There aren’t many cities in the world that have a club scene that continues to have to deal with the unique challenges that Belfast has. A scene that began in 1989 at the foothills of the Black Mountain, when clubbers inspired by the Acid House revolution that was sweeping Britain, began to congregate in secret, dancing in woods and derelict buildings. The context on this side of the Irish Sea was different though. Raving was a means of escaping the daily dread of bombs, bullets and military checkpoints that were a part of life at the time. Figures such as Alan Ferris and David Holmes were at the coalface of the scene of the day, and soon established nights at the Art College. The city’s youth developed an appetite for this way of life that was nothing short of voracious, shorn, as it was, of the politico-religious tension that so often found its way into the city’s bars and clubs. This sectarian-free atmosphere helped fire the zeal with which Belfast’s club scene became synonymous.
Because of this, DJs, producers and promoters have always had a collective determination to show that they are as much a part of dance culture as anywhere else and that the city has a passion for the music that, like an oak tree, is firmly rooted, stands tall and grows stronger. Orbital, of course, named one of their most famous tracks after the place following a particularly hedonistic gig at the Art College in 1990. So just what keeps Belfast ticking? Decoded is in the city to report on its thriving dance scene and to speak to a few important figures thereon. Timmy Stewart has been at the heart of the scene since his days as a punter at the Art College and has DJ’d all over Europe among other places. He’s had tracks played by Laurent Garnier and Francois K, and now curates the hugely popular Night Institute with Jordan, which is currently touring the UK and Ireland. He also runs Extended Play, a label that caters specifically for Irish producers. He is in no doubt about what the essence of Belfast is:
“It’s about looking at ourselves from another angle; holding a mirror up and seeing just what we can do.There’s something that’s unique to Northern Ireland and that’s a lack of self-belief, and in the pre-internet days we were a bit isolated and maybe we thought that we were just a little area that nobody really cared about. It’s taken a little while for people in Belfast to believe in themselves and their talent as artists. When you scratch the surface you can see just how much talent Belfast has at its disposal. Things like AVA and Boiler Room, Bicep, Space Dimension Controller, Ejeca, and Phil Kieran all act as catalysts and give people a real belief in themselves.”
Stewart himself is determined to help rising stars break out and has been mightily impressed with the wealth of talent, not just in Belfast, but all over Ireland. He now uses his label, Extended Play, as an outlet for this, releasing music that reflects the growth in confidence of Irish DJs and producers and the increasing quality of the music. Previously, the label was an open house, but it now serves as a vehicle for talent from the Emerald Isle.
“Around 18 months ago, the label decided that we weren’t going to release anything unless it came from Ireland. We were getting such a high amount of quality stuff on the home front that we thought it would be nice for the label to have a sense of identity, whereas beforehand we weren’t getting enough to justify it. We’re now in a position where we put out one release per month and it’s all from Ireland, with house, disco and techno being strongly represented.”
He has also consistently leant his support to Tw!tch, a night that began humbly in the Bunatee Bar in Queens’ Student’s Union and has grown to become another of Belfast’s marquee nights. Tw!tch celebrates its tenth birthday in October with a line-up featuring, among others, Joy Orbison, Job Jobse, Paul Woolford and Timmy himself. Stewart offers that this is something else that helps put Belfast on the map. “I was speaking to Red Rack’em about Belfast and told him about Tw!tch’s birthday and he couldn’t believe the line-up. He thought I was trying to play an April Fool’s joke on him!”
Timmy’s pioneering spirit has seen him play Belfast’s first Boiler Room, which took place last year. It set itself apart from most other broadcasts, in that the enthusiasm of the crowd bordered on wild, something markedly different to the more reserved, laid back audience more readily associated with Boiler Room, and something that was uniquely ‘Belfast’. It was also part of a wider scope of proceedings, debuting as it did as part of Belfast’s inaugural AVA Festival. Taking place in T13, a huge disused warehouse that is a remnant of the days of Belfast’s once-thriving shipbuilding industry, AVA can be seen as a celebration of all that is good about the city’s club culture, and offers a smorgasbord of delights for the dance fan, with seminars, workshops and DJs throughout the day and night. Its growth in just one year can perhaps be judged on the fact that the great Juan Atkins spoke at this year’s event, underlining its importance and its reach. It is the ‘baby’ of Sarah McBriar, sister of Matt McBriar, one-half of Bicep.
