“we thought we were drastically uncool” — mal evans, mojoBack
It’s hard for Mal Evans to talk about Mojo, because Mojo is personal.
It’s obviously personal to Mal. It’s been his life for twenty years; soon, he will have been doing Mojo longer than he’s done anything in his life. He opened the doors, with Roger Needham, in September 1996; the first song they played was Give Me One Reason, track nine from Tracey Chapman’s album New Beginning, a song that opens with a stripped acoustic sensibility, before electric guitars and drums kick in and create an atmosphere you want to repeat, that keeps you from tracks ten, eleven, twelve.
Mal has drunk here, met his wife here, had some of the best moments of his life here; and some bad moments, because you don’t keep something open for twenty years without some bad moments.
But when Mal says Mojo is difficult to talk about because it’s personal, he doesn’t mean that it’s personal to him.
“Mojo in itself is very personal,” says Mal, when we meet him at the bar on a hot Monday when the front windows are flung open to a street of sun-drinkers. “It’s down to people. And everyone has their own very personal view on what it is.
“It’s a local to people, even to people who travel to get here. People hold it to their own. So people’s view of Mojo on a Wednesday at seven o’clock is their picture of Mojo; what people do here at three in the morning on a Saturday night is theirs. I can only give you my view of where we’ve been over the years, but to other people it’s something completely different.”
Most other people you’d ask to tell you about Mojo, though, can’t remember; those threes in the morning when the tequila is flying can be hard to piece together the next night, when it’s starting to happen again, let alone twenty years later. And even if they can remember everything — and remember, you should never drink with anybody who can remember everything — what they can’t do is explain it. Explain what Mojo is, apart from a bar; why it’s great, except that it’s a great bar; or why Mojo was been working for twenty years except that, well, that’s how long Mojo has been open.
The perfect word to describe Mojo, looking back now, is mojo; that’s what it has, although it took some special people to find it.
In 1996 not many people would have thought to look for game-changing bar room mojo on Lower Merrion Street, or even in Leeds at all. Leeds had the nightclubs: behind the blank brick wall facing what was then a hairdressers on Lower Merrion Street was the Pleasure Rooms, home of Back to Basics; and dotted through the city were gestures towards the European café culture that the council and new-in-town Harvey Nichols found so desirable, at Indie Joze and Art’s Café. But for bars, Indie Joze and Art’s had to double up as nighttime venues, because there was precious little in Leeds between pub and club.
“The city had announced that it wanted to have this twenty-four café culture,” says Mal. “The reality was a bit different. Back in the day that sort of scene had started in Manchester with places like Barca and Dry Bar, where frozen vodka was the trendy thing. I used to come through to Leeds from Harrogate and we’d go to Art’s and we’d go to Indie Joze, in the Victoria Quarter, which had this lovely sort of Californian feel to it. It was famous for its CD jukebox, and I remember quite clearly that when it was supposed to show a picture of the album cover for Dark Side of The Moon, the owner Kerry had replaced it with his writing in massive felt pen: ‘If you don’t know by now, you never will.’
“The place that became Mojo was an old hairdressers. I remember attending courts for the licence hearing, and John Gyngell was there, watching us to learn what to do for the licence for North Bar. I had long hair back then, an overly woollen suit, really uncomfortable, just sat there terrified, watching it happen with my fingers crossed all the way through.”
There would have been other bars if those licences had been turned down; Oporto was soon to open, The Wardrobe. But other bars might not have done things for Leeds the way Mojo and North did things for Leeds. Try to imagine New Briggate without North, Lower Merrion Street without Mojo, Leeds as a whole without those two crucial openings to show a way and set a tone for development of bar culture in Leeds that was pitched higher than the identikit blandness that gripped other places, and meant those that followed aimed at something with a bit more Mojo with a capital M, a bit more North with a capital N; a bit more, well, Leeds. With a capital L.
