We Sit Down With the Owners of the Chameleon After It Was Announced That the Building Would Be Sold

Words: Sophie Gargett
Photos: Sophie Gargett
Saturday 10 February 2024
reading time: min, words

When it comes to finding the gems of Nottingham’s creative culture, sometimes you have to do a little intrepid exploring. Tucked down an alley just off the Old Market Square, legendary bar and venue The Chameleon has been hosting gigs, club nights and late night shenanigans since 2007. With the recent news that the building is to be sold, we sat down with owners John and Lauren Rothera to talk about the life and soul of the bar, and the future of independent venues…

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Just like its bands, every city sees its beloved music venues come and go over the years, some existing for a season or two, others lasting for decades. Back in the sixties, The Dungeon Club was the place to see bands, in the eighties you might have visited The Garage, and in the 2000s, Junktion 7. Providing much more than a mere place for bands to play, these venues create communities, define eras in the lives of their regulars, and spread sounds across the UK against the odds. Consequently, they are a well-loved thread in the fabric of our cities.

For any intrepid music lovers looking for gigs over the past fifteen years, a few high spirited nights watching bands at The Chameleon have probably been had. Originally opened in the early 2000s by legendary landlord Nick Turner, the venue garnered a reputation for being Nottingham’s magnet for small touring bands. 

A chef and raconteur, Nick was known for cooking delicious food, telling hilarious (and sometimes worrisome) anecdotes, and presiding over the downstairs bar, while upstairs sound engineer Simon would masterfully make the sound ring through the speakers loud and clear. Welcoming a motley array of genres was one of the attractions, with bands from Sleaford Mods to Royal Blood playing their first gigs there.

“I’d been to the Chameleon a few times and loved how weird it was,” says John, who got to know the place through then bandmate, barman (and Nick’s right hand man) Dan Overton. “Nick was an amazing character, totally unapologetic about who he was. Basically a legend to those who knew him. Also, a great performer which isn’t really talked about so much. Ripped on a harmonica and a super charismatic frontman.”

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Lauren, who came to take over the bar with John in 2016, mainly knew of Nick via stories shared over the years. “He was very well respected and people loved him, so the shoes felt simply gargantuan!” she explains. “I just hope we did as much good for the DIY music scene as Nick, Johnny from Rammel Club and Simon, the loud beating heart of The Chameleon, did by putting on those shows back at the inception.” 

Anyone who visited The Chameleon during Nick’s reign will know his modus operandi was somewhat unconventional. Cash only, no fridges behind the bar, no beer taps, and a mountain of spicy potatoes appearing most nights for anyone who fancied a nibble. When John and Lauren took over, it was clear they needed to do a little revamp, but keeping the original ethos of The Chameleon as much as possible was important.

“Our intention was always to keep true to ourselves and the place, definitely no marketing campaigns or cocktail menus, promotions etc - albeit our Buckfast Negroni,” explains Lauren. “It’s honestly just a product of not wanting to advertise to the mainstream and just organically building a weird cult reputation. I guess it kind of has an old school social club vibe but with actual proper bands playing upstairs.”

I guess it kind of has an old school social club vibe but with actual proper bands playing upstairs

With a lick of paint, lots of rock n roll memorabilia adorning the walls and other oddities dotted around (notably a smiling cardboard cutout of Danny DeVito overseeing the bar), The Chameleon stepped into a fresh chapter of existence, riding the wave through Covid, attracting new music lovers, and bolstering their reputation for accommodating upcoming bands from all corners of the world in Nottingham.

For several years the music has played and the times have been good, despite the bones of the building becoming increasingly decrepit. “It’s been in a pretty terrible state of repair for a number of years now. We tried multiple times to help the owner secure funding to carry out some essential repairs,” explains John. “Unfortunately he decided against it for reasons unknown to us and the building deteriorated further from that point forth.”

Since the news broke in late 2023 that the building is to be sold, the Chameleon community has been saddened, and John and Lauren are still in the dark as to what will happen to it. “Seemingly the only option left is to pass on the burden to a developer. But we must stress this is speculation on our part as we still don’t actually know their plans or whether there has been any interest from potential buyers.”

