Winnipeg’s Outsider Nightspot: The Story of the Die Maschine and Collective Cabaret

In 1995, Mark Souce was Robert Smith reincarnate—his coif was hair-sprayed and teased, his lips were stained red, and his eyes were smudged with black eyeliner. A fixture on the local alternative music scene, he was frequently spotted at the Die Maschine, a storied nightclub in Winnipeg, where goth, industrial, techno, new wave and Britpop enthusiasts could dance…inside of a cage.

“That’s where I got my cardio,” Souce says with a laugh.

Open from 1995–2007, the venue was, for a time, a playground of expression and eccentricity, a safe space for the alternative scene; where cape-clad goth-romantics mingled with mods, skateboarders, punks, ravers, and all spectrum of people that came to dance to the sounds of the underground with total and complete abandon.

“I grew up in the suburbs…suburban kids are very preppy and I wasn’t,” says Souce.

Located at 108 Osborne Street in Osborne Village, a pocket hub of alternative culture at the time, the neighbourhood was a far cry from the humdrum of the city’s suburbs. Teenagers tossed hacky sacks in a nearby hangout, called “The Circle,” while businesses appealing to countercultural interests dotted the area.

“Some people would come up to me and say, ‘You look cool!’” Souce recalls. “Everybody went there and got along. It wasn’t one specific group of people. The downstairs would play dance music and techno and the upstairs would play more alternative music…there really weren’t that many clubs that played alternative music. Before the Die Maschine opened, it was The Crypt, so we always had a place to go.”

Taking the reigns from original goth night resident DJ Count Zero, Zlatan Banicevic (a.k.a. Ogremind) ran a goth weekly at the Die Maschine under various names on and off from 1996 until the final night in 2007. He would also continue to promote goth events at notorious basement bar, Wellington’s, and other spots after the club’s closure.

Playing the music of Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Killing Joke, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, Depeche Mode, the Cure, and Marilyn Manson, the Die Maschine’s goth nights were as much about the music as they were about the fashion, with patrons showing up in full-fledged fetish and gothic garb.

“The one rule we had was to leave attitudes at the door,” Banicevic says. “Down there, we were all the same. If you’re a freak, I’m a freak. Judge me all you want, but keep your verdict to yourself. We wanted an environment where people could come down and dress however they wanted to be dressed without fear of being hassled.

“People always seemed to be cool with whatever,” says Leslie Ottewell (a.k.a. DJ Pokey), who DJ’d goth nights alongside Banicevic during the Die Maschine’s early years until its final days. “If you were a guy and you wanted to come wearing a dress, no big deal. There were a couple of friends of mine where that was the only place that they felt safe doing that.”

As Ottewell points out, because they were often judged and targeted themselves, the goth scene was probably one of the most accepting of the alternative communities. “We were just there for the fun of it,” she says. “We did get concerned about the so-called ‘norms’ coming in and ridiculing us…and women getting harassed on the dance floor because of people making the assumption that because they’re dressed differently then they’re fair game for being picked up…if there was a feeling of negativity or hostility, we put a stop to it.”

“Before goth emerged in the U.K. in the late ‘70s, all of the punks hung out at gay bars,” Banicevic adds. “Why? Because it was the one place where they weren’t going to be hassled and beaten up for the way that they were dressed. You were in an environment where you were accepted with other outsiders. If you were someone that couldn’t find acceptance at a regular place, you would find it there.”

By late 1996, the building’s main floor was expanded into a multi-level dance club. Capacity swelled from around 160 upstairs to another 190 downstairs. A glow-in-the-dark lit stairwell to the back of the club linked the two levels, allowing patrons to move freely between floors at a bargain two-for-one cover charge.

DJ Brian St.Clair worked at the Die Maschine as a DJ and manager from 1996–1999, and then returned to DJ the ’80s night from 2003–2007 (although John Gel would take over the night for most of 2007). “It was actually a struggling bar initially,” says St.Clair. “When I got there in ‘96, the bar was almost ready to go under.”

