The Importance of Queer Spaces, Ethos and Shandy: Talking two years of one of Brisbane’s best queer parties with Sweaty Baby
“Shandy: A popular beverage; half beer, half lemonade.”
It’s cool, it’s fun, it’s a little bit naughty and maybe something your grandma slipped you at a backyard barbecue. But, for Meanjin/Brisbane, Shandy is also the name of a party.
It’s not just any party: it’s an out and proud queer party. It’s a party anyone is welcome to, as long as you as respectful of those around you, and just like the drink it’s cool, fun and a little bit naughty.
Founded by Thomas Parer, professionally known as Sweaty Baby, the party first took place at Meanjin/Brisbane institution, Black Bear Lodge. Held on 29th March in 2019, it has quickly become a must-attend event for anyone looking for a fun time. With a diverse and multidisciplinary line up of DJs, performers, drag queens and more, no two Shandys are alike but they are all united by the common mission of providing a space of sheer, unbridled queer joy.
Born from realising he existed in both strictly queer spaces as well as the greater Brisbane dance scene, and wanting to merge those two together, Parer developed Shandy with some friends before Black Bear Lodge’s Aidan Beiers took a chance on him to host his own event. Equipped with some formative DJ skills thanks to another friend, Trina Massey (DJ Black Amex), offer impromptu DJ lessons, Parer has developed Shandy from a small, raucous and outrageous club night to so much more. Quickly growing and garnering a loyal community of regular attendees, Shandy is quick to sell out now, and has existed not just in the club, but in an outdoor setting, at a pool, and recently at one of Brisbane’s most loved and famous venues, the Tivoli, for a sold-out 700-capacity extravaganza.
To go to a Shandy party is to experience an event like no other. The contagious joy is felt before you even get inside the venue, as Shandy angels check that you’re all good in the long line out the front. Every facet of the event is thought about prior, from being safe in the line to the staff to the decor and more. No one is turned away because lack of funds, checking of pronouns is encouraged, and the need for consent is communicated to attendees well before the event begins. All of this adds to the experience, the key overall focus of Parer. Reverse engineering the way he produces his parties, Parer opts to think about each step of a punter’s journey on the night and asks himself how he can make each one as good as possible. And, because of this, the response is overwhelmingly positive for all, which then lends to the truly cathatic liberation many feel during the event itself.
Speaking to the strength of the community, which grows exponentially with each and every night, the event is now celebrating its second birthday. It will be returning to The Tivoli, and once again sold out in record time. Even with a date change due to a snap COVID-19 related lockdown, Shandy tickets remain some of the hardest to get your hands on, and the excitement surrounding the event is palpable within the community. As it continues to evolve, Parer, along with his trusty team of dedicated collaborators all united by the common purpose of offering something special with everything they do, still has much he wants to achieve. But, as you’ll see in our chat below, his moments of reflection on why he does what he does and how he does it provide some catharsis of their own. Here, we take a deep dive into the history of the event, Sweaty Baby‘s own introduction to queer spaces and the dance scene, and why these events remain so important.
How did you get your start as a DJ? Can you talk to me about the journey from that moment through to the creation of Shandy? There were a few years there, right?
No! It all happened fairly soon after. Basically, I’d been talking about how I wanted to learn how to DJ for ages and I had been talking about how I wanted to run a queer party for ages. I’d made very, very, very slow steps every so often towards one of [those goals]. In 2018, I think I’d worked out a name for a party, I’d worked out the name “Shandy”. I’d worked out the name based on that I wanted to be not pretentious, I wanted it to be very rooted in Brisbane, very silly, bubbly, joyful, you know, those kinds of words. So those words coalesced, and I invited some friends over and we were like, “Let’s think of names and where would we do it?” And I think all of those friends were really keen, but I was definitely the driving force. On that night, we were on my back veranda and we went through a list of Australian slang. It wasn’t actually on the list but eventually just something popped into my head like, “What about ‘Shandy’?” It was very evocative. It’s an Australian summer, it’s like Christmas day or something. Your whole family’s there, you’re in someone’s backyard and your auntie or your grandma or your mum and dad or someone like that, they decide you’re finally old enough to have you know a bit of alcohol and they give you a shandy.
