Defining Moments: David Holmes, Vendetta Suite & Timmy Stewart Talk Art College Memories

Reflections on a pivotal moment in Belfast club culture…

Gary Irwin, known under his moniker The Vendetta Suite, started dancing in 1990 to the dubbed-out and psychedelic sounds of Andrew Weatherall, David Holmes and Iain McCready at the Art College in Belfast; an iconic venue that birthed an entire culture of dance music lovers to the backdrop of a war-torn Belfast during The Troubles.

It was here that the trio of David, Gary and Timmy Stewart would have their worlds collide. Gary went on to become David’s studio engineer in the early 90s, while Timmy had his eyes opened as a teenager, experiencing cutting edge visual experiences and quality residents and overseas guests at the Art College – such as The Sabres, Weatherall and Orbital – for the very first time.

The 90s spawned friendships and connections made from across the barricades; a time credited with some of the most important and significant cultural moments in Belfast.

As the threesome celebrate the release of their remix record on Hell Yeah Recordings (where David and Timmy have turned in two remixes of The Vendetta Suite’s The Kempston Portal), Clash sat down with them to talk about those early, formative experiences, how they still inspire them today and that one time Brian Tilsley from Coronation Street got David Holmes into Amnesia in Ibiza.

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Is this the first time you have all been together in a while? How does it feel to be doing an EP together given the history?

David: It’s been about two years since we saw each other, but before that we would see eachother out and about, especially when I was running the God’s Waiting Room parties.

Gary: The Maple Leaf (an iconic venue in Belfast that is no longer around) was pretty instrumental for us. There were a lot of people that had stopped going out to clubs that you would see there. It was such a spot. Then Timmy started doing parties in the Ballyhackamore Social Club and I felt the same atmosphere.

Timmy: It was the mixed age groups thing that made it special for me. They were the only nights you could go to that weren’t specifically for twenty somethings. You had people there that were eighteen, nineteen all the way through to fifty four. I loved that! It reminded me of Europe.

David: All the best clubs in Belfast have been in shitholes. The Delta, The Plaza, Tatters… You name it, you were spitting sawdust in all of them. The Menagerie as well, of course, probably the most recent after The Maple Leaf. It never ceases to amaze me when I see people pumping tens of thousands into these bars when all they need is a red light and a good soundsystem – people will flock! These places are so sterilised, they’re vibeless.

David and Gary, how did you meet then? Gary, you were a sound engineer at David’s studio weren’t you? Were you producing at the time?

Gary: Andrew Weatherall is going to loom large over this interview, he was such a massive influence on all of us. My first ecstasy tab, and the first time Weatherall played here, it was such a mind blowing experience. After that I just went on the hunt for his remixes, anytime I was in a record store it’s all I’d look for. A week before the Sugar Sweet record store opened I barged in and asked if David had any. David was like, we’re not open mate, come back next week. I returned the next week and there were four or five white labels sitting there.

I started making tapes, and would always hand them to David, who was always very encouraging. I just kept building up my studio and my music started improving. David started the Exploding Plastic label and putting his studio together, and he asked me if I wanted to be the engineer. I was halfway through a music technology course in a college in Bangor, but when David Holmes asks you to be his studio engineer you’re not going to say no.

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What did you think of those first tapes, David?

Amazing. It’s interesting because our friend, David Anderson, who sadly passed away recently, ran Hairy Bear Records and I wanted to do a show for him on NTS. All my records from the nineties are upstairs. We’re always looking forward, so sometimes you don’t get the chance to look back. Up until I went up those stairs there was so much I couldn’t remember.

A record would appear and it would bring back a moment. I’m actually starting to get my memory back from the Art College, because a record will remind me of a certain time or moment. I played this record in London at the weekend, and it went fucking off. Did you ever have that record by Man Freddie – ‘Someone To Love’? I heard Weatherall play it. It was my first gig ever in London in Bob’s Full House. I was just like, what the fuck is this record? It was like I had an epiphany. You know that moment in Blues Brothers? Can you see the light!

At this moment David turns to his Mac and plays the track, with the same excitement as a kid just discovering it for the first time. It’s a remarkably simple track – “it’s just some drums, a Freddie Mercury sample, a Chic sample and a Pink Floyd sample” – but manages to grab a beautiful sonic snapshot of the era. “A big Art College tune”, says David.

Timmy: There’s so many of those records from back then that I never got the name off and then you hear them years later!

David: I have some family in Chicago, and in 1988 my mum went over to see my brother. God love her, she actually found Gramaphone records, which is still the place in Chicago to buy house music. She came back with this big stack of white labels. I played one the other day and I still don’t know what it is, but it’s amazing.

How do you feel the records you were playing/listening to at the time have influenced the music you make now? Belfast has such a fantastic punk scene, and at Sugar Sweet there seemed to be this wonderful blend of punk, new wave and acid electronics – something that I feel all three of you are very good at sowing together.

Gary: In those early Love From Outerspace mixes from Weatherall you would have your acid, pianos, Chicago house, Detroit techno, Balearic breakbeats… That’s one of the few things that got me back into dance music again after a few years of listening to all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff.

