Speaking to Melodic Distraction in the rarely-seen loft above 24 Kitchen Street, co-owner Ioan Roberts shares with us the story of how his now 3 year old nationally-acclaimed venue has not only endured, but excelled for three years amid a growing atmosphere of diminishing club culture and the sanitisation of local nightlife.
At a glance, 24 Kitchen Street is one of the Baltic Triangle’s more unassuming music venues; with two steel blue doors lining the narrow street outside. With little outward signage, it’d be more than possible for your Saturday night cabbie to miss the spot, yet somehow this elusiveness has cultivated a greater sense of community among those who venture inside. From hosting one of the UK’s most celebrated LGBT nights, Sonic Yootha to curating the best grime and bassline events in town, 24 Kitchen Street’s programming draws in audiences from all corners of the city and beyond.
Once a cultural island amid a sea of industry-fuelled warehouses, 24 Kitchen Street has recently become flanked by student-let high-rise developments and trendy office spaces. A flourishing neighbourhood of music venues, art studios and hip coffee shops, the Baltic Triangle is undoubtedly emerging from its centuries-old roots in Liverpool’s once thriving shipping industry. However, the cost of such rapid expansion has threatened the archetypal spaces of this rejuvenated environment – and now those who brought with them the ambitions of an artistic utopia are feeling the pinch of popularity: ironically, a popularity that has stemmed from such successful venues as 24 Kitchen Street, Constellations and Camp & Furnace.
To get a better understanding of what this tiny, side-street venue was all about, where it is headed and how it has played a role in this tale, we sat down with Ioan to discuss 19th Century plumbing, pizza ovens and everything else…
Melodic Distraction: So, Ioan – How did it all get started?
Ioan: Well, we were just looking for a warehouse to do a one-off event in really, we had been going door to door around the area…
Melodic Distraction: As an events company?
Ioan: Nah, not really. We just ran parties as a couple of mates. We were looking for warehouses that were either empty or that we could use over the weekend. We’d hire it; take the keys on Friday, set up and do a party on the Saturday, pack down on the Sunday and give them the keys back on the Monday!
We managed to get Kitchen Street on a more long-term basis. The owner was 82 and basically trying to get rid of the building, the terms suited us…so we just got it!
Melodic Distraction: So what went down next, how did it turn into the venue we’re sat in today? Was there a big learning curve involved?
Ioan: Yeah man, massive! We stripped it out and tried to make good of the building. We had to re-lay the floor, create an exit out the back – staircases and all. One of the original partners is a general builder and we’ve mates around us that work in specific trades and they gave us advice. We were also able to work with the area’s industrial workers, people who’ve had existing warehouses but also the newcomers to the Baltic, especially the builders from L1 lettings. A lot of building materials were sourced from warehouses that were getting demolished in the area.
We made a fair few mistakes along the way. Because we didn’t have money, we had to prematurely start doing nights to raise capital. We did the nights to make money to put back into improving the building. Our first night was in November of 2013, the venue was nowhere near ready and at this point…we didn’t even have a licence.
Melodic Distraction: So it wasn’t registered as an ongoing nightclub?
Ioan: It definitely wasn’t a commercial music venue at the time, no. We did our first event: both toilets got blocked instantly, and we spent the whole night trying to unblock them. After that we realised that the drainage hadn’t been changed since 1850 when the building was built. It took us 2-3 weeks to re-lay it all.
Next were the licensing agencies – who deal more with sound levels. They told us that we were making loads of noise which we found difficult to believe. Then, at our next night we did decibel checks and thought, “Oh shit…we’ve actually been making a ton of noise.” We then discovered that there were loads of holes in the building….like loads; 4 inches wide and that’s where noise was just escaping! So, we had to make good on all those sort of things.
Melodic Distraction: So, when did you manage to get a licence?
Ioan: At first, we didn’t get the licence… We had to go to a tribunal, where we represented ourselves – we eventually got it.
Throughout September of 2014, we set about heavily programming the venue for 10 months; we lost tons of money on shows, despite often selling out the venue. Even though we made money on the bar, it onlymanaged to balance out our artist and staffing costs. We were really treading water, we were thinking, “Oh shit, where’s this going?” We were doing loads of work, not taking a wage out – it was threadbare existence – I was living upstairs for a lot of it but eventually…we started actually getting somewhere!
Fucking hell…Christmas and New Years Eve of 2015 was like, “Wow!” Since then, the venue has taken off…the last 8 months have been a blessing.
Melodic Distraction: So what are your future plans?
Ioan: The plan moving forwards is to open up the space more for daytime uses. Essentially that means that we need to get the venue into a more adaptable state. We’ve just bought a pizza oven so we’re about to start making fresh pizzas. That’ll fit quite well with the students coming into the area and for people working in the daytime. Eventually, we would love to have a restaurant or certainly a café that can serve food all through the day.
Melodic Distraction: Nice, so you’re expanding?
