When you go to an open mic night, you’re putting your evening into the hands of strangers. Will you be met with the next Jose Gonzalez, or will your eardrums be violated by a tuneless rendition of Green Day? Will you trade amazed compliments with your astonished Tinder date, or be forced to scream I’M AN ARIES WHAT ABOUT YOU over a misguidedly operatic Wuthering Heights? Will your night be 1995 Mariah or 2017 Mariah?
Enter Dukebox: a open mic that’s not open enough for the next act to be shit.
The night began as a Glasgow University Magazine launch that was so successful that Dukes Bar’s owner, Cheryl, considered standing at the door to turn people away. Now, one year into its run as a hub for live music in Finnieston, Dukebox has become what founder and showrunner Robbie Orr hoped it would: a catalyst for emerging artists to come together.
We caught up with Robbie after the Dukebox First Birthday party to find out more.
So how did the idea for Dukebox come about?
I’d been playing around a few open mics for a while and the quantity and quality of the musicians in Glasgow blew me away. I wanted to help people hear these artists, but when I invited friends along they’d be concerned about getting embarrassed hearing someone terrible.
I figured it would help to attract people along if they were assured of that not happening, so when Cheryl at Dukes gave me the chance, I invited the best open mic musicians to play extended thirty minute sets (open mics will usually allow 15 minutes max) and organised set line-ups like a gig.
Crowds get to discover great new music and musicians get to play to new audiences and try out longer sets, so everyone takes something away from the night. Dukebox is like a little showcase in that way I think.
How do you find your acts?
I go out to open mics a fair bit and meet artists there – I met Tom Vevers at Sleazy’s, Jared Celosse at Dukes, Rhona Macfarlane and Awkward Family Portraits at the GOMA – and I also hear of a lot of artists through recommendations from the musicians who’ve played at Dukebox before. Recently artists have been getting in touch with me directly to send over their music and get involved which is exciting.
It’s built into something of a community, hasn’t it?
It has in a way, you start to see familiar faces coming along every month. We had the chance to play some music back at my flat after the birthday party which was a lot of fun, it’s difficult to keep up with the likes of Tom and Gareth though!
Do you think the community aspect is something that’s helped it to grow?
Oh for sure. I didn’t have a clue how to do any of this when I started and relied on the people around me to tell me what to do. Jake, Cheryl and Gordy at Dukes are always keeping me right with levels and the sound tech side and the artists are really constructive when it comes to advice and feedback. I’m just following orders really. The puppet.
I think the way everyone is really keen to help out and see the night be successful sums up the music community in Glasgow in general.
Are there any other nights in Glasgow that inspired you?
Basement Sessions is a great night down at Broadcast run by Calum O’Connor and Kathryn Kerr. I got some advice from them before I started Dukebox and they gave me some great notes on what to expect, common problems and stuff. Basement Sessions has fewer acts than Dukebox but the drive to support Glasgow artists was something I wanted to replicate.
You’re from Edinburgh originally – how do you think the music scenes compare?
Edinburgh had a lot of issues with late licensing when I was growing up which has held back their live music scene I think. There’s still a load of great music in Edinburgh but it tends to be touring artists rather than local bands. I know quite a few musicians who moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow because the scene here is much more supportive of up-and-coming artists with bigger crowds and more gigs. I think there’s more young people running nights in Glasgow too which always helps.
Yeah, and so many venues are keen to have live music too. Dukes Bar was a bit of find though, not many places have a disco ball and a piano. You play and write music yourself – how did you get started?
I started playing guitar when I was around 15 and my Dad always encouraged me to write my own music instead of working on covers. All I wanted to be was Caleb from Kings of Leon at the time (and still).
Once I got into the habit of writing the songs started coming easier and I got better at structuring them. I can’t comment on their quality but I enjoy playing and nobody has quietly ushered me off stage yet which is a bonus.
What’s your creative process like? I know you write poetry too – does that influence how you build your songs?
My songs tend to go melody first so I’ll find a chord progression I like when I’m playing around and make up the lyrics after. My poetry tends to stay as a separate thing. I’m also terrible at remembering lyrics and feel under pressure when I have to perform them so I usually end up making them up a little when I play live to ease the nerves.
What’s it like hosting the nights? Have you always been confident talking to the audience? I’ve heard rumours that you were on the stage in your youth…
Haha, and yes I had a couple of turns in the school musicals but the less said about those the better. Hosting was pretty nerve wracking for a long time. I never knew what to say and would always end up stumbling through an introduction to an act or making weird noises when I tried to breathe. It’s gotten easier now though. I’ve realised that people aren’t really listening and will clap and cheer when you start doing it so I just keep it brief.
Do you play any other instruments apart from the guitar and accidental Mongolian throat singing?
Mongolian throat singing is a primary skill I’d say, though I’ve developed a limited ability to play the piano. I don’t know any chords but I’ve memorised hand shapes that make nice noises and work from there. I’ve written a couple of tracks on the piano which are quite nice but they’d need some backing instruments to sound like anything more than a variation on chopsticks.
How do you balance making your own music with running the night? Do you think one invigorates the other?
Yeh I’d say they both drive each other on. Having Dukebox every month pushes me to write more music and discover new artists all the time which is great for creativity. I’m currently working with Tom Vevers to produce an album/couple of EPs of his music which all stemmed from Dukebox which is exciting. They definitely feed off each other.
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
I’m working on a prototype for a music app at the moment which is in it’s very early stages. I’ve also written a sci-fi script for a short film that I’d love to make over the summer but that will depend on funding and whether I can get the team together – if anyone fancies making a short film hit me up!
What are your plans for the future of Dukebox?
I’d love to do a festival. I think ‘The Dukebox Stage’ has a nice ring to it, or maybe put on a small festival myself in Glasgow with some help.
I’m currently working with Gareth Croll, Calum MacEachen (Designer) and the lovely folk behind Evo4Promotions to put on a micro-festival in Edinburgh called The Big Sit In which is happening at the end of May. The line-up is looking awesome so far and we’re all really excited for it!
And finally, what advice do you have for someone else looking to set up their own night?
Be confident in what you do and don’t worry too much about getting bounced by artists or venues – it’s always going to happen. Act like you know what you’re doing until you know what you’re doing, or people believe that you do.
Sage advice. Thanks so much!