Once, the influence of time and place on music was as easy to map as a dot-to-dot but the Internet has dissolved those lines. What does a label or musician's location signify in an era when John Frusciante is beaming records from space?
Aphex Twin spread news of Syro by blimp then buried the tracks in the deep web. Faraway places are not far enough any more. I was in the remote outback town of Broken Hill when U2 inseminated the iPhones of the world with Songs Of Innocence. There, a resident fumed: "I was having a fucken shower and fucken Bono comes on y'know?"
It is an especially relevant question to ask of Manchester, a city weary of its musical identity being associated - at least to outsiders - with Northern Soul, Factory Records, Madchester and lad-rock bands like The Stone Roses and Oasis.
Those movements were profound but they are over. The Hacienda Club is 161 "high spec apartments" with underground parking and 24-hour concierge. Local band Cabbage nail the sentiment, witheringly, on their track "Tell Me Lies About Manchester". "I once saw The Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall/I don't think much of the Gallagher's songs, I could have wrote them all/I've had a pint with every person who's ever played in The Fall/So tell me lies about Manchester."
UK label Modern Love keeps a low profile. Its artists – which include Andy Stott, Deepchord, Demdike Stare and Vatican Shadow (another alias of Dominick Fernow's Prurient) - have legion global admirers but most don't know it's a Manchester-based label. Many Mancunians, meanwhile, haven't heard of Modern Love.
So how does the deep dub-tech and occult-oriented electronica of Modern Love's Mancunian music-makers fit the city's narrative? Label head and Boomkat founder Shlom Sviri as well as Andy Stott and Demdike Stare's Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty are all based in or around Manchester. They grew up here, left, came back. They don't want to talk about "all that Hacienda crap" either. "I loved The Smiths, Joy Division, New Order," says Miles. "Everyone was into it. But I get asked about it and it's ancient history."
I'm just pleased they want to talk at all. They don't do the Internet, really, and Miles and Sean no longer do interviews, not even to promo their December record, Wonderland. So why did they agree to take me on a three-hour walking and talking tour? The answer: Manchester.
Stop #1: Ancoats Coffee or Sankeys
When Miles suggests we meet at a cafe I'm surprised. I'd envisaged someplace grittier. But I don't know if it's day or night, literally. I've just flown in from Australia and I'm fancying a Shiraz with breakfast and baked eggs for dinner. It feels pretty gritty, in any case, when the day's sullen light starts to flag at 4pm; the time I'm due at Ancoats Coffee.
Turns out the coffee joint is in an old cotton mill. Of course it is. This is Manchester, birthplace of the industrial revolution. The canals and warehouses don't quit around here. I'd assumed all those photos of legendary Manchester bands in front of red brick buildings were contrived but there was probably nowhere else to stand. Especially in Ancoats, the neighbourhood once at the cotton industry's squalid heart, where the street names are Loom, Cotton and Silk.
Andy, Miles and Sean are there when I arrive. They're doing that northern English thing of keeping their coats on indoors so they look like drug dealers ready to bolt. I break the ice with a fact I'd just learnt.
"Did you know Manchester was originally called Mamucium by the Romans which means 'hills like breasts'?"
They claim they did not. "Do you want a coffee?" they ask. I say "they" because the three men do at times speak in unison. They're good friends, you can tell. Andy brings me a glass of water. "I don't work here," he says drily, handing it over.
We small talk. Old time stuff. Sean was a skater and into hip hop. Andy liked hard-core techno. Miles never saw the point of gigs - he just wanted to own the record. "I was the first guy in my town who had decks." He and Sean grew up in Burnley, 30 kilometres away. "It was a great place to be creative," says Sean. "There was nothing to do."
In the 16th century the area was home to the Pendle Witches, the oldest of which was Elizabeth Demdike. "There's still standing stones around there," says Miles, meaningfully. I don't know what they are, exactly, but I do know stones aren't supposed to stand up. Spinal Tap comes to mind as does Pink Floyd: Live In Pompeii. I have a throb of regret we didn't do the tour on some witchy, windswept moor. I'm also worryingly disarmed by their Mancunian accents. They sound like bookish farmers.
"This is where Sankeys Club used to be," says Sean. For Mancunians too young for Hacienda's heyday, Sankeys was the super club of choice. It closed in 2013 when its owners turned their attention to the second Sankeys in Ibiza. Hang on, Ibiza via Manchester? It seems a weird leap. But so did Northern Soul.
"No-one went to Ancoats until Sankeys," says Sean. "It was like walking through the Wild West, derelict buildings, it was frightening."
