Save Our Venues Spotlight: The Chameleon Arts Cafe, Nottingham

A stalwart underdog in Nottingham's towering live music scene, The Chameleon is an integral part of the city's culture. We spoke to one of its current owners John Rothera about the importance of the venue and its future post Covid.
Posted: 26 August 2020 Words: John Bell

Up to 90% of grassroots music venues in the UK face the very real threat of closure, and though the government recently announced a package to support the arts throughout the economic crisis caused by Covid-19, independent venues that rely heavily on the day-to-day live music eco-system to stay alive will inevitably fall through the cracks.

It's paramount these bastions of local creative communities survive, so to help the cause we're shining a spotlight on some of our favourite grassroots/independent music venues, sharing stories from artists and individuals closely associated with said venues, highlight their fundraising efforts, and emphasising the value and importance of these institutions that our music scene one of the world's most vibrant and innovative.

Next in this series, it's Nottingham's The Chameleon Arts Cafe

"The place welcomes experimental people. It basically acts as one of the many institutions that makes sure music pushes forward. I met Andrew there, on the night it was no biggie. By then though I was delirious in my mission to get it going proper. I went to bed that night like any other fucking night. But yeah, it all kicked off didn’t it. I don’t think that would have been possible without the Chameleon. It tended to me at a point in my life when all other creative hopes had been rejected."

- Jason Williamson, Sleaford Mods

Hidden in an alley just a stones throw from the city's iconic Market Square, sandwiched between what's now a chicken shop and bubble-tea cafe, you'd be forgiven for missing one of Nottingham's most integral independent venues. Small in size but mighty in importance and influence, The Chameleon Arts Cafe is a crucial springboard for acts across a broad spectrum of Nottingham and the East Midland's rich music scene. 

Reliably bustling and reassuringly unpretentious, The Chameleon is a regular haunt for many music fans, which shows almost every day of the week. Though the venue has seen several owners over the years, it has been run by Lauren Insley and John Rothera (below) since 2017. We caught up with John about why the space is held in such high regard amongst Nottingham's impressive list of venues, and what the future holds for venue owners such as themselves in today's climate of uncertainty.

The Chameleon has seen several owners and makeovers over its time. What did you first see in the venue when you took over, and what's your vision for the place?

Me and my fiancé Lauren, officially reopened after a mad refurb back in October 2017, just in time for a Halloween blowout. We met at the bar a couple of years before when I was running it with some good friends. We got our favourite local bands to do a show and plied them with booze to keep them happy. To be honest, we were so busy serving people on the bar we didn’t get to see anyone play! We had Slumb Party, Nottingham’s best post-punk dream team. Think James Chance and the contortions with more hooks. Bloody Head, probably my personal favourite Nottingham band, real gnarly, horrid, sludgy hardcore. And Witches Mark, a garage rock/blues duo with two of the loveliest people around. It was an amazing night.

Moving forward, we just want to keep interesting things coming through the door. We have a lot of gigs scheduled and they can’t all be life changing events but we’ve also gotta keep paying the bills! We were actually in the process of finding a new venue at the start of the year but the pandemic told us to stop doing that. A slightly bigger space one day and keeping things nice and varied; that is the future plan in a nutshell.

Can you tell us about some of your most memorable performances?

There’ve been plenty for sure! Way before it was ever an idea in our heads to take over the Chameleon, Late of the Pier played. I don’t think many gigs had taken place in the venue at that point. Legend says, it was so over capacity that Nick the owner, nearly had a heart attack as the ceiling started warping and developed a hole. For the remainder of the show the audience had to sit down on the floor.

Sleaford Mods are the obvious stars of The Chameleon. The absolute loveliest dudes. The last show they played before it became apparent they were way too popular was another close call for the under qualified ceiling. Damo Suzuki played back in early 2018 and that was just a really lovely night. Super intimate and he was so generous with everyone taking photos, hanging out and just being the sweetest guy.

There’s the Royal Blood tale, too. They came and did a show at The Chameleon back in 2013 before anyone really knew who they were. According to the promoter from the show, they’d been contacted by some label rep who wanted to come down and see them through the Chameleon PA, signed them after the show and within the year they were everywhere.

Last but by no means least, Kagoule playing Dot to Dot Festival at The Chameleon back in 2016 was wild. We had a late license for the event and everyone partied well in to the wee hours. We stayed up all night as was tradition back in those days, before Lauren joined me and we reigned things in a bit. We were stood around the bar some time the following morning and a young lad wandered in from upstairs, he’d obviously passed out after the show and we hadn’t seen him somehow. He scared the shit out of us!

"Turns out 200 people jumping at the same time fucks up Victorian beams. Who'd have thought it?"

- Andrew Faley (Late of the Pier)


What do you think The Chameleon adds to Nottingham's rich music scene?

