1 Aug 2017

Do Whatever: A Look At The North-East's Thriving DIY Scene

Photo creds: Nick Wesson, NARC magazine

At one time, the only musicians from the North East of England with any sort of national significance were Prefab Sprout and Dire Straits. Whilst the former’s 1988 album From Langley Park to Memphis was something of a hit (peaking at number 5 on the UK albums chart), it goes without saying that for a number of years, the region was pretty under-represented in the UK’s popular music scene.

As the 2000s saw the rise of energetic indie-pop, this trend began to shift: bands like Frankie & the Heartstrings, Maxïmo Park and the Futureheads would emerge from the darkest depths of Teesside and Sunderland, bringing forth a unique charisma that couldn’t possibly come from anywhere else (except, perhaps, the most northern parts of Yorkshire).

For a few years, the local scene enjoyed universal acclaim. Maxïmo Park’s explosive debut, A Certain Trigger, received a nomination for the 2005 Mercury Prize, whilst the Futureheads toured with alternative heroes Pixies and the Foo Fighters.

Sadly, this fluctuation of notoriety was fleeting. Some who shot to fame in the late 2000s are now rarely recognised outside of Newcastle, whilst other groups have been forced to disband altogether. However, many of these musicians have been undeterred by the fickle nature of fame, opting instead to work on independent projects that allow the regional arts scene to flourish.

In fact, the last five years has seen a whirlwind of new venues cropping up in every major North-Eastern city: one such institution, Pop Recs LTD, is a cosy record store in Sunderland. It was originally established to ‘Galvanise a community through culture, art and music’ for a brief duration in 2013, before its founders Dave Harper and Michael McKnight (of Frankie & the Heartstrings fame) moved on to their next project.

“HMV had just announced that it was closing, due to the decline in sales - this felt like a bit of a blow as we (Frankie & the Heartstrings) had a new album coming out and they’d ran a massive campaign with our first record.” Explains Michael.

“We thought that it’d be fun to open up a record shop where HMV stood the day after it closed down - mainly to generate a bit of buzz and get people talking about us. The Sunderland store didn’t close, so we asked the council if we could use the old tourist info office as it had been empty for years. They agreed, so we got a few friends in to play to make sure we had a full shop every night.”

But the pair soon found that they got a little bit more than they first bargained for. Three-and-a-half years later, Pop Recs continues to prosper, having been transformed by fans, artists and musicians into a city-centre haven for independent culture.

“Everyone loved the place, and egged us on to keeps going!” He laughs.

Following a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015, the shop is now permanently situated next to the Bunker, Sunderland’s local recording hub and practice rooms.

But Sunderland isn’t the only city in the region with a thriving DIY ethic. Jonathan Swift, owner of a small vintage boutique in Durham City, was inspired to launch his own independent label after witnessing the raw talent possessed by the likes of thrilling pop-punksters Martha.

He explains how Frux Tapes has allowed him to both express his passion for music and permit obscure acts to prosper.

“I met Nathan - the drummer with Martha and one half of ONSIND - and we got on great from the off. I kind of fell into the DIY Punk Scene from there. Martha were already pretty big, and Pale Kids had just formed.” He says.

“I went to their (Pale Kids) first show, and just knew immediately that I wanted to put something out for them. It all developed from there – we realised that, being a label, it would be much easier to champion people and projects. We get taken more seriously, and I can say how much I really love the band by helping them!”

Meanwhile, a short drive away in Middlesbrough, noise-rock duo Mouses are already reaping the rewards of the region’s tight-knit creative community. Formed in 2014, the band’s popularity quickly escalated with a number of local sell-out shows – now, they’re in the process of launching their own festival in Teesside, and they’ve been described by BBC introducing as one of the hottest-tipped bands of the year.

Charismatic frontman Ste Bardgett believes Mouses’ overwhelming success to be firmly rooted in their North-East background. 
“I think I’ve said it in the past, but sometimes it can be really difficult to stand out from the crowd in bigger cities.” He gushes. “There’s a lot of competition, especially in London. In Teesside, there isn’t really competition as such - everyone just supports each other. It feels like one big family at times!”

He also expresses a typically North-Eastern disdain for big labels – opting instead for a staunchly DIY approach to their sound. 

“In terms of getting noticed, I suppose it depends who you want to get noticed by – sure, there’s a lot more major label interest in bigger cities, but that doesn’t really mean anything to us. We’ve had the time to develop into whatever we want to be, and that’s what counts.”

Whilst most emerging musicians continue to crave the fame and fortune that comes as part and parcel with nationwide recognition, it seems that the major players in the North East’s independent scene – Pop Recs, Mouses and Martha to name but a few – actively avoid being warped by such infamy, maintaining their core identities. More importantly though, they want their friends and family succeed along with them.

It is this sense of camaraderie that epitomises the essence of the region: whether this is a result of geographical isolation, close-knit mining community heritage or simply a shared, ambivalent social conscience, it certainly makes for some incredible music.

“We have a very honest, inclusive music scene here - nothing’s contrived about it.” says Michael McKnight. “Plus, a lot of it is independent out of necessity - If you don’t do things for yourself round here, you’re fucked. Local scenes are often hijacked when they’re deemed ‘cool’. Our DIY scene has kept true to its intentions.”

(Words: Emily Ingram)