'Be the maddest one in the room': how to make a nightclub last for 30 years

Glasgow’s Sub Club is celebrating its 30th birthday, having weathered bad 90s techno, empty dancefloors and fake IRA gunmen. Its leading lights explain how they’ve carried on for so long

Thanks to a generation who prefer festivals, a class of gentrifiers who’d rather not have repetitive beats near their valuable real estate, and the need to please everyone from the police to local councils, it’s arguably harder than ever to run a nightclub. And yet Sub Club in Glasgow is now celebrating 30 years in the game.

DJs Harri and Domenic are permanent fixtures and hold the longest-running club residency in the world, having given up pretty much every Saturday night for 23 years. We asked them, along with the club’s managing director Mike Grieve, about how they’ve lasted so long – and how anyone might hope to replicate their success.

Let new trends take hold ...

Domenic: When you’re listening to more music than the people coming down, you see trends before they do. There’ll be a track in a record shop that’ll sound different to everything else, and you’ll want to play it. Reactions will be curious at first, they won’t go for it straight away – but after four weeks of playing it, people will be going nuts.

Take the old Wild Pitch sound – when it came out, it blew everyone away. It was disco, acid, house, all those things in one, and it was so different. At first it was strange, then people loved it, producers copied it, it became stale, and we moved on to another sound that was newer and fresher. That’s why we’ve lasted so long.

Harri & Domenic, Sub Club residents.
Harri & Domenic, Sub Club residents. Photograph: Brian Sweeney

... but don’t play them if you don’t believe in them

D: The 90s became about a load of men in rucksacks dancing to techno for five hours. There was no funk – it was dark, banging, heavy, 130bpm all night, with no women, just white guys stomping around. Techno to us was Juan Atkins and Derrick May and Underground Resistance – not this stuff coming out of Frankfurt. And when jungle came into Glasgow, that became a big thing – the house guys sold their records, saying jungle was the future. People were laughing at us for buying house records: “Why are you still buying this shit?” And you’re thinking, fuck, am I wrong? But you have to stick with what you believe.

Mike Grieve: There’s been times when it’s been very difficult to stick to our guns, musically. But the longer that you believe in what it is you should be doing, the easier it is to be emboldened, and have confidence.

Don’t rely on guest DJs

M: Guest DJ culture is the biggest challenge to what we’ve done, because we’ve tried to focus on the resident DJs instead.

D: Younger people look at Resident Advisor and they want to see what’s popular – they don’t want to see a couple of guys who have been doing it for 23 years. The glamour comes from the guest – some guy who has made three records is booked everywhere and they think he’s amazing, but he can’t mix cement. And some people grow out of that. They realise guys from Glasgow can be just as good, even better, than someone on an RA chart.

M: Guests don’t always work anyway. A Detroit DJ of some repute cleared the dancefloor and couldn’t win it back. There was quite a public criticism from him of our soundsystem being the cause of it.

D: We once got a really famous New York DJ over and because it was Scotland, he thought he should play Mylo. It didn’t go down too well.

Sub Club, Glasgow.
Burning the rulebook with a flamethrower... Sub Club. Photograph: Sean Bell

Dig into the past

Harri: Whether it’s the Boiler Room effect or not, our crowd has got a lot younger in the last few years – it’s definitely a good thing. Every week you’ll hear a new record that reminds you of an old record, so you dig it out – and you remember that most of our audience won’t have heard them, so to them it’s new and exciting. It sounds fresh to us because we’ve forgotten them as well!

Keep going – even if no-one turns up

M: Perseverance has a lot to do with it – having faith and sticking to your guns.

D: The first 18 months of [legendary club night] Optimo was dead. How many other clubs would have kept that night on – a quiet night on a Sunday? But Jonnie and Keith could do their thing because Sub Club believed in them. They didn’t rip up the rulebook, they burned it with a flamethrower.

M: It ended up selling out every week. I’d like to claim I was some kind of visionary, but I was probably just bored with the same things they were bored with.

A flyer for Subculture’s second birthday in 1996.
A flyer for Subculture’s second birthday in 1996. Photograph: Sub Club

Stand up for yourself

M: I’ve been having a meeting with my licensing lawyer about a potential planning threat to our business right now. It’s something I can’t get into, but you’re beholden from the moment you become a licensee; someone else has the power of life and death over your business. There’s a lot of people who can influence those decisions – health and safety, police – from all different angles. And they’re not necessarily rational. The perception of clubs as contributors to crime is very prevalent in society, and there’s very little recognition of the economic impact.

There’s no point in letting drug dealers in your club and then complaining the police want to shut you down. You have to have your wits about you. Engage with good legal advice, maintain relationships with the authorities that you’re dealing with, and ensure your own work practices are up to scratch – you have to keep your nose clean.

I had a club in Aberdeen and we were absolutely victimised by the authorities in the 80s and 90s – they wanted us closed, and they succeeded eventually. They just didn’t understand it. But things have changed a lot, there’s a much broader acceptance and understanding. Some of the people who came to that club in 1989 are now lawyers, policemen and politicians.

Keep your money in your top pocket

H: The club closed one night, and then some guys showed up with sawn off shotguns. We heard the buzzer go upstairs, and these guys bounced in doing really rubbish fake Irish accents saying they were the IRA. They said: “Look, he’s the DJ, go into his pockets and see if he’s got any money”. Luckily I had it in my front pocket, so they went into the office and took the money out of the safe instead.

Children are the future

D: I want to get more Scottish DJs in – more up-and-comers, rather than international guests. The talent in Scotland is very high, but they might not have mates who are promoters, or they’re quite quiet and they just want to play records. I think there’s people out there who need to be given an opportunity.

H: We just need to not let standards slip, and start letting in maniacs.

D: Yeah – always be the maddest one in the room!


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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