AnnMarie McCullough a.k.a. DJ Amtrak at Element. Photo courtesy of her.
Article originally published April 26, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
As Clubland boomed at the turn of the millennium, this beloved Queen West space provided a big-room experience in an intimate, underground atmosphere—but it ultimately became a victim of its own success.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Element Bar, 553 Queen W.
Years in operation: 1999-2004
History: In the late 1990s, Toronto’s rave and house music scenes were booming. Raves attracted audiences of multiple thousands while even licensed clubs catering to underground tastes tended to hold at least 800. The Entertainment District was littered with venues—most of them commercial and unadventurous—while the College and Ossington strips had not yet developed into hotspots for small to mid-sized venues.
In this environment, a group of friends rented a decidedly intimate space on Queen, between Spadina and Bathurst, that had been home to popular pool hall Behind the Eight Ball and, briefly, 24/7 Billiards. The address was also known for after-hours parties on its top floor, dubbed Zodiac.
Tony Mutch, Marcus Boekelman, and their silent partner Patrik Xuereb all met in high school. By their late 20s, Boekelman and Mutch had both produced parties, with Boekelman having experienced Ibiza and London and promoted events in Toronto featuring electronic dance-music stars like Paul Oakenfold.
“Tony and I would fly to N.Y.C. for the weekend just to see Danny Tenaglia spin at The Tunnel or Sasha and Digweed at Twilo,” Boekelman recalls. “It all seemed so new and fresh, with techno and house gaining in popularity. This was a very exciting time, and you really felt like something culturally important was going on that belonged to our generation.”
This all set the stage for what would become Element Bar. The goals were simple.
“We were inspired by the energy of Toronto’s rave scene and by Industry nightclub, and wanted to bring select local DJs and monthly international guests to an environment that was intimate and underground,” explains Mutch.
“We wanted to create a place where you could hear the music we loved in a more comfortable, warm environment, and legally get a drink,” says Boekelman. “I remember going to Montreal a lot at the time, and there were a few bars that perfected this model: a great night out without taking it over the top, where you could hang with your friends and dance. The bigger parties were fun, but some nights you didn’t feel like the crowds, the lineups, uncertainties, and sketchiness.
“The Element space became available, and we saw an opportunity to create a little bar-club with big-room sound.”
Element opened on December 11, 1999 and immediately drew dancers to a stretch of Queen West not generally known for house music.
Why it was important: With a total legal capacity of roughly 300 people, Element was an unpretentious and versatile two-floor venue. The bar’s intimacy would be both a key attraction and, ultimately, its downfall. Other musically related Toronto clubs of the time—from Roxy Blu to System Soundbar were thriving. Element served as a good warm-up (or comedown) spot while also a great all-night hangout for seasoned clubbers and diverse bar-hoppers alike. It also filled a niche when Industry closed just eight months after Element opened.
“The idea was not to replace Industry, but to recreate a similar vibe in a more intimate space,” recalls AnnMarie McCullough a.k.a. DJ Amtrak, a fellow high-school friend of Element’s three owners who also was one of the club’s core weekend residents throughout its history.
“I feel like Element was exactly what was needed at that time, and I remember being so grateful that it happened right when it did. Having come through the rave scene, I was glad to be among a slightly older, more mature crowd that still wanted to dance, but was there for the music.”
Painted baby blue and orange, Element had a retro-modern feel, with a circuit-board mural running the entire wall length upstairs where globe lights hung and a vintage record player greeted passersby in the window. The upstairs was spacious and chill while downstairs was dark, sweaty and pounding, thanks to a sizable system designed by Apex Sound.
“Element had two distinct personalities,” says Mutch. “The music on the main floor was usually loungey vocal house. The downstairs was another world altogether—an alter ego. It was always very dark, very loud, hot, and smoky. The music was aggressive hard house or tech house. It was full sensory overload. The wood walls and floors and low ceiling resonated like you were standing inside a speaker cabinet. Anyone would feel comfortable on the main floor, but only seasoned partiers would understand the downstairs.”
