Fund Our Fun is a series celebrating the UK’s music and nightlife industries, and a rallying call to protect them. Read more here, and check out our interactive map of at-risk venues here, to find ways to help your local spaces.
When you think of industries as broad as “music” and “nightlife”, you probably imagine the gargantuan institutions: academy venues, those identikit high street clubs across the country and every bank that’s ever sponsored a music festival, big or small, for cultural cachet and advertising purposes. This might be where all the money is concentrated, but these monocultural experiences are far from accessible to everyone, and not always reflective of the real richness of UK music and nightlife.
The reality is it takes a lot of individuals with commitment, passion and willingness to put themselves through minor personal financial ruin to ensure that cities provide the sort of escape and relief that make young people gravitate towards them in the first place. You don’t move to Manchester or Bristol for its proximity to another O2 Academy. You do it for something less tangible, but a lot more real than that.
If you went fully microscopic on any individual city in the UK – or around the world, really – you’ll find secrets about the people, places and tiny events that keep the music and nightlife scenes vibrant. You may or may not be able to easily Google them; they might just be the punter you see every week at a DIY gig, or the DJ who spends all their free time mentoring disadvantaged talent rising through the ranks – but without local heroes we’d be living in a cultural wasteland.
These are some of our local favourites from across the UK who deserve a moment of celebration.
BELFAST: GWENDOLIN PATTERSON
In a perfect world, every city would have its very own Gwendolin Patterson. By day she’s a college librarian, by night she’s a catalytic guest at shows of every ilk. Since moving from New York City in the autumn of 1992, she’s been a fixture of the Belfast scene. Whether in DIY spaces or at venues like Voodoo and the Menagerie, she flourishes up front, a taliswoman of pure kinetic energy. It may not always be easy (especially stone-cold sober), but her M.O. is simple: leave your woes at the door and yield to the power of sound.
“Musicians love when their audience dances, as it’s a conscious appreciation of their music,” she says. “Here’s a tip I give to those among us who find it hard to let go: imagine the band is playing in your front room. Would you not dance or interact with them?”
A party-starter par excellence, Gwendolin’s deep love of DIY goes back to her formative years in the neighbourhood of Alphabet City, Manhattan, where she conspired with bands like Sonic Youth and lived in a squat alongside Homestead Records. Maybe it goes back even further. “I’ve been dancing from the womb,” she says. “If I hear a riff or beat, I feel it in every part of me and I enter it.”
Many make Belfast’s music scene the haven it’s always been, but for my money, none more freely or joyously than Gwendolin. At our very best – at our least sheepish or self-conscious – we’re all a little bit more like her. When things get back to normal, she vows to do it all over again. “There are only two things which have kept me from a Belfast gig or event: my health, or if it’s not my cuppa tea,” she says. “Otherwise, the room knows when I am there.” – Brian Coney
LONDON: SHERELLE THOMAS
On the 6th of October, 2020, DJ and Radio 1 resident Sherelle joined Emily Maitlis on Newsnight. That day, news had landed of Rishi Sunak’s notion that people working in music should retrain, “upskill” and opt for a more “viable” profession. Describing the government’s behaviour as “deplorable” and her heart as broken, Sherelle told it like it is: “The Tories are letting us down.”
A connoisseur of footwork and jungle, whose sets rattle along at 160bpm plus, Sherelle has become a contemporary figurehead of footwork, earning the respect of originator RP Boo. But before she was selling out 1,700-cap venues (Electric Brixton, with the rest of 6 Figure Gang), or playing the likes of Glastonbury or The Warehouse Project, Sherelle was on the grind. Holding down a midweek slot at Reprezent, playing shows on NTS and Rinse, and DJing in London’s best, sweatiest basements, Sherelle has always championed the frenetic club sounds she loves best. When her recent Essential Mix was crowned 2020’s Essential Mix of the Year, her post on Instagram read: “It’s… For the Black queers. For the scene. For the people m8.”
And then there’s HOOVERSOUND, the London-based label Sherelle launched in early 2020 with friend NAINA (Beats 1, Reprezent). Six releases in, and having already copped a nomination in DJ Mag’s Best of British Awards, Hooversound is community-driven, showcasing left-field club music “with a twist”. In 2021, Sherelle will launch a second label: Beautiful Records – a home for electronic music by Black artists, focused on celebrating Black female-identifying and non-binary producers. Sherelle knows that representation in the booth will lead to an inclusive dance floor, and is using her position in the scene to push for more intersectional booking policies at clubs and festivals.
