The Strange Brew Crowdfunder has exceeded its £45,000 total, giving Bristol a vitally-needed new mid-sized cultural space.
Bristol. A city sold as one with a vibrant music scene, sticking out on the map as a loose, liberal enclave, densely populated by students and young people. Such a place must be blossoming with creative spaces and backed by a local authority in-tune with the desires of promoters and performers needed to keep the city’s cultural juices flowing, right?
Well, sort of. For promoters of dance and live music, Bristol is in the same basket as all places in the UK, suffering from a small-venue deficit. At any given pub on any given night, it’s likely there’s a deflated conversation about small venues happening somewhere in the city. Of the spots that do exist, none can get a regular late license going beyond 3am and, of those, not even a handful have a club-ready set up, meaning promoters almost always have to hire their own gear and sound system, making the economics all the less alluring.
Despite these challenges, Bristol is intersectional in its artistic and creative output; every weekend there will be something worth seeing in one of its many established and independent venues like the Arnolfini, Colston Hall, The Fleece and The Cube just to name a few. Throughout the year these host a wide range of exhibitions in different medias. It also produces some of the best musical events in the country, and with those, a steaming pool of promoters, club nights, record stores, regular internet radio broadcasting and continues to spit out globe trotting producers and DJs. It’s the classic paradox, that even the most challenging of environments can foster the most complex and beautiful results.
Arguably Bristol’s finest dance music promoters are Kerry, Shaun, Bob and Leigh, known collectively as Dirtytalk. They run a party of the same name, booking DJs that are inclined by house, techno, jungle, ambient and weirder. Like all promoters, they’ve toiled through the same incessant venue hurdles, first cutting their teeth in the now closed Timbuktu, before moving to the long-closed Motorcycle Showrooms, eventually settling with their signature secretive venue in Lawrence Hill, used by no other promoters in the same sphere.
Dirtytalk nights sell out in seconds. They always have the same capacity, meaning the financial and creative limitations roughly work out the same, depending on the booking fee of the DJ. Having run their club night for so long, the four have always wanted to creatively expand beyond DJ bookings within a standard club format, but doing so would compromise their working formula, possibly watering down what they already have now: a dedicated following of patient dancers usually of a slightly older-than-student age range.
To satisfy the need for more, most nights go on to start their own label, but for Dirtytalk – formally DT Productions (DT) – this wouldn’t really scratch their itch for creative expansion. They’ve instead got their hands on a derelict unit on Fairfax Street, underneath a fully functioning NCP car park. Disused for ten years, the space was last a camping shop and originally a car showroom, features a large window-fronted reception and a sizeable rear space, which they’re planning on turning into a venue, dubbed Strange Brew.
DT is investing around forty thousand of their own funds, and have started a crowdfund for an additional forty-five thousand. “The reason that it’s so costly is that it’s been empty for ten years”, Kerry explains, “it’s never been a bar or a club or a café before. We have to do the plumbing for the toilets and sinks from scratch and the electrics have to be redone completely.” They’ve had renovation for the building completely costed, and the prospective layout has been digitally rendered.
Kerry tells me it’s important to note why they’ve specifically chosen the Crowdfunder platform, “If we don’t reach our goal it’s not going to happen”, she explains. “With crowdfunder, all the donations go straight back to the supporters as an automatic refund”, as opposed to Kickstarter, which it does not do.
I meet up with DT in Strange Brew – a shell for now – which is far larger than the promotional video suggests, the emptiness is so incredibly exciting in its potential. They’ve fantasized about this for years, “I even remember when Kowton was still living here and us all moaning about the state of the club scene”, Kerry tells me “‘yeah we should all chip in and we can all [get a venue of our own]’ – I always thought maybe that’s gonna happen, maybe that could happen? And then you start to think it’s not gonna happen. We just have to try it ourselves.”
“The longer we’ve been doing Dirtytalk the longer we’ve been thinking well, is that all there is?” A roughly once-a-quarter night, however good, feels fleeting, and along with expansion of musical ideas, they want something that “isn’t just a hazy feeling or memory; something “a bit more… permanent, not just a hangover..”
DT are always looking for new spots for which to obtain a temporary license for one-off events. They actually spotted the Strange Brew space five years ago, and put in an offer that was too low at the time. “We just didn’t have the funds”, Shaun explains. “But really”, Bob interjects, “it was just a test to see if it was possible”.
This project is no doubt bold, and many have found it hard to precisely nail it down. Ok so it’s a venue, what else? Well, DT want to create a space that can be truly versatile and, from a promoter’s point of view, a place to be utilised for live gigs, club nights, film showings, workshops, art exhibitions and whatever else can be conceived of that would work there. “We want promoters to be able to come here, and for everything to work”, Bob explains, “a venue without any complaints”. With the option of an immersive club-ready space in the back and an open, inviting and bright floor in the front, they have flexibility that many venues don’t have.
Such an endeavor pushes DT – with its ethos, formula and resources – into the public view as legitimate businesspeople. It’s a weird thing to witness, all four of them lining up for promotional photographs and it’s certainly a new experience for them. But in order to make Strange Brew work commercially, they have to find a new ground that isn’t just for their dedicated but small following, which means opening up the idea of a compartmentalised club space for a certain type of music into something diversified; something which could blur the lines between live and DJ music. In a city bursting with talented people in both arenas, this is huge.
“What I’m looking forward to is having live gigs that then roll onto a late-night DJs”, Leigh says, “You get that at Café Oto [in Dalston]. That’s been a bit of inspiration for me in terms of live programming, but when I’ve been there and it gets to 11 and suddenly everyone’s out. It would be great if you could hang around and listen to DJs.”
“We’re anticipating that we’re not necessarily tapping into a market that already exists, we’re going to be trying to create something new”, Leigh continues. Taking another lesson from Café Oto, he notices that “bookings are so far out it can take a while for people to get the idea of just going there and experiencing something they wouldn’t otherwise”. Strange Brew will need to appeal to a wide audience outside of experimental or even just dance music. They intend on tapping into the live music scene and providing a platform for local bands within a multitude of genres. They’re very aware that this means not starting out with anything too highbrow, experimental or even pretentious, “and it’s important for us to find a balance, because we need to hit the ground running and get people on board” insists Kerry. Strange Brew will have a “round the clock” atmosphere, as a daytime café, so it will need to appeal to a range of people that traverse Central Bristol.
DT are incredibly lucky to have found this particular unit. It has no flats around it at all, nor even any new student apartments being built in earshot which, right now, is rare for anywhere in the area. Leigh works in city planning and is the go-to guy when it comes to things like licensing and regulations. “There are flats above most retail premises now which rules out a ‘change of use’”. For the time being, Strange Brew’s location is perfect for such a venture.
Dirtytalk nights have been run meticulously for years now with Kerry, Shaun, Bob and Leigh at the helm. With so much experience, they know what parties need in order to work and flourish. For Strange Brew, they have the plans set and ready, the license obtained, the work costed, the regulations agreed to and the blueprints drawn; they just need the funds to lift off. Once funded, the building works will take three months.
At the time of writing, 10 days are left until the crowdfund expires, with £25000 raised so far. To have four people garner such support in a city this size shows how many people trust them already. With Strange Brew, it’s hard to think of more capable hands for a bold new music venture in Bristol.
This article was written in partnership with GoBathBristol, part of a national initiative developed by Arts Council England and VisitEngland that brings together the leading arts, cultural and heritage organisations from across the West of England.