Saturday night time in central Newcastle upon Tyne and a small however hyper-committed viewers is soaking in a 40-minute playback of melancholic area dub because it soundtracks a century-spanning montage of the north-east’s shipyards, estates, dancehalls and cafes. It’s adopted by an hour of blissful reside ambient music from native duo Golden Shields, then a fearsomely intense set by the Newcastle-based Spanish singer-producer Laura “Late Woman” Stutter García which evokes minimalist composition, early grime and Björk .
We’re in World Headquarters, a venue in Curtis Mayfield Home, each wall coated in portraits of Black radicals and musicians, anarchist and anti-racist texts, and an command to “love each other”. The occasion has been put collectively by Geoff Kirkwood, AKA left-field dance DJ-producer Man Energy, head of group engagement for WHQ, and head of the label and promoters Me Me Me. He additionally performed the opening set, underneath his Mattress Wetter alias – a check run for a coming Royal Northern Sinfonia orchestral model, supporting the US ambient trailblazer William Basinski, on the space’s enormous arts hub Sage Gateshead later this month.
Tonight is the product of an experimental music group – which additionally encompasses all the things from the pagan digital people of Me Misplaced Me to the uncooked noise of Kenosist – that crackles with creativity and regional delight. It’s a scene that’s persevering regardless of severe challenges. After 9 years, the unconventional artwork and group area the Previous Police Home (TOPH) lately closed after being hobbled by Covid lockdowns. The equally exploratory, internationalist Tusk festival, which has showcased worldwide underground mainstays from Moor Mom to Terry Riley, simply didn’t safe additional Arts Council funding after 9 years of beforehand profitable functions, seemingly as a consequence of elevated competitors.
Nonetheless, DIY areas and collectives abound. The Star and Shadow cinema and occasion area (which hosted early Tusk festivals) has been volunteer-run on non-hierarchical rules for the reason that 00s. Cobalt Studios is a gig venue, membership, print workshop and cafe with workspace for rent in a labyrinthine constructing and transport containers, in between a BMX social hub and a people pub. (“We frequently get clog dancers coming in to the cafe,” says Cobalt founder Kate Hodgkinson.) Nonprofit music venue, bar, workshop and radio studio the Lubber Fiend is a brand new addition, co-founded by Stephen “Bish” Bishop of the outsider electronica label Opal Tapes.
A lot of that is spurred by a way of being unfairly remoted. “The north-east has been ignored and reduce off by a succession of governments,” says Kirkwood. “Particularly after Covid there was a robust sense of: OK, no one’s going to do something for us – fuck it, we’ll do it ourselves.” Hodgkinson talks of visiting acts arriving “not anticipating a lot, pondering of this end-of-the-line ex-shipbuilding and coal, stag-and-hen-do place that doesn’t afford cool areas”. Her mission is to offer them with a welcome and an viewers that show in any other case.
Daily, gigs, workshops and tasks proceed. Tusk is rebooting, starting with a brand new gig sequence. Kirkwood is launching a plan for affordable workspaces for locals in impoverished North Shields, which contrasts starkly with the neighbouring oyster bars and craft markets of the scenic and distinctly on-the-up Tynemouth.
And preservation of the hidden however very important previous is underneath method. N-Aut (No-Viewers Underground Tapes) provides away free cassettes of previous gigs and festivals from areas equivalent to TOPH; it’s run by David Howcroft, allegedly the inspiration behind Ravey Davey Gravey of Newcastle’s personal Viz comedian. A wistful new documentary, The Kick, the Snare, the Hat and a Clap, by Susie Davis, appears again on the Ouseburn Valley out of doors raves of the 90s, and Tusk TV’s dizzying YouTube channel archives huge swathes of underground tradition.
Kirkwood will comply with the Mattress Wetter orchestration at Sage with a brand new composition with Fiona Brice. It is going to be carried out partly by a choir of individuals with dementia, together with his grandfather, who raised him, within the church the place his grandparents married 70 years in the past. The piece is in regards to the previous, in fact, however it’s equally about constructing an inventive future, and pulling extra consideration to an space that, as Kirkwood says, “isn’t just a few outpost away from what’s taking place, however has tradition all its personal”.
It’s arduous in an overwhelmingly white, Brexit-supporting space, however this scene fights to be inclusive. Mariam Rezaei is a turntable artist and educational who now programmes Tusk with founder Lee Etherington, and who co-ran TOPH with noise musicians Adam Denton and Mark “Kenosist” Wardlaw. She credit the avant garde harpist Rhodri Davies and William Edmondes of noise-pop duo Yeah You with not solely inspiring and supporting expertise but in addition offering an alternate social framework, together with her in reveals and collaborations from the flip of the millennium to right this moment. “I’m a brown, mixed-heritage, working-class lady,” she says. “Working full-time whereas learning, it was all the time going to be tough for me to make mates. I felt the traces of sophistication and I’m so grateful I used to be included.” Her turntablism is now taking her profession international with burgeoning commissions and collaborations.