"You'd hear stories about people getting mugged and having their trainers taken off them," says Miles. "We were small-town kids coming into the city so they'd spot you, you were green."
"Yeah," says Andy. "It were pretty moody."
Times have changed. The mood at Ancoats Coffee is artful minimalism. It has the exposed brick and bald bulbs you'd expect of a business that's ingested the postcode's history and strategically upchucked it as a coffee blend called Warehouse City with "taste notes" of treacle and dates. On the property's website, gentrification's buzzwords twinkle like tiny diamonds. Transformation. Reimagined. Juxtaposed. Rejuvenated. Historic. Urban lifestyle. Honey Pot.
Andy grew up in Oldham, which once rivalled Ancoats in the cotton-spinning stakes. Despite being just 10 kilometres away it was still a mistake when he told a proper Mancunian he was from Manchester. "He said 'where?' and I was like 'Oh no. This is going to be a problem'. Growing up in Oldham you'd never say you was from Manchester." He lives in Cudington now.
"Oh cool, what's there?"
Stop #2: Vinyl Valley
We walk to the Northern Quarter, home to the Dry Bar (where The Fall's Mark E. Smith still drinks; where Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder once blackmailed Tony Wilson), Afflecks "emporium of everything", and the city's best record stores. Until the early 2000s about 35 stores traded here, most crammed into a few blocks known as Vinyl Valley. Pause on that a moment: thirty-five.
We stand opposite the still-humming Vinyl Exchange, where Miles and Sean worked for years. "I was buying library music daily there from the late 90s," says Sean. "I got into it pretty early on so things were cheap. I would be in the shop every day, digging. I got exposed to so much, especially through the hip hop, soul and jazz buyer there, Si G." (Later, he lists the following records as examples: Vincent Geminiani's Musique Pour Un Voyage Extraordinaire, The Battered Ornaments' Mantle-Piece and Franco Micalizzi's Violence!)
Sean and Si G shared an interest in hip hop's beats and breaks. "We were obsessed. It was 24 hours, seven days a week about discovering records. You could take records home and they'd deduct it from your wage … sometimes it got tricky paying rent."
The pavement shines in the drizzle as commuters dovetail around us, hands deep in pockets, paying us no attention. Maybe they're used to people standing in Vinyl Valley's graveyard reminiscing their crate-digging salad days.
"Manchester really thrived with second-hand records," says Miles. "In the 90s you couldn't even get to the counter on a Saturday afternoon - people were shouting out for this record or that." Shlom had a record store in Afflecks called Pelicanneck. "I'd see him sat there and, one day, there was my favourite record in the window, that's when we met."
"Aphex Twin Ambient Works Volume 1."
"What other stores did you like?"
"I used to buy my Detroit techno imports at the old Eastern Bloc store on Oldham Street," says Miles. "They had first pressings of things, very good connections. Detroit techno came to Europe through Hardwaxin Berlin which is owned by Mark Ernestus, half of Basic Channel with Moritz Von Oswald. Supposedly they made the connection in the early nineties via Underground Resistance and Submerge distribution."
These days Vinyl Valley is the name of a local microbrewery (and Northern Soul is the name of a beer). "Digital, discogs… it happened quickly," says Sean.
Though some excellent record stores remain. I'm made dizzy in Piccadilly Records the next day by an acrid odour overpowering the store. "I can't smell anything!" says the guy behind the counter, grinning, addled by the aroma. The culprit is stashed beneath the record racks: dozens of boxes filled with copies of the glossy, 60-page end-of-year review book, meticulously penned by staff, and so popular it's launched at an in-store event to a sell-out crowd. (A Manchester artist Whyte Horses got 2016's number one slot for Pop Or Not.)
Record shopping here is a joy. Even tiny stores such as Eastern Bloc have as many decks as they can squeeze in so customers can sample them. I ask in Vinyl Exchange the next day if it's a UK thing. "In London they don't but those in Manchester let you listen," he says. "We've a guy who rings and gets us to play them down the telephone. He's become a bit of a mither."
Waiting for Andy to get back from moving his car, Sean, Miles and I talk about the lost art of deep listening. "I listened to 3 Feet High And Rising so many times eventually I could pick it apart and tell how all the songs were made," said Sean. "I realised it were all samples and you didn't need to play the guitar!" People aren't forced to obsess like they once did, we decide, and to their detriment as super-fans. Andy comes back. I explain why we're all furiously nodding.
"We're judging people."
Miles and Sean laugh. "Our favourite thing!"
