“IT’S one floor up, but it’s pretty underground,” says musician and DJ Simona Castricum over a latte in Carlton, inner-city Melbourne.
She’s describing Hugs&Kisses, a beloved CBD dance music venue opened in 2014. The building was auctioned off in March, and it’s now only a matter of time until the club is forced to shut its doors.
Hidden in a nondescript laneway near the corner of La Trobe and Elizabeth streets, Hugs is much more like the gritty clubs of the early rave scene than the slick, corporate venues that host most dance music events today. The venue has become a beacon for the queer community, who have shaped the space into something both wild and welcoming.
On a typical Friday night, which might host local DJs at parties like Le Fag or Cool Room, lasers shine through billowing fog in the cozy, 250 capacity room as revelers dance to techno ‘til dawn.
Walk into the “women’s” toilet (a label which is open to interpretation) and you’ll find partiers playing the upright piano located to the left the sink. Peek into one of the intimate booths on the far side of the room and you might glimpse Deaf patrons laughing and signing to each other.
Everyone here seems to know each other, yet it doesn’t feel exclusive or cliquey. Newcomers are welcomed, whether they’re straight, gay, cis, trans, or something else entirely.
No one knows how much longer Hugs has – the owners hope they’ll make it through the new year. But whether it’s three months or six months, time is running out. Now, the queer community that flourished in the space has been left wondering what will replace it.
The Birth Of Hugs
HUGO Atkins was working as a bartender at notorious Melbourne party spot Saint Jerome’s when it shut down in 2009.
The closure left a gaping hole in the city’s nightlife that he was determined to fill.
Hugo – who was 21 at the time – set out in search of a new space for a venue that would would feel free and exciting amid the music scene’s increasing corporatisation.
“I started a full-on grid of the city. I had a little map, and I would go around and cross off each square,” Hugo says, sitting on one of Hugs’ grungy couches.
“On the third day, [I saw] this old guy [who] was stumbling drunkenly onto the road. I walked with him into this building. It was like a Masonic, secret society thing, with this old relic sign flickering.”
As a members-only club, the building had an antiquated 24-hour-liquor license. Hugo knew he had found something special.
The building that he found is owned and operated by the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a men’s club, but their top floor, which in the ‘50s had hosted wild soirees, sat empty for decades. He eventually negotiated a deal to open the top floor as a music venue.
First launched in 2010 as Buffalo Club, the space hosted live music events with performances from groups like HTRK. But the space really came into its own when it was relaunched in 2014 as Hugs&Kisses, a haven for underground electronic music and a diverse array of fans.
To comply with the rules of the building’s license, Hugs has operated as a members only club. Patrons can sign up online, or register on their phones before entering, and the result has been that the venue has accumulated over 35,000 members, making it one of the biggest members only clubs in the Southern Hemisphere.
The loose rules on such licenses are one of the reasons Hugs has been able to flourish – they don’t have the same security requirements as other similarly sized venues. The venue has only one security guard at the door, and it isn’t required to keep CCTV cameras inside, though the management does anyway.
“When the police come in they’re always like ‘What the fuck?’ They’re pissed [off],” Hugo says. “We operate on a full club license, an old license that isn’t given out anymore. It can annoy people, because it’s a loophole. The police can’t enforce the laws they’ve been told to enforce on you. You’re operating outside the system.”
A Phoenix, Not A Shipwreck
THOUGH Melbourne has a long-running LGBT scene, the culture around gender-variant and queer communities is still constantly evolving.
“Things in the past five or six years have changed in such a full-on amazing hard-to believe way,” says Brooke Powers, a former Hugs&Kisses employee and now frequent DJ, over tea at a Fitzroy café.
Hugs was a big part of Brooke’s self-discovery. It helped her come to terms with who she was as a trans woman, giving her a safe place to explore her identity.
“[At Hugs] you see all these amazing people, and it’s in this space that feels really lawless. It just feels really free,” she says. “You can get rid of your agenda and your seriousness and your bullshit and just bounce off other people. I just really haven’t had that experience in other places.”
Simona, who often performs at Hugs, recalls the space as being home to a similarly revelatory anarchy.