I think most importantly it’s the DIY ethic. We give an opportunity to young bands, who don’t have a booking agent or manager etc to hire the place out, play to 60 of their friends and family and make a decent little wedge from selling tickets. Not many venues want to give the opportunity to young bands who’ve been playing together for a few months. But how else do you get out there and start playing shows? We’re a small city with a lot of venues but most don’t really cater as much to the younger developing artists the city produces. That’s entirely reasonable as with a bigger capacity and venue the overheads rise dramatically and it’s essential to keep an identity and program relevant to your clientele. We don’t need to worry so much about this as we’re a very small operation. Also, getting to see your new band crush without any barrier and hanging our afterwards is great! Huge shoutout to JT Soar and Stuck On A Name too. They have a similar ethos to us when it comes to gigs, however, a lot of their time is taken up recording bands, so they have far fewer shows. They are the best though.

"The Chameleon reeks of the under dog and actual edge. You don’t find that in many places although you’ll always hear it from every venue. Perhaps all independent venues are these things, I’ve played in lots so I’m probably being a bit unfair to all the others I guess. Because if this is true of those one off venues that every city has, then mine is The Chameleon."

- Jason Willamson, Sleaford Mods

It's not exactly smooth sailing running a small independent venue regardless of pandemics; what have been some of the hardest aspects before this year?

Basically, going bust just before Lauren joined me was a difficult time. We had a visit from EHO back in late 2016 and they really went to town. We had to spend a fortune getting loads of things fixed and checked. It absolutely crippled us. They also decided it was appropriate to cut our capacity in half. They went off some archaic dancehall equation, not too dissimilar to current social distancing which led to us seeing a huge drop in bookings. Thankfully after the change in management, a refurbishment and a hell of a lot of hard work we’ve got the place busier than ever, been given the all clear to increase the capacity and had a really good couple of years. Keeping people interested and trying to book as many busy nights as possible is essential in keeping us alive.

What's your view on the government's support package for the arts. Will it be enough to support venues such as yourselves?

That remains to be seen. The means of distribution seems to be skewed in the favour of people well versed in the Arts Council's way of doing things. We were rejected on our Emergency Funding bid due to a technicality with our applicant profile on their portal Grantium. Having never gone for any funding before, the Grantium system is incredibly confusing and overwhelming. They didn’t even read our bid as our profile was set up as an individual, not an organisation, even though we were told that was fine. We’ve now been forced to apply for a bounce back loan, which we wanted to avoid at all costs. Debt and grassroots music venues do not make good bedmates. 

The next fund is the cultural recovery fund and we’ve been losing our minds trying to write a decent bid. We’ve haven’t used excel since secondary school and have had a crash course in cashflow forecasts. If we actually receive the funding then yes, we’ll be able to start scheduling shows again, albeit at a loss but we can get back to work at least. I am very concerned about what we’ll do if we’re unsuccessful.

Have you been developing plans about how to run feasible shows in a new 'socially-distanced' normality? 

Following on from the previous question, the idea of the cultural recovery fund is to cover any deficit from putting on a show. It’s doable for sure but long term, it's absolutely impossible without funding. If social distancing is to remain forever, I can guarantee that live music venues will be a thing of the past unless they pivot the business model and sell food and drink as a primary means of paying the bills. Setting up a Covid safe system is fine; expensive but fine. However, we function on the basis that at least one show a week is at capacity and we take enough money on the bar to pay all the bills. As it stands, we can have an audience of 15 with social distancing in place. For us and I imagine the majority of venues, it’s unequivocally not financially viable to run events with that reduced capacity, unless you charge £50 a ticket and £20 a pint. It’s going to be interesting to see how things develop for sure.

"Kagoule wouldn't be the band we are today without The Chameleon. There's nowhere else like it in Nottingham or anywhere else in the UK and losing it would be devastating."

- Lucy Hatter, Kagoule

What's the most effective way members of the community and music scene can support The Chameleon at the moment? 

We’re pretty against the idea of organising a crowdfunder because it just feels a bit unfair. We’re not the only people who’ve been adversely affected by this and we still have a roof over our heads. I’d rather use crowdfunded money to support the thousands of people who’ve slipped through the cracks and truly are on the verge of absolute collapse. We’d literally be asking people to pay us a salary and that just feels wrong. It isn’t anyone’s fault that we’ve had to close and fingers crossed we will make it through, most probably by the skin of our teeth but we’re not ready to give up just yet!

Are you hopeful for the future of independent music spaces?

I’m definitely trying to be. It’s been a tough few weeks, what with the funding rejection and just generally getting a bit depressed. It really all depends on how long this goes on for. If we are to believe that things will go back to normal within six months then sure, I think us and most venues will probably make it. If socially distanced gigs are the new normal then quite honestly, we’re fucked. Going to see a band and not being drenched in sweat and covered in bruises by the end is not my bag. If we lose actual independent venues, I can envision some state-controlled enjoyment centre popping up. White walls. Band. Cig. Band. Fun. I really hope that won’t be the case but honestly, when you open up the news or see something shared on social media at the minute, it really does feel like some dystopian nightmare. This is just one tiny facet of a crumbling society. God, I need a drink…

"The scene in Nottingham will always be healthy as long as stages like The Chameleon can provide the spaces for it to thrive"

- Andy Harrison, Do Nothing

You can follow the progress of The Chameleon here

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