“We spent most of our budget on the sound, not the décor, because that’s what we cared about most,” adds Boekelman. “One of the things that set us apart then was our DJ-booth placement. We put the DJ right on the dancefloor, not hidden away in some other tiny room or up on a pedestal like in many other clubs. The DJ was ‘the show,’ and you could literally reach out and touch them or make eye contact and say, ‘Hi, nice mix.’
“It was amazing to see some of these DJs so up close, working at their craft, especially then when vinyl was still the best choice. Dance-music people love to watch a DJ expertly handle a mix; it’s an art form, and if they get it right you show your appreciation. I think we were a popular place to play among DJs themselves because of this interaction with the crowd.”
Element may have been small, but many big-name international talents went out of their way to play there. Booking agents would place touring DJs at Element on a Friday, and they’d play for more cash elsewhere on a Saturday. Some chose to make surprise late-night appearances for fun, after earlier sets elsewhere.
“The international talent was amazing,” says McCullough, who also had a hand in bookings. “Everyone played at Element, with surprise sets from Sasha [of Sasha and Digweed], Nick Warren, and Sneak all in the first year.”
That said, at its core, Element was a showcase of Toronto house and techno talent. Open Wednesdays through Saturdays, with special events on Sundays, the bar featured key local residents including Andy Roberts, Kenny Glasgow, Ludikris, Gryphon, Nick Holder, Evil P, Peter and Tyrone, Angel and Cullen, and DJ Krista. I also played monthly in Element’s later years.
“Given that Toronto had an abundance of talent, it was a natural fit to promote it,” says Mutch. “We were very selective, and tried to be true to our house and tech-house format.”
Among the most popular of Element’s residencies were Communicate Fridays, which ran from September 2001 until just before the club’s closing. Produced by brothers Steve and Wayne Mealing a.k.a. DJs Stretch & Hooker—then co-owners of massive rave production company LifeForce—Communicate also featured co-residents Myka and Tim Patrick.
“We were known to play it loud,” says Wayne Mealing a.k.a. Hooker. “I remember nights in the winter when the upstairs would get packed, and the front window would be a sweaty, foggy mess. We’d get carried away, blast big party tracks, and end up having a mini-rave on the first floor. It was great to be upstairs or down.”
“Communicate was a locals-driven night so we didn’t have many guests,” Mealing recalls. “However, we did have Donald Glaude play on our third week, and it was off the hook. The party was amazing on both floors.”
“That was one of the most memorable nights for me,” says Boekelman. “Donald was just killing it, and the place was rammed. People were going nuts that night, with their hands in the air. It was so hot and sweaty, it felt like it was raining in the room. I saw one girl dancing and crying and screaming and laughing all at the same time. That night was magic.”
Most of all, Communicate was a chance to hear Toronto DJs who would normally be found playing at much larger venues—like Turbo, System Soundbar and raves galore—stretch out their sounds. Mealing explains why he thinks the bar’s format worked.
“Element was special because it offered something that Toronto was short on: it was intimate, affordable, a great place to meet people as a starting point of a night, and it also usually ran to 4 a.m. Element was very welcoming—stress- and attitude-free.”
“Element was around during one of the city’s golden eras for house, and there was a lot happening in Toronto for this kind of music,” adds Dino Demopoulos, who played vocal and deep house alongside brother Terry during an earlier Friday residency. “What Element got right was a tight focus on keeping things pure, without too many frills. It was a fun little club that didn’t take itself too seriously.
“People often tell me stories about being first exposed to house music at Element,” continues Demopoulos. “Since it was a bar—at least our upstairs floor was—it was a more accessible context to get exposed to this music than a lot of other clubs in the city. Yet, despite its more mainstream appeal, we kept it very deep and pure there. That was cool; since we didn’t have to dumb it down, the energy was consistently so high.”
Element was open to all, with none of the dress code or restrictive door policies that many other dance music clubs of the time put in place to signal “maturity.”
“It wasn’t a beauty contest with a velvet rope and red carpet at the front door,” Boekelman states. “A good vibe in a club has very little to do with how people look; it’s attitude that makes the difference. There was a very diverse mix of people coming together at Element. Everyone was there for the music. My girlfriend’s dad came by for a visit one night, and spent the entire evening on the dancefloor.”