Ioan: Yeah, we’re trying to. It’s so hard at the moment in terms of the industry… you’ve seen how many clubs are shutting. A lot of it is because of property developments but a lot of them are just going out of business. People are just going out less… at least it feels like that. We want to merge in art exhibitions – like Constellations do a great job with their arts projects – We’ve got to be open to change as the daily walk-up increases.
Melodic Distraction: Suppose that comes with more housing going up?
Ioan: Sure, we are not anti-development at all. I mean, in a sense we are developing the area too. We are gentrifying the area as well. We’re trying to do it in a conscientious and organic way that respects the heritage of the area and the people who live locally, who have always lived locally and protect the architectural integrity of the building which we love.
Melodic Distraction: It’s about working with everyone I guess?
Ioan: Yeah, I mean obviously people make a noise coming in and out of the venue and it’s hard for us to control that. You will get developers who buy into the area because places like 24 Kitchen Street and other venues in the area have created an environment that is considered “cool;” that then helps feed back into the brand of the area.
Once developers see this, the area becomes safe for them to commit to investing in. Then they’ll build flats because they see the Baltic as a trendy area. At the same time, people move in and make noise complaints about us, when it has been our blood and sweat that has invested into the area’s brand in the first place!
So naturally, that’s something that is unsettling for us. You can see that there are music and art venues all around the country that are getting shut down; not just because of the spiralling costs of rents and doing business but because as the area goes up in value, more financial interests try and get involved with it.
We know that we’ve got to work with people and we’ve got to try and make less noise. We’ve put in noise-acoustic installation; we’ve invested significant amounts into that and we will continue to do so. But at the same time, why shouldn’t we exist in this part of the city?
Melodic Distraction: I suppose it’s about making people who live here aware that this is a cultural area and encourage them to work with you?
Ioan: Sure, sometimes a developer might not tell the person who’s moving in that were here… it might not suit them to tell them that we’re right here.
Melodic Distraction: What responsibility do you think developers have to soundproof their own building?
Ioan: I think they should; that’s how I feel, if they’re building next to an established music venue. We’re constantly investing in local music and bringing artists from outside Liverpool into the city. We are enriching the cultural fabric of the city…that’s how we feel anyway, there are people who agree with that in this city and there are people who don’t. If Liverpool wants to be a proper player on the map, the council need to do more than pay lip service to projects like ours, they need to support them.
Ultimately, developments so far in the city do not give us medium or long term security, unfortunately. It hasn’t been bad but we do worry, it’s like you can have 3 or 4 years, and then the area re-generation plan transitions to a next stage, and you’re not welcome anymore. This insecurity then impacts on our investment strategy and business development. For instance, ideally we’d buy a new state of the art sound-system, I mean on a level with a couple of clubs in London and one in Manchester, the sort that’ll make internationally recognised artists want to play there, and also giving local artists the chance to use world class equipment. But then you don’t want to spend tens and tens of thousands of pounds on something if you might not be there in a few years. I’ve just been to a music venue alliance meeting in Camden, the first of it’s kind. The problem isn’t specific to Liverpool, this is a national problem, comparing unfavourably with other more enlightened countries, like Germany and The Netherlands. I mean in the space of a month, the UKs best known clubbing institution is permanently shut down by the police and Islington Council, whilst in Berlin, Berghain was recognised as a cultural venue, given high art status and subsequently pays 7% VAT, not 19% like pubs and bars, in the same bracket as theatres and museums. Over half the music and performance venues across the UK have shut down over the last 10 years, that’s chronic.
Melodic Distraction: So, tell us about the third birthday?
Ioan: We’ve wanted to book Paranoid London for ages and haven’t been able to. ASOK, our Wonder Pot resident, knows them – so he was able to link it up.
We were just going to run with that but we thought because it’s a birthday we would go all out and booked Objekt. It’s gonna be Or:la 10-12, Objekt 12-2:30, then Paranoid London 2:30-3:30 and then ASOK. He (ASOK) just played Panorama Bar and he’s going to play again in a few months. He came back from Panorama and said he wanted to do a late set like he did in Berlin – we’re gonna keep it later than normal.
Melodic Distraction: Tickets?
Ioan: Half way through..expecting a sell-out
It’s not the sort of line up you see everyday. It’s kind of like half a line up you’d see at Berghain. We’ve gone big. It’s a city-debut for Paranoid London in Liverpool and Objekt hasn’t played since Less Effect 3 years ago, so we had to bring him back!
Melodic Distraction: Nice one mate, glad to hear it’s all on track. Sounds like it will be a great party.
Speaking to Ioan, we get a sense that the story of Kitchen Street is one of juxtapositions: the venue, one that had a big hand in turning an otherwise grey area into a cultural melting-pot is now having to face the pressures of the area’s rising popularity.
While it was the hard work and gumption of Ioan and his team that brought a new dynamic to the area, it remains the top-down developments that are cashing in. While it may seem that this story is one that we’ve all become far too accustomed to, it seems as though the core ingredients that have kept Kitchen Street going for this long already, and against all odds, will be the exact same factors that ensure its survival in this ever-developing area.