“A Decade of Dickhead. And just to make it clear, we’re the dickheads,” says Joel Morrison, gazing around at the interior of The Old Bar. “It’s just amazing that three dickheads can run a bar for this long.”
It’s only right that Morrison is feeling nostalgic, having, along with partners Singa Unlayati and Liam Mathews, held the keys to the iconic Fitzroy watering station and music venue for ten years. During that time the unlikely trio have transformed the premises into a cultural center for music in Melbourne’s inner north, a well loved location that manages to appeal to the local creative community while being completely bereft of any superfluous trappings. Dimly lit without being dingy, relaxed whilst remaining professional, one suspects that much of the bar’s personality is inherited directly from its owners.
“This was always one of my favourite bars, so when it came up we decided to snatch it up,” says Morrison. “Both me and Liam come from a music background, (so) we really wanted to focus on the bands and make it the best place as possible for bands to play and for punters to enjoy it. We’ve put a lot of work into it and I’d say it’s definitely reflective of us.
“Running a place like this, you’re almost like a custodian of the place, you’re not exactly an owner. It’s like the punters and the bands make it as much theirs as you do. So you find out what works and what doesn’t work and then run it along a similar sort of line. If you’re pushing a certain agenda of your own and it doesn’t wash with the crowd, then you’ll see that it just won’t work.”
Under the watch of Morrison, Mathews and Unlayati, The Old Bar has hosted a mammoth amount of bands, with several well known acts cutting their teeth in the cosy confines of the band room.
“King Gizz, Courtney Barnett, Wil Wagner and The Smith Street Band have done residencies,” lists Morrison. “Cash Savage still plays here lots, Graveyard Train, Brothers Grimm. There’s just been so many shows, I mean there’s at least nine shows a week for ten years.
“There was times when we first started when there was no PA – it was just the vocal PA onstage and the bands used to mix themselves. There wasn’t even a stage, it was just a tiny little step. And so you’d see these amazing bands who’d have to mix themselves, which was pretty incredible.”
Morrison also books the bands personally, ensuring a consistency that is unusual in a venue of the bar’s size, no matter the genre of act or night of the week.
“There’s gotta be a level of quality for playing The Old Bar, whether you’re a new band or a band that’s been around for 20 years,” he says. “So it is, in terms of the bands that play here, shooting a bit higher than the venue can hold, which is why we get bands that probably shouldn’t be playing these small rooms, but do anyway just because of the reputation of the joint.
“And that is all down to the crowd and the staff looking after the joint. A lot of punters will walk in and feel like this is their home. And that’s what we want, we wanted people to feel like they have as much ownership of the venue as we do.”
Morrison, Mathews and Unlayati will be celebrating their anniversary of proprietorship with a week-long run of secret shows, the lineups of which won’t be revealed until the day of the event. There’ll be over 30 bands playing, with gigs running every night of the week as well as during the afternoon on the Saturday and all day Sunday.
“It’s just massive and it’s gonna kill me. I’m ten years older now, I can’t drink every night of the week,” says Morrison.
“I’ve called in a lot of favours. There’s people that have played here from the very first year, there’s people that have played here from the very first week, there’s people that just started playing here last year. But pretty much every single person has something to do with The Old Bar, has a history here.
“We pretty much got everyone that we wanted, so that was really great, and a lot of these bands, as I said, shouldn’t be playing here. But they were gracious enough to say yes and I was amazed at how readily people came on board for this stupid idea,” says Morrison.
“It’s gonna be pretty interesting to see people’s reactions, I think every night’s a pretty good mix, so you’re gonna see at least – there’s pretty much four to five bands every night, apart from the Sunday which has like ten – at least half of it you’re gonna love, if not all of it.”
Originally published in Beat Magazine.