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Into The Fire: Luke and Justin Unabomber

David Blake talks Electric Chair (RIP), 360 venues and big old boozers with the DJs turned proprietors.

Written by . Published on December 16th 2013.

Into The Fire: Luke and Justin Unabomber

SO HOW DO Justin Crawford and Luke Cowdrey (The Unabombers), two globe-hopping DJs and creators of the long running Manchester underground club nights Electric Chair (now deceased), go from playing ‘label cities’ across the world: New York, London, Tokyo, Melbourne, Berlin, to worrying about sourcing ‘special’ tiles for an eatery in an achingly affluent West Didsbury suburb of Manchester?

By opening a bar restaurant.

The last thing we want is white linen, chewing on your foie gras opposite the girlfriend you take out once a year while a French waiter stands over you. That’s not us.

Having opened Electrik in 2009, their first bar-café in the ‘other suburb’, Chorlton, Justin and Luke Unabomber are poised to open new gaff Volta on West Didsbury’s jugularis externa, Burton Road, sometime before Christmas. More of a food-centric outing for the pair, Volta shall be open to one-and-all: diners, boozers, nibblers, tipplers, knitters. Come as you are.

Firstly, where’s Volta come from?

Justin (J): your Editor reckoned it meant ‘turn’ in Italian, we didn’t actually know that. Dave Haslam said it was an old drinking club in Moss Side, didn't know that either. Obviously we’ve got our electric theme but we didn’t want it to become a brand, so no Electrik 2. Volta was an Italian Physicist; it’s where the volt came from. He invented the first battery I think, the voltaic pile.

Sounds painful. Now that’s out the way, how’s Volta coming along?

J: There have been a few niggles. But there always is. Some buggers just bought all of our ‘special’ tiles.

The bastard. Where’d it all start?

Luke (L): We’re both from Yorkshire, met at Manchester Polytechnic, now Man Met, around ’85. We'd both come over the Pennines for the music and culture. Justin was in a band called the New Fads (they played Glasto), I was DJing a bit with them and we just struck up a relationship around music. We started Djing together and came up with the Electric Chair idea back in ’95. That took off until we nipped it in the bud in 2008.

J: We're aware that everything has a shelf life and we’d done all we could with Electric Chair, nearly everyone we wanted to play had played there, so it felt right to kill it off. That was timed with the Electric Elephant festival we started in Croatia.

Electric ElephantElectric Elephant

Quite a number of those in Croatia now. You were one of the first. How’d that come about?

L: Having been out to Croatia to DJ a few times we’d found a place where we could have the same ethos as Electric Chair. We knew some guys out there with a bar and some land (Tisno) and just thought why not. And yeah we did the Croatia thing first. Loads have gone out there now. But it’s the same as everything we do, no red carpets.

Why the move from dropping beats and bars to... well, a bar?

J: It's all about creating spaces for people to enjoy themselves. That’s what we’d always done with the club nights, creating spaces with a great atmosphere. With our music we’d always spent a lot of time in bars and always talked about opening one.

L: We’re both bar flies, love food, love drink. As DJs we’d travelled the world, we’d be picking up bits from everywhere we went and thinking yeah we could do that. We weren’t out clubbing anymore so it seemed a natural move.

And the move towards food?

J: Like the bar we were picking ideas up along the way, around the world, we'd been around food a lot and as you get older you do become more about food and wine. It’s natural. Australia has been a big influence on us, the 360 venues in places like Sydney and Melbourne. They’re open from nine until four in the morning, café, restaurant, bar, then a club, only closing for a few hours to clean up. Then you come back to the UK and everything seems more structured, more rigid. Meal at seven, bar at nine, club at eleven. Look, it’s not a revolutionary idea but that’s the kind of thing we want to do.

L: When we started Electrik it was 90% drink. But the way people are eating has changed. Us Brits are more travelled now. People are eating later, sharing more. When we started to do the roasts at Electrik it raised our game a little bit, we realised we could give the food thing a go.

Electrik, ChorltonElectrik, Chorlton

Is it much harder?

J: Oh yeah, with food it’s a whole different ball game. To get something you’re entirely happy with from the kitchen to the customer in one piece is a very difficult process. It needs experience and I think we’re just about getting there.

