Promoter Interview: Dolan Bergin (The Hydra)
Over the last few years The Hydra has come forth as one of London’s premier electronic music events. Running throughout the autumn/winter season, it has a stellar reputation due the discerning curation of its line-ups, presenting label showcases with many of the industry’s most influential outlets including Ostgut Ton, R&S, Houndstooth, Ninja Tune, Leisure System and many many more. The team behind it have a wealth of experience in both bookings and organising events, with Ajay Jayaram formerly employed by The End and Dolan Bergin the brains behind the highly-regarded Electric Minds events. With their third season in full swing, at their now permanent base in Wapping, we caught up with Dolan to get the lowdown on the event and his experiences as a top level promoter…
So, to start with, how did you get into DJing and music?
I grew up in a town called Worthing, right next to a club called Sterns, which is where Carl Cox and everyone had residencies. I went to school just round the corner from there, so I think your future’s mapped out when you go to something like that so early. After university I found myself working for a record label on royalties and licensing, which bored me to tears to be honest, but I was putting on parties on the side and it evolved from there. When you look back, it seems like it happened overnight but of course it didn’t… I was living in a warehouse in Dalston about 10 years ago and doing parties for fun – suddenly you’re not living in a warehouse anymore and you start searching out spaces, it all happened from there.
At what point did the party thing became less of a hobby and more a vocation?
When I first started doing label parties – I was doing Electric Minds loft parties in a space in Shoreditch and then I started doing stuff with Ostgut Ton. I was working with Ali from Warm, we did Ostgut, Lovebox and started looking at Innervisions as well. Once you start populating your diary with brands like that you find yourself working on it full-time. Until someone labelled what I do as a ‘promoter’ I never really saw it like that but I guess I am! It’s a bit of a dirty word. You find yourself organising events for people and, before you know it, it’s your job.
How did you make connections with the bigger labels?
A lot of it came from Ostgut Ton. I booked Marcel Dettmann a long time ago, I was quite familiar with what they were doing and because they were such a reputable label, plus people said we did a really good job with it, you set a benchmark and other people became interested in what we were doing. You have a portfolio to show to approach over labels… also, when I met Ajay, we had a big collection of our contacts, which we pooled together and it made sense to reach out and speak to other labels.
It’s such a small business that word gets around quickly when you have a good reputation, too.
Yeah. And I don’t think there were a lot of label parties going on a few years ago. There weren’t many people offering to do that in London, so maybe we found a little gap.
I guess that was what laid the foundation for what became The Hydra then?
Yeah, Ajay had left Cable and we were looking to fill the diary for the year and it ended up making sense to do a series. We thought it would make an impact as no one else was doing it in London. We managed to get that off the ground, under some difficult circumstances and, even though it nearly kills you doing it, by the time you’re finished, you’re like, ‘Let’s do it again’! It’s a double-edged sword; fun times but draining in other ways.
And that was spread out across different venues wasn’t it? Which I guess made it even more difficult.
When I was doing Electric Minds, the majority of the events were at a studio in Shoreditch. I’ve always managed to find a space and bring a bit of consistency to it, and we found a space in Hackney Downs Studios, which is where we did the party for Ostgut Ton and Substance – which was fantastic. Off the back of that we put the deposit down for 15 dates at that venue. But they rented out the studio to another promoter and they just f***ed it basically; police were called and there went our venue. We suddenly had to find a venue for 15 events, which was pretty stressful – dealing with shady characters and handing over bundles of money to people you don’t even know. Literally insane.
How did you end up connecting with Studio Spaces and cementing that relationship?
Studio Spaces own the loft I used to use for Electric Minds, I also lived with one of the partners, Yuval, several years ago. Outside of their existing photographic business they gave me free reign to produce my Electric Minds parties there on a monthly basis around four years. Yuval and Ellis found the space in Wapping, it was an old nightclub – I went to look at it with them when it was derelict and collectively decided to give it a go with the events, this was just around the time that Ajay and I met. It’s been a two-year process of licensing it, soundproofing and setting it all up – we’ve made some mistakes along the way and there was a point when the licensing authorities were being really tough on things, but it’s been worth it now we’ve got it up and running.
It’s funny actually, I used to work at The Sun and their offices were right next to the Wapping space. I worked nights too, so I would have loved to have been able to go for ‘lunch’ and pop my head in to one of your parties! They’re redeveloping that whole piece of land aren’t they?
The main problem with that place when we started was, the closest residents are 150 metres away… the old club was called Mango’s and I think they had a lot of trouble there and it was shut down. The residents got used to that street being quiet and we had to convince them over a long period of time – there’s really nothing else round there but, as you say, the whole block is being redeveloped. The warehouse is staying as a listed building, but high-rise flats and a hotel are being built so we want to see it out as it’s exciting what’s happening round there. You’ve got the London Warehouse Events guys doing stuff at Tobacco Dock, so it’s becoming an acceptable place to do events.
Have you had many mishaps along the way?
Yeah, too many to mention really! The first night we did an Ostgut Ton party, the place had an ancient air-conditioning system in there with a whole room with a motor in it… It broke down 20 minutes before doors opened and it was so hot in there. We’d painted the studio floor, as it’s a photography studio during the week, and all the paint was coming up, there was water running down the walls – we had so many complaints. It’s cool because, even though we’ve had complaints, people could see we were making an effort to read everything and make improvements. I feel like we’ve got to a turning point where people are really getting behind it.
Yeah I was talking to Ajay when I was down at your Houndstooth/Leisure System event and he was talking about growing a community around the event.
