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Hidden: Underground Manchester

Mark Dale conducts an exclusive interview with the team behind Manchester's best current club space.

Becca Frankland

Date published: 5th May 2016

Manchester has had more than its fair share of renowned, brilliant nightclubs. There's just something about the city and its inhabitants that make it a special place for clubbing and music in general.

From the 1960s when hundreds of tiny clubs could be found in its streets, perhaps most notably the founding R&B turned Northern soul allnighter The Twisted Wheel, through to The Hacienda, Sankeys Soap and The Warehouse Project, some of Manchester's nightclubs have become world famous and others notorious. 

At the end of the day a nightclub is just a building. What makes it truly special is the audience that inhabits it, their vigour, their dancing, their passion and the atmosphere they create. However, to nurture the best from an audience, to enable them to attain that impassioned reputation Manchester club crowds are famous for, all the ingredients for the club must be correct. These include apparent basics such as sound, music, lighting, staff, but also less obvious but equally integral aspects such as attitude and foresight.

All of these ingredients are something the seasoned clubbers who make up the team at Manchester's Hidden nightclub know only too well. It's evident they do in the fact that in this former mill, on the edge of Manchester city centre, a warehouse space has, in under a year, been turned into hands down the most exciting club space to open in Manchester in the best part of a decade. 

It's not the biggest club space in the world, let alone Manchester, so we certainly wouldn't like to say, “If you've not been yet, you should go”. Its multiple rooms are adorned with graffiti, bereft of expensive furniture and furnishings and it is not a club for everybody. Nor should it be.

If it's your sort of thing you've probably already been and your visit will not have been prompted by listings or features in the local press or posters plastered desperately around city centres (Hidden doesn't do them). No, like some of the best clubbing experiences you will ever have, your visit was probably prompted by word of mouth, news of this extra special space passing around the lips and social media posts of those in the know since opening.

Hidden from many of the regular marketing tools of nightclubs, hidden from ill suited passing trade, hidden down the back street of a forgotten industrial area of Salford, hidden in the shadows of Strangeways prison, there's something mysterious, edgy, exciting and uncommon about this venue.

In their first major interview Skiddle's Mark Dale sat down with the team from Hidden in order to get the background on the people behind venue, how it all started and reveal some exclusive news on the venue's future.

Those interviewed include owner/creative director Kristian Arnaoutis, his brother and Hidden's managing director, Nickos Arnaoutis, venue manager Martin Moffat and booker Jay Smith (director Jobie Donnachie, booker Anton Stephens and Chris Fitter who does artist liaison were team members not present in the interview).

Hi Guys! Hope you're all well. Please can I start by asking who founded the club? Who's idea was it?

Kristian: It was mine.

When I saw your first name, Kristian, with it being spelled with a K and having been reminded a bit of Berlin on my visits to the club, I kinda thought you must be some German kid who'd come to Manchester to study, then stayed and gone on to open a club. I was surprised, when I spoke to you on the phone, to hear that you sound very Mancunian. Where are you from?

Kristian: I'm full on German me, mate [said in a heavy Mancunian accent]. No, originally we're from Hyde. That's where we live. Me dad's from Cyprus, me mum's from Ireland.

Nickos: Dad was raised in Cheetham Hill and mum in Longsight, so that's where the Manc accent comes from.

How do you know all the other guys involved at the club?

Kristian: Through partying really.

Nickos: And a friend of ours, Ste who does Love Dose, he put us in touch with Martin.

Martin: These guys have all known each other for years. I'm the venue manager and I joined two events in. I was working as the events manager at The Faversham for a year, I ran club nights and parties for myself for about 5 years, worked as a DJ and in cocktail bars and restaurants since I was 18.

When I saw this place open and I saw the first line ups that they'd announced it was so far up my street that I basically just quit my job and came here because I wanted to be involved.

What kind of history do you and your brother have in parties Kristian?

Kristian: We've done warehouse parties in Manchester for a long time. Other parties in Ibiza. Article was one of the main ones, that started at Gorilla. We've done ones at Sankeys. We've done plenty of events in temporary events spaces around Manchester and Salford, because we just like that raw, warehouse vibe. That's what got us the hype and the following that we've got today.

When did you start doing these parties?

Kristian: About five years ago.

