Big Star Cafe

Interview by Aaron Curnow, photos by Aaron Hughes

The Coledale Cafe is close to my heart, in fact it’s close to many peoples hearts on the Coal Coast! Apart from the good vibes, the cafe serves up a mean coffee and some great food.

Head barista at Coledale Cafe is Nathan Clark. Along with his partner Briony Wedge, he's just taken over the running of the cafe from Sally Anne Druit…(miss you Sally!) and they’ve renamed it Big Star. So to get all the goss on the new cafe and the Illawarra music scene, which Nathan has been a big part of for many years, we sat down with him for a chat.

Aaron Curnow: How are you settling in as the new owners?

Nathan Clark: Settling in has been an easy transition for me as I had already worked in the cafe for over five years, so that's a huge advantage, plus I had done a lot of the managerial side as well and Briony is very familiar to the cafe, staff and customers and is brilliant in all areas. So taking over the reigns has been very exciting and the local community have been very enthusiastic & supportive, which has been humbling and great. Having our own cafe is something both of us have wanted for a very long time so we are very happy and grateful that it has come to fruition.

Have you set up things any differently?

Things are set up similarly though we have invested in new equipment and have added touches of colour and a sense of comfort, warmth and fun to the cafe.

Has it been tough starting a business with your partner … who’s really in charge?

The customers are in charge! (Ha ha) Briony and I share equal responsibility when it comes to running the business. Tony Danza is our boss, or Bruce Springsteen.

Are you looking at changing the menu or are you going to keep things similar?

We've kept the menu quite similar, although we've already started to introduce new items and the response has been very positive. It's our intention to maintain a balanced vegetarian / carnivore menu and cater for dietary and allergy requirements where possible.

How are the financial constraints now as an owner?

There are no financial constraints to speak of, but in saying that we're still learning as we go. We did a lot of research before we opened so as to not have many surprises. The advice to us was that we would get out what we put in and that arrangement is working well so far.

Did you decide on Big Star because of the sign on the front counter?

We did decide on the name because of the sign. We didn't want our names on it. Briony called me at the cafe when we literally had a day to decide the business name, I was staring at the sign at the time and asked if Big Star was available and it was, we both liked it and that was that, plus it was the name of the shop in the 1960's so it had a cool story behind it and of course we thought it contained the right amount of fun and cheesiness.

Have the band Big Star been a influence on your musical career?

The band Big Star haven't been an influence on my musical 'career' but I love their records and have only picked them up in the last five years or so.

Do you know the song September Gurls? It is quite simply THE greatest song ever!!!!

September Gurls is a great song, so sweet, it's like biting into a jam doughnut.

How long have you been playing in bands in the Illawarra now?

I've been playing in Illawarra bands for about 22 years.

What bands are you currently playing in?

I'm not playing in a band at the moment, my drums are in their cases in a corner of the spare room collecting dust, I'm getting a bit itchy to play...

Who is your favourite band ever from the Illawarra?

My favorite band from the Illawarra area ever is Thumlock. They had all the ingredients for a fantastic band and live they were just something else. There was no pomp and ceremony, it was all about the music and it was shivers-up-the-spine brilliant. Each gig got better and better. I remember going to their shows and either closing my eyes or laughing with the people around me in the audience because it was just that powerful and good.

I still listen to them often, they're recordings are great, I'd love for them to get together and do a show again but I'd probably embarrass myself and cry.

What are your top five gigs that you have seen in the Illawarra?

  1. Fugazi - Wollongong Youth Centre, Thursday 18th November 1993
  2. Fugazi - Wollongong Youth Centre, Monday 18th November 1997
  3. Ramones - Waves Towradgi
  4. RUN D.M.C - Waves Towradgi
  5. Beastie Boys/Helmet - Waves Towradgi

What are your top five gigs outside of the Illawarra?

  1. Nirvana - Phoenician Club, Sydney
  2. Rolling Stones - SCG 1994
  3. P.J. Harvey (3 piece) - Enmore Theatre
  4. The Cramps - Selina's, Coogee
  5. Mudhoney/Rocket From The Crypt - The Metro, Sydney

Tell us a bit about the Coledale Leagues Club and the gigs that you saw there...

I missed out on the Coledale Leagues but have heard many stories about bands such as AC/DC, Midnight Oil and INXS playing there, if the stories are true I wish I'd been there to see it!

How long have you been living in the area for now? Are you liking or disliking the change over time?

I've been living in the area for around twenty years. With time and population growth things change in turn with that, it's just part of life. The thing that amazes me is that Coledale was not seen as an attractive place to live for the wealthy for a long time, it's a fairly recent thing. It was working class and alternative lifestyle all in one and that is still evident now but development is increasing at a high rate. I feel privelaged to live and work here in very old buildings, I like the nostalgia and sentiment they hold.

What are your thoughts on the ever-changing face of Thirroul?

I think Thirroul is changing in a positive way, I think it's healthy. I get nostalgic thinking about the Rex, the theatre skate park, Jackson's Hardware, etc., like anyone else whose lived around here, but fresh new stores and ideas can only be a good thing.

To have things now like the Finbox co-op style and DP surf shop and the theatre fully operational with surrounding shops and restaurants is great and positive, it's so good it hasn't run down but in fact gone the opposite way thanks to really good people with great ideas. Now bring on the skate park!

Have you been to the Foragers Markets yet? That’s something that I am totally impressed with.

I had a stroll through the foragers market a little while back. Markets are a great asset to any community.

What are you doing when you aren't at the coffee shop or playing on stage? What are your other hobbies?

My other hobbies are surfing and painting, I've been passionate about both since I was very young. I follow pro surfing very closely, I watch and read about it just as I do with music in various forms, between that I paint large oil and enamel paintings on canvas. Pretending I'm a three-year-old with my son Arlo is also a hobbie I enjoy.

How much is surfing a part of your life?

Surfing is a big part of my life and has been since I was a child, I just wish I was better at it! I follow the WSL closely and surfers careers. It's a blessing to live around here with so many good waves but I'm hopeless in crowds so I stay away when everyone's on it.

Is owning a cafe glamorous?

Owning a cafe isn't glamorous, but a lot of our customers are and so are our brilliant staff, they're the glamorous ones!

What are some of your cafe highlights over the years?

There's been many highlights in my years as a barista and yes, having Stephen Malkmus walk in was a definite highlight, I completely fanned out, as you know.

I have the privelage of making coffee for all walks of life, whether they be actors, musicians, artists, politicians, doctors, nurses, builders, Jack McCoy, teachers, record label owners, etc., etc. all going about their daily lives and my job often extends to minor counseling and somedays vice versa.

One instance I'll never forget was quite some years ago when one Mick Harvey walked in the shop. This became an example of how some people actually don't like to be recognized or made a fuss of sometimes. As he approached the counter I said, "You're Mick Harvey." He proceeded to storm closer to me with a look that said he was gonna smash my face in and in a very angry growl quietly said "Do I know you!?" then stormed out.

The thing was I had met him a couple of years before at a gig I was playing in support of Kim Salmon at the Tote in Collingwood, we had spoken at length about music and coffee. I guess he didn't remember...