Rhino Room, Howling Owl and Urban Cow Studio are a big trinity in the Adelaide arts and hospitality scene, and you can’t take one without the others. Mick Krieg, the man behind the magic, welcomed me into the Howling Owl – a café and gin den. Over a 10/10 latte, we had a good old yarn about music, comedy, visual arts, and everything in between.
The man owns all three businesses, so first port of call was to find out where to start.
Mick’s thoughts immediately went to his first venue, Urban Cow, which was opened as an opportunity to provide somewhere for local artists to sell their work.
It started with Urban Cow; and at the time I was with a girl who was a ceramicist and she was doing some stuff through Jam Factory. We really wanted to open our own place, so we started out with people just bringing stuff in and being able to sell it. And basically, when we broke up I took over and just kept running that. We were doing these massive exhibition openings at the time – an opportunity to have a bit of a party. Back in the old building [13 Frome Street, Adelaide] at this one really busy exhibition opening, we opened the doors to the new space next door because we were worried the floor of the old space was going fall in. And then everyone spilled in. We were all sitting around, sipping wine, and one of my friends, Charlie Hillsmith, who had a painting in the exhibition, looks around and he goes ‘this would be a good space to do some comedy, a stage down one end and a bar at the other’. We were always planning on doing something with a bar.
And in this new space, Rhino Room – bar, comedy, and dance club – was born.
It very much started in the same way as Urban Cow offers the opportunity to visual artists. It was always intended to be not only for comedy. We used to do a lot more with bands, and probably a lot more with live music, theatre, poetry; all the performing arts. It’s fallen away a little bit. We do the odd theatre show still. At the time [of the opening], it was very much designed to be a bit like the old Fringe Club used to be, years ago. And I guess we were pretty lucky in the year we opened there was no Fringe Club so we sort of became the demi-Fringe Club, so all the artists would come along just to do snippets of their shows.
So following on from that, how do you find the artistic scene in Adelaide? Is it competitive?
Comedy is amazing! I mean, it’s funny because you get the local comics who are often bagging the local scene and if you travel around Australia, the scene in Adelaide is probably only second to Melbourne. I mean we have the lowest population in Australia besides Hobart and the Northern Territory, but we bat well above our average for comedy. If you look at the winners of the Triple J Royal Comedy over the last 20 years, and look at how many South Australians have either been winner or runner up I think you will find the average, compared to how many other states are involved, is very high.
It does sort of come and go, and it is tough to survive when you don’t have a huge population. But you go back a couple of years and we were getting comments from famous interstate comedians like Will Anderson and Arj Barker who likened the scene we had in Adelaide to Sydney in the early 90s; which was the prime scene in Australia. And look, I don’t take credit for that either: Justin Hamilton is the one who got it all started here. He took Rhino Room a long way and gave us the credibility we’ve got by getting in all these people he knew from around the place. But as far as comedy goes, it’s still really unrecognised [in Adelaide]. The fact that we don’t have a comedy festival here is quite bizarre, so I think we are doing well. But I don’t think a lot of young comics realise how good the scene is in Adelaide.
And how does this compare for Visual Arts?
In the Visual Arts scene, look, I think we are still doing ok. Unfortunately, not having a contemporary gallery here in South Australia has seen us go backwards a lot over the years. Having said that, I think we still do some amazing stuff. You know SALA [South Australian Living Arts Festival] is a great visual arts festival. I think there are some really good things going on, but I also think some people have just become complacent [in how much they support the arts].
What about the music scene?
The music scene. We’ve got WOMAD; which is incredible. It’s a world-wide recognised festival. I think probably people don’t realise how good WOMAD is. I don’t think the State Government even realises how good it is because they put it amongst the other festivals. WOMAD needs to be given its own weekend, allowed to stand alone and really shine.
It could be the world-recognised event that it is, but it just needs to come away from the Festival of Arts, and the Fringe. As far as other music, like rock bands and other emerging individual performers, we clearly still produce good bands and performers [such as Sia and the Hilltop Hoods]. But if you want to go out at night and catch a good local band, it’s hard. I was far more into music than comedy, but I’ve sort of been lead down [the comedy] track now. With my love of live music, I would still love to do a lot more of that as well, but it’s just one of those things that will come with time.
