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'It's like a house party': The secret ingredients of Ireland's most exciting music venues

“If you’re not unblocking the toilets, you’re doing it wrong.”

Fans at a gig in a Dublin venue
Fans at a gig in a Dublin venue

IRELAND IS HOME to all sorts of music venues. Bars, theatres, clubs, you name it. But what does it take to create a special music venue that connects with artists and music heads alike? A state of the art sound system? A brilliant location? A passionate booker?

We decided to ask the people behind two of the most exciting music venues in the country about the key ingredients for designing a quality music venue.

Located at the back of one of Dublin’s most well known sushi restaurants, Yamamori Tengu might not seem like a choice location for a dance venue at first glance. Over the past six years, however, it has established itself as one of the capital’s leading spots for a bop.

Owned by the Ryan family, Yamamori has been operating in Dublin for over 25 years. A number of years ago, an opportunity arose to open a bar at the back of the restaurant and Bar Tengu was born. Over the next few years, the bar began to host parties and club nights sporadically. It quickly garnered a good reputation and wanted to develop it further. Enter James McCartan.

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“I came on board about three and a half years ago as the marketing manager stroke co-booker,” he explains. “There was a really strong interest in Tengu and it was time for something more consistent.”

“We had to build something more stable so we invested in sound, built a purpose built DJ booth, looked at lighting,” he adds. They also added a second room, Kaizen Bar. Having previously served as an overflow room of sorts, it’s now a room in its own right with its own sound system.

Six years since first opening its doors, the venue is now thriving. What does McCartan attribute the success to?

“Sound is obviously fundamental to what we do,” he says. “I always say I would dance in a barn once there was decent sound.”

“The programming comes after that. Making sure that you have variety in terms of the DJs and music you book.”

“I guess what we do here comes from the soul. It might sound a bit cheesy, but it’s true. What we do here is we eat, sleep, breathe what we do. When businesses don’t do that, when they try to replicate something because it’s a trend or they see a green dollar, it usually doesn’t last.”

“If it’s a case of a board of directors, investors and all these people throwing money at something trying to get a return, they don’t really last. They don’t get the kudos from the music industry or the arts industry.”

McCartan says he has witnessed punters step inside Tengu and be underwhelmed because it doesn’t meet their expectations of what a nightclub should look like. But that’s all part of the charm, says McCartan.

It’s very relaxed. It’s a very friendly vibe here. I think it’s like a house party. It’s kind of like being in somebody’s living room.

Last May, Dali opened in the former Pavilion building on Carey’s Lane in Cork. The brainchild of Hope Alo and Stephen O’Byrne, it was created in response to what the pair perceived as a homogenous club scene in Cork.

“We wanted to create an escape from the Cork nightclubs that are littered with chart music,” says Alo. “There was no space for people interested in electronic music.”

“We dreamed of a space that belonged to music lovers, and as we quickly discovered we could be a space for not only electronic music, but for up-and-coming singers, bands from every walk of life, arts and basically anything that was experimental.”

“We watched so much talent and so many creatives and friends in our circles leave Cork, and we were sick of seeing it. We wanted to bring life back into this great city.”

The pair started running gigs in different venues across the city. They quickly realised that only did they have a knack for running gigs, but that there was a huge appetite in Cork for something a little different to what mainstream nightclubs were offering. Soon it seemed like there was no other option but to open their own venue.

“We watched venue after venue drop like flies and saw our moment was now or never,” says Alo. “Timing is everything.”

After scrimping and saving for a year, they managed to secure a space where they remained for seven months. Last summer, they landed in the former Pavilion building on Carey’s Lane and breathed new life into the former cinema and nightclub. They haven’t looked back since.

Like Tengu, they pride themselves on having a top-notch sound system. It is home to both the biggest void install in Ireland as well as the country’s first Arcline 8 system.

“It is one of the best in the country,” says Alo. “You could bring the best performer in the world into a club but if the sound ain’t there, forget keeping regulars who care about music.”

Alo says one of the keys to Dali’s success has been the fact that they are both the owner and the operators of the club.

“Me and Steve are the promoters, advertisers, bar staff, cleaners – you name it, we do it,” she says.

“We know everything that happens in our club. We handpick every act that comes into our club. We try to know everyone that regularly hits us up. Know what’s going on in your space! If you’re not on the floor unblocking toilets at the end of the night with your staff, you’re doing it wrong.”

Most of all, Alo says it’s vital for a music venue operator to be embedded in a city’s creative scene and to have a passion for music.

“Sure, you can throw someone into the club that has an events management degree but how can they understand the soul that lives in Dali if they’ve never danced a night away to techno or enjoyed wandering around some mad art exhibition in the city?” says Alo.

“A venue is not some empty rental space to us. There are too many clubs that use their place as a rental space and then let the quality of the gigs run in their space go up and down week in, week out. There is no consistency.”

We wanted a space people know they can come to every weekend that has a face and where they can dance the night away.”

More: From flats to nightclubs: An insider guide to 7 overlooked art deco gems around Dublin>

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About the author:

Amy O'Connor

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