Back in March of this year, Brisbane-born DJ and producer Claire Morgan finally returned to her hometown. The previous 12 months had been, to put it mildly, unusual.
Based in Berlin since 2012, Morgan was looking forward to a busy 2020 on the international techno circuit, including her return to the booth at Berlin’s hallowed Berghain. When COVID-19 cleared her touring calendar overnight, Morgan flew home to Queensland and retreated to the hinterland calm of Maleny on the Sunshine Coast, distant in every way from the dark, pounding rooms where she makes her living.
Morgan’s gig drought lasted until February 2021, when she made a nervy return to club life for Melbourne crew Charades. Then it was on to Brisbane, the city where she grew up, discovered dance music and started DJing.
Her first gig back home was for buzzy Brisbane crew Pray Tell, whose aptly-named ‘re-entry’ event transformed the open-air Fortitude Valley venue Brightside Outdoors into a welcoming dance space. From the artwork to the decor to the carefully curated lineup of local artists, the event rivalled anything on Morgan’s Northern Hemisphere calendar.
A few weekends later, Morgan returned to Brisbane from Maleny to play Concrete Jungle, a day-into-night party held under the Inner City Bypass motorway. Put together by a trio of young promoters called kindacool, the event peaked with Morgan banging it out under the concrete for a locked-in dancefloor. With two killer parties ringing in her ears, the homecoming DJ marvelled on her socials: “Bris is killing it & I am proud as hell.”
When I connect with Morgan six months later in her Berlin apartment, she’s still beaming about Brisbane. “My mind was blown,” she says over Zoom. “I had no idea until I got back to Australia at the start of the pandemic.”
Morgan’s discovery that times had changed at home began with three separate messages from friends suggesting she meet Gurpaal Bains, the man behind Little Street Studios in the Valley. "It turns out he built the dream studio that has every synth you can think of," she swoons. Morgan soon discovered the studio was a meeting place for other creative people, from experimental techno producers to DJ/promoters throwing parties on their own terms.
Brisbane City, built on land known to the Turrbal people as Meanjin, is currently flush with potential. With the pandemic keeping locals local, clued-in promoters are turning to the world-class talent on their doorstep. From parties to radio to spaces for collaboration, Brisbane has the support structure that’s vital for a sustainable club culture.
To Morgan, this groundswell of creativity is nothing new, but instead a return to the feel of the scene that shaped her. “The vibe now feels exactly like it used to," she says. "It's like Brisbane has come unstuck."
Back in the day
The ‘90s in Brisbane were a raver’s delight. Touchstones like Adventjah, Adrenalin, System 6, NASA and Infinity ruled the rave scene, uniting Brisbane’s believers across a range of rooms and beats per minute. This was also the era of Strawberry Fields, which began in 1994 on a farm as “QLD’s first-ever full production outdoor rave event”.
Brisbane lifer Jenny Juckel, better known as DJ Jen-E, was there for all of it. “At a rave like Strawberry Fields, you knew everyone would be there and there were no competing events,” she tells me over email. “Everything was new and exciting and the energy was incredible. It was like a secret we shared.”
“It’s surreal to think what was once going on in this city back in the day,” says Brisbane-raised DJ Simon Bird, who caught the tail-end of that era thanks to the influence of some older friends. “There’d be eight stages going on at once in massive warehouses with show rides. Everyone was dressed in proper rave gear, dummies and all.”
While Claire Morgan’s older siblings caught the rave era, her own awakening came in the clubs of Fortitude Valley. She remembers sneaking out of her family home in Bowen Hills (just up the hill from where she’d headline kindacool’s Concrete Jungle under the ICB two decades later), ready to take it all in.
At first, she favoured The Beat Megaclub and The Wickham, two gay clubs in which a teenage girl could feel safe. Later, she’d seek out DJ Katch at Ric’s Cafe “in my Etnies and cargo pants”, and Rude Bwoyz, a jungle night she remembers as packed with girls who really knew how to dance.
Buoyed by these experiences, Morgan bought turntables and was picking up gigs within two weeks. She followed Jason ‘Rousey’ Rouse, whose sets at Monastery were an education in US house, and Mark Briais, also the buyer at Rocking Horse Records. Most of all, she worshipped Jen-E, who proved Brisbane didn’t have to be a total boy’s club.
Morgan made the hard choice to leave Brisbane for Sydney in 2003. “It seemed like everything changed in the course of 12 months,” she says now. “A lot of owners in the Valley decided to move to a different crowd, so they booted the underground music out and replaced it with Top 40. It went from being the Valley that I grew up in and loved to fights every weekend and bad music blaring out of everywhere.”
