Five Years in the Making: Pooky & the Bonsai Hi-Fi Sound System

Bonsai Hi-Fi is a bespoke, warm, hi-fidelity sound system normally nestled in a cosy corner of the Wirral. Carefully constructed with love, the Bonsai Hi-Fi parties have been running for nearly a full year and have drawn a loyal crowd of dancers. On the cusp of their very first birthday party, Aiden Brady ties up loose ends with head-gardener of the soundsystem, and good friend of Melodic Distraction, Pooky to chat about the Bonsai project.

Pooky & Andrew Pimbley with The Bonsai Hi-Fi Sound System at Claremont Farm

The inception of this interview was two years ago, when Josh, James and Tom interviewed Pooky at his home on the Wirral. At that time, Bonsai Hi-Fi hadn’t yet been announced, and a cryptic insight into a new, exciting idea was all Pooky was able to provide. Fragments such as “I’ve got this little thing going on…” eventually gave way to a more complete picture of what Pooky was up to, some secrets are perhaps too big and too exciting to keep completely under wraps. Upon being asked if he was collecting a Kilpschorn soundsystem, he responded, “Yeah I am, that’s all I will tell you, if it doesn’t tell you anything then that’s fine. I am collecting an esoteric, audiophile, class-A Hi-Fi. That’s what I’m doing.”

Now, the cat is very much out of the bag and Bonsai Hi-Fi is about to reach the one year mark. Taking residence on the second floor of Andrew Pimbley’s humble but beautiful Claremont Farm, Bonsai has been hosting perhaps the freshest and most exciting party around Merseyside for the last 12 months.

Many whom are deeply invested in Liverpool’s music scene would scarcely consider visiting a party across the Mersey. There is a strong case for the Wirral being an overlooked resource when it comes to the North West’s rich music scene although I know that some will have ventured across the water for the first time for the Bonsai HiFi experience.

“There’s nothing else like this in Liverpool, there’s no audio… I don’t like the ‘audiophile’ term, I wouldn’t say ‘phile’, but if it needs be, sure, that’s what we’ll call it.” The Klipschorn-centric sound system was a set-up pioneered by the late David Mancuso at his Loft parties in New York, with an ultimate emphasis on fidelity and how it could be harnessed to create a connection between music, crowd and DJ. Although Mancuso sadly passed away in 2016, the ethos of his parties is carried on, most notably by Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy and the Lucky Cloud parties she hosts in London.

Having initially wanted to build a club-focused soundsystem, it was at Lucky Cloud that Pooky’s passion for building a high-fidelity sound system was first ignited. After making the trip to London and experiencing a Loft party for the first time roughly five years ago, Bonsai Hi-Fi didn’t become so much of an ambition as an obsession.

“When I first went to the London party, I’d just stopped drinking, I’d just walked out of my business. I’m a bit weird, half-raucous, half-hermit, and I was very much in this hermit zone.

I thought I needed to go to one of these parties, I was just kind of thinking about the sound system, and spoke to Adam (Colleen’s husband), who said to come down. This was a big thing for me, I’m finding that going anywhere is anxiety inducing. So, I’m in London, I’m nervous, I don’t really know what to expect but I know I’m going to expect something. I’ve only ever heard…these have all been mythical things that have gone on…

I walk in, I go down early, Adam invited me down for the set up to watch how they’re doing things. It was a really nice atmosphere, this is about half 3/4 o’clock. So 5 o’clock comes and Adam goes, ‘I’ve got to go home, we’ve got to do some stuff before the party.’

I tell him ‘that’s fine, don’t worry about me.’ But, of course I’m nervously thinking, ‘don’t know anybody else here.’ I’m there on my own and this guy just comes up to me and says, ‘I’m Darren, one of the Lucky Cloud crew, me, my boyfriend and our mates are going for a beer, d’you wanna come with us?’ So I went down the pub and just had a really lovely time with them.

Later we piled back to the party. During, I was just kind of taking it all in and thinking, ‘it’s not that loud’ because I still didn’t quite have a concept. I thought, ‘something’s going on here, and I don’t know what it is.’

