2016 marks The Bovine Sex Club’s 25th Anniversary and yet, for some Torontonians, The Bovine is still a mystery. What’s the deal with the junk? Is it really a sex club? Does Metallica really love to party at The Bovine? Is it a metal bar? Is it true that Bill Murray showed up one night and started pouring drinks? What goes on in there?
What makes The Bovine such an iconic part of Toronto’s music scene is its eclectic history. Opening in 1991 as a DJ club, The Bovine evolved into a live music venue about three years later when bands began asking to play. “You know, we’ve always been a heavy place, but I think in the beginning we thought it’d be more like rock and roll Cheers, just with DJs and recorded music,” says owner Darryl Fine. “Then the emphasis of having all of the live music came when the bands started coming and saying, ‘We should play here.’ So in the first two or three years there was almost no live music. We had a couple of big bands ask us to play – I think COC [Corrosion of Conformity] played on my birthday 15 or 16 years ago – and then boom! All of a sudden the demands started coming in.”
Over its 25 years, The Bovine has been home to countless bands that have gone on to achieve international success. “We had a lot of early bands like Cancer Bats, Alexisonfire, and Monster Truck who were all 18 and 19-years-old when they started playing here. Some of them had to sit next door at Shanghai Cowgirl and drink Cokes because they couldn’t stay in the building when they weren’t on stage. And they’re all very thankful and it’s nice when they come back and say thank you. When we had the fire across the street, Billy Talent came back. I think it was two weeks after they played the ACC they played The Bovine, so that’s a really nice thank you for growing up in the club,” says Fine.
In celebration of The Bovine’s 25 years, Fine has planned a series of anniversary shows that began in May during Canadian Music Week and continues all year long. This weekend, The Bovine hosts two back-to-back anniversary shows for NXNE including Cancer Bats on the 17th and Diemonds & Sumo Cyco on the 18th. Diemonds guitarist Daniel Dekay hand-picked the lineup for the show on the 18th and has committed to making the show a special one. Not only will this be the band’s triumphant return to the stage since their Juno nomination in April, it will also be the first Diemonds show with new bassist Tyrone Buccione. Saturday is also the chosen date of the launch of the new Diemonds beer, “Never Wanna Die.P.A.” from Rhythm and Brews at The Bovine.
There’s a reason why Diemonds have saved these special moments for The Bovine’s 25th Anniversary. “We have a lot in common with The Bovine,” says Dekay. “I’ve travelled all over the world and have played in every single rock bar and we always try to find the Bovine of every city. That’s literally the expression we use when we’re booking: ‘the Bovine of every city.’ You can find bars that try to do the same aesthetic but no one gets it. No one does it like The Bovine.”
“I tell a lot of people it’s our home bar because we’re a band that really believes in aesthetic and show,” says Dekay. “Some of our favourite bands are Alice Cooper and The New York Dolls and Kiss. We’re into big production and The Bovine is so much more than just a venue or just a stage with a PA. It is an aesthetic. It is a production. Clearly a lot of thought went into the crap on the walls. We have the same sentiment in what we do and they get us. They get us and we get them. We’ve had people hanging from the ceiling, climbing up into the fence on the ceiling, fucking pulling down lights, crowd surfing, I’ve jumped into the audience. There’s a big sub woofer at the front of the stage, I climb over the railing and I play guitar into the crowd – it’s a thing you can only do at The Bovine.“
Stories Behind The Songs sat down with owner Darryl Fine to reflect on The Bovine’s 25 years in the Toronto music scene.
Before there was The Bovine Sex Club, there was 23 Hop – an all ages club at 318 Richmond Street West opened by Wesley Thuro and DJ Chris Sheppard in 1990. “We had this crazy T-shirt,” says Fine. “It was a cartoon character of a cow with a thought bubble and it said, ’23 Hop is not the bovine sex club’ so that’s where the name came from. It was such a funny T-shirt and we sold so many of them that Wesley said, ‘The next place we’re going to do, we’re going to call it The Bovine Sex Club’ and I said, ‘Oh surrrrre we will.’ ” Six months later the pair, joined by Fine, opened The Bovine Sex Club. “It doesn’t really mean anything, but people should know that bovine is latin for cow. Bovine Sex Club is kind of funny because it’s a bit of a meat market itself. Cows ruminating to hook up. We have way over 200 Bovine babies now. And now they can bring their babies upstairs to the Tiki bar at 4:00 in the afternoon and then sneak down for a beer at The Bovine.”
The Junk on the Walls:
One of The Bovine’s slogans is “It’s The Shit On The Walls They Remember.” From the very beginning, The Bovine has had a unique junk aesthetic both inside and outside of the building. “There was a lot of inspiration from a couple places,” explains Fine. “Certainly in Paris and there was a place in New York called the Scrap Bar in the ’80s where we used to hang out which was kind of junky, but not super junky like The Bovine where we put a dump truck full of junk on the ceiling. That sculpture outside was probably conceptualized but Wesley Thuro but Great Bob Scott, who used to be the drummer in The Look People, and Dave Grieveson, who is a local artist, they put that together and the first layer of junk inside The Bovine as well. There was a time for years where Dave was the only one who did the junk. For about 18 years. We would just call him and he would come with his pickup truck. Sometimes he would pre-manufacture things like a dancing baby on a barbeque rotisserie behind a cage or, you know, some crazy shit. Some robotic stuff, but mostly he just had a way of assembling all of the refuge. So we were very green before everyone else. Recycle, reuse, put it on the wall!”
