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After Dark: The Changing Face of Canberra Nightlife

Beatrice Smith

Broken glass on the floor, bouncers with personal grudges, unchecked groping and vodka that barely surpasses ethanol.

This is the Canberra after dark that many remember and many of us loved…at the time. But now, a handful of new and established venues are giving Canberra’s nightlife a sense of positive purpose—and are thriving as a result.

While stumbling into Cube, Canberra’s longest-serving GLBTIQ nightclub, served as a much-needed eye-opener for some young people and a treasured haven for others, it’s hard to pinpoint an in-between in Canberra—a space that proudly proclaims to protect the marginalised.

A study by Bianca Fileborn, researcher from the University of Melbourne, notes that there is evidence to suggest that GLBTIQ individuals “frequently conceal their sexual or gender identity in order to avoid harassing or violence encounters… in public spaces”[1].

This is somewhat of a given in club culture, where excess alcohol and dark rooms can become a powder keg of aggression. This isn’t the case, however, at one of Canberra’s newest venues—and one of the Sydney building’s remaining clubs—Mr Wolf.

“At Mr Wolf, we mostly keep things lighthearted, however, there’s a strong message of tolerance and celebrating each others differences,” says Megan Bones, Entertainment and Marketing Manager at Mr Wolf, whose career as a DJ took her from Bar 32 to Trinity Bar in Dickson and now back to the Sydney Building.

Above the bar at Mr Wolf, a sign sternly proclaims “NO RACISM, NO SEXISM, NO HOMOPHOBIA, NO TRANSPHOBIA, NO VIOLENCE.”

It’s somewhat hard to think of other Canberra venues—past and present—so clearly stating their values to that extent.

“There’s been a massive shift in Canberra’s nightlife, people have turned more towards the bar culture. There are some great bars around now, some that rival anything in the bigger cities; on the other side of things, the underground music scene is on the rise.”

Courtesy of Mr Wolf

Mr Wolf

“I’m so lucky to work in a great management team with two supportive and forward-thinking men,” explains Megan. “We all strive to foster a culture of acceptance—the goal is to create a fun and safe place where anyone can be comfortable being themselves—we always say that we’d rather have an empty club than a shit crowd.”

While the club culture of the noughties saw Civic rapidly expand with bigger, louder venues, looking back now it’s easy to see the kind of behaviour this culture empowered.

“There’s a real sense of community at Mr Wolf. It’s an easy crowd to brush off as young kids that just want to get wasted, but I’ve gotten to know all of our regulars and watching them interact gives me hope for the Canberra nightclub scene. They all keep an eye on each other.”

Around the corner from Mr Wolf there are practically tumbleweeds along the Northbourne Avenue side of the Sydney building, where long lines once stood impatiently for clubs like Meche, Northbar and ICBM. But there are two lone survivors—Treehouse, which has diversified the usual bar offerings with casual daytime food downstairs and high concept cocktails upstairs, and their more colourful neighbour, Reload.

A bar that would have seemed perennially ‘uncool’ 10 years ago, Reload now stands proudly with its gaming nights and drinks named after comic book characters. Where there are only ghosts of jägerbombs past, Reload’s continued popularity is testament to the fact that it’s now cool to stray off the beaten path of Top 40 hits and dress codes.

Over on the other side of town, new large-scale venue kyte has brought a taste of European nightlife to Canberra, served with a side of history and technical expertise.

With a history of working in internationally renowned venues such as Ministry of Sound in London, co-owner Jerry Francis knows a thing or two about what gives a venue longevity.

“When we set the space up, we weren’t going for a club vibe,” explains Jerry.

“The priority is the music…because the whole idea was that [kyte] wouldn’t be a stereotypical club. When we set kyte up we wanted a community.”

That community will endure, thanks to the work kyte are doing to ready Canberra’s next generation of music producers and deejays by offering master classes.

“We have music production, event management, introduction to production, introduction to deejaying and introduction to copyright,” explains Jerry, who previously spent six years lecturing on music business at Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT).

For Jerry, it’s about creating a culture— and that starts with an awareness of industry roots. This is reflected in his choice to hero artwork by scene legends such as Keith Herring, who “in the late 60s and 70s was a core revolutionary for the culture of Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage—where dance music started.”

“It’s an education process,” says Jerry. “When people come up and ask me about the artwork I’m able to give them a bit of history about how it relates back to music and the culture.”

kyte aren’t alone in their commitment to bringing a more educated, thought out approach to Canberra’s bar scene. But being progressive isn’t just about getting serious about the music—it’s about making sure everyone feels included, too.

