The “elder statesman of the music scene”, James Young, updates Jenny Valentish on the latest Cherry Bar developments
Eight years ago, James Young sold his advertising agency and bought into Cherry Bar, the noisy, dirty rock’n’roll club on ACDC Lane. One of its founders, former Cosmic Psychos drummer Bill Walsh, peeled off in 2012 to reopen the Ding Dong Lounge in Chinatown, but Young has Cherry stamped through him like a stick of rock.
His festival, Cherry Rock, hits its eighth year in May, with Arizona’s Meat Puppets coming over for the first time in over 20 years, rounding off a night of 13 bands across two stages – Chris Russell’s Chicken Walk, King of the North, Beastwars, Drunk Mums, Child, Bitter Sweet Kicks, the Harlots and Don Fernando among them. As well as the usual “650 music lovers holding an ice-cold can on the cobblestones of ACDC Lane, watching predominantly Melbourne bands and having a carefree Sunday afternoon,” the festival is charging east into Sydney for the first time. Any Sydneysider mourning the loss of Homebake may suffer a culture shock at the sort of dirty, old-school festival at which Time Out once saw a lactating woman (who may or may not have been married to one of the organisers) spray the audience with breast milk throughout SixFtHick's equally spirited set.
Meanwhile, Young and his partners ‘Lazy’ Pete Lewis and Jim Bourke have snapped up Collingwood’s late-night music den Yah Yah’s, and Young has his Cherry Rock Management and the imminent launch of Cherry Radio. We’d say he had his fingers in every pie, but it would start to sound like a Warrant song and he’s more your stoner-psych kind of rock’n’roll guy.
James, you’re a very Melbourne guy, how do you feel about Sydney as a music scene?
Well, I was born in Sydney, so I have that connection. It seems to breed tougher rock’n’roll bands up there. It’s also tough for great Melbourne bands to find an audience or find a venue to play in Sydney. Moving Cherry Rock there is a brave move of giving an opportunity for great Melbourne bands to be seen by rock’n’roll-loving people in Sydney, who are going to fall in love with these Melbourne bands, many of whom they’ll never have heard of.
There are also three Sydney bands on the line-up in Sydney: Gay Paris, the Hell City Glamours and a young up-and-coming band called the Lockhearts. They’re doing really well – they had a Tuesday night residency at Spectrum, which has accidentally run for 18 months, to big crowds.
It’s the year of the horse, so it’s time to grab the reins, achieve new things and grow. The expansion of the music festival is important for us, because if we find an audience in Sydney it’ll give us the confidence to take Cherry Rock interstate as a national initiative. My only principle is to play bands that you love.
Are you the sole booker?
Yes, I am.
So everyone’s got to love your music taste.
I’ve got relatively broad taste, maybe you can correct me, but it’s worked well so far.
Do you think a lot of music festivals are being too ambitious and greedy?
Yeah, competition kills the festivals. At the start, you had Big Day Out, 22 years ago, as the only festival. That could get bands that were desperate to come to Australia at low prices. So we were seeing incredible line-ups and the promoters were paying small fees. You fast forward, 20 years later… massive competition. They’re paying exorbitant fees for artists that aren’t as good. And the people have so much to choose from. The ticket prices have gone up from $90 to $300, and at the end of the day it’s just not a survival model. And also, Big Day Out is no longer a festival. People consider a festival somewhere they can go, like Meredith and Golden Plains where you can bring your own eskies, and stay three days – that’s a festival experience.
Back in January you wrote an opinion piece for Tone Deaf suggesting Triple J’s Richard Kingsmill needs to get out to the frontline more often, instead of sipping lattes and waiting for new music to be presented to him. Given you’ve got a couple of venues to run, how often do you get out yourself?
Probably four nights a week. I try to come into Cherry at least two or three times a week and that’s partially because I realised it’s actually quite expensive to pay for your own drinks at other venues – there’s an advantage in owning a bar. I also feel every band I deal with assumes in correspondence that I’m coming to see them, so it’s a bit embarrassing to say, “Oh guys, I’m not going to be there on Sunday.” So if it’s a residency I always make sure I go at to see them at least once.
I book 1,100 different bands a year here, seven nights a week. I knock back another 2,000 who can’t quite make it and still every time I go out there are bands I’ve never heard of. So there are thousands and thousands of bands in Melbourne.
But I wouldn’t book the bands if I didn’t love them, so I do feel a genuine enthusiasm. I’d be a lot healthier was into triathlons, but as it happens my obsession is live music. If I don’t see live music at least twice a week I go a little bit nuts. You know, I had a lot of similar uni friends back in the day and they’ve all dropped off. I’m happily married, I’ve got three boys, but I still need the rock’n’roll.
Are you a frustrated musician?
