Bakehouse Studios – Stories from Helen and Quincy


Helen: Bakehouse has only ever had three owners. The stable part of the building was built in the late 1800s by the Walters family, and they were carriers who came from NSW. Olden days furniture removalists, with their horse and cart, etc. It was a fairly large stable and it had a mezzanine on top where you’d drop the hay down to feed the horses. I’ve even got distant memories of coming here in the early ‘80s and there still being hay down on the ground. That old bluestone on the ground there. Then Mr Walter built the house for his family in about 1910, from what I know. It’s a 4-bedroom house. Then there’s been a series of extensions. So in about, early 1950s, it was then sold to the Shirr family…

So going back to the Walters, the daughter or the wife was one of the Coppin girls, so they're steeped in Richmond history. Originally our old next door neighbours, when we first came here, there were a number of little houses down the street. So this was probably one of the largest houses, and then small single storey, free-standing cottages. Built around the turn of the century, when the house was built here. In the '50s the Shirr family took over and they had storage and they were rag-traders, as far as I know. And the factory may have been built at the back just before that. The top floor had all their stuff, and they used this as their factory manufacturing clothing and textiles.

And then, over that period, when the father died – they were a Jewish migrant family – the ground floor became a squat at some time. It was in about 1984 or ’85 that Stable Sound Studios took over and it was a guy called Manny, that we knew, and his partner. They were hospitality people and they ran audio schools back in the ‘80s. They set up rehearsal rooms here. It was pretty well decked out for that. The fact that you had a large stable room at the front that was a makeshift studio and then a number of small rooms through the place. When we first came here there was a double window and you had that recording studio happening downstairs.

Upstairs, the matriarch of the Shirr family had stored a lot of her husband’s possessions and so much old fabrics and teatowels and blankets packaged in cellaphone. About six or seven years ago it was taken over by the Win family. You’ve got the story of Australian immigration in a way: the old English family selling to the Jewish immigrants onto the Vietnamese family. So they’re a consortium and they own a number of warehouses and properties all around. Apparently they started with one very small one in Victoria St and now they own about 40 factories throughout Victoria.

When they took over, we inherited all the stuff upstairs as the existing tenants, and we’ve used a lot of that stuff throughout the building. So old radiograms, there were prints from the 1800s, etchings from Moonee Valley Racecourse. There were boxes of Navy issue, 1950s button-up white shorts, that we’ve used in an art installation. Reams and reams of fabric. And a lot of it was water damaged and they’d been pigeons through the building so we’ve had to become really creative on how we can use all of that.

We’ve been very careful to maintain all of that. So when it comes to the early historical fixtures and fittings we’ve kept them. And primarily because we’re an arts business. It suited us to maintain to integrity and the character of the building. But also have it on display because it’s part of the heritage. I suspect that if this little building here had been knocked down – like nearly every single building in this stretch – and turned into office blocks in the ‘80s…

So we’re zoned industrial/commercial on this part of Hoddle St. Over the years we’ve seen this rise in offices. But we’ve been fortunate in a sense that there’s often a very low occupancy for tenants in those places, because there’s such a glut of office space. And there’s a real scramble to get apartments built. But given our zoning, we’re lucky that… it’s unlikely that this part of Hoddle St will be a residential area, in the near future. But we are surrounded by a lot of mixed-use dwellings. And you would’ve probably spoken to people and seen that there are residents starting to move in that weren’t there previously, apart from the old houses that’ve been there for a long time. 

So interesting with the three families. People drive by and they don’t really know what’s in here but because we’ve operated at music studios for so many years, if you’ve been in a band or played any sort of music, and you’ve lived in Melbourne or parts of Australia, at some time or another you would’ve come through Bakehouse for some kind of project.

The Bakehouse name came from our first studio in Bakehouse Lane, which is the old York St Studios. One of the oldest existing recording studios in Australia. 

The first studio was Stable Sound Studios in the ‘80s. And then it was bought by a guy called Mark who turned it into Thunderfield Studios. We came through about 17 years ago.

Back in the ‘80s, Quincy had a really popular band called Blue Ruin and did a lot of touring.

