Save The Fleece: An Interview With Owner Chris Sharp

 

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Just five days after Bristol’s most famous music venue decided to go public with news regarding a new housing development that could compromise its future, it is business as usual at The Fleece as I meander through the busy, youthful crowd in attendance for the evening’s ‘The Next Generation’ event. A frequently run showcase of fledgling local talent, The Fleece’s TNG evenings offer teenage bands and artists the opportunity to perform on a stage once graced by the likes of Oasis, Radiohead and Jeff Buckley.

Making my way through the bar and upstairs to the venue’s main office, I enter the hub of an operation that has seen The Fleece re-emerge in recent years as the city’s premier music venue. Fresh from an interview on ITV news and on a day when coverage of The Fleece’s uncertain future reached a nationwide audience on the NME website, I sat down for an extensive chat with owner Chris Sharp. Seemingly unwearied by his recent rounds of interviews and galvanised by the battle ahead, he was in verbose form as we talked The Fleece past and present, and the recent change of planning laws that has left its own future, and the future of live music venues across the country, in the balance.

So Chris, for how long have you been the owner of The Fleece?

Four years…… yesterday.

Oh okay, happy anniversary. How did that come about? What first attracted you to take over this place?

It was never a plan to own a venue; I was quite happy living in Switzerland doing pub gigs for a living, playing bass with the Blue Aeroplanes. We had a gig in Texas for South By South West….

Oh wow, you made it to South by South West?

Yeah two years in a row in 2009 and 2010; we were on the plane out there and I was sat next to a guy called Rich Mundy who is our sound engineer for the band but he’s also the in-house guy here. We were just chatting about The Fleece and he was telling me how crap it was these days and that it used to be great; and I used to come here as a kid so I remembered how good it used to be. Rich told me that The Fleece was up for sale so I was like “great,” and as soon as I got back to Bristol I went down the estate agents and it had been on sale for about a year. People had tried to buy it but they wanted to do the wrong thing with it; at the end of the day, the head landlord, the guy who worked above it and designed it in the first place didn’t like some of the ideas that people had. The company Mitchells and Butler who had the lease were losing so much money all the time it was on the market; they were losing tens of thousands of pounds so originally they wanted £50,000 for the lease but by the time I went in there, literally a week before, they dropped it to a pound.

A quid?! Nice, that’s a bargain. So over the last four years, how would you sum up the experience of owning The Fleece?

Oh, it’s been amazing. I’ve learnt loads; I believe that we’ve done a lot of good for the Bristol music scene. The first thing we did is we cancelled all the tribute bands; we struggled for the first six months and then I got Tim in as our in-house promoter  because he’d been promoting in Bristol for years, and that was kind of the turning point really because he had all the contacts to get the proper tours in. We realised that we had to invest anything we made with the venue because there were no backstage toilets or showers; you know, the main toilets were terrible so basically we spent all the money on the venue, changed the entrance, increased the toilet size and got the capacity up from 330 to 450 in December. Now we’ve got tours during tour season pretty much seven nights a week; in the summer obviously you have to fill it with local bands as well. There’s club nights on Fridays and Saturdays until 4am and it’s at the point now where it’s really started to turn around and make some profit. There’s less things now for me to spend the money on because we’ve replaced the mixing desk, we’ve done the toilets, we’ve done the backstage and now it’s really starting to generate some money.

So, the recent news regarding the housing development has come just when you are at your peak with The Fleece really?

Yeah, four years of work to turn it around and everyone now sees it as the best venue in Bristol; when I first took it over I’d ask students to name five Bristol music venues but they didn’t even know where The Fleece was or hadn’t even heard of it; it was amazing for such a great venue to have lost its way that much. And we’ve got it back in that Number one position because it is such a good venue.

Do you get to watch many of the gigs here at all?

Yeah, I’m probably here four or five nights a week, obviously I’m up and down stairs all night but anything that catches my ear I might go down and check it out.

Over the last four years what is the highlight in terms of a band that you’ve seen here? Have you seen anyone on their way up that then went on to be quite successful?

We had James Vincent McMorrow here back in February 2011. At the end of November in 2011 we had Emeli Sande which was about six months before she sang at the Olympics; so she’s gone on to be huge. But my favourite gig from the last four years I’d say was the Psychedelic Furs just because I was a fan when I was a kid and I couldn’t believe that they were here. But we’ve had some weird things like Erasure doing a world tour warm-up which sold out in 90 seconds a couple of summers ago.

When did you first hear of the plans to build the flats across the road?

