The Punters Club Remembered: Pt 2
In the second part of his Punters Club retrospective, REN? SCHAEFER takes a walk down memory lane with long-time bar manager Mik Ruff and musician/regular Kirsty Stegwazi. Part one [here](/articles/4129579).
Mik Ruff is an interesting character. He spent 10 years behind the bar at The Punters Club, working in close association with band booker Richard Moffat, with whom he also formed two prolific and much-loved bands, Breatherhole and Disaster Plan. Mik eventually served as the venue’s bar manager. I caught up with Mik over a beer at the Old Bar one afternoon to reminisce about the old days:
You worked at the Punters Club for 10 years, most of it as bar manager. That is quite a long time to work anywhere. How did this come about?
The Punters Club band booker Richard Moffat was a mate of mine. We had gone to school together and started a band when we were 15, called The Rebel Guitarists. He had been booking bands at The Arthouse and later at The Evelyn. [Publican] Matt Everett pretty much poached him from there. Matt said, ?I’ll give you anything you want if you come and work for me at The Punters Club.? After Richard left The Evelyn, I probably wasn’t so welcome there anymore [laughter], so I followed him across the street.
This being the early 1990s, it was the golden age of share houses in Melbourne, where you could rent a room for $35 per week, and I could make enough money to live on by working as doorbitch at The Punters Club. I didn’t have much bitch about me at that stage, but pubs are a unique microcosm – they teach you either get a thick skin, or get out. If you didn’t, you’d be a crying mess every night. I then moved behind the bar and I ended up working there for over ten years, I think. I didn’t get a gold watch at the end, which I’m still a bit upset about [laughter].
Well, you must have liked something about the job if you stayed there for that long.
I had been retrenched out of a typesetting apprenticeship, if anyone remembers that industry. I was looking for something to do, and working in pubs was wonderful and provided a lot of things. I also started playing music more seriously around that time, and Richard and I formed Breatherhole. It just made sense to work in a pub that had bands seven nights a week. My boss didn’t have a problem if I said that I was going on tour for a week.
I got to see a lot of great bands coming through. I’ll always remember The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion playing there. That was just awesome. It was so packed that no one could get to the bars anymore, so I sat in the archway of the back bar and had the best seat in the house.
I had been sneaking into the Punters Club since I was 16. If you could run the gauntlet of the front bar, you could disappear into the rabbit warren that was the band room quite easily. Somebody would always buy you drinks. I remember seeing Frente and The Hollowmen there in the early days. This was even before Matt came on board. There were bands like The Widdershins. I call it [?The rooArt era?](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RooArt).
I was discussing with Mary [Mihelakos] that the Punters Club never got identified with any one particular style of music. Was that a deliberate decision?
That was largely Richard’s vision, his band booking principles and ethos, right from his days at The Evelyn. Before Richard took over at The Evelyn, the booker was this tracksuited, drug addled mess, whom you almost had to bribe to put on your band. Richard invested a lot of time and research into putting the right bands on. He would go to South By Southwest and always be aware of the latest things that were happening. When rock was at its lowest ebb, he started putting on electronic acts like Zoetropes and Clan Analogue. This was at a time when a lot of people were still quite unaccepting of that electronica scene. Richard put a DJ booth into the band room, so on Friday nights, after the bands finished, people would dance.
Then there was the ?What Is Music?? festival, which was all experimental music. The only other venue that put on this kind of stuff at the time was The Empress Of India. I remember seeing the guy from Volvox [Lester Vat] performing at ?What Is Music?? and it was like conducting a psychological experiment on the audience.
That’s right. It was just him on stage, repeating the phrase ?Why am I a pie?? over and over. With his obvious handicap, it seemed to be quite confronting to the audience.
Everyone was pissing themselves laughing first off, but then they all went quiet. After a while, people started wildly abusing him. It got pretty full on. I swear, I was almost crying. He was meant to play for 30 minutes, but he kept going for almost an hour.
?I didn’t have much bitch about me at that stage, but pubs are a unique microcosm – they teach you either get a thick skin, or get out.?
