It doesn't hurt that Melbourne has a strong Chinese community, established since the mid-1800s when a gold rush occurred not far from the city. Or that only Athens and Thessaloniki have a larger population of Greek speakers. During the Vietnam War—and after—the city also became the home to many displaced Vietnamese refugees. (Nguyen is the second most common name in the residential directory). It's a melting pot, in other words, and it speaks to an attitude that Melbournians bring to bear on much more than food or fashion. In nearly all things Melbourne breeds an appreciation for that which is not necessarily every day or familiar.
The other major venue that stands in the memory of Melbourne clubbers is the renowned Honkytonks, which flourished in the late '90s and the early '00s. An exclusive door policy and the DJ booth—set inside of a grand piano—contributed to an ambiance that led jocks like Steve Bug specifically request to play there each time they touched down in Australia. Mike Callander, a resident at Honkytonks in its twilight years, fondly remembers a club that was interested in a party, then perhaps a club night. In 2005, when Kompakt boss Michael Mayer had succeeded in holding the crowd captive until closing time at 6 AM, Michael Delaney—part owner of Honkytonks—made an executive decision. "He was saying, 'There's no way we're ending this party'," says Callander. "He basically locked everyone in and threw a hundred bucks in the tip jar for the bar staff."
For the promoters and DJs who are active in today's underground electronic music scene in Melbourne, The Commerce Club and Honkytonks stand as exemplars of what could be. But they also represent a different time period. Today, mass-market festivals indicate how popular electronic music has become. One of the biggest power brokers in the business, Richie Rich, is the same figure, who in the early '90s was an active (and important) DJ in Melbourne's fledging subculture. In Sounds Like Techno, you see him saying how "it started small. Not many clubs were playing it, not many DJs. [I was] building up my own little crowd, getting all my friends into it, converting all them...and suddenly there's another 200 people in the scene; it spreads."
Rich now heads Hardware, which like its counterpart and rival Future Entertainment, have contributed to the rising popularity and saturation of large-scale promotion and national music festivals. The two companies employ many quality local DJs, but their bread and butter are international acts that form the music programming of these multi-stage music festivals. But that's created a situation where, when Plastikman comes to play in the city, RA's #1 live act of 2010 sits halfway down a list of artists, far below the likes of Ke$ha and Dizzee Rascal. Jeff Mills recently played his only Melbourne show on his Australian tour as a one-hour set at 2 PM in the afternoon.
Melbourne's Future Entertainment puts on events across Australia with some of dance music's biggest names
Frustratingly, these festivals and major promoting companies control a large part of the electronic music market. And, for whatever reason, seem to have little interest in reinstating the nightclub to its deserved and prominent position. They've set a standard that Melbourne's revelers have come to tolerate. There are, however, a number of local promoters and DJs trying hard to maintain, improve and contribute to Melbourne's club culture.
Many clubs, in the wake of the growing popularity of festivals, have had to adapt to remain relevant. Nowadays, bars are clubs, clubs are restaurants, clubs are flea markets, bars are cinemas (that turn into clubs). Clubs, basically, are any space with a PA. And no venue restricts itself to one genre of electronic music. Don't mistake this for compromise. Some of the best clubs in Melbourne keep a weekly schedule of events and happenings that draw in different crowds each night.
The places that do it well are the smaller more intimate haunts where musical programming can be enforced without too much worry about the numbers. Miss Libertine is a bar that hosts a monthly experimental electronica night and hosts a weekly deep house residency. Though Loop regularly hosts a variety of visual and artistic exhibitions, it also lends its PA to techno two nights a week. New Guernica is a treehouse-themed bar/club that pumps house on a Wednesday and continues to host high caliber internationals (ranging from Clark to Joakim to Pantha du Prince). The Carlton Club maintains an eclectic electronic residency on a Sunday, despite being nothing more than a pub.
