How The Chemical Brothers Brought Belfast Together
Local DJs recount the dance duo's mythical gig at Sugar Sweet and the club's lasting impact on both rave culture and social divides across the capital city
Speaking to The Chemical Brothers' Tom Rowlands' ahead of the dance stalwarts' Belsonic gig this week, he wasn't able to recall much about their last Northern Irish gig in Portrush in 2008, but he did have fond recollections of their first – at David Holmes and Iain McCready's legendary Sugar Sweet club in Belfast in 1994 when they were still known as The Dust Brothers.
His recollections were hazy – 'ending up in a hairdresser's after is the main thing I seem to remember – and a good night all round!' – but it's testament to the enduring legacy of Sugar Sweet that Rowlands, who confesses that he's not great at recalling specific nights in his band's past, should bring that gig up unprompted.
In Belfast and beyond, the club, which ran in the Art College for about four years and was key in the development of the city's club culture, has given rise to its own mythology. Famously, Orbital named their track 'Belfast' after a memorable gig at the club, and to this day it's discussed with awe by those who were there, and with envy by those who weren't.
Belfast-based DJs Paul Hamill of Psycatron (originally from Dundalk) and Timmy Stewart (from east Belfast) fall into the first group. Both were 19 in 1994, obsessed with dance music and already avid record collectors and amateur DJs.
They would meet at Sugar Sweet not long after the Dust Brothers gig, and both would go on to make their mark as professional DJs in the 2000s and 2010s – always ready to acknowledge the influence that Belfast's early 90s dance scene had on their lives.
Culture NI spoke to both Paul and Timmy – and DJ/promoter Iain McCready – to get their recollections of the gig, the club and the legacy, in their own words.
How it happened...
Timmy Stewart (TS): Sugar Sweet was the first proper club that we went to. It was a tight bunch. Myself and another guy called Glenn went to Newtownbreda, so there was a wee crew from there, and we were friends with a few guys from Inst and a big crowd from Grosvenor, so there was a lot of us about the same age, very impressionable.
Paul Hamill (PH): Sugar Sweet was probably my second proper club. I was at The Orb in the Point Depot in Dublin as one of my first raves, and a friend of mine who worked in the Art College introduced me to Iain McCready. He was raving about this band called The Dust Brothers and saying, 'You've got to come and see these guys'. Of course, I'd never heard of them – most people hadn't back then. So he invited me up to Sugar Sweet to check out the band.
TS: There was a Dust Brothers EP out at the time with a track called Chemical Beats and I remember that track being really big in Belfast. A lot of different DJs were playing it, and it was a really big track at Sugar Sweet. 'Song To The Siren' as well – I think they were the two big tracks that got them booked to come to Belfast.
Iain McCready (IM): The way I remember it was, Holmer was over in London and he'd been to see Andrew Weatherall, and Weatherall was playing that Dust Brothers 12", 'Song To The Siren' - it sampled The Cocteau Twins. So Holmer came back with one and he got me one. It was very similar to when Orbital came over. Same thing, we had a couple of copies of 'Chime' and that's how we ended up booking Orbital, off the back of that record.
Going to the club...
PH: It was around the time of the IRA ceasefire and it was all very exciting – getting the train up, finding the Art College and arriving there and there was a massive queue outside that you'd never seen the likes of before.
TS: I think the doors to the Art College opened at nine, and everything was over by just after one in those days. But people used to go down and start queuing at seven o'clock at night. I think the capacity was around 450 or 500, and you would have had close to 1000 people in the queue, trying to get in.
PH: The butterflies and excitement – are you going to get in? What's it going to be like? Any nerves or apprehension that you had of coming up north at that time, as soon as you got there and got into the building and past security, it evaporated. You're walking into this intense atmosphere and there was a glow of positivity in the place. Everyone was just there, having a good time.
IM: I remember [their set-up] being very minimal. There was very little [on stage] and there were only two of them. They looked like f**k all but they made a right racket! They started with a breakbeat and ended in a big long, f**ked-up [makes squealing synth sound] – salute to the DM boot! It was such a mad sound, and then a big boom, right up your hole.