Had you thrown parties before?
In different ways. My very first sharehouse that I lived in, in 2012 – it was basically the ideal house to throw a house party. It was right across from Toowong train station, right near The RE, right near UQ which is where a lot of us studied. In that house, we used to throw some really fun, big parties. That was my first foray into creating a party, and then, much later down the track, at uni I did student clubs and society stuff. I started being like, “Well, I could do the social stuff. I’m into that, I like the idea of that.” I like that hands-on element of creating a space like that. I did it for the United Nations Student Association.
Go off! Model UN kids, they go fucking off. Model UN kids are hard partiers. That was my first more formalized foray, and eventually I actually did that so successfully and did some other things in that realm. I was just sort of, you know, a bit gregarious? I got around. Then I actually got into student politics specifically. Each university has a different way that it operates but at my university, you will have a grouping that will form a ticket. I’d been aware that I wanted to get involved in some capacity and I was able to convince the right people to add me on to the incumbent ticket for Reform for the student union [University of Queensland Union] which was sort of like a young Labor, lefty indie grouping. I was the candidate for vice president of campus culture, and basically then got elected. My job for that year as that was to plan and run events for students as part of the student union. So I had this big budget all of a sudden. That was also the first time, I think, where I had this money, but also this grouping. I was planning events but I was also meeting the needs and trying to create events that were inclusive and good and nice to as many students as possible. That was our mission statement or our ambit. Our goal was to create events for the entire student population which is quite diverse. Having parties quietened down after that, but I always enjoyed it. That year was really fun and I got to do things like huge 500 person attendee parties. I ran a roller skating rink in one of the function rooms. It was also my first foray into DJs and into DJing. Booking people for parties and realising that was my first little entryway of realising what that was. It was my first entryway into Brisbane party culture.
Looking at the existence of Shandy: it’s intrinsically tied to Black Bear Lodge. It is its spiritual home in a way. Can you talk to me about that relationship?
The DJing and the emergence of Shandy were tied. I was just chugging along, I hadn’t really done a large scale party for some time. I was just working and I was like, I really want to learn how to DJ. I’ve been wanting to do the stages. I had a friend who had offered to help previously, Trina Massey. We both know them, they’re fabulous. We’d become friends at some point over the years so I was just like, “Hey. Can you teach me?” I was just persistent and eventually they were like, “Yeah actually, you know what? I’ve got a Sunday set at Barbara. Come along.” We just spent the afternoon just sort of mucking about with me learning and seeing how CDJ’s worked. That day as well, the bartender on shift was Aidan Beiers, who was one of the sort of part owners of Barbara. I got to know them, we got on and I think they could tell that I was keen. At some point I mentioned I was not only keen to learn how to DJ but also to throw a party. I had the name and the concept and I thought it would go really well, but at the time I wasn’t quite there yet so I was just learning and going from there.
In the meantime, I kept hitting them up to go to Barbara and play for a bit. They were really, really lovely and put in time and work to help me and challenge me. I kept being keen and coming back, and one day they just came to me and said they like to book stuff after the bands finish on a Friday night at Black Bear. They said the best way to learn how to DJ is to run your own club night or party, and asked me if I wanted to run something for that time. I was like, “…okay,” and they gave me a date and asked if that worked. I was like, “Okay!” And that was the first Shandy!
I’m really intrigued in the way that Shandy operates. It’s separate to other queer events which exist solely in the queer space. Then there’s club nights which exist in maybe a “straight” space or a very hetero space.
Or can exist in whatever space.
Shandy manages to straddle both worlds at the same time. It brings queer performers and queer community into that space in a safe way, and it also introduces the people that probably haven’t been exposed to that queer culture in a very educational way. Was that something you always wanted to do? Is that a gap in the market that you saw had existed as you were developing Shandy?
I think so. From the get go, to think about it in economic terms, yes — there was a huge gap in the market that I witnessed in Brisbane. You had lots of events that existed that were LGBTIQ+ focused, but they weren’t always places that myself or friends that I had wanted to be in. It isn’t that they’re not “good” events; they are good events. They’re just not for me, and that’s valid. A nightlife ecosystem has a variety of different parties.
