Following the grand reopening of KOKO in London, the patrons of the iconic venue spoke with NME about the improvements made and what it means for music fans, artists and culture in the city.
Before relaunching as a “state-of-the-art 50,000 square foot concert and broadcast venue”, the venue (located at 1A Camden High Street) originally closed in 2019 for a one-year renovation. These plans were canceled after a fire broke out on site in January 2020 with the coronavirus the pandemic and “colossal water damage” are further hampering progress.
This week (Friday April 29) has seen Arcade Fire cheek the first concert back at the newly refurbished Camden Hall to launch their next album ‘WE‘, before Luciano headlined the first ‘KOKO Electronic’ party the following night to celebrate the major £70million renovation of the venue.
— KOKO (@KOKOLondon) April 30, 2022
Olly Bengough founded KOKO in 2004 after transforming the Camden Palace venue. Talk to NME, he said it was the latest iteration to “reconstruct 222 years of London’s history” while “looking to the future” by taking the nearby former Hope & Anchor pub out the back (built in 1860) to become the KOKO café and a former piano factory from 1800 to become the new five-story House Of KOKO members club.
“In the 60s, you had the Rocks playing here, the 70s was Shock and sex guns, AC DC and Iggy Popin the 80s we had Madonnafirst London show, Prince played, we had the new romantics like Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Boy George, then in the 90s it was like fall outhe said of the place’s heritage.
“When I founded the theater in 2003, Amy Winehouse had just passed, we had the chance to do cold gamefrom the ‘X & Y’ album launch and Madonna returned for her ‘Confessions On A Dance Floor’ album. No matter who owns it, the theater has always hosted incredible performers and represented both the world and London culture at its best. It has never been a business and has always been owned by freelancers and entrepreneurs. We are always aware of this.
As for the main venue, Bengough said a lot of upgrades have been made to satisfy concert goers and audiophiles.
“We stripped the theater of its masonry, which took three years because it hasn’t been renovated like this since 1900,” he said. “All the bars are beautifully designed, and on the audio side we have an incredible D&B 3D soundscape system. This is the first time in the world that it’s been introduced to a venue, so I think everyone is going to be surprised by the level of audio and sound.
He continued: “During construction we found a fly tower space. Every theater has one, and it’s where the stagehands pull the set design between scenes. It is very high but the public never sees it. We have now built a gallery around it which, together with the stage curtain, means we can operate it as a 150-seat hall. What’s funny is that now artists can play KOKO, they can play tower of flight, or some artists tell us about playing both in the round. It’s amazing for us – we now have three different performance setups.
By bringing Cafe KOKO and House Of KOKO to the realm of the main venue, Bengough said they were able to accommodate around 1,000 artists a year “in different spaces that anyone can be a part of” through performances and live broadcasts.
“It’s great for us, but it’s also great for London and the culture,” he said. “KOKO is still there and people can still buy a ticket for a show. The House Of KOKO gives our community the opportunity to become a member if they want to go behind the scenes and enjoy a little more luxury. That means there are five floors where they can entertain their friends and guests, we’ve built a 40 capsule jazz club with Nick Lewis of Ronnie Scott’s programming.
“We have this amazing townhouse where you can go and watch shows in the theater, or you can go to our new little Ellen’s concert space and watch a show, you can go to the studio where we’ll have listening parties and events, radio station facilities to showcase emerging talent, and we have vinyl listening booths for anyone who loves and really loves music.
“A good number of musicians, artists and actors have joined – so it’s great to have this artistic community supporting us.”
Music fans around the world can now enjoy KOKO with 4K streaming enabled throughout the building.
“Now an artist can stream an analog show where they don’t need to stream, or if they want to stream and distribute their show or behind-the-scenes material to their audience around the world, they can now do so by pressing on a button,” Bengogh said.
“They don’t need to use production companies. We’ve increased the creative scope for artists, so they can come in and do big shows, small shows, they can stream and create limited edition content. We are here to support them and make them look good on all levels.
In the coming months, KOKO will see appearances from Pete Doherty, Jorja Smith, 2ManyDJs as the venue looks set to welcome around 45,000 fans in May alone. The venue’s head of music, Nick Lewis, said NME about KOKO’s mission to continue its role as “a cultural institution that supports all new musical movements, including genres that other venues might be able to avoid”.
“KOKO has witnessed so many musical movements throughout its history, which is really very special,” he said. “From new wave and punk with seminal concerts by The Clash, The Jam, The Cure, to the new romantic era with Iggy Pop, Duran Duran, Ultravox, Boy George, and it was also a center for the rave scene and acid-house in the late 80s and 90s.
“Over the years, KOKO has welcomed some of the most iconic artists from Madonna and Amy Winehouse to Kanye, Storm and Doua Lipa, to name a few. When the theater opened in 1901, Charlie Chaplin performed on its stage, and later Monty Python and The Goon Show were broadcast from the building when it was owned by the BBC from 1945 to 1975. The Rolling Stones made their very first live broadcast from the stage in 1964.
“It is such a special and majestic theater where countless unforgettable memories of music love have been formed.”
Speaking of the “meticulous three-year restoration process”, Lewis said music fans will notice the years of love and effort that went into transforming the venue.
“Fans watching a show at KOKO have always felt the grandeur of the theater, but when we reopen, I think it will be an even richer experience,” he said. “We’ve dramatically improved the sound and lighting, added high-spec viewing screens on the top floor, put in more bars for a (nice) drink, and with live streaming built in throughout, we’ll be producing hybrid events for those who can’t do the concert in person. But above all, I’m proud of our eclectic opening musical program and hope NME readers approve too!
As for the House Of KOKO and Café KOKO, Lewis said they would seek to honor Camden’s “rich local history, synonymous with independent music”.
“We will achieve this by supporting the most exciting and emerging local talent throughout the building, including the ground floor Café KOKO as well as our new stages in the members-only areas,” he said. “We want to make sure we work with the local community and do justice to the site’s history. Music fans should expect the best local and emerging live music and top DJs throughout the building.
He continued, “Artists will have the opportunity to make their visit truly special in many ways. Maybe they want to support our new KOKO store for the day as part of their album launch, or live stream their performance to their fans around the world, or maybe create a VIP show for a few selected fans. in our new place “tour de vol” within the theatre. Our new on-site studio, ‘KOKO Studios’, will broadcast live radio supporting new talent and provide artists with filming and recording facilities, so artists will also have the opportunity to get creative with us.
Admitting that his dream night at KOKO would feature a solo piano by Nick Cave accompanied by a performance by the D’Angelo Quartet with Pino Palladino, Anderson. Paak, Kate Bush and FKA Twigs followed by a Brainfeeder Club Night, Lewis said the venue’s mission in booking shows was “to honor the theater’s rich history while innovating across genres”.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the artists, agents, promoters and managers that we have worked with and who have booked one of the first shows with us,” he added. “All of this wouldn’t work without them, especially Arcade Fire for being the first to come back!”
Visit here for details on upcoming KOKO events.