Last month, Melbourne got the news that New Guernica was moving house. After 12 years in the city, the nightlife institution announced it was shuffling over to Collingwood, where it will reopen in a still-TBA address as soon as lockdown permits. It’s not the end for the club but the start of a whole new chapter.
But with the relocation marking a big milestone for Guerns, we thought this was the right time to take a loving look back at the club’s decade-plus history. So to get the story of New Guernica, we spoke to co-founder George Jaff Tzaferis about what’s been and what’s to come for one of Melbourne’s best-loved party dens.
The origin story
Before they became club owners, George Jaff Tzaferis and Kyle Bush were employees at another storied Melbourne club: Honkytonks.
That now-legendary nightspot finished up in 2006 and then became Third Class. A couple years later, the venue’s lease was up, forcing the party to stop.
“And we thought you know what, we can do this on our own,” Tzaferis recalls.
He and Bush found the space that would eventually become New Guernica, drew up a business plan and started making over the venue.
The vision was to do for other punters what Honkytonks had done for them.
“We grew up at Honkytonks,” Tzaferis says. “That was our second home. I ended up moving next door to that place, because it was my second lounge room -- I would be there three or four times a week, sometimes. I was a punter there and then I did eventually work there.
“I wanted to offer that to other people: that feeling of having that second home and the place you can go to listen to amazing music and not know what is going to be played and create special friendships.”
Peace, Love, Unity, Respect... And Picasso
Then it came time to pick a name for the club.
“I was away on a weekend with Kyle, my business partner, and a few friends. And we were like, ‘we need to come up with a name’,” Tzaferis recalls.
“Picasso’s painting of Guernica somehow came up. I think we discussed having the painting in the venue, actually. Then I believe it was a friend of ours, Misha, who said ‘hey, why don’t we call it Guernica?’ But we were like no, Guernica’s all about war, we don’t really want that.”
“Kyle or Misha came up with the idea of ‘New Guernica’ -- so it’s about peace. And that goes back to the old raver slang of PLUR, which is peace love unity respect. We felt that promoting peace love unity and respect was a good way to project the home we wanted to make for everybody.”
The path from French electro to techno
Back when New Guernica first opened in 2009, French electro, the sound that had previously been king, was on the way out. In the early days Guerns dabbled in other sounds before really getting to fly the house and techno flag.
“Going from French electro back to techno slowly was an interesting revolution,” Tzaferis says. “Because before the French electro thing, everything was very techno, very slow BPMs. The whole French electro thing was anti that. So getting back to techno took a bit of time. [Transitioning there] meant playing a mix between disco, nu-disco and the sound I’m more passionate about, which is techno.”
“You can’t really force feed a sound to anybody and opening a club isn’t about putting out what you like. It is about working with the right crews: putting on disco nights, putting on melodic house and techno nights.”
So did those early days of the club go off without a hitch?
“Fuck no,” Tzaferis laughs. “ It was a huge learning curve. You get thrown so many side blinders.”
But they made it work. Today, Tzaferis says, the club’s signature sound “has progressed to the heavier techno” it’s known for.
There’ve been too many highlights for Tzaferis to name. After twelve years, he says, “It does kind of all blur into one, like a big night.”
But there are some standout bookings it’s hard to forget. “We’ve had Greg Wilson play, which was incredible. We’ve had Andrew Weatherall, which was equally as incredible. We’ve Derrick Carter, DJ Pierre. Just incredible artists. These are the cream of the crop on the planet, really,” Tzaferis says.
And back in 2013 or 2014, the club had one particularly special punter come through.
“We had George Michael come for most of the night,” Tzaferis says. “He had some friends and decided to hang out. And you could tell by his silhouette it was him, just by the way he danced. It was pretty incredible, to be honest. It was jaw dropping for me. I remember walking over with a whole stack of drink cards but he didn’t want them, or his own area, or anything. He was just amongst everybody and went to the bar like everybody else. It was pretty amazing.”
I remember walking over with a whole stack of drink cards but he didn’t want them, or his own area, or anything. He was just amongst everybody and went to the bar like everybody else.
The future of Melbourne nightlife
Tzaferis says the “interesting time” we’re currently living in is going to spell change for Melbourne’s nightlife industry.
Covid may see some owners exit the industry. But “the positive take away from this is that we are making way for new blood, new creatives, new talent, new ideas and experiences,” he says. Tzaferis thinks that new, young passionate crews with big ideas have better leverage to negotiate things like a business’ buy out fee and lease terms with the landlord, which will make getting a foot in the door.
Moreover, he says, “with travel being scratched off the list in the interim, I imagine we’ll see some amazing fresh local talent becoming the focus of line ups, with more of our locals being celebrated and receiving the attention they deserve.”
As Tzaferis puts it: “It’s worth noting we've also had some of Australia’s finest electronic music exports, who used to live overseas for touring reasons, return home -- such as Nite Fliet and Francis Inferno.”
For the big reopening, the owners almost decided to come back under a new name.
“The name New Guernica is something I’ve had to look at for a long time. I just wanted to change it up,” Tzaferis says. “So I thought the obvious progression of New Guernica would have been Guerns -- because that’s what everyone calls it.”
“But the fact of the matter is we’ve done so many incredible international acts come through the club as New Guernica and we are known internationally as the Melbourne nightclub to play at when it comes to big gigs.”
The owners didn’t want to lose that reputation, so they decided to stick with New Guernica.
Tzaferis can’t wait to show people the new space: “Our location’s incredible,” he says.
The new club will be opening with two rooms, with a third basement space to come further down the track. Right now, the owners are using this forced downtime to build a custom dancefloor and create some of the “nooks and crannies that New Guernica has always been famous for”.
He’s also excited to welcome a couple of fresh crews into the space – including a new party called Rascal!, the brainchild of DJ WISER (Thick as Thieves). They’re also going to be giving the floor to the Cicada crew: “Real crate diggers [who I’ve] seen reach BPMs high enough to give grandma an aneurism and bring it back down like it ain’t no thing.”
For Tzaferis, the best bit about being at the helm of the club is getting to bring people together in the name of music.
“I’d like to think that’s what nightclubs facilitate: that sense of community. A sense of, as cliché as it sounds, leaving those inhibitions at the door,” he says. “We facilitate a space for people to just feel so good and not worry about what they have to deal with during the week.
Or, to put it poetically: “We facilitate escapism.”