Let's try an unusual opening gambit: at the weekends, I'm a bit like Cormac McCarthy protagonist, Llewelyn Moss. He's a fictional welder and I'm a real writer, but we're both on the hunt. He's looking for antelope and I'm after the sesh. Out on our own at the dead of night, the pair of us stumble upon the site of a crime. In his case it's a drug deal gone horribly wrong. In my case, it's an amazing club in Manchester that no one seems to know about.
Let me set the scene. I'm a million miles away from the parched Texan borderlands, deep into Shameless territory. I can't see through the fog and there's no one about to guide me. Eventually, somehow, I make my way to a bar, where I find the last man standing. He must be the bartender. I reveal my weapon of choice. He looks panicked, and I wonder if he's trying to plead with me like Moss' victim does. Actually he's just telling me it's a cash-only bar. Out there on the dancefloor, I can feel eyes burning into me. Is it Anton Chigurh? No, it's just a mate of mine, and they'd rather get back to watching Sega Bodega than hear me try and continue the analogy. It collapses, and we're left in a venue named after a very, very different novel—D.M. Thomas' Freudian erotic fantasy, The White Hotel.
The smog I lost myself in—brightly hued and eerily reminiscent of Ann Veronica Janssens' yellowbluepink installation—was pumping out of what can only be described as a smoke machine on steroids. Pretty much everything here at the Salford space is off-balance; from the under-floor bar to the, shall we say, minimal approach to toilet facilities. With just two stalls to go around as many as 300 punters, it's no surprise that promoters like Manchester institution HomoElectric advise male dancers to "go outside for a wee, festival styleee."
The White Hotel's been garnering a cult following for some time now, and like nearby club Hidden, it still gives the city's Uber drivers a headache. Both clubs turned disused warehouse spaces into venues bringing Konspiracy-era illicitness to a tired Manchester clubbing scene, ravaged by years of gentrification and disputes with local councils over noise. The location is key—the borough is distant from Manchester's densely populated city centre. Salford council also enforce slightly looser licensing laws than other parts of Manchester due to its physical position. Sitting out there in a kind of no-man's land means that just as the Northern Quarter's Stevenson Square turns into a glorified Instagram opportunity, Salford's nightlife is kicking into fifth gear.
Despite both spaces being tucked away down dank alleys, trouble in the surrounding streets is rare. DJ Black Eyes, who throws an annual 12 hour rave at the White Hotel puts this down to the club's proximity to HM Prison Manchester, a high-security male prison better known as Strangeways. "You'd have to be completely stupid to cause trouble," he tells me. That leads to what Jamie Bull of HomoElectric describes as a clubbing environment with "fewer rules." Bull's venture, a gritty-but-glam club night that's taken place in some of the city's most iconic lofts, basements, and dilapidated mansions over the last two decades, now divides itself between the two Salford sites. The appeal is simple; they allow for a more relaxed crowd. "It's the crowd that don't get dressed up to the nines, it's dressed down for dancing, getting sweaty," he explains over Skype. "Being on the outskirts gives you permission to do that."
Christian Wood is another cult Manchester figure with a predilection for nights out in the area. Known to most as Il Bosco, the man behind esteemed imprint Red Laser Records, Wood's played both clubs, and likens what's going on in Salford today to what was going on during the heydays of rave back in 1991/92. "It takes balls and foresight to open something like The White Hotel or Hidden, and you can tell from the very act of opening there that the vibe is gonna be leftfield and underground," he tells me. "Plus that dystopian walk up to the door offers its own kind of theatre which adds to the feel."
Officially opening two years ago now, there's rumours that the genesis of The White Hotel emerged during illegal raves thrown at Strangeway Studios and the Bunker. The Hotel's owner Ben Ward declined to speak to THUMP, sending us in the direction of the venue's managing partner, the novelist Austin Collings. When asked how the spaces manages to stay commercially viable, he is Collings is refreshingly honest. "You know when venues and people play the not-for-profit card—but we all know it is really because the next time you see these people they're doused in the latest David Beckham fragrance and they're 33 sheets to the wind on Tesco's Finest Brut—well TWH doesn't even pretend it's not for profit. We are purposefully sinking ourselves into debt and destruction." An admirable business plan, for sure.
