The larger-than-life founding partner of Cherry Bar has now totally diverted his attention to ambitiously overhauling the CBD's Ding Dong Lounge after fire damage last June. Bill Walsh has an intoxicating vision, incorporating a separate, soundproofed bar to snack in, an undercover smoking balcony and fancy new facilities (all venues should have a powder room, we say). It’s official: the words “rock toilet” and “sticky carpet” will never be associated with this joint. See for yourself this Friday when Mark Lanegan flies over specially to kick things off.
What’s the plan this week, Bill?
So the opening launch is on Thursday and then the official opening is on the Friday. Mark Lanegan and I have known each other for 20 years, and he goes, “Bill I'd be honoured to come out.”
Do you think you’re going to get everything done?
Yeah, I'll get everything done. You know, it will be 80 or 95 percent, but it will be done. It's just a question of finessing it now, wallpaper, paint, putting all the booths together.
Who have you got in your crew?
Anna Kilgour, who was manager at Cherry. She’s really tough and people listen to her. Having worked in hospitality for a long time, my observation is that women pay much more attention to detail. I’m always surprised when I see places that are completely run by men. Sarah Guppy from Tone Deaf is the publicist, then there's Darve Smith, also from Tone Deaf, who was the previous booker at Ding Dong, and his team. But everyone wears two hats from time to time.
What's your hat going to be?
My hat will be I'm the host. You know, I have two young children and I don't really want to be out late at night anymore. That was the other reason for doing this – it's something I want to do for the next 10, 15 years. But I want it to be daytime. So I'll be the face of the place and the facilitator.
So did you completely pull out from Cherry, as it were?
Yeah. Look, I was never going to do both things. The negotiations between my partners there and my partners here was very delicate for a long time. But in the end, it sounds clichéd, but we all get to win. I've a partner or two there that can be the face of the place now, whereas they couldn’t be while I was there… and here I’ve had an opportunity to completely redesign and resurrect what was something of an iconic venue that fell a little bit into disrepair. In some ways the fire afforded me the opportunity to redesign it and come up with a multipurpose venue.
And the fire happened after you came on board, did it?
Well I was always the partner in this place, but my attention was with Cherry. Perhaps because there were so many partners, a community, we didn't give it the love that it needed back in the day in 2003 when we opened it.
So when you heard about the fire, what were your thoughts?
I just thought, people are going to think that it's me lighting these fires. That's exactly what I thought, I thought, everyone's going to think it's me. [Cherry Bar fell foul to fire too.] Really, my wife came in and I was really sick; I had swine flu or something. I had my phone off and my wife came home from work with the kids and she said, “Have you heard?” I'm like, “Heard? Darling, I'm just dead here.” And she said, “There's been a massive fire at Ding Dong.” And I remember I just thought, everyone's going to think it's me. And I thought, where was I last night? That was my first thought.
Fortunately, the guy who lit the fire above Cherry – that turned into a deluge of water into Cherry – was convicted and... well, he claims he's innocent, so perhaps there is some doubt about it. Then this fire started in [German restaurant] Hofbrauhaus in the laundry. The dryer caught fire and it just spread up through the concrete slab and took the back half of the place out.
Moving forward, you envisage people coming in to have drinks even if they aren’t here to see a band. What will be going on food-wise?
The kitchen will come about three weeks after we open. At the moment we’re open 4pm to 4am, but our plan is to serve food from 12 to 12, with tapas-style portions and little burgers – comfort food. We're using the two-star, Michelin-rated chef from Hofbrauhaus downstairs, working together. It’s always been a dream of mine doing food, but that wasn’t going to happen at Cherry, for practical reasons. I’d been thinking about doing a burger area with a tiny galley kitchen, but it just didn't eventuate. Here, we get to have a very modern kind of kitchen, a great executive chef, and people can just sit around, eat, drink and listen to music. I’m trying to encapsulate the things I like in my mature years!
We have plans to do dinner shows – Renée Geyer is going to come and play; people like Adalita and Tim Rogers. Stuff like the Continental Café [in Prahran, between 1993 and 2001] used to do. There was a time when Australians would look at people who ate and drank at the same time as though they were ‘poofs’ or something. Now we're a little bit more sophisticated in this country.
So there would be no door charge for the bar.
And then you'd pay as you go into the venue.
Pretty much. I hope people will come after work and have something to eat, drink and it becomes a place that people treat as their… I've still got that Cheers approach to bars, where everybody knows your name, you know? I'd be hoping that we get a regular clientele and that grows, particularly on the weekends, when we have bands play. And then late at night it becomes a sort of a disco, for want of a better word.
With big bands playing their secret sideshows here?
Yeah, I hope so. You know the PAs are as good as it gets. Bruce Johnston of Johnston Audio – the biggest PA production company in Australia – is part of the team as well. He bought the PA in Germany and it's arriving, wait for it, on Tuesday morning. Air freight from Germany, fingers crossed. I’m flying by the seat of my pants.
But everyone loves that kind of story.
I know, everyone loves that story – and when I was at uni I would only ever do anything right at the last minute. That's probably the most exciting part of the whole process. I just hope people like it.
Ding Dong Lounge, 18 Market Ln, Melbourne.