A Conversation With Marcus Harris, Promoter and DJ at White Heat

Madame Jojos

For over ten years, White Heat played host to the likes of Lorde, Sky Ferreira and Disclosure in Soho’s Madame Jojo’s. The venue was controversially closed at the end of 2014, after having it’s licensed revoked. I sat down with White Heat promoter and DJ Marcus Harris, to talk about the closure, White Heat and the future of Soho.

How did you feel when you heard the news that Madame Jojo’s was closing?

I had a suspicion that it probably would get shut down. Obviously, the timeline of events started on the Thursday when this incident happened with the baseball bat and the security.  I found out on the Saturday that there was some sort of ‘thing’ going on at Madame Jojo’s that caused it to be shut for the whole weekend. I contacted Madame Jojo’s and said “what’s the problem?” and they said “yes, we’ve got a plumbing issue and we’re looking to be open on Tuesday at the latest.” Tuesday rolls round and it’s still not open and it’s still ‘flooded’. Eventually, a guy from the council turns up and sticks a section notice on the door, saying that there was an application for the removal of the license. So something had happened here, that isn’t to do with the plumbing, and it’s getting shut down.

We’re getting pretty nervy about the whole thing now; we had three months of bands booked. No one was being straight with us. My immediate reaction was to be angry about it because we had to cancel all of this stuff. Then we started speaking to the security in the local area, and they told us everything that happened in the incident. We realised that this place is not getting re-opened.

We spoke to the management and they said that the council are looking at whether it can re-open while they decide what to do with the license. They wouldn’t re-open until they had all the findings, which would have been a month after the incident. I just had this feeling that it wasn’t going to get re-opened.

When we got the news.I felt just a bit hopeless about it, and pretty upset to be honest. I was angry up until the moment that I found out that it was truly done, and that’s when I was upset. That’s when I was like “we’re never going to put a party on in that place again”. We had been in there for ten years on every Tuesday night, a seventh of that venue was basically ours.

Then it turned quite cathartic because everyone was talking to me and asking me how I felt about this whole thing. Everyone was heaping praise on the venue and on the night and everything we have achieved there. Then I was upset again because it meant so much to people.

I remember the first time I ever went to a club was to see Sky Ferreira at White Heat.

A lot of people say stuff like that and that’s really cool.

Madame Jojo’s was almost a ‘magical’ place; I had never seen anything like this before. 

The whole thing with that venue is that it was such a unique, special place because it looked like what you expected Soho to look like: kinda grotty, sleazy and a bit opulent. There was something about Jojo’s: you went there and it was like what Soho is about.

There’s not really anywhere like that in Soho, and so Jojo’s is a massive loss. It’s iconic to Soho, and there isn’t much left that’s iconic. Soho is the most corporate place in London; it’s as corporate as Oxford Street. There’s nothing particularly natural about it.

The increasing rent prices probably haven’t really helped.

At the moment they’re kicking everyone out of Berwick Street. They’ve put the rents up and a lot of the places have shut.  Anything that is interesting is just getting pushed out. Black Market, which was an iconic house and garage record store, recently shut. The point of Soho was that there were interesting places to go shopping. If you take all the interesting stuff away, you’re going to ruin it for tons of people.

It’s almost an extension of Oxford Street then, perhaps the Oxford Street Village.

I think the official line is that they want to turn Berwick Street into the new Carnaby Street. Carnaby Street is shit though, it’s just corporate. There are a few cool shops down there but it’s pretty boring and average.

Madame Jojos

So, why do you think White Heat and Madame Jojo’s worked so well?

They complimented each other. The venue was kinda weird and underground, and lawless enough to have a night like White Heat. From our point of view, the punters thought the venue was weird and different, and that’s what the night and the music were about.

Also, at the time, Soho was the place to go out. There was a lot of cool pubs around; everyone would start at The Astoria and then go to White Heat after. In the last five years, with everything shutting, it was a bit more of a struggle to get people to come to Soho.

Was it hard, in the end, to run a club night in such a competitive area?

Running White Heat at Madame Jojo’s was not an easy proposition. It was difficult to get people to come to Soho. I don’t think we were any worse at what we were doing; people were just becoming less and less familiar with Soho. We still had good bands playing, I just think people were struggling to understand the idea that Soho was an enjoyable place to go out.

Do you think that the only reason it still has some vibrancy is because people are hanging on to the Soho of, say, twenty years ago?

In a way, yes. I don’t really know who’s hanging on anymore. I think we were one of the last truly interesting places, and we were bringing new music to Soho every Tuesday night. Clubbing-wise, there’s nowhere else that does that.

It’s almost more of a stopping point now, or somewhere you’d go for a quiet drink. 

There is one interesting place left, and that’s The Edition Hotel. They do loads of interesting nights there. It’s a very cool place.

Where do you think people are going now?

Everything has shifted east. The West End is now the Shoreditch triangle of: Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch High Street and Old Street. It’s where everyone goes on their Stag and Hen Dos, they don’t even do that anymore in Soho.

That happened because it’s cheaper to live there, and as that got more expensive, people moved even further East. Then it started moving to the South, because there was nowhere left to go.

Dalston is where Soho was like thirty years ago now.

Dalston doesn’t have the cultural history that Soho has. It’s only really in the last ten years that it’s had that taken away from it. I think Soho was a place where people chose to do things. Dalston only exists by necessity. It could run into problems in the future because the residents aren’t really ready for the amount of nightlife that is going on.

Madame Jojos

White Heat has since moved to The Lexington in Islington. Have you noticed a difference in the crowd?

Not massively. With White Heat, we always got people in from all over the place. That’s still true at the moment, at The Lexington. The interesting thing about White Heat is that, since moving it to a Friday, a lot of the old regulars have come back. If anything, the crowd is more the same that it ever was. Saying that, Angel is a bit like Soho in the sense that they’re both quite corporate. The Lexington is more honest: it’s a music venue first and foremost, with a good boozer attached.

Do you think White Heat would ever come back to Soho?

If it was as it is now, no. Seven or eight years ago, and it would have made sense. If there was that music community, with other clubs and venues, it would make sense to move back. I don’t see that happening unless there’s some sort of nuclear crash that brings property prices down.

Finally, what do you think the future is for Soho?

It’s going to get gentrified out of existence, it’s going to become another footnote on the history of London. It’s going to be a memory of a time when you could do interesting things and be around interesting people. It’s a postmodern re-telling of history – that’s all it’s going to be. It’s going to be a bit “ooh isn’t this trendy,” when no, it’s all owned by a massive conglomerate. It’ll have no real heart to it. I just think the whole this has become sanitised; there’s nothing risky about it anymore.

White Heat is now on every Friday night at The Lexington. For more information, click here.

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