Though it took some time to build up, the Die Maschine eventually drew a crowd on the strength of its eclectic programming, including two alternating formats on two levels.

“Upstairs on a Thursday, you’d hear anything from Martin Denny to Bjork,” says St.Clair. “That was around the time when that whole series came out, the Ultra-Lounge compilations…We called the lower level ‘The Breakfast Club’ and the upper level ‘Lounge Lizards.’”

“The original Die Machine became one of the busiest bars in the city,” says St.Clair. “People went there because it was the place to be.”

Two different musical entities at one address

Over the years, the two floors would become more distinct from each other. The main floor was re-dubbed the Collective Cabaret in the early 2000s, functioning as a mostly live music venue that also programmed DJ-centric nights. The upper level, however, stayed true to its alternative dance club roots, operating mostly under the original Die Maschine moniker (though it was also named the Chaos Chameleon for a brief stint and, under new ownership, the complex was referred to as the Village Cabaret).

“The new owner was trying to recreate the magic by renaming it,” says St.Clair. “I thought the name Chaos Chameleon was stupid, because everyone was still calling it Die Maschine, so in 2003 it became the Die Maschine again, because everyone was calling it that anyways. But downstairs still ran as the Collective.”

With two different musical entities located at one address, and just about every sub-sect of the alternative scene uniting there, the space at 108 Osborne Street became a one-stop destination for music scene denizens. Both floors would often spill into each other from the connecting stairwell. The club’s ‘80s night, which ran upstairs on and off throughout the venue’s existence, was the bar’s most popular dance night. Downstairs an array of art-rock, indie, punk and metal bands trampled across, poured beer down, and writhed on the venue’s dingy stage.

“The stage was kind of low, so you could be right in front of the crowd,” says Alana Mercer (bassist in sludge metal group Dead Ranch), who played the venue with many of her former punk projects, such as The Quiffs and The Gorgon. “I remember a C’mon show, where the bass player just walked out into the crowd, then got up onto a table, and played for a while. Having ‘Q’ [Quintin Towns] right there behind the bar made it feel very safe, too…and seeing him eject people from the bar by their face.”

From top to bottom: The infamous cage dance floor and the goblin-coloured lower level. Photos supplied by DJ Brian St. Clair

Even as a touring musician, Mercer says she’s never seen a set-up quite like what was offered between the adjoining levels. “A weird goth-cage dance hall above a metal show? I’ve never seen that before…It was just this weirdo place to go.”

Regardless of what your musical appetite happened to be, if you were into the alternative music scene in the late-‘90s to late-‘00s in Winnipeg, you probably, at some point, danced inside of the cage at the Die Maschine. “The weird chain-link thing made it so that if a stupid guy came up to you and was trying to chat you up, then you could literally just slip around the fence and hide yourself around a bunch of people,” Mercer says. “Then there was the risers in the back. If you were really feeling it, then you could dance for everyone. You would be three feet higher, so if you really wanted some attention you would get up there and dance. It was ridiculous. I loved that place though.”

While the upstairs operated as a separate dance club, venue staff worked especially hard to make the downstairs function as a viable live music venue. “It really started out as a tough grind,” says Sam Smith, the Collective’s talent buyer from 2003–2007 who, at the time, was also buying at legendary punk venue/hotel the Royal Albert Arms (RIP). He now buys talent for both the Garrick Centre and the Windsor Hotel, and is the booking agent for Propagandhi. “Quentin [Towns] was tending bar and Greg [Rekus] was the sound guy. He was mixing on something that was such a joke. You need to give some credit to them.”

“They’d be in there on days off with soldering irons trying to get more lighting, or fixing stuff on the cheap,” Smith adds. “All of this kind of DIY resourcefulness on their part gave me a halfway credible place to bring agents and other interested parties to the table. The results were better shows, and we were rewarded with better gear—that’s how the club got that much better in that small window.”

