He recently beat cancer and now Driller Jet Armstrong is looking to sell the club he has called home for 13 years – Sugar.
Colourful, outspoken and passionate, Armstrong is one of Adelaide’s most intriguing identities. Not immune to controversy, he has been in the Adelaide spotlight since the late 80s and early 90s through his art and regular DJing appearances at bars, clubs and weddings. As an artist, he received notice for his daubist work in the early 90s. Daubism, an Adelaide movement, saw a group of artists daub over other artists’ work – especially Australian landscapes – to create pieces that breathe new life and meaning into the work by commenting on Australian identity. Daubism achieved infamy through Armstrong’s daubing of a crop circle over a Charles Bannon landscape and received much criticism and press – as well as support – at the time. Armstrong designed the 1990 Fringe poster and has spent the last 30 years balancing his art with DJing and managing his Rundle Street club Sugar – a club that he is majority shareholder and managing director of – for the latter half of those three decades. Sugar became an institution over those 13 years with its house, disco and underground residencies held every night of the week (it is now open five nights a week). Sugar attracts a variety of club goers, young and old, to see some of our finest local DJs as well as visiting internationals such as Moodymann, DJ Harvey and Andrew Weatherall. It is a place where young local crews such as Untzz 12 Inch prospered before receiving global recognition for their work. Sugar, which has a national and international reputation, has also been a showcase for local visual artists. It regularly hosts exhibitions from a variety of artists, including Armstrong. He held his recent Women exhibition there as well as the upcoming Daubism 2015. With Women, Armstrong got to combine two of his practices – DJing and painting, as he reused the cardboard slips from vinyl he had ordered to create the 26 pieces for the recently closed exhibition. “It’s always nice to go to the post office and see that your records have arrived,” Armstrong says. “They come with these beautiful square cardboard inserts that keep the records safe. I used to just throw them away and I felt a bit bad doing that. Then I thought I might as well save them, as I might be able to use them one day. I’m going to keep saving them obviously. “It’s interesting to show this kind of work and break away from the daubist stuff. There was a long period, before I stumbled onto daubism, where I was just doing traditional-style work, where it was all my own work from the get-go. Obviously that kind of work sells much better than daubism does and always has. It’s not as fun to make. It’s not as politically charged as daubism.” From Women, all 26 pieces in the exhibition sold, including 24 on opening night. “They were priced to sell [at $200 for each piece]. Here at Sugar we’ve never, since we opened 13 years ago, charged an artist to show their work here and never taken commission from work sold.” Armstrong chose the theme women, as he believes the attitude towards women in this country is “absolutely disgusting”. “It bothers me as a man,” he says. “There’s that, and the fact that women are much more interesting to draw than men. I think it must have struck a chord with people. The works are very simple. They are almost Japanese in a way.” With Sugar for sale, Armstrong says he will focus more on his art. “I want to go back to what I was doing before I was the managing director and major shareholder of Sugar, where I was just a DJ and an artist. That’s what I really love doing. All of this other stuff is just stress that I don’t need, to be honest. I’ve been in this place for 23 years. Ten years as a DJ at Q Bar and 13 years as the owner here. It’s a long time in one place. I’ve taken this place as far as I think I can. If you look back over the years, since I’ve been in charge, there’s been an incredible list of international artists who have played at Sugar and it’s kind of put Sugar on the map internationally in those circles. People that have played here just want to come back again, you know? It is such a massive compliment that they want to do that. I think I’ve taken it as far as I can and it’s up to somebody else now. I’m hoping somebody else will do something or take it to the next level.” Driller Jet Armstrong at Sugar For the first time in a long time, Armstrong has a range of possibilities available to him that doesn’t include Sugar. “My life is a bit in limbo at the moment, in terms of the club, getting over the whole cancer thing and [deciding] whether or not we stay in Adelaide. Mariot’s [Kerr, film and TV costume designer, and Armstrong’s wife] got a big job in Sydney for four months. That starts in early June. I can see her working more and more interstate. I love Adelaide but I’m not cemented down here. Travelling is really interesting; it’s good to change things up. I love change. A lot of people don’t love change but I love it. We’re not sure what’s going to happen.” The work and the worry of running a late-night club five nights a week for 13 years are some of the reasons he wants to sell, plus