Belfast Funk & Soul

Founder Marty Lish on the enduring appeal of good time dance music as the Belfast club night celebrates it's fourth birthday

DJ Marty Lish can reflect on what has been a positive four years for Belfast Funk & Soul. Having started as a one-off tribute to mark the anniversary of James Brown's death, Lish's funk, soul and disco-themed club night has steadily developed a solid reputation.

Lish's retro selections continue to attract diverse crowds – most recently evidenced by the sell-out crowd for Belfast Funk & Soul's 4th birthday party at Aether & Echo, featuring a DJ set from actor and soul enthusiast, Craig Charles.

With plans for a regular slot at the same venue muted, and international acts signed up to DJ at forthcoming shows, the BF&S train shows no signs of stopping. Speaking to Belfast Music's Andrew Lemon just before the 4th birthday show, an enthusiastic Lish took time out to look back and think forward.

How would you describe Belfast Funk & Soul?

'A retro rhythm night that gets your legs fizzy and dancing shoes dizzy.' Though my twitter bio says headmelter/sweetheart and I think that's an apt way to describe it, too. 

How did Belfast Funk & Soul get started?

In December 2009 I pitched the crazy idea to two friends that we should put on a soul night to mark the passing of James Brown. It was £150 to rent the room, so we each chipped in £50 and took on different roles, including artwork, organisation, promotion et cetera.

We didn't really care too much about the outcome, it was just something fun and different to do and we were going to enjoy the experience. We were kind of shocked when people showed up and really enjoyed themselves, so after that we decided to try and make it a regular thing.

We pitched the idea to a couple of bars and in late February the following year we had our first monthly slot. My two friends have subsequently moved away to become proper adults, so I'm left here trying to convince myself that this DJ malarkey is far more important.

What have been some of the highlights, and lowlights, of the last four years?

Highlights have been the Glasgowbury Red Bull stage and supporting Vintage Trouble, as well as our first birthday at the Crescent Arts Centre, which to date has been our biggest gig yet. But it nearly turned into a lowlight after our posters were deemed 'littering' by the council. There was a discussion about cancelling the day before. Thankfully the issue was resolved, but it was a tense 12 hour wait.

We've always had an abundance of posters with great artwork, so it was sad when the law changed and any posters that were put up illegally resulted in the venue getting a black mark on their drinks license. I was a guest on Radio Ulster's Nolan Show to speak out about how small independent nights can't afford the license for advertising et cetera. Thankfully, Nolan seemed on my side.

What's it like playing to a room full of people as a DJ?

There's a buzz created by fear. 'What do I play next that's just as good?' It keeps me alert and on my toes, and I suppose that's the buzz I get out of it. It's great seeing people enjoy the tunes, but more so the type of people who are dancing to those tunes. There's no precise demographic at Belfast Funk & Soul, so it's cool having a wide range of people show up to share the same dance floor.

Are there any other club nights in Belfast or beyond that you've taken inspiration from?

Any night that has an interesting or unique idea is something I get inspiration from. I usually can't adapt the ideas to BF&S, so luckily I can't kick myself for saying 'Why didn't I think of that?' But it does motivate you to think outside the box. It takes a lot of effort to keep a night going, but I enjoy the challenge and I think that's part of the reason why we're still around today.

Your approach to who DJs at BF&S is unique. It's not all about inviting big name guest DJs...

For the first couple of years we would just have regular punters come in to guest DJ and do about an hour of tunes at the start of our nights. These were folk who just wanted to take a stab at DJing, or just wanted to play their favourite funk and soul tunes to a room of people. It was a cool experience for them and it's how I started off DJing, so I always enjoyed returning the favour.

We've also had a few established local DJs on who had their following firmly rooted in the dance scene. They got a kick out of coming and playing to a different crowd, and from the opportunity to play a different genre of music that they love.

BF&S just celebrated its fourth birthday. Have you been surprised that the popularity of the concept has endured?

Not really. People are always looking for something different to do on a night out, and I think that's what BF&S delivers. Trying to do different things or seek new methods of promotion has helped along the way. For example, the t-shirts with the logo on them are selling quite nicely, and that's nearly shifted it to a brand.

It's a far cry from the original idea of starting a one-off James Brown night, so who knows where BF&S might lead to next. It's a genre of music that's never really going to go away, in my opinion, and there are new fans being created all the time. So the popularity is there, you just have to chip away to reveal it.

Some might argue that funk and soul are dated genres. Do you think there are enough acts breaking through these days to keep it relevant?

I would consider Pharrell to be a great soul artist. His music is deeply rooted in Motown/Stax. I'd like to think he'd agree with me if the question was ever popped to him. However, 'modern' soul, like Pharrell's music, can have blurred lines (get it?), and can easily get mixed up in the alternative or pop charts.

Bruno Mars' music is very similar to soul musicians from yesteryear, but it would raise a few eyebrows if I played his tracks at my nights. My point is that soul music is still very relevant, it's still being played on the radio and being bought by consumers, it's just taken on a new form. It can always be found hidden behind modern sound production and marketing.

Some people seem to think that the club night scene in Belfast isn't as healthy as it used to be, despite the fact that BF&S remains popular, and the likes of Twitch, DNST and several other music promoters are currently active in the city. What do you think of the 'scene' at the moment?

I do find with the scene that venues are a tad afraid to mix things up, and who could blame them? Money is tight. Staying in their comfort zone and letting the customers know what to expect is fine and dandy, but what happens to the punter who doesn't like repetition? This is why it can be tough for a funk and soul night to fit in.

However, increasingly bars are playing these sorts of tunes to their punters. I'm thinking The National, Chelsea, Albany, Laverys. They're not 'nights', so to speak, but people seem to enjoy the music and bars are happy to advertise it, which is great for me. People might generally shrug when they think about funk and soul, however they will recognise it, and then mostly likely dance to it.

What do the next four years hold for BF&S?

Well Aether & Echo have given it a new home and a monthly slot with a lot of backing. There's a budget to try new things and bring over some interesting acts, so I'm really looking forward to this new episode. I really have hand it to the A&E guys, they're open to new ideas and willing to take a chance on trying new things.

I pitched the idea of Craig Charles for the 4th birthday to a couple of places and they weren't too respondent. With A&E, I barely finished my sentence and they said, 'Yeah, let's do it'. I even suggested that we might not pull it off, and they convinced me it was a great idea. They were right, too. 200 tickets were sold before the night.

What is it that motivates you to keep BF&S going?

The fact that it's the only funk and soul night around. It's fun to do. It helped me get my foot in the door with so many things – with other DJ slots and spouting my ideas – so I can't walk away from it now. It's still going after four years, so I must be doing something right. Right?

Visit the Belfast Funk & Soul Facebook page for information on forthcoming club nights.