L: We’ve never tried to run before we could walk. We’d never go in with a half a million refurb and all guns blazing. We work off slow burners and make sure we get it right. We’ve had loads of ideas for food that we wouldn’t touch until we could do it properly.

We’re less about the vests and more about the tweed now. We’re getting older, we’ve both got woodburners.

So what’s the plan for Volta?

J: We want people to use Volta in different ways. Yeah come in for dinner, but you can also just come in for a drink, or a coffee, a snack. Come to meet friends or bring the family. It’s there to use as you want, café, bar, restaurant, a place to hangout. We don’t want to do the fine dining thing, it’s too stiff.

L: The last thing we want is white linen, chewing on your foie gras opposite the girlfriend you take out once a year while a French waiter stands over you. That’s not us. We don’t want to be the next hyped thing either. If you go to Amsterdam or Barcelona or Berlin, all these places have neighbourhoods where the locals go to eat and drink. That’s what we’re trying to do, you might come in once a week, or a few times, spend as much or as little as you want.

All we can show you, mainly because it's emptyAll we can show you, mainly because it's mostly empty

And the menu?

J: It’s like Lego blocks. Build your own meal from the menu. If you want to splash out the options are there but also if you want something to pick at. We’re offering food that doesn’t really have a beginning, middle and end. There’ll be classics on the menu but we’ll be saying ‘try this, try that, good aren’t they?'

L: There’ll be steaks, lamb chops, fish, veg, salads, plenty, just a whole range of flavour. Mix and match it. It's all about sharing and really good, simple, no nonsense food in a neighbourhood environment. Our head chef, Alex Shaw, has worked really hard to get hold of some exceptional ingredients to create what we hope are simple but top quality dishes. My favourite is the pork belly with cumin and lemon.

How's it compare to the DJ game?

L: We used to say in the 90s that we’d never promote a club that we wouldn’t want to go to ourselves. It’s the same with a bar or a restaurant. Electrik and Volta are places we’d want to go to.

J: It comes back to creating those environments for people to enjoy themselves, whether it’s music or food. That’s our aim. We’ve approached it the same way as our music. At the Electric Chair we’d do these eight hour sets of all different types of music, with tech, jazz, hip-hop, funk, and people would say you can’t put all those together. And we’d ask why not? We’d work on it, take our time, try different things. That’s what we’re doing here.

So you've got places in Chorlton and Didsbury. Do you prefer the suburbs?

L: I’ve lived in the Northern Quarter for 21 years. We’re not saying we’ll never go to the city centre but we’ve been downtown, done the club nights, done all that. Chorlton and Disbury are just more relaxed, quieter, you see the regular faces. There's more of a community. We’re less about the vests and more about the tweed now. We’re getting older, we’ve both got woodburners.

J: Places like the Northern Quarter are great, but it's intense and fiercely competitive.

The entrance to Volta is a bit trickyThe entrance to Volta is a bit tricky, even for Justin (top) and Luke (bottom)

So what do you enjoy the most and the least about hospitality?

J: Sounds cheesy, but it’s to see people happy and chatting away in a place that you’ve created. The least is that you’re always fighting fires. When you’re open fifteen hours a day for seven days a week it can be relentless and things can grind you down. Plus the public batter things, they really do.

L: What you love is sometimes what you hate. You’re always on display so you’ve got to have a thick skin. We’ve been out in town and someone will tell us the toilets are no good or the steak was overcooked and you’ve got to take it on the chin.

Had any particularly crazy moments?

J: It's not so much crazy, but the one that gets me is when we started doing Sunday Roasts, the cooker would stop working on a Sunday morning. Just Sunday morning. It happened all the time. It’s unbelievable.

L: My mum was in for her first roast a few weeks ago and there was a fire in the kitchen. I was like 'excuse me mum I’ve just got to go see to that fire, eat up'. Fire Brigade out and everything. But it’s a bar, things go wrong, people are mad, you’ve got to be on your toes.

Ever wanted to pack it all in?

J: All the time. When you’re worrying about tiles pre-opening, sometimes you just think, how did it get to this? But it takes time, it can be nearly a year before you can sit back and think, ok I’m happy with that.

