Staff at The Forum in Tunbridge Wells are still waiting for a phone call from Liam Gallagher, the Oasis frontman, confirming his purchase of the venue, following his altercation with barman Spike many years ago. Spike committed the cardinal sin of refusing to sell Liam cigarettes and alcohol after closing time.
Oasis are just one of the many, now, world famous bands who cut their musical teeth on the so called ‘toilet circuit’ and have played at The Forum over the years. Others include Green Day, Mumford and Sons, The Vaccines and Muse, who played to a nearly empty room.
Other visitors such as Coldplay, Adele and Bloc Party all suffered the indignity of having their support slots being ignored and talked over by gig goers only there to see the headline act. Little did they know...
So, how did a small venue as influential as The Forum come into being and what makes it so special? I spoke to co-owner Jason Dormon, with a little help from colleague Patrick Dighton, to find out more.
The Forum opened in 1993, after Jason and his team secured the lease on the building on Tunbridge Wells common, which was famously a public toilet in its previous life.
Jason and friends had been putting on local gigs in pubs, clubs and village halls for several years, before being kicked out of the club they were running by the brewery. They spotted The Forum, sitting forlornly on the common, realised its potential and the rest is history.
To quote Jason, “Over 20 years and 20,000 performances later The Forum survives on the volunteers that work there, the musicians that play there and the audiences that listen there. 11,000 watts of amplification fill a bare brick room just big enough for a 250 standing audience, facing the metre high stage. Musicians, poets and comedians vent on battered Shure microphones, on both national and international tours.
Local performers depend on the venue too, often playing their first ever gig here and then returning to support other bands, or to play headline shows. Like all unfunded entertainment establishments in the changeable music industry, The Forum has had to adapt. Years of peeling paint and sweat soaked plaster was stripped and the main hall refreshed, the P.A. system overhauled and a full digital recording studio constructed during 2012. All of these improvements were done by the people who work at and use the space and facilities. Artists can now rehearse, record and then perform their next album here live.
There is a bar – but this isn’t a pub – and when the doors open, with everyone singing and dancing to their new favourite band, only an arms length away, it becomes clear this is far more than just a building.
It is very reassuring that other people feel the same way and The Forum was awarded the ‘NME’s Best Small Venue’ in 2012. It is with this kind of support, and that of Independent Venue Week, that we can help raise awareness of The Forum and the handful of independently run venues that remain in the UK today.”
Twenty years of running a small venue brings its challenges and not always from the most obvious places either. Jason told me of band members falling through holes in the stage and of having to find an ironing board for Vic Reeves and Ian Astbury (of The Cult), just before they went on stage, only to see them use it as a surfboard!
Then there were Goldblade, a band from Manchester, who used a fancy wireless bass guitar, only for it to pick up a Chinese Elvis impersonator from a local restaurant better than it did the bass itself.
And let’s not forget Hampshire born Carl Barat, of The Libertines, refusing to speak to anybody apart from Max, the sound man, for the whole evening. Not only that but he insisted in speaking in a Scouse accent too.
Funny moments aside, keep a venue like The Forum going in these tough times isn’t easy and The Forum have come close to closing throughout their history.
They are now faced with another threat, this time via a planning application. A block of flats may be built near to the venue, which would almost certainly bring noise complaints in the future. The venue have already started campaigning about this, using the existing Music Venue Trusts ‘Agent Of Change’ petition, which would cover just this kind of planning application.
You can sign that petition by going here: Change.Org/SaveMusicVenues
(Incidentally, the Music Venue Trust, who we’ve been featuring in The Stinger in recent issues, was started by Mark Davyd, who just happens to be a co-founder of The Forum and who is still involved with the running of the venue today, alongside Jason and Richard Simm)
And that’s not all, as Jason told me, “One of the biggest problems is being many things to many people. For example, unblocking toilets then two minutes later having a meeting with the Council in smelly clothes, before repairing the PA system, whilst taking a call from someone that wants to talk to the accounts dept. Days like that, whilst trying to hold down a proper job, make it challenging.
The Internet has made times challenging too. The "lump in the throat/hairs on the back of the neck" experience and the mystery of discovering a new band has, I feel, been diluted by the Internet….its the anaesthetic overpowering the aesthetic.
Being close to closing and a quest for magic moments keep us all going though.”
And keep going they fully intend to do. Plans include “to carry on experimenting and getting involved with whatever we can. We will be trying new things over the coming year.”
Two new ideas already prove that. Firstly The Forum have just started their own TV channel on YouTube and are uploading a new show called ‘The Forum This Week’, weekly. It is well worth watching too.
The Forum has also recently launched ‘Showcase’, a new initiative to discover and help new talent from across the South East, including Hastings.
This will consist of dedicated gigs, showcasing that new talent. Bands will get a live recording of their gig on a USB stick. The band can then take it away, or it can be mixed and mastered at The Forum’s own on-site studio.
This is not a ‘pay to play’ gig either, as so many are these days. Bands will be paid regardless, but will get more for any extra fans that they attract to their gig.
Bands who impress and can prove that they’re willing to work hard, may be invited to record, free at The Forum and even be signed to their own ‘Font Hill Records’ label. These recordings will then be pushed out to record labels, agencies etc, all of whom are on The Forum’s extensive contact list. Plans also include getting these new bands onto national and international tours as support acts.
If you think you fit the bill, contact Andy at: firstname.lastname@example.org
So, what of the current music scene in Tunbridge Wells? Jason had this to say, “There are many pubs and cafes putting on acoustic and covers shows/jam nights (sounds familiar). But none dedicated solely to original music of all genres, such as us. There are many talented songwriters and musicians in the area, but maybe we are lacking some diversity and cohesion.”
Names he did mention who worth checking out are, Slaves (who recently played The Union Bar), Ugly Love and Jason Plant.
Finally I asked Jason if he had any advice for bands playing The Forum in the future. He told me “Just be careful about snogging the bar staff, who have a cold, during sound checks.” Apparently a prominent female artist did just that, with unfortunate results.
You have been warned!
(I’m sure many locals reading this will make the obvious connection between The Forum and The Crypt, a venue which played its own part in the career of many of the major bands mentioned above. If nothing else it just reinforces how much The Crypt is still missed and how badly we need a similar venue in Hastings today. Maybe one day....?)
You can find The Forum online via their website: http://www.twforum.co.uk/