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A band performing a gig outside the Peer Hat venue in Manchester

Peer Support for Everybody Under the Hat

Nick Kenyon of Northern Quarter bar and live music venue the Peer Hat tells us about their last 18 months and his thoughts on the future.

Over the past few weeks, Now Then’s spoken to small businesses and individuals (including ShinDigger and Chorlton Bike Deliveries, as well as NHS volunteers) to learn about COVID’s inevitable impact on day-to-day lives and work places. This time, it's over to Nick Kenyon—one of the Peer Hat’s founders—to give us his take on events over the last 18 months, plus his thoughts on the future.

Nick’s a musician with the highly entertaining band Politburo, but he's also part owner of a venue that, since its inception about 5 years ago, has welcomed and celebrated creativity and community—words that will crop up a lot in this article. During the time of the early Politburo gigs, a move away from the mainstream approach to gigging began, characterised by an attitude of ‘pay up, turn up, sit down and be thankful’. And so, a series of musical and gloriously messy events, entitled Chairs Missing, were established. Politburo were a line-up mainstay, adding smile and hint of rebellion to many a night at the Roadhouse or now defunct Hard Rock Café.

Let's move onto the Peer Hat, tucked away on a back street off Stevenson Square, with a façade that belies a hive of energy akin to Chairs Missing. It's a venue that’s embellished and embraced the imagination of its clientele, long before the events of March 2020 took hold. Upstairs, at the main bar, you may slip into conversation with friends you’re yet to make, whilst downstairs, a box of delights is waiting for you to unwrap. The Black Christmas event is just one standout memory. Now, the Peer Hat is slowly stirring from its recent near-extinction.

After Kennedy was assassinated, a whole generation would later remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news. Was the day that Boris announced the first lockdown a similarly seismic event? I was at the Pie & Ale pub. Where was Nick? “Yeah, I was in my living room. I was already pretty much expecting it before it happened. We had pretty much been twisted this way and that. At the time I was very much in the mindset of ‘just close us down. What the fuck are you doing?’ On one hand, clubs were allowed to stay open; on the other hand, people were advised stay away from them. It created a lot of anxiety and fear. I remember standing in front of the television when he finally said it. I was like: ‘Right. Okay.’ The main considerations as far as I was concerned were about people's health. After about three weeks, my position changed radically.”

Glove's vocalist and guitarist performing live at the Peer Hat while people watch

Glove live performing at the Peer Hat

Ged Camera

In the wake of these announcements, several staff were furloughed, and one person even decided to leave the Peer Hat altogether. Did the Peer Hat manage to get any financial support from the government? “We were fortunate enough to get that. Any money that came our way was absolutely vital.” But furlough funding doesn’t pay the bills.

The venue had been successfully operating up ‘til that point and had managed to build a financial buffer of funding—but an unwelcome combination of landlord’s bills and infrastructure issues all arrived at the same time. “So,” recalls Nick, "We just watched our savings fritter away to nothing, to the point that we were estimating in terms of months how long we had left. But yeah, we got some money. The first time we got access to the Culture Recovery Fund, we didn't get very much compared to other people—and that was a shock. When the second round came, we didn't get anything, which was pretty devastating. Again, I don't wish to cast aspersions on anyone's cultural relevance, but the whole point of it was to prove you had something to give to culture, and quite frankly, in Manchester, for the size of the place we are, and for the people that we appeal to, we are in the top group in my estimation—and I don't mean that to sound boastful. Meanwhile, the places that were literally just meat markets in essence, who apparently have lots of cultural relevance, were being awarded hundreds or even thousands of pounds. We’d never seen anything like that, and I couldn’t really wrap my head around it. The third time came and we finally got some money again, and managed to get a reasonable amount, too. Maybe we’d learnt to play the game better by that point."

