Despite its nondescript, industrial facade, Total Refreshment Centre has been one of London’s most important cultural centres since its inception in 2012. A buzzing venue, performance space, recording studio, workshop and meeting place in equal parts, the Dalston project has been an integral space for burgeoning music cultures within the capital, particularly its contemporary jazz scene. Fittingly, then, TRC has become a top feature in this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, celebrating both the talent of the artists within its sphere, as well as the legacy of the massively influential jazz label Blue Note.
Ahead of Total Refreshment Centre and Blue Note: Artists & Repertoire at The Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall tonight, John Bell spoke with TRC’s founder Lex Blondin about the project’s history and putting together this one-off show.
Let’s start by talking a little about Total Refreshment Centre. You’ve said before you were inspired by the likes of Colorama in Southwark and similar squats and community centres. Take us back a little bit to that time around the turn of the decade. What did it mean to you finding these projects? Was it something you’d ever experienced before coming to London?
Colorama was a squat near the Elephant & Castle roundabout. It was set in an old printing factory and was the most charming place ever. They hosted art exhibitions, cinema nights, gigs, and all of them had some kind of workshop. Each person’s set up was truly unique and made for experimentation. One good example was the production set up of Jackson Bailey aka Tapes who had a frankenstein rig of tape players, 6 track mixer, vintage effect boxes and his speakers were big enough to power a dancehall.. I just fell in love with the place and its people and felt beyond inspired to get involved.
It’s an interesting story because, at least on the face of it, I think historically London has had a bad press for projects like Colorama and what TRC would become in comparison to some of its European cousins. Of course your personal experience goes against that, but why do you think as a general picture that’s the case?
We had a sticker on TRC’s fridge for a while that read: ‘I love Hackney but Hackney loves developers’. That would sum up the situation well I think. The fact that London is so driven by the financial markets means that when there’s an economic crisis, the property market slows down and big transactions don’t happen so easily. So in a way, we were lucky to have found TRC at the time we did; if the market was booming there’s no doubt the building would be in ashes under a shiny luxurious building… The difference in Europe is that grassroots venues get Government subsidies which protect such spaces , to cultivate the local culture and communities. We’ve just done our first Church of Sound show in Brussels, and the promoter/ venue confessed that they were losing money even though the show was sold out, that goes to show the level of support Belgium give to its venues!
How possible do you think it would have been to have started TRC in 2019 than in 2012?
It would be harder but not impossible. Finding a space is the first piece of the puzzle, I can’t imagine finding large warehouse open to having artists create DIY studios in Hackney in 2019. The business rates have almost doubled in the borough which wouldn’t help start a business.
I’m sure there are spaces if you look hard enough though, up in Tottenham and beyond…
It took me a while before I stumbled upon TRC, it was a bit like looking for a rare vintage drum machine at an affordable price, you just gotta search and search until it pops out!
Did you ever have a guiding mantra with TRC, or was it a bit more protean and free-form than that?
Setting something like this up is challenging in so many ways, so I always had to remind myself why I was doing it. You can get caught up in the logistics of it all, I had to keep remembering to stay with the music, the best music I could get my ears on, which meant getting involved with like-minded people who were as hungry for it as me. Everyone involved in TRC developed their skills side by side, becoming better at their craft by working on each others projects. Collaboration has always been at the heart of TRC; having all these skills under one roof meant that we could all progress together.
The desire to have a space for cultural creation was always an aspiration of mine. I just had to have the music I love at the heart of my activity, not adapting to someone else’s vision but promoting my own. It’s an amazing feeling to look back on everyone’s journey and see where we are now, it’s all become very real!
Early this year Emma Warren released Make Some Space, a history and tribute to TRC. Can you tell me a little bit about that process? Were you surprised when she first approached? What’s the story there?
Emma approached me when she heard that TRC would close. That was when our landlord had a buyer that was going to knock down the building to redevelop the site. She mentioned the idea of doing a fanzine celebrating TRC and its people. Then TRC remained open for a couple more years as the sale fell through, and after a few meetings she started discovering all the layers of TRC, and the small fanzine quickly turned into a book.
I think what Emma achieved with this book is remarkable, it’s a rare thing to celebrate a community attached to a space whilst it was still active, as these things usually happen decades later. Why? Celebrate what’s there, not what was!
