Unabombers talk The Refuge, the future, and plugging The Electric Chair back in

Martin Guttridge-Hewitt spoke with Luke and Justin Unabomber about ventures old and new.

Skiddle Staff

Date published: 29th Mar 2017

Time waits for no man, woman, or seminal club night. Manchester knows this more than most cities- the result of an after dark legacy that has given so much to the pantheons of nocturnal culture, combined with the onward march of redevelopment. 

We’re not 100% clear on the last time we walked down the steps into the depraved belly of the Music Box, once one of the north’s most respected subterranean venues, perhaps fittingly for the sake of this article, now a Tesco Express. Chances are, though, it was for one of the final Electric Chair parties, with the smart money being on another reveller falling victim to the session’s notorious cargo net at some point in the evening. 

Seemingly draped beneath the ceiling purely for people to tear it down when energy levels peaked, peak they did, month-in, month-out, leaving many flailing in a desperate attempt to escape their unexpected confinement.  

We probably also emerged soaked in sweat, trainers damp with basement moisture, remnants of Red Stripe, and whatever else was spilt from wherever else. No doubt we also had Yarbrough and Peoples’ 'Don’t Stop The Music' on loop in our minds for at least a week after the event. An anthem of an institution that straddled everything from early electro to house, techno to hip hop to rare groove. Whatever set it off, so to speak. 

To list the great and good who did the business there would be a mammoth task, although hazy stand out memories namecheck the likes of Peter Kruder and Jazzanova, Francois K and Joe Claussell. Ultimately, though, the soiree was as much about residents Luke and Justin Unabomber, who turned a small bash originally at The Roadhouse into a decade-spanning entry in the Manchester Hall of Fame. 

It’s a chapter still referenced in any discussion on what Cottonopolis has, what it had, and, now, what it will have again. No fooling, Saturday 1st April will see the Electric Chair plugged back in for a full day and night of eclectic sounds and solid fist punching, welcoming UK don Ashley Beedle for a free daytime event in The Refuge- the Principal Hotel’s ornate drinking den which the Unabombers run- before descending to The Refuge Basement for the resurrection-proper, where the duo take on Aficionado.

Tickets for the latter sold out in 30-minutes, indicative of demand, even nine years after this much-loved legend powered down. Keen to find out why the time is right to revisit, we arrive at The Refuge on a Friday afternoon to find The Unabombers, AKA Luke and Justin, hard at work doing what they do best- planning ideas to keep people in parties. Or at least at the bar.   

“We did the opening of The Refuge as a Mardi Gras, come as you are kind of number, with people from Homoelectric and things like that. So there was always a plan that the basement underneath would open up at the right time,” explains Luke. 

“We’ve been doing events at the weekend with people we love playing, just slowly building it up, and felt it’s a good time now to put on a few bespoke happenings down there. There is a plan, but at the moment we’re just doing a few things, a few quality ideas, obviously number one being Electric Chair, to be followed by a few more.”

Perhaps ironically, considering the Chair’s reputation for unabashed mayhem, plots and schemes have long been a part of the Unabombers’ daily routine. After all, these are the guys who went from club promotion to bar ownership, opening up Chorlton-Cum-Hardy’s Electrik long before the South Manchester suburb hit The Sunday Times’ list of best places to live in the U.K., with the addendum ‘no longer up and coming’. 

Later, leafy West Didsbury, a few stops further out of town by tram, became a new focal point, with the more upmarket and mealy Volta adding to Burton Road’s renowned food and drink scene. Both have proved incredible hits, and this is before we mention Electric Elephant, one of the pioneering Croatian festivals which emerged from the ashes of the Chair. Hardly haphazard undertakings, even so we can’t help but think this latest idea could be their bravest yet- seizing control of the beer taps and cocktail menu of a luxury hotel, then throwing one of their famously impassioned dos in the same address. 