When I previously spoke to fellow 6 Figure Gang member Dobbs (FKA Dobby) in an interview, she described Sherelle as “having a very parently energy about her, always making sure we’re on point”. That compassionate energy spreads further than her immediate counterparts; when she DJs, Sherelle is always looking out for the crowd – just like the scenes at that Boiler Room in February of 2019, she wants to see the girls at the front. – Katie Thomas
THE SOUTH COAST: RICKY BATES
When Ricky Bates was first employed by The Joiners in Southampton, he had a hell of a mission. With the business in an almost unbelievable amount of debt, his first job was, essentially: you’ve got three months to make 60 grand, or the venue will shut down. This was in 2012. In 2020, Ricky found himself in a similar situation. He succeeded in keeping The Joiners open both times by rallying musicians and the local community to help.
Ricky’s start in music came from putting on DIY punk shows in his house as a student. He got a vocal PA, a backline, four bands, 50 mates who’d throw a couple of quid into a bucket and bring their own booze. It was, he says, “Like a wild house party, with people walking on the ceiling and stuff – absolute chaos. Looking back, it’s surprising the house didn’t get burnt down.” The job at The Joiners led him to booking bigger bands for proper venues, but it was this sense of community he wanted to bring with him and reintroduce into the place.
“It felt like that’s what was missing, that community that had been there in the 80s and 90s,” he says. He worked with local bands, local music colleges and networks, like SOCO Music Projects, which help keep kids off the streets and get them involved with music and bands. “And what’s cool about Joiners is you get dads who played there in the 80s and 90s bringing their kids.”
The other thing that drives Ricky is the desire to grow the scene and the bands in it. He points to Southampton horror-punks Creeper, whose frontman Will Gould he lived with on and off for years, and whose old incarnation, Our Time Down Here, was a fixture of the house shows. “They did their first show here and sold it out when they only had four songs,” he says. “Me and Will said to each other, ‘Wouldn’t it be hilarious to do the [O2] Guildhall?’ And a couple of years later, we did.”
Ricky has another example of what can happen through venues like his. “The first date of Ed Sheeran’s first headlining tour in 2011 was at Joiners,” he says. “When he headlined Wembley Stadium a couple of years later, he tweeted, ‘I started my album campaign at Joiners, now I’m headlining Wembley.’ Things like that you have to lean on and say, ‘This wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for this.’” – Nick Ruskell
BRIGHTON: PATTERNS AND ITS EXTENDED FAMILY
The three-story Patterns is an outlier in Brighton’s tourist centre, with its genuinely-quite-famous terrace overlooking Sea-Life Centre and Harvester, as Harry Ramsden’s pumps out chips to day-trippers two doors down. The chaotic Palace Pier is a stick of rock’s throw across a busy road that ushers cars from the wild city to the serene South Downs. Patterns, with art deco frontage painted a wind-scorched pastel yellow, sticks out a mile away.
“Patterns definitely paves the way in the Brighton scene,” say Brighton record label and promoters Accidental Meetings. Brighton claims to wade in the water of innovation, but its nightlife and dance music culture has – thanks to its melange of a transient student population, the stag and hen-do set and the city’s indie and mod heritage – often been more high street than high couture.
“In general, Brighton’s local [dance music] community tend to look elsewhere in order to get musical fulfilment,” says resident Patterns DJ Charles Green. “A lot of younger promoters who are driven to put on events will tend to move away after a few years. It’s just not got the infrastructure that other bigger cities seem to provide artists.” Charles says Patterns’ success is in “getting the balance between getting people through the door and trying to push underground music”.
Foundations, the long-term Friday night party in Patterns’ basement, has been crucial in subverting this norm. With its teeth-rattling L’Acoustics sound system and policy of booking local DJs, MCs and collectives alongside established names – all the while keeping advance ticket price at a come-hithery £3 – it’s ground zero for any Sussex-based mavens of UKG, jungle, 140, grime and drum & bass.
“We have very strong focus on local community,” says booker Luke James. Their location helps in this respect; not only is Patterns near the tourist footfall, but one road behind them is St James Street – the city’s unofficial gay quarter. They hosted the Trans Pride afterparty 2019, and are in prime position for the glitter-bound and saucer-eyed hoards of Pride itself.