Stop #3: Tescos or The Music Box
We're huddled outside a Tesco Express staring into its fluorescent cube. Well, I am. Andy, Sean and Miles gaze off into something else. This was a club called Music Box that they liked a lot.
Oldham clubs were "horrendous" says Andy. "Then I came to Music Box and realised there was clubs playing Drexciya, Autechre and SND and everything changed. They were playing the music I listened to at home."
Acts here ranged from Theo Parrish to rock bands but it folded in 2010. That in itself was nothing new. In the 70s and 80s it was a club called Rafters (where Magazine played their first gig; where Tony Wilson first saw Joy Division in '78) then became Jilly's Rockworld, then Music Box. Its rebirth as Tescos, however, will presumably end all that.
"Why did it close?"
Smoking laws ("everyone went outside") and hiked rents, they agree. Not that they're moaning. Manchester has always found new ways to occupy old spaces and an understanding of the city's cultural survivalism seems natural to most Mancunians I meet.
Like all UK clubs, Music Box was only open until 2am.
"What did you do afterwards?"
"People got great stereos in their cars so we'd drive," says Miles. "When Bluetooth came in, you'd get cars all playing the same track."
He recently returned from four years living in Berlin. "The DJs are real professionals in Berlin. You know, they get up, have their coffee, and ride their bikes to the club to DJ at 9am."
"Why did you come back?"
"It's more exciting here. Berlin was the safest place I ever lived. Too many people doing the same thing. I ran my bike into a techno producer the first day I was there!"
The attitude in Manchester is more competitive - people don't try to help you like they do in Berlin. "Your contemporaries have more of a cold shoulder to what you're doing. Personally this helps me, a kind of 'fuck you' attitude, and just being left alone to develop my own angle."
Stop #4: Ducie House
The stories are coming thick and fast now. So is my jetlag and the murderous Manchester trams - silent but deadly. We agree on a final stop: Juicy House. I assume it serves refreshments and we'll wrap up over a beer.
I ask about the Warehouse Project, a series of Autumn parties that happen in temporary industrial spaces. Danny Brown and Wiley are headlining a few days from now; last year, Four Tet and Carl Craig played an abandoned train station prior to its demolition. It sounds pretty cool to me but Miles isn't into it.
"It's weird, there'll be 200,000 people in a warehouse and I don't know any of them. They're not there for the music, they're there because it's a thing to do."
"How do you know?"
"I know. You can tell."
"So do you go out much now?"
They enthuse about a show they played in a Manchester garage a few weeks back in a space called Project 13. "It was in a pretty dodgy part of town, down a backstreet, down a backstreet, down a backstreet," says Andy. "The bar was in the pit where they fix the cars."
The last few nights at Project 13 have been "utterly amazing". As is being in Manchester more broadly these days.
"It's got energy. Good bakeries, good coffee, proper sound systems".
We stop on Ducie Street. Not 'Juicy House' but Ducie House, another old cotton mill that in 2003 became HQ for Shlom's now thriving online record store, Boomkat. New Order's management was in Ducie House then, and 808 State's Graham Massey. Boomkat moved into 808 State's old studio next door to reggae label Blood & Fire.
"When Aphex Twin's Rephlex label put out an old recording of 808 State doing covers of New Order's Blue Monday and Confusion, Graham signed all the copies we had for sale at Boomkat," Shlom tells me over email. "It was like the Ducie connection."
Miles spent a lot of time here. "I retrieved a bunch of tape masters from the skip one day, I still have two that aren't labelled," he says. "It's probably The Stone Roses or some shit." No wonder they're nostalgic, I think. Now Ducie House is home to multi-media businesses with names like Marmalade Communications and Powell Creative Products.
The skyline in this part of the city is beautiful. Meshing effortlessly against the deep lavender sky is sleek and industrial architecture; gloss and grit. No other UK city I've been to blends old and new as alluringly as Manchester.
"How has being from Manchester affected your music?"
"It's had a huge impact," says Sean. "Meeting Shlom, Andy Votel and Si G were life changing moments and to this day I'm still blown away by what this city produces, I love it!"
"My music has nothing to do with my environment, it's influenced by the music I hear," says Andy. Yet Andy's music isn't quite like anything I've ever heard.
"My environment really influences what I do, I realised that when I lived in Berlin," says Miles. "There's riots every few years here. If it's not tied down people will steal it. I missed Manchester's edge when I was away. The weather's crap; the wind's bitey. I love the bleakness."
Demdike Stare lead image. Credit: Modern Love
Kate Hennessy is a Sydney based music writer. Follow her at @smallestroom