Who else played/worked there: Element Bar had a friendly, inviting vibe that extended beyond its size. Security was minimal, physical fights didn’t seem to happen, and the bar’s staff was instrumental to its appeal.
“Most of the staff was there for the four full years of Element,” says Mutch. “They were loyal, and gave Element a big part of its personality.”
“I remember that it was joining a family rather than just a job,” says Julian Reyes, who worked as both head bartender and manager during Element’s run. “The core group of people was there because of already established relationships, and if you were to be hired, you needed to have a genuine interest in house music. I truly believe that we welcomed people into the scene with open arms, and that energy was definitely infectious.
Other bartenders, including Alyssa Daniels, Grace Van Berkum, “Disco” Dave Fraser, Marty Smits, and Francesca Zielinski also doubled as hosts.
“I remember Element as having a real family vibe to it,” confirms Zielinski. “All the regulars and staff were connected on a personal level, and really loved the music. It wasn’t about being seen or what people were wearing; it was truly about the music.”
On that note, many other prominent T.O. DJs held it down on one, or both, of Element’s floors. On the tech tip, Fukhouse produced parties featuring DJs like Ian Guthrie, Eric Downer, and The Dukes while 2012 JUNO nominee Arthur Oskan played a live P.A. at Element in 2003.
Mark Scaife and Matt Coleridge—then infamous for their Breathe night at System—played regularly, as did established house DJ/producer Jason Hodges, and other local house talents like Mike Gleeson and Mat Lunnen. The Activate crew bumped breaks on Wednesdays during Element’s final year, with DJs including Evan G, Red Turtle, and Dave Saddler.
A little known fact is that Element was also a hip-hop haven on select nights, with DJ Fase having held down Touch Thursdays and then Sundays with co-resident DJ Hangman. In 2002, Fase and DJ Grouch even hosted Toronto’s first underground hip-hop live-to-air, with Lifted Wednedays broadcast as part of CIUT’s Project Bounce program. (Hear a Lifted set here.)
As for international guests, the extensive and impressive list also includes DJ Dan, Doc Martin, DJ Heather, Hector Romero, Josh Wink, Steve Lawler, Ellen Allien, Marco Carola, Steve Bug, Speedy J, and Detroit techno godfather Derrick May, who headlined on the August long weekend of 2001.
“After we made the booking, we were concerned about turnout because the event was on a Sunday,” recalls Mutch. “So we promoted it as free before 11 p.m.. because, ordinarily, we never had a huge turnout before then.
“On that night, the bar was packed by 11 p.m., with no door cover collected. To cover costs, we had to let more people in, but by midnight we were way over capacity, with a massive line out front. That was a red flag to the AGCO [Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario] inspectors who regularly cruised down Queen Street, so they paid us a visit. That over-capacity ticket issued resulted in a 30-day license suspension. Trying to manage capacity was by far the most stressful aspect of the bar business as the penalties were so severe.”
What happened to it: That Derrick May gig was a sign of things to come.
“For me, the club simply outgrew itself,” says Boekelman, who sold his shares in November 2001, leaving Mutch as sole owner. “The brand was bigger than the space. We had constant problems with over-capacity. Many nights, more people would be turned away than actually got in, which wasn’t great for business. Looking back now, we would have done well to relocate to a larger space under the same name.”
By 2003, Element’s crowds became less consistent but the visits by AGCO became more constant. At the end of April 2004, Element’s liquor license was revoked and the bar was forced to close suddenly.
“Element closed because the AGCO would not renew the liquor license,” says Mutch. “The landlord sold the building at the same time, and the space became a clothing store.”
Though neither is now involved in nightlife ventures, Boekelman and Mutch did open resto/lounge Habitat at 735 Queen St. W. in 2002. Many of Element’s resident DJs, including Amtrak, went on to spin there.
“I think most people look back fondly on their time at Element, whether they worked or partied there,” summarizes McCullough, now based in Vancouver. “It was a great club, and I think it left its mark on Toronto’s club scene. Places like Footwork definitely emulate what Element created.”