The Bovine’s Music Scene:
After its beginnings as a DJ bar, The Bovine has been home to several musical scenes over the years. From DJs to live music, hard rock, glam punk, hardcore screamo and metal, it has evolved with the times. “You have to keep moving on from one crowd or you die,” says Fine. “It’s frustrating for people who have been here for five years to see a little bit of a switch of which rock and roll we’re going to pursue. It’s a bit of a survival game, it’s also fresh. There’s always that crusty punk night on Tuesday and a monthly psych night which will probably end up being weekly as we get more of that psych heavy rock vibe happening. There’s always room for real hard core stuff.” When asked what The Bovine’s scene over the past five years has been, Fine answers, “Lots of metal. I think next we’re going to get back to a Queens of the Stone Age heavy sound that’s not metal but more of a California sound. The bands that I brought in for CMW for the anniversary show like The Shrine and Doctor Boogie are kind of examples of that heavy but melodic type of sound. The other thing that I think is going to come back is more bluesy, ’70s style metal. A lot of those long hairs are now wearing bell bottom corduroys with cowboy boots and button down cowboy shirts.We still do tons of punk. There’s always two kinds of punk – that indie punk that pretty much every live music place has to do, that college punk rock stuff and we still do very crusty punk every Tuesday. I don’t know why but the people still come, twenty years later. Same girl behind the bar. It’s fun. Smells like teen spirit when everybody’s here, so it’s cool.”
Both musicians and actors love to hang at The Bovine including Bill Murray, Ice Cube, U2, Tommy Lee, Velvet Revolver, Pink, Eagles of Death Metal, The Darkness, Joe Strummer & The Pogues, Ice-T, and CJ Ramone. Both Queens of the Stone Age and Metallica have partied at The Bovine several times. “One thing that people should realize is that we’re not just a [live music] venue,” says Fine. “During the film festival, we become part of TIFF. We do bands some of the nights, but some of the nights it’s the Swiss International Film Festival party in the middle of a punk bar and we’re playing house music and disco and we have a bottom-lit dance floor in the middle of the stage where the bands play. We’ve had great film parties here with John Leguizamo, Mena Suvari, Mickey Rourke, Nick Nolte, Jason Schwartzman, Brittany Murphy… You know, they like The Bovine for the same reason – they can let down their hair. They feel like when they’re at other film festival parties they can’t get their Ya Yas out. All of a sudden we sell just all vodka and gin all night. And champagne at The Bovine. It’s the funniest thing. You know, breaking out the Veuve Clicquot for one week a year. And during PRIDE we do a bunch of Pride-focused stuff whether it’s transgender karaoke or girl-fronted dyke bands or punk bands in drag. We’ve had weddings up at the Tiki bar while there’s been metal going on downstairs. And obviously in the beginning my partner Chris Sheppard was at his zenith with CFNY and had begun his recording career. He was friends with bands like The Cult and one time after Lollapalooza he brought down George Clinton and P-Funk, Bootsy Collins, Ministry, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. All the headliners, six limos at once. So we got a big push in the beginning with Chris’s celebrity.”
What Goes On In There:
“It feels softer than it actually looks. Between the junk and the metal and the Christmas lights, it’s very warm. Diemonds is one of a series of soon to be famous or famous already bands who started playing at The Bovine. You know, sometimes bands are too big to play here, but they remember when they were coming through here and they were handing off their cassette tapes or cds, like Queens of the Stone Age before they were uber famous and the DJs took care of them and the bartenders took care of them and it sort of became a home away from home for bands like that. It’s still the home away from home for shows and couches and girls and hookups, after hours information and other things I can’t mention,” says Fine. “I think the comfort level allows people to let their hair down a little bit more. Typically a metal bar has a lot of posing going on and a lot of dudes that don’t talk to each other or dudes that get mad if they’re talking to their girls. It’s just very comfortable here.”
When asked about whether he thought The Bovine would still be open 25 years later back in 1991, Fine replies, “No. Easy answer. Most places last a couple of years if they’re cool. Look at how many cool places have come and gone? Hundreds. People always think about The Bovine as the CBGB of Toronto and I used to kind of laugh at that when we were 10-years-old but you know, now we’re 25-years-old. The club has reached a lot of people around the world. It’s always nice to know that people are near and dear to it even if they’re not here.”
The Bovine’s 25th Anniversary Concert Series:
June 17th – Cancer Bats with Black Lungs, Six of Swords & The Killer Wails (NXNE show, 4am last call)
June 18th – Diemonds & Sumo Cyco with Mokomokai, Polarity & Fallen Heirs (NXNE show, 4am last call)
June 24th – Biblical, Public Animal & Gypsy Chief Goliath
Plus more anniversary shows to be announced for August – November