Photography: Femi A. Olabode / @femiadeolabode

At about 6pm on the Saturday of Liverpool Pride, my drunken friends begin to pine for SONIC YOOTHA. “It doesn’t start for another three hours!” I protest, but they are inconsolable. We wander, desolate and lost, scraping a good time from the tinny EDM offered by the official celebrations. Checking our phones for the time every 20 minutes, we finally lose our patience at 8pm and head to 24 Kitchen Street, an hour before the disco is set to begin. Luckily, it seems everyone else has had the same idea – the doors are open and the venue is already busy enough to feel cosy.

This is my first time at Yootha, after everyone I know has been raving about it for months, and I’m not disappointed. A wholesome atmosphere is perceptible from the off – absent is mainstream town’s coke-fuelled intensity, where the expressions on people’s faces often make me wonder whether they want to dance or hit me. This is different: the bouncers are friendly, it feels friendly. Despite a footfall of over 600 people over the course of the night in a venue built for 300, the crowded bodies always part for each other. What strikes me most vividly is a sense that this is not your usual gay night – it’s missing the obvious clichés; we’re not subjected to strobe lights and four hours of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Britney. Now, I love Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Britney and Rihanna’s S&M as much as the next queer, but this feels like a refreshingly realistic and futuristic take on gay entertainment.

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There is an inexplicable ‘house party’ vibe to Yootha, which makes sense as soon as I meet Shaun, Ian, John and Tracy, the group of close friends who co-run the night. “It was born out of boredom,” Shaun tells me. “We had nowhere to go, and everyone that we know didn’t go out anymore… we would all sit in our homes and get wasted and play tunes. We were having fabulous times, just on our own.” Yootha was born spontaneously out of a desire for entertainment that catered to people like themselves, who weren’t getting what they wanted out of the venues and club nights available. “The gay scene generally is catering for a homogenous sound and look – very commercial, sound systems aren’t usually very good. It’s like Mathew Street but for gay people, and there’s no alternative, or there wasn’t,” Ian says, to murmurs of agreement. Shaun chimes in: “It’s great that those places exist to cater to the people that like them, those places are brilliant. But it’s just like the mainstream of the straight scene: just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re going to fit into that. You can be gay and go to those gay clubs and feel like an outsider.” Yootha was a response to this, the group of friends recognising how their horizons were being limited by a stifling lack of sonic variety and rigid social boundaries. As Tracy puts it, “If you look at commercial clubland, the modern clubbing experience is a lot of hard work for an awful lot of people. They’re spending a fortune getting their hair done, nails done, going the gym – all that palaver, and for what? To stand in the corner and take selfies while someone plays crap EDM at you for three hours. All you need at Yootha is a smile on your face and a willingness to dance.”

It began with a group of friends in a kitchen, wishing they could listen to what they like when they go out; over the last few months, the night has become a full-blown phenomenon. “We realised there were other people who felt the same, and it just snowballed,” says Tracy, reflecting that they themselves were unsuspecting of their own impending popularity: “The strange thing is, when we first started it was our mates and friends, but now we’re getting the next generation of people and there are flocks of them, and they get it – they get it!” Tracy’s emotional investment in her work is obvious – she talks about the younger generation with a proud, familial affection: “These kids that are coming now are like us when we were teenagers – fearless, bold and wanting to express ourselves. This is the perfect place to express yourself without anybody looking sideways at you – be! Just be.”

Even though the night started with an older crowd in mind, it has brought into its fold likeminded younger folks who feel just as out of place in gay town. Ian tells me about how Yootha supported Jake (pictured, in the pink wig) in developing his drag persona Jackie. “That’s his fourth time doing drag – he did his first drag at Sonic Yootha, and then he went out and didn’t get a great reaction off people in the gay town.” After continued support and bookings from the Yootha team, Jackie is now being booked for performances. “He found his feet at Yootha, which is lovely for him to have that safe space.” The carbon-copied “Stepford drag queens,” as Tracy calls them, can be a tough crowd. “They all have the same contour and look like storm troopers, and I don’t think there’s as much sisterhood.” As Ian points out, the internet has made the gay scene very divided: “Bear clubs, twink clubs, this, that club, whereas in the past it was just gay club. That was one of the things it was important for us to put together – you can be all those things, but it’s for everybody.”

This heterogeneity is what chimes with Yootha’s regulars. “It’s not what you do in the bedroom it’s what you do on the dancefloor,” says Ian. “I would say 40 per cent of every night is straight people… that mix in itself is priceless, and the energy and the understanding that is reached between people – these are the conversations that desperately need to be had.” The group often draw on their memories of clubland’s golden years to contextualise Yootha’s success: “Garlands in the mid 90s was about the same split, 60/40 gay-straight,” says Ian. “We were part of that whole Mick Jenkins era and it had the same vibe and energy. John remembers Baa Bar’s heyday fondly: “When we first came out, that was an incredibly cool place to hang out. It wasn’t a gay bar, but it was frequented by many gay people – it was the same thing, it was people who didn’t really like what they were seeing on the other side of town.”