I first found out about it last September when they approved……….Basically, to explain a bit more of the process; with government relaxing the planning laws last year, from the 30th May 2013 to 2016, there’s a three year window in which anyone that owns an office block can change it into a residential one; it used to be difficult because of all the planning laws but they’ve relaxed it. There’s only three grounds in which the local councils can turn it down – land contamination, flood risk or highways issues; they should have included noise as the forth thing but didn’t. That’s the loophole that has been opened. So when they submit this using this window of relaxed planning laws, the local council have to say “yes.” I mean, we spent £5,000 on solicitors’ fees fighting that initial….it’s called the ‘Prior Approval Notice’ and as a result of our fight then, which was done in private, we didn’t go public with it because it wasn’t the right time. At that time it was approved as we knew it would be, but because of the fuss we made, Bristol City Council put a load of conditions on it where they had to take noise tests and, if people complain the noise has to be greater than it already was. The whole soundproofing of the flats inside have to be measured against the noise tests that were taken; all these conditions were put on. It went quiet for a few months and I thought well maybe that had scared them off where they thought “this is too much hassle, let’s try something else.” Then on 28th March, they submitted their full plans which I didn’t know about until the end of April because they didn’t put notices on the lampposts and do what they should’ve done. It wasn’t done very well; they kind of sneaked it through. I got a letter from the council at the end of April about four days before I was going off on holiday for two weeks. The decision was due whilst I was away so I went to a planning consultant who managed to get it put back to the end of May, which is where we are now. I said “when I get back from holiday we’ll have a massive media campaign,” so literally 5 O Clock Thursday afternoon last week (22nd May) we went public with it and said “look this is a massive problem; it’s in the public domain, it’s on the council website, it’s out there but no one knows about it.” So we made a good job of letting people know by starting the petition using our Facebook and social media and we got 35,000 signatures in five days.

Yeah, that’s really good; I know the campaign has had some really good coverage

Yeah, so what we are doing is letting people know this is going through; it will be approved but we have to make sure there’s as many restrictions as possible on it. Basically what happened is they agreed to all the conditions so set up a load of noise tests over a weekend, over 3 days, and took an average reading. The mics were in the wrong place; it was just not done properly. Fortunately, above The Fleece is another acoustic engineer who’s a friend of mine so he read the noise report and just dismissed it as rubbish. We’ve just had news today that the council have agreed that the noise report they did is inadequate and has to be redone. This means now that the whole thing is going to a planning committee which is great because that means it is a public debate; so basically when they announce the date of the planning committee meeting into this application, anyone can go to it; so we could potentially have 35,000 people going down the council house with placards. Which is great; that will get us more publicity and puts more pressure on the council to do the right thing. Like I said, when I say “do the right thing” that doesn’t mean that they can throw out the plans and say “you can’t do this”; what they can do is say “right, you can do this but that’s the noise test that’s been done, it’s very accurate; it is quite loud, you can’t open the windows, the windows have to be sealed shut so it has mechanical ventilation. You have to remove the balconies that are being planned on the external wall…..” So we can insist on all this stuff; it might be that, with all these restrictions, they think “we not going to be able to sell these flats because we can’t open the windows, it’s next to a live music venue.” So, the only hope of it not happening whatsoever is for the developers to decide it’s not worth it.

So if all the conditions are met and people still move in and eventually complain, does that mean that they will have less authority in their complaints?

Well, it depends on how successful we are with our campaign to get as many restrictions on their rights as possible. At the end of the day, if somebody wants to complain about noise and they’re persistent, the council have to then issue a noise abatement order on the venue and then if you don’t abide by it you get a fine of £20,000.

Is it just a singular person who has that power, if that one person chooses to make complaints?

Yeah, if one person wants to keep complaining persistently; if 20 people complain occasionally, it’s about the same; but with 80 flats 20 metres away from the venue, you could have 50 people complaining all the time and then we’re finished because we’d have to have noise limiters, probably the club nights will go because we’ve got noise until 4 o’clock in the morning on Friday and Saturday plus we have all day festivals with twelve bands on Sundays; all these things will be happening when people are at home. So on Fridays at 5 o’clock the sound check starts, two hours of really loud sound-checking in an empty venue reverberating around, that’s probably the loudest part of the night. Then at 7.30pm the doors open, up to 450 people arrive, most of them stood outside having a cigarette. Then the bands are on for two hours at full volume, then the club night starts at 11pm until 4am, the doors are opening and closing all the time with people in and out. You’ll have at 4 o’clock in the morning maybe 150 people outside the venue having a cigarette, really drunk and being boisterous; we’ve done that for 32 years and it’s never been a problem because nobody lives here but with people right outside now, they’re going to start complaining. So this is where we are really with it.

Have you spoke to Major George Ferguson about this? Is he on your side?