(Laughs) I was a musician, but I recognised I was shithouse, so I sold my instruments to buy a great stereo system to listen to music that I thought was good. Which was a mistake, because just because you’re no good at music doesn’t mean that you’re not going to make a career from it – and also it would’ve been fun to play in a band for a bit longer.
I have learnt from experience, as someone who owns bars, books bars and owns two independent music labels, managers bands, runs a music marketing company, that the hardest way by far to survive in the music industry is as an artist.
What’s going on with the label and management at present?
I hate managing bands – it’s an absolute pain in the arse – but I can’t help myself when I fall in love with a band. This band I saw at Big Sound in Brisbane a couple years ago, I thought were the most refreshing band I have seen in ten years –Drunk Mums, initially from Cairns. I’ve started to manage them and things are looking good for them. They have a single at the moment called ‘Plastic’, which is being played by Richard Kinsgmill on Triple J.
It’s like he’s doing it to spite you.
Exactly… so that’s exciting. I think that band might do well.
It seemed as though you just swooped in and saved Yah Yah’s from those shadowy 'developers' when it was put up for sale in March.
I was showing interest in Yah Yah’s for the past 18 months and when they formally put it on sale I heard that developers – and in particular an Indian restaurateur – was interested in the venue. That really pushed us to play our hand. We turned up and said, “Okay, no stuffing around – here is our serious offer.” And thankfully that was the best offer they got. Now we own Yah Yah’s, which gives me an opportunity to protect another important late night music venue. And if I can’t make money with a 5am license in Smith Street, Collingwood, I must be an idiot.
Why did it go on the market in the first place?
Andy Portokallis and Jon Perring want to concentrate on the Tote, and Andy is developing some warehouse for some apartments.
A developer has put up apartments at the end of ACDC Lane. What does that mean for Cherry Bar?
With live music venue you’re always under risk – every year there are hurdles. We’re being prepared as much possible for the 189 apartments opening up at the end of our lane at the start of June. But over my dead body will Cherry Bar close – there is no way that will happen. At worst, I’ll have to spend a small fortune soundproofing the bar, which would be unfortunate because one of the great things about ACDC Lane is standing outside talking, smoking and the sound of the bar comes with you through the windows. I don’t like the idea of creating an incubator of sound, but we’re working on following the rules and surviving. We’ll be here.
Isn’t a venue is supposed to be entirely soundproofed in the first place, and that’s why a bunch of venues lately are having to retrofit to comply as suburbs become more gentrified?
You hit the nail on the head there. Most live music venues, including Cherry, are currently in breach of the outdated section two noise regulations, based on the amount of noise we make. It’s measured from the closest point of the resident. So when you don’t have a resident it doesn’t matter. But when we get a resident with a north-facing balcony, you don’t even have to measure it from their bedroom, you have to measure it from their balcony. The balconies of these apartments is 20 metres from the back of our stage, so we don't stand a fucking chance.
So immediately the laws are in their favour and we’re in trouble. So, we’ve been campaigning to have the law changed in relation to the Agent of Change Principle, in relation to increase in the decibel level for section two and also to get a special consideration for ACDC Lane as a cultural precinct. But it seems to me the best approach is to actually involve the developers in a meaningful dialogue, saying, “Let’s avoid the confrontation down the track – what’s it going to take to fix it and can we share the costs?”
Who’s involved in the campaign?
This is interesting – there are people who care about Cherry more than I do. I imagine if it came down to a confrontation between Cherry Bar, which has been here for 14 years without a single noise complaint, and brand new residents who bought an apartment when the brochure said ‘Come join the culture of ACDC Lane’, even the people who live in Brighton and walk big dogs on the beach would be on Cherry’s side.
We look like we’re bigger than we are. We’re a rock’n’roll bar with a capacity of 200, but according to our Facebook figures, we can reach 600,000 people in a week. So there’s an enormous amount of people, probably living in Dublin for all I know, who would support Cherry Bar in our stance. It’s a huge army ready to be mobilised – I refer to them as the Cherry Massive. I think if we went up against our new neighbours it would be a global front-page story. It’s what I believe to be the biggest issue facing music today – the closing of long-standing live music venues based on new residential development. It’s the biggest issue in music.
You’re about to launch Cherry Radio.
I’m just trying to work out the model, at the moment I’m at a fork in the road – either start modest and build up, which will be do a podcast or align myself with an existing entity such as Andrew Haug’s 24/7 rock station, or go back to the old pirate radio model. We might have a launch party, on a boat in Port Phillip Bay, facing St Kilda. That’s where I wanna go.
Are people advising you otherwise?
No, I’m just lining up the decks. It’s funny – I registered the Cherry Radio name for Facebook and did a logo, and I was told that for some reason we need a certain number of likes to keep it alive. After the first hour we had 1000. I said, “Shit, the people have spoken.” I don’t have a choice. I’ve said this, so now I have to make it happen.