Thekla’s Simon Brown has risen to a few challenges since joining the crew in 2016, helping secure Thekla’s future against a threat from nearby developments and – most recently – seeing the ship through a massive £1m restoration. The 60-year-old cargo ship has been missing from its spot on Bristol’s Floating Harbour for the past three months, but Thekla returns home this week and launches straight into a packed calendar of live music and clubnights. 

Simon is part of a small but mighty promotions team at Thekla. As senior promotions manager, he works alongside ‘right hand man’ Stan, who is the current promotional manager in training; and ‘go-to band encyclopaedia’ Owain, who looks after Thekla’s live calendar.   

Simon’s journey into music promotion began in 2007, leaving the hometown he shares with Alan Partridge to study Architecture in Sheffield. He soon became involved with the local music scene and began promoting his own nights.

Simon’s passion for music translated into a project that has had a significant impact on the local landscape

Not long after graduating, Simon’s passion for music translated into a project that has had a significant impact on the local landscape, creating much-loved venue space The Night Kitchen. At the same time, he launched his not for profit ticketing platform Party For The People, donating the profits from booking fees to charity.

‘It was a great time in my life’ he says. ‘I was a young, impressionable 22-year-old music promoter running my own space, surrounded by all my friends. We hosted some mad parties and raised a lot of money for charity at the same time.

I was a young, impressionable 22-year-old music promoter running my own space, surrounded by all my friends

‘We hosted all kinds of events from house and techno, with artists like Bicep and Detroit Swindle, some infamous Sheffield bassline parties with Off Me Nut Records, through to psytrance events with the Tribe of Frog crew.’ 

This genre fluid policy is something that has served him well at Thekla, since relocating here in 2016. Thekla is as renowned for its live gigs as its clubnights, as was beautifully demonstrated across their 35th birthday celebrations this summer. The four-day party culminated with 14 hours of music from some of Bristol’s best up and coming loud bands including Sœur and No Violet in the day, leading into a late night drum and bass party with out-and-out Bristol legends Roni Size and Dynamite MC.

‘I have always been passionate about all kinds of music. As soon as I arrived in the Steel City I slipped straight into promoting my own music events. At the time I enjoyed the party – people completely drop their emotions and focus on having a good time together. I would say I’m far from a musician, so for me it was always about the community. 

I’m far from a musician, so for me it was always about the community

‘Without sounding like an old man, I’m still very passionate about providing people with the experiences I had as a young adult. As I’m developing in my career, I’m focusing more on the experiences of the audience that attend my events. I work hard to make sure whatever I’m working on supports the music scene as much as possible.’ 

Thekla has been part of Bristol’s cultural landscape since the early 80s, when it was under the ownership of Ki Longfellow-Stanshall and her husband Vivian Stanshall. Then called the Old Profanity Showboat, ‘it hosted hundreds of theatre, cabaret, comedy and live music shows during its short two year existence’ says Simon. 

‘The boat welcomed a host of Britain’s finest artists as both performers and guests and the plan was to sail it to New York to do the same across the Atlantic, but unfortunately The Old Profanity Showboat closed its doors in August 1986.’

Thekla began its life as a nightclub in the 1990s, under new ownership, during one of Bristol’s most fertile musical eras

Thekla began its life as a nightclub in the 1990s, under new ownership, during one of Bristol’s most fertile musical eras. It regularly welcomed the likes of Massive Attack, Portishead and Roni Size early on their careers. Operating largely as a boat for hire, the ship became an early incubator for emerging talent and new promoters.

35 years on, Thekla is now one of Bristol’s longest-running venues. With Lakota and Blue Mountain set to close their doors, it’s part of a small handful of venues left – including The Fleece, Star and Garter, Old Duke, Cosies and The Louisiana – with meaningful local history.

Thekla is now one of Bristol’s longest-running venues

Though this hasn’t been without tribulation. As is becoming a too-common story, Thekla recently came under threat from developers. However, the music community rallied and forced contractors to rewrite plans that would protect Thekla from noise complaints that would have inevitably shut the venue down.

While Thekla was saved in this instance, it’s important that we, as music lovers, pay due respect to those venues that have helped shape the city. A good venue is much more than four walls and a soundsystem, there is a passionate and dedicated team of people behind the scenes, working hard to ensure that Bristol’s music culture continues to thrive and move forward.  

A good venue is much more than four walls and a soundsystem

‘I think all historic venues should be treated the same as your friends, perhaps even an older sibling. These are places that hold experiences for generation after generation. Historic venues are curators of the local area and provide a story of everyone’s experiences. Communities are built around them. These assets should be protected.’

Thekla has certainly put their money where their mouth is, with the recent £1m investment adding to a bill that includes a £500,000 refurbishment five years ago and a £50,000 sound system upgrade. 

Tellingly, and as some have pointed out, this could have paid for a new ship entirely. But Thekla, and parent company DHP Family, sees past short-term profit margins and is committed to investing in the future of a meaningful local music scene.  

We couldn’t replace Thekla, could we?

