It’s a Thursday night at Cafe Oto and emotions are running high. A hushed crowd has just spent two hours listening to leftfield legend Robert Wyatt play tracks from his back catalogue. The huge windows in this converted warehouse are steamed up and one audience member is close to tears, having just been telling Wyatt how much his music means to him. He is cheered warmly. “Blimey,” says Wyatt.
Cafe Oto, founded by Hamish Dunbar and his partner Keiko Yamamoto, claims to be the only UK venue exclusively foregrounding experimental music. When Japan’s Otomo Yoshihide performed there in 2010, they had to switch off the bar fridges as their hum was louder than the show, which featured Yoshihide “playing” the edge of a credit card on an unamplified turntable.
Having survived without funding since its opening, Cafe Oto has just celebrated its fourth anniversary – and a double windfall. Not only has Arts Council England given it a £20,000 grant, it has also won the new £25,000 Genesis prize for its work as an arts mentor. Cafe Oto has also been acclaimed further afield, with Italian Vogue recently calling it the coolest venue in Britain. However, even though it’s situated in the hipster centre of Dalston in east London, the crowd watching Wyatt are hardly high fashion, even if there is a pop star, Hot Chip singer Alexis Taylor, present. It’s mostly the kind of earnest young men you see scrutinising the racks of independent record shops throughout the country.
“The vibe is functional and no-frills,” says the comedian Stewart Lee, a regular, “rather than the ersatz no-frills vibe that tossers with too much money aim for in trendy spaces. It’s what Yanks tell you downtown NY is like but actually isn’t. It’s what I dreamed London would be like, and what it was a bit like in the 80s.”
Cafe Oto is not the sort of place where you stand around chatting while the bands play. “You’d have to be socially inept to talk when there are 200 people totally silent,” says Dunbar. “But it’s very rare that I have to tap someone on the shoulder. It becomes self-policing. It’s the least hip place in Dalston in many respects. We have people in our audience in their 80s down to 18. Sometimes they’re obsessive, nerdy characters. People don’t come because they think it’s a cool place to hang out, but because they want to hear stuff.”
This summer, the cafe will create the opening event for the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, which is being designed by Ai Weiwei. Dunbar promises a “weird opera” with a turn by a musician who is “quite famous – in the avant-garde world”.
Dunbar, 32, grew up in Devon listening to Captain Beefheart and his father’s jazz records. He met Yamamoto at Central Saint Martins art college in London, where he was studying painting and she fine art. After a spell in Tokyo, enjoying the city’s experimental music venues, the pair decided to set up something similar in London. Every bank turned them down for a loan; but, says Dunbar, “there was this thing in Hackney where the council would give you loans to start a business if you got refused by a bank.” They were awarded £25,000, which they recently paid back.
In 2008, Cafe Oto (the word means both “noise” and “music” in Japanese) opened amid rubble and mess with a concert by their friend Saya, singer with Japanese band Tenniscoats. She played to 80 people. For the first two years, Dunbar and Yamamoto worked 17-hour days, seven days a week. “Just a couple of hours of sleep,” says Yamamoto. “Just me and Hamish from morning to night, making coffee and booking bands from a laptop behind the counter. We didn’t have any money.”
Acts haven’t all been near-inaudible. Germany’s Caspar Brötzmann Massacre, who don’t so much play instruments as attack them, were “brutally loud”, says Dunbar, while the Korean collective Balloon & Needle took their amplifiers on to the fire escape and orchestrated their sound by opening and shutting the door. When Sean Lennon played, his mother, Yoko Ono, came out of the audience to perform two numbers. “My mum dined out on that for weeks,” says Dunbar.
Dunbar describes Cafe Oto’s choice of acts as “underground music”: Thurston Moore, the Sonic Youth founder who has played the venue several times, is as mainstream as it gets. “We turn down huge amounts of stuff,” says Dunbar. “If it’s bland and boring and being done in other places, why do it here?”
Dunbar also refuses to allow “big external promoters” to hire the space. “You know you’ll make some money behind the bar, but we try to say no. If we compromise too much, all those hours of slog are worth nothing.” Nevertheless, flying musicians in from Japan does not come cheap, still less putting up the 13 members of the Sun Ra Arkestra (Philadelphia-based jazz mystics whose founder claimed to be from Saturn) for a three-night residency. Tickets are usually around £8 for an international musician, £6 for a local one; the Arkestra cost £22. The Genesis money will be used to support five local musicians, setting up collaborations with acts from abroad and getting them onto the bills of European festivals, where Dunbar says avant-garde music is better funded.
Lee worries that Dunbar “is clearly on to something and will presumably be immediately neutered by the establishment, and put in an office to think for two years and then not have any of his ideas developed, before splitting to get back to doing whatever he was doing so well before.” Yet Dunbar seems unshakeably committed. “Sometimes I think, ‘God, this is too much work.’ But we’re stubborn and that’s really important. To do something like this you have to be dogged.”
Wyatt ends his night sitting outside as fans come to congratulate him. “It’s a wonderful place,” he says. “My wife and I haven’t lived in London for nearly 25 years. But we’d have worked out a way to stay longer if we’d known there was stuff like this going on.”
• This article was amended on 3 May 2012. The original described Dalston as a “hipster epicentre”, in contravention of the Guardian style guide’s entry on the use of the word epicentre.
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