On Boxing Day, the river Aire in Leeds burst its banks and consumed large parts of the city’s sporadic industrial strip. The aftermath brought scenes resembling the film Waterworld starring Kevin Costner from 1995. Remember Kevin Costner? Remember 1995? Whatever the answer, no one in Leeds could recall the last time the river flooded this bad. Those that can are dead, because it was in 1866. One story that wasn’t covered in your BBC Storm Desmond expose though, was how the devastation affected the Leeds music scene specifically, and how a lack of official support meant they had to look to each other to kick start any sort of recovery.
Leeds has never really been written into British music’s grand historical narrative. There’s no Factory Records; no Hacienda; no Oasis. There is, however, a healthy DIY scene – one that’s revered by outsiders and prided by locals. Alongside Hookworms, bands like Marmozets, Eagulls, Menace Beach, NARCS, and Brawlers, nights like Cosmic and Slut Drop, movements such as Leeds collective Chunk (who run on “love and noise”), and hubs like Wharf Chambers, have made the city into a melting pot of grassroots indie culture. These are places where autonomous principles run deep, where activists, musicians, artists and anyone feeling remotely marginalised can meet and collaborate, and it has found a focal point on the outskirts of the city centre, on Kirkstall Road.
The problem with Kirkstall Road, as we all found out in December, is that it also runs parallel to the river. So when the Aire decided to pour out into civilisation at Christmas, some of the city’s most vital independent creative spaces – like Suburban Home, Aire Place Mills, Blueberry Hill and Soundworks Studios, which host recording space and gigs for hundreds of bands – were absolutely trashed by the flood waters. The very heart of Leeds’ DIY music scene took a massive hit.
For most of the bands and venue owners hit hardest, the flood warnings on Boxing Day came far too late – MJ from noise rock band Hookworms (and the guy behind Suburban Studios) wasn’t even in Leeds when he heard his space was under threat. “I had to immediately jump in the car and drive an hour and a half to get back”, says MJ. “By the time I’d arrived, it had already flooded at the end [of the building], closest to the river.”
It’s a challenge for any DIY space to stay open in 2016, to pay its rent and bills while also keeping itself completely accessible. For the last five years, the city’s arts scene has been repeatedly mauled by brutal cuts (three consecutive years and counting), so to see the criminally under-funded flood defences also buckle made local music fans like myself, and musicians alike, feel a bit like it wasn’t just the Tory party pissing on our cultural hopes and dreams, it was God himself.
When I arrived on the scene at Kirkstall Road, a week after the very first floods, there were lachrymose reminders of previous trauma everywhere, as sandbags slouched in the doorways and the walls remained scarred with eerie shadows of the high waters. MJ had managed to get help to build a makeshift sandbag wall, giving them enough time to save the most precious outboard gear and instruments from the studio. Everyone thought the worst was over, but as that night drew closer the waters kept rising, as the river continued to swell right through until 2 in the morning.
It impacted hardest further downstream, at Blueberry Hill – a venue, studio and practice space run by Tom Quinn, which was set up with the aim of providing a comfortable, professional but affordable alternative to the grotty basements DIY bands are so used to. “The irony is, when the pictures of Blueberry Hill came out when it first opened, people were saying things like, ‘Couldn't practice there, looks too clean’,” explains Joe from the band NARCS, who made Blueberry Hill their home since its opening. It’s not clean anymore, suffering some of the worst damage, having its hand-built professional aesthetic completely devastated.
“[The owners] couldn't even get in to find out the damage for the first day or so, because the water was chest high,” recounts Joe. Once they’d subsided they were able to enter, discovering that every room had suffered grievously, including the storeroom which contained personal music equipment for over 20 bands. Ant, from the band Brawlers says their equipment, which was also stored at Blueberry Hill, “looks like it's been recovered from the Titanic”. He continued: “It was all covered in silt and gunk – we had almost our entire backline destroyed: various amps, cabs and drum kit.” They were halfway through recording their album there, and taking a break for Christmas.
