Traversing Belfast's Techno Spots with Marion Hawkes
Move over Berlin, techno has found new breeding ground. We catch up with Marion Hawkes – record head, Sound Advice founder and head of queer night Ponyhawke – to chat about what makes Belfast one of the most exciting cultural scenes in Europe.
DJ, vinyl enthusiast and “record pusher” Marion Hawkes bought her first record when she was 16 “after saving pocket money, buying bog standard Sound Lab decks and a handful of records from Dr Roberts (UR, Jeff Mills & some UK house labels),” she tells us. Being a shy kid, her addiction to records gave her an outlet, and her dedication seems to have paid off as Marion is now one of the most well-respected names in Belfast’s nightlife and creative scene.
Belfast is known for its underground music movements, from the infamous punk era during the troubles and the acid house raves of the 90s spearheaded by David Holmes, to today’s techno/electro moment. Admittedly, the relatively slim demand for genres like grime, hip hop and drum and bass leaves room for more growth and development. The small and constantly growing nature of the city's nightlife landscape is exactly what makes it such fertile ground for emerging talent. “There's a heap of talent coming through,” Marion tells me, “and it's looking really healthy for the future.”
Many of these emerging artists flock to the newly renovated Banana Block – where Marion’s record store Sound Advice is housed – to play, punt discs and shuffle feet. “Marion is the right person to run that store,” local legend Timmy “T-bone” Stewart tells us during this year’s AVA Festival. Marion, who stands at the centre of Belfast’s electronic scene, has earnt herself this reputation due to the time she’s dedicated to, and experiences she’s had, building musical relationships with Northern Ireland’s most innovative and legendary names.
East Belfast, like many new cultural spots in the port city, “is steeped in industrial history, with its rope works, mills and shipyard (famous for the Titanic),” Marion explains. “My good friend Claire was working on this project called Banana Block, tucked behind Portview Trade Centre, which used to be an old spinning mill, and approached me.” Excited by what was happening in and around Portview, Marion saw the creative potential. Despite this growth in East Belfast, Northern Irish DJs like Holly Lester are still lobbying for licensing changes to allow for more empty buildings and abandoned warehouses to be given planning permissions.
Northern Ireland only recently legalised gay marriage, Marion, the queer party’s co-founder tells us, “The Queer landscape has changed so much in the six years since we started Ponyhawke… There has been progress and small wins but we've still a long way to go with battles still to be fought for trans rights and equality.” Ponyhawke, a queer party taking place at Ulster Sports Club on weekends, started “as a reaction to not having a space to listen to underground music in a non-judgmental and inclusive environment,” says Marion.
Given Marion’s reputation in the city, we can rely on her to give some sound advice (had to be done) on the best spots in Belfast. She tells us, “Ulster Sports Club is the spot of the moment with the best local and international DJs every weekend,” she also counts club nights like Plain Sailing, Twitch, Block, Korova, Crilli and – of course – Ponyhawke among her top recommendations. For more experimental and balearic sessions, head to Bullit, “JC is a master curator of sounds.” Marion continues, “We've got The Hack club for monthly residents, The Night Institute and the occasional Black Bones, and Banana Block for larger scale events like David Holmes' God's Waiting Room and Block Parties.”
The city is painted in its political history, huge murals cover almost every brick wall which would otherwise be bare. “We have class street art and walking tours in and around the city centre,” echoes Marion. She also recommends shopping at Never Never (also a favourite of local DJ OPTMST), American Madness, The Bureau and Octopuss Garden. If it’s munch you’re hungry for after traipsing around the town’s street art and shops, Marion’s top eats are Yugo, Jumon, Freight and Flout Pizza.
Being Belfast, Marion tells us “you’re spoiled for choice” when it comes to bars, listing some of her favourites – American Bar, Duke Of York, and USC – before noting the iconic Sunflower, a local favourite and watering hole of Sarah McBriar, AVA founder. There’s plenty of free stuff to do if you’re on a budget, jump on Belfast Bikes and take a trip around the docs at sunset, or head to the Botanic Gardens for good people watching. Drink pints in historic pubs, dance in disused industrial docks, and find free art at every cobbled corner – if it’s an unpretentious party you’re after, you’ll find your clan alongside Marion in Belfast.