“I think, luckily, it’s in the bottom of the building, so it’s easy to seal off if people are getting a bit carried away. I mean, we really need to test the water with it, and the best way to do that is by just doing it,” says Justin. 

“Also, there’s about a two-foot concrete floor between downstairs and upstairs, so in terms of sound I don’t think there will be a problem. The only issue could be how busy it is up here, how rowdy people get. We’ve got Ashley Beedle playing up here early doors, which is free, and a nice added bonus. So I expect a good crowd for that, and although people of our generation still like going out and letting their hair down I don’t think it will be quite as hedonistic as things could be.” 

Don’t assume this one is all about woodworms creeping back out for a refill of times gone by, though. During Electric Chair’s mothball era the End of Year Riot has been offering post-Christmas, pre-New Year debauchery, most recently at one of the country’s leading spots, Hidden, where the dancefloor welcomed veterans and kids still wet-behind-the-ears. Justin is quick to point out we should expect similar on April Fools Day. 

“The thing about Electric Chair is that it’s not going to be like a Hacienda reunion or something. It’s the same attitude towards music we always had... 

“We don’t just want an Electric Chair jukebox of greatest hits,” Luke interjects. “Hopefully the Riot showed that. There were classics played, but also a lot of new music too. Which is why we consciously booked the likes of Jon K, Red Rack‘Em, and Move D. Get some future music in there.

“The last was probably numerically the busiest we ever did in terms of the amount of people that couldn’t get tickets, the waiting list. And I think it’s reflective of lots of people who still want to come out- they pick and choose their battles.” 

Musically speaking, at least, a return of The Electric Chair represents a shift from the tones that have been defining contemporary Manchester at night. With house and techno dominating the city’s booking policy, a genre-busting approach to spinning tunes is more than welcome. Somewhere you can easily hear solid four-fours drop into obscure funk.

“I think that eclecticism is still there,” Luke replies when we ask if their night’s disappearance in 2008 killed off this type of party. “Whether it’s Wet Play, Will Tramp, or others coming through. But it’s maybe smaller now. I think that when me and Justin became less prolific in terms of events, and The Warehouse Project became a more dominant force, generally house music and techno became more prominent.”

“I’d also say, though, that we were the first eclectic night, certainly in Manchester, and when we stopped it probably had quite a big effect on things really,” Justin adds. 

Nevertheless, the pair are clear on how vibrant and vital Manchester’s overall scene is in 2017. Something national press, locals, and visiting punters have picked up on, too.

“It’s got to be one of the most exciting cities in the country at the moment. I know when people come here- we’ve had to meet a lot from London, other parts of the country, and Europe as part of doing The Refuge- they’re really impressed at what they find. We get used to it, living here, and take it for granted, but from the outside, for first time visitors, it’s like, ‘wow’,” Justin says. 

“When me and Justin were doing the Chair we also ran a clandestine, hush-hush, illegal called Electric Soul, which eventually got stopped and we had to meet the police, but that’s another story. That was all in the city centre, and you could get away with it. There weren’t as many people living there. The city centre has fundamentally changed in terms of underground clubs,” Luke explains, before veering into more upbeat thoughts. 

“I think places like Hidden, The White Hotel, Mantra, and Antwerp Mansion are part of a new, developing thing in the twilight zone, or whatever you want to call it- the foothills of Cheetham Hill or other places you’d never have gone clubbing before. Youngsters are heading there because it’s cheap rent, so you can open somewhere- Mantra is a perfect example- and it’s almost going back to that old school thing, or like Berlin.

“When we stopped Electric Chair a couple of things happened. The Warehouse Project became a much more dominant force- and you can’t deny how strong that has been for the city. They have haters, but ultimately they do amazing line ups, with great production. I also think the number of venues that were available was less- the powers that be, CCTV, smoking ban all changed everything. 

“So there was definitely less dynamic, less stuff happening, less youngsters coming through. And about two years ago it started to change again. So these clubs are now doing their own thing, doing their own alternative. When me and Justin began the Chair at The Roadhouse that was a kind of antithesis to stuff like The Hacienda and all the bigger venues. That’s happening again now.” 