The shift in music policy was coupled with new residential development in the thick of the clubbing district, which brought in new dB limits for music venues. Others I speak to in Brisbane also mention the corrosive effect of pokies on the city’s live music scene, which in turn squeezed out the venues sympathetic to underground dance music.
DJ Ralph Alfa, who grew up in Brisbane frequenting the likes of System 6 and now runs the echo & bounce record store, remembers the 2000s as an uncertain time to be a promoter. “The scene being smaller than other cities made things particularly difficult in the mid-aughts,” he says. “DJ fees were huge but attendances at parties could fluctuate a lot, which meant the magic 'break-even' point was incredibly hard to reach.”
Inevitably, Brisbane’s big room clubs like The MET and Family needed big-room sounds to fill them. “It was when things went into bigger clubs with more money that the underground unity waned, and there was a changeover in patrons,” Jen-E recalls.
Brisbane was always a festival-friendly city, dating back to the early days of the Boiler Room at Big Day Out, but the dance festival glut of the 2010s put the pinch on more boutique events. “It was a slow decline, and then a really flat decade,” Claire Morgan adds. “There were very few venues supporting an underground scene.”
Gradually, through the tenacity of a new generation, the old magic started creeping back.
The old Brisbane’s new again
The creative energy in Brisbane is partly tied to the revival of the Valley as a precinct friendly to small businesses. This good buzz is exemplified by QUIVR on Winn Lane, a DJ school and live streaming space founded by local DJ Hollee Hibberson.
On one Saturday in September, I tune in for newcomers cheered on by their friends in the comments, then return in the evening to see Jen-E mixing punchy classics on vinyl, beaming like there’s no place she’d rather be. Sampology, the proudly Brisbane-born DJ and producer who holds down a residency on Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM, is also a QUIVR regular.
Hibberson’s inclusive vision for QUIVR inspired echo & bounce to move in next door, filling a niche for a dedicated dance record store aimed at Brisbane’s growing vinyl market. (The store has since moved to an up-and-coming block in Woolloongabba.)
Meanwhile, Brisbane’s long-running community radio station 4zzz champions left-of-centre local artists on shows like Synesthesia and Full Of Air. Jen-E traces the station’s critical role in the scene back to the show Crucial Cutz, hosted by Peter Mogg. “There was no internet and mobile phones were basically walkie talkies with a text screen, so we connected via this show,” Jen-E recalls.
Brisbane’s environment of support has encouraged a diversity of DJs and producers. A name I hear repeated in glowing terms is Hannah Doody, aka Hannah D, who runs the label The Space Between Us. The label’s 2020 compilation, Hybrida, is a crash course in Meanjin’s brightest up-and-comers, such as Axon Growth Factor, Jae Birch and NORA DRUM. (Both Hannah D and Emma Stevenson, another favourite Brisbane DJ and tastemaker, are now based in Melbourne.) Other independent labels pushing grassroots electronic talent include Pocketmoth, co-founded by local musicians Zach Degnan and Iti Memon, and Beats Of No Nation (BONN), led by Jad & The and Dom Bird.
On her return, Claire Morgan was floored by “how many young girls there are DJing now”. Viewers of QUIVR’s live streams are familiar with selectors like Girls In Hats, Mumgenes, Grace Green and Squidgenini, whose example has already influenced the next wave of aspiring Brisbane DJs.
Indigenous DJ and radio host dameeeela has emerged as one of the standout names in the city, as comfortable on a hip-hop show as she is at a techno all-nighter. dameeeela has earned international attention with sets on Rinse FM’s Steel City Dance Discs and Nina Las Vegas’ NLV Presents, while keeping a close alliance with the likes of QUIVR and the Fem Fale crew. “What excites me most in recent years is Brisbane’s ability to make such a close-knit community that celebrates all pockets of our scene as one,” dameeeela says.
“For a long time there was a myth that to really make it in the scene, one needed to leave Brisbane to a 'big' city,” Ralph Alfa says. On the evidence, those days are done.
Keep pushing on
For scene-pushing promoters like A Love Supreme, inner_circle, Fem Fale, Southbound and GRID, Brisbane demands outside the box thinking. Often that means throwing ‘BYO: no glass’ parties in warehouse spaces with the location revealed only to ticket-holders, a choice that comes with its own challenges. Others, such as Bad Taste House Collective, have made creative use of outdoor spaces, while acknowledging the Turrbal and Yugara people as the traditional custodians of the land.
When Brisbane’s Barsoma closed in 2013, its resident DJs Simon Bird, Rikki Newton and George Alatakis went on to launch Andromeda Festival, an ambitious open-air event located at Ivory’s Rock, 45 minutes west of Brisbane. “At the time there were doofs, but none of them really catered to the music we were keen to push,” Bird says.