I remember somebody yelling out towards the end, ?OK, you can stop! You win!?
Maybe I was lucky that I had the luxury of being able to escape into the front bar for a while [laughter]. That audience reaction was amazing. It would have been interesting for a psychologist to observe the people in that room. Apart from those truly weird moments, the ?What Is Music?? festival also had some great musicians come through The Punters. There were people who had played with Zappa and John Zorn. They were really friendly.
The nicest people to deal with were the metal bands and their crowds. There was one night when the gay and lesbian ?Midsumma? festival was happening in Brunswick Street, we had Damaged playing, and maybe Blood Duster – full on hardcore metal. It was like two worlds collided [laughter]. But those metal audiences were the best, whereas the young punkers would kick in the toilet doors. There were lots of different scenes happening at the Punters.
One night, Weddings Parties Anything were playing, and somebody came up to the bar to let us know that the crowd had stomped so hard on the floorboards that a massive hole had opened up in the dance floor. The band was about halfway through their set, so for the rest of the gig I stood in the hole and made sure people didn’t fall in. It was crazy.
Something always happened when TISM played at the pub too. They destroyed the place every time. I remember one of their gigs in particular: There was a door between the band room and the front bar, near the pool tables, which was shut until there was no more door charge. That night I opened it up when there were about 10 minutes of the gig to go, and there were the TISM guys, two on the pool table, two on the bar, with no clothes on, just their masks, dancing away. I just went: ?Oh my god!?
At another TISM gig, the singer grabbed onto the suspended ceiling, swung off it, and pulled not just the ceiling down, but all the air conditioning ducts as well. There were all these metal spikes sticking out of the ceiling, so I had run and grab a ladder, place it in the middle of the room and stick a security guard on top of it to hold the roof up, just so nobody got poked in the head. TISM, bless their cotton socks, would always write a cheque for the damages after the show though.
There was the front bar as well, with a lot of regulars who pretty much lived there.
There used to be this guy called A.P. Johnson. I’d be working in the front bar and see him walking up to someone, going, ?Gimme a cigarette, or I’ll fuck ya!? He was a crusty old barnacle, that guy. He would find coins left on the bar and hide them under his bar mat. By the end of the night he’d have botted all these beers off people, but he’d have a pile of money under the mat. I’d ask, ?What have you got there?? and he’d go, ?You leave that alone!? One time, when he’d fallen on hard times, I was tipping out an ashtray that somebody had spilled a beer in, and A.P. groaned, ?Oh, don’t do that! I wanted to drink that.? Jesus Christ! [Laughter] A lot of those guys have since died. There was a guy called Danny, who looked like Father Christmas, with a big white beard. There were Red Wine Rob and Gary Stone. These guys added colour to the place.
The front bar was also where I met my wife. That was after I kept saying I was never ever going to meet anyone ever again, having had a bad experience after meeting someone at the bar. She didn’t come in very often, so it was a really long process getting to know Bridget. She was studying at university and she would only come in during the holidays, as I later found out.
What are your memories of the last night of the Punters Club, the famous 12-hour ?Last Drinks? gig, with bands like Gaslight Radio, Pre-Shrunk, Rocket Science, The Dead Salesmen.
I remember that we had pretty much run out of all beer at the end of the night. We had these plastic Carlton Colds in the fridge, some Guinness and some equally bad beers. We had run out of tap beer and there was nothing else to be had. I phoned Matt upstairs and he said, ?Look, just turn on the lights?, as we always do at the end of the night, but nobody wanted to leave. It was a beautiful moment when I slowly turned up the lights. There were people singing in the front bar, everything was gone and people were finishing up their beers for another half-an-hour. I took this panoramic photo of the bar and it was just wall-to-wall people.
It must have been quite an emotional moment to see the Punters Club closing.
