3rd July 2015
Bristol institution The Fleece has risen to become one of the city’s best-loved music venues. As well as hosting some of the biggest names around, it has also put on some of our favourite gigs of recent years. Bristol-based photographer Alec Searight headed down to The Fleece to take an intimate portrait of the place, as well as catch up with owner Chris Sharp.
So you’ve recently celebrated your five-year anniversary as owner of the Fleece. How’s this journey been for you?
In short – through the mill and back! When I took on the venue in May 2010 it was a real leap of faith. To be frank I had no idea how to run a bar and very little experience with booking touring bands. I’d spent my whole life playing music for a living and had booked every single gig I’d ever played myself but this was mainly in pubs so it was on a completely different level. I’d not even had to deal with agents before. I knew enough about the music business to give it a go and had some good contacts and great advice from people around me who know about how the business works. Being in The Blue Aeroplanes has been really helpful. Gerard who runs the band and is the front man also lectures at BIMM so his help and advise was crucial, especially during the first few months. I feel like I’ve learnt a hell of a lot since then!
We know you’ve done a tremendous amount of work on the building in order to increase capacity. Do you have any other future changes in mind?
There’s a few bits and pieces but 90% of it has been done now. We’ve tripled the size of the ladies toilet from 3 cubicles to 9. We’ve built a brand new gents toilet. The dressing rooms are complete and we now have 2 backstage toilets exclusively for the bands to use plus their own private shower. In the main room we’ve upgraded the old analogue mixing desk and monitor desk with state of the art Midas Pro 1 and 2 digital desks. The lighting has all been replaced and upgraded. We now have a removable wall for club nights to divide the room into 2 area so the dance floor is separated from the chill out and seating area at the back. The old main entrance lobby was demolished to increase the capacity with the old doors now sealed up and a brand new entrance at the back of the room (far more logical then entering in the middle when people are trying to watch the band!). We have giant screens to advertise upcoming shows or for movie nights and the bar itself has been completely upgraded with 3 main serving areas. All the cellar cooling systems were replaced in the first year too.
When you took over management of the Fleece, did you see yourself developing such a passion for this venue?
I was very passionate about it from day one. I always loved the venue when I used to come here in the 80s and 90s. When you literally dedicate your whole life to something that level of passion can only increase as the years go by. It’s been 5 years now and it’s completely taken over my life. It’s impossible not to be passionate about something which you spend every day taking care of and trying to make the best of. If a football player plays for the same club all of his life it’s the same thing. The Fleece means as much to me as Liverpool means to Steven Gerard or Man Utd means to Ryan Giggs.
What does this venue mean to you? What do you strive for it to represent?
It’s a venue which Bristol is really proud of. To me that says everything. We are so lucky to have a place like this. I have friends over from abroad sometimes and they are always blown away by the place. Sometimes friends visit from places like Switzerland and Belgium and they all say how amazing it would be to have a venue like The Fleece in their own countries. It represents the feeling of a real gig. There is no corporation behind The Fleece. It’s run by a musician. That’s essentially the vibe I want to get across. The very first thing I did on the first day I was here was put a big poster of Bill Hicks behind the bar. It’s my own personal statement. It says we are not “corporate whores” (as Bill would say) and it sums up the passion with which the venue is run (to quote Bill again) “play from your fucking heart!”
Business aside, you’ve been running this venue for five years now, putting on several gigs a week. What have been your highlights?
There have been way too many to list. I’ve probably seen about 75% of the touring shows over the last 5 years and it’s hard to remember everything. I guess the stand out ones are on a personal level. The bands I grew up with who used to be huge who I never dreamed I’d end up seeing in my own venue. Bands like The Psychedelic Furs, Cast and Killing Joke. I’ve also met a few of my heroes along the way. I’m a huge comedy fan so The Idiot Bastard Band was another highlight for me (Ade Edmondson, Roland Rivron, Phil Jupitus and Neil Innes on the same stage!). I really enjoyed The Rutles too. We showed “All You Need Is Cash” on the giant screen before their gig. That was great! The Dub Pistols blew me away a few weeks ago. They were really nice people too. The band who surprised me the most were Terrorvision. I was never really a fan of their music so I wasn’t expecting much but they were absolutely amazing live and totally blew me away. Frank Carter was another highlight both with The Rattlesnakes and Gallows. He’s just got so much passion and energy! I guess my personal highlight has to be playing on stage myself with The Blue Aeroplanes. I was a fan of the band since 1986 and bought everything the ever released and only joined the band in 2008. There’s not really a bigger buzz than playing in your favourite band in your own venue!
With so much competition in Bristol, how has this affected you as an independent music venue?
Things have definitely got a lot tougher over the last year. Since Motion started to move from dance music and club nights into more live gigs as well as expanding by opening the Marble Factory next door we have lost loads of shows. I suppose it’s a good thing for Bristol to have as many venues as possible hosting gigs every night but I have to be honest – they have hit us really hard. There are so many gigs coming up which would normally be in The Fleece which are now going to The Marble Factory that we’ve had no choice but to start putting tribute bands on a couple of times a month in order to survive.
This building has been a music venue for over 30 years now, somewhat of an institution. Why do you think it’s been so successful? What makes this place so magic?
It’s been a venue since 1982 so we’ve just hit 33 (a third of a century!). The Fleece is actually the ground floor of a 3 storey building called The Wool Hall. It’s about 180 years old and was originally a sheep trading market (hence the name). I think the thing that gives it so much character is the fact that the room itself is so old. It’s also a perfect shape. One big square room with a nice high stage so everyone gets a great view of the band plus one of the longest bars in Bristol so everyone can get a drink without really having to queue…and of course The Fleece wouldn’t be The Fleece without those poles!
What advice would you give to anyone just starting out with their own music venue?
Don’t try to do everything yourself. Get advice from as many people as possible and filter out what applies most to you. Some corners are really not worth cutting. Get a good bookkeeper and make sure you keep things really well organised from day one. You don’t want to end up drowning in paperwork when you should be booking bands!