That feeling was there…all of a sudden I turn around, and a mate of mine from Liverpool, a guy called Desa, who’s very important in my life was there. He pretty much taught me how to DJ, taught me everything I needed to know about nightclubs in ’87, ’88.

I turn around and another mate of mine, a friend of a very good friend who had died very young. So, I’m like s**t, the right people, some of my favourite people are here. And, emotions, we’re thinking about my mate who had died, and about times gone. Everything about it, the room was so charged with… I was so happy I felt sad.

I was consumed by this lovely, but melancholy bittersweet feeling. It’s about 10:15, I’m in the middle of the dance floor, thinking, I can’t believe these people are here.

Then, Colleen pulled out this record… When I don’t know a record and it’s that good I’m like, ‘How have I slept on this?’ It’s like a 12 minute record, she played it beginning to end, and I was just…there were parts of the record and I just went, I’m fucking doing this. This is going to happen. I’m going to go straight home and start building this.”

A Close-Up of The Bonsai Hi-Fi System

After deciding to direct all of his efforts and energy toward building the Hi-Fi, Pooky was willing to quite literally travel to the ends of the earth to get the necessary pieces. He provided a small window to this two years ago, while still in the process of building the system, “It’s not even an option to not try and do this now, and every day I’m like ‘oh really? Am I really going to Bucharest to do this?” This drive to go to such lengths and travel thousands of miles to realise this vision is a true testament to the impression Lucky Cloud left on Pooky.

For Pooky, in some respects, Colleen Murphy headlining Bonsai Hi-Fi’s first birthday feels ceremonial, and celebrates the party’s first 12-month cycle by taking it back to it’s very roots. “It feels a bit like the Queen’s coming to town to say, ‘You know what, David birthed Lucky Cloud Sound system and maybe in some small way Lucky Cloud birthed Bonsai Hi-Fi.’ That’s how it is.”

This will mark the first of the Bonsai parties which will see Pooky as both DJ and audience member, having been in the driving seat for the duration of each night up to this point. With such extensive experience and having embedded DJing so deeply into his DNA, taking on the role of the punter doesn’t come quite so naturally anymore.

“Obviously I’ve loved each of the parties.I don’t like being on that (crowd) side of the decks ordinarily, but I’ve got to let my hair down a little bit and just enjoy the night. It’s important that I know what it’s like as a punter, how it sounds, how it feels… it’ll make me better at that job. However, I’m much more comfortable on the other side.”

The original Loft created a style for throwing parties which simply hadn’t existed beforehand. In the past two decades its status has only continued to grow, being heralded in hindsight as a kind of music Shangri-La. This makes it hard for venues operating in the same style not to be boxed in as a recreation, or replication of the iconic Loft parties. Although Bonsai Hi-Fi is informed and instructed by Mancuso’s format, it certainly has its own unique interpretation, and is keen to maintain its individuality.

“I don’t want to just play Loft records. I play some of those, but I also want to play my own thing. I’m not trying to be David Mancuso, I’m not trying to be the Loft. I’m taking what I’ve learnt, what he did, what they’ve done… the freedom of expression, the breadth of music, the fidelity side… so I can play the music I love.”

Pooky Digging Through Records In His Home Studio

This vision not only encompasses these areas, but also how the night ought to be experienced. When was the last time you went to a club night and saw the whole soirée through, start to finish? I’m rather guilty of this myself, and this is one of the many pitfalls of music that Pooky seeks to avoid. I don’t want people just turning up for the main beans. Turn up for the foreplay and the after-sex cigarette. When I go and see Mr Scruff, I am the first in there, the whole shebang, because I want to hear Mr Scruff getting himself in the mood, and punctuating his own story. It’s the take-off, flight, re-entry. That’s what it’s always about for me, and what it’s always been about, this aeroplane never goes into autopilot.”

Of course, this is a party and there’s no writ demanding your attendance from 7 o’clock doors. However, there is a strict no entry policy after 9 o’clock.

“When doors open at seven, it’s just esoteric, nice, something that invites you in at a lower volume, and at 9 o’clock the door will shut, there’s no admission after that, strict. Then we let the system breathe you know. I would like to think there’s no point in that where someone goes ‘Oh that’s too..’ It’s just the right volume for the right situations and the right records being played.”