he wants to focus on himself rather than the club. “Cancer’s been a big thing for me. I’ve never been sick. There was that whole six-month period of dealing with the treatment and the effects, and it changes you, it really does. It makes you understand why people have massive changes in their lives after they have cancer. Sure there is a whole bunch of clichés but they are clichés for a reason, because they are true. You do change your perspective and priorities a bit. “I just want to do a few things that are more personal that I enjoy doing. I mean, I’ve never made a million dollars but I’ve always been super happy. I was more relaxed just being a DJ and making my art and having shows. Of course, I’ve got all this knowledge that I don’t want to waste just doing nothing. I still want to do events and that kind of thing. Who knows, maybe I might want to do something else, like a more permanent thing, if I can find the right venue. Something that I think can make work in an interesting way that might involve food and music, of course, and maybe art as well.” With Sugar, Armstrong says that four people have shown interest in buying the club and ideally he’d like the right person to buy it to continue what he and others have created, but he knows that doesn’t always happen. “If you’re selling a car you might really want a certain person to get it, but if someone else offers you more money you’re going to take more money aren’t you? We just don’t what’s going to happen. I wish I had a crystal ball but I don’t.” Adelaide had a strong club scene a few years ago but a range of clubs has closed recently including Cuckoo, Savvy and Dog & Duck. These occurred after the controversial lockout laws were introduced, which mean people can’t enter a club after 3am. That’s not to say clubbing is dead, however, as Sugar is still open five nights a week, and then there’s the Rocket Bar/Electric Circus complex, bigger mainstream clubs such as HQ and Apple, and newer places such as Ancient World are carrying the flame for underground music. Even though Adelaide has plenty of new bars that cater for every drinker’s tipple, does Armstrong believe local clubbing and nightclub culture is in strife? “It is in strife,” answers Armstrong. “But it’s not just because of the lockout laws. It’s a combination of things, including a plethora of small bar licenses handed out all at once. People will want to go to new things. They’re going to want to have a look. And while they’re having a look they’re not at your joint. If you keep opening places week after week, then people are going to keep going to those new places. Eventually it’s going to get to the joke point where places that have been only open for two years haven’t got any business because the crowd has moved on to somewhere else that’s new. “We’re not Melbourne. We don’t have the laneways. It shouldn’t be all about activating laneways and activating streets, I mean, first of all it should be about activating buildings,” he laughs. “You don’t want to see empty buildings and activated streets. That’s just ridiculous. “Adelaide is unique. Unlike Melbourne, we don’t have a plethora of small alleyways, but what we do have is a fantastic ring of park lands around the city, as a buffer between the city and suburbs. There’s absolutely no reason why outdoor events should not be happening in those more, not just in March, but throughout the year. Bring people into the city, because you want people to come into the city. I have no problem with anything that brings people into the city, but then you’ve got to respect the ratepayers and the bricks and mortar businesses. You should finish at a certain time and that should be enough time for people to farm out into their favourite existing venues. I think the pendulum has swung too far to one side at the moment and it needs to come back.” Armstrong says he doesn’t want to be known as the “voice of negativity in Adelaide” or the “face of no pop-ups”, as he likes “people with imagination doing interesting things” but he believes there should be some restrictions to pop-ups, so everyone – including the pop-ups and bricks and mortar businesses – can benefit. Armstrong will be organising an outdoor art market in Victoria Square this October (which he is tight-lipped about), as well as some other intriguing projects. “I’m writing a book about this place [Sugar]. I’m getting the stories together. I’m writing a film script about what happened in 1991 with the whole daubist thing; the Charles Bannon painting, the national outrage and what was happening with that group of four people at the time. What triggered that whole thing is really interesting.” Finally, Armstrong says he is really proud of what he and many others have achieved with Sugar. “People that have been here and travelled around, they come back and they go, ‘There is nothing like Sugar’. People that have lived here and then go to Sydney – they’re still looking for a Sugar in Sydney. There is nothing like Sugar in Sydney. It obviously means a lot to a lot of people. People have a lot of affection for the place.” Daubism 2015 Thursday, June 4 to Wednesday, July 2 Sugar, Level 1, 274 Rundle Street Photos: Jonathan van der Knaap