From the outside looking in, the stress felt by Nick, his family and his staff must have been considerable. How did they manage to cope with it? "The first few weeks were terrifying for various reasons, and that segued into a real sense that the business wasn't going to make it. And then, a sense that we were looking at something like a sea change in culture and society—one in which what we do here [at Peer Hat] didn’t fit in. That's how it felt in that moment. There was no money, and no-one was able to be close to one another. We felt helpless quite quickly."

"Coping became about walking around. I resolved to map my local area in every direction I could. I’d walk and remember some of the things which excited me when I was younger. It was psychogeography, and kind of discovering what was magical about where I was. I started to find a different version of myself that was capable of putting things into perspective."

In the past, Nick has celebrated the solstices by visiting Glastonbury, but the winter 2020 event was different for many reasons. During the winter solstice, Nick found that there was a great feeling of paranoia. "By that point, I’d made peace with my actions and what was going on around me—seeing the emotion in people. There was a grand conjunction** with Jupiter and Saturn. Maybe I was just high, man, but you could feel the energy that was flowing. Something was changing. And I think something’s still changing. I don't think things will ever go back to normal, so we’ve got to determine what the future looks like. Not the fucking ‘new normal’ though! As I’ve already said, I really felt we at Peer Hat were being moved into an arena of irrelevance. I often felt quite distant from the official organisations like the Music Venue Trust. It seemed all about business, projections and such. I'm a musician and an artist but it’s not just about that; it’s about somehow keeping a community going against all the odds."

“The community seems to be a bit distant. ‘We'll have streamed gigs?’ No! Not only because the technology’s not quite there but also because it misses the point... you forget what live music is for. After all, it’s not television. And it’s not really—as much as I love listening to and recording them—about albums or singles. It’s about people playing music and becoming part of a shared experience. How do you do that? Well, I found myself becoming desperately miserable at one point because there didn't seem to be a solution… nobody was addressing it. Live streaming was a simulacrum of the proper experience. The thing wasn't the thing. It was all an image. That was my lowest ebb, I think. It was a shame because I was hoping to find more solidarity amongst people, yet the voices, the people who were speaking seemed to echo what I found most depressing and uninspiring about the live music game as it stood.”

People dressed in Halloween costumes at the Peer Hat

People dressed in Halloween costumes at the Peer Hat

Ged Camera

The Peer Hat came about when the operators of an upper portion of the same building heard a rumour that the ground floor area might be converted into a restaurant. The worry was that any prospective restaurant owners might start to complain about the noise filtering down from the venue above – then Kraak and now Aatma. There was also some concern that gentrification could erase a niche of creativity and originality.

For anyone who’s been fortunate to sample Aatma’s offerings, they may consider it a place in which time disregards Einstein's theory of relativity. Well, only until you hear your alarm ringing the following morning, which stops your much needed rest and brings you round to realise you should have been in work an hour ago.

Dom, a fellow band member of Politburo who's involved with Aatma, approached Nick and his family to see if there was any way they could take over the ground floor premises in their own right. Or, as Nick says, it started as a "Cardboard bar"—a bit like finding a solution before you know what the problem is.

As we sit here on Saturday afternoon, before 11 bands are scheduled to play in front of a growing audience upstairs, does he see things starting to move in the right direction? "You see, my perception of things is based not just on what’s taking place now. I'm all about living in the moment - don't get me wrong - but astrology says that something bad will happen in November. There are loads of different cycles: there’s a war/peace cycle, there's a boom/bust cycle, and there’s the plague/health cycle. It concerns me that the plague/health cycle peaks at the end of this year, as opposed to last. It also seems to coincide with certain astrological ideas, which of course is all a bunch of bollocks. But it's poetry. The universe is poetic.

