The Hootananny is a Brixton institution. Arts Contributor Harriet Hall met Sophia Yates, who owns Hootananny with her brother, and is involved in every element of the business.
The Hootananny: it’s rough and ready and we locals love it. Open since 2007, everyone has a story about a night that ended there, dancing sticky floortiles, getting lost in the packed-out labyrinthine rooms or bumping into countless old comrades. It’s an award-winning venue (Best Music Venue, London Lifestyle Awards 2011) and one of Brixton’s busiest pubs. As it stands, an enormous red, dilapidated Edwardian public house, the Hootananny is loved for its shabby-chic charm.
Landlord Sophia’s true love is literature, and she previously set up a writers’ centre in Scotland and was one of the parent promoters of the Elmgreen School in West Norwood, before she settled down with Hootananny; surprisingly she’d “never pulled a pint before I came here”.
Originally set up as a Scottish music venue – sister to her brother’s pub in Inverness – Hootananny was intended to bring the sounds of the Scottish Highlands to South London, but it didn’t quite work out that way. The result was a music venue, boasting the likes of reggae, dubstep, afrobeat and funk with pop-up food stalls, comedy and even reading events.
Sophia’s keen to press what she terms the “festival vibe” of Hootananny. “There’s so much going on wherever you look – comedy, fantastic food, brilliant bands and DJs – so you can pick and choose. You might want to make a whole night of it but on the other hand, you might just want to play pool.” It’s become so popular that the music booker no longer has to approach bands to play – “they come to us”. Sophia’s constantly on the look out for what works. “All the time I’m looking at the crowd – wondering what do they want? I never went to gigs in my youth, but I’ve learned the rhythm of the night – you can’t put on a jazz headline because that’s too chilled.”
Of course, it hasn’t been without its glitches. Brixton has a big drug problem, which Sophia has a “zero tolerance” policy towards. “We have a whole variety of things in place – undercover people – we’re doing our best to make sure it’s a fun, pleasant and safe environment.” She also holds a tied lease, which is a “huge disadvantage” but she works with what she’s got.
Hootananny is first and foremost a family business. Sophia and her brother own the pub, her niece, Angie is the promoter and manager, and her other niece handles all the visuals – art work on walls, posters and a recent project with local artists who painted all the outdoor benches: (“with all that terrible weather earlier in the year, it looked so dreary out there, so we thought we’d brighten it up.”) They’re close-knit and hardworking in their cosy offices above the pub, where the dog and Angie’s baby rough and tumble alongside plans and preparations for new nights.
The stories Sophia can tell me about her patrons are fascinating. A jilted woman who tore off the doors to the men’s toilet cubicles and a shoeless wonderer are just two of the characters who come to mind. “Every night is an experience. If you’re looking for a slick, smart, wine-bar atmosphere, you may not want to choose Hootananny.” There’s no pretence here, it is what is it and that’s why it works.