Words by Luke Buckler.
Photos by Rod Hunt.
Since Black Wire Records announced its impending closure, a sense of despondency has spread not only within Sydney’s DIY community, but into wider posits of the city’s cultural participants. A beacon of freedom and resolute independence within an area of Sydney that’s rapidly losing grip of the communities that define it, Black Wire was a volunteer-run space, entirely disinterested in capital, and focused on creating culture. It was a place where identities were formed, where ideas and experiences were shared. There are few other places so unanimously praised as ‘the best place to play’, and similarly, for audiences, warmly revered as the best place to watch bands of diverse background and stature.
There’s been plenty of speculation around why the place has closed, and a collective punk finger waved in the direction of The Sanctuary, a cafe-cum-bondage club that opened up in the neighbourhood relatively recently. Facing council issues of their own, an article that appeared in The Daily Telegraph* painted the new tenants as victims of discrimination, being persecuted for simply trying to bring some vibrancy to the neighbourhood. The article also made a backhanded comment about the place just up the road that was continuing to operate despite not complying with development applications, which apparently drew some attention from the council.
So, for now, Black Wire is fucking dead – or so the communiqué says. A funeral procession is winding through Annandale’s ‘live music precinct’ and into greater Sydney’s rapidly gentrifying suburbs, and will arrive at the Red Rattler this Thursday, April 27, for a eulogy to be delivered by a particularly apt list of performers – Infinite Void, Idylls, Orion, Canine and Burlap.
Unbelievably Bad spent a couple of hours at the pub with Black Wire’s Tom and Sarah, to talk about the place, and the mind-bogglingly and unironically Kafka-esque layers of bureaucracy that eventually squeezed the life out of 219 Parramatta Road, Annandale. The entire, unabridged conversation will appear in a later issue of Unbelievably Bad Magazine.
*We won’t link to the Daily Tele, but should you feel compelled to read the article, Google for Fetish club’s bid to join arts crowd rejected due to ‘explicit nature’.
It seems like everyone within the Sydney music scene is pretty bummed out and upset about the closing of Black Wire, but how are you feeling?
Tom: Also bummed and upset, but it’s a bit hard to separate at the moment. We’ve literally only finished a few days ago, taking out the last bits of crap. The last few days have been a bit bleak. After we’ve taken the shop apart and everything, we’ve got down to really dirty stuff. The shit that’s been rotting in the basement. The last few days have been a bit hard for me. I’m still absorbing the misery.
Sarah: We thought we were done, and we went through the process of being done. We had to go back – well, Tom, mostly – went back and had to do all this laborious stuff, like cleaning out underneath the house. There are all these secret little rooms that were just filled full of shit. And also, the basement was under half a foot of water that’s been there for a really long time.
There were a few months of turmoil in the lead up to the actual pulling of the plug, how did it all go down?
Tom: It was a long, drawn out process. A lot of the time, we didn’t actually know what was going on. It goes back to when the councils got amalgamated, and the mayors got sacked, and it was taken over by an administrator. The first thing that the new Inner West Council did was go around to work out where they could get money from. They’ve increased the parking patrols tenfold, and they’ve gone through all the records and seen where they can get money. The first thing that happened to us, not long after the amalgamation, was that our rates tripled. It was around about the same time that our annual rent increase happened. So, it just meant that there was this huge… I mean, not huge in a business sense, just huge in that we were running at a loss, basically. Any kind of extra bottom line costs that were going to happen consistently, we have to account for. We had to start this slight reorganising, which basically ended up being kinda good. It just meant we had to work a bit harder, we were trying to generate more income from the space just by using it more. That was when we started doing the Black To Comm sessions, we started doing a lot more recordings, and bands started doing a lot more rehearsals. So that was working out alright, except whilst all of this was happening, there was a place that opened up nearby who felt that they were doing something similar, in that they were doing a cafe that was doing bondage and S&M nights after hours. They felt that that fell within…
They saw similarities between what they were doing, and what you were doing.
Tom: They did, yes. They definitely did. The council cracked down, because there were a number of complaints about them – they had a much more cavalier attitude towards dealing with the neighbours. The Indian restaurant was not pleased. During that whole time, they’d been coming to us, and we’d been talking to them – because, you know, they were still our neighbours, and we were trying to help them. We telling them about every thing that we’d been going through, during which we imparted to them a very specific piece of information about zoning. The shop was not actually zoned to be a shop, it was zoned to be a restaurant, from this bizarre thing that went through in 1996 that no one has ever taken responsibility for, and the owners refuse to believe exists. I think something dodgy has gone on somewhere. Essentially, they replaced the retail zoning, and it meant that everything else we were doing was based on the idea that we were a record shop. That was our primary function. When [Sanctuary] were under pressure, they sought to deflect from their issues by simply putting us in the shit.