Two venues loom large as favorites, though, as far as present day clubs are concerned. The first is the Mercat Basement, which as a name has been operating for over three years. As a venue, it's been swallowing and spitting people out since 1993. Though it may sound overly dramatic, the Mercat Basement always gives off the impression that you're as far from reality as possible. This is its edge. Unlike many venues in Melbourne, it's purpose-built to host electronic music, and has hosted an extensive list of internationals from drum & bass icons Roni Size and Goldie to Ramadanman, Four Tet and Daniel Bell. It's even had a decade-long relationship with a monthly dancehall night. Complementing the best parts of any genre, the Basement is grimy enough for ragga, dark enough for dubstep and hot enough for house and techno.
Its stripped back simplicity is its greatest virtue. Situated on the outer limits of the central business district with a limited capacity of 250 means that "you don't get walkabouts, everyone's there for the music," explains Tom, one-half of DJ duo Otologic who throw the C Grade party there once a month. Everything about the Mercat serves as a gentle reminder that dancing is the name of the game. There's little space to escape from the quality sound system, there are only two (small) seated areas and the most efficient way to get a drink is to turn around and take two paces off the dance floor.
Travel 20 minutes by cab from the CBD to the inner eastern suburb of Prahran and you'll hit Chapel Street, a strip that comes alive at night. Among the most famous nightspots there is Revolver. For Melbourne clubbers, Revolver has been a modern haven. Residencies like Saturday night's Late Show has been run by DJ Ransom for 13 years. The Sunday recoveries that Revolver introduced to Melbourne's clubbing landscape have been under Boogs' command for nearly a decade. Like Revolver, Boogs and Ransom are revered in Melbourne.
Speaking to Ben Hibbert, one of the venue's three entertainment managers, it's hard not to be washed away by the love he has for the venue. "Revolver has always been very broad taste," he boasts. "House and techno have been an obvious part, live bands have been a very big part of things. We're also an arts venue, a designer market, we do all sorts of things here. There's a restaurant that brings a totally different type of person; if you come in at 7 PM, there are kids running around the back room. That's what I love about this place. It's a chameleon. We even had a BMX competition in the back room with ramps and everything."
It's hard to put into words what makes the venue one of the best in the city. There are the distinctive touches like the red wash lighting, the DJ cage and the mismatched couches. And it does bring out the best in promoters like the Future Entertainment-owned brand The Likes of You. But perhaps Hibbert came closest when he remarked late in our conversation that Revolver's defining philosophy is "to remain aloof from fashion, fad and populism rather than try and chase what you think people want."
Frost has had Horse Meat Disco, Optimo, DJ Harvey, Holy Ghost! and Trevor Jackson all twiddle the knobs of the party's rotary mixers. "We also do special events. We've done a Sylvester tribute night, a Larry Levan tribute night..." he explains. Such nights are organized out of reverence and respect, but the House de Frost doesn't take itself too seriously. Each weekend is characterized by cheek and fun. This is a party, after all, that hosted a drag ball to celebrate its birthday.
For promoters throughout the city, a distinct vision is a key element to any party's success. The aforementioned C Grade and Animals Dancing at The Mercat Basement are slowly developing a cult following for exactly this reason. Both maintain their vision by having locals play large swathes of the night. As for the internationals they host, "we always try and choose internationals that are focused less on the production and more on throwing parties... I mean Dr. Dunks (Eric Duncan) played on New Year's Day until he couldn't stand up," says Tom of Otologic and Animals Dancing. With DJs like Justin Vandervolgen, Prince Language and DJ Spun coming through the doors, they clearly get a little bit of both.
A quick guide to Melbourne
The general rule of thumb in Melbourne is: "the smellier the alley, the better the bar." It's a CBD well known for hole-in-the-wall entrances that hide behind dumpsters full of decomposing foodstuffs and garbage. Sister Bella is one such place. Harder still is finding The Croft Institute which lies at the end of three snaking (stinking) alleys. Gym equipment hangs from the walls on the third level, while a science lab on the ground floor sells test tube shots of God-knows what.
Melbournians are extremely proud purveyors of good espresso, but in many social circles the drink is the subject of much pretension. Try a uniquely Australian take on the morning mojo, though, called the long black, a double shot espresso in hot water in the narrow alley corridor of Degraves Street.