I think particularly, you have this really interesting phenomenon that occurs. I’ve seen it in other big queer events where, when you have a large number of people with more privilege -particularly cis white gay men- that can dominate a space to an extent, they won’t always make the space welcoming to people who aren’t them. It’s a very funny thing that occurs. You’ll have all these cis gay white men and suddenly, because it’s pretty much only them, other people won’t feel as welcome or comfortable or invited. So if you’re a person of color or trans or even like, you’ve got a body a bit different.
Yeah, women! Exactly. Suddenly, they don’t feel as welcome. The bulk of my friends were not cis gay white men. Most of my friends were women or not men, or people of colour. I have cis gay white male friends, I am a cis gay white man. But I just was also like, “Well that’s not all of my friend group and I’m gonna go somewhere where we can all feel comfortable, and party where we can feel comfortable.” I’d experienced that already at certain parties like Club Kooky in Sydney, Tropical Fruits which is an annual party every New Year’s Eve based out of Lismore, and some other queer parties that I’ve been to. I felt like why don’t we have that in Brisbane?
I think also I’d recognised there was a bit of segregation in terms of there are some incredible DJs and performers and talent that exist in a bit of a bubble. All this queer talent that primarily seems to get booked and performed and is known really well within queer venues, queer spaces, queer people. But you step outside of those spaces and those people and those venues, and people don’t know them. For whatever reason, they get almost pigeonholed as like, “Oh, they’re a queer act,” and so they don’t get booked more broadly.
Despite the fact they can play everything and they’re very talented and they have many years in the game.
Yeah! Some of that might be that they prefer playing in those spaces. Some of it might be that, historically, they were only really given opportunities to play in those spaces. There’s a whole range of factors that probably play into that, but I was really focused on that I’ve been in both spaces and I exist in both spaces. I exist in that broader electronic community, but I also exist in the queer community and I wanted to bring in performers and talent from both because they should be cross-pollinating. I think that’s a big thing with all my events, I like bringing in a huge range of different performers from all over — from different disciplines, areas, backgrounds. It’s more interesting, it keeps it fresh.
Shandy hasn’t changed all that much fundamentally over the two years. It still has that same ethos, that same core that has existed throughout the entire life of it. It’s always maintained that multidisciplinary approach. Was that a conscious decision to keep this focus?
Over time, performance has become more of a factor. Some of that is actually that the space has allowed different ways of doing that. When I first started the event, I loved performance but I really wanted to be able to dance. In my experience of being at other queer events, there were some incredible performances, but I would get a bit frustrated because I’d be getting into the music and whatever the DJ was playing and I’d be on the dance floor having a crazy and wild time, and it’d be interrupted by a performance that maybe didn’t hit the tone. The energy might’ve dropped with that performance because it was a more intense and dramatic number, but it could kill the energy.
And then it takes so much to build it back up.
I was sort of wanting to avoid that. I was very conscious of that and I didn’t want that to happen. At first, I was really careful about involving performance. That’s why the first performance that was booked, the very first performance that was involved was something by Sarah Stafford AKA Donna Jane Lesbian Lee. It was actually intended to be something that would be observed during the DJ sets. Over time, I expanded on that because I also recognised that actually there’s a whole wealth of performers and shows and experiences and artistic joy that we can experience from having something that we just all focus on. But now we just minimise when that disruption occurs, we do it only between DJ sets and we try to keep the DJs running for two hours at least, and we also make sure that the energy of the performance is pitched right.
So you’re briefing in your performers to say that it needs to be a particular energy and particular vibe?
Pretty much every performer, I have some kind of dialogue with before. I meet with them and I actually discuss what they’re looking at doing. There’s a degree of curation in that respect in that I’ll actually work with the performer. I don’t just say, “Turn up on the night and do two things.” There’s a variety of reasons why I do that. It’s not that enjoyable for either of us if we view it as purely transactional. I respect that sometimes people will do gigs that are transactional and it is what it is. But, if we can minimise that somewhat, I find that we both end up happier with the end result. We can have a bit more of an authentic conversation and it allows them to be a bit more candid about what they want, and it allows me to be a bit more candid about what they want.
