London’s influential music hub began life around 1904 as a chocolate factory. In the 1990s and 2000s it operated as Caribbean social club. We pick up the story in 2012, with this excerpt from Emma Warren’s new book
It was never meant to be a venue. It was just supposed to be a warehouse where Alexis “Lex” Blondel and likeminded friends could build a recording studio, experiment with slide projectors and do whatever the space allowed. The rent would be covered by the studio, running film nights and occasional parties, and by renting space to friends or dancers or filmmakers. Lex would find characters who understood the potential of the place, who didn’t mind too much about the dust and the grime, who could afford the rent, and wanted the kind of spacious DIY living they associated with a London that was fast disappearing.
Problem was, you can’t legally have people living in a warehouse without all the right permissions. So a decision was made: all the rooms within the place would have to be rented out as artists’ studios. A foundation had been built, though, of a community who was there day and night, who cooked for each other and hung out and played music together, endlessly.
Lex is a wiry and naturally wired individual, all vacuum-packed energy and fifty million ideas going on at once. He arrived in London from the western suburbs of Paris in 2005. He was already a fully paid-up music obsessive, dragging his mates to gigs in Paris since he was old enough to make it past the bouncers. He was studying sound design at London Metropolitan University and moved into the old Bank of Scotland building in Elephant & Castle as a property guardian. Guardianship is essentially monetised squatting, where landlords engage an agency to find people who are prepared to live in an empty space for (marginally) sub-market rent. Guardians secure the property from squatters under rules that generally forbid children, pets or parties, and they have to be prepared to move out quickly, usually with only two weeks’ notice. On the upside, property guardians – in the early 2010s at least – had space. In Lex’s case, this meant 250 square metres of “pure fucking wicked warehouse in the centre of London.”
The thing I got hooked on was the freedom, that I could do whatever I wanted.
Lex had grown up on jazz and hip-hop but London helped him see a connection between urban warehouses and the early ’80s post-punk which had been made a generation before: buildings, he realised, could colour a whole genre. He also had a ready source of early ’80s kit including a battered Audio Technica four-track and a Boss delay unit, thanks to a friend whose parents were 1980s pop stars Thompson Twins. Lex and his friends jammed, and generally made the most of the freedom that the building offered. At the same time he was spending as much time as possible at Colorama, a squat also known as the Library Street Community Centre, in an old print factory in Southwark. The people living there fixed the plumbing and electrics and patched up holes in the roof. They ran a library and “infoshop” alongside a bring-what-you-can people’s kitchen, a theatre, bar and art gallery. There was a studio in the basement and a space for occasional raves along with bedrooms upstairs. “It was just the most insane bit of communal effort to do something great for themselves and I was just so inspired by it,” Lex says. “Part of the inspiration [for TRC] is me experiencing those things and hanging out in those spaces.”
Lex’s stint as a property guardian didn’t last too long. He was kicked out for throwing a party for his 25th birthday, leaving him homeless. He went from living in a big warehouse in the centre of London to a grotty “gas-smelling” basement in Hackney Wick to finish his studies. “The thing I got hooked on was the freedom, that I could do whatever I wanted,” he says. “People seeing that space and getting excited by it because they didn’t have it. It was the first time I’d been in the middle of that and it was the most exciting, exhilarating, experience ever. So losing that, it was dark times. The gas-smelling basement? That wasn’t life.”
Uncharacteristically discouraged and depressed, Lex found an office job at a record label, lived on a boat on the Thames for a while, and moved about a lot before quitting the job without even saying goodbye to anyone. The only upside was putting on little hangs for a handful of friends with one turntable and a projector and some slides salvaged when his university began throwing them out.
Unlike the Mellow Mix crew who were trained as builders, electricians and plumbers, the early TRC salvage crew trained mostly at the school of YouTube tutorials.
Lex spent the next few months knocking on doors and crawling the internet, looking for the next spot. He was scrolling through Gumtree when he came across a vacant building. There were a handful of badly-lit phone pictures, showing piles of rubbish and a few balloons that retained just enough helium to remain airborne. The description read:
LARGE ROOM AVAILABLE. SUITABLE FOR MUSIC SCHOOL.
It was like digging for a rare record on eBay and finding an overlooked listing that has a typo or has been listed in the wrong category. Lex looked at the photos and then the map location, where Dalston turns into Stoke Newington. It was Mellow Mix, a Caribbean social club and rehearsal rooms where he’d gone to a few parties, a few years ago.
He called William Autmans, a Belgian sound engineer friend, and they jumped on their bikes, headed up Stoke Newington Road and arrived at the front door. The door was black and inconspicuous. It was any unassuming building, both utterly normal and full of latent magic. There was space. Tons of it. It was exactly what they were after and Lex immediately went into overdrive to see who he could get interested, who could help bring the building back to life. It’s the kind of thing he excels at, seeing the potential of something and conveying his hundred-mile-an-hour energy to everyone else so they’re pulled into his slipstream and before they know it they’ve knocked down the walls, carried in the amps and strung up the speakers.
Bringing the building back to life required a lot of collective labour. Unlike the Mellow Mix crew who were trained as builders, electricians and plumbers, the early TRC salvage crew trained mostly at the school of YouTube tutorials. “I remember knocking walls down myself to build a studio with Lex,” says Craig Mather, who was there from day one. “Completely unprepared, falling down. You just hit it, and something fell. Hit it again. That’s kind of how the whole building was built. One of our friends was here for three or four years, he built all sorts of stuff. Everything works but it’s slightly wrong.You switch the light on here and the shower comes on over there.”
