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Dancing Room Only – Bristol

We mark the onset of a new feature series focused on local clubbing scenes as Oli Warwick picks out what’s happening in Bristol.

If you happen to be an artist from Bristol that catches a wave and winds up on the business end of a journalist’s dictaphone, the likelihood is that you will be asked, ‘what’s the city’s music scene like?’ In years gone by, the stock answer often featured buzz words such as, ‘laid back’, ‘community spirit’, ‘sense of inclusivity’, and so on. Perhaps realising that they and their peers were starting to sound like members of a West Country cult (and there’s no denying the glazed look that falls over a Bristol resident’s eyes when asked about their chosen stomping ground), the default interviewee response turned more critically to the lack of decent venues in a city full of music makers and music lovers. This comment has popped up numerous times from noted protagonists in this close-knit circuit of producers, DJs, label owners, promoters and so forth, and for a while it took hold as a widely understood lament to be dropped in casual conversation.

If you fast forward to the present day, an interesting ecosystem of events has caught a rhythm that seems to lay waste to this notion, gestating somewhere between a sense of getting on with it and applying some creative thinking to that grinding search for a party venue. Before we get into those, it’s worth considering where this downtrodden attitude of ‘nowhere nice to dance’ has come from.

In many cases, it’s the lingering hangover of a much-loved spot being taken away. Club owners not always being the most sympathetic to the feelings of their patrons and promoters is a well-worn notion, not least when it comes to quitting time. Equally the unstoppable march of property developers will rarely pause to consider the hopeful hedonism of the nightlife economy. For Bristol, The Motorcycle Showrooms was a glaring case in point, located right at the epicenter of alternative culture hotspot Stokes Croft and for a brief couple of years a wonderfully makeshift space that seemed different every time. The team in charge picked their promoters wisely, only letting in select events. Now, it’s a two-storey vintage shop in a city littered with them.

There are plenty more minutiae of Bristol clubbing folklore that could be talked about, from Native to Bar Latinos (both still running in different guises now) and on to that wonderful time for techno when Marco Bernardi was helping run Timbuk2, as he touched upon in his interview with us earlier this year. In the here and now though things seem a little more interesting, not to mention less predictable, but there are still long-serving stables that will continue to incubate the most honest and unflashy of Bristol music flash points.

Cosies is surely the first venue that pops to mind for anyone versed in the avenues and alleyways of promoting in Bristol. Sometimes it is with a slight groan of over-familiarity, as it stands now as one of the go-to places for adventurous organisers and their associated crowds, but the city would be lost without it. A wine bar by day, Cosies has been rumbling low end out of its vaulted cellar in the heart of St Pauls for a long time. As with anywhere its popularity and management has waxed and waned over the years, but it’s certainly on a productive roll right now. Amongst the events that call it home at present are Brstl, Falling Up, Free House, Fractal and Metro, and in the past two months you could have seen Jay L, ://aboutblank resident Resom, I Love Acid’s Posthuman and many more learned house and techno selectors besides. The crowds for the events are largely interchangeable between an interconnected bunch of friends, acquaintances and the curious anomalies that always seem to materialise in the confines of a truly idiosyncratic nightspot.

Metro is surely one of the more distinctive concerns out of all those events, held once a month on a Wednesday and organised by Rhythmic Theory and Facta. The clandestine quality of mid-week sessions lends itself to a more cutting edge music agenda, and the party has become a promising spot for newer machinations in the intersection between techno, dubstep, drum and bass. Since starting a year ago local heads such as Asusu, Hodge, Batu, Ossia, Bruce and October have all passed through, playing to a surprisingly young crowd (clearly free of the spectre of work the next morning) in an atmosphere with a moody vibration that feels closer to the Bristol soundsystem tradition than the more prevalent house styles of the day.

“Metro was born out of a shared feeling that there was a reasonably distinct new sound emerging out of Bristol,” explains Facta. “The plan was to try and create a space where people could come and play new music, hear new music, meet each other in real life and develop a bit of a community.” It’s a theme that carries the torch from the days of Dubloaded, a Wednesday night session hosted by Pinch and Peverelist that still enjoys a mythical status amongst bass-minded ravers in Bristol. “Bristol has an abundance of good parties (and a few great ones),” Facta adds, “but since Dubloaded finished there’s been a definite lack of regular events dedicated to pushing upfront music from new producers.”

You can equally look to the mid-week exploits of Young Echo at The Exchange with their wild fusion of dubstep, noise, post punk as a continuation of that unique West Country twist that started back when bands like The Pop Group and Rip, Rig & Panic first pretended they could play their instruments. There can be no doubt, however, that Bristol has taken house, as much as disco and techno and beyond, to its heart in recent years. That’s not to say that those genres were never represented before, but even six years ago in a city that was known for dubstep and drum and bass it could be a challenge for promoters to get a meaningful foothold with choice bookings in the 4/4 driven realm.

Away from the gargantuan loom of promoters such as Just Jack filling out cavernous club space Motion with premier league house and techno artists –  the likes of Housework and Headrush did sterling work to cater to the growing interest in 4/4 early on – but one of the most iconic events for this alternative strain of Bristol music culture is surely Dirty Talk. The team responsible for the party is made up of Kerry Patterson, Shaun Tennant, Robert Needham and Leigh Dennis, or Jackin’ Patz, Tender T, Rocky Newman and Leewok respectively.

