres like Stokes Croft; all this while (for now) paying half of the rent you’d find in London.
Why Bristol is home to so many people of a liberal leaning is hard to say, but even in the city’s more expensive areas, Green Party posters and vegan-friendly establishments are scattered without contention. Stokes Croft though, is the epicentre. With brazen street art, late night eateries and music venues, it takes Bristol’s liberal ethos to its fullest extremes. The weekend’s early hours are like a scene from Mad Max, only with fewer flame throwers and more vibrating windows. “It’s pretty loose, around here”, Harvey says, fully aware that his venue is slap bang in the middle of late night hedonism on the Stokes Croft strip. “That kind of uniformity in other areas doesn’t really exist here.”
Harvey is certainly a prominent figure in Bristol’s nightlife – part of Team Love, who run Love Saves The Day, new Croatian festival Love International as well as many other major projects – but that’s not without a significant investment of time and effort. “I ended up running several different bars in Bristol and then continuing the nights, working on loads of other ones and starting the record label”. Said label, Futureboogie, has since found itself as one of Bristol’s leading imprints, its distinct brand of disco-infused house giving platforms to Julio Bashmore, Eats Everything and Crazy P.
Harvey’s business sense was in full swing, while he was getting to grips with structuring and programming. “Around the same time, my business partner Tom Paine and I started doing bits and bobs at festivals, like programming stages, which led on to doing production and then in turn we started our own festivals.”
Having moved from Leicester to Bristol 15 years ago, he first started putting Futureboogie nights on at Level, a now long-gone venue. “When I came here it was a really good club, it was 400 capacity, it was actually excellent.” Venues as described are, at the moment, the talking point on most promoters’ critical lips. “I don’t think there’s been another club of that size that’s been really good since,” reflects Harvey, “which the city lacks, quite badly”.
Why then, in a city so hospitable to driven bohemians, does it have such a problem with small venues? Sure it has the warehouse party landmark of Motion, and the wonderfully intimate basement confines of Cosie’s but, between the two, the city struggles to find a home for dancers. For Harvey (below), he cites the astronomical rise in DJ fees. “It’s gone crazy”, he remarks, “most of those DJs who are gonna bring in 300 ticket holders, lets say, you’re looking at more money than you can make a profit off, which makes it tougher for smaller promoters.”
There has certainly been an upward trend in DJ fees, especially for those who have only released a couple records, riding on hype generated on social media. Dance music is more popular than ever, with mainstream festivals increasingly accommodating for it on stages larger than they have been in the past. “Culturally”, Harvey says, “it’s changed as well. When I started going to Glastonbury, only certain people would go to festivals. Now it’s mainstream, so DJs, bands and artists can command massive amounts of money. These things only exist if the market is there for it, so I guess DJ fees have risen in step with demand.”
Despite running Bristol’s largest festival, a promoter like Harvey is fully aware of what smaller venues have over the big rooms. Of course, many DJs have now gained significant popularity and, where demand is high, price is king. “I understand it, but I think that – certainly as a DJ as well – often it’s the small clubs that are the ones you come out of going ‘that was fucking amazing’, y’know?”
The Love Inn is one of the few Bristol bastions of such a creamy middle-sized venue (along with Team Love’s other, more central venue, The Small Horse Social Club). Thanks to its prime location, it’s rarely empty. Harvey’s right hand man for running the place, as well as promotion and bookings, is James Smith, also part of TEAK, Cardiff’s premier dance night. “We have the occasional night where it’s not that busy, but we’ll still have 100 people in. For a bad night, that’s still pretty good.”
For a bar to be taken seriously as a dance spot, you’ve got to have the right booth and sound, something not lost on Smith. “We’ve had issues with the booth being a bit wobbly, but over the past year I’ve kind of modified it. It’s now screwed into the floor”. As I stand in the booth with Smith, admiring its DIY aesthetic, there’s a strong sense that this isn’t just done for business reasons, it’s genuinely something The Love Inn are passionate about. For their sake, as much as for visiting DJs, the details matter. Smith reels off some top priorities – “putting 80 KG of weight on the booth, making sure there’s no feedback, making sure the needles are replaced every few months and making sure the CDJs work” – but he could go on and on. A resident DJ and a serial booker of high-end DJs himself, he knows what’s required. More recently, Paul Morrisey has installed a new Bozak mixer alongside the Xone 92, soon to be interchangeable at the flick of a switch. “I try and make the place as DJ friendly as possible. That starts from the beginning of the night into making sure the set up is as good as it can be.”
The Love Inn’s solid clientele base is a heaven-sent for fresh new promoters, and The Love Inn accommodates them well. As Smith points out, a key benefit is that “it’s almost risk free for promoters, they know it’s going to be busy, so they can put on artists they might not feel comfortable putting on in a club environment.” And because of this freedom, they’re even able to make a bit of profit. “It’s nice to be part of that progression”, Smith reflects.
Playback, one of Bristol’s party-ready nights, co-run by Amber Williams, owe their now-solid following to this platform. “Without the guys at The Love Inn we’d probably be a few steps behind where we are now”, Williams admits. “Unlike bigger nights in Bristol, we don’t have the budget to push our night out there, so The Love Inn has really helped us achieve that.”
