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London's Venue MOT Unit 18 has all the raw energy of an illegal rave

Creative rave freedom is brewing in a south London industrial estate

  • Words: Michael Lawson | Photos: Asia Ella
  • 25 September 2019

An abandoned car garage tucked away in an unassuming industrial cul-de-sac overlooking the home of Millwall FC, Venue MOT Unit 18 revels in its obscurity. “We don’t even have signage at the minute,” explains Jan Mohammed, the owner and driving force behind the operation. “And I’m happy to keep it that way. At one point I wanted to take us off all social media, too.”

With a background in fine art, Mohammed is well acquainted with South East London’s vibrant creative scene, but grew frustrated at the lack of accessible DIY venues in the area. He set about sourcing a space that would act as a platform for local musical talent – a blank canvas free from the financial constraints faced by the average high street haunt. A vacant mechanics’ yard in South Bermondsey seemed to tick all the boxes.

“It sounds a little bit clichéd but we’re trying to create the feeling of what I experienced in the 80s rave scene,” Mohammed continues. “Somewhere you can escape to and hear exciting, experimental music that pushes boundaries. An alternative to this depressing high street ‘club scene’ that has you paying £20 for a two-hour set.”

Speaking at 100mph with a broad Yorkshire accent, his passion and energy are infectious. It’s often difficult to keep up as his mind shoots from talking up local artists to meetings with Lewisham Council to fending off the ubiquitous threat posed by new developments, but one thing’s clear: he’s in it for the right reasons.

Opening in early 2018, this ethos of prioritising creativity over commerciality has helped Venue MOT attract some of the city’s most forward-thinking parties. Queer experimental club collective ATATA have made MOT their home, as has NTS host Felix Hall’s Ditch Party, a night that perfectly encapsulates dance music’s shift towards broken beats from the Global South. Tonight’s event, Resolution, is hosted by three Goldsmith’s computer programming students dedicated to furthering the AV aspect of underground clubbing.

“Henrik, Ed and I went to university together and learnt about all these new research and programming-led studies that were going on into new music and audio-visual technologies, but we were very disappointed that when we went out to nightclubs in London none of this was replicated on the so-called cutting edge of the scene,” explains Charles, one third of Resolution. “Our aim is to allow the audience to feel immersed within the space, while still feeling comfortable to dance in a club-friendly environment, and MOT is the perfect fit for what we’re trying to do. Jan is an incredibly accommodating venue owner and its super refreshing to have a team that are happy to work with you on what you’re aiming for.”

After navigating the otherwise vacant industrial estate, it’s only the sight of bouncers and a small queue at the entrance that suggests Venue MOT is anything other than a nondescript commercial unit. A thin black curtain separates the relaxed bar area from the dancefloor – a narrow, bunker-like space lined with multiple Martin Audio speaker stacks. Matrix-like visuals are projected onto the wall behind the DJ booth as Noods Radio resident Alexis lays down a set of crunchy house and techno culminating in the dark broken beats of Off The Meds’ ‘Belter’.

She hands over to Hyperdub signee Loraine James, who wastes no time delving into a captivating live show filled with fidgety, fast-paced rhythms, mutated Cardi B edits and tracks from her forthcoming debut album ‘For You And I’. Former Mixmag Impact star Object Blue dances hypnotically amongst the crowd with a smile on her face, making the most of a rare weekend off. “We’re essentially in a giant metal container but I love how cosy and cute it is!” she laughs.

The set is perfectly complemented by Resolution’s complex yet unobtrusive visuals. “Utilising the visual programming language Max MSP, we analyse the audio output of the music to create audio reactive visuals tailored to each individual performance and artist,” Charles explains before dashing off behind the decks, grabbing a mini torch and tending to a technical query.

The night’s third guest Minor Science steps up and immediately asserts himself with the wonky, bass-driven techno of Brain Dancing’s ‘Plugged In’. Strung together by high-energy broken beats, the measured set captivates the increasing crowds, who have braved the uncharacteristically heavy mid-July rain to descend upon the South Bermondsey venue.

“The club scene in London seems to have changed a lot since I last lived here in 2013,” Berlin-based Minor Science explains afterwards, while standing at the back of the dancefloor taking in the final performance of the night from local DJ and producer Will Lister. “But I still struggle to find that holy grail of a small capacity space with good bookings, decent sound and relatively unobtrusive security. On first impressions MOT seems to tick a lot of those boxes.”

Pairing a back-to-basics approach with an incredibly attentive and passionate team, Venue MOT Unit 18 has quickly emerged as one of the capital’s most forward-thinking clubs. “Essentially, all we’ve got here is a dancefloor, an amazing soundsystem and amazing staff,” Mohammed says. “But we’re more than happy to keep it as DIY as possible. It’s the content within the club that matters.”

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