Please Mind the Gap:
Geographies of the Underground
I met Oli Nelson at the Gloucester Green food market – something of an Oxford institution in a different vein to questionable Union speakers and 15th century architecture. Having never actually eaten there he seems enthused by the swirl of life it injects into what is otherwise a pretty average Wednesday afternoon. Much like another Oxford mainstay, Cellar, which inevitably is an initial point of discussion, it’s a place external to the academic trappings of university where people can socialise and enjoy themselves. You can feel life seeping back into the students sitting around as they dig into pad Thai and Tibetan curry in much the same way that you get those rare communal moments of bliss as everyone smacks the roof before Minor Science drops a huge wheel.
Clubbing spaces sit as locations of intersectionality, particularly within student life, and it’s in smoking areas like that of Cellar that he confesses “I met some of my best friends by chance.” Oli lays out the unique social elements that these spaces can bring – that clubbing at uni is “completely different. That’s why we -as a brand – we’re strongest in like Oxford and Bristol. There’s a big uni scene there.” Compared to the metropolis of London, “Uni people club but you wouldn’t get at all a sense that clubs are dominated by uni students in the same way that they are in Oxford.”
It’s clearly an important part of the Goodness ethos – a brand that he’s grown alongside seven friends to encompass London, Bristol and Manchester with the delightfully simple approach of “small venues, big lineups”.
We’re talking the week after the first Goodness event of the term, a hefty do at a less recognised venue, Emporium, that featured the talents of Oxford alumnus Sybil and Hessle Audio co-founder Pearson Sound. With the addition of an extra sound rig it was a blistering night, only dampened by some technical issues in the last half hour. Oli’s curious to hear how I found it, himself unsure about Emporium as a new player on the Oxford scene.
“If they want to stake a meaningful claim on oxford nightlife … they could in theory but it would take a while for people’s perceptions to change. It would need everyone to leave uni – all our current generation to graduate before making meaningful change.” Luckily management seems to be listening – “they’re looking to make it a thing”.
Clearly perception is an issue, but something agreed upon was the difficulty that the club layout posed to enjoyment of the night as a whole. A large central pillar, weird orientation of the main room and choke points by the smoking area hampered what is otherwise actually a sizeable venue. Internal geographies can really shape one’s perception of what is nominally a functional space. In stark contrast to the stripped-back basement aesthetic of many small venues used by promoters like Goodness, Oli’s answer to my questions about his favourite venue was Berlin powerhouse Griessmuehle.
“I can’t think of too many UK venues I’ve been to that had a sense of ‘wow’. I’ve been to a lot of sick basement clubs; waiting room is sick, rye wax is cool, but it’s just a different kettle of fish in Europe. It’s got this really big, labyrinthine smoking area; you could jump into the canal if you wanted to. There’s a lot of emphasis on the architecture of the club, as opposed to London venues”
The way a space is laid out can affect the flow of people within a venue, how much space there is to dance, access to the bar, and how well you can hear the music. It’s on the granular scale of the individual that such elements are experienced by event-goers, something that will be interesting to explore in this week’s ‘Save the Cellar’ shindig at the Isis Farmhouse. Situated a fair way outside of central Oxford, it played host to the exquisitely produced Day Party at the end of last summer term, but it’s going to be a decidedly different vibe on a frosty evening in spite of the airy barn space being provided.
The need to relocate further from central metropolitan spaces takes us out of the intricate geographies of club layout and into the macro realm of mass transport and city planning. With the threatened closure of Cellar, Oxford has just a small taste of something that’s been progressing in London for years, as clubbers are forced further away out of cities thanks to gentrification and strict licensing regulations. We both happened to have attended a Trilogy Tapes party at Bloc, on the furthest borders of Stratford and sat behind a Wickes. It was a long way to travel for such a divisive night, even if it featured the heady talents of TTT boss Will Bankhead and esteemed guest Joy Orbison. What Oli remembered as “probably the second best club night I’ve ever been to, in terms of the music I heard” was for me a more hit-and-miss experience, with awkward spaces and riotously varied music. The long walk there didn’t help, but our differing experiences speak to the ways that individual perception can drastically differ even within a relatively uniform sample of experiences.
Maybe obscure locations are a by-product of a scene desperately attempting to stay underground, out of sight, in an age dominated by mass exposure in almost every way. On a local level, Oxtickets has a huge impact.
“Oxtickets did a big thing about making dance music socially attractive Nights are now able to be glamorised through oxtickets and they become more of a social place to be.”
It’s a difficult balance to hold, particularly when, like Goodness, you’re operating in some very student-heavy cities.
“It’s for good and bad. Sure, it gets more people down there but the issue we’ve had in uni towns especially is crowds being smoking area heavy. We’ll sell out the night and end up having a relatively empty dancefloor. People are there, they’re having a good time but seeing it more as a social opportunity instead.”
In spite of the myriad difficulties being faced at the moment, Oli still takes a positive view of the scene as a whole, reflected in a forward-thinking ethos even when dealing with a slightly disjointed start to their bookings in Oxford: Big Miz and O’Flynn sit slightly apart from the more techno-focused events of late.
“Looking back, the first two Oxford bookings were not really reflective of where the whole brand is at. The theory behind that is that at the time, sadly there wasn;t so much of a culture of techno, UK techno, in Oxford. There was Footnote – doing their parties really well and covering that market – so the plan was that we’d start housier and evolve, which we did. They were two slightly anomalous bookings but they were good parties and they went down well. You do have to think about what cities would like what.”
Here too, geographies are stretched by an ever-expanding awareness of musical genres and influences. The booking of Deena Abdelwaheed, for instance, as the last Goodness event of term, is a turn towards a decidedly more deconstructed realm of dance music. It’s refreshing to see an artist whose latest album has been praised as “both a political statement and a daring piece of art” take centre stage in this environment, a reflection perhaps of Oli’s personal slant on playing records;
“I’m into more percussive things. I particularly like sort of South American bass music, and gqom, for example. There are some really cool things happening to bass music around the world. Following on from some sick sets I’ve seen from the likes of Joy Orbison and Batu, I’ve tried to incorporate some of that sound.”
Continuous expansion of boundaries and experiences does of course hold certain caveats. When playing music from different societies and viewpoints there can be a sense of unease approaching new sounds, for fear of reducing their meaning or appropriating their sound. Here too, Oli takes a more philosophical stance on the issue, refreshingly expressing that
“I think it’s pretentious to say that people should understand the music. It’s when it happens on such a wide and mindless scale that it causes problems. Equally, that kind of thing has gone out of fashion now, times have moved on.”
Geography is a driving force at the centre both of Goodness’ operation nationwide, and indeed the scene that they sit within. It appears to me though that far from being overwhelmed by the rapid movement in every direction that can seem dominant when browsing news, the crew has taken it calmly within their stride. Even looking to a future where they’re no longer all students here, I’m told that “we haven’t thought about that. I don’t think we need to.” Calm is maybe the wrong word to describe a series of nights that hit 150 bpm with Minor Science earlier in the year, so perhaps collected is the optimum word. Given the breaking news that miraculously Cellar reached its crowdfunding goal to begin vital restructuring work, the future looks positive for the Goodness team.
Photography courtesy of Antonio Perricone
Texture Magazine DJs play Goodness x Save the Cellar at the Isis Farmhouse, 23.11.18