If this interview were with someone you could fit neatly into the category of ‘promoter’, then  this could be interpreted as elitism or a myopic attempt to force a crowd to enjoy themselves on someone else’s terms. I don’t think Pooky fits neatly into any one category though, simultaneously wearing the hat of DJ, producer, and host of Bonsai Hi-Fi.

I think there is a somewhat different attitude toward being a party host and a party promoter, especially when, as host, you’ve spent the better part of a decade amassing one of the best sound systems in the North West. For a host, the aim is to make the party the best it can be, for all present.

Comfort is key, and aiming to enjoy yourself with no pretence of anything else but enjoyment, is central to the party. Anyone can come, as long as they come to respect other people, respect themselves, and they love dancing, socialising and meeting nice people.”

Aiming for this crowd doesn’t seem to have been out reach thus far. Where Mancuso’s Loft was private by design, Bonsai is open to all, but it’s distance from the city centre, although not out of reach, means only those with a genuine, fervent interest in the party will make the trip. This intention wasn’t explicit at the venue’s birth, but works in its favour, and fits in with Pooky’s desire to support the peninsula which has built him up.

“I left the Wirral to go to London, thinking it was the most boring, w***est place I’d ever been. A Year in London and I couldn’t get back quick enough. I ordered a taxi and went, ‘Need a taxi, an estate.’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going to a place called Heswall on the Wirral.’ ‘Well that’s miles away.’ ‘Yeah I know and I don’t give a…’ I spent like £442, I just thought, ‘I need to get out, now..’

It certainly seems that since returning to the North-West Pooky hasn’t looked back for even a second. Whenever our conversation took a local focus he only spoke of his home with a great sense of pride. “This little peninsula has quietly achieved loads.” One of Pooky’s first introductions to DJing, some thirty years ago, was via a friend, DJ Trix. “I was 14/15, I saw him with two turntables and a mixer, and left that room thinking, ‘That’s what I’m gunna do, for the rest of my life.” It was as simple as when I was on that dance floor.”

These quotes and anecdotes endeavour to paint a picture of the man that Pooky is and what he seeks to achieve with Bonsai Hi-Fi, but not any number of 4 hour conversations spread across any number of years can really do justice. Once the interview had finished, and I stopped recording, Pooky and I looked out onto his back garden and started discussing plants. “You haven’t really lived unless you fantasise about gardening. That’s when you know you’ve really had a mad time.” Off the cuff Pooky said this, “I really like the Bonsai trees… a Bonsai is something small that you have to nurture for it to grow.” So it is with both Japanese gardens and world-class Hi-Fi’s.

Before leaving, I asked Pooky to pick out 2 or 3 records which have been significant to Bonsai Hi-Fi since the beginning. After a short search, he shouted up from his studio, “It’ll have to be four!” I don’t hear you complaining though.

House of House – Rushing To Paradise
This was the track Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy played at Lucky Cloud just over five years ago, and set Pooky about his current course. One for peak time, his own words for me were “It hasn’t even happened yet.” It’ll make sense after a full listen.

Killing Joke – Requiem
This would normally get played early night at Bonsai Hi-Fi, right at the crossover as things start to pick up. “I wanted something with attitude…we’ve had our gentle nights where we drink our Aperol spritzes. This record just f**king blew me away, it’s a reminder that it’s not an easy ride.”

Lil Louis & The World – Saved My Life
“I don’t know what mix of this people play, but this is the only one for me. It’s 125BPM, getting up there, we’d never go much over 125, although there are no rules. Generally, I don’t play a lot of stuff with just kick drums, it has to be quite organic sounding.

Dexter Wansel – Life On Mars
Sci-Fi funk from the 70s, this one has a killer intro and lovely sporadic melodies in all the right places. “That’s a Loft tune. You can just imagine 20 brothers in the studio, jamming the s**t out to this.”

Bonsai Hi-Fi will be celebrating its first birthday on Saturday the 18th of May at Claremont Farm. Make the trip for a rather unique evening to remember.