Inside Spiritland, the New London Venue Creating a Bespoke Listening Experience
As clubs close across the city, innovative and listener-specific environments like this one may prove vital.
This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
"To do this, the way we've done it, is incredibly difficult."
Paul Noble's telling me about the venture he's recently launched just behind London's Kings Cross station. Spiritland is a cafe and bar that's put the soundtrack at the heart of its operation, and in doing so has arguably become the city's most exciting new venue. It's also one of the most important, too, for reasons we'll get to shortly.
Nestled between everyone's favourite upmarket Indian chain Dishoom, and the kind of nondescript office space that litters London like so many soulless cigarette butts, Spiritland is an oasis of calm—the kind of place one can while away a long Sunday afternoon with a salt beef sandwich and Ruf Dug on the decks for company. It looks great—the aesthetic's pitched somewhere between, "Milan in the 70s, Japan in the 50s, and the London of today," Noble tells me—and sounds even better. In essence, it's the kind of hang out spot a certain kind of music fan's been silently crying out for in a city where arts spaces have been hung out to dry, discarded like yesterday's Evening Standard property pull-out.
Despite the incredible soundsystem, which was the result of an intensive partnership with bespoke speaker manufacturers Living Voice, and the impeccable bookings, Spiritland isn't a place for dancers. Which might, initially at least, seem slightly odd. After all, if you've gone to all the effort of creating a soundsystem that sounds clearer than a vat of Fiji Water, don't you want to get people off their seats? Turns out that that's not Noble's aim.
"As soon as you get rid of the dancefloor you can go into a deep listening experience," he says. "Here you'll hear everything from dance music to reggae, country to spiritual jazz records. You don't have to get people dancing. The DJs can explore their private passions and that can often be more interesting than what they do in clubs."
Looking at the upcoming listings gives you some idea of the breadth of selectors and sounds you'll hear should you turn up for a cocktail or seven late on a Saturday night or amble in on a Monday morning for a sausage roll and some quiet contemplation. Noble's interest in the more downtempo end of the spectrum—which is where you'll largely, though not always, find Spiritland residing—presumably stems from his time spent running disco re-edit label Fat Camp.
Given that pedigree, it's not surprising that on any given night (or afternoon) you'll see the likes of Bradley Zero or Phil Mison or Mixmaster Morris gliding through records that soothe and salve. Just don't call it a Balearic bar. Noble thinks that the tag, when considered in connection with the venue, proves a tad reductive. "We're early on in our story and we've laid out a stall," he says. "And that can be country, dub, new beat music from LA. We can be very chilled but I wouldn't call it Balearic per se." While he acknowledges that the policy tends more towards the downbeat than the uptempo he's keen to stress that if the moment calls for house, you'll hear house. So for those of you who need the kindly hand of a 4/4 to guide them through the night, fret not.
In a city becoming more samey by the day, a place where north, south, east, and west are slowly coagulating into one giant five pound pint, venues like Spiritland are more necessary than ever. It's not just because the music's so central to it, or that it's the kind of place where you can wow a date with your sparkling repartee over a decent cocktail, but because it does all those things with a minimum of fuss. As Noble tells me, he wanted "everything in alignment."
Over the last few months we've found ourselves thinking and writing about the current need for promoters to take music into non-traditional spaces. Fabric's closure was a landmark moment for all of us who enjoy the experience of hearing loud music in a social environment. While I'm not for a minute suggesting that Spiritland will, or should, become the norm, I do think we view see the venue's arrival as an interesting moment. This isn't your standard Antic bar pumping out hoary old disco hits on a Friday night in an attempt to choke a few quid more out of the post-work crew. What it is, is a simple thing: a genuinely great place to enjoy music with friends.
And that, as easy as it sounds, is important. And seemingly not that easy, either.
"It needs massive amounts of detail, research, and money," he says. "You can't do it on the cheap. Yeah you can buy some nice gear and plug it in, but this is all bespoke, all researched, all developed. Everyone we've worked with is uncompromising."
You sense that it's that lack of compromise which makes the venue work. Why settle for a half-arsed effort, especially in a cultural moment during which we're all being driven to smashing through six packs at home and falling asleep in front of Westworld on a Friday. Why not make the idea of spending an evening in the company of a massive fucking soundsystem seem appealing again?
Of course, Spiritland is just one venue, and one very specific venue at that, aimed at a certain kind of music fan with a certain kind of budget. I can't pretend that it's necessarily an egalitarian venture designed to drag the masses away from a £2.49 pint at Wetherspoons. I can't claim that it's necessarily going to drag music venues kicking and screaming into life again. But what I can argue, with some conviction, is that if you're attuned to the ethos—one that says, "what's better than letting DJs loose on a soundsystem God himself would be proud of?"—then there's a venue absolutely custom built for you.