'Let's Not Mourn It, Let's Celebrate It': The Zoo Founder Joc Curran On The Venue's Final Days

24 May 2024 | 2:27 pm | Mary Varvaris

"There's been so much respect and love for that venue the whole time because it was a really safe zone."

The Zoo

The Zoo (Supplied)

The Brisbane music scene (and Australia’s wider music industry) was rocked earlier this month when it was announced that The Zoo would close its doors permanently after 32 years.

The Zoo hosted everyone from The Pixies, Silverchair, The Black Keys, Lorde, Ben Harper, Nick Cave, and The Dirty Three.

A Brisbane institution, nobody saw the announcement coming – not even the venue’s co-founder, Joc Curran. “I think everybody's slightly in a bit of shock,” she tells The Music. “Everybody thought it would always be there. It's one of those things that maybe gets taken for granted a little.”

In 1992, Curran had just finished studying photography in Melbourne. She returned to Brisbane and met up with her business partner, C. Smith, who found inspiration from one state to bring to the other.

“When I came back from living in Melbourne for a year, we were like, ‘Oh, we want to open this small little cafe that would have art on the walls’ that was really inspired by that year of living in Melbourne,” Curran explained in a commemorative interview with The Music about The Zoo’s 30th anniversary in November 2022.

She continued, “That was the grain that started the whole process, permeated, and became The Zoo. We were a BYO cafe for the first four years.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Telling The Music that The Zoo had a strange license at the time - the venue was classed as a 9B place of amusement because it had a pool hall, she added: “They didn't know what box to put us into. There were six pool tables. There was live music; there was also a cafe. So, you had to eat to see live music there.

“We used to have this system: when you'd walk in, you be given this little ticket, and you'd bring your alcohol, you'd hand your alcohol in, and we charged people $1 to look after their alcohol for the night. You had to eat. The idea was that you couldn't be on the premises if you weren't eating,” Curran said. “So, we got really great for those first four years of making lots of veggie curries and lots of veggie things.

“You had to eat, and then you could see music. And then, in 1996, things changed. We had to apply for a regular license. That took quite a while, and once we got that license, we were like a normal, licensed venue.”

Curran was with The Zoo for many of its ups and downs until she sold the venue to Pixie Weyand, who staged a 25th-anniversary celebration with Curran’s help in 2017.

In 2021, The Zoo welcomed a new partnership between Weyland and husband and wife team, Luke BooJohnston and Cat Clarke. The venue is currently owned by Shane Chidgzey.

When The Music catches up with Curran, she’s had a busy day trying to deal with the 70 artists booked to perform at the venue’s farewell celebration, Zoo Love, curated and presented by Curran herself. The concert sold out within minutes this morning.

“In theory, it's great to organise things, and then you forget all the machinations that go into doing it,” Curran admits, adding that putting together the concert has been a “labour of love”.

“What I love about it is when something finishes, you don't often get to celebrate it, it's gone,” she says. “Whereas I feel like this is an opportunity for everybody who's loved and adored The Zoo to get together and have a really big party.”

Rather than grieving the venue – which has brought so much to Brisbane music lovers over 32 years – The Zoo’s farewell is all about paying tribute to the good times.

Curran explains, “This is taking a different attitude. It's like, let's dance it out. Let's be together. Let's not mourn it; let's celebrate it because it's been a huge achievement. How lucky were we to have had an amazing 32 years?”

Musing on the number of scenes The Zoo has hosted (“everyone has a Zoo story”), the irony of Curran still feeling completely connected to the venue despite selling it eight years ago isn’t lost on her. “Like I say, I'm just one of the custodians [of The Zoo], but I never stopped feeling connected. I have had a really wonderful relationship with everybody who has come after me, so that's been really special to stay connected with each person that's taken on that role.

On being a custodian of The Zoo, she continues, “It was never mine. I was tasked to look after it, and it has its own life. There's been so much respect and love for that venue the whole time because it was a really safe zone.

“It was a zone where women felt really safe; we didn't have a dress code, and everybody felt welcome. Anybody that wanted to enjoy music would come in through the door, and you were welcome to be in this space.”

Curran is keeping the line-up for Zoo Love under wraps, but she cryptically notes that many of the acts performing at the farewell celebration have worked at The Zoo, cut their teeth performing at the venue, cleaned the toilets, and had their first sold-out show there.

Telling The Music that the acts performing at The Zoo consider the venue their “home”, Curran says, “In all my musical life, I always wanted to do a show where you don't say what it is, and you just trust us and buy a ticket. Nobody knows the line-up except for me and a couple of other people.

“I say 95% of people [on the line-up] have worked at The Zoo,” she continues, “so if people know The Zoo's history, they know bands that artists have merged from because they're very large Zoo supporters themselves. People who follow [bands who have] been at The Zoo will have a bit of an idea who might be on the stage.

“So, it's a bit cryptic; it's a bit of a Guess Who? You have to go on your own journey to find out who's there.”

Curran says that if you want to find out who’s playing ahead of time, you just might have to work a bit harder. “If you love bands and you go to their socials and they're putting up a Zoo Love poster, it's pretty obvious that maybe they're performing, you know… I'm not sure what else to say. I’m very grateful to Brisbane community and all the staff that have worked at The Zoo, I'd really love to do a shout out to them.”

Acknowledging that The Zoo is an ecosystem that can’t thrive without its village, Curran notes that over 300 people have worked at the venue over its 32 years.

“People forget the sound people, the lighting people, the people working in the kitchen, the promoters, the people selling tickets, and the people doing merch. All those people will also lose something sacred and special.

“The other thing that I've asked is all these longstanding Zoo photographers to come and document the night,” Curran says, “that's another aspect of the legacy - another group of people that’s not forgotten. All the people who take photos, it's all these little ecosystems that really struggle when all the venues shut.”

If you missed out on scoring tickets to Zoo Love, it’s important to note that the venue has partnered with 4ZZZ Radio to stream the celebrations from 10 pm until midnight on Friday, 7 June.

On the legacy of The Zoo, Curran says, “Everyone has a Zoo story. You know, you talk to somebody else, and they'd met their first girlfriend, had their first kiss, seen the first amazing band, they’d come to Brisbane [for the first time], they saw their favourite band… it just evokes such personal memories for every single person.”

The Zoo will close its doors on Monday, 8 July 2024.