The making of Rob Star, from warehouse squat raves to a pub empire
As the infamous Lord Napier reopens with new star quality – we hear from Rob Star himself on how he built his galaxy.
When Rob Star first started putting on parties in Hackney Wick in the late 90s and early 2000s, ‘people would say “Hackney what?’”
‘There was no overground, no bus link, it was a wasteland,’ he recalls. ‘It was all car breakers yards, some artist studios, some industrial estates over the border to Leyton. It was all industrial.’
The place was so out-of-the-way that Star and his friends would put busses on from Shoreditch to shuttle groups of ravers out to their parties at disused warehouses. Though they preferred the space available in the giant vacant industrial warehouses, a particular graffiti coated squatted pub with green tiles was always kept on standby in case any of the other rave venues fell through.
‘It was cans of red stripe, quite a rough and ready bar, you could get a vodka coke in a little plastic cup, quite lo-fi,’ describes Star, remembering the parties fondly.
Now aged 43, Star is reopening that very squat pub, the infamous Lord Napier, now the Lord Napier Star. We are touring the renovations of the Lord Napier, builders and painters transforming it into a Star. Wooden boards protect the new Electric Star patterned tiles on the floor, yet to be used basement toilets gleam, and a grand staircase is awaiting railings and paint.
On the rooftop we admire the views of the River Lea, construction sites, overground stations, and muse the thoughts of the residents in surrounding blocks of flats: ‘we’ve only had positive feedback,’ says Star, ‘people ’round here are craving a proper pub.’
It’s a much-lamented fact that Hackney Wick has a plethora of restaurants and bars to frolic in, but nowhere to pull up a barstool. A resident of Hackney Wick himself, the Lord Napier Star will become Star’s own local watering hole.
Star is dressed simply in a clean black Vivienne Westwood t-shirt – without traces of dust or dirt – and floppy hair reminiscent of the 90s. He speaks with self-assurance and is direct in his messaging: ‘the Lord Napier Star will not be a nightclub.’
This will be Star’s eighth venture, and the icing on the cake of the Electric Star Pubs empire he has built across East London. If you like pints and a bit of a party, chances are you’ve sunk a couple at a Star pub, though you may not have realised it. ‘We’re not like a chain pub company that has the same decor or the same food menu, or the toilets looking the same,’ says Star.
‘If you didn’t know our pubs are part of a group you probably wouldn’t be able to go into one and say ‘that’s a Star pub,’ because all of them are very, very different, because the areas they’re in are all so different.’
Well, except for the clue in the name. There’s his first pub and former home – he lived in the flat above – The Star of Bethnal Green, refurbished on a shoestring after he took it over in 2007. ‘Jonathan Downey who runs Street Feast, he gave me all the chairs and tables in that pub because I’d run out of money when I opened. We just made things work,’ says Star.
The Star of Kings came next in 2010, described as ‘one of the best and only traditional pubs in Kings Cross’. Then there’s the Star by Hackney Downs, The Leyton Star, The Heathcote and Star in Leytonstone, and across the river is The Fellowship and Star in Bellingham. Roadtrip in Old Street is also part of Star’s empire, but the Americana feel of this bar with a basement music venue sets it apart from the rest of the family.
Star has been putting on parties before he was even old enough to step foot in a nightclub. Starting with parties to celebrate the end of the school term, he continued putting on nights for students when he moved to London in 1996 aged 18.
He would take over East London warehouses and transform them into rave venues. Star himself was living in a warehouse at the bottom of Brick Lane where he hosted his first few raves before the venue was shut down by police.
‘I used to get my bike and I used to cycle around East London just looking for empty spaces: warehouses, archways, anywhere that we could potentially put a party on.’
Working at Islington nightclub Complex – a notorious party institution of London’s 90s rave scene – he rubbed shoulders with big electronic DJs like Jeff Mills, Richie Hawtin and Carl Cox.
But it was while working at the newly opened Home club, a seven-storey superclub in Leicester Square, that he saw his ambitions stretch from putting on parties to owning his own nightclub.
Twenty years later, Star now has eight venues under his belt, but no nightclub, it seems?
‘Roadtrip in Old Street, because it’s got a 5 am license and music in the basement, I guess you could call that my nightclub,’ he replies.
‘I’m actually quite glad that I decided to go into pubs, especially as I got a bit older. My days of staying up all night and all the next day, and sometimes the day after that, are, sort of, long gone. It feels much nicer having a business that I can enjoy and be in and go to with my friends.’
Though he grew up in Leicester, it’s hard not to see Star as an East London lad through and through. ‘People just do stuff ‘round here,’ he says. ‘You’ll see someone do something and it might not work, and then it might not work again, but all of a sudden they find something and it’s an amazing success. And that’s the most inspiring thing, is seeing people achieve stuff.’
Set to open the second week of August 2021, the Lord Napier Star brings Star full circle: from raving in its basement to revamping the place as his own local pub.
Star has partied hard during his twenty years in East London, that’s for sure, but he’s worked even harder. Not content with one, two, even seven ventures under his belt, Star’s limitless ambition is inspiring. Combining a passion for the party with the old East End London spirit of ‘getting up and doing shit’ , Star has built a pub empire to be proud of.
If you enjoyed this, read our piece on the reopening of Globe Town’s Angel and Crown.
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