Weird Fun: Sneaky Pete's is 10
As the beating heart of Edinburgh's Cowgate, Sneaky Pete's, gears up for its tenth birthday, we speak to owner and manager Nick Stewart about his beloved shoebox in the capital's Old Town
Sneaky Pete's is the final destination for many an Edinburgh clubber on a night out in the capital. For ten years now, bands and DJs alike have cut their teeth in the space that Young Fathers' co-producer Tim London recently described to us as a "black rectangle of possibilities," and for most people it really is exactly that. Sneaky Pete's, with its maximum capacity of only 100, offers the opportunity to experiment with music, to meet new collaborators, colleagues, friends, future lovers – all with the simple goal of creating a fucking great party atmosphere at its core; it truly is a very special place.
To celebrate each of its ten years we posed ten nostalgia-inducing questions to owner and manager Nick Stewart, aka The Mayor of Sneakytown, to really make him dig deep into his Sneaky's memory palace, from gigs that blew him away to nights where everything went wrong.
The Skinny: Have you ever experienced a gig at Sneaky's that has changed your idea of what a gig can be?
Nick Stewart: "We've had a few! Monotonix playing in nothing but Speedos and boxer's boots, beginning their set by sweatily crowdsurfing on top of their drums for the first five minutes, then taking the whole gig to the street; Bob Log III doing the same on an inflatable dingy while wearing full Top Gun flight suit and helmet; James Vincent McMorrow standing stock still, staring ahead and singing in beautiful falsetto to a pin-drop quiet crowd for an hour – it seemed like some amazing performance art but I’ve heard he was pretty tipsy and trying to hide it; Happy Meals (now known as Free Love) mixing right into the crowd through a club time live set, with Suzy singing in French while up on a dancer's shoulders; Billy McCarthy from Augustines being so funny and rambling in-between songs that he kind of forgot to play them and the show went on an extra hour; The Juan MacLean's full live band 30-minute version of Happy House with at least ten minutes of theremin solo – you don’t get that every day; Yak merrily trashing their gear as the crowd were leaving, that was really bonkers, I don’t think many of the audience even noticed!"
Can you recall a night where everything went wrong but the night was still incredible?
"There are so many things that can go wrong! One night we had the fire alarm go off three times when the club was full to capacity. Each time the whole crowd had to leave and each time every single person came back in to start dancing again. It was like watching that video of the Slam Tent filling up in two minutes, but on a loop."
What band had you never heard of/listened to before seeing them in Sneaky's that totally blew you away?
"Honeyblood's debut show here was like that. I knew Stina had been working on some songs, but when they played what was only their second ever gig, they played more or less the whole debut album in that short set, and everyone knew straight away that a band had arrived. Ed from FatCat Records was in the crowd and that led to a record deal pretty much straight away."
What was the gig/band/club/DJ you booked in to Sneaky's that got you most excited?
"It’s impossible to pick one show, but I had an incredible experience recently. Dale Barclay’s bands And Yet It Moves and The Amazing Snakeheads had both played here before and been brilliant, but I had a feeling his new project with Laura St. Jude would be something special, and I was texting friends to come down last month for what I thought would be one of the shows of the year. There’s been nowhere to hear the new recordings so I really was hosting the gig without a solid idea of what would happen.
"Well, as it turned out, Dale’s new band featuring members of Sweaty Palms is actually one of the best live bands I have ever seen. I mean it! EVER! Dale’s the greatest frontman of his generation – the band make sometimes brooding, sometimes howling grooves that burst apart brutally, and it’s all held together with some of the best songwriting I’ve heard in ages. It was like early Birthday Party with better tunes, but instead of the feeling you get with Nick Cave that he’s a precocious kid that invented a character to be, with Dale what you get is his innate raw blazing soul and energy coming through, the absolute genuine article. You know it when you see it.
"I’ve also got to mention that I was so so excited to have Simonotron revive the Edinburgh version of Hot Mess here. I am incredibly proud to have a queer rave here where the music is on point and the crowd are just the best. Since that first party last year, which totally surpassed expectations and then some, we’ve kept Hot Mess on as a regular night."
Bands like Young Fathers started out playing shows at Sneaky's – what other artists have played Sneaky's in their infancy that might come as a surprise?
"I could go through a long list here but I'll give you one fun one. Future Islands played here in 2011 to about ten people, gave that tiny show as much heart then as they do playing huge stages now, and totally deserved to become the stars they now are. If you thought they seemed weird on Letterman you shoulda seen them here. They are in fact the only band to have ever crashed on my sofa and floor rather than get a cheap hotel or hostel. Perhaps I should be offering that service more often, seems like it might shake a little magic dust on things!"
Have there been any artists you've really had to work hard to book due to their size compared with the size of the venue?
"Weirdly, we haven't really had to work all that hard to get well known acts to play here. Especially for DJs, there's a fair amount of rubbish gigs around that pay well, where the crowd is there but not 'really there' inside the music, but at my place DJs find that the crowds really engage.
"Sneaks is tiny, so there's never going to be mega money here, but by keeping the atmosphere right we've created a space that artists actually want to come and play. At one stage last year we were getting a LOT of requests for big name DJs to play for us, and I had to start turning them down. I realised that the reason that well known DJs wanted to play here was to get an authentic experience from a brilliant in-the-know crowd, and you don't get that at a club that hosts everyone from the circuit. So long as we keep things weird and fun, then a premier league of artists will keep wanting to play."
Did you ever have what you thought was a totally outrageous idea for the venue that you thought you'd never pull off in a million years?
"I think the idea of the venue working at all in such a tiny space is the most outrageous idea really. I think about it every night, how it's so strange that it works... but it does!"
What's the best last song of the night you remember hearing in Sneaky's?
"Everyone who's been to Wasabi Disco knows the answer to this. For ten years Kris Wasabi has played Everywhere by Fleetwood Mac as the last tune, and the anticipation of that singalong moment at the end of the night is always justified in the beautiful release when it happens."
What's your most beloved and memorable moment at Sneaky's over the past ten years and why?
"I think some of our early moments matter the most to me. Seeing our original bar manager Shane Greenfield being held aloft crowd-surfing at his leaving do was very special: I realised that what we do is quite meaningful to the people who come here and when they get a chance to express how they feel, they really go for it."
And finally, what's your secret to the successful running of Sneaky's and what are your hopes and dreams for its future?
"Keep it weird and keep it fun. Sneaks is a social club for people that love music and we really do love and take care of our family. I guess my ambitions don't go much further than that either: keep it weird and fun for as long as possible!"