Celebrating their 20th anniversary next year, Horse Meat Disco (HMD) are a global force in LGBTQIA+ nightlife with residencies in London, Berlin and New York. 'To have our regular parties in these three cities that have such a deep heritage of clubbing is great’, says James Hillard (he/him), who co-founded HMD with his DJ friend, Jim Stanton (he/him), in 2004.
Tours have taken them as far afield as Australia and Bali but they have never forgotten their roots. Every Sunday you are invited to 'Come and Kiki' at the Eagle, a small bar in Vauxhall, South London, that is HMD’s spiritual home. 'To have the Eagle as a base is really important for us’, says Luke Howard (he/him), resident DJ alongside James, Jim and Severino Panzetta (he/him). 'After 19 years, to still have this home in London is really special.'
From the moment they opened their doors into a glitterballed haven of love and dancing on New Year’s Day 2004, HMD have offered something new to London’s LGBTQIA+ community. 'I didn’t feel like I fitted into any scene in London at the time because everything was very tribal and fragmented', says Hillard. 'I wanted to create a party that was much more inclusive and diverse.'
Arriving at an opportune time, HMD was at the forefront of disco music’s renaissance in London’s LGBTQIA+ clubs. 'What I loved about having a residency at Horse Meat Disco was that I could play Diana Ross, Kate Bush or whatever disco records I wanted and it gave me a lot of freedom', says Howard.
‘These spaces are sanctuaries, especially in a world where there can be a lot of hate coming at you on social media or through politics.’
Thanks to their contacts and an eclectic crowd who knew their West End Records 12s from their Prelude, respected DJs were lining up to appear at the Eagle. 'Most of them jumped at the chance to play disco records to gay people in a small pub in a queer context', says Hillard. Soon invites were coming in from venues across the world, as Horse Meat Disco became a name promoters could trust to get their party started.
Whether travelling to clubs and festivals in every corner of the world or celebrating their 2020 album Love and Dancing with a sold-out show at The Roundhouse in Camden, these disco ambassadors have always been about much more than hedonism. We caught up with James and Luke to talk about what goes into making their party work and the important issues facing them and the LGBTQIA+ community.
When you started HMD you had that maxim 'a queer party for everyone'. Why was it important to be so inclusive?
James: When I started to go out I wasn’t at all comfortable in a lot of the gay clubs, which were very much about one kind of scene and could be quite intimidating. Apart from Queer Nation (where Luke Howard had his first residency), I never felt liberated or free in my sexuality in these places; I actually became more self-conscious. So to make our parties welcoming to everyone was very important. I also think we catered for an older crowd and for them to feel safe and comfortable in a club environment was crucial.
How do you make your parties at the Eagle a safer space for the LGBTQIA+ community?
James: We don’t have a strict door policy but we do have great security and door staff who respect people and understand the atmosphere we are trying to create. They are the first people you see when you get to the party, so they are representing the club.
Luke: The term 'safe space' can be subjective though, because what is a safe space for one person might not be for another. But we always try to be welcoming to everyone. What I do hope is that people are able to find their space where they feel safe. And, if they don’t, we have trained people that they can go to.
What are the main challenges for the LGBTQIA+ club scene today?
James: It’s been especially tough with COVID and now the cost of living crisis on top of rising rents everywhere, so lots of spaces are threatened and really need some form of government support. Clubs are shutting everywhere and not many new ones are opening. It’s even become harder for the well-established club nights that have been around for a long time.
Luke: Developers come in and the area becomes cool with lots of interesting places opening. Then the people who move into the flats complain because of the noise and places get closed down. And so when clubs try and get planning permission, they don’t stand a chance. In some ways, we are lucky where the Eagle is in Vauxhall as we are on the main road away from the arches, where a lot of nightlife has been lost because it’s become so expensive.
What more can be done to protect these spaces?
James: It needs funding and it needs recognition but I don’t see that happening with our government right now. You look at somewhere like Germany that recognises clubs as a cultural heritage – that would definitely go a long way. But even in Berlin you see a lot of clubs that are unable to find new spaces because of the rampant development through regeneration.
Luke: What it would take to help is something like zoning and the creation of legislation wherein you preserve an area for nightlife where they wouldn’t be able to build flats. There have been people leading a charge within the community to protect places and to try and make developers retain spaces for the gay community, but it’s really hard.
‘I wanted to create a party that was much more inclusive and much more diverse.’
What things would you like to see in the future of LGBTQIA+ nightlife?
Luke: Our hope is that younger LGBTQIA+ people will continue to start nights and create spaces with the music and crowd that they want. I really believe it’s vitally important across the world to have these spaces that provide a sense of safety. We have a song on our album Love and Dancing called 'Sanctuary' and that is a very important thing – that these spaces do feel like sanctuaries, especially in a world where there is a lot of hate coming at you, whether on social media or through politics.
You’ve obviously witnessed the growth of Pride across the world. What have been your favourite events?
Luke: I had a really great Pride in Toronto. It was so lovely to see families and lots of straight people out enjoying the parade. I just remember the city taking it so seriously. The whole event was about the culture being respected and enjoyed. For me that is what Pride should be about.
James: I agree with Luke, the best Prides for me have been the ones where they are a real show and spectacle with the whole city coming out and lots of families waving rainbow flags and really embracing it. I mean we all like to party but the Prides I love are where it becomes a whole celebration of the culture by everyone.
This brings us to the COS partnership. How important is it for brands to be connecting with the LGBTQIA+ community?
James: I think it’s great, especially when these brands do connect properly with the LGBTQIA+ community. How do these brands stand by their messages? That’s what’s important. If they are to go on this journey to create these partnerships they need to be really ethical.
Luke: It is important but supporting the community isn’t just for Pride season, it's something that has to be a lifelong commitment and should extend to looking after employees and customers as well as wider LGBTQIA+ community services.
HMD have always had great T-shirt designs, can you share what the ethos is for the COS T-shirt in particular?
Luke: The T-shirt is a representation of the many variations of disco styles that exist within the genre and it also represents the coming together of our LGBTQIA+ community through the love of disco music and dancing.
Who was the most famous person to come down to the club?
James: We had Mick Jagger dancing.
Luke: Vanessa Williams was also pretty special.
If you had a time machine, which club would you go back to?
James: Paradise Garage, The Loft or Cosmic in Italy.
Luke: I never went to Taboo, which I regret.
Your most important historical LGBTQIA+ figure
Luke: Sylvester for someone who was a trailblazer on so many levels.
James: Dusty Springfield and the way she was very open about her sexuality.
Do you have a favourite saying?
Luke: Release it girl
James: Don’t be a dick
What is your favourite ever outfit?
James: My recent Rio Carnival costume and my gold creation for Glastonbury.
Luke: My one-sleeve fluorescent leopard-skin outfit at Glastonbury. Thanks to Lee Benjamin for making it.
Words by Andy Thomas
Portrait by Philip Sinden
Archive imagery courtesy of Horse Meat Disco
Discover the COS Pride 2023 limited-edition T-shirt capsule collection, featuring four exclusive designs from four of the most iconic queer club experiences in the world. 100% of the profits from the sales of each piece will be donated to LGBTQIA+ charities including Not a Phase, Margate Pride, Observatori Contra l’Homofòbia, London Friend & Kaleidoscope Trust.
As part of our celebrations for Pride 2023, Horse Meat Disco has curated a playlist exclusively for COS Sounds.
PRIDE 2023: CHURROS CON CHOCOLATE
PRIDE 2023: SINK THE PINK
PRIDE 2023: HOUSE OF YES