‘We couldn’t replace Thekla, could we? Bristol is a city that is rapidly developing, we should never disregard the importance of places that hold memories for so many’ says Simon. 

DHP Family has owned and operated Thekla since 2016. They are the brains behind Nottingham’s Rock City and London’s The Garage, among others; and whose many, many awards include National Promoter of the Year, Best Venue and Best Teamwork.

DHP also host regular live gigs across the city outside of Thekla, making use of venues from Rough Trade up to SWX. They’re also behind Dot to Dot festival, which spreads itself across more than a dozen local venues each summer, and has hosted early shows from the likes of Wolf Alice, The 1975, Dua Lipa and Ed Sheeran.

I love the DHP company motto: “Make sure everyone has a fucking great time safely.”

‘I’m very lucky to work for such a great company. DHP Family knows that it is important to maintain every part of the music scene where they operate. I love the DHP company motto: “Make sure everyone has a fucking great time safely.”

‘Like any circle of life  – sorry, I recently went to watch the new Lion King – everything needs to be fed from the bottom up. We see the benefit of working with smaller bands to support them at the start of their journey into the music industry. 

‘These small gigs are never about profit, it’s much bigger than that. This is also a great way to support smaller venues that are at so much risk at the moment.’

These small gigs are never about profit, it’s much bigger than that

Thekla also puts on a number of fundraising and charity events throughout the year, including Beat The Streets Bristol, which donates all proceeds – including bar profits – to homelessness charity Caring in Bristol.

‘Giving back to the community is something every business should do. This is something I have put at the forefront of all the projects I work on – and Thekla is no different. I will always use my resources to give back where I can. 

‘There are so many good causes out there, it’s impossible to help all of them. One issue that is so visible to us all is the homelessness crisis in Bristol. Each Christmas we host a food drive through our Pressure clubnight, where we collect thousands of food donations to support the Bristol Night Shelter. 

‘We also host fundraising events every year for Caring in Bristol. For example, our silent disco in January will raise around £5000. DHP family supports this culture throughout all its venues. Last year, Beat The Streets festival in Nottingham raised £100,000 – hopefully we can create something similar for Bristol.’ 

Last year, Beat The Streets festival in Nottingham raised £100,000 – hopefully we can create something similar for Bristol

On top of that, Simon is continuing to establish his not-for-profit ticketing platform Party for the People in Bristol, and also recently co-founded donation-based ticket platform The Ticket Bank, which works to reduce barriers to accessing the arts and increase audience diversity. 

‘We’ve been working with all different promoters and it’s great to see the music community getting behind the project. If there’s anyone out there who is interested in working on either of these projects, get in touch!’ 

After three months of absence, Thekla has returned in all its original glory to its spot on Bristol’s harbour; though if you’re expecting racing stripes or a matte wrap, you may be disappointed – the £1m works are all about preserving and protecting the venue for the future. 

Thekla has returned in all its original glory to its spot on Bristol’s harbour

‘For a boat built in 1958, Thekla is still in pretty good condition, but we realised that we need to secure the future of the boat for the next 30 years, at least. The hull is the most at risk area of the boat, but it can be protected by building and attaching another hull to the existing one. This is a massive project because of the size of the boat, but the new dry dockyard operators at Albion Dockyard have the expertise and resources to undertake this.

‘Just about all of the new hull will be below the waterline, so unfortunately we won’t have much to show off. At first glance, you may not even see that we’ve done anything at all – but if you look closely, you will see the top of the new hull just above the waterline.’

Thekla will be straight back to business

Not one to cause a scene, Thekla will be straight back to business with indie and alternative club night pressure this Thursday, followed by their quarterly funk and soul party Funk the Boat on Friday September, with live music from Black Cat Boppers and DJs till late. Breakfast Records will be commandeering the ship all day on Saturday, for an all-day-and-night showcase with 15 of their favourite artists, including DOGEYED, wych elm, Nicholson Heal and Kate Stapley.

And that’s just getting started. The Thekla calendar for the rest of 2019 is already taking excellent shape, with clubnights announced so far from The Heatwave, Intrigue, Kornél Kovács and Bandulu Gang. 

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On the live side of things, Thekla will play host to major touring acts including Little Simz, Blood Red Shoes and Band of Skulls; as well as plenty of brilliant breaking-through acts, such as Rozi Plain, Fullee Love Collective (a new project from Jurassic 5’s Soup) and Bristol’s own Gardna; who launches his debut album at Thekla this month with a slew of special guests.

nothing compares to the energy you’ll find at these events

‘There’s lots I’m looking forward to this year. The events I’m most excited about is the Gardna album launch, Intrigue Music with Logistics and ESO’s 2nd birthday party with Mssingno and Paleman, but my absolute favourite will have to be the next Off Me Nut Christmas Crackers party in December. I’m a big happy hardcore fan and I’ve been working with these guys for a while – nothing compares to the energy you’ll find at these events.’

Photography: Martin Thompson – @thefacecollective
theklabristol.co.uk
@theklabris

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