HAPPY TEN YEARS, NORTHCOTE SOCIAL CLUB
By Jo Rittey
The Pixies, Jose Gonzalez, Martha Wainwright, not to mention Gotye and Midnight Oil, have all played here. Courtney Barnett used to sometimes sit and think and sometimes just sit when she was working behind the bar here.
The Northcote Social Club band room seems to feature a never-ending line up of hometown heroes, interstate bands and international artists, making it the quintessential Melbourne band room.
An integral part of Northcote’s social life, Northcote Social Club has been recently refurbished in time for the live music venue’s 10th anniversary celebrations and to reflect the changing face of the suburb.
The historic venue we now know as Northcote Social Club has stood on a corner of High Street since 1854.
“The Northcote Social Club is proud to be part of the vibrant inner north,” says Managing Director Andrew Mansfield, who came from the Corner Hotel ten years ago to open Northcote Social Club.
“After a decade of trade and a couple of thousand shows we’ve renovated the bars and band room to prepare ourselves for the next bunch of amazing gigs, long lunches, boozy arvos and unforgettable late nights.”
Always popular with the locals, until recently Northcote wasn’t seen as a destination suburb for eating, drinking or even shopping. Then, twelve years later, all that changed.
The students and young professionals who could no longer afford Carlton and Fitzroy started roaming further afield and discovered Northcote, and so began the gentrification of yet another formerly working-class and largely migrant suburb.
Rents rose, and for a while, many shop fronts remained vacant. But with more people choosing to buy and stay in the area, a degree of stability has emerged, and attracted more upmarket designers, boutiques, bars and restaurants.
When Mat Everett, of Fitzroy’s Punter Club fame (now Bimbo’s) bought the Commercial Hotel in High Street in the early 2000s, Northcote was an area that was developing a similar atmosphere to that of Brunswick Street in the 1980s. In late 2004 he reopened the venue as the Northcote Social Club, and injected a new focus on live music. Over the last decade, Northcote Social Club has maintained its rather low-key, no fuss, indie music feel.
“Our beginning here in 2004 was pretty timely as far as the resurgence of Northcote and the Northern suburbs generally went. We were incredibly lucky to be delivering a space that was just the right thing at the right time and we benefitted enormously from the support of Northsiders,” says Andrew.
Andrew thinks the calibre of artists that they have been able to showcase at Northcote Social Club, and the way the space has worked as a community hub, has been a boon for the way people view Northcote.
“There’s an element of longevity to it as well. Suburbs blossom when there’s a sense of strong stable growth and sometimes a space like the Social Club gets held up as an example of this. We’re proud to have been a part of helping the suburb attract more attention and I think people appreciate that we’re here for the long term.”
A northside institution
Brunswick resident James O’Brien has been playing in various bands for the last 15 years, firstly with Brisbane based group The Boat People and for the last seven years in Melbourne with Machine Translations, Kate Miller-Heidke and his new project Darling James, among others.
James has performed in many live music environments in cities all around the world and the Northcote Social Club is in his top three or four venues.
“I’ve had the honour of playing the Northcote Social Club so many times I’ve lost count! Firstly as a touring band coming from Brisbane and more recently as a local. At least five different bands I’ve played with have performed there, but how many times I have no idea,” says James.
James says the sound on stage is excellent in terms of what the performers experience and knowing that the sound is great from the front of house means you know the audience is hearing your music at its best.
“The fact that the venue and staff are so totally committed to making it as good a live music venue as possible means that you feel like your music is valued and respected,” he says. “The Northcote Social Club is popular because it’s so consistent. You expect quality music and production and you always get it. It’s also got a great ‘come one, come all’ feel about it. You can see tradies having knock-off drinks, families having a meal and young bands doing their thing all in one place. So even though it’s one of the best live music venues in one of the best live music cities it’s very unpretentious.”
For Andrew, the 2005 and 2006 High Vibes festivals were amazing platforms for Northcote and the venue.
“I’ll always remember these as some of the last great ‘loose’ community festivals,” he says. “Having lunch with the Pixies prior to their show here was just surreal. I was speaking to Courtney Barnett the other day who caught up with Kim Deal in the States who told Courtney she still wears her Northcote Social Club t-shirt, and that was pretty cool to hear.”
Ten years in the business
To celebrate ten years of amazing gigs, drinks and good times, Northcote Social Club has had a bit of a facelift and is now looking forward to another decade of goodness.
Part of the renovation process was the desire to be mindful of history and heritage. The team at Northcote Social Club wanted to update the venue without changing the fundamental atmosphere of the place.
“A lot of the vibe is in the people not the aesthetic. We didn’t follow any architectural pub trends. We wanted to capitalise on what was already working well, and what people have come to know and expect, as well as acknowledge the changing face of Northcote,” says Andrew.
“There’s nothing worse than when your favourite bar gets a makeover and they rip out all character. I’m not a cocktaily, fancy, shiny bar type of person,” says Andrew.
“Our bread and butter crowd is not that either. People have a really strong connection to the live music spaces. We’re not building out that heritage.”
Many hospitality businesses battle with evolving while still maintaining their identity, and for Andrew, it is the music that provides a lot of ongoing continuity to the Northcote Social Club identity.
“The core tenet for the Northcote Social Club is trying to provide the best services we can and holding to our beliefs about the inclusionary nature of the space, that it remains welcoming to a broad range of people and is comfortable to spend time in,” he says.
The deck, with its indoor outdoor feel, has always been the prime area for a beer and a graze, and now it has gotten a whole lot better with a full service bar. In fact, all the bars have been rebuilt for efficiency and service. There is now a lot more intimate seating and booths, as well as more traditional but refreshed bar furniture.
“I like bars that give the sense of the world going by when I’m having a beer without having to be out in it,” explains Andrew.
In terms of the iconic band room, Andrew comments, “Bands love it acoustically so we didn’t want to muck around with that but there’s a fresh coat of paint, new carpet, lighting, and we’ve raised the ceiling over the stage.”
Cleverly, the Northcote Social Club team have taken what they were already doing well and improved it. With the creation of more of a sense of flow around the venue, those familiar with the 300 capacity band room will particularly appreciate the improved access.
Northcote Social Club has always prided itself on the quality of its food and their intention is to deliver the best version of pub food in Northcote area. In keeping with this idea, the kitchen has also been renovated and Chef Martin De Korte has delivered a new menu with a twist on traditional pub themes and a lot more share and grazing style items.
“We might hang our hat on the hook of live music, but the relationship the customers have with food and drink is the major week-in, week-out drawcard,” says Andrew.
“We’ve had a ball the last ten years,” says Andrew, “we still feel lucky to be able to do what we do in an area we love doing it, so we’re just chuffed to kick off of the revamped Social Club ready for the next decade of good times.”
301 High Street, Northcote VIC 3070
(03) 9489 3917
Jo is a French teaching writer, has a PhD in Medieval French Literature and is caught up in the myth she can cram as much as possible into every day. You can read more of her adventures, both existential and otherwise on http://lyttelfishbigpond.blogspot.com.au/