It’s only been 18 months since the Basement closed, taking 45 years of jazz and other live music history with it. But the build-up of dust and detritus suggests it’s been much longer. In one back room, a worn pinboard is still covered with print-outs of emails, online comments and reviews praising “recent” shows, and a list of dot-points taped to a nearby wall outlines how staff can claim their free post-shift drink.
In May Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham will reopen the two-storey Circular Quay site with a new name and identity: Mary’s Underground.
It’s currently under construction, though you wouldn’t know it. There’s no power-tool soundtrack, no smell of freshly cut timber, and not a single high-vis vest in sight. It’s disarmingly quiet as Smyth takes to a bottle of 2013 Tibouren Clos Cibonne from the Côtes de Provence with a waiter’s friend and Graham idly traces a line in the dust that’s settled on the bar.
“Some people have said, ‘This bunch of ratbags are gonna fucking turn it into a dive bar punk joint’,” Smyth says, pouring himself a glass and sipping. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re big valuers of heritage. We want to change things so they can stay the same: we want to find jazz musicians who can tear your fucking face off, so that we can still have jazz at the Basement – at Mary’s Underground – in 2019 and into the 2030s.”
At that, he spits a fountain-like mouthful of wine across the dusty floor. Graham grins broadly. We’ve grown used to this kind of sass. We saw it at Mary’s, the rock’n’roll burger joint they opened in Newtown in 2013, and again at the Unicorn in Paddington and the Lansdowne in Chippendale, the pubs they revived in 2015 and 2017 respectively. But behind this attitude – and typically grungy aesthetic – lies real substance. The duo has a classicist approach to hospitality, eschewing trends and social media puffery in favour of ensuring people have as much fun as possible at their venues.
At Mary’s Underground, those famous burgers will be available on the ground floor until 1am daily, alongside fried chicken and natural wines. The light globe-adorned carnival sign that currently reads “Upstairs” will be altered to say “Ratspiss”¬ – which sounds at least a bit divey to us. Think of this level as a sibling to Mary’s Newtown and the smaller Mary’s City, opposite Hyde Park – somewhere to grab a quick, well-made burger and a few drinks.
Downstairs, though, will be something entirely new for Mary’s: a full-service restaurant where a nightly stage performance is built into the cost of the meal. “It’s gonna be a tightrope to walk,” Smyth says. “But we’re really confident in the musicians that surround us. And in our team, to create this meld of music, food, booze and service.”
This big, risky concept is even more difficult in the current climate. We’re at one of the lowest points in recent history for Sydney’s nightlife – a stark contrast to the state of play when Mary’s Newtown came along almost six years ago.
“When we were planning to open Mary’s, we didn’t move to Melbourne because Melbourne was at peak bar,” Smyth explains, surveying the scraps of metal and tile piled on the floor and colourful prolapses of wires and cables bursting vine-like from the ceiling. “And in Sydney, there was nothing fucking going on. But then Shady Pines opened and we had this explosion of bars.”
“It was the last great thing that happened,” Graham says, referring to the New South Wales government’s introduction of the small bar licence in 2008, which finally made it possible to run the kinds of intimate venues prevalent in Melbourne since 1994. “It allowed the real innovators and creators to start opening up their own places. Chefs have always done it; the young chef comes along and opens her own place. And when bars were allowed to do it too, it was a beautiful thing.”
“Since then we’ve had a series of fucking disastrous decisions,” Smyth finishes, taking a swig of his wine (sourced, naturally, from P&V Merchants, the Enmore wine and liquor shop the pair co-owns with wine writer Mike Bennie and former Mary’s manager Lou Dowling).
Chief among the disasters, of course, were the 2014 lockout laws. While Smyth acknowledges the tragedy of the deaths that triggered the legislation, he blames political posturing for the disproportionate response. “To say there was a wilful sabotaging of the night-time economy: of course there wasn’t,” he says. “But it was fucking inexperienced political hacks playing games for their own benefit, to get elected. It blows my mind, the depth to which people are willing to play politics with things which are so fucking important.”
“I’ve said for ages,” Graham says, “this shit will just get repealed, very quietly, in the background without fanfare. Whether it’s political posturing, or whatever the fuck is going on – it all happens around times like now, when an election’s looming. This is when people create stances, whether they believe in them or not.”
