I’m sitting in Old Bar, about to play on their stage for the first time. It’s the first night this year that properly feels like winter is coming so I’m keeping myself inside, away from the long wooden tables out in the beer garden. The guy on the door is lovely and everyone greets him warmly on arrival and knows him by name. He’s excited because they’ve moved the door back, so he can see the bands play. I pass him for the third time and he looks at me blankly for a second, then apologises sheepishly. He’s got a problem with recognising faces, he says. It’s okay though – in the five minutes since he introduced himself to me, I’ve already forgotten his name.
Old Bar was the first place I went to when I moved to Melbourne, almost two years to the day now, so I feel a great fondness for the place. Hysterical Records were launching as a label that night and it’d sold out to the point of being uncomfortable just 30 minutes after doors. I tucked myself into some fold of people I barely knew back then, clutching a pint and riding through waves of relocation exhilaration and sticky homesickness.
I can never help but think about how much this place reminds me of Mojo’s: the fireplace in the corner, worn wood painted indiscriminately with glossy paint, the blackboard colourfully and lovingly detailing every band to play there that week, the slightly disheveled looking clientele and chilly outdoor toilets.
Mojo’s was the first place I ever played music to people, back in 2013. I remember nothing except for emptying my bowels in a panic during the set before mine and being overwhelmed by hearing my voice blaring dissonantly through the fold back. I got offstage after ten minutes and wanted to dissolve into the floorboards. After being driven home by my best friend, we climbed up on my roof with beers to wait for the adrenaline to wear off. I decided to get down after having the urge to roll off the rafters onto the concrete driveway. I was mortified that I had shared those three skeletons of songs that didn’t really sound like anything yet. Still, I went back two weeks later and tried again.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with friends from Perth recently; starting to embrace my roots, maybe. Walking around Merri Creek with a pal who has just moved from Perth to Melbourne, I try to explain what Howler in Brunswick is like. I tell her it’s like Rosemount now they’ve taken out that godawful bar in the middle. The beer garden is similar too, just curved asymmetrically around more feature gardens and more confusing rules on where people can smoke.
Before going to Filthyratbag’s exhibition opening earlier in May, another old friend and I slip into a bar on Gertrude Street for a drink. I’m keen to relax in a calmer setting before exposure to the aggressively cool, meme-centric crowd that I imagine will be at the launch. I’d been there on a Sunday afternoon before, I told my friend; it was beautiful out the back.
I was wrong. It feels like the very worst of Blue Flamingo on a themed night. The security guard makes me awkwardly empty my water into a tree on the curb at 6pm like I’m going into Metros Northbridge after midnight. Blue collar workers scream over thirsty beats from the DJ. The house wine was reminiscent of Moon Goon. We sit in the swamp of noise messy odours and finish our drinks quickly.
It’s a point of deep connection; being able to liken literally any venue to a haphazard concoction of those back home, for better or for worse.
Northcote Social Club has a beer garden and band room like a flattened Rosemount and The Bird’s warm glow in the front bar. The Retreat is a danker Clancy’s Fremantle. The bar staff are lovely and go to great lengths to keep the beer garden hospitable during winter, like the café strip along South Terrace. Thornbury Theatre is The Astor’s slightly stuffy great-aunt: carpet everywhere and a desperately small number of toilet cubicles. Still, a good heart that will welcome you in with a kiss and the hint of something delicious to eat. It’s curry at Thornbury Theatre though, not The Astor’s popcorn. If Little Creatures was taken over by the Theatre Arts Illuminati, it would be the Malthouse Theatre. The pervasive remnants of the previously industrial building, now heavily repurposed make me crave salt and sand. The Tote and The Gaso are the punkier, filthier older sisters of Rosemount at Badlands. These places have seen some shit, I swear. They haven’t told me what yet. The Croxton is owned by ALH/Woolworths, the same as the Brass Monkey. I go there under the duress of an unmissable show but will refuse to buy a drink. The Evelyn has the kind, calm vibes like Mojo’s or Bird. Spatially, it’s a little like El Grotto. Maybe El Grotto could feel like The Ev if all the thonged, shirtless people of Scarborough were off at the cricket or an alt-right rally. 170 Russell has the gigs that The Bakery (rip) would’ve had back in the day. Kind of huge, dark and airless like The Bakery too, except there’s no collection of cleverly arranged shipping containers making up half the venue.
There’s a limited vocabulary, but this language exists amongst everyone from Perth. We snuggle it into conversations amongst ourselves; a reassuring blanket that we packed up carried with us cross- country.
It’s comforting to find some Mojo’s familiarity in Old Bar before I get up onstage. It reminds me that six years ago, I performed for the first time in a place with my parents and my best friend watching. It felt as safe as circumstances could possibly allow. It helps to remind myself of my own history; beyond this less familiar place. Mojo’s is thirty-six hours drive north-west. I grew to know the names of people at Mojo’s and they grew to know mine. I go there now and feel like I’m home. Maybe, one day, it will be the same here.