Turn off the main St Leonards thoroughfare, open a door and enter what feels not dissimilar to a living room. Depending on the evening, you might be greeted by the sounds of a synthesiser, the strumming of a ukulele, modern jazz, or almost anything else (including bonkers bingo callers). So exactly what kind of a place is The Roomz?
Dave Francis, who sub-leases the venue, in Western Road, four days a week, says it is hard to categorise, although with five gigs a week, describes it as probably the busiest venue in St Leonards.
“I don’t see it as a pub, a restaurant, or a bar,” he said, although there are elements of all these things. “It’s a bit of a blank canvas.”
One thing The Roomz is, without doubt, is a place to hear interesting music. Holding 40 people comfortably, and 60 at a push, The Roomz is never going to be suitable for artists with a huge following, but instead is becoming established as a hotbed of creativity, where all are welcome, (though perhaps not all at once).
And with this comes the freedom to programme more risky events than would be the case at a more mainstream music venue.
From the Transylvanian Gypsy Trip-Hop of the Ingrid Pitt Orchestra, to the experimental and improvised sounds of Warrior Squares and Stasis73, and blues/ska/calypso of duo A&E, all sorts can be heard at The Roomz, which makes it particularly hard to pigeonhole.
A fan of many different types of music, Dave says that he particularly likes being in the presence of something “fantastic and unusual”. The word “fantastic” as well as its common meaning, can also be applied to something “imaginative and fanciful”, which seems appropriate in this case.
‘Niche’ springs to mind, but The Roomz is unconventional without being at all cliquey, or self-consciously cool. Experimental is one of the words that Dave uses to describe the programming. He said: “What seems to work is music that is more unusual. Music that is quite challenging and alternative does better here than music that’s more mainstream.”
From Thursday through until Sunday evening each week, The Roomz is run by Dave, with help from his wife Liz. Dave’s involvement with The Roomz began back in 2007, when he used to run a monthly open mic night where no guitars were allowed - a hint that there was something different about his approach. It was in August 2012 that he took over the management, and as of February this year he is sub-leasing the venue for the latter part of the week.
A truly independent venue, and one which receives no external funding, Dave says this is part of what makes The Roomz special. Live music is paid for wholly through the sale of alcohol, while word of mouth and social media are how musicians are booked and events publicised. This is about as far from a mainstream venue as you can get and Dave said that whenever he books an artist or band, he makes sure they understand exactly the environment in which they will be performing.
Regular events include Jazz on Sunday afternoons, an extremely popular open mic night monthly on a Thursday evening, the regular Cheap Thrills Bonkers Bingo, and cabaret events for adults with learning disabilities hosted in conjunction with Active Arts. Aside from these, the sky’s the limit in terms of programming, and The Roomz has also hosted poetry nights and theatre groups.
Unlike many pubs which have badly hit by the recession and rising costs, and are desperately trying to diversify their offering with mixed results, Dave is not bemoaning the lack of passing trade at The Roomz because there was never any to begin with, and “off the beaten track” is how he likes it. People go to The Roomz if an event takes their fancy (and may even end up with a tasty vegetarian meal as a bonus), but it is not a destination in itself.
“I don’t get passing trade, but I don’t want it. People have to make an effort to come here - that to me is an advantage,” he said. “There are people who live in Central St Leonards, who don’t even know it’s here.”
Then in addition to the music, there’s always home-made vegetarian food available. The food is as eclectic as the music, expect a dish of the day; a one pot vegetarian stew, a mushroom pie or a sweet potato curry and a selection of snacks rather than a three-course meal. The Roomz being neither merely a restaurant nor a café-bar. In itself it is just a space, brought to life by Dave and whoever happens to be on stage or in the audience at any particular time.
The café-bar licence held by The Roomz means no lower age limit applies to those who are allowed in. Nowhere else in Hastings or St Leonards can people of all ages so regularly gather together to enjoy an evening of quality musical entertainment. This, combined with the fact that the venue is tucked away, has helped to create a safe space, far removed from the typical pub environment. It also means that young bands can perform their very first gig surrounded by family and friends before perhaps moving on to one of the town’s larger venues, such as The Union Bar.
“It’s really important to me that The Roomz is a place for people of all ages, which is a challenge, and also a safe space for those who may feel that a pub or bar is not the place for them,” Dave said.
Community is the buzz-word when it comes to The Roomz. It is a place for the people, and the atmosphere is very much shaped by those who perform, and those who come to support them. Dave takes the trouble to make sure everyone coming through the door feels welcome, whether life-long St Leonards resident or recently relocated from London, making The Roomz particularly special in that it brings together those who would never mix under any other circumstances.
That said, the eclectic mix of events could potentially be confusing when promoting The Roomz as a venue. Dave said: “I have to be a strong figure and pull all the strands together.”
Fundraising events also form an important part of what happens at The Roomz, and this in itself brings a huge range of interesting performers. The likes of Bocafloja, for example, a Mexican hip hop artist based in New York City, who performed at a benefit gig in aid of the Anti-Raids Network held at The Roomz last summer as one of only two UK dates.
An event to raise funds for the Combe Haven Defenders and Hastings Against Workfare brought Muddy Summers, described as the Sade or Billie Holiday of anarcho-folk, to St Leonards last year, while an example of a more recent fundraising event in aid of the newly launched Hastings Independent, featured Simon Scardanelli, The Piercings, and The Ukulele Brothers (Dave and Andrew Francis).
Dave’s plans for the immediate future are to get some more regular events up and running at The Roomz. “In the summer I want to open during the day for family events. I also want it to be a place for people to come after work,” he said. “Though the music is always going to be the core of it.”
A blank canvas known and loved by many, unknown to many more, The Roomz is friendly, a little bit different, rough around the edges, and often full of talented musicians and other creative types, it is in fact, St Leonards in a nutshell.
The Roomz is at 33-35 Western Road, St Leonards. Contact Dave Francis through The Roomz Facebook page: facebook.com/roomz.stleonards or call 07975 512614.