How two Australian sisters built London’s best dive bar
‘No refunds for bad decisions’ reads the cautionary slogan that adorns the top of any receipt you pick up from Blondies, legendary dive bar located in Lower Clapton, East London. It says a lot about the venue which, despite its limited capacity of just over 50 people, has played host to an endless stream of unforgettable nights.
As well as the venue’s Halloween parties, gigs and DJ nights, Blondies is also home to The K! Pit, Kerrang!’s very own series of live shows which we film, edit and then stream. Bands that have played the venue – where there is no stage – include the likes of Parkway Drive, Mastodon, Machine Head, The Interrupters, Employed To Serve, You Me At Six, Neck Deep, PUP and Refused.
What attracted us to Blondies is simple: it’s the kind of bar where its none-more-black and neon décor make a rock fan feel at home as soon as you walk in. The place has a unique vibe, much of which comes down to the fact that it has been literally hand-built by two Australian sisters, Verity and Sharmaine Cox, who – along with their sister Rochelle – elected to open a bar in what was a disused money exchange shop some five years ago.
Up until that point, none of the Cox sisters had run their own business, let alone owned a bar. They were, however, creative and armed with different skills and a devil-may-care attitude. Those skills are reflected in the roles that Verity and Sharmaine assume as far as the day-to-day running of Blondies is concerned. The former takes care of the operational elements, the latter is instrumental in the creative direction of the bar and its distinctive merchandise. Both are involved in booking bands and promoting what are notoriously raucous nights; Blondies has played host to a slew of parties down the years, including Frank Carter’s birthday bash.
For both Verity and Sharmaine, Blondies is a labour of love and a product of sheer determination – which is why the Cox sisters are the subject of the third instalment in our We Run The Scene series which, as an extension of International Women’s Day, celebrates the achievements of women that inspire us. We start the conversation with Verity and Sharmaine by heading back to the bar’s humble origins…
What made you think it was a good idea to open a bar in what was once a money exchange shop?
Sharmaine: “It was the right area and the right fit for us. It was small and it had a garden out the back, which we thought was amazing. It was small enough for us to handle, too, because we’d never run our own business before, so we wanted something that felt manageable. We wanted it to feel like a speakeasy but we didn’t realise it would take on a life of its own.“
Verity: “We needed it to be a place where we could make things work. It was in pretty bad shape, so when we walked into the estate agent they were like, ‘Yeah, sure. You do your thing.’ We obviously had to get lawyers involved, but people were happy to let us get on with it and do whatever we wanted.“
Sharmaine: “We never realised quite now much work it was going to take to turn it into a bar or a restaurant. We were like, ‘Small space? Great! Let’s see what we can do with it!’”
What was the original space like when you first saw it five years ago?
Sharmaine: “It was a money exchange shop with white walls and it just felt like a small office building space. It had a suspended ceiling and we literally had to get everything from the inside out and gut it ourselves. There were a few bits that we kept, like the bulletproof tabletop that they had for security. That became the top of the bar that we built.”
Verity: “Yeah, you can see that in the videos from a lot of the Kerrang! shows, when there’s footage of people running along the top of it and diving off the bar. That tabletop was part of the original building, and so were a couple of the lights, but you’d never recognise it if you walked in back then. There was about 10 tons’ worth of rubble that we ended up throwing out.”
You’d never owned a bar before, so what made you decide to do that?
Verity: “I’d worked in the hospitality industry since I’d started working forever ago, so it kinda made sense. Being one of four girls, it was always something we’d talked about. We were either going to be a band or open a business together. We were sitting around one day and Sharmaine – who’s always been the go-getter – said, ‘Why don’t we just open a bar?’ So then we started to look for a space, and we tried to establish goals that we thought could be achievable. It’s taken a lot of hard work, but we’ve managed to make something where people can feel at home, which is really, really cool.”
Why did you call it Blondies?
Verity: “Originally, we had no idea what to call it. It came out about when we started building the bar and there were four of us – the two of us, our sister Rochelle, and our friend Rob. We were in and out of the place with power tools and there were some people out the front that just started calling us ‘blondies’. We thought it was a bit derogatory, but it was also feminine in a cool way and, when Sharmaine designed the logo with our friend Sindy Sinn, it felt right. It was rock’n’roll, it was punk, and I thought, ‘Fuck, yeah!’”
You pretty much built the bar yourselves. Was that easy to do?
Sharmaine: “When we started, we didn’t know what we were in for. We started out by just slowly taking down a wall and we only ever got in an electrician and a plumber. We did everything else ourselves. We plastered the walls ourselves, or cemented the garden by YouTubing things. Our friend Rob was helping us, but the only power tool we had in the beginning was a jigsaw that we used to do most of the bar with, which is why everything is a little bit off and a little bit unbalanced. We’ve gotten a bit better since then, and we’ve got a few more power tools! There was a bit of cat-calling out the front when we were doing the sign, and a few people were saying, ‘What the hell are they doing?’”
Verity: “Because our friend Rob was an architect, he had the basics of what we needed to know. He’d go to work in the morning and then come here at night. That was quite cool. I remember having a conversation with Sharmaine on the bus where I said, ‘We can plaster a wall, right?’ and she replied, ‘Yeah, we can totally do that!’ so we did. It was a cool learning earning experience for us and it set in stone the idea that we could do things ourselves. Our dad was an antenna technician and he’s always had us in the yard building things so we’ve always been quite hands-on, and it meant that we could pick up a power tool and get on with it. We knew plumbing and electrics were not things that we couldn’t mess with, but the rest we could do even if we weren’t expected to be able to do those things, like building cupboards ourselves.”
Sharmaine: “We were lucky because when we took the walls down it was mostly brickwork, so that was pretty good, too.”
