Gravenhurst on the Luminaire
Truly great venues are about much more than bricks and mortar. Singer-songwriter Gravenhurst tells Time Out why it's vital to keep the spirit of a venue alive – and lambasts those places which ignore their history
Gravenhurst's Nick Talbot outside his favourite London venue
Nick Talbot, better known as Warp Records' folkie post-rocker Gravenhurst, grew up just outside London but has been based in Bristol for years. His time away from the capital – which has seen the Hammersmith Palais vanish, beer and mobile phone companies stick their logos all over venues, and gig holes reveal their true, non-Marlboro smells – gives Talbot a fresh perspective on how London venues have improved, stagnated or simply disappeared. As a budding psycho-geographer ('It came from reading Alan Moore's "From Hell",' he says), Talbot pays more attention than your average London gig-goer. When he returns here he does so with renewed passion, looking under his feet for any details he missed. So, what's his favourite venue?
'In terms of the reception you get from the owners – and a lot of bands will say this – it's the Luminaire,' he says. 'It's a lovely venue. People think that because this is a small country and we have such a huge number of bands willing to play for nothing there's no economic incentive to make a venue nice, so they treat musicians and punters badly in stinking, horrible places. People think that that's economic determinism, but how come you have the Luminaire, which is a commercially run venue and it's nice? The fact is, the people running it choose for it to be like that and it's hugely popular as a result.'
It's not just the Luminaire's candlelight, velvet curtains and hospitality Talbot approves of. The Luminaire puts on great bills – it's a self-styled home for beardie, check shirt-favouring fans of Americana and nu-folk – in an environment that commands respect from gig-goers and bands alike. It also gives Londoners a rare reason to visit Kilburn, where, if you're lucky, you might bump into Kevin Shields, Bert Jansch or Edwyn Collins. What's important to Talbot is that a new venue, like the Luminaire, should care about what it's doing; and older ones should acknowledge their history by channelling its spirit to do something exciting. One place that Talbot reckons does this effectively is the Scala.
'I'm glad they haven't changed the name because it's very close to my heart,' he says. 'It was the only place you could go and watch films like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Driller Killer" in the 1980s. When stuff was banned it was down to local government to make its own decision about film certification. Back in the day you had the GLC which would do everything it could to piss off the Tory government; so, if it was banned, they would definitely show it.'
'Driller Killer' in the '80s; Jesu, Thurston Moore, Crystal Castles, Foals and Chrome Hoof in 2007. By putting on noisy, experimental music to make you soil your kecks, the Scala retains a rebellious, forward-thinking spirit. On the flipside, a venue that's failed, in the eyes and ears of Talbot, is Earl's Court's Troubadour. 'The owners write about the history on their website,' he says, 'but they've turned upstairs into a gastropub. And the shows they put on are the epitome of the boring singer-songwriter; 20 minutes each with an acoustic. For them, that's what the place has always done, they believe they're carrying on the spirit. The thing is: when that place was happening in the '60s, it was a new, really interesting thing. Dylan playing there was pretty significant. Groundbreakers like Bert Jansch turned up. They could put on interesting music but they're not.'
Of course, there's a market for playing safe just to fill a venue, not to mention appealing to tourists wanting to dine in the aura of Dylan. It's a compromise that can turn a great venue into an average one. There's another danger to be found in the eagerness to stockpile money and that's chucking out the history book. We've had great nights at Koko – the sound's great and the venue plush – but for Talbot the venue's rebranding is something to fear. 'I've ranted about this so many times but the Camden Palace being rebranded as Koko…' he sighs. 'It's the most dunderheaded name they could have come up with. Why change it? It's an historical venue with historical significance – Charlie Chaplin performed there. Now it sounds like a 1980s liqueur or something. It has changed names before but it was always the Camden Theatre, Camden Palace, Camden Hippodrome. Renaming a ship is notoriously bad for luck and should never be done.'
Perhaps this is a little unfair given how Koko, in spite of its wallet-mugging beer prices, has kept the original features and put on some fine bands. But Talbot is right: corporate venues can be ugly. And venues that don't go down the same route, like the Spitz, will disappear. But Talbot the musician also admits that only one thing is essential: 'Having said all of this, the most important thing when you're on stage is being able to hear yourself!'
The Luminaire, 311 High Rd, NW6 (020 7372 7123/www.theluminaire.co.uk). Gravenhurst's album, 'The Western Lands', is out now on Warp.
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