Later this year, after a decade in Sydney, Graham will finally become an Australian citizen. He still speaks with a noticeable Scottish lilt. Smyth’s Aussie twang isn’t quite as strong as you’d expect from someone whose wardrobe seems to consist of nothing but blue sleeveless undershirts. The pair met in Edinburgh more than 20 years ago while working as bartenders, bonding over their “mutual hatreds and frustrations”. They drew closer in Sydney, working at South American restaurant Porteño, before going out on their own with help from bosses Joe Valore and Elvis Abrahanowicz.
You could accuse Smyth and Graham of many things, but creating new stances to suit the prevailing winds isn’t one of them. From the very beginning, the brash, unapologetic duo has been clear about who they are and what they believe in. The bunch of keys that hangs around Smyth’s neck offers a clue. Collected from important moments in his life – a flat in London, another in Edinburgh, and the back door of his grandmother’s house – the keys reflect a sentimental streak that belies the famous zero-fucks demeanour and aesthetic.
It sounds contrived, but community is at the heart of what the duo does. It’s the reason they relaunched the Unicorn sans pokies and resurrected the Lansdowne as a live music venue. And it’s the same reason they’ve taken on this project, despite the Circular Quay site being so removed from residential areas. They’re betting on attracting a group of regulars regardless.
“All of the decisions that were made, not a lot of them make huge amounts of money, but they bring huge amounts of satisfaction,” says Graham, now sitting on the edge of the old Basement’s stage, a platform previously trod by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Vince Jones and Prince. “It’s not just about our satisfaction, it's about how much fucking joy we can provide to our friends, to our families, and our fellow Sydneysiders. It’s not a flippant thing to say. It’s literally our intention to make the places that we have control over better than they were.”
They walk through the empty bar, past piles of tables stacked on what will become the venue’s new stage area (the existing stage will be repurposed as a seating area). A small pile of CDs, still sealed in plastic, gather dust on the bar; remnants of an album launch for a local jazz quartet held shortly before the venue shut. The music at Mary’s will be quite different from what it was at the Basement, but Smyth nonetheless sees it as one of the most important, defining aspects of the venue and Sydney itself. “You go to a town, and if you go to a venue and see a local band, you can tap in immediately with the pace and the beat of that city. It hums, it’s got a vibration,” he says.
The duo has hired experienced booker Joe Muller to run the venue’s music. Fortuitously, he did the same thing for four years in his previous role at a booking agency, alongside scheduling acts for the Lansdowne and other venues. He’ll be focusing on young, emerging musicians, rather than big-name acts touring the country. And the brief past that? “Rip the fucking roof off!” Smyth says. “No naval gazing, no chin stroking, this is fucking party music. And that goes for every type of music: blues, bluegrass, jazz ... we want to see it all.”
This will leave Smyth and Graham to focus on what they know best: booze, food and service.
Downstairs will have a classic Euro-American theme, with a focus on stellar Australian produce. An industrial rotisserie is already on its way from France, ready to be packed with ducks raised on the Southern Tablelands. The drinks list will emphasise local natural producers, with a smaller selection from Europe.
Smyth points to the future location of a small wine bar, tucked into the corner. Soon, it’ll be separated from the main dining room by a set of saloon doors, past which a daily seafood bar will offer fresh crayfish, clams, oysters, prawns and more. “The food’s not going to create ripples in any way other than the fact it’s just consistently fucking excellent,” Smyth says. “This is about being classic and well executed and beautiful and considered and well sourced.”
Mary’s was conceived as a “big fuck you” to an industry intent on opening more and more bistros and restaurants; an industry Smyth and Graham perceived as taking itself too seriously. They still think that’s a problem, and Mary’s Underground is being built with a similar – if more subtle – attitude. The food is important, yes. But it’s not the sole reason for coming here.
“That’s not what great restaurants have ever been about,” Smyth says. “Great restaurants have always been about socialising, about meeting, about an experience. That’s why I’m fucking excited about bringing that entertainment element back. And not just a set-and-forget three-piece jazz trio that’s not going to get in the way of the evening; we want it to engage. We want to smash these things together, like the fucking Large Hadron Collider, and see what happens.”
Smyth grabs a wire hanging loosely from the ceiling and shakes as though being electrocuted. Graham watches him with a grin and takes another sip of wine.
“Keep it fucking classic,” Smyth says, tossing the wire back into the ceiling. “Fun. We just want it to be fun. We want people to have a fucking good time. We want people to walk out and think, ‘Fuck – that was brilliant’.
“We want people to think, ‘Fuck, why don’t we have a city full of experiences like this?’”