With Club Focus, we put the spotlights on some of the nation’s most interesting dancefloors. Whether they focus on house, techno, hip-hop or all of them – a good nightclub is not rated on genres, but on the quality of the clubbing experience it offers the regulars as well as the first timers. A meticulously placed sound system, a consistently strong programming and a thoughtful interior design are just a few of the things that guarantee to bring in crowds every weekend, which helps them to build a dedicated clientele and, most importantly, a solid reputation.
In its 4 years of existence, the Antwerp powerhouse Ampere has made some strong waves across the Belgian nightlife scene. Located right under the train tracks near the city’s central train station, this concrete beauty regularly hosts massive techno, house and alternative headliners from the highest order to crowds of hundreds or thousands. Two years ago, the club conquered the first place as Best Club in the Red Bull Elektropedia Awards and it has stayed in the top 4 ever since. It’s safe to say founder and manager-in-chief Joachim Marynen knows what he’s doing. After all, the man is no stranger in the local club circuit. As we’re about to find out, running a club this size in a city like Antwerp comes with its unique challenges. Sometimes luck is not on your side, but then a sold-out rave from dusk till dawn makes it all worthwhile again. Prepared with a dozen questions we were dying to ask, we sat down with Marynen in a local lunch spot on a rainy afternoon. The result is an open and heartfelt interview about the history, present and future of Antwerp’s most prominent nightclub of the moment.
Let’s start with the man behind Ampere. You have been an active member in the electronic music scene in Belgium and The Netherlands long before the start of this club, right?
Yes, you’re right. I was born in Duffel, but my family quickly moved to Rotterdam because my father had a great opportunity in the Rotterdam theatre. I’ve been into electronic music since my early puberty: mixing hip hop cassette tapes, raving until dawn on gabber at the legendary Parkzicht and eventually falling in love with house music. I became obsessed with collecting vinyl, regularly visiting Wally’s Groove World, as I was studying in Antwerp. After gathering enough experience as a DJ, I started the Sound Architecture night around 1999, with early guests like James Rushkin, Steve Rachmad, Jamie Lidell etc… We were on a roll, also expanding our activities with a record label and artist agency. After a while, we moved to Off-Corso, an old movie theatre turned club, where we invited the big players of the house and techno scenes at the time. Next to our own nights, I had a helping hand in the inception of Catwalk (which is now Toffler) and I was also doing the bookings for other clubs and events all over. This went hand in hand with my DJ career, which took me to many places around the world.
So what made you come to Antwerp?
Love did. I met the mother of my children at Kazantip (a big festival in Ukraine, ed.). She’s from Russia, but I didn’t want to move to Moscow and she didn’t want to move to Rotterdam – and Antwerp was a city we both liked very much. After moving here DJ Prinz offered to do events at Café Capital and Ben Biets gave me a job as a booker at Café d’Anvers. And so, I became involved in the local nightlife. Founding a record store had always been a childhood dream of mine. In 2013, I started the Sound Architecture Record Store in the Kammenstraat, from which we ran our label. Currently, the store is non-active until we can reopen on a new location very soon.
When did you first start to play with the idea to open a nightclub here?
The idea first came to me in that record store. I wasn’t satisfied with the available venues at the time and the city needed a large event space that could host quality club nights. One time, I was in a meeting and I noticed some sort of brochure on the table. It said the city was looking for a concession holder of a new space near the central train station. Basically, it was just a big concrete bunker, so many felt like it was an impossible project, but I was convinced. So I started writing a proposal for a sustainable creative event space. They chose mine over that of the other contenders.
So then the real challenge came, right?
Yeah, there was still so much that needed to be done – a lot more than I expected when I submitted my concession plan. Almost 2 years passed between that moment and our opening night. I’m glad I was surrounded by people like Bradley Dunn and Carlos Michielsen, who really helped me make this vision a reality. In hindsight it was a real hassle. I barely had any money and everything had to be installed from scratch: the bar, the office, the stock, the lights…
Four years down the line, have you completed that vision you had when you started this project?