She also shines a light on the importance of such spaces and encourages her readers to get involved. And as per her reference to Christopher Smalls concept of ‘musicking’, there are a million ways to get involved, the journey is where the thrill is.
Do you think the reflective process needed to help Emma on a project like that helped you gain any new perspectives on the past eight years or so, or even about yourself?
That’s a deep question. It was actually quite emotional to read at times. Imagine reading your child’s story as told by its class mates! Doing TRC has been a hell of a ride: the innocence; the mistakes; the successes; aaaaall the people that came into my life through it. Emma has managed to pin what made TRC special and I’m really thankful for that.
As you mention, Emma endearingly adopts the musicologist Christopher Small’s term ‘musicking’ when describing TRC; this idea that the act of music can’t be divided into performer:audience so binarily. Rather, it’s more of a circular process where everyone is given agency – be it the listener, the sound person, the musician, the dancer, anyone.
It’s a great parallel for what goes on in your warehouse, but it also reminded me of this theory by Jill Dolan, who has written about the ‘Utopian Performative’. In crude summary, Dolan sees utopia less of a physical space than a mindspace, an experience that can manifest during performance. I wanted to know your thoughts on this, and whether that’s something you have experienced; there’s a lot of talk about physical space – the venue, the warehouse, the walls – but doesn’t the feeling of freedom, empowerment and euphoria only truly exist in performance?
I can see the parallel between the two theories. To me, all the people present at a gig are part of the same performance in some way. The gig itself will have the audience members get into a special mindset, from the moment of anticipation on the way to the venue, to the euphoric release during the show, the dancing and shouting etc.
A lot of the best club spaces have always been places where people re-define social codes for themselves. The space is only as good as the people that make it. In the case of TRC, all the members of staff and a lot of the audience were a huge part of what made it so special.
TRC is obviously connected with and deeply integrated into London’s celebrated contemporary jazz scene. Do you remember any specific moments where you realised, OK this is reaching a new level?
It was January 2015, Marina Blake organized a gig to launch her new edition of Brainchild Festival. That night I witnessed a young Nubya Garcia, Theon Cross, Shirleh Tetteh, Joe Armon Jones and co. play jazz with a new swag. I was blown away.
Let’s talk about Blue Note. What has the influence of its incredible roster of artists been on you and some of your peers do you think?
Over the years, I’ve got to discover the many incarnations of this incredible label and it’s literally an endless source of inspiration. I started collecting all the comps that were out there which showcased the early 1960s bebop as well as the jazz-funk side of the 1970s, which then got me to dig deeper in the albums. The longevity and legacy of Blue Note is like no other, they’ve reinvented themselves over and over again.
All incredible music aside, from Francis Wolff’s photography, to Reid Miles’ artworks and Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings, everything was made with such good taste and precision. It’s the ultimate label!
How did the idea of a TRC and Blue Note show for London Jazz Festival come about?
Gilles Peterson brought Don Was to TRC for Shabaka’s birthday once, and we gave him a tour of the venue and studio. We played him some of the tunes from the upcoming Comet Is Coming album and he literally sat there with his eyes closed: @Maaaan, this feels like 1970’s Detroit… I dig it!” We kept in touch and we started talking about working on making a record for Blue Note at TRC, which got me very excited as you can imagine. Whilst working on this, the London Jazz Festival asked me to curate a gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. It’s a match made in heaven.
How did you approach assigning blue note catalogue to your own network of friends and artists? What’s been the most exciting thing about the whole process? Somehow I imagine you’ve had a lot of fun.
You’re right about that, It’s literally one of my favourite things. First I went on digging for tunes that I thought deserved to be better known, forgotten gems that I dance to in my room. After having selected the tunes I started thinking of who could make an interesting version. The exercise is not to render a tune exactly like it sounds on the record, but to have an artist relate to it enough that they can make it their own.
What are you hoping to achieve most at/from the show?
I hope to shine a light on some incredible tunes as well as showcasing the musicians’ creativity. Free Movement Ensemble and Emma Jean Thackeray will be playing some originals too so I hope that the audience members who come for the Blue Note tunes get to discover more of these artists’ original art too.
Lastly, are you hopeful about London as a home for places like TRC to grow and for projects influenced by it to blossom?
I do. I’ve seen many new spots open recently and I have faith they will grow to inspire others. There’s a new generation that is hungry for it so there’s hope for sure!
Total Refreshment Centre and Blue Note: Artists & Repertoire is tonight, tickets here.