Sullivan

by Madeleine Laing

If you live in Brisbane and you like to dance and party, there’s a lot you gotta put up with: an alternate club scene run by young white promoters who openly degrade women but pass it off as ironic lad culture; an entertainment precinct heaving with packs of jacked dudes slurring catcalls, and a government that thinks it’s cool to turn tens of thousands of drunk people out on the streets at 1am — to presumably quietly wait in 100m long cab lines for 45 minutes on their best behaviour. And that’s as a cis straight white woman — for everyone else, I can’t fucking imagine.

But in the last six to twelve months, there’s been something else. Club nights, events, shows and parties based not on movie references, ’90s dress up themes or drink specials (though don’t worry, these still dominate), but on an idea of safety and inclusivity. Events that have come as an embarrassingly revolutionary breath of fresh air.

This new wave of openness has come from the dedication and intimidating energy of people like phenomenal DJ, partier and agitator Sarah Scott (Sezzo), promoter and booker Uda Widanapathirana, and organiser and radio announcer Grace Pashley, among heaps of other legends. But although plenty of people have been working to make Brisbane a safer place to have a good time for a while now, the gradual acceleration of interest and support from both the general music community and venues themselves has a lot to do with one person.

Early this year, musician, DJ,event planner and promoter Sullivan Patten arrived back from Brisbane after six years in Berlin. And with fresh eyes, saw a fucking big problem.

“I came back and immediately felt like the music scene was run by this handful of dudes. And I’m lucky ‘cos I had connections from being in I Heart [I Heart Hiroshima, the indie rock band Sullivan sings and plays drums in. They were most active from 2006–2009 but have just released a new EP] and people still remembered me from that, but mostly these core group of dudes at these venues just booked their own friends and I was really grossed out by it. I saw that there there was no kind of outlet or community where people that didn’t adhere to this boys club mentality could meet up. There didn’t seem to be any kind of solidarity or anything.”

This rang pretty true for me. Sure, women and non-male identifying people have been griping amongst ourselves over white wines or in corners at house parties, or sitting by the river in New Farm park on a steaming afternoon being drooled on by a magnificent greyhound (as Sullivan and I did for this interview) forever, but there hasn’t been so much a feeling of community as a shared resignation. We live in Brisbane. Things are fucked. We take it and act like we don’t care or we stop going out to clubs. And for people in the more punk and underground scene like me, that didn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice. Stick to getting subtly dismissed and undermined by your boy pals rather than openly harassed on the street? Fine. But what about the people who actually like to have fun? Well Sullivan did something for them that seemed like the smallest act, but ended up having a huge effect.

“I just cannot guarantee the safety of anyone. You do everything you possibly can to make it that way but a guaranteed safe space in this day and age, in Fortitude Valley, just doesn’t exist.”

“I started a Facebook group [called BNE ain’t a boys club no more]. It was such a tiny step but it had such a great response that I was like, fuck, people have just been wanting an outlet or a space where they can feel like they count. That’s caused such a huge change even in the short time I’ve been back. People are organising parties that are openly and actively inclusive.”

I’m in said facebook group, and I’ve seen it — everything from people looking for supports for tours they’re putting on, to housemates, to graphic designers, to just a place they can go to vent. It seems so obvious, but it’s made an incredible difference to see all these other people in the city who are not only having these conversations but are actually doing shit about it. It’s such a positive space, where these things can often devolve into negativity and infighting. It’s important, however, for this positivity and enthusiasm to be tempered with a kind of realism and, as Sullivan says, not turn issues of inclusivity into a hot party trend or fad.

“Personally I’ve never billed a party that I’ve done as ‘inclusive’ or as a ‘safe space’ or anything like that, for a number of reasons, mostly because I personally can’t guarantee anyone’s safety, as much as I’d like to be able to, and also because I feel like it’s in danger of becoming one of those buzz word things where they’re just trying to get people in and appear to be more ‘woke’. My promotional style obviously encapsulates all that stuff without explicitly labelling who can and can’t come.”

“I just cannot guarantee the safety of anyone — you do everything you possibly can to make it that way but a guaranteed ‘safe space’ in this day and age, in Fortitude Valley, just doesn’t exist. That’s just personal, I think it’s amazing that Passiona exists, and Open House and Femme Fatale (all club nights with focuses on inclusivity) and I’m really close with Grace and Sezzo and all those people and what they do is so great. It’s really important in some spaces to be really blunt about these things, it’s just not my promotional style. Also, I feel like there’s a kind of othering that happens when you see that list ‘this is a safe space for:’ and then it lists all these ‘others’. That’s my feeling. I’m like, fuck that, we shouldn’t have to differentiate ourselves anymore.”