The great thing about Bakehouse for bands is it’s such a central location. And it’s serviced by the two freeways, and Hoddle St, and public transport. So if you’ve got a member in St Kilda and a member in Brunswick…

Good ol’ Dr Kate Shaw who’s mapped all these cultural clusters over the last twenty years or so, has shown that there’s still a real proliferation of cultural clusters, in the inner city. And there’s two little projections going north: Sydney Rd and High St. But there’s still a diverse amount of artists and makers and live music venues around the Collingwood, Fitzroy, Richmond area. There’s a lot of reasons for this. There’s a mixture with the cost of property – where there’s cheap rent, you’ll still artists around.

It’s changing pretty quickly. There's a real build up of developments around us. On Hoddle St all the cottages have gone, in the years we’ve been here. And a lot of the industrial factories. A good example, when we first moved to this area, and part of the reason Stable Sound found this building was the Richmond Tavern was opposite. And then it was the Sydenham Hotel. And it was a predominant live music venue.

Quincy: This building was a squat before it was taken over by Stable Sound. And next door was a derelict building that one of the staff of the previous owners ended up living in. And paid them $11 a week rent.

Helen: And he used to come here and have his showers!

Quincy: We inherited him with the business.

Helen: The rail line, often you’ll find arts and cultural businesses, particularly places like this that make a lot of noise. Because, apart from being an industrial/commercial area, being nestled in between Hoddle St, the rail line, the tram lines, cheaper industrial spaces, the commission flats at the end…

Quincy: We and the other practitioners of culture basically saw this as perfect for us because it was not desirable by the general public. But of course with gentrification…

Helen: There were no residents for years and years and years and they’ve just started springing up. I think the Sydenham came first, then Stable Sound, then Billy Hyde set up their hire space just opposite here on Little Hoddle St. And then Audrey’s recording studios backing onto Little Hoddle. Then Midian Studios moved down to just off York St, rehearsal studios. Frank has his mastering and audio studio where he recorded Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know at that studio, which is a few doors down. The biggest selling single ever to come out of Australia was recorded just here.

Quincy: They did a lot of their pre-production here. He and Kimbra in that year were doing a lot of rehearsals here. For international touring bands, Lonsdale St becomes Albert St becomes Elizabeth St, so it’s a direct run from the hotels in the middle of the city to drive to Bakehouse in their vans, their convoy of tour buses. 

Helen: The back entrance is the entrance that musicians know. The front sign is something that the general public have this vague idea of what goes on in there.

Quincy: The misinterpretations are pretty varied as well. A lot of people assume it’s an old bakery, but this building was never a bakery. James Black from Rockwiz said he’d pointed out the sign to his daughter and said that’s where he was working. And she said, 'There? In the crematorium?' She thought the microphone on the sign was a coffin. She thought it was where they baked…

Interviewer: Tell me about the sign.

Quincy: We had the logo done by an old friend of ours, Nick McGee. He took it from a cross of American deco graphics and a little bit of the Communist propaganda. A band that rehearsed here had a bunch of signwriters who offered to make us a sign. And we had a vision of a rusty metal thing. So they got up there and did it from up the top. The sign is nothing to do with this building historically, it’s to do with our business.

We definitely wanted to keep it in the feel of the building and deliberately setting it in the arch. With a lot of what we’ve done here, we wanted it to look like, that’s how it always was. We wanted to maintain the feel. It’s such a beautiful… It’s easy to get rid of it, it’s impossible to reinstate it.

Helen: The one thing with Hoddle St, you’ll find, and Punt Rd, you’re just swamped with advertising. People are pushing products and, if it’d been anyone else, except for Quincy and I, they’d probably would’ve had a blaring big sign advertising Studio Rooms. And in your face advertising. We’ve done things subtlely. Particularly now that we get all those big name artists through, it’s important that we respect their privacy as well. Over the years, there’s been a lot more interest in the building since Paul Kelly let the cat out of the bag and filmed his documentary upstairs: 'This is where I’ve been doing my rehearsals for the past 20 years, in this space.' And then there was all this interest from the general public. Nick Cave, when he came here with the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, and many of his projects, he’s had photographers through and had whole series of photos taken here on his website. You can imagine how intense his fans are and they want to see where Nick Cave rehearses. 

Quincy: We don’t tend to have people wanting to sneak in. Fortunately it’s tucked away enough and it’s still private enough that that’s never been an issue.

Helen: But then you get this legendary thing happening. Nick has this thing – he loves to sit in the courtyard, dressed in his suit and jewels and unbuttoned shirt and cufflinks and just watch the young bands come out of the room and, losing their shit, going absolutely white when they see him. And he says, 'Look at the youth of today, aren’t they fabulous?'

