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Late last year, we got in touch with house heavyweights Bicep to work on a follow-up to their riotous inaugural bow on our screens. Instead of plumping for an extended set in London, they were adamant that we finally break new ground in Ireland; they pushed what was clearly a personal concern harder than most big-league artists would. An opportunity arrived to partner with AVA Festival, bringing everything together: we would make our first trip across the North Channel to bring you a line-up of the island’s finest talent.
As you can see above, it wasn’t half bad.
The boys have been unerring in their dedication since, taking time in layovers between California flights to write us a piece explaining their come-up through Belfast, painting a backdrop of the city’s club culture, and explaining how the scene stands today. (Hint: stronger than ever, but read on for the full breakdown).
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In our eyes, Belfast has always had a very strong underground music scene. From Terri Hooley and the roiling Punk scene of the 1970s, to David Holmes and the Sugar Sweet club night in the 1990s (Orbital named their song Belfast after playing a night there, fact fans), there’s always been a hunger for music that isn’t commercial.
Belfast is still consistently one of the best places we ever get the chance to DJ – and we’re not alone in thinking that. It has without a doubt some of the best crowds and energy we’ve seen; closely rivalled by Glasgow which is equally magic. It must be something to do with the eternal rain and bad weather: clubs seem a real form of escapism there, a chance to totally cut loose and forget everything else.
No matter how slow and stripped the warm-up DJ is playing, the screams and cheers begin from almost the minute the doors open.
This energy is intensified by our awful licensing laws, forcing clubs to stop serving at 1 and close at 3am. Whilst this is of course damaging, or at least limiting for club nights, there’s an argument that it actually helps, too. There’s this window of roughly four or five hours that everything’s crammed into and people don’t take long to warm up. It’s one of the only places we’ve ever been where a warm up DJ can feel like a peak time set, no matter how slow and stripped they’re playing; the screams and cheers begin from almost the minute the doors open. This isn’t specific to certain promoters or nights, it’s felt across the entire city.
Growing up and being used to this from a fairly young age, for us, moving on to university and then DJing around the world, there were some disappointments when we realised not everywhere was quite the same.
The licensing laws have also in turn helped develop – or forced – a very healthy after hours scene with parties sometimes lasting as long as three days. As with a lot of things, the more you restrict people, the more they’ll want to do something!)
Schmutz on deck; time of day/night unknown (predictably)
Shine is the oldest running club night in Belfast and has certainly been key in growing the underground music scene there. This year will be the 20th in business, and it’s where we cut our teeth! It was one of our earliest clubbing experiences and still one of our best. At it’s busiest, a ‘super Shine’ held 2,400 people across four floors and for a little city like Belfast that felt massive, especially when you were seventeen. The lineups were generally pretty underground and quite techno focused with the likes of Dave Clarke, Surgeon et al playing regularly, alongside live acts like Underground Resistance.
One of the first times we went, we walked into a packed out Mandela Hall to hear Laurent Garnier banging out “Crispy Bacon” – a memory that has stuck with us. The impact of seeing such energy for music which at the time was totally unknown to us was amazing. Looking back we were really spoiled for proper underground artists, but at the same time we were always almost more excited about the local DJs warming up or taking care of duties in the second room. John McIver, Alan Simms, Phil Kieran and Timmy Stewart were always on point with a unique selection of proper deep techno and house.
“The first time I played Shine in Belfast, I’ve never seen such madness in a crowd. Any time I dropped a new record it felt like a riot.” – Jeremy Underground
Long before Facebook and other large social media sites, there was the hugely popular ‘Shine forum’. We remember going on it lots whilst still at school, although at this stage not really knowing a huge deal about electronic music. Every day hundreds of people from Belfast would be sharing and discussing underground music online and it definitely helped add to a collective community feeling. Lots of local Irish DJs like Darren Allen and Pete Donaldson would be posting up their own mixes online – this was comfortably pre-Soundcloud and Mixcloud, remember – and at the time it felt like gold dust. To this day we can still listen back to them and appreciate how deeply they dug.
‘Anthems’ have always been a little bit frowned upon in Belfast: whilst everyone enjoys a big tune, there’s definitely quite a headsy approach to a lot of the crowd. We’re always so excited to get a chance to play stuff we wouldn’t normally be able to and as Midland told us, “Belfast is one of the few places where weirdo, more experimental music goes down like bangers”.
In the past 10 years many new club nights have started up and there’s a very strong culture of resident DJs in the city. Twitch is now honestly one of the best small club nights in Europe. Their lineups are always totally on point, bringing a mixture of relatively fresh faces, and heavyweights like Ben UFO and Levon Vincent playing intense smaller crowds of 500 people. Housed in the same venue as Shine’s Bunatee Bar, with a big system, low ceilings and often all night long sets, the crowd are always very open, giving DJs the chance to go left into experimental waters, and know that they can take people on a journey.
We asked Jeremy Underground to describe his first gig at the Bunatee Bar. “The first time I played Shine in Belfast in December 2013. I’ve never seen an atmosphere like it, never seen such madness in a crowd. Any time I dropped a new record it felt like a riot. The ceiling was pretty low, people were hitting it and broke it in the end”.
We have to say: kudos to Queens University, who own the venue, for allowing all the club nights to continue, despite the ceiling being physically punched in almost every week. We remember a particularly funny photo of bloodied knuckles being uploaded to Facebook one Sunday morning…
Another key night is Misfit at Thompsons Garage, run by one of Belfast’s longest serving DJs, Steve Boyd. It champions many local producers and labels like Extended Play, Chris Hanna, JC Williams, Timmy Stewart and plenty more besides, alongside international acts like Prosumer. There’s a real community feel again here and collective love for older house and digging crates!
Underground dance music has actually become so popular, some fairly low-key bars have begun booking big acts to play. We remember the fantastic Hudson Bar (where we had many of our first gigs alongside The Menagerie) putting artists like Maurice Fulton, Optimo, Andrés and Funkineven on all for free! You just don’t get this anywhere else, it’s ridiculous. There’s many more great nights like Belfast Music Club who’s bookings are hugely eclectic and fantastically nerdy, to spots like Aether and Echo and the Limelight which regularly book really high quality dance music.
One of the best things about Belfast is that now there’s a strong sense of trust between a lot of the residents and nights, and the crowd. Bookers can afford to take some real risks, maybe booking an artist who’s only released one or two 12″s knowing that they will still get a crowd.
For us that’s the real sign of a great scene, somewhere that isn’t lineup driven, where people have a hunger to learn more and dig deeper.
– We’ll be broadcasting live from AVA Festival in Belfast on the 30th of May, with Bicep topping the bill. For more info on the session, head here –
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