Definitely yeah. I think, with the music we’re dealing with and the labels, it tends to attract a nicer crowd; people come to hear the music and they’re interested in what goes on behind the scenes. If it’s a nice experience they appreciate it, because there aren’t a lot of nice experiences when you go out now really are there? Obviously when you go to places like fabric and Plastic People, they’re catered for things like that, but elsewhere it can be a gamble sometimes.
That’s what leads people to latch on to the good things, reliability and consistency helps a lot.
Yeah definitely. When you were asking that question earlier, I used to go to raves called World Dance. I saw a video of that recently and thought we haven’t really progressed in 20 years because those events were amazing; huge sound, amazing lights – they really went to town on it and I thought it would be nice to make sure everything was on that tip. Unless you’re going to fabric, production isn’t up to those standards, not on that scale.
How much influence has going to Sterns and those kind of places had on what you’re doing now?
A big influence, they’re the most exciting times of your life – when you’re young and the music is so fresh. I was always mesmerised by the little things you’d find at the clubs back then so I think there’s part of that experience that feeds into what I’m doing now. Sound is the most important thing, you don’t get a good sound system at many places in London now, which is crazy.
So I presume you have a team of sound engineers to work on that for you?
Yeah, we don’t have a permanent system, though we’re looking to sort something out for next year that we can keep in storage. I use a company called Sound Services and I’ve only ever worked with them for the last six years, maybe more. They work directly with Funktion-One and so they get all the prototypes, and they’re the preferred suppliers. They’re all experienced engineers, one of the guys, Rich, comes from a drum n’ bass background, they’re so good at what they do. I’ve DJ’d in a lot of places and, if you’re playing records, you almost give up a lot of the time, unless it’s Panorama Bar or something. These guys are like ninjas with it, I’m biased but I think the sound is always at a really really good level.
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How about security?
That’s been a learning curve too. We work with Sabre, who supply fabric and LWE. They were a bit strict when we first started, but they’ve listened to our feedback and we’ve found some middle ground – with the police and the authorities of course we have to have certain standards. Some people find it intimidating but it’s necessary. When I was going to those old raves you’d get a hand down your pants as soon as you went in, it’s just part and parcel of going out.
For sure. One thing people always talk about when they’re enthusing about Berlin is the permissive environment most clubs promote – it’s not entirely possible in London of course, but how far do you try to go down that road when briefing security?
In our view, people have come for a night out so we want to make that as relaxed as possible but there are certain things we have to do for our licence and one of those things is to have signs up displaying our drug policy. Personally I don’t like to see stuff like that all over the place because it’s like ‘rules everywhere’. As long as people are willing to have a search on the door and they’re not aggressive inside, then we don’t want to intimidate them. But there are certain requirements we have to have in place, and most of that is for people’s safety.
How do you feel it’s gone so far this season?
Yeah it’s good. All the nights have been busy, it’s been positive – we’ve done some fantastic parties, the Innervisions one, Dusky as well. People have reacted to them really well… it’s cost an absolute fortune to sort that studio, so it’s been tough on that side of things. As always, people always think you’re making millions from these events, but it’s really not like that. That’s the only frustration; people complaining about the price of drinks or whatever, but it’s not like popping down the local shop and buying a beer for 99p, there’s a lot more behind it than that. Overall though, it’s been very positive. I’m looking forward to signing off with the New Year’s Eve parties though.
Do you have to deal with inter-club politics or booking battles with other promoters?
It’s funny, you’re the only person who’s ever asked about it but yeah it does go on. There are people you work with over the years, especially labels, that you’ve been first to connect with in London and another venue will come in with a better offer and off they go. Behind the scenes that really drives me mad. There are other venues that perhaps haven’t worked with the artists you support, then they become a bit more ‘cool’ or commercially viable and in come the big offers… it’s really competitive. Out of all of them, we have a good relationship with fabric, we’re very open with them about our bookings and honour our exclusivity agreements. That’s worked well, but we don’t get that with anyone else really… apart from London Warehouse Events actually, we work with them as well. You naturally align yourself with people who are like-minded, whereas others you can see are just out for the money.
How about working with Ajay, as I know sometimes there can be difficulties in working with a partner?
Yeah we’ve had our ups and downs, it’s a difficult thing to go through together especially as the first two years were so tough. Financially, it’s a real strain to even make ends meet sometimes. When things are going super well, you’re on cloud nine but when things get tough you maybe battle against each other. In terms of ideas it’s really good to have someone like Ajay, he has a really broad knowledge of music, more than most people I work with. Also, he’s been working in London for years so he’s nurtured a lot of strong relationships with artists and labels.
Now you’re in your third year, what have you got up your sleeve next?
Next year will be the fourth year and we’re looking to develop the studio in Wapping. We’ll be based there from 2015, we don’t want to do parties every Friday and Saturday we just want to continue evolving the studio and improving it. It’s crazy to think, but we are actually already making plans for the year all the way up until New Year’s Eve 2015, so there is a plan – we’ll take a break after this NYE and do a couple of parties here and there in the coming months.
We’ve spoken a couple of times in the past about how the London scene isn’t as good as it could be. What are you views on how it is now and who’s caught your attention, club/party-wise?
In London, anything you want you can find it. There’s a lot on offer every weekend. There are a couple of people out there doing interesting things, it’s fantastic that Bloc. have got their festival back up and running. I know the festival isn’t London-based but they’ve done a really good thing with their venue at Autumn Street as well. London Warehouse Events have done a fantastic job at Tobacco Docks on such a huge scale and Bugged Out are still going strong after 20 years. The guys from Make Me started doing parties in the loft after we stopped doing Electric Minds – they’ve had some really good bookings. I can’t think of anyone else really, I’ve been so busy with my own parties that I haven’t been out to another nightclub. It’s hard to do that when you have so much on, I’d rather go home and do the gardening than go to another event!