Sullivan is necessarily pragmatic on the effects that can come from a movement that’s been visibly around for such a short amount of time — and the dangers of venues trying to capitalise on this new demand for safe spaces.

“It’s not enough for The Brightside [Brisbane venue, does mostly emo stuff and themed club nights but also occasionally rock and pop shows] to just put up a sign saying ‘this is a safe space, this is a gender neutral bathroom’ or whatever — cuz you think doing that means a trans woman can just rock up to your venue on Warner Street [a hectic part of The Valley] and you can guarantee her safety? I wouldn’t do that. Have you talked to your bouncers? Have you talked to your staff? I appreciate the effort, but it’s such a difficult line to tiptoe.’

But by being such a confident, open voice for issues of gender in the Brisbane party scene, Sullivan is becoming someone that venues turn to to make people feel more welcome, for the right reasons or wrong. Their pragmatic enthusiasm and proactivity is catching, and they make you feel like you’re part of the conversation — important in a place like Brisbane where people can be very defensive about being talked down to in any way.

“People ask me about my opinion on things just because I’ve been open about giving my opinion. I approach things trying to be informative rather than being attacking or derogatory. I can just see ways people can be better, and I’m open about how I feel about things and how things can be changed.”

Photo by Amelia Shaw

It’s Sullivan’s love for and knowledge of this city, combined with the confidence that comes from making it on your own in Europe, that has made all the difference.

“There’s so much positivity and inspiration in potential growth [in Brisbane]. In Berlin everyone has done everything — nothing is extreme and nothing hasn’t been done and yeah you can live this creative life, but that’s all changing. When I first moved there none of my friends had jobs. Everyone would fart around and drink beer in the park on a Monday. But now you have to work — you can’t exist on the amount of money you could have five years ago.”

“There’s so much stuff going on every day of the week and that’s really cool but it’s also super competitive. In the six years that I was there it only became more and more so. I’ve never solely lived off music until I moved back to Brisbane this year. And that’s ‘cos I came back and saw these holes in the market and the culture that needed to be filled. And those holes and those opportunities just didn’t exist in Berlin.”

We’re all gonna benefit in the next year from Sullivan’s Berlin connections, not content with being one of the town’s most in-demand DJs, making their own live-mixed electro pop music, and recording and playing again with I Heart Hiroshima, in 2017 Sullivan will also be showing off their skills and impeccable taste in tour promoting.

“I’m bringing out this tour called ‘Yo! Sissy’ which is like a Berlin queer music festival. It’s been running for the last two years and I worked on it in 2015 — it’s had Cakes Da Killa and Le1f and stuff and it’s been this incredible festival, music and art for all queer people. So I’ve been putting together a little ‘snapshot’ tour for them.”

(Well, most of us are)

“I couldn’t get a Brisbane show together actually ‘cos I couldn’t get anyone to buy the show and I couldn’t front the money myself [cue some bitter laughing from me and Sullivan, ‘cos, of course, trying something new in Brisbane is like pulling teeth — or pulling that third gram out of a venue owner’s vice-grip], but it’ll be in Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne.”

Even in Sydney, with their much publicised venue-destroying lockout laws, it seems like queer club and party scene is one area that remains largely unaffected, even thriving, because it’s run by people who are used to working against adversity and aren’t afraid to do things a bit differently. Sullivan agrees.

“You can find ways to make it work — doing shit like Berlin does on a Sunday afternoon, finish it up at 11. That would be fun, especially in summer.”

Sullivan is an adaptable and terrific DJ — they can make people dance, play weird parties or art galleries, but even so, it’s rare to see someone take off so hard and quickly in Brisbane, while also being outspoken and staying true to themselves, and I wonder whether the kind of success they’ve had since coming back this year came as a surprise to them at all. They say kinda, not really.

“I worked really fucking hard. I have crazy expectations for myself anyway and knew I’d have to work super hard — but also I’m a pretty personable person so was able to make a lot of connections since being back and with that and a lot of hard work and persistence I managed to meet and get involved with the right people. That’s really what we [non straight white men] all need to be doing — connecting and passing shit on. I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to help make happen.”

A small, obvious idea, but Brisbane’s a small town, and it’s had a huge impact on the way we think about partying.