If one didn’t already regard the Mustang Bar to be a Northbridge institution, then consider that in 2024 the venue celebrates its 25th year.
For venue owner Mike Keiller the early days presented a challenge that established an attitude that has kept it lasting that quarter of a century. The old Claisebrook Tavern in East Perth had made way for the Graham Farmer Freeway, so its license had been put into storage. Keiller and his business partner/co-founder Mike Rasheed applied for a removal, and it took a year to have the license put in place.
“It was at a time in liquor licensing when there was a bit of a change,” Keiller recalls. “It had moved from what they call a ‘needs’ basis to a ‘public interest’ thing. That’s when all the English and Irish bars started popping up and because there was nothing really like that at the time – although there’d been some historical Irish pubs around the place – people were using that theme to justify getting a new license.”
Keiller and Rasheed themselves weren’t that interested in English or Irish culture, preferring the aesthetic of American music, cars, bars and diners.
“There really hadn’t been anything like it done over the long term,” Keiller says. “There’d been some bars that played around with it that, a bit of country music off and on, but hadn’t really sustained it over a great length of time. That’s sort of how we came to be.
“Everyone said we were just using it as an excuse, that after six months we’d just turn it into another rock’n’roll pub, and there were already 100 of those.
“A lot of old licensees objected to the premise of what we were doing. And we said, ‘Well, just put a condition on the license that we’ve got to play swing bands regularly, country bands regularly, rockabilly regularly, and have the food revolving around an American theme.’ All of that sort of thing, and it kind of shut them up. So it was no big deal for us because that’s what we were intending to do.”
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The Mustang Bar opened in September 1999, and while the founders had a firm idea of what their ambitions for the venue were, with a schedule of early and late shows seven nights a week, it didn’t just mean that it was an overnight success.
“It was tough going in the in the beginning because a lot of people didn’t really grasp the concept and the venue itself was probably a bit light on in terms of colour and movement,” Keiller admits. “And unfortunately, one of the key acts that we wanted to utilise at the time moved to Sydney. So that sort of put a bit of a dampener on things but we got around it and slowly, slowly started to find a bit of a niche, but it did take a while and it caused a lot of pain.
“I guess from tough beginnings, it in a way sustained us for the long haul because everyone knew what we were about. They could pick which night of the week they wanted to come or what time of night they wanted to come see the type of gig that they liked and if they’d been hanging around they’d like the next one and didn’t have to leave.”
Agreeing to an agreement that suited them down to the ground meant that the Mustang Bar could and would operate with an ingrained consistency that resulted in loyal punters, bands and staff. The venue’s relationships with its resident bands have been long-standing and fruitful.
“There’s been quite a few of those,” Keiller says. “They’ve sort of gone in a five-to-10-year period. And some of them we’d gladly have back but they all get married and have kids and move down south.
“Adam Hall has been playing now on Fridays early for almost 10 years. The band Milhouse on Saturday nights, they’ve been here for over five years. Once a band gets into a coveted spot on late Friday or Saturday, they’re not really keen to give it up and they work pretty hard to retain the gig. And if they’re doing the business, then there’s really no reason for us to give them the flick.
“We get lots of offers from people saying, ‘We’ll come and do a Friday night for nothing’ – not that I’ve ever wanted anyone to play for nothing. I don’t want to do it because we’ve always been loyal to those who have been loyal to us and done the right thing.”
Instead, Keiller will rotate the Wednesday and Thursday night bands to the weekend nights when the opportunities are available so that relationships are intact and evolving. The venue keeps ticking, the punters know they’ll get what they love, and the bands feel acknowledged. It’s why the Mustang Bar is approaching a quarter century.
“I think really it’s because we haven’t gone off chasing fads,” Keiller says when asked why the Mustang Bar has lasted while so many other bars haven’t.
“We just do what we do, and I think we do it pretty well and provide value for people. And so they can come in early and if it’s not really happening, they can leave and do a lap of the block and come back and it’s busy and they start having a good time and they don’t bother leaving. Then the next week they come back.
“In the same way that bands gain longevity… you see people come in who are early 20s and they still come back in their 30s. Or they’ve come with mum and dad when they were pretty young and now mum or dad are at home and the kids are carrying on.”
Keiller says he was fortunate to be involved at the Newport Hotel in Fremantle in the early days, post the America’s Cup when the boom had bust and they essentially had to rebuild the venue. The lessons learnt were valuable.
“I just saw the value in rewarding quality,” he notes. “So, if you’ve got a good rock’n’roll act that can get the crowd happening, then why would you chop and change it every week? I think there’s something to be said about continuity and it’s the same with DJs as well.”
The staff have been a huge factor in the venue’s ongoing success, with Keiller’s two main offsiders, managers Pat Murphy and Jaye Gardner, providing incredible support.
“Pat’s been here for 20 years. I mean, he might look 42, but he is older than that,” Keiller laughs. “Jaye’s been here for 18 years. So, it is quite incredible. When you stop to think about it and look at the number of staff that have gone through the place. Everyone gets a number for the payroll system. You see where we started and now, they’re up to 6940 or something and you think, ‘Wow, a few people have gone through here!’”
The 25th birthday looms large in 2024, but Keiller has yet to determine what form the celebrations will take.
“I haven’t really put my mind to it at this stage right but we’ve always kind of celebrated on the September (King’s Birthday) long weekend, so it gives us the opportunity to do something different early on the Sunday. I can tell you though, it won’t be Coldplay!”
The Mustang Bar celebrates New Year’s Eve on Sunday, December 31st, from 7pm with Johnny Law & the Pistol Packin’ Daddies then 11pm with Milhouse and DJ James MacArthur. Check out mustangbar.com.au for full details.
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