Star Interview: 'The council thought we were insane when we said '˜Can we rent that toilet off you?'': The Sheffield entrepreneur behind club nights, Tramlines and bars

From organising club nights to launching bars and co-founding the Tramlines music festival, James O'Hara has spent over a decade doing more than most to bring Sheffield popular venues and events with a fashionable edge.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 07:00
James O'Hara. Picture: India Hobson

Just don’t call him an impresario.

“Oh God,” he says, when the term sometimes attached to people of his ilk crops up in conversation. It sounds, he agrees, far too much like a theatrical type who swans around in a large coat waving an expensive cigar.

“If I fill out an airline thing I just put ‘landlord’. This is Sheffield – you’re not allowed to be a bighead, you wouldn’t get away with it.”

It feels ‘weird’ to be interviewed alone, he says, when we meet in Public, his bijou cocktail bar that opened seven months ago in a former WC under the Grade I-listed Town Hall. His projects – including other venues The Great Gatsby and Picture House Social, and the Threads night which once ran at the old DQ club – have all involved working closely with friends and collaborators, he points out.

But James is the link that connects these ventures, each a success of music and nightlife. Public, all reclaimed Victorian tiles and wood-panelled booths, has fast become a place to be seen, while Tramlines has exceeded all expectations, growing to a 40,000-capacity festival that can attract the likes of Noel Gallagher and Stereophonics as headliners.

“There’s never been some sort of grand plan,” he says. “People misconstrue that it’s by design, and it isn’t – it’s just fallen into different things by accident.”

James was born in Wincobank, then lived in Shiregreen before moving to Deepcar with his family. By that time he was in secondary school at Notre Dame in Ranmoor, a place he ‘loved going to’.

“It’s just a big melting pot. A load of people who went there have a lot to be thankful for. I was in the same year and class as Jon and Ed from Reverend and the Makers, and obviously all the Milburn lads were there as well.”

He studied biology at Newcastle University, but knew by the end of the first year that a career in science wasn’t for him. “It was quite formulaic – eight hours a day in a lab, pipetting into test tubes. I was like, ‘This is not going to work for me’.”

A few years of ‘avoiding real life’ followed; James joined his father by working in a steel factory, took a job at the Oughtibridge paper mill and went backpacking. “I grew my hair and went a bit wild.”

He started Threads with friends Michael Dean and Andrew Woodhead not long after returning from his travels. His memories of the time are ‘vague’, he jokes, but the event’s eclectic DJ playlists had a clear mission.

“We were frustrated by the fact club nights were very much split by genre; you went to a house music night, or a hip-hop night, and if you were an indie kid you went to The Leadmill. It was all very separated. There was something about the timing of it, people’s listening habits had really changed due to downloading. When we were teenagers you’d have a finite amount of pocket money and you’d buy a record, so you became quite tribal. It felt like Threads was the club night equivalent of the iPod shuffle button. Genre became pretty meaningless.”

He made the first night’s poster on his lunch hour using headed notepaper from Norwich Union, where he sold car insurance. Cryptically for clubgoers, the finance group’s logo was still visible on the finished article, he remembers. “It was the most unprofessional thing ever.”

James then teamed up with Michael again on his first bar, The Bowery, which lasted from 2008 to 2015 on the corner of Devonshire Street. It wasn’t easy – they overpaid on the rent, he says, and there were issues with the building, the lack of a cellar being one shortcoming.

“Doing The Bowery, and it ultimately not working, is one of the reasons why all the other bars are successful, because we learned a lot of lessons at a young age.”

He came up with the idea for Tramlines in 2009 with co-organiser Dave Healy, thinking it would go no further than a couple of gigs in bars, similar to the now-defunct Camden Crawl in London.

“It just escalated into this much bigger, scarier thing. A lot of it was through youthful naivety. I also think you do really good things when you’ve got nothing to lose. If it hadn’t worked, it wouldn’t have mattered – I’d just have knocked on my mum and dad’s door and gone back home.”