Jay: Even when we were getting the club going, after we'd taken out the lease, we were still doing the parties, so it's been an ongoing thing for about 5 years. When we decided, ok, let's make a profession out of it, that's when Kristian decided, ok, let's open a club, go down the route of doing every weekend instead of sporadic parties.

Instead of going out around Manchester all the time, looking for a space where we wanted to do a party, why not create our own permanent club and that's when Hidden was born.

Nickos: Kris came home to our house one day and said “Nick, I've taken out a five year lease on a derelict warehouse mill” and I was like, "what are you doing, you nutter? Are you mad?" He told me to come down and look at the place and the second I walked into this mill I just instantly bought into the vision and knew it could be something special.

So I bought into the vision and basically it was my job to make it a reality, go through the licensing and all the procedures to make this venue a place where we could legally host as a nightclub.

What's your role, Jay?

Jay: I do bookings for the club. I worked for Sankeys for 6 years doing bookings and promotion. When they first closed, in June 2013 and move to Ibiza I had the choice to follow them there or stay in Manchester and be unemployed. But Kristian came to me and told me he had something going on with a warehouse, invited me down to take a look and, same as Nickos, as soon as I walked in I thought this is definitely something

So, I presume your job as a booker must be made a bit more easier these days as you've pretty much got the hottest venue in town on your hands. Promoters must be dying to get in there.

Jay: Yeah, we've had the pick of Manchester, to be honest. We brought another guy in, Anton, who had experience of working at other venues and basically Kristian, Anton and myself worked on bookings.

We knew we could book who we wanted from our own ideas, but we wanted to bring in other promoters who had different ideas. And we had the pick of them because when a promoter walks in here it's something that's not been seen in Manchester for a very long time, a raw, warehouse space. We picked who we wanted to work with decided from who we thought had the best vision.

It was easy in that respect, but in Manchester there are still a lot of DJs who get locked into certain venues. At first, when I was approaching agents, they didn't have a clue who we were, didn't know where we were coming from. So, in the beginning, it was hard for an agent to see the vision we had for the place, see that it was going to be the next big thing. We had to sell the venue to them.

Nickos: Luckily everyone's been really happy so far.

Martin: It's getting a lot easier in those regards because you've got people like Mr. G, for example, who's notoriously difficult to please, for all the right reasons, who's walked away from the place singing its praises, going back to his agent and all of a sudden it's getting easier. They say it's a great crowd and they get well looked after.

Nickos: DJs talk, don't they? And people like Marcellus Pittman have come and said it's the new paradise in Manchester. Word of mouth spreads fast and people are approaching us a lot more now. 

Martin: After he'd played he was actually on the phone back to his friends in Detroit telling them about the venue, so we've had people from Detroit coming and asking to come and play. Stuff like that's amazing.

Jay, you mentioned that DJs get tied into contracts with certain big events or venues around Manchester. They're basically forbidden to play either side of the duration of these events. How do you think this will all pan out for you guys once the season for those type of events starts again?

Nickos: Well we opened when that season started off. So, we opened on August 31st and we went head first into it, so we've already had that experience. We want to be seen as something completely different. We don't want to be seen as competition to Warehouse Project or anything like that. We want to be unique, have our own style. We're just happy on focusing on doing our own thing.

Jay: We're completely different to Warehouse Project. It comes in and does its thing, it does its job, its a massive almost corporate machine and it does really well at what it does, but we've got something here where people just come for Hidden.

We do a few parties where it's just a concept night, like we have a seventies and eighties night, a hip hop all-nighter or a garage all-nighter where it's not name DJs and they do really well, so we're prepared to let the venue sell it to the customer rather than just big name DJs.

Even though it's such a small city, Manchester is a hard city to compete in, especially when you're a new venue and you've got such successful, established brands like Warehouse Project and Sankeys doing their thing. We've done well considering, so we've just got to keep our heads down and keep working the way we've been working.

Because you've got other warehouse spaces such as Store Street and Victoria Warehouse around, how do you think Hidden differs from the rest of the warehouse party scene in Manchester?

Kristian: It differs because of the place we're in. It's unique where we are situated, it's not next to anything. It's like the last untouched part of Manchester, the Riverside district, it's two minutes walk from Victoria train station. The artwork inside too and the rooms are more intimate.

We currently have The Blue Room, which is about 350 capacity and the basement downstairs is 300. Each room gives a completely different vibe. Then there's the courtyard and in the future we're going to be opening up the back room. That's going to totally change the game for us. 