Michael Liu, DJ, event manager and violinist, whose ethos of “classically trained but never contained” has been a mainstay of local nightlife for over seven years, attributes this new focus to Canberra’s approach to difference.

“I think the biggest change has been a paradigm shift in club culture, where what used to be cool was exclusivity, and now what’s cool is inclusivity,” he explains.

“It used to be about excluding people because they weren’t hot enough to get into the bar and having separate sections, whereas now it’s about having a bar which caters to everyone. You can have an 80-year-old dude sitting next to a jock, sitting next to an 18-year-old girl drinking a vodka lime and soda.”

As Michael sees it, the venues that thrive will be the ones that embrace diversity.

“I think [inclusive] is what bars and clubs should aspire to be—regardless of their theme or style. It’s almost a bare minimum [to have] a commitment to inclusivity if you want to succeed. There’s a real adaptability these days.”

Michael cites his current residency, Knightsbridge Penthouse, as well as AKIBA and Bar Rochford, as examples of venues that are both adaptable and inclusive.

Co-owner of Bar Rochford, Nick Smith, agrees. In its very essence, ‘Rochford’ was always supposed to be everything to everyone—just not a thumping club. “I’m 30 now and my friends and I don’t want to get pissed, we just want to get some good food and wine,” he told HerCanberra when Rochford opened in early 2016. “But I do want to welcome everyone.”

Owner of Braddon’s Knightsbridge Penthouse, Troy Sixsmith, says that it was always their aim to be as different to the “club scene” as possible, which was clearly a smart choice. At the ripe age of 13, ‘Knighty’ has outlived many of its peers.

Established in 2004 by Canberra hospitality queen Bria Sydney, Knightsbridge was, from the start, a different bar for a different crowd. With exposed brick walls and murals, rather than strobe lights and smoke machines, it was the young professionals’ house party to Civic’s freshers’ week.

“I think Bria’s main aim was to open one of Canberra’s very first cocktail bars and from there it evolved into this late night venue where you could dance and there was good music but you could still sit down and have a cocktail,” explains Troy, who took over the bar in 2014.

Knightsbridge Penthouse.

Knightsbridge Penthouse.

While Knightsbridge might not sport a declaration of freedom quite like Mr Wolf’s, it’s easy to see from the clientele on any given night that Knightsbridge welcomes all, which Troy sees as a progression of Canberra’s evolving nightlife.

“So many other places are similar in what they do and what they offer—club beats, house music—we always wanted to keep it classy.”

But one of Canberra’s industry heavyweights, Ashley Feraude aka Magnifik, doesn’t think that Canberra’s nightlife has changed so much after all.

“I haven’t really seen a gigantic change [in music], the only thing that really changes is the technology people use,” he says.

“Clubs come and go and they may change their style—Mr Wolf is a very good example of that but I don’t know if I would call it disruption as much as evolution.”

He would know, too. Across a career of more than 10 years, Ashley has deejayed almost everywhere in Canberra. Starting out in now-defunct venues like Heaven Nightclub and Lot 33, he enjoyed a five-year residency at Academy—now organising the music for many of Canberra’s biggest nightspots.

He does admit, however, that there has been a recent change in which venues are popular and puts down the current shift towards bars down to people having to “revaluate” what they wanted from a night out after the closure of many of Canberra’s clubs.

“They had to ask themselves; did they really want to be into mad dancing, or whatever else, or did they want a more upscale experience?” he explains. In Ashley’s opinion, they chose the latter.

I realise there’s something comforting in Ashley’s concept of circularity—the idea that Civic’s empty shopfronts and spaces might one day be filled again with thriving nightspots. Perhaps ones with positive, purposeful atmospheres.

[1] GLBTIQ young adults’ experiences & perceptions of unwanted sexual attention in licensed venues: emerging themes and issues, Bianca Fileborn.

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Disruption for Spring 2017, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here

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Beatrice Smith

Bea loves that her job as HerCanberra’s Editorial Coordinator involves eating, drinking and interviewing people - sometimes simultaneously. The master of HerCanberra’s publishing schedule, she’s usually found hunched over a huge calendar muttering to herself about content balance. Otherwise you’ll find her at the movies, ordering a cheese board or ordering a cheese board at the movies. More about the Author

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