Earlier this year, Andromeda returned with an eight-hour ‘pop-up rave’ under the Gateway Bridge in the Brisbane suburb of Murarrie. “Over the years we’ve learned the rules from experience,” Bird says. “We informed the police, left no trace and were lucky enough to have no problems.”
For Concrete Jungle, the kindacool crew took inspiration from the half bucolic, half brutalist setting of London’s Junction 2 festival. That meant heading for a semi-industrial area under the ICB that, in true Brisbane fashion, attracted an army of biting midges. (“They were hungry for rave blood,” recalls Claire Morgan.)
“There was no more art or science to securing the venue than many hours scrolling Google Maps and driving around on weekends,” explains Josh Threapleton, who is one third of the kindacool trio. “The only quirk to securing the space was convincing land owners that a house and techno event on their land would be safe.”
Pray Tell’s ‘re-entry’ event a few weeks earlier left a lot of Brisbane locals, from the artists to the dancers, hyped about the city’s future. The duo behind Pray Tell, DJ/producer Cameron Lee and artist and graphic designer Nadeem Tiafau Eshraghi, took great care with all the elements, creating a cohesive theme across the design, artist bios and venue decorations.
The event also featured the live debut of X CLUB., one of Brisbane’s buzziest techno acts, who played before Claire Morgan. “X CLUB. is like Brisbane’s Fjaak,” Morgan says, referring to the unstoppable German duo. “They absolutely destroyed.” Befitting the comparison, DJs including HAAi, Len Faki and Daniel Avery have rinsed X CLUB.’s 2021 barn-stormer ‘Turning a Blind Eye to this Nonsense’ on the European circuit.
The night was even better, Morgan says, because Jen-E, Mark Briais and Rousey were there to soak it up. “The Pray Tell guys were so stoked that all the Brisbane OGs came, so there were all these rave generations there,” she says.
dameeeela, who warmed up for X CLUB., echoes the Pray Tell praise: “It was really a peak Brissie moment.”
A brighter future
In late September, I get on the phone with Thomas Parer, the founder of Brisbane’s queer dance party Shandy. Starting in 2019, Shandy has hopped between venues, including Black Bear Lodge and a memorable takeover of the Spring Hill Baths, a heritage-listed swimming pool built in 1886.
“Early on, I wanted to find the ‘perfect’ space,” Parer says. “You’re never going to find a venue that ticks every box to make it the most inclusive ever, but you can find something that approaches it.”
Parer started Shandy after surveying the city’s scene and seeing a gap for the kind of queer party he wanted to go to. That is, a queer party that’s not only about lavish performances (although Shandy has certainly got those), but also a focus on the music.
As a DJ himself, Parer is serious about creating real, heads-down dancefloor moments. “I wanted Shandy to have a little bit of trashy pop, but also techno, old-school house, breakbeat, trancey stuff - the full spectrum,” he says. This wide-ranging music policy makes Shandy accessible to all. “Historically the queer community in Brisbane has been atomised,” Parer says, “but Shandy is about creating a space where your little friend bubble would go and find these other bubbles there.”
Like any city, Brisbane presents particular challenges for promoters to navigate. Most obvious is the pandemic, which has made parties inherently risky and subject to sudden disruptions. Another common theme is playing to a much smaller pool than Sydney and Melbourne. “The biggest non-COVID challenge is market size,” says kindacool’s Josh Threapleton. Others, meanwhile, mention the need for a dedicated underground club and better informed security staff in a city where, as Thomas Parer puts it, “every venue is a little bit multi-purpose”.
For dameeeela, Brisbane still has a way to go on diversifying its lineups. “I don’t know if I see enough [representation in the scene] to be proud of it yet,” she says. “Unfortunately it feels like us coloured/LGBTQIA+ folk have to put on our own events to truly celebrate ourselves safely and unforgettably. But I do see the efforts that are being made when they are being made.”
The smaller scale of Brisbane’s scene is also one of its great assets. Several people tell me about a shared ‘promoter’s calendar’ and Facebook groups designed to avoid booking clashes. “Everyone that’s into this type of music here knows and respects each other,” says Simon Bird.
dameeeela sees Little Street Studios, QUIVR, 4zzz and echo & bounce as vitally linked to all the parties thrown by DJs and producers. “It’s so intertwined,” she says.
“Brisbane people are not cliquey or exclusive,” Claire Morgan adds. “Suffice to say when I moved to Sydney, I thought it was the meanest place I’d ever been.”
Looking ahead, 2022 promises brighter days after 18 months of navigating COVID restrictions. “There is definitely a turning of the tide in the past year,” Parer enthuses, echoing a common theme. “While venues are definitely still doing it tough, there is a growing sense of optimism and hope now. Pretty much everyone in the underground party scene is positive about living here.”
After all, that’s the Brisbane way.