There’s an immense sense of hidden native historical past behind all this, too. Etherington has run Tusk since 2011; the earlier decade, he promoted gigs as No-Fi with Ben Ponton of native ambient-industrial duo Zoviet France, who in flip constructed an area micro-infrastructure for bizarre music that dates again to 1980. Etherington traces these hyperlinks again additional nonetheless when he mentions the venues the place No-Fi typically programmed occasions, such because the Morden Tower, “a medieval craftsmen’s guild constructed into the outdated city wall, that hosted Ginsberg, Trocchi, Bunting within the 60s then every kind of avant stuff later”.
Membership and rave tradition supplies a significant historic pillar, too. World Headquarters has been going since 1993, based by Tommy Caulker, the primary mixed-race licensee in central Newcastle. Earlier than WHQ, Caulker had withstood Nationwide Entrance assaults to run the Trent Home, a metropolis centre pub that was haven to misfits together with the founders of Viz. It was one of many first within the UK to play home music, spinning to a homosexual crowd at its night time Rockshots. Though WHQ has new administrators, together with Kirkwood’s artistic accomplice, Gabriel Day, Caulker’s insistence on it being an anti-discriminatory secure area stays etched into its insurance policies – and its decor.
All through the 90s the north-east had a thriving unlawful get together scene, which ranged from techno tear-ups in valleys and warehouses to – as Suade Bergemann of Golden Shields recollects – “mad events above a dodgy garments store in Whitley Bay the place you’d get the weirder and extra ambient finish of Warp or Ninja Tune-type acts arising and enjoying reside”. From this scene, overlapping with the hippy rock world, got here figures equivalent to Coldcut collaborator and turntablist Raj Pannu – now making deep techno for Me Me Me – and Steevio, founding father of Freerotation, the small pageant that has grow to be a social hub for the UK’s millennial digital music group.
After all, it’s not possible to speak in regards to the north-east’s music scene with out pertaining to people. The Cumberland Arms pub, the place these clog dancers collect, is on the coronary heart of a scene that nurtured the Domino Information-signed art-rocker Richard Dawson and newer off-beam abilities equivalent to Me Misplaced Me and the hypnotic loop-pedal manipulator and singer Nathalie Stern. There’s barely a level of separation between the DIY circuit and well-established native people acts such because the Unthanks. Even Mark Knopfler has lately been revisiting his roots in the identical pub scene, many years in the past. A metropolis this dimension creates a connectedness that Kirkwood sums up within the canonical Viz phrase: “Sting’s dad did me milk”. (Ernest Sumner did, the truth is, do a milk spherical the place Kirkwood grew up in Wallsend.)
Within the midst of all these underground traditions sits the massive, shiny multi-arts venue the Sage. There’s ambivalence in direction of its cultural dominance, to say the least: Etherington talks of “cash being poured into landmark venues” (Sage, together with the likes of Gateshead’s Baltic Centre, has obtained thousands and thousands over time) whereas independents are frozen out. Rezaei briefly labored at Sage however left quickly after it hosted the 2014 Ukip convention. “I simply can’t and gained’t tolerate hate speech and racism,” she says. Others are extra forgiving: Day is a trustee there and Late Woman an artist-in-residence. Cobalt’s Kate Hodgkinson talks of it making a cultural gravity when it opened in 2004, serving to arts graduates like her to “keep and actually make stuff occur” somewhat than “be a part of the rat race” in London.
Kirkwood’s upcoming Sage present, then, is an try to make use of its huge stage to showcase one thing distinctly north-eastern and underground. Mingling with the group at WHQ, who vary in age from teenagers to seniors, we amble out to rejoin the Saturday night time drinkers and meet with their fierce ardour: an odd mix of hard-left politics and entrepreneurialism, and a particular geordie enthusiasm for getting caught in. Unknowingly, a number of musicians repeat Kirkwood’s phrase: “Fuck it, we’ll do it ourselves.”
With a gaggle together with native home DJs, poets and rag commerce hustlers becoming a member of the musicians, we decamp to Zerox, a brand new mixed-LGBTQ+ indie bar the place youngsters are going wild to Erasure, Grace Jones and Speaking Heads. It’s a far cry from the hypnotic immersion of the WHQ present, however in its method it too refutes the thought of the north-east as a monocultural “stag-and-hen-do place”. No person right here is resting on their laurels. Each one in all these DIY artists and venues struggles day by day.
“It’s arduous on the market,” says Rezaei. “However we did issues on our personal and I’m happy with that.”