As one of Glasgow's best loved clubs approaches its fifth birthday, some of its key players discuss its lasting appeal
Wandering into an empty La Cheetah Club on a quiet Wednesday evening is an odd experience, particularly if your abiding memories of the place are so tied up with lively crowds, blaring tunes and often stifling heat. Brightly lit on this occasion, without smoke or darkness, the humble basement room could feasibly fool those unfamiliar with the club into thinking that there’s not much to be missed by night. This of course belies the fact that over the course of five years, La Cheetah has emerged as one of the best spots for electronic music the city has to offer – no mean feat amid an ever-flourishing Glasgow scene so often and (rightly) celebrated that it almost becomes trite to keep doing so.
On this occasion though, there’s an unfamiliar calm about the place as some of the venue’s key players and promoters assemble to discuss the club’s significance ahead of its fifth birthday celebrations. An early point of agreement for all assembled is the special atmosphere the club engenders when in full swing. Kev Chan who represents Code, a night devoted to dark, driving techno, is clear about why the place simply works. “People just love playing here because it’s hot, sweaty and loud. You can’t complain about that.” Of the many guests Code have had down, including the likes of Spanish techno king Oscar Mulero, Chan says most have immediately taken to the hyped Glasgow crowd and the particularly warming ambience and intimacy of the venue.
It must be said that the evolution of the club as a space over the last five years has been dramatic. Long used for club nights in the venue’s Twisted Wheel days and before, the basement always had atmosphere, yet back then it still felt like merely a wee room below a pub. On taking up the lease, La Cheetah’s current owner Dario Bernardi slowly started to make his mark in a way no one else before had quite managed. “I knew what I was looking for with the club but never thought I was going to be able to mould it,” he admits.
“For the vision that I had, there wasn’t a lot of room. When it came to sound systems and the booth and the visuals, everything had to be calculated in the sense that it had to fit in the room and we had to be able to get the maximum out of it. Financially as well, it takes time for that kind of thing. So much money went into the bar itself and other bits and pieces, that I didn’t have a massive budget to bring in a Funktion One soundsystem or anything to start with. All these things, as they were added, meant it started to evolve more into the club it is now.”
With the fundamentals in place, the programming then becomes decisive and, though it’s a venue closely tied with the sounds of classic house and techno, La Cheetah also regularly caters to a broader-based demographic. Pistols at Dawn has been running every other month for around a year and a half now and focuses primarily on Balearic beat, particularly disco and more leftfield interpretations of that sound. “We felt that Glasgow was very much dominated by house and techno,” says Pistols promoter Chris Devlin. “There were loads of DJs we wanted to see but the only people putting them on were Melting Pot and they were concentrating more at the higher end of the scale. It was the smaller, more niche DJs that we mostly wanted to see.”
Having sold the idea to the club’s Events Programmer and resident DJ Grahame Ward AKA Wardy, the Pistols team have since settled in nicely, alternating between hosting niche guests and bigger names from within the Balearic scene. “Alfredo coming down was huge,” says Devlin, reflecting on the night in 2013 when one of Ibiza’s original icons – now in his early sixties – took to the booth.
“He’s a hero of ours but he hadn’t played in Glasgow for about 12 years at the time. So we booked him and people went fucking wild for it. At the end of the night he played Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill – which isn’t something you’d expect to hear in a club but it just worked so well. People were hugging each other; it was unbelievable.”
The more open music policy of Pistols at Dawn is very much in keeping with the ethos of the club as a whole, Wardy explains. “We work with an idea of keeping things underground, but with as wide a spectrum, encompassing as much different electronic music as possible. If there’s something experimental and I think it’s worthy of a spot, then I’ll definitely look into it.”
