“We've had a bit of time to renovate and I think we've done really well. I just want to open and show people now,” Sugar co-owner Driller Jet Armstrong says.
Sugar is all dressed up with nothing to do
CityMag visits Driller Jet Armstrong on Monday, a couple of hours after the South Australian government announced new hospitality restrictions.
This isn’t the first time we’ve attempted to interview the eccentric artist and Rundle Street venue owner about the new-look Sugar, which now boasts freshly painted bright pink interiors.
The shifting nature of the state’s arts and entertainment sector, due to the coronavirus, has forced us to reschedule this chat multiple times.
The first obstacle to Sugar’s reopening came when the government announced its approval process for COVID-19 management plans, which would allow licensed venues to have patrons drinking and dancing simultaneously, would take weeks longer than anticipated.
The club then couldn’t find an affordable public liability insurance contract. Driller’s previous contract was $30,000 per year with a $5,000 excess. His contract now is $40,000 with a $25,000 excess.
We text Driller on Monday, and finally he’s available to talk. We head to the venue and find him pressed up against one of Sugar’s newly upholstered lounges.
He looks defeated by the announcement of a new round of restrictions, which kicked in at midnight on Tuesday and will directly affect the soft launch he had planned for the venue this Sunday. He smiles and swears he isn’t.
“I’m not a quitter, that’s for sure,” Driller says.
“When you’re in business with your son, and someone that you’ve known for probably 30 years, you don’t want to let anybody down.”
Sugar hasn’t served a cocktail or had a patron on its dance floor in over five months. When the threat of the COVID-19 became a reality in March, Sugar closed its doors.
Driller successfully got his staff on the Federal Government’s JobKeeper program, and considered ways to use his time and their labour effectively.
No work had been done to the club’s interiors in over a decade, except minor touch-up jobs between busy nights. They decided it was time to give it some love.
“We wanted to put the sugar back in Sugar, and we wanted to tie it all in from the moment you walked in the door, up the stairs into the club,” Driller says.
“We also wanted the club to be more feminine.
“Techno music started out with pastels: it was more so the club interiors, but also the fashion as well.”
Driller’s wife, costume designer Mariot Kerr, conceptualised the decor and donated her life savings to purchase materials for the fit-out.
Driller similarly donated what he had and sold his vintage Italian scooters to pay for expenses and skilled tradesmen.
The facelift cost $35,000 all up, with the fit out bringing into the space glittery pink booths, paddle-pop pink pool tables and ice-cream cone light fittings.
The venue now lies in hopeful wait.
“We’ve had a bit of time to renovate and I think we’ve done really well. I just want to open and show people now,” Driller says.
The elements patrons might often overlook are what the owner likes most about the new design. This includes the slightly lowered set of disco balls and pink terrazzo tiling around the windowsills.
Despite the abundance of bubblegum pink, not all has been sweet throughout COVID at Sugar. Driller tells CityMag he recently started taking antidepressants, which stopped the “very dark thoughts”.
And he’s not alone in the blues.
“I’m talking to other people – friends in my industry – and it’s an epidemic. It’s a sadness epidemic,” Driller says.
“So many people I know have expressed to me how sad they feel.”
Many feel a loss of identity and livelihood, Driller says. They miss seeing friends and the physical release that comes with dancing.
As a business owner, Driller is critical of the government for sending mixed messaging and leaving nightclub owners in the lurch.
“Some help from the government would be really great. Financial help,” he says.
But instead of throwing in the towel, there’s work to be done. If the government doesn’t announce further restrictions on patrons per room, the soft launch will go ahead – albeit seated drinking only.
After the soft launch, Sugar may open to the public, too.
“I’m optimistic,” Driller says. “This is going to end sooner or later and if we can just hang in there.”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by coronavirus news and feel like you’re not coping, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 any time, or via text at 0477 13 11 14 6pm until midnight any day.