I met up with Jon Tolley over a cup of tea in Spuds cafe to ask how he turned Banquet Records from a small record shop – the last vestige of a small chain called Beggars Banquet- into the successful indie store it is today.
The shop claims to be “More than your local record shop”, and it certainly lives up to it; running in-stores and club-nights, putting on gigs and promoting upcoming bands. Five years ago Jon was working at the shop, but it was in trouble and he put forward a bid to take it over, since then it has truly staked its claim at the heart of the Kingston music scene.
He admits it’s hard to be objective about Banquet, but believes its strength as a promoter comes from its unique combination of passion and capital. Whereas many local promoters have put on some amazing shows, any bad show can seriously knock their confidence and finances.
Banquet can afford to play a longer game, taking what Jon calls a holistic approach, seeing a band through from the beginning “stock their first 7 inch, tie in a show, and watch them all the way from the Fighting Cocks to selling out…New Slang”.
“I do believe one thing we do well,” Jon says, “we do look after the bands.” Banquet try to see it from the bands perspective; “and we can see it from the kids’ perspective, we were the kids who went to shows, and also (this with a little laugh) we can see it from the bank manager’s perspective. Just having an overall viewpoint, and caring”. They try to fit the right band to the right night, and know the band and the audience. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it ties in with the label, sometimes it’s just a place to sleep or some hot food. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t look after the bands, and won’t be there at the end of the night just to say goodbye. And thanks.”
Later on he comes back to this idea, recounting a sleeper gig in May, when US pop-punks New Found Glory played a totally secret set at the Fighting Cocks, a small Kingston pub and venue, and wanted absolutely no publicity. “That’s a different request from a band. They played because their mates were in town and they just wanted to play a gig with no barriers, no £15 security, no security.”
“I think that’s one of my most reaffirming-my-belief-in-punk-rock moments of this year.”
Asked why so many of the bands that come through Kingston seem to be just on the cusp of success, Jon pauses for a moment, “I’ve always thought that what we do best is the world between indie and punk rock. The music between indie and punk, and also the mentality.” He seems rightly proud that New Slang, the flagship indie club-night which celebrates its fourth birthday next Thursday, is talked about all over the country, and the idea that students are drawn to Kingston due to the thriving music scene.
And having the store is an important part of that, having somewhere that doesn’t just sell music, but also sells the gig tickets and books the bands. It’s a lot of work, but it’s still fun.
Sometimes it’s more than just a bunch of friends, it’s people who drink together, at the Fighting Cocks or at The Mill.” It’s got to be dynamic, people come and go “you can’t expect someone who’s a seventeen year old with no commitments to be doing exactly the same stuff six years later.” The shop has to go with the times, as well as bringing up local talent; New Slang DJ’s reflect the changing tastes of the wider musical audience. “You have to react to new music scenes… as long as we can be putting on forward thinking music then it almost doesn’t matter what that music is, as long as it has the right ethic and spirit behind it.”
When asked about plans for the future, he almost errs towards an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it attitude”. But as far as the music’s concerned it’s all about going with the times, “you need someone with a foot on the ground, to give a root to an area, to a sound.” These days it’s dub-step, which some Banquet employees have been following for a long time. It’s all about facilitating access to the records and the gigs.
So Banquet always tries hard to stay ahead. “We had an emo section at Banquet, what, ten years ago? And people would come in asking ‘what’s this’. And then, later on, your grandma knows what emo is.”
For Jon, the idea is simply to recognise trends, “not trying to innovate, but just to facilitate. Giving bands somewhere to play, somewhere to release their records.”
After the interview is over, I ask Jon about his favourite moment since taking over the shop. The list is endless, ranging from charity events to seeing his friends bands develop. From incredible in-stores (Laura Marling, Mystery Jets) to the first New Slang with a proper stage and P.A. “It was the Young Knives. That was like, ‘oh wow; we’re actually putting on big bands in Kingston.”
In the end though, every week and every new band is a high point for Jon. “It’s seeing that show, and you’re singing along as loud as you can. It’s only as good as where you are right now.”