While we're not entirely sure that that's the most sustainable approach to business, it is one that the city's promoters certainly appreciate. "The people that run these venues have got the right attitude," Bull says. "They're fellow clubbers, music lovers themselves. It's done with some heart and some passion." DJ Black Eyes shares the sentiment: "Ben (Ward) is one of the most genuine people I know. You can tell he really enjoys owning the place—he'll go round and talk to people, he'll talk to people in the club, he'll talk to the promoters. I've never seen that anywhere else."
The five-strong team behind Hidden are dedicated to providing a personal touch, too. We meet at their office one afternoon in June, and director Nickos Arnaoutis immediately begins by singing the praises of Mohammed, the club's airport transfer diver. "Me and Kris (Arnaoutis' brother and a fellow director) used to get lifts home off him after a night out and he'd always be wearing a suit, he'd be well spoken. We needed a driver so I said, 'would you be up for picking DJs up from the airport for us, representing Hidden?' And he goes so far above and beyond that he'll research the artist a week before, see where they've played, see a bit about them, and he'll be like, 'hello sir, how was it in Berlin?' DJs love it."
The venue, which is an ever-growing network of 600-capacity spaces and artist studios has been lovingly cleaned up but retains its industrial feel. Much like The White Hotel, Hidden was a personal and financial sacrifice since opening in August 2015. With a high-risk booking strategy focused on long-term growth, the club's bookers, Jay Smith and Anton Stevens, found things initially tough. "You just have to grin and bear it because there is an end-point where, because of the value that you're adding to these people, word kind of spreads and people start seeing that you're doing a good thing," explains Stevens.
"We could have gone for certain DJs who we knew would have filled the venue but me and Anton stuck to our guns," Smith says. They wanted DJs who might not be massive ticket-sellers, but who'd bring a decent crowd to a new space. They were also helped by engineering a deal with Manchester nightlife mammoths the Warehouse Project, an arrangement that might just have saved Hidden being obliterated by the all-mighty promotion outfit. Stevens, who worked at the superclub before joining the Hidden team recalls, "what we did was from the start tell the Warehouse Project what was happening, which they really respected. In the past you'd have a battle between Warehouse Project and Sankeys but the Warehouse Project have actually opened a few avenues for us."
Salford's illicit spirit isn't consigned to the two clubs, however. "About two weeks ago I pulled off the most audacious rave Manchester has seen since the early 90s," Il Bosco confesses. "We had to load a canal boat with the sound system and sail it down the canal to Pomona Island. 400 people turned up and four days later it was still going." What makes this even more extraordinary is that Pomona is situated a stone's throw away from Salford Quays, home to Manchester's Media City, where the BBC, ITV and Salford University all have sites.
While Il Bosco's event was lucky to avoid being shut down by overzealous officers of the law, the continued blurring of the lines of legality are, in part at least, down to the council's belief in the positive impact clubs can have on communities. Hidden's venue manager Martin Moffat explains that, "councils in different cities have different approaches so we are really lucky. Although in Salford they do make you work for it, as long as you show them that you are working with them then they encourage it, which is refreshing."
Before I leave Hidden, the guys are keen to tell me another anecdote. "Marcellus Pittman literally canceled his flight just to sit drinking one night," Moffat starts. "He was on the phone to his mates in Detroit like Moodymann and stuff, saying, 'guys I've found the sickest venue and you all need to get over here,' and we were like, he's on the phone to Moodymann, is this real, it's like 6 in the morning," Smith continues. "He called it the new Paradise," Arnaoutis concludes proudly.
Wood is more cautious about hailing Salford a new clubbing mecca. "The Red Laser crew spent a weekend at Griessmuehle in Berlin," he tells me. "That's fucking crazy unique and shows even though we are heading in the right direction with clubs like Hidden and The White Hotel leading the way we have a long way to go to match the experiences you get in places like Berlin."
While he's probably right, it feels good a new chapter is Manchester's rich clubbing history is well under way. Let's just hope it hasn't been written by Cormac McCarthy.
There's a few great nights happening at both venues soon. On the 8th of July there's a day and night party kicking off at Hidden. HomoElectric will be back there on the 26th of August too. That same night sees Lost Control's 12 Hours of Rave bash taking place at The White Hotel. Looking further into the future, the Red Laser squad's Manctaloween party's taking over Atama on the 28th of October. Oh, and Il Bosco's Bridge Theory 12" is out now. Phew!