You’re essentially giving your performers a bit of a buy-in to your event. It is better for both of you that this person feels respected enough that they’re welcomed into your space. That’s something that I come across with a lot of artists and their collaborators that seems to be happening a lot more now. It’s more than just purely transactional: you sing on my song and thanks for coming. It’s this big creative process, it’s a relationship that is being built and nurtured. You respect the people enough to let them know what you want, and then they respect you enough to deliver and it works out for everyone.
You’re both engaging in a creative process and so it allows you to have an exchange of ideas as well. You’re both going to have different experiences which means that when putting something together, you’re both going to have different experiences and learning that you can bring to that. Also, with each Shandy, there’s a theme. So it’s also me diving into like, “I think this would be awesome.” I also try to know enough about that performer to be able to dive into like, “Well I know you do this kind of work.” It’s also going beyond like “I’ve heard they’re good” and going into it saying, “I know what they do,” and so I can actually tell them this is the sort of thing I’ve seen you do that’s really good.
I think that only adds to the level of authenticity which is something that always comes to mind when I think of yourself and Shandy. It is that level of authentic connection with people. It really allows your community to be able to authentically connect right back, and that kind of genuine care that you put into every element is something that everyone appreciates. You think about everything from the performers and where they’re placed on the set times. You’re thinking about the decorations, who’s working on the door, who’s security, who’s at the bar, what the theme is. It sounds like every element is thought of in such a degree!
In all honesty, to differing degrees. I do have incredible collaborators that I work with. There’s a degree of me outsourcing some of the creative development of things. So like, decor — I’m not going to work out every single detail. I have incredible people I work with, however, who I’m able to say, “Here’s the theme,” and we can riff and discuss and unpack what that could look like. Or I’m able to give them some stimulus and some thoughts and a mood board, and they can go away and come up with ideas and they come back and we can have a dialogue.
Why is taking such care like this been such a priority for you?
It’s been an interesting process actually learning that. It just seems like, of course you would do that level of focus when you’re creating a space. Why wouldn’t you have regard for every little bit, because every little bit contributes. It’s an experience you’re dealing with, and an experience is so multifaceted that you have to have regard for each bit. You can’t just hone in on, “Well, the line-up’s sorted and that’s it.” I do talk to promoters and sometimes I walk away from it thinking they’ve really only thought about sound quality -which is important- but, sound quality, the lineup, maybe ticket price, and maybe the poster — which is really only like a very small component of the overall experience compared to what people actually end up experiencing. This hasn’t always been natural as well. It’s also come from reading about other people’s experiences of creating different clubs and actually trying to learn more about how other people engage with party creation. It’s thinking that someone’s experience of a space begins the moment they arrive at the door, or sometimes before. The communications they’ve received. What’s the copy that they’re receiving? What’s the event copy? And then, when people are lining up: how are they feeling? Is there a line? Is there a long line? How long are they having to wait and why are they having to wait that long?
Are they safe in the line?
Are they safe in the line – which is something we think about with Shandy. Who is greeting them at the door? What are their first interactions? Usually it’s a security guard or a door person, so how do you improve that and make sure that that’s the best way possible? Okay, so now they’re inside the venue. It’s honestly stepping through and doing a bit of a role play of if I was a punter, what would my experience be right now? What would I think? Just putting yourself in another person’s shoes.
Do you ever have those moments when you think about the night that you’ve created now and what young Thomas, fresh out of school in the Gold Coast and going to the Big Smoke in Brisbane, would think and what this would mean to a young queer person now?
It’s really interesting, it’s actually been quite entertaining meeting these little baby queers who are a bit awed by me or think I’m cool. I’m so not fucking cool, like I’m a huge dork. But also I have realised that “coolness” comes from authenticity, just being yourself usually. True coolness generally comes from hitting that point where you just really yourself a lot. All of my life experiences have led me to wherever I am right now, so I’m glad that I had that experience, but I also think how awesome it would have been to have had those first occasions going out, to have actually been in that kind of space earlier. I think it would have been really cool. I managed, but you know it’s where you get a lot of that sentiment -particularly when you’re younger and particularly in Brisbane- of there are no queer people in here and I have to move to Sydney or Melbourne to find my cool queer alternative crowd — which actually exists right here. You’ve just got to go digging. The problem is not everyone has the time, resources or whatever to find those people. It’s nice to be providing these young queers the opportunity to find their people.