Do you have an ethos? And how does that effect the vibe and the energy of your businesses?
We always try and maintain our ethos of promoting South Australia, so that started with Urban Cow promoting visual art in South Australia.
So this was always part of the vision?
Oh yeah. Always. At times, or even in the early days, we used to get bombarded by other artists from other states and we probably got more kudos back then in some ways – even the tourist markets would say, ‘I wish we had something like this is the Eastern States’. In the early days, it was partly an economic decision as well because people are very parochial in South Australia, so by keeping it purely South Australian it did give us that edge. And similarly with the Rhino Room; we have always kept an eye on that. Craig Egen [who runs Adelaide Comedy] and I talk about it, and booking Fringe acts there provides opportunities for the locals to have spots on the side, even though it is generally interstate or overseas comedians that we feature. So when he books the late shows, there’s always locals that put in there as well. With the Howling Owl it’s always been to promote South Australia.
Our beer and wine list is purely South Australian, on our gin list we have 130-odd gins and 30% of them are South Australian, so that in itself is pretty amazing. The Howling Owl has got so much food because it’s all local produce that we get in and just plate up. It’s not like we do anything ultra-special with that. With the gin we have all the different garnishes and cocktails, and we create these tasting boards and we also allow people to build their own tasting boards together. These things are just a bit of fun. It’s not just like pouring a drink; that side of things provides its own entertainment as well. It was always set out to promote South Australian food and wine and produce.
So that’s been our ethos, and if that then translates to the vibe we want to create, I guess it is just about bringing in people who have a passion; not only for South Australia, but a passion for the industry. The people [whether it be the employees or the performers] have a passion for music and comedy at Rhino Room, people who work at Urban Cow have passion for the arts, people who work in the Howling Owl, they have a passion for what they do with gin. That’s always been our forte if you like: hiring the right people who create the vibe. Very much based around the people.
Yes, the people! So this is very important then?
“Oh very much. I think my ability has probably not been in the arts itself, but in bringing in people who love the arts. Bringing in the right people, and not just having a passion is one thing, but being able to convey that passion and, I don’t know, be a welcoming person who you can get the love of the particular industry across.”
Now the names of your venues…they are quirky! How did you come up with them? Was it just in the moment?
Pretty much! The first one was funny because my first wife from 25 years ago, who started Urban Cow with me along with a couple of other artists, just threw the name around and it sort of stuck after. We had all these older ladies come in and say ‘I know why it’s called [Urban Cow] because you are taking stuff from nature and turning it into city things, you know Urban Cow’, and you are just like, ‘whatever!’ In some ways, Urban Cow was a tricky one because people often thought the artwork revolved around cows. Then I guess because Urban Cow was such a popular name, then Rhino Room came out and stuck as well. Then when me and my wife, Rachel, were up in Byron Bay, we were sitting trying to come up with a name for the Howling Owl, and we were actually sitting in a bar called ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’, so that’s where that one came from. The fact that Howl and Owl had the same sound, and that owls don’t howl but the word owl was in howl – we just thought it had a really nice ring to it. And we actually have another little bar we are opening underneath Rhino Room in the basement. We used it a bit during the Fringe, but a bit later in the year we will open it as a bar in its own right, as well that will more promote craft beer and that kind of thing. That will be called ‘Drama Lama’; to keep with the animal names. Once we started the animal theme, we thought we had better stick to it.
I spent a Saturday evening at the Howling Owl: the atmosphere was warm, and there was a real authenticity in regards to the food and beverages, and from the employees who were clearly enthusiastic about their work. Let me also say that the gin and tonic went down like water. I also attended a ‘One Mic Stand’ at the Rhino Room. This is a weekly event where local comedians come together and share their love for comedy. What a hoot it was! It is undeniable that these venues shed light on some uniquely wonderful pockets in Adelaide. And there is no way of excluding the Urban Cow Studio: it was riddled with precious South Australian artwork! I highly recommend it as a delightful location to take in the works of Adelaide, and as a place to buy yourselves a little something from the Urban Cow Shop!
Words by Michelle Wakim.