Verity: “When we took down a wall and started putting pictures on Instagram we did get quite a lot of comments with people saying, ‘Guys, did you get a man’s opinion on that?’ Of course, we’re not dumb enough to take out a wall that’s holding up the ceiling! And we definitely made sure we got the right professionals to come in to make sure things were done properly, but we wanted to do things ourselves.”
What informed the Blondies aesthetic?
Sharmaine: “In the early days our little sister Rochelle, being an illustrator, helped with the designs. The logo and the music all combined to make it what it is. But the bar started off with bare bones and then it just got better and better.
Verity: “We added more neon, more posters, more things, and it has developed. Pictures of it five years ago are very different. The structure is there, but the feel has come into its own thanks to Sharmaine’s vision of the place.”
Sharmaine: “I kinda always had that sense that I wanted it to look like a New York dive bar, and I guess that’s what it looks like.”
What have been the best nights as far as you’re concerned?
Sharmaine: “We’ve had some really great nights. The peak was probably Mastodon – that was probably the best for me. We’ve had some other really cool shows with Kerrang!.”
Verity: “Machine Head, Refused… It’s hard not to go for those really huge shows because we never thought we’d be doing that kind of thing, you know. That’s been really positive but we’ve also put on a lot of fun shows with local bands, and lots of different parties.”
As female bar owners, have you encountered sexism?
Verity: “In the beginning, I was here a lot by myself, so I guess that drew a few more of the local male clientele, but ultimately we’ve had such a hard and fast rule about anti-social behaviour – specifically about sexist behaviour and that kind of thing – that it’s been a no-deal from the get-go, and especially the type of clientele we do get, they do get that. And the amount of women that we have here, and the amount of people that are strong females, it’s been part and parcel of being a no tolerance issue.”
“Obviously with live music and that kind of stuff, it’s upsetting to think that there’s still that kind of gropey, male behaviour. It’s really sad to think that the people that are doing that haven’t learnt boundaries, and that may not be something that people want that to happen to them. There are a few levels where ultimately we’ve been pretty strict on what we accept in here, and I think that’s been really good, and I think that’s what’s made it feel such a safe space.”
In the wider sense, what have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Verity: “COVID has been really hard for everyone – not just the hospitality industry. It’s hard for anyone who has to stay home and who is dealing with mental health issues. Everyone knows that it’s a pretty tough time. For us it’s been a case of keeping our head above water because we don’t know when our next big show or big night is going to happen. We’re in Clapton which isn’t necessarily the place where there’s foot traffic so it hasn’t been easy, but we know things will change soon.”
What advice would you give to young women who may be thinking of opening a bar or a venue?
Verity: “One of the biggest things is knowing your biggest strengths and knowing your weaknesses. As siblings, we’re really close and I know what I’m good at and what Sharmaine is good at. She’s got skills that I don’t have and vice-versa. That’s important.”
Sharmaine: “My advice is don’t take on too much at first; don’t bite off more than you can chew. Just keep going and you’ll get there.“
Verity: “The bit of advice I’d give anyone is that I think it’s really about mucking in. I’ve tried to work out what elements there are that no-one else is going to do for me, so I can pick up the pieces and have the knowledge and skills to do them. When I was in a band, for instance, I studied audio engineering because I thought I would be the one to record us. I’d go into our rehearsal space with my home recording kit, record the band and mix it. It was just a chapter in terms of getting me to this point, but it’s meant that when bands turn up here and they say, ‘Where’s your audio engineer?’ I can say, ‘You’re looking at her.’ That takes time, but I’m thankful to have done that. When I walked into this space it meant that I had a few things up my sleeve that I could use.”
Sharmaine: “We did have to learn a lot of new skills – from the building work through to booking bands. That did take time but it has all been valuable.”
Verity: “There isn’t a book which you can open and where all the answers are inside, so you have to do everything and learn from your mistakes, even when it comes to things like licensing.”
Sharmaine: “Also money wasn’t something we had in abundance when we started, so we had to do it ourselves.”
Verity: “We’re still doing everything ourselves! The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow hasn’t materialised yet! Everything we earn goes back into the bar, and that’s what keeps us developing the space.”
Sharmaine: “Even during COVID we’ve been able to add things to the place. During the first lockdown we took out a wall that allowed us to have more space in the bar, and we did other things during the second lockdown. We put a kitchen out the back and it’s been good to have the time to do that.”
On the subject of equality as a whole, what do you feel needs to change with regards to the way in which women are viewed within the music industry?
Verity: “I think maybe something needs to change in terms of people’s perception of capabilities. If you’re a woman, you’re apparently only capable of A, B or C. There’s obviously a flipside to that with men as well, but ultimately this sort of idea that if you’re one sex you’re good at certain things, and if you’re the other sex you’re good at other things. It has been a male-dominated industry for such a long time, but things are changing and that goes across everything. I don’t think I can tell you exactly what should change, but the categories that people get put in don’t apply anymore.”
How do think change can actually happen as far as young women are concerned?
Verity: “For young females, role models are such an important thing – especially for young women to see [other women] as they’re coming up, especially if they’re into a heavier kind of music. Being able to see other females in a production role and in those kind of roles is important.
“I love seeing female-led bands, especially in a heavy music arena because you don’t see it very often and when you do, they’re such powerhouses – it’s so cool. Just being able to watch them rock out, it’s like, ‘Yes!’ The more I think that young women can see that type of thing, the more they feel that they can step out of what is originally an uncomfortable comfort zone.
“Even for us, having role models is important. Obviously there are female musicians but also other females running businesses too, to see that is incredible. There really are a lot of young people looking for something different, something new, and something that they can contribute to this world and this society.”
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