Gaz Peacham can still remember the moment, to the beat, when he knew The Maze could be something really special. November 12 2007, Israeli funk band The Apples were just getting into their set, building up slowly, climactically, to one of those rare indescribable moments you get in live music; when the crowd and the venue and the lights and the band all trip into the same groove at the same time; when a beat builds and builds, upwards to a high peak. Then drops.
“A sold-out room all just bounced when they dropped the beat,” he says. “The whole room was facing the band and everything just stopped, nobody was talking, nobody was at the bar, they were all just jumping up and down dancing and going mad.
“That was the first time I thought, ‘This could be a wicked party venue, to put really good party bands on’. I will never forget that moment. That vibe. We call that the Maze vibe.”
What he and his wife (then girlfriend) Steph Peacham couldn’t possibly have known back then, a year before Gaz took over as manager, is that this was to be the first of countless sublime moments they would live through together at The Maze.
In the 15 years of their lives they have devoted to it, The Maze has become one of the best live music bars in Nottingham; a totally unique venue that has hosted myriad bands, solo artists, DJs, poets, open mic-ers, comedians, speakers and political activists. Tens of thousands of punters have arrived through those red double-doors, packed out the expectant darkness of the back room, choked up the yard with smoke and din, and spilled out into the night a few happy hours later.
But the joy they have brought to so many people has had a bittersweet edge for Gaz and Steph. There’s no escaping it – running a bar and live music venue can be a grind, especially when you live upstairs. For every moment of magic there are a hundred headaches; from kicked-in urinals to boozed-up patrons kicking off.
Not that they seem to regret a second of it when I visit them in their flat above the bar, having just heard the news that they will be calling time, for the last time, in June. As they’ve tried to explain in an open letter this week, written after a lot of soul-searching – a letter Steph struggles to get through even now – they want to go out before the fun stops. Rather than lament what’s closing, they are inviting the thousands that have loved this bar so much “to celebrate with us and to commemorate what we, as a community, have done in this run-down, little venue on the edge of town”.
A run-down little venue where a fifteen-year-old Jake Bugg used to play open mic nights to three punters, and then one day came back, a star, to play a legendary secret gig. Where Chas and Dave once played, if you can picture it. Where people used to pack in to see Royal Gala, James Waring’s band before he set up the Invisible Orchestra, or hear world famous Nottingham beatboxer Motormouf – aka The Maze’s own barman Alex Young.
But it isn’t just the big headliners that people will remember. Anyone who has stood in that darkened room – whether it’s heaving and bouncing and bursting at the walls to a metal band, or hushed to a pindrop quiet as a folk singer holds the whole space in a trance – will have felt the intangible spark that lots of bars try to capture, but The Maze so effortlessly owns.
“You won’t get that kind of atmosphere in a bar that dresses itself up to be purposely eccentric,” says Steph. “All these places in town that have spent thousands of pounds in looking so very cool and quirky. Maybe I’m going in on the wrong nights. But you just don’t get the same kind of thing you get in a little tired-looking pub.”
The more dissolute members of the Nottingham social scene have a saying, in the form of a question: “Heading up the road?” Along with the bands and the fans, The Maze has a magnetic effect on a motley cast of regulars and irregulars; intense, intemperate characters of all ages and types, drawn by the hazy glow and the winking and shimmering bottles behind the bar, the jukebox of seemingly infinite repertoire, and the gallery of myths and legend of music, suspended on the walls.
“Absolute nutcases,” says Steph. “Every single one of the people who come here is a nutcase. They’re some of the best people I’ve ever met.”
It’s no accident that so many totally different people feel at home lifting a pint in the Maze. “We have consciously never wanted to be judgemental,” says Gaz. “Any style of music, we’ll put it on. We’ll welcome any sort of person, no dress code, no particular politics. Anyone and everyone is welcome.
“You’ll get a sixty-year-old punk talking to a eighteen-year-old rude boy guy listening to hip hop and drum & bass but their outlook on life is actually quite similar. They might never talk to each other out on the street but here they feel at ease to do so. That’s a really cool thing to see.”
As we sit and talk a huge green oblong roof slides past the window; another double-decker bus heaving up Mansfield Road in rush hour. Through my boots I feel the dzzz dzzz dzzz buzzing base note from the speakers downstairs. For all the intense characters and rocking gigs, living above a bar that stays open into the small hours is a strain on the senses.
“The constant noise, that’s something we’re not going to miss,” says Steph. “Doors slamming, drunk people shouting, the traffic. When emergency vehicles come up the road they put their sirens on exactly here outside the window. We’ve got a white noise machine in our bedroom.”
Fifteen years of this kind of attrition, this upstairs-downstairs existence, have brought Gaz and Steph, who got married last year, to the point where the highs that make it all worthwhile are getting further between.
Add to that the changes Nottingham has seen over the past fifteen years, which haven’t played in The Maze’s favour. At one time it was the final bleary stop on the legendary Mansfield Road run, once The Peacock, the Golden Fleece, the Loft, and Lincolnshire Poacher had been relieved of much of their stocks. A lot of that crowd lived in Forest Fields, the decadent, arty, counter-culture, hub of the city. Most of them have since moved on to more sedate lives in more salubrious settings.
And there are the changes that have happened everywhere. In the mid-seventies only 2% of all alcohol consumed in Britain was bought off licence; today more booze is drunk at home than in pubs.
The Maze only exists today because it was rescued from redevelopment in 2005 by former owner Ben Brettell, who still has a stake in the business. It has only lasted as long as this thanks to Gaz and Steph’s tireless efforts organising gigs throughout the week – without which it simply wouldn’t pay to open the doors some nights. And Castle Rock, which owns the building and has kept the rent low, even reducing it when needed, has been something of a benefactor all these years.
Gaz says: “Business has been up and down constantly. We’ve never had three years in a row where we’ve run a profit. Rent’s been the one bill that hasn’t gone up.”
An ineradicable love of live music first brought Gaz and Steph to The Maze. That hasn’t left them – only the strain of making it happen night after night has got to them. No wonder they’re both looking forward to the next chapter of their lives, as music promoters.
“We’re going to be putting on gigs as an outside promoter, working with the bands that we know and like,” says Steph. “Just to be able to put on a show and not have to worry about broken toilet doors and paying wages and all that stuff. Just to go home.” She lets out a little sigh. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
The open letter ends by affirming what we all should know, and what I hope I’ve got across. “The Maze,” it reads, “is not just a building but an atmosphere and a love of music and good social vibes.” And so it is. As much a vibe as it is a venue. Long live the memories of hazy nights and weary hours beguiled by this medley of loves. Long live the music and thank you for it all. And long live The Maze.
The Maze will officially close its doors on Saturday 29 June 2019. Let's give Gaz, Steph and the venue the send-off they deserve.