Going into Perth’s nightlife quarter of Northbridge can often be a mixed bag but if there’s one place you can depend upon to be open and rockin’ the night away it’s the Mustang Bar in Lake Street.
That’s one of the many reasons that the venue is about to celebrate its 18th birthday, in an age where live venues come and go by the week. “It makes me feel older,” co-owner Mike Keiller laughs when asked what it’s like to have notched up 18 years.
“I think it’s down to a combination of things why we’re still going. When we started out I wanted to have a baseline of quality. Whether it was a cover band or an original band or a rockabilly band we made sure it would be a quality act. So if people walked in they could say, ‘I don’t really like listening to DJs, but he played some really good music,’ or ‘I’ve never seen a rockabilly band but they were really entertaining.’ Even if they were out of their comfort zone they still could reckon it was a quality act. Some places people walk into and there’s a genre they’re unfamiliar with and they get up and walk out.
“The other thing, too, is that we were prepared to invest in the long-term, not an attitude that if it doesn’t show a return in six months we’ll just pack up. Or if a band hasn’t pulled a crowd within two weeks we’ll just wheel in the next one. We’ve been prepared to play the longer game and work with quality acts.”
It’s an old-school approach to running a venue that goes against many conventions these days. But it works. “Yeah well things are very immediate these days,” Keiller ponders. “Twitter. Email. Everybody sort of shoots their mouth off before they think. I guess I’ve come from a background where I used to go and see lots of quirky bands in funny sorts of venues, so it’s a product of what I enjoy.”
In the early days, the US-themed Mustang Bar was an unknown quantity for many punters who were often surprised to walk in and see patrons drinking beer at the bar, eating peanuts and throwing the shells into mountainous piles on the wooden floor.
“We’d still have them but we lost the supplier,” says Keiller laughing at the memory. “So we couldn’t get the peanuts and we thought we’d let that one slide. Then a few other places started doing and we thought people would think we were copying even though we started it years ago.
“We used to get them from Kingaroy, which of course was Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s hometown. There are a few places that still do it but they’re not as busy as Mustang and I think we’d slip a few percentage points on the insurance premium if we were to do it again (laughs).” The beginnings were modest, but as Keiller has noted it was long-term thinking that has won out.
“I remember looking at an empty room and thinking ‘Jesus!’,” he laughs. “People forget that it was a slow build. And then it did get on a roll and it kept rolling. It has been remarkably consistent.”
A lot of that is down to Keiller and co.’s willingness to mix things up. There’s packed nights that cater to general entertainment with popular cover bands playing hits and classics, but the Mustang Bar has also long played host to niche interests and audiences.
“None of us are too precious and the venue’s not that precious [so we can] decide to do something that’s a bit left-field one night and everyone has a bit of fun and we pack it up and just get back to what we’re doing. And it’s quite a forgiving room for whatever type of genre it is.”
The highlights over the years for Keiller sound blurry but lovingly remembered… “The night that The Stems did one of their earliest reunions with Even as the support was a night a lot of us remember,” he says, “and The Flairz were on that bill as well. One of the early (Swedish rockabilly greats) Go-Getters gigs, early (swing artist) Wayne Hancock gigs. They were always pretty exciting (laughs).
“18 years? I’ll take that. Some don’t last 18 months. Finally, the venue can have a drink.”
As for the future, expect the same kind of long-term thinking and plenty more good times.
“It’s been a good venue to a lot of people,” Keiller says. “Whether they be in live music, or a DJ, a cleaner or an electrician, there’s been people with us from the very beginning. We’re all getting older, but we still feel young at heart.”
The Mustang Bar’s 18th Birthday Celebrations happen on Sunday, September 24, from 6pm with Peter Busher & the Lone Rangers, Jack Royale & The Hot Shot Playboys and DJ Holly Doll. For the late shift FELIX take the stage along with DJ James MacArthur until even later. Free entry all night.