“The giant glitter ball that Patterns hoist proudly above the terrace during Brighton Pride represents more than the money and time it costs to create it,” says Kate Wildblood of the disco, DJ and real-life partnership Wildblood and Queenie. “It is a sign to the city that Patterns is very much part of our community – that the barriers that may have once existed between straight and LGBTQ clubbing don’t exist on this dance floor.” – David Hillier
LONDON: ADAM ALL
Since he moved to London in 2012, Adam All has become the godfather of the city’s drag king scene. He found his calling when he launched drag king talent showcase BOiBOX in 2013. From its very first night at Candy Bar, then Soho's only lesbian venue, it galvanised a disparate group of performers who previously hadn’t mixed. Drag queens weren't nearly as high-profile as they are now, but they still got far more opportunities than kings.
"I was aware of a few drag kings in London and Manchester, and a few others dotted around the country,” Adam recalls, “but we weren't really in contact and there weren’t any drag king nights.” Only Bar Wotever, a night for queer performers at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, offered a regular platform for new drag king talent. Adam says he and BOiBOX co-host Apple Derrieres "weren't totally sure" their own night would work, but pushed forward anyway because they had "a very strong gut feeling that something very important was about to happen”.
Their intuition proved spot-on. “Right from the start, all these performers just seemed to come out of the woodwork," Adam recalls. "And people's ears seemed to prick up – like, 'Wait, I can have a go too?' It was really heartwarming and magical." When Candy Bar sadly closed the following year, BOiBOX absorbed the blow and carried on at nearby She bar. Pre-pandemic, BOiBOX had settled into another new home, east London's The Glory, where Adam also co-hosts the annual Man Up! drag king talent contest. “One of my major career highlights has to be hosting the 2019 finals on my birthday,” Adam says. "If you'd told me back in 2012 that we'd now have a competition with a £1,000 prize, I'd have said 'no way'."
When the UK went into lockdown last March, Adam was forced to recalibrate fast and perfect his video-editing skills. He says it's his "responsibility" to keep performing online until venues can reopen safely. “If seeing me doing drag helps just one person out there,” he says, “it's worth it.” Adam also continues to support budding drag kings by responding to as many DMs as possible with heartfelt and eminently sensible advice.
“There's no RuPaul's Drag Race for kings, so there's no real career ladder and you've got to work really hard to get anywhere,” he says. “But spending hundreds of pounds on looks isn't the only way to do drag. If you can get your point across with a bit of Pritt Stick and some cardboard, you've done enough.” – Nick Levine
BRISTOL: BIG JEFF
Bristol is famous for a few things: cider, dubstep, a dark colonial history. But there is one person who shines through: Big Jeff. At first glance, he’s an enigmatic character with his always recognisable silhouette, big grin across his face and wild hair to match. With enough energy and enthusiasm to get any crowd going, no matter the genre, and an avid gig goer in Bristol for nearly 20 years, he has been a constant source of light through the darkness of venue closures.
Anyone who has met him holds him in the highest regard. As Robin from Giant Swan told me, “The one thing I have always appreciated about Jeff is his sincerity for the experiences music has given him. He wants you to appreciate and equate the emotional value of witnessing and feeling music.”
This rings true for my first encounter with Big Jeff. I remember stumbling around the now-closed venue Start The Bus, a 20-year-old clutching a warm can of Thatchers, excited but nervous, having just moved to Bristol. Jeff introduced himself to me and asked who I was excited to see that night. A couple of years later, I would see him at nearly every gig I played, including the Bristol leg of the Moses Boyd gig at The Exchange. A talented artist in his own right, he’s known for drawing musicians he’s been to see – and no post-gig smoking area is the same without him.
Coming of age in Bristol and exploring what the scene has to offer musically seems to automatically include contact with Big Jeff. “Not long after I first started going to gigs, I heard of Big Jeff as an almost mythical figure,” says Amos, one half of the electronic dub duo Jabu. “It always seemed like a good omen somehow when he was there.”
One look at the Facebook group Big Jeff Appreciation Society, which boasts over 3,700 members, will show you there are many others who feel the same – like musician Ciaran Gutteridge, who declares “Big Jeff is the patron saint of Bristol”.