How did they do that?
Tom: They straight up told the compliance officer. It was basically just: “But them! But them! But they’re doing this…” kinda shit. But the one guy in particular, who was the main offender, did an interview with The Daily Telegraph, of all places. This bizarre, puff piece where he moans about the injustices against him while we’re up the road getting away with all kinds of shit.
Sarah: It didn’t specifically say us, but it did say that there was a business up the road that was operating without the consent of the council.
Tom: It was a puff piece, it talked about the place in a very sympathetic way – and of course we’re not anti-that – but as a result of that, the new council just served us with this compliance order that we had to put in to the DA to be rezoned as a retail shop to continue.
And did you do that?
Tom: We put in the pre-DA, but it requires owner’s consent. What we found, in previous experiences, is that they just don’t give you any information about what you need to do to comply. So the whole idea of this pre-DA process is that you go in, have a meeting, and they say ‘you need to do this, this, and this in order to comply’. So that’s all it was, it wasn’t actually getting commissioned for the re-zoning. We submitted before Christmas to the real estate agent because it needs to be signed by the owners, and then submitted to council. But then, the real estate agent made this bizarre play of trying to use it as a bargaining tool, because in the meantime we’d gone off lease. They wanted us to resign, and we wanted to resign, but we couldn’t resign if we didn’t know if we could operate. During this whole time, we were going to other people in to do other stuff in the space – but we couldn’t do that, because we couldn’t offer a lease, because it’s all in question. So the real estate agent dragged that out for like three months. The real estate said it was the owner’s fault, and the owner said it was the real estate’s fault. Ultimately, they dragged it out the extent where we were just completely broke.
Sarah: We haven’t had anyone (tenants) in there – there’s been one person living upstairs since September. It was hard to fill the rooms anyway, but when we got the notice from council, we couldn’t get anyone to live there, it wouldn’t have been fair.
Tom: We weren’t necessarily looking for anyone to live there, we were just looking for any other usage of the space. We weren’t able to act quick because we weren’t able to guarantee anyone that they could be there for more than a week. It just meant that we had to cover the rent for the whole time. Then it finally got to the point where we’d submitted the pre-DA, and out of nowhere, we got an eviction notice, a vacant possession notice. They haven’t given any reason, except they just wanted the building. So right up to that vacant possession notice, it was a fight. We were in a losing position, but it was still something that we were trying to mitigate. Then, of course, once that happened, we started trying to relocate, and then turned into a mini little nightmare of itself.
You mentioned before that you’d looked at other spaces…
Sarah: We’re constantly looking. The last couple of months feels like I’ve been constantly looking for places.
Like shop fronts?
Sarah: No, not really. What we’re primarily looking for is a space where we can continue do the sessions, and continue to have rehearsals. I dunno if we’re really looking for a space that could be a venue, at least not in the same way.
Tom: Well, we were, initally.
Sarah: When we were moving last year, I’d already signed a lease and everything, and we were moving into a new space. But, then it all fell through at the last minute. That was going to be the new thing, and on a three-year lease.
Tom: It was within the ‘live music district’ between the empire and the Annandale hotel. When we were at Black Wire we got a letter in the mail congratulating us for being 100 metres away from the ‘live music district’.
Wait, that’s an actual thing?
Tom: Yeah, but the thing is, there’s no venues. And, as we’ve discovered in this process, it’s pretty much the same few owners who are all mind-bogglingly dodgy. So not only are there no venues in the ‘live music district’, there’s no potential for live music in the ‘live music district’. I should say, I was on an actual task force, but we had nothing to do with where it was designated, and we don’t know what the status of these buildings is. Council does. So we’ve entered this in good faith, I was very careful to avoid advocating specifically for our space, which is one of the reasons why I wasn’t outraged when we weren’t initially included. I wanted to make a distinction that I wasn’t just advocating for myself, I was advocating in a general sense. What’s resulted is just this nonsense ‘live music precinct’.
Sarah: It’s seriously between Johnston Street and Stanmore McDonald’s, on the Annandale side of the road, and there is nothing there. And they wouldn’t allow us to be there, either. When the landlord found out exactly what we wanted to do, they were like ‘yeah, no.’
