INTERVIEW: Tom Dunstan

Tom Dunstan @ The Dark Horse / By Ed King - Birmingham ReviewWords & pics by Ed King

N.B. Plaid come to The Dark Horse on 30th Jan, with Scratch Club further presenting Jehst (27th Feb) and Akala (9th Apr) at the Moseley venue. For direct updates & event info, visit http://www.darkhorsemoseley.co.uk/whats-on/

I’m sitting upstairs at The Dark Horse in Moseley talking to Tom Dunstan, aka DJ Automaton, about his recent flurry of monthly (and more) events here. It’s cold, the 200 capacity room has only 100th of its potential body heat in it, and we’re camped out on two old leather sofas in the corner. Diametrically opposed a Funktion-One speaker glares down at us – a brand name not known for its subtlety.

Tom Dunstan’s regular Hip Hop night, Scratch Club, recently found its new home at The Dark Horse after losing the bricks and mortar of its birth when The Yardbird closed down – Birmingham’s renowned Jazz/ live music venue and Conservatoire hang out.

Taking on the Tuesday night hole in The Yardbird’s eclectic diary, Scratch Club began with beat boxer Bass6 as host, open mic sessions “and me being the sound man,” explains Tom. “We didn’t book anyone, we didn’t ask any artists to come down, we just said ‘we’re doing this Hip Hop night and there’s an open mic’ – that was it. I remember it vividly; at 8pm the venue was empty, by 8:30pm you couldn’t fucking move.”

Having already promoted DJ/Mr Switch to “rammed to the rafters” crowd at its new B13 venue, back in November 2015, Scratch Club has announced Jehst and Akala as its next two headliners. It’s an impressive addition to The Dark Horse’s events programme, a venue whose recent makeover harks back to the transformation of the Hare & Hounds – when Leftfoot founder, Adam Regan, waved his magic wand over the century old boozer. Provided they can book it out, that is.

“My initial agreement with this place (The Dark Horse) was to do a monthly Scratch Club here,” explains Tom Dunstan, “we did eight years, fortnightly, at The Yardbird and never flopped once; it was never empty once. That started in May 2006, so we are looking at Akala being out 10th anniversary bash.” A birthday cake to be proud of, but why these headliners for a night whose “ethos is not to necessarily book ‘big acts’”?Tom Dunstan @ The Dark Horse / By Ed King - Birmingham Review

“We book the best acts in our minds,” continues Tom, “I’ve wanted to book Jehst since I started doing this 9 ½ years ago; he’s one of those ‘on the list’ acts. We’ve booked bigger acts, we’ve booked Public Enemy, DJ QBert, Scratch Perverts, Souls of Mischief – but Jehst is something that resonates with me. His lyrics aren’t always happy, it’s not always a positive message, but are something intrinsic to a way a lot of people are living.”

And Akala? “Akala just oozes intelligence and the correct kind of consciousness. You get this kind of perceived reputation of Hip Hop, spitting all this big dick gun talk postcode bullshit, but he (Akala) resonates with my own ethos, and not just myself but the rest of the crew at Scratch Club. Yeah, you will see a bunch of dudes (at Scratch Club) with caps on from different ethnicities rapping, scratching and beat boxing, but there’s more intelligence in them than I imagine is perceived to be.”

Those “bunch of dudes” are probably worth mentioning too, with previous Scratch Club residents going on to be “world champions in their field.” DJ/Mr Switch is five times and current World DMC Mixing Champion, whilst Scratch Club’s original beatboxing host, Bass6, is founder of The Beatbox Collective – winners of the 2015 World Beatbox Championship (team).

Plaid @ The Dark Horse - Sat 30th JanToday’s Scratch Club line-up includes Superbamz, Mr FX, Redbeard (Eatgood Records) and Sam Stealth, “although all emcees are welcome to get on stage during the open mic points of the night”. There’s also the regular Scratch Club Celebrity Show, “where Bamz will pick someone from the crowd, name the celebrity that they look like, then insult them in rhyme,” warns Tom. “And Bamz is harsh; he doesn’t care how offended you’ll get. And you might do. Don’t get up close to the stage if you’re easily offended.” Perhaps a well timed bathroom break… I went to school; I know who I look like.

But before we skip-and-a-jump into the Hip Hop on the menu, there’s a small morsel of Electronica to chow down – as on Saturday 30th January Tom Dunstan is bringing Plaid to play in this first floor suburban venue. That’s right… Plaid, The Black Dog founders and Warp Record stalwarts will be playing in Moseley. And on next week’s bill, a leprechaun riding a unicorn.

“Plaid is being booked as part of a new night,” explains Tom Dunstan, “which I’m running with a London Electro DJ called ADJ (Andy Jaggers) and one of the safest people I’ve met through music.” Both DJ Automaton and ADJ are featured on the night’s line up, alongside Plaid. “We used to DJ at Greenstreet together and hit off a friendship; every time I DJ in London he comes out to see me. Andy runs the Dodo Club, on a boat on the Thames, which Plaid are the residents at. So one drunken night after I’d done a gig at Brixton Hootenanny, we’re back at Andy’s flat hitting the posh whiskey and he asks ‘when we’re going to do something again?’ So I say, ‘…get Plaid.’ It took us from August 2015 to get it sorted.”

