Thump article on Belfast’s club scene

Posted on: May 7th, 2015

Antoin Lindsay asked Matt from Twitch a few questions about the house and techno scene here, the difficulties we face and the positives that come out of working through these obstructions.

One City Under a Groove: House and Techno in Belfast

May 6, 2015 Antoin Lindsay

If I were to say that Belfast is one of the foremost locations for house and techno in Britain and Ireland, I’d be lying. A smallish city only a few hours away in a car from Dublin, and with London only an hour away on the plane, it’s kind of geographically damned. Add that to a multitude of other factors working against the city and it’s a wonder that there’s any real arts scene at all. But Northern Ireland in general has always displayed a deep-seated love and appreciation of dance music. For a place that spent the vast majority of the 20th century tearing itself apart in conflict, the 90s rave scene provided escapism and respite from the grim reality of life in a divided society. The 1995 documentary Dancing on Narrow Ground is a pretty good exploration into what impact dance music had at the time. It swapped sectarianism with hedonism, agony for ecstasy.20 years later the political landscape in Northern Ireland is very different. While it’s still a problem, sectarianism isn’t the monster it once was (it has, instead, seemingly fallen away in favour of straight up racism) and you’ll probably find the majority of young people who attend dance events now don’t know or care about the religious backgrounds of their peers. The electronic music landscape has shifted a lot in that time too. In Britain alone the past 20 years has seen garage, grime, dubstep and funky all make waves but they haven’t made their way across the Irish Sea in earnest. That’s not to say Belfast is completely devoid of any of these but, despite peaks and troughs, house and techno continue to be the most consistently found sounds across the city. For a city where punk was so popular they actually made a film about it, why do house and techno hold a place in the hearts of so many?Read about Belfast’s worst club hereWell, mainly because it isn’t still the mid-70s, and while the place is still pretty cut up by its rough past and is currently plagued by regressive politics, those things don’t fully permeate into its culture. “Belfast was emerging from some pretty dark days and those dance nights genuinely acted as a place where people could escape from their surroundings, even if just for a few hours a week,” says Matt Burns, one of the three promoters behind Twitch, a house a techno night that’s been running for over eight years now.
Twitch in full flow (photo via Niall Murphy)
The increasing popularity of club music in the mid-90s gave rise to the now legendary Shine nights. Starting out in Queen’s Student Union, it’s been throwing techno-heavy parties for over two decades, becoming one of the largest promoters in the country, even branching into club and venue ownership. Shine, Burns says, was an inspiration to everyone even remotely involved in the scene partly because of the community spirit behind it.Interpersonal unification in a city like Belfast is pretty rare. So the communality that ran through nights like Shine and carries on into the Twitch days is something to be cherished. Kristian Woods, promoter and a part of DJ/production duo Schmutz, was keen to highlight the potential for escapism through the twin towers of house and techno. “Without sounding too clichéd I think all music performs a kind of escapism in Belfast. At all these different nights in the city you see a real coming together of people who love music.” Escape through sound and the attendant hope for personal unity is hardly an original concept but it is a signifier that within Belfast it’s more than just the music that’s important, whether the clubbers realise it or not.Belfast’s background undoubtedly shapes the sounds heard on the dancefloor. The last few years have seen clubbers around the globe get down to rawer sounds and Belfast is no exception. “Punters love the more uptempo, tough side of dance music. We like it a little rough around the edges – like the people who live here,” Burns says. “The best nights are pretty rowdy – it’s like a moshpit sometimes.” For a city with this energy, and one that is trying to improve its image as welcoming and thriving with culture, you’d imagine something seemingly so deeply ingrained would be supported at every level, right?
Another night at Twitch
Of course not. The local government is wholly incompetent and having been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn, venues have found it difficult to keep afloat. As a result Belfast has increasingly found itself lacking in suitable spaces willing to put on regular nights. The closure of The Stiff Kitten last year was a particular blow for the city. A medium sized venue with a very respectable system, it wasn’t like anything the city had seen before and it’s yet to be replaced. “There are very few good venues in Belfast,” Burns begins, “and the ones that do host dance nights try to be all things to all people. Which doesn’t work either.” The city’s restrictive licensing laws only serve to compound matters.While England and Wales have had 24 hour licensing for the best part of a decade now, you can’t get served a drink in Northern Ireland past 1am. The late, late nature of underground clubbing means this ban on early-hours drinking has a profound impact on revellers and promoters alike. As Burns puts it, “you have 2 options; run a dance music night, where people typically show up between 11.30pm and 1am and so will maybe have the opportunity to buy 1 or 2 drinks, or; you run a more commercial night where people show up hours earlier and so spend much more at the bar.” He’s not letting it get him down, though, and it certainly isn’t stopping Twitch from pulling in the big (and interesting) names. For Woods, there are positives to be taken. “You’ve roughly got about 5 hours in the clubs over here… So we have a lot to cram in in that time. It also means the crowd gets there and is completely up for it for the entire night, it gets pretty relentless”. It’s difficult, and probably futile, to speculate what effect relaxed licensing would have on Belfast’s renowned energetic crowds, but it does impact on the variety of locations where nights can actually be held, which is to the city’s detriment.
Belfast boys Bicep
Tough times in Belfast, and Ireland in general, have seen a rise in emigration with London and Australia becoming popular with those looking to escape a recession-hit area. Two of the city’s most well known acts, Bicep and Ejeca, have moved away, but the exodus isn’t total: Phil Kieran, Space Dimension Controller and Boxcutter still reside here. For Burns and Woods, the disadvantages currently facing Belfast aren’t hugely detrimental to the quality of creative output. Burns argues that, “because making a name for yourself in the scene is so heavily linked to making tunes, technology means you can make them in your bedroom and share them with the whole world.” Woods has no plans to leave Belfast as of yet. “I can only really see it getting bigger from here. Nights like Nocturne, Twitch and Shine continuing to bring great acts to the city every month…and that’s without mentioning all the music that’s coming out of city”.A rough past and numerous obstacles would be enough to make the culture of a city stagnate, but not Belfast. The upcoming AVA Festival being a perfect example of Belfast showcasing what it has to offer. It’ll never be a London or Manchester, it’ll never even be a Dublin or Glasgow, but you’ll still find a community that’s willing to work around the limitations to bring music they love to the city. This is Belfast.