Then imagine Mal Evans and John Gyngell down the magistrates court in 1996, trying to look as respectable as possible in long hair and uncomfortable suits, trying to understand how the system worked, hoping their food menus would be legit enough for them to be allowed the licences to open the bars of their dreams, in a city they wanted to wake up.
“Back then you had to prove you did food to get a licence,” says Mal. “My mum had been a licensing magistrate in Liverpool and she told me about an application there where the food menu was ‘Burgers (Birdseye), Chips (McCain’s), Gravy (Bisto)’, and that was the ‘substantial food menu.’ Everybody knew it was bullshit. It’s funny now, when most places actually want to have some sort of food offering, even though they don’t need it anymore.
“But North did it nicely from the start. They started getting some nice cold cuts, and what my Swedish wife would call beer sausage, ölkorv, a nice salami that you can chew with a beer. Brilliant. That fit with them marvellously.
“Mojo — back then we sold confit of duck, we had baked cod on mash with hollandaise sauce, with a little bit of black roe caviar on top. What that was about, I have no idea. Wrong!”
Not everything about Mojo was right from the start, and it wasn’t an instant hit; neither, in fact, was North. Bar culture in mid-nineties Leeds was a live experiment. But having experimental neighbours in the city meant a support network, because survival of one experiment helped survival of them all; there was no glory in being the last nightspot standing.
“For opening night we filled Mojo with faces we knew from our old bar in Harrogate, Jack & Danny’s, because that was the easy way to fill it. And some of them really disliked the place. They said the bar was too big for the room and it didn’t fit in; they didn’t like the side street because it wasn’t near anything else.
“We were open til 11pm, and then when North opened they were open til 1am, so we used to finish here and run up there and have about forty minutes to pile down a lot of liquor. They had a chap called Leon working there who was an absolute diamond. I remember one night, it had been a brilliant night and then someone kicked the pipes off the urinal in the basement. Just a horrible thing to do. It was right before closing and Leon went upstairs, turned the music off and turned the lights off, stood on the bar and yelled: ‘Nobody is leaving this room until the person that has just destroyed the toilets admits it!’ Whoever it was eventually owned up and Leon sent him downstairs with a mop.”
The other neighbourly institution of the time was Back to Basics, although Mal worried at first that a bar playing rock and roll around the corner from one of the world’s greatest house music clubs would be left looking critically unhip.
“We got visits when we were opening up. I remember a DJ-looking chap coming in, I think he had a mohican, blonde spiky hair, wearing a cut-off denim gillet or something, and asking if we needed DJs at weekends. And it was Tim Sheridan. We said no mate, we play rock and roll. ‘Well if you ever need any house DJs…’ We were like, piss off mate, we don’t play house music.
“Everywhere was dance music. And we were one of very few independents making cocktails in Leeds at the time, playing rock and roll and making American style drinks. And we thought perhaps we were drastically uncool.
“At first Mojo was like a secret, an ‘if you like it don’t tell anybody’ thing. But the Basics crew would come in here for drinks, Dave Beer, Tim, Simon Mu, they’d be screaming at the bar for Elvis tunes, doing American Trilogy stuff with tablecloths for capes, all sorts of crazy party stuff. I remember asking Dave, how come you like all this music, when you’re playing house over the road every weekend? And Dave said, ’That’s my job — this is music!’ It was a great compliment to us.”
Mojo stayed true to Mal and Roger’s original vision. It was a rock and roll bar, it was always going to be a rock and roll bar, and it would live or die that way. What that meant, though, was something more than a music policy.
“I never wanted a 9-5. My mother was in retail, she was a director at Lewis’s, so I had jobs in this department store selling outsize women’s underwear, lawnmowers, cutlery sets, perfume, all sorts. I had this service ethic that my mum drilled into me, and it just seemed natural to serve people.
“I started in pubs when I was fifteen at a pal of mine’s family pub, The Pump House at Albert Dock in Liverpool, which opened for the tall ships race when it was the busiest place you’d ever seen, and the people who ran it had great training. I got a job working in a bar while I was still at school, and while other kids were bringing in a packed lunch I was going down to the restaurant at the bottom of the road and having a bottle of wine with a pal over lunch. I probably made more money then than I do now.
