Imagine a place designed by music lovers for music lovers. Somewhere to grab a bite, have a drink or just hang out. The best bit? A custom-built sound system and a musical programme to match. Welcome to London’s most talked about new venue
Despite its name, Spiritland isn’t an imposing structure from the outside, and a cursory glance reveals little at all about its innards. Nestled away in the impressive 67-acre redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, you could easily walk past none the wiser, especially if you fail to spot the display of record sleeves flanking the outdoor terrace.
Step through the heavy, glass door however, and you’re suddenly in a bar, café, radio studio and relaxed hangout all rolled into one… with a killer soundtrack. Spiritland is a music lovers’ obsessive dream made real. A must-visit for audio fetishists.
Every inch of this place has been lovingly thought-out and beautifully executed. Its unique aesthetic borrows elements of 50’s design and mixes it with modern trends. The exposed vents, pipes and lighting rigs make you feel like you’re in a studio. And you kind of are. It’s a big, airy, open-plan space, littered with green fabric chairs stood on skinny black legs.
There’s no dancefloor, no stage. A long bar to one side rolls into an open kitchen. Delicious smells waft through and mingle with what I detect to be some high quality incense.
At the far end of the room lies the beating heart of the beast: the sound system, a one-off creation built by Derbyshire-based high-end audio designers, Living Voice.
“It has two colossal subwoofers and two satellite speakers with three tweeters, horn-loaded mid-range,” says Paul Noble, one of the three Spiritland founders, proudly. “There’s an Atelier Du Triode valve amp in the middle, using 300b valves.”
It should be pointed out at this point that this isn’t to facilitate face melting noise levels, and you won’t go home feeling nauseous from thumping bass. The purpose of this colossus is to create crystal-clear sound quality and the best possible listening experience.
We’re sat in one of two radio studios that reside at the back of the room, looking out at the venue through soundproof glass panes. In-depth interviews with artists who stop by are recorded in here, and it will be the birthing suite to lengthy documentaries about genre, musicians and musical culture. Paul is on a roll now, talking fervently about the equipment.
“We’re not calling it a DJ booth, we’re calling it a selector desk” he says, pointing towards the U-shaped kiosk near the main door, “because no one is really DJing in there, they’re just picking the music and putting it on.”
The desk accommodates a wild number of formats: vinyl, CD, DAX, MiniDisc, cassette, MQA, FLAC, DSD, reel-to-reel quarter-inch tape. There are likely more. Paul declares himself “format agnostic” and doesn’t care as long as it’s not an MP3.
Spiritland has been three years in the making and began after a seed was sown in Paul’s head during a couple of trips to Japan.
“I was spending a lot of time in the bars over there,” he says. “As with everything they do in Japan, how they played music is done with a very high level of detail and elegance. It was nothing to do with DJs or club culture, it would just be a wall of records, one turntable, a lovely pair of valve amps and some huge speakers.”
He’s sat in front of a very fancy looking broadcast mixer, an environment that must be familiar to him after his previous BBC Radio career. He’s eating a sandwich very close to it and for some reason I find this surprising and a little jarring. It’s clear he’s the go-to guy for all things music, radio and technical. He’s obsessive, but not possessive. The sandwich says it all. This is the kind of place that could only ever have been dreamt up by a scrupulous music lover, but it’s amazing that it ever got off the ground. It’s like an idea that you might conjure up with your mates in a pub, and quickly give up on after sobering up and realising the depth of the work at hand.
“I’ve only ever worked in radio and music,” says Paul. “I don’t know anything of the mechanics of setting up and running a place like this.”
Luckily, there were two other brains behind this project; Patrick Clayton-Malone and Dominic Lake (founding directors of British diner, Canteen). There’s a question I’m dying to ask: why now? It’s an almost natural conclusion to assume Spiritland has been created on the back of the resurgence of vinyl, or to indulge nostalgia for other formats of music, but that’s just not true. This is a fledgling concept putting the focus on a sense that’s strangely often neglected in entertainment.
“We’re in this position now,” offers Paul, “where artists and producers are creating and honing something to perfection in the studio, and then in the final stage you hear it on your tiny portable device, iPad, iPhone or whatever. We wanted to do something 180 degrees in the opposite direction and wondered, ‘What’s the best way you can hear this music?’.”
The result looms behind Paul’s head as he speaks. That great hunk of a sound system, and a comfy room with an atmosphere that’s suave and relaxed at the same time. This may sound inflated, but listening to music in Spiritland is a bit like hearing it for the very first time.
So who’s playing all of this music? Andrew Weatherall, Alexis Taylor and La Roux have all made appearances. Equally you could arrive one evening and end up listening to music selected by someone you have never heard of, who simply has an exquisite record collection.
During the daytime, the music has a low-key feel, you’re likely to hear a lot of soul, jazz, country, reggae and pop. Last Halloween, they had a night of solid metal, and apparently Kirk Degiorgio has played a night of dubstep comparable with the fallout from an earthquake.
Every weekday at 6pm, an album is played in its entirety on what’s regarded as one of the finest turntables in the world, a Stabi XL2 made by Slovenian company Kuzma. That’s a big, shiny, golden record player for those of us less in the know. The choice is usually whatever they fancy playing, sometimes linked to a famous birthday or death. It is, intentionally or not, a great way for the space to transition from day to night. Laptops fold away, the coffee machine breathes a sigh of relief, and as the night draws in the place gets cosier, warmer and even more elegant.
Most evenings, Spiritland’s neighbour, in vogue Indian diner Dishoom, has a queue out of the door and down the street. These devoted foodies might be surprised when they discover what’s going on next door. Owen Kenworthy (with two Rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand under his belt and spent time at Brawn in Shoreditch and Sonny’s in Barnes) has created a café-style menu for Spiritland, focussing on seasonal ingredients.
“To open this place and have someone just banging out pints and sandwiches wouldn’t have worked” says Paul.
Although, as you may recall, there are sandwiches. Hot ones, with salt beef or Emmental between the sheets. The closest thing you’ll get to a pint is 387ml of Tzara Koln style lager, brewed in Derbyshire. They fly in mozzarella twice a week from Campania in southern Italy. Even the names of cocktails, like Under The Cherry Moon, pay homage to musical greats.
Spiritland is a different musical venue in a capital city where crows are feasting on the remains of easily accessible nightlife. It’s not a remedy for that, it’s not connected. People don’t perform live with instruments here, no one dances. There’s table service. This is a new experience to be had. Paul says that because Spiritland opened the day Fabric was closed, people kept trying to pull out similarities and stories.
“They have nothing to do with each other,” he says. “They both have people playing music and that’s about it.”
I ask Paul about the future, trying to prise out any other ambitious dream-fulfilling projects he might have on the go. But in doing so, I have already assumed that Spiritland is a completed entity, and I’ve failed to take into account his ongoing devotion to creating the best possible listening experience.
“At the moment I just want to hone this one space to perfection and not get too distracted.”
Spiritland is at 9-10 Stable Street, London N1C 4AB. For more see spiritland.com