If you know where to look, you can find slivers of Japan all over Perth. Besides the city’s annual Japanese cultural festival, P-Town is home to dedicated Japanese grocers; hosts a local leg of the popular Japanese Film Festival (which, incidentally, is going online this year); and can boast a small yet vibrant Japanese food scene. One thing Perth can’t lay claim to, however, is a Japanese-style listening bar. That changes next month with the opening of Astral Weeks.
Taking over a former Chinese medicine store in Chinatown, Astral Weeks is a venture three years in the making. One of the partners behind the project is Sean O’Neill, a musician who has played and taught music around the world. During a trip to Japan, he fell hard for the country’s record bars and kissaten: intimate bars and cafes where the album on the turntable is often as important as the food and drink on the menu. (Record bars originated in post-war Japan as a way for people to hear expensive imported records – often jazz – for the price of a cup of coffee.) In an era where Spotify, iTunes and other streaming apps rule the world, the concept of a dedicated record bar might seem quaint. O’Neill respectfully disagrees.
“Quite often those really nice moments that happen in these small listening bars happen between you – the customer and the listener – and the owner, who’s playing the record and standing behind the bar,” says O’Neill. “They really cater to that solo traveller who’s super passionate about music. You can rock up to these places and chat to the owner about what record he or she is currently playing and just have this really nice intimate experience.”
While listening bars originated in Japan, the concept has been embraced globally by venues such as Gold Line (Los Angeles) and London’s Brilliant Corners. Although these bars come in all shapes and sizes, they all share one common trait: the serious pursuit of good sound. For the owners of Astral Weeks, this translates to a significant investment in handmade hi-fi components – tube amplifiers, vintage-inspired speakers, a rotary DJ mixer – as well as acoustic carpeting and panelling for their 60-person space. The result, says O’Neill, will be a sound system that’s crisp, warm and well-defined, but set at a volume that’s still conducive to conversation.
“I think people in Perth are craving a venue where music is the focus rather than background noise where you can barely hear it,” he says. Guests won’t just be able to hear this commitment to sound quality: they’ll also be able to see it, with Astral Weeks’ custom-built shelving designed to show off both the hi-fi equipment and the owners’ combined record collection. (The bar’s name, incidentally, is taken from the 1968 Van Morrison album, which O’Neill is particularly moved by.)
While sound is the bar’s focus, management is also paying attention to the drinks side of things. Quality rather than quantity is the name of the game, with guests able to choose from a concise edit of 15 wines (some natural, some conventional), boutique spirits, and beers on tap.
Astral Weeks (12/60-66 Roe Street, Northbridge) is slated to open at the end of February.