Club Focus

Rockerill

Pictures by Axel Pics

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With Club Focus, we put the spotlights on some of the nation's most exciting 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 and 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. This helps them to build a dedicated clientele and, most importantly, a solid reputation.

Deep in the grey industrial landscape of Marchienne-au-Pont, a suburb of Charleroi, the carolo’s (as people from here like to call themselves) have found their temple to let loose every week. For over 12 years, Rockerill has been speaking to the minds many ravers from the area and far beyond, inviting the world's most renowned DJ's. As you enter the former steel factory, it’s hard not to get carried away by the overwhelming personality of the venue. “When we got the place, it was empty”, says owner Jean-Christophe Gobbe (who also DJ’s under the Globul moniker), who is accompanied by Rockerill’s resident DJ from day one, Fabrice Lig. “We have tried to make a place where everyone can feel at ease, giving Charleroi a credible spot on the electronic music map in the process. Everything we do here done with conviction, passion and love”. To see if there’s a truth in those statements, we drove down to Charleroi on a night when the venue was hosting a massive Boiler Room event. It turns out there are plenty of reasons to put Rockerill on your list of places to visit asap.

Jean-Christophe, before we dig into this venue’s history, were you already active in the music circuit beforehand?

Jean-Christophe: Yes, I was playing music for over 40 years before opening this place. In 1986, I went to Spain with all my acid house records to work there as a DJ. In 2000 I was back here doing parties, right up until the point when we stumbled upon this place in 2007.

It was a spot where thousands used to work, so this place has a soul. You can still feel the energy from that.

Is that when you guys met?

Fabrice: No, that has to be around 20 years ago. I don't remember how exactly, but both of us are from Charleroi, and we were both passionate about electronic music. That means you're going to end up meeting each other at some point sooner than later. We started doing nights together between the 90's and the early 00's. At the time, I was travelling around the world (Fabrice was signed on labels like Laurent Garnier’s F Communications and Carl Craig’s Planet E Recordings, ed.) so it felt important to me to give something back to my hometown.

So how the hell did you manage to turn this into the club it is today?

Jean-Christophe: Well, first you have to know that it's not just a club, it's a cultural centre because we do a lot more than only parties. This place was constructed in 1824, destroyed during the First World War, and rebuilt afterwards. It was a spot where thousands used to work, so this place has a soul. You can still feel the energy from that. My business partner bought the site in 2007, and we were in awe because it looked crazy. In the beginning, we used to do a lot of alternative events, trying to give the club some credibility. Our team worked hard to give this place a good image so that Charleroi could be seen in a better light than often is the case. To a certain extent, this city is regarded as one of the worst places to be in Belgium. Everything was against us.

Is it not hard to stay in business with a venue like this in a relatively small city like Charleroi?

Jean-Christophe: We do a lot of promotion outside the city as well. Around two-thirds of our audience on any given weekend comes from outside of Charleroi: Dutch speakers and French people predominantly. The fact that we don't have any financial motives and that we only work from the heart is reflected in the general vibe on our nights. That attracts likeminded people from a lot further than just this city.

The fact that we don't have any financial motives and that we only work from the heart is reflected in the general vibe on our nights.

People often have a lot of prejudice about this city. Does the lousy reputation of Charleroi bother you?

Jean-Christophe: This image problem has been around for a long time. That's why it's up to us to show everybody it's not true. We have to show Charleroi can be different. When people come here for the first time, I like to give them a guided tour around the whole venue. Usually, they are pleasantly surprised because the media and other sources have printed a particular image in their minds. We have to change that mindset. We are from Charleroi, and we're proud of it. We know there are complications, especially with the closure of many factories around the area, but I believe we are at the beginning of a new era. Rockerill’s positive image is proof of that.

How are ravers in Charleroi different from others in Belgium?

Fabrice: When you come to Charleroi, you won't know anyone when you enter the party, but you'll go home afterwards with dozens of new friends. It's a place where people are passionate about music, and everyone is open and communicative about it. That spirit is reflected in their enthusiasm on the dancefloor.

So what does the rest of the local nightlife look like?

Jean-Christophe: There is no nightlife here. There are plenty of bars, and we have some great culture options here, like the Musée de la Photographie, the BPS22 (Charleroi's modern art museum, ed.) but alas no actual nightlife activity. We're only two hundred thousand carolo’s, so we're not very big. It's not Liège, Ghent or Antwerp. But then again, nightlife in Wallonia, in general, is a complicated matter.

Is it not hard to compete with clubs in bigger cities in Belgium?

Jean-Christophe: I understand that people from Brussels have a hard time coming here because there are so many options for them in their own city. But all in all, there is no competition for us here. When people come here from other cities, they know what they can expect – and what we offer is unlike any other venue. We have an enormous amount of respect for all the other clubs around the country, and we know it's mutual.

What have been your best memories of this place so far?

Jean-Christophe: We are lucky enough our jobs allow us to meet so many lovely people. One of the nicest might have been Laurent Garnier, who has become a friend of the house. After he played here for the first time, he understood what we stand for, and he thanked us. That was the most beautiful present you could ever give us, mainly because we always work so hard to get artists like him over here. The fact that a legend like this puts his full trust in us makes me happy. When I'm older, this moment will still be engraved in my memory.

When people come here for the first time, I like to give them a guided tour around the whole venue.

Have there been moments when feel like giving up?

Jean-Christophe: Not really, and I hope that remains to be the case. In this business, it's always tricky to work with rising artist fees when you're a relatively small enterprise. We're not in this line of work to rack up profits, but at the same time, we can't afford to pay a DJ twenty thousand euros. When a booking manager doesn't want to give us a chance despite knowing what we stand for, I would understand, but I would be disappointed too. Obviously, I know how the business works, and you have to understand your position as a relatively small player in this hard game. But I don't regret anything, because we do what we love for the right reasons – and you should never apologize for that.

What impact did a venue like this have on the city?

Fabrice: You have to know that people from Charleroi have been partying and going out way before Rockerill existed. During the 90's, so many of us came together to drive to clubs like Boccaccio and Cherry Moon in Flanders. So because of this older generation, there already was a base of nightlife culture to build on. That helped in the early days of this club. Soon after, a lot of young people found their way here too, resulting in the weekly mix of around a few hundred visitors every weekend. That said, to say this club has changed the DNA of nightlife culture in this city may be going a little too far. People will find a way to go out with or without Rockerill (laughs).

What does the future of Rockerill look like?

Jean-Christophe: The future is looking great for Rockerill. The city of Charleroi will buy the building and gave us the option to run the venue for a very long time. That means we're going to undertake some renovations and we'll open new spaces. Exciting time ahead!