When the venue eventually became credible for live music, the size of the space made for some memorable shows, and some agents and artists started opting for the Collective over the Albert, according to Smith. Bands like American art-rockers Xiu Xiu and metalcore outfit Converge, along with Victoria punks Dayglo Abortions and Montreal avant-rock group Les Georges Leningrad, all played the room; while noted Winnipeg locals like Kittens, American Flamewhip, Venetian Snares, KEN mode, Novillero, and others added to the building’s history.

“The Collective sort of opened up a different kind of vibe,” says Smith. “It’s in the Village, it’s a nicer club than the Albert, it didn’t have a lot of polish to it, but at least you can go to the bathroom and not feel like you’re going to get hepatitis.”

“The Village was just a really great place at that time to be hanging out,” says Julia Ryckman (former vocalist/bassist in the now defunct surf-noir outfit This Hisses and, of late, an articling student). “Movie Village was still there and Music Trader was there, so it was kind of a hub for activity…I didn’t really connect the Die Maschine together with the Collective. I felt like they were different spaces, but both very much Osborne Village.”

Ryckman, known for her work with a slew of standout punk and experimental art-rock projects—including the Velvet Underground-inspired DADADADA: LAZERS, Slattern, and ramshackle punk band The Gorgon with guitarist Jennifer Alexander and Alana Mercer on drums—spent her early years as a musician playing between the Albert and the Collective.

Julia Ryckman performing with DADADADA: LAZERS. Photo credit: Mandy Malazdrewich.

“What was interesting about that time was that there were women that were deciding to have bands that were all women and totally making it on their own terms,” says Ryckman. “Whether they were taking it seriously or not, they were having fun and people really liked it…some people were calling it a bit of a renaissance.”

The Collective played host to a few Winnipeg Women in Rock nights, showcasing some of the all-female bands at the time, which Ryckman took part in. “I think the promoter wanted to draw attention to the fact that there were all of these women who were cool,” says Ryckman. “We didn’t have a problem doing them, but we also thought, ‘We’ve always been doing this—playing in bands with a lot of women in them—so why do you have to put a label on it?’ I think he had the best of intentions. One show that we signed up to play I had lost my voice, so I played drums and Alana [Mercer] sang and it was really fun. That was indicative of a lot of the female bands at the time. In a guy band, it would be ridiculous to play drums when you’ve never played drums before, but there was this sort of playfulness with us.”

Observing cultural shifts, like no other venue in Winnipeg at that time, if the walls of 108 Osborne Street could talk they would tell you how, over a decade span, the city’s alternative music landscape unfolded, for better or worse.

Meanwhile, a mysterious discovery in 2003 would ultimately foretell the beginning of the end for the venue.

Good Form and the club’s last breath

The tale of the DJ who crawled into a narrow space between the club’s walls, and was found dead a year later will likely be remembered as the venue’s most bizarre and disturbing chapter. Eduardo Sanchez (a.k.a. DJ Phonosys), a drum and bass DJ and patron of the venue, went missing in 2002 after having last been seen at the Collective. As the Winnipeg Free Press reports, it wasn’t until the ducts were inspected in the basement of the venue that his mummified body was found lodged between the walls 14 months after disappearing.

How Sanchez got there and why he was there in the first place remains a mystery today. A song by Chicago band Pelican, called “Dead Between the Walls,” was inspired by the incident, as was a 2005 episode of the TV series Bones.

For years after the case, the club would suffer a decline in attendance. “Nobody wanted to go to the main floor when I started buying, which was right after Ed was found in the wall,” says Smith. “It was a phoenix rising through 2004–2005. I improved attendance there for a good couple of years. Interest began waning a little later.”

If the tragedy was symbolic of anything, it’s that the venue was about to gasp its last breath—but not before a brief resuscitation.