“To be covered with his sweat in the front-left is a baptism,” he tells me. “If you see his curly silhouette at your show, then your show is the most interesting thing happening in the city.” – Yewande Adeniran
MANCHESTER: SWING TING
Swing Ting is better described for what it isn’t than what it is. Sandwiched between Manchester’s shiny, high-profile gentrification projects, colonised bars and luxury apartments, their monthly club night in Soup Kitchen’s 200-capacity basement is not “about your shirt and shoes”, as founder Balraj Samrai puts it. It’s open to anyone and everyone, at £5 ticket prices. Taking inspiration from local friends, as well as the music of the Diaspora, the constantly-expanding collective was founded in 2008 and forged from a love of sound system culture and street sounds.
The crew of DJs, producers and vocalists want you to have a good time; gun fingers are encouraged. When they turned up at venues in 2011, off the back of a radio show, bassline was, in Samrai’s words, seriously looked down upon. “We were buying this music in record shops for 50p,” Ruben Platt, another founder, says. “There was little appetite for it in town, which was pretty segmented.” They set out to change that. Early DIY days saw the pair, who met at university, carting hired decks and speakers to and from last-minute house parties. Now, dancehall is enjoyed by Manchester’s masses.
But success comes with a feeling of responsibility. So, in 2014, they stepped up, launching a label and a platform for unknown local creatives (including Ruben’s dad), young women and Black artists. “It’s for DJs who wouldn’t get a shine elsewhere,” says Ruben. This is on a global scale, too. Signing collaborators from Jamaica (Blvk H3ro, Alexx, A-Game, Shanique Marie & Gavsborg) and touring Europe, Central America, Canada, Asia and the Caribbean, Swing Ting has laid the foundations for bassline, usually played ironically, to be played respectfully.
The pandemic has changed their purpose. “If 2020 was good for anything, it was putting things into perspective,” says Joey B, who joined the team in 2012. Balraj teamed up with Pandit of Asian Dub Foundation to produce a multidisciplinary project in aid of Black, Asian, Indigenous and Ethnic Minority groups disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. In June, moved by the Black Lives Matter protests, 50 percent of their Bandcamp revenue was donated to Kids of Colour and Northern Police Monitoring Project, two Manchester-based organisations challenging institutionalised racism. Gun fingers will be back, they assure me, but for now, “There are much bigger things at stake.” – Lauren Kelly
Burned out by the hedonism and chaos of the dark side of the music business, Glasgow-based Slovenian DJ and producer Maya Medvesek, AKA Nightwave, had a breakdown and came close to quitting. “I was in quite a bad place,” she admits. “It really made me reconsider my life and the kind of projects I was doing.”
Now a Tibetan Buddhist and trained holistic therapist, Maya has found new purpose and balance in, among other things, sharing her skills and experience. She is dedicated to helping all kinds of people – mainly women and girls, often from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds – access and navigate the world of electronic dance music, and bring greater equality and positivity to the scene. Call her the shaman of Ableton.
Maya is probably most legendary for the night she runs at underground venue La Cheetah. Since 2013, Nightrave – a Chicago house, Detroit techno and acid party – has been pioneering in pushing women and non-binary DJs and producers to the front. “When I first moved to Glasgow in 2009,” Maya explains, “I really noticed that it was very... I’m not going to say macho, but there weren’t many women DJing, and not many women being booked.”
Today, she’s proud to shout about nights like Acid Flash, Era Suite, Moonlight, Lezzer Quest, PEACH, So Low and OH141, all of them led by women and non-binary promoters and DJs. “Glasgow still has a lot of issues with other aspects of diversity, but I really feel that a lot has changed in terms of women getting into music,” she says.
Making fundamental change at grassroots level, she has partnered with organisations like Producergirls, Women in Electronic Music India, Girls Rock Glasgow and SWIM (Scottish Women Inventing Music) to host workshops and online mentoring sessions that teach DJing, production and other creative, technical and organisational skills and know-how vital to breaking into electronic music. Her students are of all ages, backgrounds and levels of experience, from primary school kids to refugees. Maya has shown girls as young eight how to make their first beat.
“I sometimes have to go in the back and cry a little bit when I’m working with the young girls,” she admits. “It’s really just amazing to see them. Maybe because they’ve done that workshop they’ll grow older and know that space belongs to them as much as to anyone else.” – Malcolm Jack
Intro by Hannah Ewens.