Timmy: I think dub music peppers everything as well. We were talking earlier about Basic Channel records… I remember when I went to the Art College for the first few times, I didn’t even know how to describe that type of music. I could tell the sensibility behind it was coming from dub. The space in the music, the bottom end. I was always drawn to that. A timeless quality.

Gary: That dub and acid house Trax record, you can almost smell the room. Even though it’s nearly all electronic instruments being used on it, it feels very organic.

I have to ask about some favourite moments – David, I know in an interview with The Guardian you mentioned the Orbital night, how there were actual tears of happiness; a result of the sounds and the extremity of everything that was happening in Belfast at the time…

David: Those first few years we really felt like we were at the beginning of something. I was a mod when I was fifteen in 1984, but I’m sure it was nothing like being a mod in 1963. To do something that was actually unfolding in front of your eyes, but with the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher, hunger strikes, Belfast being generally dark as fuck… Every day your car was getting stopped. Road blocks everywhere, people practically getting wasted on your doorstep.

I would have gone to a lot of underground clubs, I’m a little older than these two. I was always attracted to where all the freaks were. Every sub-culture and cult was around back then, it was like The Warriors, but instead of gangs there were these different tribes that would congregate to the same two venues. Acid house was just an extension of that. Everyone forgot about how they dressed and just focused on what they could dance comfortably in.

Gary: Andrew [Weatherall] played in Belfast quite early as well, in 1991, which sort of set the standard.

Timmy: I can remember going down to hang out outside the Art College, I was only fifteen. I couldn’t get in, but I loved being around it. People would park outside and there was this vibe. I can remember being excited about the culture of it all. I was going out with a girl in school whose brother was a DJ, so she was introducing me to flyers and mixtapes. Before I even got to go to any of the nights, I was completely fascinated by it. The stars aligned a little.

There were amazing graphic designers – man, some of the flyers! Music that you couldn’t describe coming from Germany, Chicago and London, and the best sound systems.

David: People were having the time of their lives, they would come from every part of the city and they would all be dancing together. It’s like everyone was saying ‘fuck all that religious shite!’

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How big an impact do you feel Sugar Sweet had on showing you all that you could achieve something full time in music amongst what was basically a warzone? Do you feel you would have still found a way into music without?

David: I think we all probably have individual answers to that. The general answer is, those nights are the reason we’re all sitting here now. We all suffer from PTSD, none of us knew what the fuck was going on back then until it stopped. The energy was different in Belfast. In hindsight I think people were subconsciously letting off so much steam that they didn’t even know existed.

Do you still feel that influence in contemporary Belfast? The idea to bring a load of people together with a great soundsystem is in essence so pure, but in modern times it has become stained with enormous fees and social media DJs – is that DIY spirit still alive and kicking?

David: Timmy’s been building something really interesting. There’s a vibe there. After every catastrophe in history, something mega has happened, whether it’s the roaring twenties or rock and roll after the second world war.

Timmy: Coming out of this pandemic, there has to be some sort of release. I felt it a little bit during that little window when things opened.

David: Before the pandemic there was a real snideness in the air. We were coming off the back of Trump, Brexit, people stirring shit up. People were becoming divisive. Social media didn’t know how to handle it. It was so ugly. Twitter is like going to hell. You hope that after all this people are just kinder to each other.

Gary: I really admire how Timmy looks to nurture the local scene. It’s great having a guest DJ, but it’s also great to show what we have here already.

Timmy: That wasn’t really being done in the city. In the seven years we’ve been running The Night Institute we’ve only had three or four people over that you would call ‘big’ bookings – Octave One, Gerd Janson etc. It was never really about that, it was about residents, which has to have come from going to Sugar Sweet at the Art College and seeing David and Iain play.

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I think it’s really telling when you hear people saying the club night’s name as opposed to the person who is playing. For me it would have been Twitch. It didn’t matter if Pearson Sound or Joy Orbison was playing, you were going to Twitch, you weren’t going to Pearson Sound – that was a bonus.

Timmy: You trust them. We used to see guests playing at Art College and we’d be like, who are they? They weren’t going to be playing there if they weren’t good, you know? There was a certain quality control on things. You were excited to go to the night as opposed to the big headliner.

David: Sugar Sweet was pre-internet. We knew about bands because we bought the NME and stuff. You had to hunt for every record.

Timmy: Didn’t you book people off finding numbers on records?

David: I booked Orbital doing that. They were living in their mum’s house at the time. People like The Sabres, The Vandals, Scott Hardkiss. When someone like Andrew [Weatherall] did it, it was such a visceral experience, so you got the bug.

Planning on doing anything else together in the near future? Gary, you released such an incredible album last year, are there any plans to work together again soon? What’s next?

Timmy: I think we’ve all got a fire in our belly at the moment.

David: The fear of going back to normality is just… It’s enough for you to not take it for granted, and remembering it’s a really killer job. It’s the best thing in the world.

Gary: I’m itching to get back into the studio again, following the release of the album. I’ve got four tracks that are half finished, and I contributed a track to Timmy’s ambient VA – Extended Delay – on his label.

Timmy: I hope we never lose that passion for showing other people music.

David: Just keep thinking about what a real job feels like…

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Words: Andrew Moore

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