You know, I had had my time. I was studying at the time, in preparation for a new career. Matt was going on to other ventures with pubs and there was the offer to work for him, but I’d had my fill of it by that stage. Maybe I was already thinking about getting married. Who knows? Managing a bar with a 3am licence meant that most nights I wouldn’t leave there until five o’clock in the morning. During summer I’d walk out and the sun was coming up, so it felt like I was missing out on a lot of stuff. These days I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning. My wife and I traveled quite a lot after the Punters Club closed and it always amazed me when people would come up and ask, ?Didn’t you work at the Punters Club?? It really annoyed my wife, actually. [Laughter]
Disaster Plan, the band that you and Richard Moffat formed after Breatherhole, played at the final Punters Club show in 2002. Did you consider getting back together for one of the reunion shows?
I hadn’t listened to any of our music since Disaster Plan finished up. I always felt a bit disappointed that it wasn’t as good as it could have been, but then I put all of the Breatherhole and Disaster Plan stuff on my iPod and had a listen to it and realised it was actually pretty good. A reunion was never going to happen though. Being in the band and booking venues always put Richard in an awkward position. I recall we played some shows at The Corner Hotel with Kim Salmon, which Kim had asked us to play. We were completely stoked, because we love his music, but all the fun was taken out of it, because people started questioning how we’d gotten those shows. Some of those comments may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it made it incredibly difficult to play at venues Richard was involved with.
[Mik goes on to mention that he has been writing a lot of new material, which he is due to start recording with engineer Greg Walker (Machine Translations) and a cast of musicians and friends from the Disaster Plan days.]
Lastly, I spoke with musician Kirsty Stegwazi. The singer and guitarist will be performing a rare solo set on the Sunday bill at The Corner, which was curated by Angie Hart of Frente. The show also includes The Fauves, Billy Baxter’s Hollowmen, The Glory Box and ex Died Pretty frontman Ron Peno.
Stegwazi has had a long and varied career in indie music, from her beginnings in folk-punk band The Bedridden, to a solo career that saw her signed to a major label before ending up on Richard Moffat’s Way Over There imprint. Her resum? includes a never-ending list of guest appearances, session work and collaborations with artists as varied as Magic Dirt, Paul Kelly, Archer Prewitt (The Sea And Cake), Art Of Fighting, Alastair Galbraith and many many more. Over the last decade, Stegwazi fronted The Bites and Hand Hell, and now lives in rural NSW, where she makes art, builds things and plays experimental music.
As a musician, how did you first become aware of he Punters Club? You’ve obviously had a long association with the venue.
I first heard about the Punters Club when I was a teenager, playing in The Bedridden. Coming from interstate, we knew that The Punters Club existed. I remember it with its old lay-out, with a tiny little stage in the middle of the room. We first played at the Punters in the late 1980s, to two or three people. We were on tour with all our equipment in a trailer that we dragged around the east coast. We played with Skullduggery, which was Juliet Ward’s band [Lighthouse Keepers, Widdershins]. I still have the poster. The Punters Club had its cult status even then. We knew we were in a city that had great music and was more amazing than Sydney. There was nothing like it in my small town of Adelaide.
Did you feel that there was some sort of community at the Punters Club?
Initially I had no idea, because I was really young and dazzled and really daggy, but I remember the bar staff were really friendly. We had no audience really, so to me it was a famous place that was empty. But it had such charm, I was so enchanted. We were in this incredible place, this music Mecca. Just from seeing all the posters on the wall you realised it was a hive of activity and was the epicenter of a lot of really interesting things.
I don’t remember who booked us, but they took a long shot on us. Richard Moffat took the Punters to greater heights still, especially by starting up the Way Over There label, which he ran from upstairs. By the time I moved to Melbourne, three years later, I was being included in this music scene and that was very exciting. I’d walk down from my house in North Fitzroy to play a gig, back in the days when you could still rent in that area, get drunk, and walk home with my guitar.
Lots of people went to gigs then. I remember being quite aware, even at that point, that we were onto something good, that it was a really healthy music scene and that something really interesting was happening, that it hadn’t been like that before, and that we didn’t know how long it was going to last for.