TS: 'Chemical Beats' was their big hit, the one that everybody knew, and it was a bit of a crossover track. There was a bit of anticipation – would they play it? Would they not? I think they got about two-thirds into their set and then they dropped it and I remember the place absolutely exploding. People went crazy for it.
PH: The atmosphere, the crowd, the music – and seeing a live electronic band for the first time, when electronic bands just weren't really a thing aside from your Depeche Modes and your New Orders. I'd never seen a band destroy a club like that.
PH: I don't think the production in the Art College ever really been equalled. I know that technology has got better but there was something about that rig. It was really, really powerful.
IM: The sound in the Art College was immaculate. When Weatherall came over he couldn't believe the sound that was coming out of the place. It was cheaper to hire the Art College [itself] than it was to hire that sound system! That's how ridiculous it was.
PH: One of my fondest memories of the night was towards the end – the lights had come up and David Holmes was playing this track by 'Hardfloor' called Fish And Chips. It's a 140bpm acid techno track and it's got a massive breakdown on it with big snare rolls, and as the crowd was going crazier and crazier I just looked around the balcony and there were people nearly ready to throw themselves off either side of me! I remember looking around behind me at all the faces up in that balcony and thinking, 'This is it. This is what it's all about'.
TS: The Dust Brothers absolutely destroyed the Art College, it was very refreshing. I remember that one and the Scott Hardkiss one as being quite different. Those guys were incorporating breakbeats into their music, which was very powerful, whereas normally in the Art College it was very 4/4.
PH: It was overwhelming, because at that stage it was all very new and very innocent to me, and a lot of the things that were going on in the club, I was oblivious to. I was into the music before I realised that there was all the stuff that goes along with the music, if you know what I mean. I was very naive, very young and innocent, and it completely blew my mind. Looking back at that, 22 years later, through my DJing and the music I've produced over the years, so much of my career has been influenced by what I experienced on that night.
IM: We had a record shop down in Ann Street, that was above a barber shop, and we had the whole top floor of that building. We set up in a bay window for a couple of parties and played all night in there. They always came about impromptu, we just whipped a wee sound system together. There must have been six or seven hundred in – it was hectic! Someone nicked yer man's clippers from downstairs and I had to order new ones at £350 a pair! Nightmare... But it was a wicked night, it went through to the next day.
PH: In those days, every second house in our street had a set of decks in it, and it would have been straight to Shine or wherever that would end at half past 1, and then back to somebody's house, hauling a set of decks around the Holylands and plonking it in somebody's house, or we'd all go back to our house and it would turn into an all-night DJ marathon with endless amounts of DJs waiting their turn to play records.
TS: [Later on], The Chemical Brothers were doing this breakbeaty, grungy, indie dance music thing, and they had such breakout success that they became something that was a bit more chart-friendly. I remember appreciating what they were doing and thinking about how important they were for dance music, but it wasn't really in line with what we were playing as DJs.
PH: After the gig, I remember getting their first EP on the Junior Boy's Own label which had 'Chemical Beats' on it, and I was into that straight away. I was really into the first album and drifted away from them for a while but got back into them these last few years. They've always been there.
TS: I don't want it to sound corny but that was the first time that we came into the city and were mixing and going to the same venues and partying with people from the west and north of Belfast. Everyone who was there says that it was so important as a massive catalyst for what was going on. It wasn't the only place where there was progression, but it was a place that wasn't segregated. Suddenly, your friends broadened right across Belfast, and people started going out with each other. It was important.
PH: I was coming up from the south to live here at a time when things were starting to settle down but it was still quite edgy and volatile. But the one place where I never felt threatened or intimidated or uneasy was in the clubs of Belfast. Nobody cared what your name was or how you pronounced your Hs. We were all in it for the love of the music. It is true and it can't be overstated – it really did bring people together.
IM: Why do people still talk about Sugar Sweet now? Because we were all growing up together through it.
The Chemical Brothers return to Belfast to play Belsonic at the Titanic Quarter on Friday, June 10. Tickets are still available to book via www.belsonic.com.