Quincy: We got our only real neighbour complaints when Tool rehearsed here for two hours, because they were so monstrously loud. 

Helen: Because it’s such an old building and they were such a loud monstrous band, there was a layer of dust left in the room upstairs. 

Quincy: They shook the dust out of the ceiling. It’s 100+ years old with cracks between the boards and it just rained dirt.

Interviewer: The sense of community here amongst artists is a clear thing...

Quincy: There’s a lot of bands who have been rehearsing then they have their breaks in the courtyard and they’ve met other members in the courtyard and start a new side project.

Helen: So there’s been bands formed, relationships formed, and lost, tours booked. We’ve had every major promoter, tour booker, curator come through and look at various acts. Having that central gorgeous garden and this is just a big communal kitchen, that’s the interesting thing. Just a couple of weeks ago we had all these Blues guys here, mixed in with hip young things, metal guys, making a cup of tea together. And the Hotham St Ladies were doing an artwork down on Little Hoddle St, and all these touring New Yorkers were taking photos and Instagramming it. Our own little guerilla feminist Banksys. There’s always this incredible activity, a fabulous communal feeling here.

We’re proud to say that Bakehouse has played such a major role in the last few years. Protecting the sector all around the country. And it has stemmed from the history, of all the artists who’ve come through here. Elvis Costello came here and said they’re some of the best rooms he’s ever been to in the world. People like Olivia Newton-John, Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics when he toured and spent a week upstairs.

Everybody from Australia from Ross Wilson to Noiseworks to Tina Arena to Hunters and Collectors. Of course Nick Cave. And the Cat Empire. The list goes on and on and on. Archie Roach and the Black Arm Band. John Butler. Gotye and Kimbra. Cut Copy. The Avalanches. Jet, Dan Sultan, Megan Washington. 

Interviewer: Tell me a bit about the practicalities of running a business on Hoddle Street.

Helen: Often Hoddle St has been described as the lung of Melbourne. The pollution, the dust, the dirt. Our garden is an oasis of carbon-sucking plants. We need a lot of plants around. We have to clean windows a lot. The black grease that comes off. A lot of double-glazing, good insulation, ventilation. Over the years the black dust has decreased. I’d say since unleaded, with less super and diesel. There are not as many trucks down Hoddle St these days. The other challenge is traffic noise, if you’re doing sensitive recording, you have to shield against that. But it’s not as bad as trams. Trams and trains. We’re far enough away from the train tracks. They give you this bottom end rumble. But you can soundproof against the cars. 

We’re very aware that everything is going to be turned into residential around us. Their expectations are different to businesses. Businesses understand there’s a certain amount of commercial noise. They know we’ve been here for 30 years operating as a studio. They tolerate it. Residents come in expecting a good night’s sleep, which they should get, but our understanding of a mixed use zone versus a quiet, leafy residential neighbourhood zone should be different. The law will reflect this very soon, in the coming weeks, as a result of SLAM.

One challenge that we’re facing now is that we’ve got two major developments within 50 metres of us. Residential. They’ll be zoned mixed use and they’ll have some retail at the ground floor. There is nothing above three storeys in this area. One of them will be eight storeys high, the old Richmond Tavern, with 56 apartments. So parking will become an issue. We just have to diversify. We deal with the developers at ground level. We’ve been given the tools to do this with our work with SLAM.

We’ve identified how we can survive. Because the building is under review for heritage listing, and we don’t want to move out to the ‘burbs. We’re collaborating with visual artists by bringing them in and presenting public art out the front and in the rooms. We’re probably going down the European model where, if you go to a rehearsal room in Europe, the back-line is in every room. The drums, the amps, everything’s ready to go. So all you need to bring is your guitar, your pedals, your snare, your sticks, whatever.

Traditionally, in Australia, musicians cart their own gear because they’re very particular about their sounds but inner city living will dictate a little about how we run our business. Also to allow people to come by public transport, as the parking will reduce in the area.

Ultimately we’d like musicians to be able to come here on public transport and not need their vans. Australians are so tied to their cars, we’d prefer not to see four vans coming. Hopefully we can see more of that in the future and create an environment where that will work.

We’ve got a 15-year lease, the idea is that we stay. The heritage overlay is great for us because it means it won’t be turned into an office block. Hopefully we’ll be here for a long time.