Interview / Stuart Langley / Neil Thornton / Dartmouth Arms / Disappearing Dining Club

Those employed in the “entertainment / hospitality sector” are suffering, their futures threatened. This is the start of a planned series intended to help promote venues, parties and festivals – creative and passionate people who are attempting to ensure our small corner of the music “industry” stays afloat. 

This interview with Neil and Stuart was conducted last week – just before government restrictions in the UK flip flopped once again. Confused yet? I’ve been wondering if that wasn’t / isn’t always the point.  

After operating for around a decade Disappearing Dining Club (DDC) and Dartmouth Arms are now in the position where they’ve been forced to put a crowd-funding project in place in order to see a positive way past the latest lockdowns. Please participate if you can, and please do the same for your own local businesses. Artists, labels, shops, and venues, all need our support. Together is the only way we’ll keep the music alive. 

Can you start by telling me a little about yourselves?

Neil: Fun-loving, vinyl-obsessive, disco-dad, working with Stuart on the lovely Dartmouth Arms project.

Stuart : Music loving hospitality lifer and owner / founder of Disappearing Dining Club.

Where are you from? Where are you based?

Neil: Born in Essex, currently living in East London.

Stuart: Originally from the West Midlands, now living in Ramsgate via stints in Lancashire, Kazakhstan, Ibiza, Melbourne Australia and London.

Musically what are your backgrounds? 

Neil: Musically the fun really started for me around the time of Flying, Sign Of The Times, and then all the great parties at the Hoxton Blue Note – Blood Sugar, Dusted, etc. We had a really cool group of friends from Essex including Dave Rose – who I still do a monthly radio show with on Music Box UK – and Sean Kaye (R.I.P.).  Every weekend was spent record shopping in town followed by a night out. Discussions were made, and we started throwing a Sunday night party in Soho at Saint Moritz, where Ed and Tom Chemical – who were then still The Dust Brothers – played a couple of times, alongside J Saul Kane and anyone else we could pull in for favours.   

A few years later over in West London I hooked up with fellow Balearic aficionados Andy Taylor and Matt Timms, and lot of fun was had doing all-day Sunday sessions and one offs under our Human Zoo moniker, with guests like Pete Wiggs, Rob Mello, Zaki Dee, Stuart Patterson and Leo Elstob  – who were doing the Soulsonic parties at the time over in Nottinghill. We got offered a night at the Key Club in Kings Cross and had a great run booking guests like The Glimmers, Spacid, Trevor Jackson, Ewan Pearson, Nathan Gregory Wilkins, Ivan Smagghe… 

One evening, when I was playing over in East London, a lovely chap called Johnny Hiller was also on the bill. Johnny had a great taste in music – our bags where full of the same weird stuff (laughs). We got on straight away and decided to throw some parties over in East London. One of the first parties was a sleazy disco warehouse all-nighter on Brick Lane with the Discosession crew from Japan – Dr Nishimura, Chee Shimizu and Jonny Nash – and Daniel Wang. This lead to me organizing over 10 years of amazing Lasermagnetic parties with Johnny.  

LASERMAGNETIC POSTER

Stuart did you also party at these places?

I’m a bit younger than Neil and started going to parties a little later, and in the North West – first at Feel in Preston and Lancaster, and then at Back To Basics in Leeds. I started working in hospitality at 16 and always wanted to work at places where music was a key element. Moving down to London I worked behind the bar at Bar Vinyl in Camden in 1999 / 2000 – with a record shop in the basement, and Finger Lickin’ records upstairs – whilst also working summers behind the bar at Café Mambo in Ibiza between 1999 and 2002.  Mambo was incredibly important for me musically, particularly the records being played during the daytime and in the early hours of the morning after all the big club night pre-party DJs had gone to the clubs.  The resident DJs were Pete Gooding, Andy Warburton and Danny Whitehead – who would often play 6, 7, 8, hours sets, mostly from vinyl.  Jose Padilla was resident for a short time in 1999 too.  

I was already listening to rare groove, soul, electronic pop and alternative `80s sounds, but I had no understanding of what ‘Balearic’ was as a sound. It was all just music to me.  Ibiza was a real education.

