Interview: James Young
“I’ve always been lucky. In advertising we would get paid a fortune to map a vision and a strategy for a business, none of which I’ve ever done for myself. My attitude has always been, be positive and let it fall in your lap. That’s always worked for me. Surround yourself with positive people and energy and wait for the phone to ring.” - James Young
There's something very reassuring about being in the company of James Young, co-owner and public face of Melbourne rock institution, Cherry Bar. It could be the years spent in advertising, the constant repetition of my name while we’re chatting, making me feel more like a trusted friend than an interviewer. But I'd like to say that it's the bravado and confidence that rock music brings – and the man has rock ‘n’ roll running through his veins.
It's a Thursday night, just after 9pm, and Cherry is empty save a few staff members, a techie setting up sound equipment on the small stage and a couple of barflies who look like they've decided to get an early start on the weekend. I wander in and take a seat at the non-service end of the bar. It’s so dark that, for a moment, I worry that I won’t recognise the man that I’ve come to speak to.
James: “It’s unfortunate that you can operate a bar for fourteen years without a solitary noise complaint and then a new residential building moves in and, instantaneously, under the current laws, we’re too noisy for them.”
Young and I are sitting on a cushioned bench in the smaller back room of Cherry discussing noise restrictions. This room has no doubt seen a fair share of mischief over the years. But tonight it’s staff only and, ironically, we’ve managed to interrupt a barman enjoying the peace and quiet of an early break with his head stuck in a Stephen King novel.
James: “The issue of live music venues being threatened by new residential developments is the biggest issue in music globally at the moment.”
James speaks, absentmindedly pausing to adjust the large AC/DC ring he wears proudly: in retrospect my fear of not recognising the proprietor seems foolish as I take in his jewellery, leopard print suit and white cowboy hat.
Our bar tender friend departs for quieter ground with a wave goodbye as he continues.
James: “Everyone’s worried about it because with physical CD sales dead, playing live is the new revenue for bands, their performance and selling merch and all the rest of it. And it’s also their university; playing live is how bands hone their craft.”
Noise restrictions are something this man knows a lot about and, with the recent closure of the Palace Theatre and a new residential apartment block currently under development less than 20 meters away from Cherry’s front doors, it’s a subject very close to his heart.
James: “My business partner ‘Lazy Pete’ is really worried about it and I’ve met so many well meaning, passionate music lovers in Melbourne who are all worried about the future of Cherry, too. Actually, they’re more worried about the bar than I am. I’m quite a positive and optimistic person and I believe that every year presents new challenges in your life. You’ve just got to suck it up and deal with it. This is just another thing that we’re going to have to deal with."
“I book over 1,100 local acts a year for Cherry, we’re open seven nights a week, have live music seven nights a week and I’m knocking back around 2000 bands a year. There’re just thousands upon thousands of bands in Melbourne and what they want more than anything else is the opportunity to play in front of people. They want more venues where they can play and, as I like to say, over my dead body will Cherry Bar be closed. We might have to make some modifications but Cherry will be here and I will fight for the death to protect our late licence. To be a world-class city these days you’ve got to be a twenty-four hour city.”
James is passionate about the contribution live music makes to a cityscape, citing the appeal of destinations where music can be heard on city streets at all hours. He’s also quick to point out the obvious contradiction in selling the appeal of an apartment based on the culture of the site while then endangering that very culture by virtue of drastically altering the scope of the bar’s current operations. As it is, it looks likely Cherry Bar will no longer be able to operate with its current 5am license.
James: “The people who are about to move into these apartment blocks bought them based on promotional materials that said ‘join the culture of AC/DC Lane’. I think one of the beautiful things about this bar is standing out the front with the doors open and the music bleeding into the laneway; while you’re smoking or talking to friends, picking up or just enjoying the night air. I think it’s a beautiful thing to have that music coming out and it will be unfortunate if we incubate that sound and close the double entrance so that everything is contained within. International guests and tourists don’t want to come down and just take a photograph of a street sign to say that they’ve been to AC/DC Lane; they want to experience it. And that experience is music and live rock ‘n’ roll.”
The door to the backroom opens with a squeak and suddenly we’re joined by a cameraman and sound recordist, here to film James Young for his regular ‘Cherry TV’ slot, broadcast weekly on the popular Cherry Bar Facebook page.
Before he leaves me to start filming I ask a question about social media and its impact on the bar.
James: “You can write media releases for Cherry Bar and distribute them nationally, but I made the discovery that all I really need to do is post it on the Cherry Bar Facebook. These days online content gets picked up by the mainstream media, who are trawling the internet for interesting stories. All we’re trying to do is say, ‘come here for a drink if you think this way, because this is where live music-lovers hang out’. If you’re following our feed and enjoying it, then maybe you belong and are part of the Cherry family." So far it seems to be working.