The Curtin Hotel has always celebrated the weird and wonderful, helping to shine a spotlight on many brilliant bands that owe a debt to the small-cap venues they cut their teeth on.
The Curtin’s building is up for sale and the beloved operators’ lease expires in November. The City of Melbourne has granted the venue interim heritage listing and the Victorian union movement is attempting to raise funds to buy the building. Yet, the Curtin Hotel still faces a very uncertain future, so Bryget Chrisfield checked in with Pablo Alvarado, creator of Bone Soup touring group, and Cash Savage (of Cash Savage & The Last Drinks fame) to discuss the gaping hole that would be left in Melbourne’s already-decimated live music scene, were The Curtin to fall prey to developers.
“The rumours are true,” Rusty, Imogen, Sonny, Peaches and The Curtin family posted on Facebook back in February. “It’s with an agonisingly sad heart, that The John Curtin hotel’s time on this earth will come to an end. The owners of the almost 150 year old building have decided to sell, making way, most likely for apartments. We (my home and work family) have a lease until the end of Nov this year. Beyond that, we have no idea what the developers will have planned for us. We will have a lot more to say on the matter down the line, but I assure you, we will go out with a BANG! If you have never played but would like to, if you sold out the room and would like to do it again, if you want to claim your piece of history – bands NOW IS YOUR TIME.”
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Upon reading The Curtin’s social media post, memories from gigs in this truly unique performance space flashed through my mind.
In 2017, Marlon Williams played a one-off show – with no support act – during which many new songs were premiered live before he headed into the studio to record his second album, Make Way For Love. To launch the 2018 Liars album, TWTWF (Titles With The Word Fountain), Angus Andrew owned the stage dressed as a bride, veil and all. That same year, The Libertines performed a surprise show at The Curtin the night before their official gig at The Forum. The likes of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and Amyl & The Sniffers gracing that stage on their way up. And let’s not forget New York City’s irrepressible Goth No-Wave Queen, Lydia Lunch, hollering, “Kiss my ass, Kim fucking Kardashian! You overblown fucking tool!” – mass-hypnotising those assembled in The Curtin’s distinctive L-shaped bandroom thanks to her acid tongue and witty wordplay during 2019’s Dust & Shadows spoken-word tour. Those precious recollections are just a smattering that immediately spring to mind. We can’t imagine these shows being as special had they taken place in any other bandroom on the planet.
“The Curtin bandroom stage is my favourite in Melbourne. It sounds and feels incredible, as does the room. I’ve seen a gazillion great gigs in there, and played some of my favourite-ever shows. So many amazing bands have been through there, so many great people. The place has rare and wonderful connectivity to it. I love it to bits” – Blake Scott
“Sometimes you have a band that just doesn’t suit certain venues, you know?”Alvarado concurs. Bone Soup has “aligned with The Curtin” many times over the years to introduce Australian audiences to a diverse range of oddball, independent international acts “because venues have an identity and that open identity that The Curtin has meant that I always felt comfortable throwing things that perhaps would not have been such a good fit in other places.”
The Curtin’s celebrated, curtained bandroom – with its intimate, 300-patron capacity and no-bullshit aesthetic – prides itself on being an inclusive and welcoming space for all. Alvarado weighs in: “For me, it’s always been one of my favourite venues in Melbourne. It’s always been a well-run, really chill, inclusive, welcoming space; there’s a lack of cliquiness. It always feels like this unassuming, humble spot and then you go upstairs and can see some of the best live shows in Melbourne… it’s always been a good vibe and it’s eclectic – I love that.”
“It carries folk acts and all sorts of different genres, but it’s also a good rock room,” Cash Savage chimes in. “It’s just a bandroom – it is what it is; you don’t go in there for any reason other than to watch a band. It works, you know? And there’s always a party going on downstairs, for some reason.”
“They [book bands] from Jazz Party to weird, experimental shows, to just awesome, straight-up rock‘n’roll and punk shows,” Alvarado continues. “The fact that [The Curtin] doesn’t have this big label or brand of being one particular thing is what I love about it. I love things that are just their own individual, off-kilter thing that you can’t pin down. You can’t go, ‘Oh, well, every time we go to The Curtin it’s gonna be this kind of music,’ it’s like, ‘Let’s just go there, have a drink,’ and then you’re like, ‘Who’s playing tonight?’ It’s got that atmosphere where maybe you’ll just stay and keep on drinking downstairs or maybe you’ll be like, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good! Let’s go up to the bandroom,’ and [the cover charge is] usually no more than 15 or 20 bucks, so it’s totally doable.”
“The Curtin has been my favourite pub to play for many years now; so shattered to hear of its closure. Have always been extremely looked after as a band playing there. It sounds good, the food is good, the vibe is good, the staff are lovely. Before Covid when bands were releasing records at a much more regular rate, I would always recommend launching them at The Curtin. We had a bunch of really great shows there in 2019! Looking forward to a bunch more before they close the doors. Long live The Curtin – it will be greatly missed” – Billy Gardner (Anti Fade Records)
One of the very few remaining music venues in Carlton, the fact that The Curtin plays a crucial role in Melbourne’s rich tapestry of live music venues is undeniable. “[Melbourne is] one of the – if not the – most musical cities in the world and so these [smaller-cap live music venues] are really important; they really affect how culture is created and happens. And [The Curtin is] an eclectic bridge between the north and the south that just completely activated that whole section of the city,” Alvarado stresses.