The Queen Victoria Market is set up on the northern outskirts of the CBD but despite its close proximity to Melbourne's area of commerce, it is well known for the best quality fresh produce delivered and traded daily. There are local cheeses, cold cuts and tapas in the delis, located opposite fruiterers that hawk an infinite supply of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Nearby are the butchers who bellow specials and the fishmongers who sell the freshest variety of seafood in Melbourne.
Stalactites is a popular souvlaki joint open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week servicing the drunkest of people on any given weekend. Chilli Padi open till 5 AM, Thursday through till Sunday morning. From spicy laksa to Malaysian soft-shell crab, it's a delicious way to end the night (or start the recovery). For the slightly more up-market and classy vibe, The Melbourne Supper Club keeps its doors open till 6 AM during the weekend. You can choose from the extensive (but expensive) wine list and dine on spanakopita or cheese platters. China Bar closes at 6 AM on Fridays and Saturdays and has a basic Chinese menu, from the roast duck that hangs in the window to Szechuan-style "anything." But, more often than not, you'll probably just wander into a 24-hour Maccas.
Foreigners often feel that Australia is an expensive country. As far as drinks are concerned, prices vary between venues. A pint might be between $7 - 9, while club cover charges are quite expensive on the door when internationals are in town. Buy tickets online for weekend showcases before you arrive at the club. With a ticket in hand, you'll have a few extra pennies to waste on expensive booze.
The trio's focus, individually and collectively, is helping to build a local Melbourne scene. Vance believes now, more than ever, Melbourne's small underground is "tapping into something local. [People] can relate to these local promoters and local DJs. They're from Melbourne, this is where [we] live..." Callander agrees: "I think Melbourne's very lucky. You can find any genre of music and say, 'Jeez, that's not too flash' or 'That's alright,' but at least it's there to be criticized."
Admittedly it's an extremely fine line. Diversity, like anything else, has its pros and cons. Vance pipes up, "It's the era of the festival in Australia. The average Australian doesn't want to dedicate themselves to one particular type of music." On the same point, McWhinney adds that it's good that "people are more aware of the broad spectrum of things, but over time they've forgotten that there are specific niches. That's why these festivals happen." While Vance and McWhinney raise a valid and common concern, Callander acknowledges that festivals are important because they make the effort to bring out big names.
Yet another promoter reacting to "the festival era" is The Operatives, headed by Jerry Poon, who compiles massive, festival-like bills with one distinct difference: There is a careful curatorship of artists and music. The Operatives' most recent effort was a sold-out show featuring Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer, Hudson Mohawke (who broke his leg and couldn't make it) and Harmonic 313. "The reason why I'm doing the events that I'm doing is to provide that outlet that is not heading in [Future and Hardware's] direction, to provide that outlet that makes sure it's purely about good music, there's good sound, the price is reasonable in relation to the acts and we're consistent," explains Poon.
Poon arrived in Melbourne from Singapore in 1999 and immediately involved himself in the drum & bass movement running out of the Mercat Basement. Working for the Melbourne RBMA road show in 2006 "really broadened my range of music," he says. "Now a lot of the events I put on are not genre-based at all. I could have a drum & bass artist, I could have a hip-hop act or someone on a future tip." He's not lying either. He's co-booked acts like Gui Boratto with his mates from Haul, and even helped to bring Stones Throw's Aloe Blacc to Australia.
Among all the crews throwing parties in Melbourne, there also lie a number of promising DJs and producers that have few strong local affiliations. Tornado Wallace recently released an acclaimed EP on Delusions of Grandeur, while The Francis Inferno Orchestra and Andras Fox are rising stars to keep an eye on.
Indeed, at the moment, the local scene in Melbourne is the strongest it's been in a long time. Local promoters vary in age, but their passion is exactly the same. In some way, mass market festivals have helped the clubbing scene by forcing local artists to work even harder to find compelling music to bring to Melbourne. That it seems to be working says as much about the people doing it as it does about the city itself.