I played at the Punters Club as a solo artist, and with a lot of different bands I was in, supported other acts, and even played a residency. It was somewhere you could go where you would always know someone in the front bar, or you’d be interested in seeing one of the bands that were playing. The booking style was so majorly important to that, there weren’t any really dud nights, battle of the bands competitions, or covers bands. Quality was the style. You would see heavy bands from Geelong, or fluffy bands from Brisbane. A lot of touring bands passed through the Punters Club, which gave them somewhere to play and meet other bands, find new audiences. You could see music from everywhere at your local pub. It was educational as well as alcoholic.
Like a music school, but with beer?
Yes. Music, beers and boys.
What are some of your fondest memories of the Punters Club?
Jane McCracken’s CD launch, where the power blacked out on the Punters Club side of Brunswick Street and Jane played her last songs unplugged, by torchlight. Another time, the Australia Post mailbox outside the pub caught on fire and Nancy, the barmaid, ran out with a jug of water and poured it into the mailbox, saving the day. Then there was the time when I was flirting with a hot Geelong rock dude (I think it was mutual, but I’ll never know, no, probably not actually, ah, who knows) and a tough Geelong girl came up to me and told me to back off. [Laughter] Then they had those gigs a few times where the Evelyn and the Punters Club joined forces and had a shared or coordinated bill. Those were really fun. Another great memory was going to the front bar one Friday night with crutches cos I’d fucked my knee up again, and Joel Silbersher and Jim White tied lots of balloons onto me. It was somebody’s birthday party and being drunk and crippled, I was defenseless against the balloons.
?There weren’t any really dud nights, battle of the bands competitions, or covers bands.?
TISM did a ?secret? gig there, you know those warm up gigs that famous bands do? I think they busted onto a bill that I was playing too and we had no idea who the secret band was other than that they were famous, or thought themselves to be famous. When they played they trashed the stage and the ceiling and pulled the insulation out, including the air conditioning. I think they got sent the bill, but the next night, when I was back there again seeing bands, the guts of the air conditioning were still hanging out of the ceiling like some kind of silver intestines. Thanks, TISM.
So many times I cried at The Punters Club, when bands broke up and did their last shows there, like Sleepy Township and Breather Hole. I saw Little Ugly Girls one New Years Eve, possibly sharing a bill with Sea Scouts. I think it was the Punters? last NYE gig. I’m glad the Punters Club gave us advance notice they were shutting down and went out in style. It was an amazing era, carefully crafted by the management, the staff, the band booker, and the bands themselves.
Do you think that the Melbourne music scene at the time would have been the same without a venue like that, which was eclectic in a way the Tote, for example, wasn’t?
The Punters Club being so diverse made room for The Tote to specialise in heavy music, and to put on top class shows in the rock genre. They weren’t forced to take on the overflow of other styles of music. Both venues could do their thing and do it well and keep the quality up. It wouldn’t have been as good without that rapport between the venues. In the same way the Espy was really important. There’s definitely a correlation between the Espy turning to shit and less great, original bands coming out of St Kilda. That’s when the cover bands started. The consistency of the Punters Club provided a bedrock for a vibrant scene. Other venues like The Lounge came and went, or chopped and changed style, like The Evelyn. They lost their audiences and their bands.
What do you think of the reunion gigs and the line-ups for the shows?
They’re brilliant quality, fantastic! They drew me out of retirement for this show. How irresistible really – there are bands on the bill like The Hollowmen, that I didn’t even get to see the first time around. It’s a great celebration of a wonderful time, there’s nothing quite like it now. The elements that made the Punters Club happen just couldn’t collide in the same way now. I’ve never been excited about reunions, usually I think they are crap ideas, but it is a celebration of something that was really unique. Maybe some young kids will come along, young conservative liberal voting Melbourne Uni students, and realise how boring they are.
PUNTERS CLUB REUNION SHOWS
Saturday, November 27
The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
w/Spiderbait + Hoss + Little Ugly Girls + Guttersnipes + Kim Salmon + Tirany + Spencer P Jones
Sunday, November 28
The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
w/Frente + The Fauves + The Hollowmen + Kirsty Stegwazi + The Glory Box + Ron Peno