"I don't think that we can judge things purely as they occur in this moment. I think it's very difficult. Everything's got to be contextualised with the wider situation—like what’s happening in other countries, for example. I see the present period as a moment where people say, ‘Look how good things are again now’. Though, in actual fact, right now - never mind things being more free than during that past he moment right now than the past 18 months - I think, right now, they're more free than I've ever seen in my life in terms of people drinking on the street. They can get away with it more easily. People getting high all over the place. It's like out there, generally speaking, it feels like a permanent holiday town at the moment, especially at the weekends. So at the moment, I see it as being a potential, ‘Look how good this is’ and then later it's about, ‘Now you understand why we need vaccine passports’. That's what I see.”

Live music performance at the Peer Hat

Live music performance at the Peer Hat

Ged Camera

“Regardless of whether this place is here or not, it’s about a community, something that draws people together. We've not had it [a community feeling]. I don’t feel it, or I’ve missed out on it for a long time. I really liked Islington Mill. I think that the community wants to exist, and if you give it a chance, it’ll exist. It may not be that this place [Peer Hat] will embody it. I hope it does, obviously, for my own satisfaction if nothing else, but if not, it will manifest itself somewhere.

"I feel it [a community feeling] will start to become more localised, and less focused in the city centre. If you look around at the steel, concrete desert that they’re turning our city into, I see the tight-knit spirit of community—that energy—further out. I've seen it in the East [of Manchester], in Openshaw, Audenshaw, and Guide Bridge, where bands are starting to live because they can't get places elsewhere. It’s like, ‘Oh my God—you live here? Red Stains [the band] live here?’ So yeah, that’s what I think will increasingly happen.”

Nick still enjoys being part of Politburo, contributing to the sound and lyrics. But what’s that been like during this hiatus? “I’ll never stop making music. Oh my God, I feel an obligation to the band and to do stuff with it every so often. Now, it’s going through a fallow period, but it’s far from finished and I’m not finished with it either, by any means. In fact, there’s a long way to go."

As part of their fight for financial survival, the idea of a compilation album came from Illana Xup (a former Strap-on member, and now a solo artist). Nick took some persuading but eventually it came to fruition - “She was right to do it. It’s her brainchild.” Intended as a fund raiser for the Peer Hat, two compilation albums have been put together (Black Stage -The Peer Hat Compilation Album Vol. 1 & 2), and the featured bands were vetted by Nick.

It was originally released on Bandcamp, and so far only the additional release of a physical copy has been considered. Again, Nick’s able to tie in the release with his own, wider views. "This seems like the right thing to do but, as is always the case with these things, it’s a simulacrum, an artefact of something that’s better live. So, it’s not sold very well. People are going, ‘This is amazing’, but the praise hasn’t always translated into sales. Though, on the plus side, I have been contacted several times by DJs who’ve asked about the musicians on it. So, it’s been interesting in that respect.”

Aside from Gnod, Slab, Poppycock, ILL, there are 37 other fine purveyors of musical delights from around Manchester. “There’s probably enough interest from other bands for a third one, but it might be wiser to get a physical thing out first.”

Normally when you try to search for the name of a place, venue or an object, any web search will reveal a whole host of sponsor sites and advertisements et cetera. Not so with the Peer Hat; the top result takes you straight to the correct link. Those three words immediately give you all the information you require. In Latin, they’re ‘omnia sub petasum’. So, what does it mean? Nick smiles as he translates—"everybody under the hat".

Creative as always, the Peer Hat crowd were going to feature a 12-episode film or series on their website, based around 12 bands, musicians or artists—and telling a story about a person who’s trapped in a virtual peer hat. "It looks like a Peer Hat. It talks like a Peer Hat. Everything about it seems to be, on the surface, this thing, and the gigs seem to be gigs. But of course, it's not, because it’s happening through your screen. We were going to tell this little story.”

They initially applied for funding and started developing the website. When the application was rejected, they were left with a website that can host videos and more, but with no content. That will change when it’s upgraded soon. “OSP is a little protective thing, really. I like to think you can pull the hat down when everything gets bad and turn to each other, here, in a sense.”

Well, we all need a good hat.

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