Jay: It differs because of us, as well. Because we're arsed. We didn't open because of money, the only reason we're here is because we wanted a space we could party in ourselves.

Nickos: When we opened we thought, "what do we love as clubbers?" We've all been partying for years and we took little bits from everywhere, all our experiences. Even just simple, little things like making sure there's enough toilet space, the rooms feel intimate and you can get to the bar easy. Just like things like that that let people know they're being looked after, you're not like some cattle being herded around, it's like a house party vibe in here every time. 

Martin: The sound also makes a big difference. If you go to any of the other warehouse parties the sound just isn't enough. For the space that we've got the sound is beautiful. You feel it. That's a big thing for us. The DJs buzz off it too and as a punter you can actually feel the music, hear it the way it's meant to be heard. That makes a huge difference. 

Kristian: It's been such a hard struggle getting this place open from day one though. How I came across the place in the first place was my cousin had booked Daniel Bortz for Gorilla and had put all his money into it. But he went on motorcross at the weekend and ended up breaking his back. So, knowing my experience, he asked me to help out. I promised him that I'd do the best party I could.

So, I wanted to do an afterparty and ended up driving round this area looking for a space, calling all the numbers on the billboards on the warehouses. One lad answered and said 'I've got the perfect place for you, it's an outdoor courtyard' It was like a loading bay. He said that if the crowd was good and we made a success of it he could show us other venues because he was an agent for all the warehouses round here.

We did the party at Gorilla then took the whole crowd to a free afterparty with free alcohol. It went from 4am to 8am, Jamie Trench played and everybody just had the best time. That set us off. The agent called one day and asked me to come down and look at this new place he had, before it went on the market and it turned out to be here. I knew immediately we had to do something here, it was just too special.

What kind of time period was there between you signing the lease and you actually opening the doors?

Nickos: It was a two year process, at least. When I got involved it was to go through the licensing, the planning because, as we say, it was just a derelict textile mill. Our other partner Jobie got involved and we did all the applications together. To be honest it was obstacle after obstacle for two years, but we never gave up. We threw everything into it because we believed in it that much, our life savings, we borrowed from family and friends. 

Jay: We were still doing jobs when we were trying to get it up and running and still doing parties to try and help fund it. We'd come here at 5 o'clock at night, after work and stay until midnight, doing paperwork and other work on it.

Kristian: The day before we opened we were still here at 4am with paint brushes in our hands. All the work has been done by ourselves, our friends and our families. My mum and dad have been here painting. I've been so skint and so busy here I've had to sleep overnight in the lift here. That's why we've been so driven to make it work, it had to. There's no alternative.

Obviously you've got a lot of great outside promoters working at the venue now, but what in-house nights have you got?

Jay: When we were doing the parties we had all these different nights like Article, Treehouse and a 70s night called Mellow Yellow and basically we've brought all those nights in and we run them under the umbrella of Hidden Events.

Martin: Usually Hidden Events are house or techno parties, then there's also nights like Mellow Yellow which are built around themes and resident DJs.

What kind of clubbing were you doing when you were younger that's inspired you to want to get into this game?

Kristian: In Manchester Sankeys was the main one for me. Then Warehouse Project was completely different when that came along, that's where I first experienced a warehouse party. Then we started to get into the festivals, we went to Ibiza, all the different parties there.

But when I went to Berlin, that was a game changer for me, seeing how raw and how different it was. The crowds were so different, it was a totally different vibe out there. It was all about the music. I loved everything about it, like the artwork they had inside the clubs. Berlin really inspired me and it's really inspired this place.

You're known for putting on underground music in an intimate space. Before you opened the focus for that kind of clubbing in Manchester was the Northern Quarter, places like Soup Kitchen and The Roadhouse, before it closed. But that area's changed a lot over recent years...

Martin: Yeah, it's changed a lot. You only need to look at how Common has changed and the fact that The Roadhouse has gone. There's no real underground left in the Northern Quarter, in my opinion. It's just bars. 

Kristian: Soup Kitchen still do well with their bookings. 

Jay: We definitely filled a void what was needed. It was definitely missing in Manchester. It's crazy to say that in an industrial city like Manchester that this is the only warehouse space that's actually a permanent club. If you walk round the city there are so many derelict warehouse spaces. It's a massive shame.

