Raving, club nights and music culture: does Sydney’s nightlife really suck?

In conversation with artists and organisers from Sydney’s rave and dance music scenes.

Photo courtesy Cocoricò.

With lockdowns and lockouts a frequent presence in recent years, many have echoed the sentiment that Sydney has a shit nightlife. We say, wistfully, that outside of house parties, there’s nothing to do when the weekend rolls around. But is this true? 

Both underground and legal raves have been around for a long time, but with the repeal of the lockout laws and an end to lockdowns there’s been an opportunity for party culture to truly re-emerge. To find out what shape it is taking in 2022, what draws people to the counterculture, problems in the scene and what it could look like moving forward, I spoke to a number of artists and organisers heavily involved with Sydney’s rave community and dance music scene.

Dithyra (Fred) is part of Cocoricò, a close-knit group who came together around a love of organising parties, who now host both underground and legal raves. 

“The first one we hosted was at Malabar in 2018 and was really scat,” Fred laughs, “We didn’t really know what we were doing at the time.” 

By the second event, things were coming together and the name ‘Cocoricò’ had emerged: a word the group liked, and French onomatopoeia for the sound of a rooster’s crow — the victory cry of those who make it to dawn. 

Photo courtesy Cocoricò

For DJ Mistry (Chintan) it was the importance of high-quality sound production following a love of electro music and parties that got him organising with Prion Audio, a group who host events but have also developed their own sound system for hire. Chintan’s personal project within the group is Landing, the second iteration of which occurred over the weekend. He described it as “a sit-down, low-impact, experimental event, a little different to your classic rave but still very much about losing yourself in the music and the community.”

Isa (Louisa) is a DJ, radio host and the founder of Athletica, a club night that aims to provide a consistent sound they felt wasn’t available or accessible in Sydney. Starting out at Tokyo Sing Song on King St, Athletica takes place across a range of venues from the Red Rattler Theatre to the newly opened, community-run Pleasures Playhouse, an abandoned cinema in Haymarket.

Through Athletica, Louisa aims to bring together “a largely queer crowd that draws a beautiful array of different people with great music that is just really fucking fun.” For her, a diverse lineup is truly fundamental to lowering the barriers to take music in new and interesting directions but also because, in their words, “I started DJing because I looked up at a stage and saw someone that looked like me killing it — I would love for people to come to Athletica and feel those same feelings.”

Despite techno music originating in the African-American communities around Detroit in the early 1980s and club music being “gay as shit” according to Louisa, straight, white guys still often hold the power even if the scene is diversifying rapidly. “The social biases that people have around race and class of course seep in and so you have to be really intentional about representation,” Chintan says. 

“It’s just not that interesting to have homogenised lineups when there exists such a diverse and vibrant scene but also just in terms of our personal values,” Fred echoes. 

As Chintan points out, clashes with authorities are inherent to underground raving, which “has always been counterculture — a form of resistance against the establishment, an escape from society with some undeniable roots in working class black and brown communities.”

On this inherent tension with authorities, Fred says, “we’ve been caught maybe three or four times [by the police] but they seem more intent on dispersing the crowd than they do issuing fines or pursuing organisers.” 

Although some of their events are illegal, the safety of the community is something that they all think about. 

“People make their own decisions around drug and alcohol consumption and such but where there are things that we can manage as organisers, we do,” Fred says. 

Although they did actually try, “it turns out it’s hard to get public liability insurance for illegal raves,” he half-jokes, “underpasses are a fair bit safer than headlands and rocky shores — closer to roads, further from cliffs.” 

Even if they are yet to be fined, avoiding a shutdown remains a goal for the organisers. Fred tells one story of scattering the glowstick trail to a bunker across numerous paths, leaving riot police wandering through the bushes for hours as the sound reverberated off the cliffs and water, impossible to hone in on.

When we get to talking about the music, their enthusiasm makes it clear this is what binds the community. 

“[Cocoricò] have refined a similar taste around garage, chillbreaks, into harder breakbeat, electro and finishing with jungle or drum and bass, sometimes with some more authentic techno…the general trend is lower BPM to higher BPM through the night,” Fred says.

Whether it’s about music culture or, as Chintan says, “providing an escape from what can otherwise be an isolating experience living in modern society,” he would like to see its connecting capabilities extended — beyond the six or so hours that people usually come together — into a real movement. “Why do we all want to escape from this world and why don’t we talk about that? I’d like to see some other route of education or solidarity, or just a broader connection,” he says.

Photo courtesy Cocoricò

On the question of whether Sydney has a shit nightlife — a view Louisa, Fred and Chintan all once shared — they agreed that you can no longer get away with not being creative or doing interesting things, both with the music but also with the production and visual effects.

Louisa sees the dance community as “a funnel towards an underground area with so many different worlds and something for everyone.”

“We may not be in the same position as somewhere like Berlin or Bristol where it just doesn’t stop Monday to Sunday,” Fred admits, “but we’re on our way.”

That consistency is something Chintan would like to see too, a regular scene that allows people to engage with it both casually and professionally. Nonetheless, “it’s on a really great trajectory and I’m excited to see where it goes,” he says.“The things that matter at a party — the music, the people and the location — Sydney is more than capable of ticking all those boxes,” he says.

Shit sucked for a while, but Sydney has a great, highly-functioning and rapidly improving nightlife these days, they all argue. It is clear that the future of this community is in good hands with people who care about high-quality music and providing a kick-ass party, even if you might have to scratch beneath the surface to find it.