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How did you two meet?

Stuart: I met Neil – along with Johnny Hiller – via Pete Herbert, who I was booking to play at The Player – a basement cocktail bar on Broadwick Street in Soho – and Sosho – a late night cocktail and DJ bar near Old Street. I met Pete via Phil Mison, who had a regular Wednesday night gig at Sosho at that time. Pete started playing at The Player every Thursday night, and Neil and Johnny Hiller were guests. Lasermagnetic was going strong at the time – and we all hit it off right away.

Am I right in thinking that The Disappearing Dining Club started out as a series of pop-up, one-off events? How did it actually start? 

Stuart: DDC started out as a monthly Dinner Dance in October 2010 – with guests coming for a sit-down meal followed by a party with DJs playing throughout. The venues were always either warehouses, photographic studios or random spaces I knew from being out and about in East London. We would build everything from scratch for each party, and break it all down again at the end of the night; kitchens, bars, tables and chairs, sound systems, lighting rigs, the works. 

Johnny Hiller played at the first one in an empty old pub in Kings Cross. Chris Coco was our first resident. Guests over the years included Jose Padilla, Phil Mison, Pete Gooding, Nancy Noise, Leo Zero, Mr Shiver, Nick Gynn, Jim Breese, Scott Martin and countless others. We did a few Dinner Dances in Manchester too with Danny Whitehead.  Alongside the Dinner Dances we opened a series of pop-up restaurants in Old Street, Brick Lane – Back in 5 Minutes, a restaurant hidden inside a clothes shop- Maltby Street and Barbican, plus hosted brand events for IKEA, Adidas, ITV, The Guardian, Channel 4 and loads of drinks brands.

What sort of numbers did these parties cater for?

Stuart: The first party was for 30 people. The biggest, a NYE party at a warehouse / lighthouse building in Docklands with 600 guests.

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Can you tell me more about the chef, Fredrik Bolin?

Stuart: Fred is from Stockholm. He worked in some of the best places in Stockholm at that time, before moving to London. Fred worked at Michelin star restaurants Zefarano, Nobu and The Glasshouse, before moving to the States, working for two years as a head chef of a two star Swedish restaurant in New York.

We met in 2002 while working at a restaurant called The Aquarium in St Katharyn’s Dock in London, and then worked a lot together for various restaurants at music festivals, doing restaurant quality food at Glastonbury, The Big Chill, Reading & Leeds, and Download, plus at a members club in East London called The East Room.

Fred is classically French trained, but draws upon a lot of Swedish techniques like salting, curing and pickling in his cooking. Fred and I both enjoy elegant, simple, ingredient-led dishes that are unfussy and great to eat. This is why our food works equally well if we are feeding 300 people in a warehouse, or dinner party amongst friends, or with music and drinks at Dartmouth Arms.

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I think you’ve been running for 10 years now? Can you give me some examples of the venues you used?

Stuart: We like spaces that make eating dinner more of a one-off experience, venues that are in some way unlikely or hard to find. In our early days this meant warehouses that I knew were available from going to raves and parties, or photographic studios that had plenty of character and space, but were unused during the evenings and weekends. East London spaces included Red Gallery – inside / outside / upstairs / downstairs / on the roof – Rolling Stock – the old On The Rocks party spaces – the studios that became the E1 club in Wapping, the huge private flat that had been Gary’s Bar back in the day, plus a load of railway arch studio spaces in Dalston, Hoxton and Shoreditch.

Our pop up restaurant spaces have been in an old Chinese takeaway attached to the CAMP bar / club – owned by James Priestley of Secretsundaze – on Old Street, across five floors of a mini department store on Bethnal Green Road, behind a clothes shop on Brick Lane, inside an industrial salvage and antiques warehouse in Bermondsey, in a basement underneath the quietest street in London just near Barbican.

Was music always integral to the events? 

Stuart: Yes – from the very beginning. Dinner Dance was a clubby take on the kind of dinner dances my Mum and Dad would have gone to at the local football club with their friends.  Good food. Great music. Lots of fun.