L: We're aware it’s not easy. When we first opened Electrik we were out on the street shifting old furniture from the place to get a new coffee machine. We’d both be on the door at night because we didn’t have the money. But we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t enjoy it.

Do you have favourite places in the city to eat and drink?

L: I eat out about three times a week. But I like no nonsense mucky peasant food. Whether it’s Red Chilli in Chinatown, the Korean near Shudehill, the Sultan Lebanese in Withington, San Juan in Chorlton, the Indian places on Cheetham Hill or near me in Northern Quarter. All sharing foods.

J: We’re really into our big old pubs.

Gorilla, Whitworth StreetGorilla, Whitworth Street

What if you could own another concept in the city?

J: I was really impressed by what the Trof guys did with Gorilla. It took balls to open an operation that size.

L: For me it’s the Castle Hotel because I’ve lived 200m from the Castle for over twenty years and used to go in before the refurb. What they’ve done there is great, retained that old boozer feel. If someone came over from somewhere like New York and said show me Manchester, I’d take them to the Castle.

So what next? A big old boozer?

J: We’ve always talked about getting our hands on an old pub. We’re into our beer. We had an Electrik ale experiment, the Black Out XO, it won best beer of Cheshire actually.

L: We don’t even know if there’ll be a next. But yeah we’d love to get our hands on a big old boozer. Know of any?

Volta (previously Rhubard), 167 Burton Road, West Didsbury, M20 2LN (next door to Folk). 0161 448 8887

Follow @voltamanchester on twitter or visit the site.

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16 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousDecember 16th 2013.

They should look at the bringing the Black Lion back to life on Blackfriars. That's a perfect big old boozer.

David BlakeDecember 16th 2013.

I did suggest that actually.

AnonymousDecember 17th 2013.

Yes, how about The Pack Horse in Levy? Or The Smiths Arms, or Edinburgh Castle in Ancoats? I would recommend the Pack Horse though - it's massive and could be used for gigs too. And it has a coach house at the back.

AnonymousDecember 17th 2013.

Fantastic people and great publicans (not to mention top DJs) Good luck Luke & Justin. You are an asset to Manchester (Will Tramp)

1 Response: Reply To This...
mancadamDecember 17th 2013.

hear hear.

Alexandra LucyDecember 17th 2013.

This looks like it is going to be a fantastic addition to Burton Rd, can't wait to sample this new local

Dan McGlynnDecember 17th 2013.

Well done boys. Looking forward to visiting my new local haunt!

DidsburyGirlDecember 17th 2013.

I went for a sneak peak last night and it was amazing, great food and lovely vibe. It opens tonight, I think. Can't wait to go back and eat more of the menu (made it about half way down the first column...!).

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousDecember 18th 2013.

More a 'sneak peek' and 'eat and drink' I think. You must be special.

AnonymousDecember 18th 2013.

...and slowly but surely beards, tweed and fishermens' jackets spread across West Didsbury, like an uncontrollable fashion plague.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
MDecember 18th 2013.

Folk, Volta and Mary and Archie's bearding it up at one end, MTiki and the Metropolitan WAGging it up on the other. Add a hint of down-to-earth from the Railway and the Green Finch, a bit of madchester in the Drawing Room and The Gallery, live music in One Lounge and all-rounders in the woodstock and the Violet Hour. Actually. When you look at it. It's a pretty healthy mix and there isn't one which I wouldn't go in. Then there's the restaurants, which the area is most known for. Not a bad choice really, though I do think the area's a bit quieter than it was a few years back. And you'll pay more for your drinks in most of these bars than your average London establishment.

Axel LariatDecember 18th 2013.

I remember when you could buy a snowboard and a pound of bacon on Burton Road.

NatalieDecember 18th 2013.

Hope they get some decent bar staff. The staff in Electrik are utter goons so up themselves they border on rude at times.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
Richard HJDecember 18th 2013.

Where as you...

NatalieJanuary 12th 2014.

Where as me what?

AnonymousDecember 19th 2013.

The bar staff in Electrik can be very rude which isn't the case in Dulcimer (another "fashionable" bar), just a couple of doors down the street.

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