Manchester’s skyline is changing at a staggering rate, with development spreading further by the month. Good for inward investment, this phenomenal rate of change does raise concerns about the future of ‘twilight zone venues’, as Luke puts it- today surrounded by dereliction, tomorrow potentially surrounded by neighbours, and noise complaints. So what about the risk the city could become a victim of its own success?

“Yes, of course that’s a risk. But then look at New York. I mean, The Loft moved so many times for cheaper rents,” Luke replies.

“The things that concern me are not about a city with too much going on, but a city that gets taken over by chains, the high street gets monopolised, and that spreads. We always used to joke about their being Another Place With A Bare Lightbulb. Electrik we opened ten years ago with bare lightbulbs, and we had to get rid of them three years ago. Homogenisation is what would bother me, but it’s a problem for every city in the UK, not just Manchester. And, possibly, Manchester deals with it better than most,” says Justin. 

“Yeah, and in the centre stuff can still happen,” Luke adds. “I just think that young blood will go into that twilight zone more. The great thing about here under the hotel is it’s kind of hidden away. We’ve been to so many gigs in bizarre places in Dublin where you’re literally in some old basement of a restaurant.” 

“It’s a bit like hiding in plain sight,” Justin adds, with a knowing smile. 

Their words recall one particularly good evening we spent watching another British big gun, Andrew Weatherall- who, coincidentally, brings his A Love From Outer Space to The Refuge on 15th April- playing 'Naive Melody' at Charlie’s, a largely forgotten karaoke bar and eatery situated between Manchester’s Gay Village and Chinatown. 

Cue brief trip down memory lane. 

“Yeah, we like unusual spaces,” Luke responds. “When they first took us down to The Refuge Basement, we were like ‘we’ve got to use this space,” says Justin. “If you think about it, what is it that me and Luke like doing the most? Creating environments. So whilst we were DJs, the reason why we did our own club night is we felt strongly that we knew what the environment needed to be like for people to have a good time. The lighting, the decor- it was minimal, but deliberate.”

You’d be a fool to disagree. From the roaring success of Electrik and Volta, to their latest endeavour here in The Refuge, the pair have a knack for nurturing places that are at once comfortable and inviting, yet also forward thinking. Hip without the hipster, is one way some might put it. 

“For Refuge it’s about democratising the space and not having it too high brow or fine dining. We want people to come and drink real ale, local beers, listen to good music. The way we’ve priced the menu, it’s not trying to be formal. So we took a lot of influence from Michelberger in Berlin, The Hoxton, Ace Hotel- places where you can stay all day. But that takes years to perfect,” Luke says of their current concept. 

“Really the club nights are about holding the flag up for some of those ideas. This isn’t the Radisson, and that’s no disrespect to them. It’s just different. We want to see people like LCD Soundsystem DJing in the basement- they’re not booked, by the way. And interesting cultural things- book launches, film events, stuff that means it’s not just a hotel space. 

“A lot of people now are coming down to eat here, then the DJ gets on and they stay until the end. So with the worrying addition of a club, too, that journey can continue. We are about 1/3 of the way up the mountain from base camp in terms of what we can achieve, there’s so many more things that can be done.” 

It’s all inspiring, but none of it really tells us what to expect from the depths of the building once the beats begin. All we’ve heard is the bar is in the middle of the room- a non-conformist layout for a club, in-keeping with their ‘unusual space’ mantra. And punters will descend via separate entrance beneath the Principal’s iconic clock tower. One question quickly springs to mind, which could shed some light. Will there be a cargo net? 

“Watch this space,” laughs Justin. 

“We’ve actually just been buying it,” Luke explains through a cheeky grin. “We might have to have a no-pull-down policy, though. So, yeah, don’t touch the netting and keep your tops on, but take your jacket off. Jacket off raving.” 

Sounds like a deal to us. 

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