It's here! Koko reopening day finally arrives with Arcade Fire
- Credit: Taran Wilkhu/Maria José Govea
Two years after a fire tore through the roof, Camden's famous Koko music venue reopens today with a headline performance by Arcade Fire.
The former Camden Palace and Camden Theatre, in Camden High Street, closed for refurbishment in early 2019, but in January 2020 fire broke out – and then a pandemic broke out.
But the project got back on its feet, and the venue has been expanded to include new auditorium space, new venues and a members area with state-of-the-art facilities for musicians.
Koko founder and CEO Olly Bengough said the theatre is looking "spectacular" ahead of the reopening.
He said in the rush to get things finished he had a moment of realisation that it is now happening.
"I just turned around to my music team the other day and I realised we're going to open with Arcade Fire, and then onto Luciano and Central Cee, and then we go on a 27-night run," he said. "It's quite amazing because it's 45,000 people who will be coming through the venue.
"The artists performing are so eclectic and what I love about it is that we're representing all different types of music and genres. That's actually what Koko's about. It's about supporting the best of independent artists and headline acts and emerging acts, and sometimes artists who wouldn't always find a stage."
Among the stars in the opening run are Jorja Smith, Lianna La Havas and Moses Sumney, as well as Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke, electronic artist Luciano and rapper Central Cee.
Olly said he remembers going to Camden Palace in the late 1990s but by the time he took it over "it was in a pretty bad way".
"There wasn't much happening in terms of live music there," he said. "They hadn't really had a live show for many years because the theatre was run down and on its knees. I had the pleasure of watching the 15-year period from 2004 to when we closed in 2019. I was just so fortunate to be in the theatre seeing incredible artists perform. It was a really, really special time for me."
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When fire broke out, while work was under way, the blaze was contained in the roof by firefighters, but thousands of litres of water also left damage. It was a huge setback.
"Everyone pulled through and we did it without any government support," said Olly. "We did it on our own so that made it even harder. We're independent, so we're not relying on anyone.
"My partner, Sister, were remarkable and actually without them I'm not sure we would have quite got through it all. There's a lot to thank them for, because without them I'm not sure if Camden, London and musicians would be having their theatre back in the way they're getting it back. We're all so happy to be bringing it back and sharing it with everyone."
Koko has been relaunched in partnership with Sister, the company behind television productions including Chernobyl and This is Going to Hurt.
The theatre now has a new venue, the Fly Tower, using a space reaching up several floors behind the stage so that an audience of around 150 can look down onto a performance. Artists can also perform "in the round" with the audience in both the main auditorium and the Fly Tower.
Having expanded into the adjacent 19th-century piano factory and the former Hope & Anchor pub, Koko now boasts a late-night pizzeria and tap room, a shop and art displays.
A significant amount of space has been used for members club The House of Koko, aimed at artists and people in the creative industries, with facilities for recording and additional bars and lounge areas.
"The project has just taken shape and it now allows us to work with like London's finest creative talent, and still with this strong emphasis on music and now with even more emerging artists," said Olly. "That's important to us – to work with people who are unrepresented, independent artists who might not get a chance."
Olly is excited about many of the names booked for the near future: "There's an artist coming in in early June called Gabriels. He's going to do a small three-day run in our jazz blues bar, Ellen's, and then he's going to play the main stage in June. He could definitely be one to surprise everyone because he's got an incredible voice and I wouldn't be surprised if he has a huge career ahead of him.
"And then I think Patrice Rushen, as well. She's quite fabulous – disco vibes. Moses Sumney is another artist I think might catch everyone's eye. There are so many."