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An interview with Sarah Baker - Community Organiser/ Bike Mechanic

December 17, 2018

Tell us about yourself in your own words.

I’m Sarah. I grew up in this area, so in Glebe. I went to school like 500m from here and I grew up here with my mum, my dad and my sister, and it was very small. Everyone in this flat, me and my sister had a bunk bed in the little room. I’m a bike mechanic most of the time. I’ve been doing that for 10 years. It’s really great. It’s a really great industry to be in and a really great shop that I work in. I’m a bit bored of it now and I want to kind of change what I’m doing but I still really love it. The rest of the time, I’m doing Black Wire stuff.


What do you want to do if not bike mechanics?

I’ve actually got a formal qualification in bike mechanics and I also have a training and assessment qualification and what I want to do is teach other people bike mechanics.


You said it’s a really good industry, can you elaborate on that?

The community is really nice. I’ve worked in lots of different shops around Sydney and the vibe changes quite a lot depending on what kind of shop you work in. Where I work now, I work with a lot of my friends and it’s a very different community, it’s very family based. We do a lot of things like donate to the local schools and do family rides. Every other shop that I’ve worked in has had a real focus on competitiveness and it’s just not really my thing. I’m just more interested in people just being on bikes. Whether it be carrying their entire family or they’re just going to work every day and they don’t actually really care about bikes - it’s just their mode of transport. That’s what I’m interested in.


In the shops that you’ve worked in the past, have you found that it’s a bit male dominated?

Definitely. Not only male dominated in the workplace but also in customer base. I remember one of the first jobs, I worked for a shop in Newtown for the first 18 months of my career and that was really full on. I didn’t really have a great experience and it pretty much put me off the whole industry. I went away for a few months and went overseas and I didn’t know if I wanted to do this because I just sort of took that to be what the whole industry was like. Then I came back and a friend hooked me up with a job at a different shop and it was cool. It was still really male dominated but they were much more accepting. They could see I had some skills and could fit in. I remember the first thing, it was two male owners and the first time I went in to do a trial, one of the bosses was really lovely and wanted me to be there, and the other one came in and didn’t even look at me and just said ‘well can she build a bike?’. The business ended up going bust 3 years later but by the end of it I was one of the last ones there and I ended up having a close relationship with those owners. We got there in the end but it was that situation where as a woman you have to prove that you have a valid place. There were 5 shops, 30 something employees and I was one of 3 women.


How did you become involved with Black Wire records?

I’ve known Tom for maybe 12 years now. It was sort of incidentally because Tom and I were in a relationship and it was obviously Tom’s life and ultimately became a part of my life. It was very different when I first got involved because that was 6 years ago now and I was doing a lot of other stuff. I was at uni at that time so I couldn’t really kind of throw myself into the shop as I did now. It was obviously still a really big part of my community and I met a lot of people there, then I had a bit of a hiatus and came back and now it’s just become my life. It was very stressful because I was working at the bike shop 4 days a week and then the other 3 days I was just at the shop with Tom. There was a big period of time where I didn’t really have any time off but I think about it now and every minute spent there was just so worth it. I don’t resent not having any time to myself or having committed myself to it that much because I just think it was such an important venture, not just for Tom because it was his entire life, but for the community as a whole. Keeping it going, even though for the last 6 months or so I played such a big financial role in continuing and assisting paying the rent and stuff because we didn’t have any tenants, there is no resentment about that situation - it’s just what had to be done.


What sort of stuff do you do for the label?

I guess I do most of the communicating with people. Trying to sell wholesale stock, sending out stock lists, communicating with people buying stuff, communicating about the pressings with the pressing plant, I pretty much do all of that. I guess I do the administration and look after the finances and then Tom’s a very creative person so he does things like figuring out the artwork or making the webstore look really nice. I built the website and Tom made it look good! I’m concerned with things being functional.


What about with booking shows at the shop and now that the shop’s not around - what sort of role do you take in that?

I do most of the talking with bookers - finding dates. We’re in such a hard position in Sydney with venues, even just helping other people get dates. There’s a bit of a negative opinion about putting on shows in pubs and that’s completely valid but I think we’re at a point where we don’t have a whole lot of options and if we’ve got someone that’s willing to put on small shows and they’re happy to accommodate that, then we really need to take them up on it. It’s not forever. Everything is constantly changing - when I first started going to shows 15 years ago there was a huge number of shows that I could go to as an underage person and now there’s not really an option for that. 