“This is the perfect place to express yourself without anybody looking sideways at you” Tracy Wilder

As the conversation progresses, I keep hearing about legendary club nights of the past, and the characters who frequented them. Tracy tells me of when gay bar proprietors would serve you chicken in a basket, or Spam butties (all the while screaming “OOH, she’s outrageous”) in order to secure a supper licence and stay open late. Outside was a more dangerous place for gays to be back then, but certain bars became a refuge for outsiders. Tracy: “Inside, it was full of the hardest gangsters in the city; in the corner there’d be someone selling weed and diet pills, it was edgy – but perfect gentlemen, y’know?” A common theme in these golden memories are environments which embrace diversity. “We used to go to a night at The Haçienda called Flesh,” Shaun recalls, “their one gay night, but not just for gay people. It’s always about the people a night attracts. Nights like Flesh had something magical which drew people in, and it’s almost like Yootha has something similar now.”

The group are constantly expressing a surreal sense of pleasure and wonder at what Yootha has become, telling me of their amazement when they first noticed Yootha goers outside of their immediate circle of friends. “People come up from London – that’s mental!” Ian exclaims. He recounts one Londoner friend telling him, “This is crazy, it’s like being in New York in the 80s.” He attributes this to Yootha’s authenticity. Even though the night caters to an alternative crowd, the Yootha brand is not pretentious. “People could even look at the pictures you took today and might assume it’s pretentious, ’cos you’re almost getting that cool reputation.” But the icy grasp of self-
consciousness has not yet frozen the bodies on Yootha’s dancefloor; attendees are invited to share in an experience in a kind of modern day acid test. “We make a very bold visual statement intentionally with the slideshows on the screens, ’cos the minute you walk in, regardless of what music is playing, if you can deal with the pictures that are being shown, stay.” The test is not about your aesthetic value to the club – this is not Berghain. Those who pass the test are enfolded in the giddy joy of the night by nature of their being.

The night is a hit for old and young, because people who fall outside of the mainstream end up searching in the past for something they can relate to. On any given night at Yootha you might hear a mixture of Girls Aloud, New Order, Ms Dynamite, Echo & The Bunnymen, Madonna, House Of Pain, Talking Heads, or anything else you can imagine. “We play the back catalogue of our lives, which might go back 50 years. And a good song stands up no matter where it comes from. And when the kids get it, it makes it all worthwhile.” One anecdote Ian tells aptly summarises the value of Yootha as a school of taste: “One night, someone young came up and said, ‘Can you play Madonna?’, and it was Madonna playing.”

As the younger generation, we are often guilty of forgetting how fortunate we are. When the topic strays to RuPaul’s Drag Race, I am derisive of RuPaul’s capitalist motives, calling him the Alan Sugar of drag. Ian sets me straight: “We came out of those dark clubs – we’re of the generation that said, ‘You know what, fuck off – we’re gonna dance on a balcony, where people can actually see us’, and RuPaul was part of that.” Shaun reflects that these disagreements are evidence of how far we’ve come, and Ian agrees – “otherwise it’d still be a load of men in double denim wanking each other off in the toilets”. We’re reminded of a moment earlier in the day, when Jackie the drag artist expressed anxiety about her hairy legs showing up in the photographs we were taking. To reassure her, two girls in the room (including myself) lifted their trousers to reveal their own bountiful leg hair. These are different times; we are not as encumbered by the expectations of our peers, because the internet allows us to find any community we choose. But this leaves a lot of us lonely, too, feeling like we have more in common with strangers on the internet than with the physical LGBT community around us. At Yootha, the music brings us together.

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“When we started, people were a bit like, ‘That can’t work, you can’t bring generations together’,” Ian says, but this only fuelled his perseverance. The night almost came to an end when Camp And Furnace kicked Yootha off their roster (“Sheer bloody-mindedness!” exclaims Tracy). “To be fair to them, it wasn’t going very well… it was a vast space but we weren’t filling it.” John is less forgiving: “They obviously didn’t have any faith in the project, and after the third one they just said, ‘Listen, it’s not working out’.” It was through a chance act of curiosity that Ian walked into 24 Kitchen Street when he went to collect his records, deflated. Stars aligned, and a chance cancellation made the fourth night possible. “They were incredibly supportive, because they could see the potential.” Timing was also vital: “We arrived when Liverpool was becoming open to something new again, and this whole area was opening up, with all these amazing nights: Beers For Queers, Preach, Lez Be Having It… It’s ironic that as the country edges towards leaving Europe we’ve never been more European in our ideals – do it yourself, make the most of your areas, have pop-ups and temporary things and collectives of people that come from totally different walks of life. There’s no separation anymore, and that’s where the new ideas come from.”

Barriers are against the Yootha philosophy; stage invasions are welcome, which creates a rare dynamic between the audience and the DJ. Shaun describes an incredible moment when Tracy played Al Hudson’s You Can Do It. No one knew the song, but the atmosphere exploded. “I’ve never seen anything like it at Yootha, people were clamouring to get on the stage… It is a bit funny now, cos it’s like: welcome to our failed night!”

Yootha’s momentum is showing no signs of slowing, and there are now even whispers of a future Yootha record label, but at the centre of this popularity explosion is not a cynical marketing strategy, but rather friendship. They are not concerned about popularity, either; they refused to market their Pride night conspicuously, and this half-secret feeling makes the night all the more special. “It’s almost like watching the match,” says Shaun, “or being part of a family.” “For me personally, it’s a spiritual occasion,” adds Ian. “It’s not about money, not about anything other than love of music. It’s all done with love, there’s no other way to really describe it, and that’s what the reflection is. We’re getting lovely people, because we’re projecting love.”

 

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Sonic Yootha #33 – School’s Out returns to 24 Kitchen Street on 1st September.

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