Tom: There was asbestos in the roof, they wanted key money…
Sarah: Yeah, they wanted me to pay the bond directly into their account.
Tom: There were no working toilets. Honestly, they just piled dodge upon dodge. They consistently do it – that’s how many, if not most, real estates in Sydney operate.
Sarah: That whole strip – there’s like four or five buildings just down from the Empire. When we were looking at a new space at the end of July, we actually met with someone from Marrickville council. They had a list of properties that they were scoping out for artistic and creative use.
Tom: That wasn’t the Marrickville council, that was Fringe.
Sarah: They were scoping out all these properties. It’s been over six months now, and all those places are still empty, and the place that we signed a lease for is now a photography place or something. There’s still absolutely nothing there.
Tom: It wasn’t just us, it was a whole series of people. They might have been placed in different places, I’m not sure. But they certainly haven’t been placed in Leichhardt. Certainly not within the Parramatta Road revitalisation area.
Sarah: The estate agent tried to get us to look at a place just further up, just past Johnston Street. It was a cool looking place, but when I asked what’s upstairs, he said there were residents. I said, “oh, look, there’s going to bands practicing’, and he says “the landlord says that’s fine”. I don’t know if that’s fine! I don’t think that’s going to be fine for a very long time. I don’t want to sign a lease, and then for it to not be fine.
Is there any places in Sydney where a place like Black Wire could viably exist?
Tom: Oh, yeah, I think so! I think it can exist all over the place. Maybe not exactly the same thing, because it does require a bit of fanaticism and stubbornness. I think it’s quite likely… I think an ideal scenario would be like a series of people attempt to do something, giving us a number of options. You know, we could have booked about ten times the amount of stuff that we were booking. There is space for a lot of stuff out there. People make the argument about people staying home and watching Netflix these days, but it’s just bullshit. If there’s something good to go to, people will go to it. We had no problem with attendance. In fact, I preferred it to be a bit under-attended, because it was a lot easier! It was a little bit tedious for me that it was consistently well attended!
Complete cultural poverty would appear to be the aim of Sydney’s lawmakers at both a State and Local level. What’s their problem? Have you got any energy left to fight it?
Tom: Not right now – I’m physically and emotionally exhausted. But certainly, it’s something that I’m passionate about and want to address further down the line. It’s just a product of greed, and self interest. Sydney, more than any other place in Australia, is ruled by greed and self interest. Artistic communities keep getting displaced as gentrification sweeps past, and then we wonder why the venues aren’t doing as well as they were? It’s because the artists don’t live there anymore. We (Paint It Black, the space that Tom was involved with prior to Black Wire) were displaced from Newtown, and in a very short time – I mean, I guess seven years is a short time in terms of a gentrification process – just in that time it’s changed quite dramatically where Black Wire is, and we’re being pushed out again.
It’s a huge shame that the last Black Wire show won’t be at Black Wire. It’s a very strong line-up this Thursday, why were those particular bands chosen?
Tom: Well, the Infinite Void show was already booked. Often when you take one of the shows and put a spotlight on it, it seems really amazing or has these really specific, really great qualities. But they existed across the board. It was just a show that was going to happen as per normal. It was a perfect line up. It just happened to be that that was the exact point. Before we got the vacant possession notice, it felt quite right that that was going to be there, that it would be like a farewell thing. It ended up that being this really haphazard thing – we had to cancel a bunch of shows. It was just horrible. There’s been so few shows that we’ve had to cancel the whole time. Dead, particularly, have been subject to three cancellations now.
That almost seems to fit the band’s identity perfectly.
Tom: That’s the sad thing! I genuinely love them. They’re one of the best live bands in Australia. It’s not always reflected on their records,but they never fail to be an amazing live band. I love watching them, and I love them. They’re fucking great, and they’re lovely.
Sarah: Thankfully we were able to rebook the show quite easily. When it became apparent, when we got the notice to vacate, we tried to negotiate to extend it – the date that we had to be out was the 9th of April, but the last show was meant to be the 27th. We tried to negotiate an extra 30 days, we offered the extra rent. At that point, it was like $8000 in extra rent, and we offered to pay up front. We told them that we had these obligations that we had to meet, and they were just like, “no”. There was no flexibility.
Tom: Even the real estate was like, “Oh, they’re [the landlord] being a bit blasé about it”. Even the real estate thought that was a bit weird. We were lucky to get the Red Rattler though. The Red Rattler is my favourite venue in Sydney.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there are still a few tickets available for the Death To Black Wire show at Red Rattler. Get one here.