The humble beginnings of Dirty Talk began in low-key parties at unlikely spaces such as rockers pub The Mothers Ruin before graduating to the aforementioned Timbuk2 (a club whose ebbs and flows of quality make Cosies seem positively stoic), ramping up their bookings to touch on Surgeon, Maurice Fulton and Tevo Howard amongst others. Gradually the guests started edging towards a mutation of disco principles as typified by selectors such as Hunee, Intergalactic Gary, Young Marco and Mark Seven, bedding down in The Motorcycle Showrooms for the short but sweet tenure the space had as Bristol’s most charming club.

By the time they laid on Jamal Moss for six hours in a former jail cell dungeon space in the city centre called The Island, it was clear that Dirty Talk’s remit had evolved into daring DJs with ample space to take the crowd on a no-holds-barred thrill ride. Moss certainly delivered that night, and the deal felt truly sealed by the time DJs Sotofett and Fett Burger rolled in for an infamous session.

What stands out about Dirty Talk in comparison to other Bristol parties is the make-up of the crowd, a step away from the enthusiastic but ultimately laid-back moochers often found around the more ‘headsy’ events. Here instead the open-armed grin of the typically adopted Bristolian rubs shoulders with a more flamboyant gay clientele in a mesh so natural you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in fact on a dancefloor in vastly more integrated Berlin. Perhaps it’s all in the name, but there’s no shortage of erotic charge on the floor at a Dirty Talk night from across the sexuality spectrum, without anyone making a big fuss about it. Clubbing as it should be.

Where Dirty Talk, though, has made itself an unshakable part of Bristol’s clubbing folklore in recent years is through their keen instinct for picking venues. From an illicit swingers club to an underground cavern run by the Hells Angels, the team have found in-roads to spaces that other promoters wouldn’t think to hit up or project the right attitude to gain access to. With their canny bookings and fiercely dedicated crowd thrown into the blender, it’s hard to think of another event that typifies the vibrant, unconventional heartbeat of Bristol.

From an outside perspective though, it’s Idle Hands that in many ways embodies and maintains the current culture of underground electronic music in the city. Aside from the shop and the label, it shouldn’t be ignored that Chris Farrell has also put on some of the sharpest bookings in the city in recent years, reaching beyond the confines of his label roster. He helped bring the likes of Ital and a whole L.I.E.S showcase to cramped Stokes Croft café space Take Five well before they had become household names, while Pender Street Steppers and Hashman Deejay dropped in to Cosies just before everyone caught on to the Vancouver sound. Heatsick and Dynamo Dreesen have equally popped up on Idle Hands bills in recent times, affirming the shop’s mainline connection to the curious, adventurous and vital streams of progression in global house and techno.

“Around the time the shop opened anything seemed possible,” Farrell explains. “The energy amongst my circle of friends was endless and there a was a new enthusiasm for house in the city which I hadn’t seen before. We were putting on people like Lakuti and Sven Weisemann and getting good crowds.” While the Idle Hands parties have continued to successfully showcase upfront talent largely in the house and techno vein, at this point Farrell is looking to a new generation of promoters as lighting the way for parties in the future.

“I genuinely believe it is better to have 100 in a room that really want to dance rather than 500 most of whom are just there to get wrecked, but this is always a squeeze financially,” he states. “Just recently there has been a flowering of a new underground house scene based around a lot of clued up young DJs. It is my aim to just go to their nights rather than putting a lot of time and energy into something that more often that not loses me money.”

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There are indeed newer promoters entering into that critically astute spirit. The Rough Draft team, headed up by Ed Eldridge and Alex Talossa, have only been in visible operation for the past couple of years, but already their commitment to quality has manifested in scores of informal sessions at The Bell (a favoured pub amongst the Bristol music cognoscenti) and a steady increase in pointed bookings from Sully to Bell Towers, Florist and PLO Man. With the added achievement of throwing a two-day party in a formerly award-winning public toilet in the shadow of the annual Harbourside Festival, Rough Draft have naturally assimilated into the thrum of the Bristol party scene.

“There are so many nights in Bristol putting on the same thing over and over again,” states Eldridge. “I see us maybe sitting outside of that, and we want to offer something different from that. We have zero interest in stepping on peoples toes, and are close friends with Dirty Talk, Idle Hands, Brstl, Free House, Housework etc. We all get on very well and all sort of exist in this corner of Bristol’s promoters who I see as putting on the real parties.”

What’s most apparent about all these events, and the scores of other sessions populated with quality bookings and the dizzying abundance of local DJ talent, is the natural symbiosis in which the promoters co-exist. Anyone who has visited Bristol will attest that it’s not a big place, and elsewhere you might expect an air of competition (friendly or otherwise), but for the most part a steady rhythm spreads these parties out across the year. Occasionally, gargantuan clashes can occur such as back in February when Dirty Talk, Free House, Rough Draft and more happened to collide on the same night, but for the most part these like-minded souls spread their schedule out into a casual, bi-monthly-ish routine that keeps the options diverse and the crew rarely split up.

While the diminutive size of the city may leave Bristol residents muttering about a lack of decent clubs, it’s a city that still manages to surprise. A casual pre-club drink in a familiar pub might land you in an unexpected upstairs room getting down to trippy new beat selections, while a summers afternoon in a tucked-away corner of Easton might manifest in a glorious outdoor session at The Plough. Next time someone starts moaning like that, you tell them they never had it so good. However, Chris Farrell does have a parting grievance to impart.

“One final point,” he proclaims. “I am fucking sick of people standing on the dancefloor. If you want to stand around go to the bar. Leave the dancefloor for the dancers. Seriously you are harshing peoples vibe by just standing there. It is called dance music for a reason.”

Oli Warwick