Not completely. Without subsidies, it isn’t always easy to make the necessary costs. People mostly know us as a nightclub, but we are more than that. This is a venue that hosts all sorts of things: bar mitzvah’s, fashion shows, workshops, rehearsals, lectures and student meetings for example. On certain days, Ampere is free to use for the neighbourhood. In that regard, we’re happy to have succeeded in offering such a diverse range of events.
That doesn’t sound like something an ambitious club veteran like you would say when you started Ampere…
The idea that we could model ourselves as a local version of clubs like Trouw or Berghain quickly faded away when reality hit. Antwerp just isn’t the kind of city that can support a venue like this. In the first year we thought we could book big acts every weekend, but that was a misjudgement. People rarely visit the same club on a weekly basis anymore. There’s a massive supply of nightlife options, especially if you count in what’s going on in Brussels or Ghent too. That’s another reason why we opted for a broader, polyvalent use of the venue instead.
After being in the nightlife business for decades already, were there still surprises for you once you became a nightclub owner?
I was surprised how hard the grind is financially. I mean, there are so many hidden costs you wouldn’t normally think about. I definitely underestimated that (laughs).
Nightclubs and city politics aren’t always the best match. What’s your relation with the local government?
There’s no bad blood between us, but of course there are frustrations sometimes. On the one hand, the local government supports us (with youth services for example) but on the other hand it doesn’t always understand what a nightclub needs in order to stay in business. Being able to announce that a new club has opened in your city look great in the papers, but then we are often left in positions in which it’s difficult for us to stay afloat.
Do you have noise complaints for example?
That’s about the only thing we don’t get complaints about (laughs). We have a great understanding with the neighbourhood and we invested a lot in noise isolation and the acoustics. On top of that, we are located right under one of the busiest train tracks of the country, so you’ll never hear what’s going on inside if you’re on the streets.
How have you seen the nightlife audience in Antwerp change over time? What are the trends at the moment? And what stayed the same?
Nightlife and its people never stop moving forward. It makes sense: you discover a certain genre in your teenage years and gradually your preferences evolve towards something different because all music is connected. If you are willing to keep an open mind, you’ll always stay hungry for new music, regardless of genre. As for Antwerp: there are many different little scenes here that don’t really change much. I don’t mean to say we’re stuck, but it could always use a little more variation. That’s why I try not to be pushed into just one direction. I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t like a local nightlife audience that isn’t afraid to explore new things more often. Headliners will be headliners, but you can only really be surprised by acts you may not know that well. Maybe if we wouldn’t stare at the big trees, we would be more receptive to the roots.
Which moments give you the most satisfaction as a club manager?
There are so many of them. Last week for example, we had Ben Haze and Tim Doyle playing Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, my all-time favourite album. After the show, both kept jamming on, even when all the people but the crew had long gone. It’s in those kinds of moments that the power of music overwhelms me.
What about the opposite? Have you ever felt like throwing in the towel?
Of course. Mind you, I have two young kids to raise. Sometimes, when I come home on a Sunday morning, completely exhausted, the two of them ask me if I want to spend the day with them when all I want is sleep. Of course I’m there for them when they need me, but being a dad and a club promoter are two jobs that are not easy to combine. Other than that, it’s just hard as hell to keep things healthy without subsidies or other financial support. There are occasional nights when I ponder endlessly about how we’ll be able to keep things running the way we want them to. It’s very frustrating, because we would love to make a lasting impact on this city. To be fair, we haven’t been able to execute all of our plans yet. We still have so much potential.
So what does that mean for the future of Ampere?
We’ll still grind hard as we always do. I’m just happy I’m blessed with an amazing team behind me. In the coming months and years, you can expect a wider variety in our programming: more live acts and different kinds of events.
And then there’s a special, exclusive announcement, right?
Yes! In February, we’ll open Bar Volt (a bar where visitors can enjoy lunch or coffee) and re-open the Sound Architecture Record Store, both on-site! Other than selling a wide assortment of vinyl, this will be a meeting point for creative people in the neighbourhood with lots of possibilities. I know these plans have been in the making for a long time, but finally we’re one step closer to fulfilling the potential this great venue can offer the city.