T13, which had hitherto been used as a skate park, had its association with dance music begin with Moth. The Moth nights featured the involvement of Dale Hooks and Gary Quinn, better known as Ubblahkan. The lads have just returned from Ibiza, where they played Space and Café Del Mar. Gary admits that it wasn’t hard for the owners of the unit to choose dancing over skating. “The whole thing changed direction when they realised they could generate a lot more money off events like the ones we were putting on. It’s a shame for the skaters, but there are now loads of things going on there, like the upcoming Cream night.” Moth only held 8 events, but they hit the ground running, and attracted some stellar names.
“We put the venue on the map. We had DJ Sneak, Felix Da Housecat, Steve Lawler, Patrick Topping, and Booka Shade play. And the look of T13 was instrumental in being able to book more acts. The photos of the nights that we sent to agents made our job a lot easier, and they came looking for us as opposed to us looking for their clients. I think that using T13 as a venue for club nights was a big turning point for Belfast.” – Dale Hooks (Moth)
And there needed to be a turning point. Nights like Kinetik, Yello, Stiff Kitten, Shine and Thompson’s were large-scale events taking place on a weekly basis. Yello and Stiff Kitten closed, Shine nights become more sporadic, and Thompson’s began to cater for a more commercial audience. Gary observed this sea-change. “When Yello closed, people felt lost and it left a void in the scene. This led to a rise in house parties and inspired the next generation to go and DJ and turn nights among friends into club nights, for example, Tw!tch. People are now spoiled for choice in Belfast. There are so many smaller nights running all over the city, whereas in the past there would maybe only have been 2 or 3 club nights running. Thompson’s for me is now the best it’s ever been.” Dale adds, “Shine know that having a few nights over the course of the year is much more sensible than having a string of nights as that market is no longer so exclusive.”
The rise of collectives like Moth, Tw!tch and The Night Institute, and events like AVA add to the palpable sense that Belfast is a city that believes in itself and what it has to offer, and the have-a-go attitude that the likes of Ubblahkan, Bicep and Timmy Stewart inspire is exemplified at Belfast Underground Records. Since opening on the site of the old Mixmaster Records in April 2015, Belfast Underground has firmly established itself as a hub for recognised figures on the scene, as well as potential stars for the future, and indeed for the regular record collector. It has also since expanded its sphere, launching an online radio station in September 2015 that now caters for an audience of circa 100,000 in over 150 countries, and provides recording space in the building via Cloud 9 studios. Gary Dillon, who owns the store, has noticed the upsurge in passion and enthusiasm in Belfast in recent times. “It’s massive. So many young people are perfecting their production skills, coming through the ranks and having their work released on labels.”
Bobby Murray, who both works in the shop and DJs around the city, explains why their radio station is very much a part of the we’ll-help-you-to-help-yourself culture that sets Belfast apart. “We’ve had some of the best DJs in the country come and play here, but we want to bring in some of the fresh, up and coming acts and give them a chance to establish themselves and get their names out there. It’s far from guaranteed that when they hand their mixes into clubs they’ll get listened to, whereas if they come in here it’ll give them a chance to play somewhere other than bedrooms or private parties. DJs who have never played out before have secured gigs on the back of coming in here and having their mixes broadcast, and that’s absolutely a good thing.”
“We also do live broadcasts from venues, such as Shine and The Perch, and will be expanding this operation across the city. We use our own DJs and that helps to build the scene, and open venues up to new audiences, venues that perhaps wouldn’t previously have been associated with club culture. Owners are largely on board, as they can see how quickly the popularity of house and disco nights is spreading.” – Gary Dillon
Belfast feels like the kind of city that cannot get enough of dance culture, and its influence is growing exponentially. The vivaciousness and excitement that exists here permeates throughout its nightlife, and there is a feeling that nothing is impossible; as if the next adventure is just around the corner. The only real constraint is the early closing time, and pressure is building constantly for change with local politicians facing persistent lobbying on the issue. Dale Hooks sums up how, if that pressure yielded, Belfast’s inherent passion and potential would rise like a fountain and reveal the musical utopia that lies so tantalisingly near the surface. “The only thing that holds us back is the licensing issue. All we need is another couple of hours, and this city would be second-to-none.”