In the spring of 2006, Good Form began as an anti-club night of sorts, intended as a space for people who weren’t into the typical Top 40 club vibe, or those who liked their tunes carefully curated.
“They didn’t take requests,” says Smith. “They really made that night out of nothing.”

“It was just a really good place to hear great music and it felt really informal,” says Ryckman. “We started going when it was not that well attended and then it got more successful.”

Mike Braun (a.k.a. Mike B or DJ Fontcrimes), the reluctant DJ behind the whole affair, initially started Good Form as a low-key club night with zero aspirations of success. “When I started the night, I didn’t know that it would turn into a dance night,” says Braun “Then people just kept showing up, and started dancing. It kind of took me by surprise. I was like, ‘I guess you can dance to that?’

“TV on the Radio’s ‘Wolf Like Me’ was one of the big songs,” Braun continues. “To me, it didn’t seem like something people would go crazy for, and that became one of the staple songs that made people go nuts when they heard it…They would get so into it. I’ve never seen people dance like that before.”

From left to right: Mike Braun and Rob Vilar. Photo credit: Justin Pokrant.

Rob Vilar—a DJ known for his obscure and wide-ranging tastes, as well as a member of DADADADA: LAZERS—would join Braun a few months into the weekly. Braun would play current indie-dance favourites, like Bloc Party, Le Tigre, and LCD Soundsystem, while Vilar dove head first into offbeat and welcome surprises. A set could range from Six Finger Satellite’s “Rabies” to Elastica’s “Connection” to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” to The Fall’s “Totally Wired.”

“Every week it would be a different playlist, mixtape format,” says Vilar. “It was a lot of fun.”

The two styles worked well together and the night exploded, filling a gaping hole in the city’s indie dance scene that few seemed to realize was in such need of satisfying.

“It was kind of at the tail end of when Mod Club at the Pyramid was dying out,” Braun says. “I think we got a bit of that crowd. It started with 20 to 30 people. Then all of the sudden there was 200 people there and it just kept going.”

With the popularity of Good Form downstairs, staff at the venue decided to re-launch the infamous ‘80s night upstairs. Before long, the night began to morph into something unintended. A different crowd, or what Smith refers to as “the seashell-wearing goons,” had begun to converge on the underground establishment. Indeed, it had become a victim of its own popularity, and the Top 40 crowd that the indie/alternative scene had initially come to the club to avoid was becoming the majority on Thursdays. In many ways, the scene at 108 Osborne Street was being devoured and displaced by the mainstream.

“It reached a boiling point where all of the sudden the crowd that built the night kind of got muscled out by an audience that didn’t really know what was there; they just knew that there were lots of people there,” says Smith. “Those ‘80s nights just became gross and over-attended.”

Despite the mainstream success of the club, it would close its doors in 2007 (an offer was made on the space to transform the lower level into an American Apparel store—it has since closed). Twelve or so years after opening, Good Form would help close out the final Thursday club night on the main floor. Appropriately, hundreds of people came to dance their faces off one last time.

“I remember going outside, and before we were even open I could see a line past the Second Cup coffee place [on River Avenue],” says Braun.

Two nights later, a nu-metal show with Dreadnaut would officially end all programming on the main level, while the goth scene’s swan song went off upstairs. “People hung out until the bitter end of it all until five in the morning,” says Banicevic, who DJ’d the final eve with goth night originator DJ Count Zero, and DJ Nuvo. “There was a joy and a sadness…the Die Maschine went out with a wonderful bang that blasted well into the morning.”

“For a long time, it was connected to that Osborne Village culture and community,” says Ryckman of the infamous establishment. “What we’ve seen nowadays is venues flaring up and burning up really quickly. For a community to have those kinds of cornerstones [like the Albert and Collective], it really helps to foster a scene and survive.”

–Julijana Capone

Julijana Capone misses dancing inside of the Die Maschine’s cage. She can be reached at Stay tuned for more articles about beloved, bygone and still-kicking music venues across the country.