As of the time of writing, Artrocker is under a mysterious wrap of bandages. Nobody quite knows what kind of facelift has gone on under those things, but when the good Doctor comes calling with his scissors, art rock’s premiere hub will, as those Hollywood crazies like to say, be re-booted, re-imagined and indeed, remade. And thus Jack Nicholson did begin cackling.
Before we look forwards though, it seemed appropriate to grab one of Artrocker’s masterminds – Paul Artrocker, live events guru and disc jockey of the longstanding Artrocker Radio show – to take a look back into the past. He’s not going to hold back either. “Artrocker had seriously ‘lost its way’ aesthetically and ethically,” he begins the conversation, explaining the re-boot. “I was always a little bit of a purist about what we should reflect and represent, so when things veered from some of our early direction and inspirations, then I became a little disenchanted with our approach.”
Before we go on, I should point out that Paul is excited about the new direction. But enough about that. We’re here to talk about his history as promoter of the Artrocker Club, which charged a post Britpop London, in the midst of its great musical depression, with the sound of rock and roll for post-millennial noise fanatics.
“It was bloody awful,” he says of the capital’s live scene of the time. “Actually, we perceived ourselves as ‘Johnny-come-lately’s to the gig scene, but to be honest there were only two other good club nights in London then. The rest of the band and gig scene was terrible. Dull. Bland. Boring. Staid. Introspective.”
Not for long. Taking the Artrocker manifesto of new and exciting music first – whether radical or not (no apologies to the rent-a-Radiohead bands of the era), clubland in London was set to be reborn.
“People forget that not every great band is great live. And also, that a garage band, who may not be re-inventing the wheel, may be exceptionally good live,” says Paul. “[But] bands take chances in their early days and especially when they’re live.”
One of Artrocker’s first live shows as an eight-band spectacular at The Garage titled ‘The New Rock’n’Roll’ featuring Ten Benson, BeachBuggy, Los Nachos, and Artrocker’s in-house group Dig Dag Dog. It wasn’t long after that Paul put on the first UK show by a little-known group called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Naturally, your man is modest. “Yes, we did put their first gig on – but so what? They were going to need the NME, and then the broadsheets, and then national radio, and then TV and massive festivals to become huge.”
The Artrocker manifesto was brewing, and pointing the way for Paul was a Californian group called The Pattern, who he booked for Oxford Street’s Metro club. “I guess they were MC5 wanna-bees and they really ‘performed’. Performance was something that was going to play a crucial part of Artrocker.”
Performance was also at the heart of LIARS’, whose first UK show would become an early Artrocker night to remember. LIARS’ music demanded an equally twisted support act, leading Paul to 80s Matchbox B-Line Disaster, whose hedonistic cluster-bomb of a live show would soon become a regular motif of Artrocker live shows.
But let’s not jump too far ahead. Around this time, Artrocker had yet to even become a printed magazine. “We did perhaps a year of weekly email newsletters first,” he explains. “That email-out was very closely linked to the club nights and the ‘scene’.
“When it started, the magazine very quickly wanted to be a proper magazine, which took it away from the slightly ‘fanzine’ feel it had had before.”
As the editorial morphed into new shapes, the Artrocker Club was evolving too – by now a regular fixture at the Buffalo Bar in Islington. The location was crucial: not only a fantastic basement venue, the Buffalo Bar was also a stone’s throw from the magazine office off Holloway Road, and a Wetherspoon where young writers could meet up before the show to heckle for promo CDs to review.
“Buffalo Bar was a great venue,” says Paul. “If you can walk into a room, and it has an atmosphere without any people even being in it, then you know you’re on to a winner! Basements are superb for rock’n’roll.”
From the first night to the last, Paul would sit at the door of Artrocker’s club nights as the weirdos, the desperados, and even a few rock stars waltzed in. Paul recalls Terrashima (“the scariest of the lot”), Black Lips (“they let off the fire extinguishers”) and the Brain Jonestown Massacre (“Anton Newcombe was a lovely chap, but, as you might hope, a little ‘out-to-lunch’ too”).
As the 2000s throttled forwards and Artrocker’s disdain for Glastonbury showed no signs of diluting, Paul found a natural festival fit for his tastes at The Great Escape, and perhaps even more idealistically, at Offset Festival – which ran at Hainault Forest Country Park between 2008-2010.
“What a dream of a festival,” recalls Paul. “Considering festivals are such awful things it was absolutely magnificent what everyone did there.
“So much work went into the three years it ran, and sadly, so much of Kieran and Jo Delaney’s money – in the end, they’d lost too much. This was because they were very poor at getting sponsors or financial help on board. The festival lived and ultimately died by its ticket sales. That’s not to say it wasn’t successful – 4000 people out at Hainault is pretty good I reckon.
“But if it had been six or seven thousand it might still be going. I indeed felt it was the flowering of the whole scene, eespecially East London’s awakening to the scene. Experimental Circle Club and everything that came out of there. It’s good to see the Cave Club still rocking now.”
Towards the end of the decade Artrocker Magazine was getting bigger than ever, moving offices into the former home of Creation Records in Hackney, and revving up national publicity through its star-laden award shows at XOYO. Like a basement band elevated into an arena, for Paul, the transition was discomforting.
“It did become commercial – guided by commercial decisions,” he says. “Therefore it declined in quality. It sold out. We blew it – to quote Peter Fonda.
“The awards shows and the celebs were mostly a lot of fun but not really what Artrocker was about. It was an interesting attempt to develop. Gary Numan was a lovely guy, Jim Reid – not such a lovely guy.”
Perhaps symbolically, around this time the Artrocker shows left their spiritual home at the Buffalo Bar and Paul wiped the boards: it was year zero again as he established a club night called New Heavy Sounds (or NHS, if you like), that focused on take-no-prisoners, ear-destroying volume. This new direction would bring gear-burning motorbike brothers Tweak Bird to the spotlight, as well as the frankly terrifying melted masks of Kong.
“It was similar to how we felt in 2000. My feeling is when things are a bit ‘flat’ in the scene, what often gets things going again is loud, fast, noisy, punky, heavy gigs. So I went where I thought things could start happening again.
“I was really really proud of the the fact we put Pulled Apart By Horses and Bo Ningen on the Artrocker Main stage at Offset festival – certainly before anyone had heard of Pulled Apart By Horses.”
Welcome back to the future. These days, Paul is still putting on regular nights at The Finsbury. But as for whether the Artrocker Club could ever be defibrillated and brought back into life? For now, Paul’s not saying. But he does say this.
“It is quite nice when I bump into people who still have their Artrocker cards to enable free entry into the Buffalo Bar. We must have issued thousands. If only the friends reunited website were still going, we could hire out Brixton Academy and meet up there.”
Read Paul Artrocker’s recent ‘Want To Buy A Club?‘ for more on the early days and life of ARTROCKER Live