Community: that’s the word that Pippa Wragg-Smith and David Goodchild use to describe what they have built at the Cavern. They began putting gigs on at the venue back when it was a wine bar called ‘The Hop and Grapes’ back in 1991, before purchasing it and growing it into one of the best and most celebrated underground venues in the world. This February the Cavern celebrated its 25th Anniversary with a programme of incredible gigs featuring artists who have played a key part in the history of the club, including Walter Schreiffels, who played the Cavern’s first show with Quicksand on Valentine’s Day 1991, Frank Turner, J. Robbins, The Subways and loads more.
The Cavern was originally built
as a Post Office
The Cavern was originally built as a Post Office building back in 1890, with the postal shoots in the ceiling of the building serving as visual reminder of the building’s beginnings to this day. It was then bought by Exeter Art College to be one of their school buildings before being converted into a Chinese Restaurant called ‘Chopstix’. After this it became a wine bar called ‘The Hop and Grapes’, which lasted throughout the 1980s before the owner went bankrupt, at which point David bought the lease from the owner and turned it into the Cavern that we know today.
“Back in the 80s and 90s we were all in bands and there was nowhere in Exeter for us to play which specifically catered for punk rock” David tells me, “we’d been bringing over Dischord Records bands over from America like Fugazi, which we could put on at the Lemon Grove, but we never really had anywhere to put on smaller shows. It was through a stroke of luck that this place became available and we started putting on shows down here, with the first being Quicksand on 14th February 1991.”
Given the fact that many venues don’t last more than a few years, due to either being shut down by city councils or the owners losing interest, I enquire as to what the key to their longevity is on a personal, as well as practical level. Pippa explains that “one of the biggest keys to the longevity is what your expectations are of what you want to get out of it. If you’re a person like me or David who doesn’t mind a lifestyle choice where you basically live, think and breathe the Cavern and you’re happy with that, then it’s fine, and whilst you’re not going to get much out of it materially, you get so much more out of it in other ways.”
“people who have boring jobs have to go on holiday to make their lives more interesting, but the world comes here every day”
I wonder if there is any desire in the pair for a ‘normal boring job’, but Pippa is quick to dismiss this lifestyle as not the one for them: “people who have boring jobs have to go on holiday to make their lives more interesting whenever they have time off, but one of the things that I’ve valued about being here is that the world comes here every day. One minute there’s a band from America, then a band from Japan or a band from Scotland.” She also stresses the importance of maintaining an interest in what you’re doing, something which comes naturally to the pair, with Pippa stating that “my music taste hasn’t changed since I was 13, I’ve always been obsessed with indie and punk rock and I know David’s the same, so no amount of it ever gets boring and you just want to see it all the time.”
Despite many students in Exeter seeing the Cavern as a club, it is first and foremost a live music venue and the importance of continuously giving a platform to the best new bands around is something that David values strongly: “I’m certainly really anti-nostalgia, I despise it, so you’re always looking for something authentic that represents life now, in all art forms. If you take a sports game for example, everyone wants to watch a live game, there’s much less interest watching a game recorded ten years ago. It’s all about now and what’s happening now, that’s the drama for me. The past is gone, and even though there are elements of it and you realise things are part of a continuum so you value the past, I’m not looking to freeze myself to when I was 16 and saw a band and then relive it until I die.”
“we approached different bands that have meant something to the Cavern from the past 25 years”
Onto the 25th Anniversary celebrations, I ask how they went about curating the incredible programme of events they had planned for February. Pippa explains that “when we realised the 25th anniversary was coming up, we decided that we’ve got to do loads of good stuff. When I was in New York this time last year I was talking to Walter Schreiffels about Quicksand coming over to play on the 14 February because it would have been exactly 25 years since they played the first show here. Unfortunately because they’re so busy in their various bands, that became impossible, but we are really pleased that Walter’s coming back to play a solo Rival Schools set on the 8 March, which we’re totally classing as his anniversary show! He was absolutely determined that he would come back and play. From then we approached different bands that have meant something to the Cavern from the past 25 years”.
One of the first artists they managed to book for the celebrations was none other than folk-punk acoustic troubadour Frank Turner, who has played the Cavern seven times in the past, both in his old band Million Dead and solo. When contacted, Turner told Exeposé that “The Exeter Cavern has a special place in my heart – it’s a standard of the underground touring circuit but it’s also still owned and run by some of the best people on the scene. I’ve played there many times over the years and I was touched that they asked me to come back for their 25th birthday celebrations. I’ll be there with bells on!”
Pippa laughs off the idea that Frank would be uncomfortable being back in such a tiny venue, given his massive mainstream success, which has included selling out Wembley, the O2 Arena and countless others, as well as opening the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. “We asked him, do you want to do the Cavern or a bigger venue in Exeter and still include it as part of the anniversary? He said ‘no, I want to come and do a solo acoustic show at the Cavern’, so we’re absolutely delighted about that, it was the best email ever! He knows it’s a tiny venue and there’s no escaping anyone. It’ll be great.”
“all of the local bands play such a key role in what we do”
Despite the efforts to bring back some of the best bands from the Cavern’s history, Pippa and David are keen to make sure the anniversary shows celebrate the Cavern’s present and future as much as the past. “I didn’t want it to be too much of a nostalgia-fest because we are still here, we’re still doing shows and we’ve got a long time left in us yet. We had some real great current new bands playing, including the Xcerts, Eliza & The Bear and Gnarwolves.”
Alongside the line-up of huge artists on the programme of events were some of Exeter’s very best local bands, including Great Cynics, The Fairweather Band, Bangers, Shit Present, The Cut-Ups and more. This was something that Pippa and David saw as very important when curating the programme because “all of the local bands play such a key role in what we do, and it’s not just because of the bands that they’re in, but because loads of them are promotors here, DJs, bar staff, friends of ours and people who are in Exeter and doing stuff culturally and creatively. We wanted to try and make sure that everyone’s represented who should be being represented in the anniversary at this point in this key moment. I feel like we’ve had a programme which had a bit of where we’ve been and where it came from and also right up to date with where we are now and then obviously these bands are still going and so will also be in the future. Hopefully that came across in the things that we’ve created.”
This community that the Cavern has created is one of the key reasons for the large output of great live bands that Exeter has produced, and still produces. David describes his and Pippa’s role as being the “gravity” that pulls everything in, to stop Exeter drifting into nothingness, as happens in many small cities in the country without a Cavern equivalent. Alongside giving these bands the platform to play, it also gives provides an opportunity for people to witness incredible live bands constantly, allowing bands to set standards for their own creative endeavours, something that Muse have stated helped them during their time as Cavern regulars. Another important role that the Cavern plays for bands is providing employment which provides a stable way for musicians to make a living, as well as providing them with the flexibility to take time off to tour.
Throughout the interview, Pippa and David talk gratefully and humbly about the important role that the people involved with the Cavern play. Pippa states that “the Cavern wouldn’t survive without them. If we only opened our doors and saw a load of strangers come in every night, no matter how busy you were, we’d be questioning “what it’s got to do with us?” You want to see regular faces and you want them all to be involved as much as possible. Over the last 25 years, there have been hordes of people who have come and gone on that kind of conveyor belt. Some have stayed for decades, some have stayed for a couple of years and then some people have been here from almost the beginning, and that’s an absolutely crucial thing. Collectives often don’t really work because people form it but it always ends up with a couple of people who are responsible for what’s going on. But communities always work. And I think what the Cavern has done is create a community”.