“As soon I came of age I got out and got a job at a hotel in Hampshire, then moved from there to TGI Fridays when it was still being run by Americans. Everything was American spec and made from scratch the American way, from the mayonnaise to the burgers, and the way they trained you meant that if you could work there, you could work all over the world. That’s what I wanted, and why I took the job. I ended up coming over to Harrogate to Jack & Denny’s, and then Mojo came up.
“And it was my view, after seeing all these different bars, that we could be different with the way that we treated people.”
Mojo built its reputation on its bartenders, not only for their excellence at building drinks; although when Jake Burger, who went on to open Jake’s Bar, made a sazerac for ‘King Cocktail’ Dale DeGroff, Dale thought it was the best sazerac he’d had outside America (“Truth be known I’d be terrified to make Dale DeGroff a sazerac,” says Mal), and its bartenders have been representing internationally in cocktail competitions for years, or moving on to open their own acclaimed bars.
But what can’t be tested in a cocktail competition is a bartender’s ability to make drinks that are right for their own bar; right for Mojo, right for the music, and right for the guest. You won’t win any mixology contests with an ice cold beer — “I always made sure we had the coldest fridges in town,” says Mal, smacking the table — and a shot on the side of bourbon or rum; it isn’t exactly complicated. But serve it in Mojo, and it can be the greatest drink in the world.
“I have always been an early adopter,” says Mal. “We were the first to do Jägermeister; back in the Harrogate days we would get it off the American base at Menwith Hill, and it was something we brought to Leeds and it took off. That’s something that’s synonymous with rock and roll now. I had the first Mojito on the menu, the first Caipirinha, the first to get rum punches right. We used to put Prosecco in our Bellinis and people would be like, Prosecco? What’s that?
“So we keep in the game on the cocktail scene and develop new things, but to put it in food terms, I like to think Mojo’s offering is a sort of brasserie element. It’s three ingredients done well: it’s a nice, well-sourced steak, with appropriate sides — not airs or foams or dry ice. I struggle to think where you can go to get a better rum punch. Or a great Margarita. Or a really nice Manhattan. And when I say great I don’t mean because we’ve spent a fortune on it and put a really expensive liquor in it, I mean great because it tastes good and it’s appropriate to the room that you’re in.”
Which is where the personal factor, that makes it so hard for Mal to talk about Mojo, comes back in. When you hear about a new bar opening, the press releases will gladly tell you all about the million pound makeover of the space to create the right atmosphere for a buzzing new bar concept. And then the next time you hear about that place, it’s another press release about how it’s had another million pound makeover because the last concept didn’t work. What you never hear about is what makes Mojo special: the investment in the staff. In Mojo’s case, a million wouldn’t be enough to replicate what their bartenders bring to a space.
“When we opened people would ask what sort of bar we were, and we’d go, well, we make cocktails and we play rock and roll,” says Mal. “‘Oh, you’re a rock bar?’ Not really, no. ‘You’re a rock club?’ No, we’re not really that either. I suppose it’s only natural, that people should want to pigeonhole something, to try and gain familiarity with it. But a few years in, when other places started to open, people began to say, ‘Oh, it’s like a Mojo. It’s a Mojo style of bar.’ It became a thing.
“What we tried with Mojo from the start is to pretend that the bar, that piece of wood, isn’t there, and to make it welcoming. Especially when we opened in 1996, we really hoped this would be a place where women could sit on their own with a drink at the bar without anybody hassling them or chatting them up; just a place where if somebody wanted to sit in their own space they could do it, and just enjoy the environment.