What does he think of Tramlines today? Will next month’s 10th outing, in Hillsborough Park, remain true to the original vision?

“It’s definitely evolved, the realities of running the festival has meant it’s had to change. The first year being free, when you look back, was completely bonkers – but things increase in cost. We were lucky to have a really supportive council, which recognised Sheffield didn’t have anything like it. Also the music industry has changed in 10 years. The main revenue now for artists and bands is playing live, and accordingly the fees have increased a lot. Personally I’m really looking forward to it at Hillsborough. It needed its own site.”

Speculation was rife that Arctic Monkeys, friends of James, would play in 2018. Can we ever expect to see the High Green band on the bill?

“It’s a difficult one for me to talk about, being mates with them. You keep that very separate. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to them about it. It could happen; I hope it does, obviously.”

The ‘real heroes’ of Tramlines, he emphasises, are director Sarah Nulty and logistics supervisor Timm Cleasby. “They’ve run the event and deserve all the credit for how far it’s progressed. They’ve been amazing.”

The Great Gatsby and Daisy’s on Division Street, Picture House Social under the historic Abbeydale Picture House, and Public are owned by the Rockingham Group, an equal partnership between O’Hara and drinks expert James Hill, who works for global beverages firm Diageo. “His knowledge is brilliant. I’m more music and entertainment, I guess. Together we’ve got a really nice relationship, we work very well as a unit.”

The pair have ‘grown up with the bars’, he observes, culminating in Public’s fine food, cocktails with foraged ingredients and its vinyl-only music policy. Even the bar’s hardback menus are proving covetable – more than 130 have gone missing, leading to pleas on Twitter asking customers to leave them where they belong.

“I wouldn’t open a student bar because I’m 36, it’s not my world,” James says. “I guess that’s why there’s been a progression from Gatsby, which is street food, DJs and late nights, to Picture House which was a live venue, and then Public. I think the council thought we were insane when we said ‘Can we rent that toilet off you?’ But they were great, all the way through. If we hadn’t done anything it would just have been filled with concrete.”

It takes a particular kind of person to operate in James’s world – they must relish playing the host, possessing a certain steely boldness as well as an instinctive sense of cool. Equally, he puts a lot of thought into his work; he finds dreaming up concepts for bars so absorbing that opening a new venue can be ‘anti-climactic’. “It doesn’t belong to us any more and it’s up to the public to decide whether they like it or not. There’s something bittersweet about opening a place sometimes.”

The Rockingham partners have banned themselves from starting anything new for at least a year, because of the pressure it puts on their time. Both got married in 2017 – O’Hara’s wife Amy is a marketing manager at a film company in London. He met her at Threads and they have been together for nine years.

James lives in Sheffield city centre but is ‘probably going to move soon’. “I think it’s time to get a garden and a dog.”

It’s unlikely he’ll ever be found working for anyone other than himself.

“I love being self-employed. I enjoy the responsibility. We probably employ more than 50 people now; it’s great when you see a kid come along who starts as a glass collector, and ends up writing a cocktail menu that wins an award. I referenced it in my wedding speech last year – people start off as employees and end up lifelong friends. That’s a privilege.”

‘Punters in Sheffield support independents’

James O’Hara believes Sheffield is ‘on the cusp of a really exciting five or 10 years’.

“There seem to be more independent businesses – it feels like the city is trying to do interesting things, but in a way that feels fundamentally like Sheffield, with integrity.”

He praises print boutique La Biblioteka, which sells handsome books and magazines on Pinstone Street, Bear Tree Records in The Forum and potter Francesca Hague of Grey Suit Clay, who made the Public bar’s crockery.

“Punters in Sheffield seem to be really loyal, I think, and seem to want to spend their money in independents rather than chains. The money goes back into the city.”

The environment is not overly competitive, either. “The more good things there are the more people will come, and that’s better for everyone.”
James would not rule out opening a Rockingham Group bar outside Sheffield, but he says: “One of our big motivations is doing things in the city that were not there before. I don’t think you’ll ever get as much of a buzz as doing something in your home town, where you grew up.”