A more recent arrival which perhaps tends more towards that experimental side is Kunst, headed up by Kris Bell and Frankie Gallagher. With a knack for bringing some of Glasgow’s best underground DJs – the likes of Mark ‘Mother’ Maxwell and former Monox favourite Alan Currie – down to delve into lesser known techno gems, Kunst has been perhaps a surprisingly successful night, given its Thursday night slot. It was launched in memorable fashion with a headlining modular synth set by Aleks Jurczyk of Rubadub – not exactly commonplace fare for a Thursday night. It’s a testament to La Cheetah and Glasgow in general that such ambitious midweek nights find a home and develop committed followings, even when the space may not be packed out to capacity every time. “A lot of people are shocked at how much energy there is in the crowd for a Thursday night,” says Bell.
Another aspect of La Cheetah which has endeared it to residents and patrons alike is the sense of liberty afforded to the community of clubbers who gather there, many of them on a weekly basis. “I wouldn’t say there are no rules here,” admits Bell. “But there’s more of a relaxed crowd. It’s good that way; you can party pretty hard here and people are relaxed about it. It’s not like you feel on edge like you might at some other clubs. There’s a freedom here. You can act like a dafty and rip your top off and it would be acceptable.”
“Obviously, it’s the same as any other club,” Wardy is quick to clarify. “If someone completely steps out of line they would have to go – but some clubs take that too far. I think we have a better balance in here.”
It’s that feeling of community and a shared passion that cements many of the best venues in Glasgow and La Cheetah has a particularly strong sense of camaraderie compared with most. “My favourite night so far was when DJ Sotofett came down to play for us,” explains Offbeat’s Joe McGhee. “At one point there were three people on people’s shoulders, banging the roof and most people had their tops off.”
Glasgow’s proclivity for the 'taps aff' mode of partying is often something which takes international guests by surprise. This was perhaps at its most surreal when Offbeat invited hyperactive ghetto house don DJ Funk down for what McGhee describes as the “sweatiest fucking club ever.” On encountering the masses of topless males bouncing around before him, the Chicago veteran later remarked that he thought he may have been playing at a gay night.
A similarly memorable evening in the club’s history thus far was provided by notsosilent, a clubbing collective which now has bases in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. Craig Mullen, who takes charge of the Glasgow side of things, now laughs as he recalls their party with prolific German producer, Move D – whose set was nearly interrupted when the neon La Cheetah sign above the booth fell, clattering Mullen on the head. “It nearly knocked me out,” he says.
In the end, an impromptu DIY job was completed – with the sign drilled back into place – all while Move D continued to blitz his way through his set in a cramped booth. The atmosphere was so overwhelming that the guest even found himself partaking in what's now almost an obligatory local custom. “He’s 47 and it was the first time he’s ever taken his top off in a club,” jokes Craig.
Such nights have defined La Cheetah’s five year history – whether characterised by brilliant performances, dancefloor high jinks, good humour or a combination of all three – and it’s no surprise that the club is showing no signs of letting up. Beginning this month they will toast their anniversary by bringing in heavyweights Levon Vincent, Theo Parrish and Matthew Herbert, all of whom come with trusted reputations and loyal followers. Herbert was one of the club’s first big name guests, which makes his return extra special, and Parrish has twice played sets that rank among the best in the club’s history.
In discussing their plans for the future, owner Dario and events head Wardy drop more than a hint or two about the club’s room for expansion, both within the Glasgow premises and perhaps even further afield. “There’s also a record label in its infancy,” Wardy reveals. “It’s tentative at the moment but we’re working towards that anyway.” As Dario points out, there’s such a strong pool of talent coming through the club that they have a solid base to work on when taking the leap into the world of releasing music through their own platform.
All told, it would seem La Cheetah is in a fairly buoyant position after five years. “In regards to the reputation of the club, it has surpassed what I thought I could have possibly done with it,” admits Dario. “It’s not just me who has done it though. It’s been the whole team who have done it. I just laid the foundations for the first couple of years.
"We’ve went as far as we can go with it for the moment, but there are definitely other things I have planned for the future, so we will take it onwards from here.”