Yeah, we were sat here chatting for half an hour and he’s totally behind us. He was saying that you can try to get them to put terms on the lease where they are not allowed to complain about the noise or they sign an agreement where they say that they are aware that they live next to a music venue. Also, the council have said that they need to prove that the noise is louder now than it was before they moved in; if we get a really good noise measurement test done with readings, we can prove that basically it’s not louder than it used to be. So I’m hoping that these things will stack up but, you know, if somebody signs this thing but five years later they want to sell their  flat…..if you’ve bought a £300,000 flat in the centre of town and get sick of the music and it’s gone up in value, you put it on the market and people come to view it, you’re not going to tell them about noise problems because you want to sell it for the maximum profit; that’s how people work. So then the new people move in who don’t really know what’s going on and think “blimey, that’s a bit loud, I’m going to ring the council.” So, you can’t control everyone that lives here.

So, once the target is reached on the petition, do you know what the next step is after that?

It’s not a case of we get to X number of people to have won our campaign. Basically, I set the petition up in a way that was deliberately worded so it wasn’t too contentious – “Do you support The Fleece, do you think it’s an important part of Bristol culture? Are you worried about the threat from these flats? And if you are, sign it.” So originally I wanted 20,000 signatures; if you go to a meeting with your local councillor and say “thousands of people in Bristol love The Fleece” they’re just words, they don’t mean anything; I could pluck any number out the air. If I go in and say “35,000 people have signed this in the last week,” that’s a lot more real than just sitting down and going “I think 10,000 people love us”; so it’s done its job already. Obviously the greater the number, the more effective my argument. I decided to increase the target to 100,000 because if you get to 100,000 signatures you can call a Common’s debate. Ideally what I’d like to do is have a debate in the Commons about the change to the planning law. It’s too late for us but there’s venues all over the country; if we can get that loophole closed and add noise issues as one of the reasons for local council to turn down the prior approval, then it’s going to help other venues in the country from being in the position we’re in now. I’ve kind of moved the goalposts quite a lot because of the amazing response we’ve had. So there’s two things now: we’re fighting our own cause by getting as many restrictions on the new flats and now, because of the campaign and the amount of interest and support we’ve got, I’m thinking it would be nice if The Fleece was representing all the venues in the country; we’re further down the line than any of the others with this particular issue and I can see a lot more of this happening over the next two years.

So you think that this case is important in terms of what follows?

Yeah, I think it is vital.

Finally, with The Fleece being one of Bristol’s most famous and enduring music venues, what would you say makes it so special?

It’s a combination of loads of different things.  The building is 200 years old; it used to be the wool market and was called The Wool Hall – that’s why it was called The Fleece and Firkin originally. It’s a big square room with no nooks or crannies, everybody can see the stage; the stage is really high. The bar is massive and goes down the whole side of the venue so you can always get served.

Yeah, it’s never a problem getting served here.

The thing is, this is my business and all the things that piss me off when I go to a gig, I rectify them here. I don’t like waiting ten minutes to get served so I make sure that for a sold out gig, I’ve got seven bar staff. So there’s that. Also, the shape of the room, it’s a nice high ceiling and the sound is amazing.  If you’re in a band and you play here, you’ve got toilets and showers backstage and a great backstage area with three dressing rooms. The loading; if you arrive and park outside, you open those doors and you’re three metres from the stage. Plus there’s the legacy; the fact that all these bands have played here. You get a band like tonight at TNG, you’ve got a 14 year old on stage and it’s like “Noel Gallagher has stood on this stage, Thom Yorke has stood on this stage.” Out of all the biggest bands that have come out of England in the last 20 years, probably 60 or 70 percent of them have played here on their way up.

It’s good that The Fleece is also part of the community. With St Peter’s Hospice for example it’s really good that you show your support by hosting the fundraising gigs and getting the bands to play for free in order to generate funds for the hospice.

The thing that separates us I think is that a lot of the venues like the Academy and stuff are owned by corporations and they have a chain; the security are not very friendly, the beer’s really expensive; it’s a bit of a cattle market whereas this is owned by a musician and somebody that’s still in a band. Because it’s not owned by a corporation, it’s got that personal touch.

***

Before I shake his hand and leave the office, Chris tells me the story of placing a Bill Hicks poster behind the bar being his very first action when he entered The Fleece as owner in 2010. Bounding down the stairs and in the direction of rookie reverberations emanating from the stage, I see the poster and, considering his anti-establishment, anti-commercialist tirades, the late, great American comic feels like an apposite talisman for the fight that lies ahead.  “Wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit” reads the poster and, as revealed to me by The Fleece’s owner, the prospect of these words remaining visible to anyone being swiftly served a pint at the venue’s lengthy bar, is a sure sign that Chris Sharp abides at the helm of this wonderful place for live music.

Sign the petition now! https://www.change.org/petitions/bristol-city-council-save-the-fleece-from-closure

By Scott Hammond

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