Is that something you’re looking at doing - finding a space to accommodate all ages stuff?

Finding a space, even though we’d really love to, knowing now how easy it is to have it not work out - it only really takes one complaint for things to not work. One complaint. We know now how the council works so if you have one complaint made about you, you’re then investigated and if you’re not compliant then you will get shut down. It’s a very very big risk to take, especially if we’re talking about signing on for another 3 year lease and then if it doesn’t work. There are places that would be really perfect for shows, but the people who own them don’t feel comfortable doing it any more because they get in trouble with the council. It’s just about finding those places but people also being happy to accommodate you and at this point in time, we’ve got such a limited number of places that are willing to accommodate us. I don’t feel super happy about doing shows in pubs, it’s a bit of a bummer. Look at the pokie rooms, they make most of their money from gambling and alcohol.


So a pokies free venue is important?

I think it’s really important. It would be great to have a place that’s not focused on alcohol consumption but that’s most licensed places. What can you really do about that right now?


What are some of the other challenges you face with organising shows and running the label?

I think one of the hard things is, even though technically I’ve been involved with the shop for a while, Tom is still very much the face of it. It’s a bit funny because of the huge amount of administration stuff that I do, and funding it as well, but everybody wants to speak to Tom. It’s almost like you can talk to Tom but Tom’s just going to redirect it back to me and I’m going to filter a response back through to you. It’s not that I want credit or anything but I want people to understand that ultimately it’s a joint decision. I’m not going to say no, because I think it’s really important that we keep putting music out, but ultimately it’s very much a joint decision about whether it’s a good financial choice. It’s not about wanting recognition, it’s just that people understand it’s very much a joint process. 


What motivates you to be involved?

Just that I love it. It’s been now half of my life being in the punk scene and going to shows and buying records and it’s just so important that I keep with it. It’s great for my mental health as well being part of the community, it’s so easy to reach out to other people and find common ground which is quite different to my work community. It makes me feel good and it makes me feel like I’m contributing something without taking up space. Even though I’d like people to recognise that it’s a joint process, I almost like being in the background - I can just sort of make things happen.


What have been the most rewarding things you’ve done?

There’s not really one sort of thing. I think that even though the shop didn’t end in the way we’d really have liked, by the end when it came to closing, just knowing how long we kept carrying it on even though it wasn’t viable for us, and still trying to sort of meet all of our obligations. Just knowing we put in absolutely everything to keep it going and it was emotionally and financially stressful. That was very very rewarding. On the other side of it, in my regular work, having the opportunity to give trainees the knowledge that I’ve gotten has been really great. Watching them have a good learning experience in a space where they feel comfortable and me being able to sort of graciously give knowledge that I’ve acquired through fucked circumstances - from people who didn’t graciously give knowledge. That’s a really really nice thing and it wasn’t until I worked with trainees that I thought training was something I’d really like to do. It kickstarted my want to teach other people.


What is the best piece of advice you could give to young women and queer folk who want to make art or music or just be seen and heard?

It can be really hard but you have to put yourself out there. I notice that mostly when we were looking for staff at work, we had all these guidelines for someone that we were looking for and you’d be surprised how many men applied and did not meet any of those guidelines but still just applied anyway. We’d talk to female customers and tell them to apply and they would say ‘oh I don’t meet one of the criteria’. Confidence in that sense is so important and what’s the worst thing that can happen? That’s something that’s gotten me to this point. What’s the worst that can happen - somebody says no? Or somebody doesn’t say anything. You’ve just got to be confident in your abilities and your desire to do something. I didn’t think we could put out all those records. Even though the label started in 2013, the idea of actually being involved and putting out a record was so far removed and sounded so fucking hard but then being super involved in all the releases - actually if you just go in with confidence and say this is what I want, people respond to that. Being confident in your abilities. I constantly face that at work - being disregarded or people referring to a male that’s in the room, when I am the most qualified person there. Most of the people I work with will have my back so if someone disregards what I’m saying and asks a male colleague, they will then ask my opinion or defer them back to me. This is cool. This isn’t what any other space has been like for me.


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