The endangerment of independent venues is certainly not just a localised issue. According to the Music Venues Trust (MVT), 35% of grassroots venues in the UK have closed over the past twenty years, and faced with constant underfunding, soaring utility bills and the cost of living crisis, times have become increasingly challenging. 

“The situation is way more dire than anyone realises,” explains Lauren. “It very much seems that the idea of a small music venue existing without also being a nightclub/eatery/cocktail bar is no longer possible. The government seems to be, not surprisingly, short sighted and don’t see the correlation between a loss of grassroots venues leading to a decline in artists breaking out into the mainstream keeping the gravy train rolling.”

When asked what they would like to see happen to help these musical hubs of the community survive, John and Lauren explained an initiative being touted by the MVT: a levy on massive stadium shows and big venues to give back a percentage of profits to the grassroots sector, similar to major football clubs funding of local teams to let talent flourish. “It is an idea we definitely like, but big companies love money so I guess we’ll see how that plays out.” 

And so, as is often the case with underfunded corners of society, we naturally look to the community, but John and Lauren maintain that the onus isn’t really on normal folk to keep independent venues afloat at this point. In terms of how gig goers can help however, they suggest the following: “Buy tickets in advance so promoters don’t have to deal with the stress of a potential washout. Don’t sneak your own booze into a licensed venue - the majority of them that do serve alcohol solely rely on wet sales to keep the bills paid. Share events on social media, it’s far more helpful than paying for a Facebook ad with practically zero reach. The onus isn’t really on normal folk at this point though. We’re all being shafted enough as it is!”

Over the past seven years John and Lauren have worked almost nightly at the bar to keep it the music playing and the drinks pouring, but they also feel indebted to the regular promoters who have put on shows. “We wouldn’t have lasted this long without them. So big thanks to Marty at ButtonPusher, Phil at Torturous Promotions, Paul at Karma, Rammel Club, Kez, Maddy from Loose Daze, DHP, Brad from Club Fruit, Gallery Sounds, Soul Buggin’, Alex from ACHB, Joey from Forever Records, The 593 Collective, Taipan Commune. The list could go on for some time so for anyone not listed, we’re sorry!’

While the gigs and the good times will continue at The Chameleon for the foreseeable, it remains uncertain for how long. When asked what their standout memories of the venue have been, John and Lauren’s answer is likely to be shared by many others in Notts too. “Too many late nights to remember, too many laughs and some lifelong friends made,” they said. “It’s been a rollercoaster and any shenanigans worth recounting shouldn’t be committed to print.”

It’s been a rollercoaster and any shenanigans worth recounting shouldn’t be committed to print

Finally, when asked what their favourite acts to play at The Chameleon have been, they have a few personal faves: 

Primitive Man -  They sounded absolutely insane through Simon's rig. 

Ruby Rushton - We don’t get as much Jazz coming through but they were so good. Once again with Simon doing an incredible job on the sound. 

L.A Witch - An awesome LA garage punk band.

Mary Ocher - poet, visual artist, performer. All round good stuff.

Getdown Services - Clearly heavily influenced by Sleaford Mods, it’s crazy to see the impact they’ve (the mods) had on underground punk rock. You don’t need to learn how to play a guitar to be in a punk band anymore. Just a laptop, some samples and good ideas. 

Bloody Head - Nottingham noise/punk/whatever band. Heavy as fuck and always a treat to have them play. Deffo one of our fave Notts bands.

Sleaford Mods comeback special - After all the success they’ve achieved over the past decade or so, they came back to do a teeny show at the chameleon last year and it was top tier. 

Midwife - One of the few shows we actually organised ourselves. Madeline was great, the set was ethereal and a nice change from the usual loudness blasting upstairs. 

Ditz - A really great post punk band that has transitioned up the venue ladder successfully after playing the chameleon, 100% worth checking out.

Damo Suzuki - The legendary frontman of CAN does these open jam type gigs with folk who ask him. This young lad sauntered in one time and said he’d like to book the chameleon for such a show and we weren’t too sure it would happen. But it did and it was flipping incredible, Damo was a genuine sweetheart!

B-Boys - Just a great flipping band!


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