Everyone in Leeds suffered, and when faced with the shock of such a heavy loss, especially at Christmas time, it was hard not to just become paralysed and wallow. But in the Leeds DIY scene, the empathy spread at a kneejerk rate as people rushed to lend a hand. Generous donations came through online crowdfunding campaigns, with Suburban Home managing to raise over £6,000 in just 4 hours, and as Leeds turned a natural disaster into a Christmas fucking miracle, it began to play out like that classic scene from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. This money was vital for the riverside spaces who, due to their proximity, were mostly denied flooding insurance.
“Without even telling me, a guy who I recorded with four years ago drove from Manchester and just turned up to help. I couldn’t believe it! I nearly cried”, says MJ. “The kindness people were showing to each other was incredible.” The benevolence didn’t stop there, either – local producer Ed Heaton (who co-incidentally used to run his studio at the same unit as Suburban Home) gathered people together to put on a fundraising gig with the help of the Brudenell Social Club, raising over £8,000 in the process. Away from just the music scene, tattoo artists, independent merchandisers, food traders and luthiers all chipped in to help. The charitable and never say die reaction to the floods ended up showing quite a few of us that the roots of Leeds DIY scene went far deeper than we had ever thought.
When the succulent forehead of David Cameron finally showed up in Yorkshire with a portion of the army – two days late; sporting a box-fresh pair of photo-op ready wellies – many of the residents had already battled through the worst of it alone. Yorkshire is a lovely place you see; undoubtedly the only place on earth where fully grown blokes call other fully grown blokes, “Luv”, and as such, are likely to come together for a cause.
How the DIY scene here came together is an important one in the context of London-centric British spending and the North. In London, there is an everage of £69 of cultural spending per head, compared with just £4.50 in the rest of England. Throughout last year, venues continued to disappear across the country; and the lack of DIY spaces for new artists was intolerable. But it feels like the floods, in Leeds anyway, symbolised something of a tipping point. A sentiment that has been growing for some time became metaphorically etched in stone: the more the Conservative government refuse to help, the more these DIY communities will embolden and support each other. And it’s a beautiful thing to see.
But it’s not just in Leeds. It’s across the country in places like Glasgow’s The Old Hairdressers, Nottingham’s JT Soar, Sheffield’s Lughole, and the numerous DIY collectives in London. The power of collaboration and community in spite of government failings is igniting, at a time when, on paper, it really should be withering.
Now that the panic, grief, and recovery of January is almost over for Leeds, it’s all about taking a deep breath, wiping away the tears and thinking about the road ahead. Soundworks Studios (which has been home to The Cribs and Forward Russia!) have had to abandon their site, sensibly relocating to the top of a hill in Bradford, while MJ has had to make do with a home studio set-up for now. Last week, his band made the hour long drive to neighbouring market town Hebdon Bridge, one of the worst affected areas in the North, playing the legendary Trades Club to raise money for flood victims there.
“Anyone that knows us will know that we don’t have any money to buy replacements, but we have a couple guitars and our health (we think) so let’s just focus on getting Blueberry Hill back on track and we'll figure out what to do about ourselves after! The show must go on!” says MJ.
Joe chips in: “It's tempting to point at our city and brag about the way we’ve recovered, but wouldn't it be better to celebrate the fact that music has, and continues to, create communities and link people across all kinds of boundaries wherever it is?”
On January 22nd, Leeds residents woke up to the shitty news that new government plans for Leeds flood defences have once again been heavily downsized from £180million to £45million despite the recent disasters. And the scheme doesn’t even plan to protect Kirkstall Road. But MJ and Joe seem unperturbed by the travesty. The overriding message here seems to be: you can try to starve our creativity by cutting our arts funding or even try to drown us by cutting our flood defences, but you will never drown out the collective spirit and never ending reserve of empathy.
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