“The first time I played there was a back-to-back set for Cool Room. It was just a free-for-all,” she remembers. “The place went sideways straight away. This was back before they had a booth, [when] you were DJing on the stage. We thought the table was going to collapse. But then the table couldn’t have collapsed, because there were about four people underneath having sex. Everything was happening.”
Simona agrees that the past five years has seen a sea change in how queer people interact within Melbourne’s nightlife communities. “As queer performers and DJs, we have our own scene now that has its own culture, its own economy, and we’re building careers in it, we’re building identities in it. I think that’s significant,” she says. “Whereas before it was like, we were either invisible or being fetishised or not being taken seriously. There just wasn’t a critical mass.”
"The table couldn’t have collapsed, because there were about four people underneath having sex. Everything was happening.”
As the club stares down its final months, Hugo wants to make sure its legacy is reflective of the welcoming and freewheeling space it has become. To do so, he’s hired a new booker, Cosi Pai, who will focus specifically on highlighting marginalised people in the dance community.
She’ll also take over the space when it’s unused on weekdays for ABOUT TIME, a free DJ school for women and LGBT people, who will be allowed to practice on the space’s CDJs and play tunes over their high end Funktion-One sound system.
“We’re trying to change the culture and get people out to see local new talent, even if they’re just starting out,” Cosi says. “It’s not about being this amazing, seasoned DJ. It should be more about supporting the community and having an amazing time together.”
“I want [the club] to end as a phoenix rather than like a shipwreck,” Hugo says. “[I want to] make the last [few months] be what we always wanted it to be and be the best it can be.”
Life After Hugs
WALKING into Hugs on a recent Friday night, it felt more like a super cool friend’s private party than your average club night.
As Simona DJ’d thumping techno, the air inside was warm and sticky, despite the chilly winter night. One guest, covered in red paint, casually wore devil’s horns.
Friends circulated throughout the space, heading down the stairs to the laneway to sit on the ground and smoke, laughing in the tiny booths, dancing on the unused stage in the venue’s rear. The pink neon sign, reading XOXO, shone through the fog like a beacon.
Finding a spot like Hugs, with a minimum of expensive legal requirements and a 24-hour permit, is more than rare in Melbourne – these days, it’s almost impossible.
As the march of gentrification continues, and a government freeze on liquor licenses past 1am strangles the nightlife community, venues like Hugs are only becoming scarcer.
The freeze came into effect 10 years ago, instituting a ban on new late night licenses in Melbourne, Port Phillip, Stonnington and Yarra.
In 2015, the policy was loosened somewhat to so that small venues with less than 200 person capacity could apply for an exemption. As of October of 2017, only one permanent exemption had been granted, while several one off licenses were granted. The freeze is set to continue through 2019.
“The 1am freeze is really creating a monopoly [for] venues that already exist. And that’s a massive issue because with any monopoly the quality goes down,” Hugo says. “[The clubs that exist are] not going to offer fringe activity, they’re going to go for blockbuster, Hollywood parties.”
“All the really dirty, lawless kind of places are getting shut down. It’s hard to know where we’re going to go.”
For queer people with fewer resources, that makes the loss of a venue they can call their own even more devastating. “I’m a bit worried about what’s going to happen at the end of this year. The competition is really fierce,” Simona says. “Gentrification pressures are there, and they’re a threat to our existing venues.”
Brooke agrees. “All the really dirty, lawless kind of places are getting shut down. It’s hard to know where we’re going to go.”
Moving into warehouses up in Brunswick or Preston is one idea. But Simona says that she’s not ready to leave the city behind. “I think it’s really important that we dance in the CBD [and] that we still have CBD clubs,” she says. “We’ve lost the top of Bourke Street, we’ve lost all of Flinders Lane. It’s a shame, because it’s our history.”
“We need those sweaty dungeons,” says Brooke. “They inspired me to be who I am.”
Hugo says he has no plans to immediately open a new space when Hugs closes. He’s spent the last eight years pouring himself into sustaining the club, and he’s ready to pass the torch to someone else now.
He hopes someone is up to the challenge.
“I’ll miss every little detail, all the memories,” he says. “I don’t know if there will be another venue like this for some time. I want to see people leaving and being inspired. If you leave inspired, you know it’s good.”