Neil, how involved were you at this point? 

I wasn’t involved at this point. Stuart was booking the music at that time, working mostly with residents Chris Coco – who we also worked with on a DDC CD in 2014 – and Pete Gooding plus guests like Scott Martin (We Love), Glass Coffee (Singita), and Jim Breese (Balearic).

What made you decide to set up a more permanent base, at Dartmouth Arms? 

Stuart: Fred and I wanted to build something that had a longer term plan. It became increasingly difficult to make money from Dinner Dances and our pop up restaurants were always on short term leases. Dartmouth Arms was owned by a friend who wanted to get rid of it. We had a look at the place and the area, and felt we could make it work.

Where is the pub? Does the it have any history, stories attached to it? How did you find it? 

Stuart: Dartmouth Arms is a back street corner pub, tucked away between Kentish Town and Tufnell Park. It`s on York Rise. It has a terrific history as a well-loved and somewhat edgy community boozer – it could be quite boisterous at times – but has had a difficult time staying open over the last 10 years or so. It was saved from developers after a hard fought local campaign and seemed a suitably challenging and unlikely place for us to set up a home. When I first came in I knew it had bags of potential as a very new kind of community pub that would support good food, drink and music. 

A little Balearic trivia regarding the Pub, a certain Paul ‘Mudd’ Murphy used to live opposite and it was in fact his first London residence, living there with Stevie Kotey

Is it actually a pub, or a restaurant? Is it somewhere where you can just rock up for a drink, or like Spiritland, do you have to book a table and eat?

Stuart: It’s a community pub – with doors open to everyone – but it’s our idea of what a contemporary pub in London should be. A London community pub needs to be a place where people are welcome to work during the day, and in the evening be a relaxed, informal and friendly place to hang out and enjoy the company of friends and family.  Good food and drink are essential to that; locally brewed beers, quality wines, simple cocktails, a great bourbon list, and great food.  We have two food menus each day, one of dishes that are great to drink with, and another more geared to two or three course dining.

Good pubs, to me, should also have great music. Music is what binds everyone together into a shared drinking and dining experience and helps us to differentiate ourselves and tell people who we are and what we are about. Music is a reason to go to a pub and a reason to stay in a pub. We want people to come to the pub to listen to music, but equally we want people who are coming to primarily to eat and drink, to enjoy a sound that makes our pub stand apart from others.

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I was checking the site for details on your sound system – prior to the pandemic I was doing this series on “audiophile venues” – perhaps, hopefully in the near future I can give you a bit more of a grilling and include you in there – but who is the hi-fi nut? Who’s responsible for sourcing the gear? Can you briefly outline your set up, and perhaps identify one most treasured piece of equipment? 

Stuart: Neil and I started this journey when we first began working on Dartmouth Arms in 2018. The pub came with some Wharfdale speakers that looked great but sounded horrible. We then had the idea of building a vintage Hi-Fi system. We started looking at possible equipment, chatted to Audio Gold in North London, chatted to Johnny Hiller over at the Music Room in Potato Head Hong Kong, looked at what Spiritland and Brilliant Corners had done, and started finding our way into the world of Hi-Fi.  It’s been a huge challenge and terrific learning curve. Neil and I both know that we haven’t even scratched the audiophile surface – but that’s also part of what we are doing. You’ll find bigger sound systems, you’ll find ‘better’ and more accurate sound systems, you’ll certainly find more expensive sound systems. What we have at Dartmouth Arms is a home grown Hi-Fi sound system, and part of a never ending journey of tweaks and improvements we will continue to make as we learn more and more about what we are doing.

Neil and I have sourced almost all of the equipment together, identifying what’s needed and how we can keep improving things without breaking the bank. The set up is basically;

6 x Celestion Ditton 44s
2 x Celestion Ditton 33s
All powered by Quad 405 or 405-2 power amps
With a Nakamichi 610 pre-amp

DJs have Technics 1210s, an Omnitronic TRM-402 rotary mixer, and a DJ monitor made up of a Celestion Ditton 33 speaker powered by a Quad 303.