Were Coda (Plaid’s booking agents) concerned that you wanted to bring such a prestigious booking to a newly operated venue? “There are no agents or Warp Records involved. It’s on the official Warp calendar and they’re on the posters, but we’re doing this because we’re friends. If Andy (Turner) and Ed (Handley) say they’re playing, they’re playing.”The Dark Horse / By Ed King - Birmingham Review

A useful black book to have, and one earned through a regular series of Earko events at The Medicine Bar in the late nineties – where Tom Dunstan and co-promoter Ben Henneman brought acts from John Peel to Aphex Twin to the bohemian Digbeth watering hole. Indeed, “Plaid were the first act I ever booked, for Earko back in 1998,” tells Tom. “They were just lovely blokes, and let me get on stage and start scratching whilst they were playing live.”

Memories of The Medicine Bar will bring tears, of both joy and frustration, to many in Birmingham – as Simon Jones’s war of attrition was the blueprint for Digbeth’s nightlife today. “I remember the magic of those years, how much it meant to us,” admits Tom Dunstan. “Trip-Hop came out, Mo Wax appeared, I was confronted with Ninja Tunes and Warp Records; all of a sudden everything changed.”

But after closing its doors in early 2010, The Medicine Bar (or Factory Club, as it was known when it ceased trading) left a legacy arguably not honoured by subsequent tenants. The Custard Factory venue has changed hands several times in the past half decade, with no would-be-pretenders matching the eclectic events programme that brought acts from Mr Scruff to De La Soul (on a Monday?!?!) to the city centre back streets.

The Dark Horse / By Ed King - Birmingham ReviewThe Medicine Bar’s most prominent Round Two happened in Kings Heath, when a late license gave the Hare & Hounds a chance to compete with its city centre counterparts – as Adam Regan brought an absurdly rich line up to the south Birmingham suburb. It marked a greater shift too, as the Hare & Hounds’ success greased the egos and wheels of further extended hours applications, and planted the seeds of the 2am turnout that now thrives across B12-14. But with all these neighbours turned venues, and the residents in between, is it still peaceful in the provinces?

“Certain folks ask me if it (Scratch Club) clashes with nearby venues,” explains Tom, “and no. Because I speak to those promoters; if we’re having a night on the same night we contact each other and wish each other good luck. I’ll give you a for instance, when we had DJ Switch here we sold out – rammed to the rafters. Roni Size sold out the Hare & Hounds – rammed to the rafters. And down the road at the Old Print Works there were over 300 people dancing to salsa, all on one night.” I recognise a look of both solidarity and relief. “There is no ‘rivalry’ or anything like that; we actually want each other to do well. We genuinely get happy when other people do well. And to quote a local venue owner, ‘it takes a lot more than one venue to create a scene’”.

A reassuring sentiment, and knowing some of the protagonists involved it’s one I can believe is believed in. For the most part. But having worked on two extended hours applications for venues in these suburbs, including the one we’re sitting in (when it traded as The Cross), I know there’s more to content with than competition. And the Funktion-One speaker stack continues to glare…

But the economic impact is palpable; with certain operators working hard to allay any fears or residents associations that might try to, literally, pull the plug. There are festivals in the Private Park for Christ’s sake. And the husband and wife team behind The Dark Horse have arguably already proved their scope with the phoenix like resurgence of The Prince of Wales, alongside a long fought battle at Epic Skate Park (you try heating a listed bus depot). But is this just a question of right place/right time, like Oscillate bringing Insanity Sect and APL to Moseley Dance Centre, or is it something more perennial?scratch-club-logo-(jpeg) - BR web colours, coppped

“It feels like it’s meant to be,” answers Tom Dunstan, “the idea of going to my local boozer, seeing my pals, and seeing an awesome world class act is so much more appealing than going all the way into town, dressing up, blah blah, spending out.”

“Look at us,” continues Tom, “we can watch Plaid here in three weeks time, sat on these Chesterfield sofas, drinking tea if we want. Tell me in your late 30’s that’s not an appealing thought.”

Plaid come to The Dark Horse on Saturday 30th January – with support from DJs ADJ, Automaton + Michael Valentine West. For direct gig info & online tickets, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1687029418177721/

Scratch Club presents DJ Jehst (27th Feb) and Akala (9th Apr) at The Dark Horse in Moseley. For updates & event info, direct from The Dark Horse, visit http://www.darkhorsemoseley.co.uk/whats-on/

For more on Tom Dunstan, aka DJ Automaton, visit https://www.facebook.com/automaton-111928481855/

For more on The Dark Horse, visit http://www.darkhorsemoseley.co.uk/

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