“It’s all about the people, and how we ran the room. We’ve been blessed, we’ve always had a nice mixture of personalities on both sides of the bar. I always ask the bartenders to just be human. If somebody walks in when it’s pouring with rain and their glasses are covered, give them a napkin or towel or something. If it’s baking hot, offer them a glass of water. Or if somebody is looking down, just a hand on their shoulder might stop somebody jumping off a bridge that night. Just by being human, y’know? It seemed completely obvious to me.
“A lot of American chain bars were promoting the idea that they were the best of the best, but my thought with Mojo was that there would always be somebody who knows more than you, and that if you held that dear, you could be open to anybody that came in.
“There was a time a guy was coming in, wearing what was then an out of fashion tight grey plasticky looking leather jacket, sitting in the corner with a mullet, looking a bit strange. I got talking to him one day and he said he’d been at the bed-in with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Amsterdam; not just there, but in the bed with them. He came in later with the photo evidence. I made a mental note to myself then never to assume, because that guy in the corner could be anybody.
“People talk about treating people as if you had them in your front room. That’s not necessarily true. There are people that you’d like to see in a bar that you wouldn’t always invite to your house. But you love to see them in a bar — that guy that’s a little bit crackers, but is part of the jigsaw and the make-up of a great bar.”
As Mojo has expanded from Lower Merrion Street to Manchester and Liverpool, transporting that ethos has been the job of Mojo’s people. “With three sites,” says Mal, “I’m always not in a majority of them. And I can’t be out until four in the morning anyway, with small kids at home, so they have to operate well with the team we have there.” And they have to find their own style that works in the place and the room, the way Mojo did in Leeds.
“People talk about people dancing on the tables in Mojo, but that didn’t happen originally. That was a manifestation of opening in Manchester, where three girls who were pals of ours — two of them were on the team – decided to get up on the bar and start dancing on opening night. And that became a thing. It goes back to people’s perception of their personal Mojo.
“When Liverpool opened we were having sound complaints and were really worried; there were residents in the area, and it was really warm so they had their windows open at night. We paid a lot of money for sound engineers to do a full test, and they worked out that it wasn’t actually us, and it wasn’t the music. The new Kings of Leon album had just come out and Sex on Fire had become this massive track, and what was causing the problem was the guests singing to the chorus to that one song. It has this ludicrous uplift, and it ended up costing us £35,000 to soundproof the place because of this one song.”
That’s the Mojo solution; not to change the music or to stop the guests from having a harmless singalong, but to create a place where the mojo, with a small m, is so overwhelming that it acts of its own volition and creates an atmosphere that is everything to experience, but impossible to capture.
“People come and try to film it, and what’s the first thing they need to do?” says Mal. “Turn the lights up! Why would you turn the lights up in here? Everyone stops being themselves, it just doesn’t work.
“It’s odd, this room. I think at one count, when we were really starting to get busy, we had something like a thousand people through the doors on a Saturday night. When we’re such a small bar. We realised people wanted it this way, it was like they were coming to a concert. If we actually held the door a bit and had pockets of space everywhere, it sort of went a bit flat. I called it controlled chaos.
“At one point we wanted to buy next door but we couldn’t come to an arrangement. I went off on a trip to New York, went round loads of dive bars, and when I came back there was some talk about putting seating upstairs where the kitchen and office was. I said, if this was New York, they’d laugh at us for not using this space. We measured it and thought, we can’t get a bar in here. But we can get a bit of a bar in here. So we’ll get a bar in!
“We opened it as the Rum Room, and on the opening night I was walking around with a journalist and explaining how there were a lot of people who had grown up with Mojo, they’ve had kids, they don’t necessarily want to come out and stand up all night. They might like to sit down and have a civilised drink. So I told him I was proud to show him the Rum Room at Mojo, where you can come and have a nice civilised drink.
“At which point we walked through the door of the Rum Room and there were these two Brazilian girls, stood on top of the booths, shaking their backsides and grinding to the music. So, this is the more grown up, relaxed version of Mojo, is it? For f–ks sake. We’ve done it again. We’ve done it again!”
Done it, and done it again, and never stopped. And never going to stop. Because it’s personal.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 36