The venue’s previous incarnation was Bank, which edged onto to a more “traditional” Bristol sound. Not ignoring Bristol’s rich musical heritage, Smith (above) also understands the need to “keep it relevant”. He still confesses that it’s “hard finding the balance”, and catering for a broad range of tastes. “In the last year we’ve narrowed the music slightly, but we do still throw in the occasional hip-hop or bass night.”
This more refined musical identity is kept in check by a roster of regulars that also include ∆dmin (Adam Wickens) and Harri Pepper, who make up Slix Disco (aptly named after the Slix chicken shop, adjacent). Together they’ve brought an upbeat, disco-infused, house leaning familiarity to the venue with an atmosphere that Wickens likens to TV show Cheers, “where everyone knows your name.” As well as music curation being consistent and varied, he also compliments the venue’s high quality beer and food – they even give out free buttermilk fried chicken at the Slix Disco parties.
Of course local residents are only one end of the spectrum for The Love Inn. Smith recounts how booking Andras Fox, “was one of the first bookings that wasn’t directly through us, and that was a bit of a turning point in my mind”. And it only got bigger, welcoming Joy Orbison soon after. “That was huge. I remember picking him up from the station, and by the time we were back at half 8 the place was full. It was insane. That was a real standout.” Harvey lists Bonobo, Eats Everything and Jackmaster as some of his own highlights, “people who would be getting many thousands of pounds to play, but they want come and do it because it’s a fun one.” This isn’t about just chancing on DJs hungry for intimate sets, it’s helped by the substantial network that Harvey has created. “Myself and Tom book artists for Glastonbury and all over the place so we’ve got quite a good relationship with agents and a lot of artists.”
With popularity, however, comes a light-footed caution. The residents of many areas in Bristol, especially Stokes Croft, are highly defensive. In the last few years, London clubbers have looked on in despair as many of their beloved small clubs have fallen victim to what everyone loves to hate talking about: gentrification. Many locals are now fully aware of how popularity can be a death sentence, driving out the very creativity such popularity was founded on.
Bristol’s rent prices have risen by 18% in just one year, bringing with it a surge of prospective development. “There is quite a lot of negative feeling about the gentrification of the area,” Harvey admits, conscious of this threat, but also not convinced it’s in full effect in Bristol just yet. “It’s still rough around the edges, and rent is still cheap”, he points out, “but if the Carriage Works goes ahead then maybe that’s the start of things changing.” The beautifully dormant Carriage Works, just a few meters from The Love Inn, represents the ever-growing worry many have for Bristol’s scuzzy yet fiercely popular Stokes Croft; a piece of architecture ripe for re-development, rumours of its future – and the area it’s housed in – are constantly changing.
Part of Stokes Croft’s first line of defense is the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC), a group of local volunteers who, on their website, promote themselves as being “determined to safeguard the unique character of the area”. They oversee the graffiti art as well, providing direct action against developments they see as being counter to the area’s ethos. The Love Inn’s popularity certainly had the PRSC worried but Harvey says, “they’ve met us a few times and I think they’ve worked out we’re not evil.” While Harvey is keen to see The Love Inn become a success, he’s not prepared for this to be at the expense of its locals. “It’s great that there are people who are active in stopping it turning into a gentrified area, losing its character and its soul”, says Harvey in admiration, “those guys are the defenders of this area.” Of course gentrification comes in many forms, but it’s safe to say that a venue like The Love Inn, where the windows rattle until 4am, runs counter to the notions of a luxury property developer.
The crowd of The Love Inn possesses one of the main hallmarks that run counter to gentrification: diversity. Amber Williams, of Playback, grew up in Bristol and sees the venue as “a meeting ground that attracts the heads and the locals, encouraging a community”. Such a diverse crowd is also helped by The Love Inn’s entry fee, which has been anchored at an incredibly reasonable £3. “We could charge more”, Harvey says, “but we want it to be accessible”. No matter who’s playing, the door tax remains the same, and Harvey realises what a privileged position they’re in to be able to maintain this.
The Love Inn may be the colour of a sore thumb, but it doesn’t stand as one in the Stokes Croft community; instead it’s a champion for defending it, through good prices and even better music. Can this rare business combination last? Smith struggles to see it any differently. “Yeah it’s difficult to imagine Bristol without that kind of – how shall I put this – looser, almost punk attitude”, he says. From his perspective though, he’s part of what could hold down this part of the city as a vibrant cultural hub. The rattling windows are not friends to the tenants of luxury apartments, but the owners are friends to the area as it operates best: gritty, loud, chaotic but accessible. “We see it as bar club, not club bar”, Smith remarks, “so if you want to just pop your head in and have a drink and hear some great records, it isn’t the end of the world. £3 for a couple hours? That’s alright.”
Upcoming at The Love Inn: Slix Disco (22nd July), Teak presents Hashman Deejay (29th July) and Love International presents Erin Duncan (13th August) All photos shot exclusively for STW by Sam Wild (2257AD)