The Curtin also plays a crucial role for emerging artists – local and international alike – by acting as a measurable stepping stone. “I remember when we sold out The Curtin – we had the album launch for The Hypnotiser there, which is now three records ago – what a big deal that was for us,” Savage shares. “And that meant that we could start pushing into the bigger rooms. If you sold out The Curtin hard, you could have a crack at The Corner.
“I really love The Curtin bandroom. I think it’s just a really nice, intimate space. Plus, because there’s that whole gap there [the mid-venue stairwell], the sight-lines from the back are great. The sound’s good and over the years they’ve bumped up the lighting. It’s not pretentious, it’s just a good, solid bandroom.”
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For previously unknown international acts such as The Garden, a “completely weird post-punk band” and The All Seeing Hand (“Mongolian throat singing with New Zealand’s best DJ and New Zealand’s best drummer – super-weird and incredible”) The Curtin acted as a launching pad into this territory. “I remember, just at the last minute, the guys from The All Seeing Hand wanted to put on a real experience, so they went and bought some plastic tubing and made circles out of it, and then just put some sheets on it, and then they hung ‘em up with fishing wire,” Alvarado says. “We went to a random party the night before where they met a guy who was a projection artist, so they invited him along and he did projections onto these three circles. It just looked amazing.
“We did a run of about 13 shows across Australia to launch our first album in 2017. We finished up with two shows at The Curtin. It was amazing to come back to Melbourne and see so many new and familiar faces at those shows. People who had been at our first gig and people who had only just heard the band in the previous month. Both nights were incredible – the energy and positivity in the room was something else. The Peep Tempel (a coupla months shy of headlining The Forum) cancelled their band practice to fill in when Bitumen got sick on the day of the first show. I remember being downstairs after the Saturday night show and dancing with all our friends and thinking how lucky we were to get to do this. In amongst a really hectic year, that weekend was a moment to soak up and enjoy all we’d been able to do as a band” – Cable Ties
“Cosima [Jaala] – she used to be in Mangelwurzel – supported them. So it was The All Seeing Hand and Jaala, and this super-theatrical set that the guys set up an hour earlier after spending 20 to 50 bucks at Bunnings. I remember getting there and it was like craft night at The Curtin, before the show the staff were helping put the stuff together and just hanging it – they’re always down to help out – and then it came together magically. That was an incredible show that wouldn’t have been possible in many other venues. There’s always been this culture of wanting to make the thing come together, it’s like, ‘Let’s just make something special happen and we’ll figure out the rest later’.
“We also brought out Föllakzoid, and Föllakzoid are these kind of like…,” Alvarado pauses to find worthy words, “if a dead skeleton prince was making music for his army of undead without any tonality, then that would be Föllakzoid. They’re from Chile. Being able to put on bands like that, that don’t really fit into any particular category, suited us perfectly.”
Alvarado also singles out Canadian indie-rock trio The Courtneys – composed of Sydney Koke, Courtney Loove and Jen Twynn Payne – and Acid Baby Jesus, a Greek quartet marrying Greece’s folk music roots with Western psychedelic pop.
Alvarado says promoters could build trust and reach out to The Curtin, knowing they’d be up for it. “They would be like, ‘We haven’t heard of them, but that’s the kinda thing we wanna do’,” he tells.
“Without The Curtin taking risks and backing up small promoters – which is really hard to find – we would have no infusion of new culture and new energy. Because, you know, it’s a business and you could imagine those promoters thinking, ‘Well, let’s make ends meet,’ but if you’ve got some upstarts who are just excited about music, you need venues like The Curtin to trust them and provide that platform. And I think that’s something that would be totally lost if we lose somewhere like The Curtin.
“The Curtin would really get behind us, they’d print the posters, they’d get the lights,” he continues. “I don’t feel like The Curtin ever takes the bands or the promoters or the punters for granted. And, really, without The Curtin, Bone Soup and my little touring agency wouldn’t have been able to take a hold.
“The Curtin is our favourite gig because it’s a pure, old school rock’n’roll venue, with no bullshit attached. Its rich, working class history makes it doubly grand for us, and why we have chosen to perform an annual gig there in recent years” – Bruce Hearn (Strange Tenants)
“I think there’s always a cultural focus and appreciation for the way The Curtin’s been run. The Curtin could just be any building, but it’s not; it should be heritage listed because of its location. It’s the love and the culture that the owner Rusty [Benjamin Russell, owner/operator who also tends his own bar] and Paris [Martine], the booker, collectively created that make it such an important force.
Paris has always been dedicated to booking a diverse range of emerging bands, both local and international, alongside more established influential acts. “The Curtin has good booking and it’s run really well by people who really love the scene and so it’s always a comfortable time,” Savage commends. “I really like the way that they operate, Rusty and Paris. So we will often sell out The Corner and then throw a sneaky Curtin show in just for fun – because we wanna support them – and they always make it really fun for us. They always look after us.”