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Cactus Room is the Thornbury rehearsal space keeping garage punk thriving

For Queensland natives Dave Houston and Neil Smith, starting Cactus Room meant taking a leap into the abyss. 

Inspired by a Death By Audio documentary, the duo gave away their 12-hour-a-day jobs and began their expedition for a space suited to not just rehearsals, but gigs and evening frolic. In 2017, the pair stumbled upon a former recording studio of 15 years, tucked away in the mellow domain of Thornbury.

“I was looking for anything,” Houston confesses. “We were looking as far as Footscray all the way up to Preston/Reservoir area and this place popped up. Apparently originally, it was like a button factory or a belt factory. We called the real estate agent to check if sound proofing was all in place still and they said, ‘oh we’ll rip that out for you’ and we said no that’s what we want, keep it in”.

By October, they had fully converted the building into a three-room rehearsal space and performance venue, boasting a charming beer garden and bar. Cactus Room has been a steady, familiar home to a myriad of bands and has hosted many nights of cracking laidback gigs on the weekend – from the likes of local punks Moody Beaches, to their annual Halloween party ‘Cacoween’ as well as The Shabbab’s final hurrah in 2018.

With the arrival of a new year, Houston reflects on what his initial visions of Cactus Room looked like, and how they’ve shaped up over a year since the space opened. 

“I guess when we were doing it we were wanting a DIY, punk garage-y vibe,” Houston says. “A lot of the time when I played gigs, we were playing in small sort of random venues and parties where we played on the floor, and everyone’s on the floor with you. It seems more fun to not be separated by a stage where everyone’s standing 15 metres back. We wanted a DIY party space rather than a pub with a stage in the corner.”

Houston’s passion lies in hosting gigs that are really focused on the music and achieves this through the physical layout at Cactus Room. The performance room is intimate with everyone’s attention on the band in front of them, and the atmosphere is loose and casual. Cactus is a bit further north from the typical hub of gigs in Melbourne, which results in a cosier crowd. 

“It’s sort of off the beaten track, so we find that when people have a gig here, they tend to be more like album launches or single launches and it’ll be a bit more like their crew.” 

The overall feel of a typical gig at Cactus is not unlike a low-key house party, but instead the presence of booze is thanks to their fully functioning bar and not a bathtub of ice and tinnies. 

In addition to anchoring these musical shebangs, Cactus is a rehearsal space seven days a week and is also able to exhibit art installations alongside music. Part of the allure for a band making this pioneering musical pad their regular rehearsal spot, is to get a glimpse into Cactus Records, the room’s own emerging independent music label. Houston’s band Black Bats dropped their debut self-titled LP on Friday March 1 and are the first act to release a record through the label. 

“[Cactus Records] is just gonna be friends and bands that we’re really into. We’ll still mainly focus on gigs and rehearsals and let the record label develop more naturally and organically.”

Looking towards the future, Houston hopes that Cactus will one day be able to offer recording services, having tested the waters a little in the past with Black Bats. In terms of shows to look forward to, he reveals, “I was talking to The Black Heart Death Cult about a mid-winter one or two-day kinda psych garage fest, but it’s in early development at the moment.”

Cactus Room is located at 614 High Street, Thornbury. Head to the Cactus Room website to book out a space or check out the upcoming events.