Daytime and early week playlists are made up of lossless digital music files and put together by Neil and linked to the system via a Pioneer NPO1 streamer.

Whilst I’ve really fallen in love with the sound of the Celestion 44s and the Quads – the Nakamichi 610 was the first bit of equipment we bought and really the whole system has been built around it. The Nakamichi  dates from 1976 was originally built to act a bit like a mixing desk for tape recordings, taking up to 19 different inputs.  Neil and I found it in a second hand audio shop in Ramsgate – where Stuart lives – called Island Vintage and we both fell in love with its dated sci-fi looks and, to be honest, the amount of knobs and buttons. We bought it without really knowing exactly what it would do for us but it really represented the kind of system we wanted to build at that time.

Nakamichi 610

We have a full diagram of the sound system on the wall of the pub, based on one of the many many sketches and diagrams I drew of the system as we were building it.  

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Can you tell me more about the Disappearing Dining Club mix series? How long has it been running? You’ve got some illustrious names up there – Phil Mison, Moonboots, Ray Mang, Pete Gooding… . Are these people all friends? Have they all played at the parties and / or in the pub?

Stuart: As soon as the sound system at the pub was up and running, it seemed an obvious next step to record sets and build a collection of mixes on Mixcloud to help us communicate not just what we were doing with music at the pub, but how important music was to Disappearing Dining Club as a whole. So we started posting regular mixes by Neil and our guests. Once the pandemic hit, the mixes became a way to build support for Dartmouth Arms and DDC so Neil and I asked everyone we knew to donate a mix that we would use to remind people how important it is to be supporting local businesses through the difficult times given to us by Covid-19. Pretty much everyone we asked said yes, and we are now posting SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL mixes every week.  Almost everyone who has given us a mix has either already played for us, is going to play for us, or we would like to play for us.

disappearing dining club Dartmouth Arms Support Colours v2-01 copy

Prior to the pandemic, how often would you have had DJs play in the pub?

Stuart: Every Friday and Saturday night, plus occasional Sundays. We’ve also had a couple of all-dayers with Phil Mison and Moonboots, with the two of them playing from mid-afternoon until midnight. We also co-host the York Rise Street Festival every September, which has two stages, an outdoor market and about 3000 guests.  Once the streets are cleared we’ll also host an after party, with Terry Francis playing at the last one.

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I know the pandemic / lock-down must be super, super hard. How have you managed to make it through? Have you been open at all? With restricted times, and numbers?

Stuart: We’ve been open whenever we can, and used the time to keep improving everything we do; music, sound, food, drink and service. In many ways we are a better business now than before the pandemic.  We have come on so far.  We just have to keep pushing and hope that the rewards will follow once this particular moment of history passes, which surely it will.

I see that you will be open over Christmas and New Year, are you taking bookings? Are you already fully booked – Everyone must be gagging for a good night out?

Stuart: Yep – we are up and running for Christmas and New Year and pre-sales are ticking over. There’s still a lot of uncertainty around, but I’m confident that if we can open, we’ll be busy and a great place to be. Neil and I are currently working on our collection of Christmas LPs for Christmas Day.

I know this is going to be pretty much impossible to answer – since the situation is constantly changing – but what do you have planned for the immediate future. How do you hope to move forward in 2021?

Stuart: Keep on keeping on. We will be hosting more ticketed dinners with guest DJs across 2021, with some really exciting bookings that we can’t yet talk about. Phil Mison and Moonboots will be back at the pub for sure, as soon as we can fix up the dates.  We recently collaborated with The Chill Out Tent on some audio and video streams from the pub – a series of fireside DJ sets that will be broadcast on Sunday December 27th – and we are certainly going to be doing more of these to go alongside what we are building on Mixcloud.  Neil and I also did a fantastic party in Ramsgate this summer, and we want to do a couple of those next year too, possibly with a duplicate version of the sound system we currently have in the pub.

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You can find out more about Disappearing Dining Club at their website and on Instagram and Facebook. Dartmouth Arms also has its own Instagram and Facebook pages. You can find all those mixes here, and contribute to that crowd-funder here.

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