But it is a massive ball ache turning one into a club, which we found out over a two year process. When Kris first took on the space the authorities really didn't want it to happen. It was a massive fight. If anything we've played it down in telling you just how difficult it was to get it open. So you can kind of understand why there aren't so many decent clubs in Manchester. 

10 years ago the Northern Quarter was very different, but as the area's become more developed a lot of the newer bars and venues have had an easier time of it because they benefit from all the passing trade that's been attracted to the area. That passing trade is something you don't have here. Was that never a concern?

Kristian: No. That's what sold it to me. That made me want it even more. That enabled us to be so select with the people who come. We don't put posters anywhere, we don't do flyers, we don't promote like that. We are quite secretive with how we market it. 

Martin: The distance to the venue acts as a natural filter, so people who come to the club are here because of the music, they're not here because they just walked past. That they've come for the music means that the crowd is, most of the time, phenomenal. It means people have sourced out the night, bought tickets, because most of the events here are ticketed, and that all acts as part of the filter.

Jay: We decided at the beginning that we wanted to market it that way. No posters, just let people find out about it organically and it was a bit of a risk, to be honest, because we were putting events on that were costing us a fair bit of dough. It wasn't like we were just putting nights on with residents. But we put our faith in letting the word spread organically. That passing trade thing doesn't always work to your benefit.

Kristian: If this club was anywhere else, if it was in the centre of town, it wouldn't be what it is. It wouldn't be Hidden. It wouldn't work. You can't stop passing trade. Here people come for the music and for the venue.

Martin: The only way you could do it in town would be to have a door picker, but then you're kind of being deliberately exclusive, saying who you want in based on their appearance, which isn't a fair way to do it. I'm not a big fan of the idea of door pickers. I'd rather it was done like this, naturally, by the distance and by the bookings. 

Would you say that it's rare that your doormen have to turn anyone away?

Nickos: We have been quite lucky with the crowd that's come. Touch wood, we've not had any trouble at all since we opened. We've got a good following, a nice crowd. People who come here end up making friends, not causing fights. 

The new room you've mentioned opening in the future. What kind of capacity will that be?

Kristian: It's going to be around 550. 

Nickos: It's almost like a hangar space. Are we allowed to mention this? You're the first person we've spoken to about it.

Kristian: It's an extension, so we need to soundproof it. It's got skylight windows. There's a lot of work that needs doing, but it's going to be special.

Nickos: The Red Room. That's what it's going to be. Just at the minute I'm going through the major variation order so we can crack on with it. The wheels are in motion to get this space open, so you'll be seeing an extension to Hidden in the foreseeable future. It will take us to the next level and give us more versatility.

Jay: We've had some bookings in Hidden that we could have sold double the amount of tickets, like Len Faki, which just went crazy. So to have that option of moving a night like that to a bigger room and sticking another couple of hundred tickets on sale will be great. 

Kristian: It will double our capacity, but it's still a comfortable number. The most important thing here is the crowd. We don't ever want to pollute it. As long as the crowd stay as good as this we feel we can carry on indefinitely.

When do you anticipate opening this new space?

Nickos: I'm hoping, realistically, it's going to be October, November of this year. When you going through all the licensing it's like asking, "How long's a piece of string?" But a major variation order is not as complex as getting a full premises license, so I think that's hopefully a good estimation. 

Have you got any further plans for events either outside or inside Hidden?

Kristian: We're going to be involved with the Odyssia Festival in Greece this summer. The bookings are right up our street. We're being very careful what we're getting involved in though. We're not chasing the money. You'll never see us franchise out Hidden.

Jay: We opened up the courtyard on May 1st. When we first opened that was the first party that we did, The Hidden Forest, which is another of our in house nights. We go outside for five hours then we bring it indoors. It's a big 12 hour event and it sold out in 48 hours. People really bought into the concept of The Hidden Forest. It's so rare in Manchester that you can find an outdoor space where you can play loud music in the daytime. That's like one of our secret weapons.

Martin: There are four or five Hidden Forest parties organised for over the summer and then we'll have external promoters coming in also using the outdoor space. We've got shows with House Of Wax, Ron Morelli and I think Below The Surface are coming down.

Kristian: In May, like Martin said, we'll be working with Manchester promoters like Below The Surface also Project 13, Love Dose, Homoelectric, Transmission Funk and Banana Hill with the second Hidden Forest party on 29th. Our first birthday is 31st August and that's going to be a big one. We've booked a guest but we want to keep a lid on that, for now.

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