Shandy is celebrating its second birthday on May 8th. Looking back on the two years, has there been a particular moment for you where you look back and say, “Yeah, that’s why I did this. That’s why I started this”?
I’m not always good at reflecting, that’s the problem. I kind of am always just looking forward. I always look in the moment and forward. I’m always like, “What went wrong?” It was also really weird, even just after the most recent Shandy when everyone was saying to me, “You should be so proud of yourself.” I was like, “I guess?” I think it’s also because there’s a certain level of ego in being proud of yourself, which is not really why I do it.
Why do you do it then?
I think it’s almost become like, you know when people start a job, and they’re like, “Well, I guess I’m just doing this now?” There’s an element of I’m still “just doing it.” There’s a degree of that I just really love making people happy. I love the sense of creating a space and a time for people to just have a lot of fun and joy and connect with people. Queer parties and queer spaces do so many different things. They allow for you to find community. They allow for us to imagine what the world can be like or could be like. They allow you to sort of suspend reality a bit. We’re not in the real world, we’re in this other utopia.
And the real world is just outside, but we don’t have to go out there just yet.
I have a friend who is writing PhD on like queer performance spaces and this idea of these discrete worlds that are dedicated to something else outside of the norm. And they are. They’re microcosms of another world. It’s like asking why does an artist create? Why does a creative create something? Because I can’t not. It’s something I just do. I love creating a space where people can have fun and have a memorable night and have all those experiences that I myself love. There’s an element of selfishness, of trying to create spaces that I myself would enjoy as well. Despite the fact that I usually don’t get to enjoy a Shandy until like, an hour or two before it ends [laughs]. It’s not necessarily fully formed, it’s lots of little bits. It comes naturally, I want to do it, it doesn’t necessarily have a great degree of cognition around it.
I do definitely have moments though. If I had to pick, it’s moments like when people come up to me and say thank you for creating Shandy. It is so lovely. [Begins to tear up] It feels really nice to create that space for people. There is that moment at a really good party when you feel so comfortable you transcend. You feel liberated and free and like there’s no cares in the world. You’re just in that moment, you’re so present in your body and filled with euphoria. It’s so lovely to be able to allow people to feel that and create a space where people can feel that. Because it doesn’t just happen, so to assist people in finding that is really nice. But I always, every time someone says [thank you], I always chip back with, “Thank you for coming.” Because a party is the people who turn up, so without that person’s presence, it wouldn’t be good. If all I had was shitty people turn up, it’d be a shitty party. I really do rely on good people. There’s an element of curating your audience. How do you encourage the people you want to come to be in your space? Luckily, I have a couple hundred lovely, beautiful, queer Meanjin/Brisbane people doing that.
I think that comes down to that connection that you’re willing to provide and that you’re willing to put in. People are able to then see what’s on offer and connect right back. That comes down to that ethos, and that’s why that is so important. There’s a reason why you keep doing what you’re doing instead of turning it into an autopilot night.
Also like, how boring! Who wants to see autopilot nights? I want to see myself challenged. How can I ramp it up? How can I up the stakes? How can I make this wilder or crazier or sillier? It doesn’t always mean that you have to make it bigger. Bigger doesn’t always mean quality. It’s about, what is going to hit at exactly the right moment? Sometimes it’s small things. A moment which was really like, “WOW!” was at the most recent Tivoli show. 700 people in a room partying and living their best lives, and it was almost like this emotional relief valve was let loose when Henny Spaghetti did ‘Dog Days Are Over’. Everyone was screaming at the top of their lungs, dancing, crying. Perfect.
Shandy’s Birthday Bonanza is this Saturday, May 8th at The Tivoli. It’s sold out, but you can head here for more info.
Interview by Emma Jones
Images supplied by Shandy