There’s a video of Craig knocking down the walls between the toilets and the lift shaft wearing his suit after a day at the office. “He almost killed me in the process,” says Lex, “because the thing fell on me when I was filming. There’s a wall I hit with a sledgehammer and was like, oop, ah okay, maybe I’ll skip that one. There’s still a big hole in it.”
TRC and all places like it are centres in this sense. They hold a community together and allow it to evolve.
Back in 2012, the building still didn’t have a new name. It was listed as Foulden Works, but that wasn’t the building’s real new name. Names have power, they signal where we’ve come from and where we’re going, and this needed something that would harness all the right forces.
The real name was waiting for them. Lex and his then-girlfriend were walking down the Kingsland Road one Sunday afternoon when they passed a shop. It was any old shop, nothing special. But this day, something caught Lex’s eye. He stopped. There was an ancient blue-and-green Polo Mint dispenser, sat outside the door like a time traveller from the 1970s, or a final remnant of the road’s bygone sweetshops. He’d never seen it before, despite walking past the shop hundreds of times. The dispenser’s Miami Vice-style signage declared three words: Total Refreshment Centre. It was immediately clear that this was the building’s new name. It worked perfectly. The words were striking, percussive, peculiar, and of course, even though Lex didn’t know it, the dispenser echoed Henry Davenport’s sweetshop and confectionery factory. “The Mint with the HoleTM” was about to bestow its blessings upon a space – a hole really, given the rubble and the dead rats – surrounded by reams of sugar-spun music.
There were once loads of centres, refreshing or otherwise. Most areas of the UK had multiple community centres; Sure Start centres for toddlers and day centres for old folk; youth centres for teenagers. The youth centre where I grew up was called the Phoenix. It’s now closed, like 600 other youth centres which disappeared nationwide between 2012 and 2016, according to research by the YMCA.This cost 3,500 youth workers their jobs, and removed 140,000 places for young people to hang out, safely, in the warmth, with good company. It’s worth noting my wise friend’s comment when I told him these numbers: the centre in any structure is what holds it together. TRC and all places like it are centres in this sense. They hold a community together and allow it to evolve.
It’s probably not possible to overstate the unstructured forward motion that propelled the early days of TRC. Much of what made it transformative to the people who enjoyed it and felt at home there, also meant it was destined to be shut down. Pretty much everyone involved mentions the challenges of being part of an organism that was simultaneously the best and the worst of all worlds. It was the best because of the music, the freedom, the connections and the amplifying benefits of having a studio, a venue and a musically literate community in one expansive space. It sucked because of a frustratingly basic lack of organisation; of endless circular conversations about important matters that wouldn’t get resolved, and because of the human cost of supporting a constantly shifting ecosystem.
Writer and publisher Rob Greer had been hanging out at TRC for some months when he walked past on the afternoon of the New Year’s Eve 2014, so it seemed reasonable to see if they needed an extra pair of hands. The door was open, as usual, and he walked in to see Lex with his head in his hands.
“Hey man, how’s it going, do you need any help with anything?” Greer was thinking he’d be sent out to buy some lemonade or something.
“Oh my God I’m freaking out: nothing’s ready and people are arriving in a few hours. Have you ever built a lighting rig?” This was fairly standard. “When I think about Total Refreshment Centre I think about nourishment,” says Rob Greer, he of the lighting rig. “Why do people form communities? You can buy food, live in a flat, but there’s another need, for a social centre. As everything is dismantled and those kind things no longer exist, it’s like a beacon of hope.” He pauses. “Maybe that’s a bit dramatic.”
What’s really incredible, when you step back for a moment, is that Lex and his friends created such a vast number of connections and interactions with so few resources. They collectively created concrete realities (walls, studios) and creative outputs (music, artwork) and the conditions for a range of people from different backgrounds to experience the transformative powers of doing stuff together. They did this by using the materials, skills and person-hours they could gather together themselves, often at considerable personal cost. It might not be dramatic, but it is impressive.
July 2018. Lex is sitting behind the drums next door to the TRC recording studio. The sun is shining benevolently through the window that looks out across the BP petrol station forecourt to the blue-and-white-tiled Aziziye Mosque over the road.
He delves into his bag, from which he pulls out a small stack of A4 paper. They’re his handwritten notes and scribblings from 2012 when he was newly in possession of the keys to Foulden Road. One lists long-gone venues like Herbal, Barden’s Boudoir and Dragon Bar and links them to a music style that’d best suit each day of the week.
The other is a statement in late-night biro. It reads as follows:
Foulden Works intends to restore Stoke Newington’s original spirit such as the ever-evolving Colorama in south London, the mind-expanding Cafe Oto in Dalston and the exotic venue Passing Clouds.
It will try to stay away from the clichés of Shoreditch bars where the style wins too often over substance.
The premises, by its nature, can be used for a plethora of activities from live music to film, photo shoots, dance. A café area is where all the creative spirits meet. This is where the magic happens.
This, I think to myself, might be what someone of a more cosmic bent might call “manifesting.” Or perhaps it’s just how things work.You think about what you want to do, you come at an idea with the right intention, you bring people with you, make them believe it’s possible, and it can happen. Then years later, after inventing something, you can look back and think, like the chocolate factory proprietor might have done in 1904, leaning against a steel pillar: “I did this. It was always meant to be like this. I made this happen.”
Copyright © Emma Warren/Sweet Machine Publishing. All rights reserved.
Header image © Cover design: Brian O'Tuama, Photographers: Petra Eujane and Rosie Reed Gold.