The site of Salford’s most experimental music venue would be the perfect location for This Is England 2017. HM Prison Manchester, aka Strangeways, sex workers on the job and a putrid-smelling dumping-ground are just some aspects of the mise-en-scène that surrounds The White Hotel on an early October afternoon.
Named after DM Thomas’s 1981 erotic novel, the former car repair shop is a two-year old warehouse space split into two rooms, its concrete dancefloor under constant surveillance from a pair of decapitated mannequin heads perched atop a high ledge. The visual metaphor continues in the bar area, where, under an omnipresent projector screen, identical heads lie incarcerated under a sewer-like grate. This particular narrative progression echoes the anarchistic philosophy underpinning The White Hotel’s operation, master-minded by Sways Records’ Ben Ward and fulfilled by a team of committed, multi-disciplinary creatives.
“You don’t know whether you’re coming into a cinema, a club, a boozer or a brothel,” says Austin Collings, a novelist and filmmaker by day and the venue’s media contact by night. “I’ve always liked music, books and films that try and do something majorly different, so by nature I bring that to this environment,” he continues, adding that a lot of his ideas for the in-house events are born of an instinct for being disruptive, with the ensuing dysfunction between the close-knit team not dissimilar to the comedy underpinning fictional pirate radio station sitcom People Just Do Nothing
While weeknights might see Collings hosting a Q&A with the creators of a podcast dedicated to the unsolved murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan, weekends will have the likes of techno producer/DJ Helena Hauff playing a three-hour set. Thanks to the venue’s loose closing times, an increasing number of Manchester’s underground music stalwarts are making The White Hotel their home too, from Homoelectric choosing the venue for their one-room BabyHomo to acid house-loving Lost Control throwing a 12-hour rave.
“We’ll give you a load of money, you pick the line-up, we’ll take the risk”
But when Ward draws our attention to a Kelly Brook calendar gifted to him by a promoter, it becomes clear the venue’s glowing reputation is founded on the team’s consistent personal approach across a variety of genres, evidenced later by the evening’s bespoke cocktails and a hand-crafted itinerary which tonight’s headliner, Canadian noise artist Tim Hecker, enthuses about pre-show.
“Our new thing is to commission nights with people we really like,” says Ward. “We’ll give you a load of money, you pick the line-up, we’ll take the risk.” One of the artists supporting Hecker tonight, Thomas Ragsdale, impressed The White Hotel with his work on Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation soundtrack. He feels compelled to prove himself further with his live show: “I don’t want to do something that’s just a guy on a laptop. I wanna look busy and stressed out,” he laughs.
But in Manchester, programming such events is still an anomaly; the packed Monday night event is abuzz with the anticipation of an audience attending their first happening. Beginning at sunset with resident DJ Vendel utilising sounds from Under The Skin and Twin Peaks: The Return to create an ominous atmosphere, the room falls into an even deeper sensory rabbit-hole thanks to the venue’s impressive smoke machine.
Electronic minimalist Tim Hecker arrives on stage preceded by several minutes of total darkness. Taking place only hours after the Las Vegas shootings, his unrelenting performance, devoid of rhythm or melody, matches the sombre mood of the day. The crowd’s respect for his request for a blackout, everyone refraining from using their phones, also acts as a vigil for the tragic event.
“There’s some really deep music community history here,” says Hecker of Manchester. “It’s not a massive city but it’s a very music-savvy city.” The White Hotel’s ambition to combine curatorial innovation with commercial viability is proof of that Manc savviness.
As the night draws to a close, bar manager Helen Collett offers us a glass of red wine accompanied by a disc of communion wafer. Clearly, The White Hotel is not only the most experimental venue in Manchester, but also its most subversively self-aware.
This feature is taken from the December issue of Mixmag
Kamila Rymajdo is freelance journalist and regular contributor to Mixmag, follow her on Twitter