Kingston-based club night New Slang is easily one of the biggest nights in the South East, attracting the likes of Vampire Weekend and Foals to take the stage. We caught up with the man behind the gigs – Banquet Records’ Jon Tolley to talk the early years, Pete Doherty and THAT Vampire Weekend show.
You’re obviously a massive music fan, how did you first get into music?
As a school kid I got introduced to music from people at school. I was to school in Kingston and ended up going to the shop, that was Beggars Banquet and that’s when I found there was more than just what you hear on the radio and there was gigs and clubs and a community outside of what you’re just spoonfed. That wasn’t me being involved in music that was just me discovering music. Everyone that works for us was a punter or a customer before they went the other side of the counter.
I remember in school holidays cycling to the record shop to get a record at 10am on a Monday morning. At university it became more of a way of life than a hobby.
Where did you go to university?
In Loughborough, which was horrid! But because it was such a small community it made me and my friends have to do stuff ourselves. That made me get more involved in music than I otherwise would have been because there wasn’t decent stuff to do, especially compared to Kingston where I’d grown up.
I ended up running the alternative music society which is obviously, looking back, it was a bit of a joke but at the time I thought I was saving the world.
What were you studying?
Retail management, which has obviously tied in well with what I do now. I always found business studies quite easy at school so it seemed like a sensible thing. There’ll always be a career in business. I was really into music and into skateboarding and I wanted to do those two things as much as I could but I was always aware you need to have a qualification – I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional musician or a professional skateboarder.
Where you ever in a band?
No I never was. Ever since I got involved I wanted to be the other side of it. I wanted to put on the gig not play it.
So at uni you started putting on gigs?
Not so much then. At uni I was DJing or putting on club nights. Our society's real purpose was to get people from Loughborough to go elsewhere. It was getting people to get together and travel to Derby or Nottingham to see bigger bands.
I didn’t just say goodbye to Kingston though. The stuff that was going on back here, run by someone who was then running the shop, I got involved in that stuff too.
In my year in industry, when I was based at home, I ended up DJing at their clubs which later evolved to what we do now. And I helped out generally, just doing the shit stuff, like clearing up and taking the money on the door.
It was never a case of 'I’ll start from the bottom and work my way up’ – it was just being part of a gang who put on a gig. Now it’s our career.
So you’ve come back from uni and you’re helping out with gigs, how do you take the next step?
I was offered a part time job at the record shop and I did it two days a week and it was but not as much fun as you think it would be. You end up doing the stuff no one wants to do, the money was rubbish and I found it quite frustrating bring involved in all this good stuff but actually just doing the bad stuff. I ended leaving that job and working as an electrician. It was only when the indie guy at Beggars Banquet left because the band he was managing, Hundred Reasons, got pretty big so he had to leave. He was doing the job I ended up doing. It’s a rubbish aid job, it’s really fun and you get to create a lot but it’s poor money and he had a chance to do something else.
Full-time you get a bit more responsibility. I took the job as I realised all the stuff they were involved in with the gigs, if there wasn’t someone in the shop involved in that I thought that would die too.
I was working for Beggars Banquet, a massive multi-national, and they decided to get rid of the shop arm of the business. They sold the business to the then manager for a nothing fee. But he ran it into the ground. It was only two years before we were going bust. At that point, while he was on holiday in Thailand, we put a plan together to get some money together to buy the business. We bought it for like £5,000 and took on £50,000 debt. Then we worked every hour of the day for like no money and turned it around.
When did you start New Slang?
We’d always been putting on shows and there was a need to put on bigger bands. We spoke to the boss of the Hippodrome about the possibility of putting on bigger nights. We wanted something bigger because it’s more fun losing yourself in a crowd of 1000 people to your favourite tune than it is in a bar.
We wanted to put on bigger bands – it was a lengthy process.
The Hippodrome closed down so we moved the night to McClusky’s then, when it reopened we moved back here, on the basis they would fix the PA. We said if they fixed the PA and gave us the bigger room we could get these bigger bands in. Our first weekend back we had Vampire Weekend. Since then the quality of bands has been really high.
How do you get the bands?
Well obviously we’ve been putting on gigs at the Peel and I’ve been involved in putting on gigs in and around Kingston for about 15 years so you get a good reputation. And obviously the shop means something. A lot of the bands who play for us have had interactions with the shop in some way – Foals being the best example. When they were on their rise to fame they played an instore for us. There was only about 80 people and at the time that was really busy for them, they couldn’t believe that many people would come out to see them. We said they should play our club night. We put them on and it was one of the most defining New Slang gigs.
We want kids to come out and have a dance and have a drink and watch the band but we do try and be a little more educated with the crowd than others would. With the shop we want to be like 'this is the new single from this band, this records out' so hopefully the band should get a little bit more than what they would get elsewhere.
Are there any plans to leave Kingston?
We’ve done gigs in London and Brighton but essentially, one of the reasons we started doing this is we wanted to put on big bands in Kingston. People already do that elsewhere. If we’re not doing anything different and we’re not on the ground to promote a night anyway it wouldn’t really serve a purpose. We’re quite happy doing in Kingston.
You mentioned Vampire Weekend, who has been the best band you’ve had on?
That one was mental because it sold out in hours and it was a massive return to this venue. Foals, of course. We’ve had Los Campesinos! The Maccabees. When Pete Doherty played here with Babyshambles, I’ve got no real love for his music but the actual event was amazing. But there’s also been small scale things that mean as much. We’ve done things like a skateboarding competition. That was really fun and because we’re our own bosses we can do that.
Have you had anyone who’s been really difficult or who you’ve regretted putting on?
The only ones that have been difficult are the ones where it goes with the territory. Like Crystal Castles for example, you don’t want them to be mild mannered. You want them to be riotous. She (Alice Glass) got thrown out of the venue in the end but its part of the gig. And when Pete Doherty was smoking on stage it was to make a point – so what do you do?
What about unsigned bands? Do you get them involved?
I do want to get local bands and the community involved but at the same time I don’t want it to become 'local band night’. The bands who are excited to play want to play because they’re sharing the same stage as Foals have played or Vampire Weekend. If we have three bands who could all play the local pub there’s no point.
I do want local bands involved though and there’s a New Slang label and we’ve put out bands from Kingston, Ealing, Surbiton etc.
But you have to play the game when it comes to the agents.
We get about 20 requests from bands a week and you can’t take them all.
What should bands who do want to play do?
Email and myspace link but an email that is a little bit more than one that is copied and pasted to a hundred promoters. Some kind of reason why you should play New Slang.
Who are you tipping for the top this year?
I would have said Ellie Goulding but now she’s already at the top! I really like Gaggle, I think Tubelord should be triple the size they are now and I think album number two may make that happen.
Finally, what’s coming up at New Slang?
There’s quite a bit, there’s talk about a Maccabees show. Example is playing in June, he played at the shop for us to pretty much no one, now he’s like a top twenty artist. We’ve got Alkaline Trio in May. When I used to shop at the shop before I worked here I would buy an Alkaline Trio record and now we’re putting them on.
You must be thinking you’re living the dream from going in the shop as a kid to now running it?
Kind of, I do live the dream but I also live the nightmare! There are so many shit parts of it, all the paper work, the money’s not good, dealing with crap. There are the stresses you have in any job. You have to deal with that. But obviously the positives outweigh the negatives.