Salford’s Sounds From The Other City, known for enticing tUnE-yArDs to play down a phone line and breaking the likes of Marina And The Diamonds, The Ting Tings and James Ferraro, is returning for its ninth instalment. It promises to be rather special, with performances in crypts and some surprise acts appearing via Skype. David Meller takes a look at the festival’s background and previews this year’s edition…
Salford has, traditionally, always had a rather dour and depressing image.
Walter Greenwood and his famous novel Love on the Dole, Ewan MacColl and his folk classic ‘Dirty Old Town’, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Coronation Street all helped construct the bleak, kitchen sink image many still associate with the city – and the North as a whole – to this day.
However, over the last several years, this image of Salford has begun to change rather dramatically, with arts and culture at its centre. But while the city has benefited from the Lowry, the Imperial War Museum and MediaCityUK regenerating Salford Quays, another venue in the heart of the city is arguably having just as significant – and long-lasting – an impact locally and nationally.
In 2001, an abandoned cotton spinning mill – one of a handful still illustrating Salford’s industrial past – was bought and converted by local Salford resident and fashion graduate, Bill Campbell.
Campbell slowly began converting the mill into an arts hub with studios for aspiring local artists to hire and use. The result of this was Islington Mill, which over 12 years has become a vibrant centre hosting over 50 artists and now includes a gallery and even its very own bed and breakfast.
Yet the mill is arguably becoming more famed for being a music venue, recently hosting the likes of Field Music, Beach House and the ‘slightly’ louder Sunn O))).
In 2005, the mill’s arts club, the space for gigs and club nights, was established by brothers Mark and Maurice Carlin. But it was in 2004 – and after the brothers had built a recording studio inside the mill – that the idea of organising a festival came to mind.
“There was a real collective energy around the mill and we were totally enchanted by the area,” says Mark. “We spent a lot of time in places like The Kings’ Arms, The Rovers Return and the now defunct Albert Vaults. Whilst being there it struck us that it would be really amazing to pair these beautiful old places with the best of new music that the city had to offer. So we set about doing that and invited our favourite young independent promotors to invite along their favourite artists for the May Day Bank Holiday Sunday.”
And with it, Sounds From The Other City was born. The inaugural festival, which took place in 2005, featured four promoters and took place inside the mill, as well as the aforementioned Kings’ Arms – an equally special pub-cum-venue now leased by Paul Heaton and home to theatre company Studio Salford – and The Salford Arms.
Eight Years On
Eight years on, the size and scope of 2013’s festival will be a far cry from 2005. It’s grown to cover a huge swathe of Salford – 11 promoters and stages, 11 venues, all providing a great variety: from Trash-O-Rama (“Manchester’s dirty basement disco for fags, feminists and their fucked up friends”) and electronica/dance promoters Faktion and Wet Play, to indie stalwarts Hey! Manchester, experimental specialists Fat Out Till You Pass Out and one of the country’s newest and most significant promoters, Now Wave.
“The first year was a complete stab in the dark and we didn’t really think of it as a music festival or anything like that – we thought it was just an interesting experiment to see how really great new music would sound in these spaces,” Mark explains. “The atmosphere was incredible, the afterparty at the mill was intense and that more or less laid the seeds for what followed.”
On the face of it, Sounds seems a little like Salford’s version of the Camden Crawl. Yet Mark insists this isn’t necessarily the case: “I’d heard of the Camden Crawl but I’d never been so although there are obvious similarities, it wasn’t based on that idea. It was essentially a celebration of a place that we loved put together by a bunch of collaborators that we also loved! I’d like to think it’s got its own unique vibe.”
It certainly does. In 2010, there was the Telephone Showbox – a specially decked-out telephone box that allowed a lucky few to hear sets down the line from Andrew WK, Dan Deacon and tUnE-yArDs.
Indeed, the festival’s artistic and experimental roots are never far away: at all the festival’s stages, you’ll probably find brilliantly quirky things going on.
One particularly anticipated stage this year comes from Manchester Scenewipe, who have brought together their love of video and music to offer something potentially very special.
“Manchester Scenewipe are cooking up a new concept that we came up with called Manchester SceneSkype,” says Mark, “which will be bringing live performances and odd happening from musicians and artists from all around the world into the gallery space at Islington Mill via the gift of Skype. I’ve had a sneaky peak of the line-up and it’s really quite incredible, both in the array of artists, the array of ideas and where they are coming from.”
The University of Salford have also got involved to provide spaces for some potentially memorable performances: “We’ve got Red Deer Club Secret Sessions coming along which we can’t say too much about – it’a a secret – but we have lined up some amazing spaces from crypts to lecture halls, where a lucky few will experience an intimate performance from some amazing acts.”
“Most of the promoters get drunk on the day”
For the last four years, Dave Bassinder has been involved in curating one of Sounds’ stages.
Since 2008, he and his partner, Kirsty Maguire, have been running club night Underachievers Please Try Harder, which has developed a legendary pedigree for showcasing new talent, enticing football legend Pat Nevin to the wheels of steel and its dog-inspired posters and flyers. Pedigree indeed.
But alas, after five years, Bassinder has decided to put the night to bed.
“There have been signs lately that our energy is dwindling,” he says. “We haven’t got the hours we once had; we want to disappear with a bang and leave while we still like it.”
Therefore, this year’s festival will be extra special – and it’s the festival’s diversity and openness that makes it one of his highlights.
“Pretty much everyone behind the stages promote as a hobby, so go with a system of just picking bands that they really like. This makes it more diverse than the industry-led festivals. We label ourselves as an alternative night, but we’re one of the most mainstream things on there, it’s so leftfield.
“I would also argue that leads to a more open atmosphere – most of the promoters get drunk on the day and pretty much all of them party after. It’s a very welcoming and inclusive festival as a result, with no real separation of organiser, bands or crowd. They have no separate queue for industry, either, unlike other festivals, which is right how it should be!”
The Underachievers stage this year should be a particular highlight, with Parenthetical Girls and Haiku Salut appearing. In the case of Haiku Salut particularly, Sounds has a major reputation for showing bands before they break through.
“In 2010, we had The Rural Alberta Advantage’s first European show – someone from Portugal came just for that!” says Bassinder. “But we didn’t pick them because we thought they would get big, we just picked something that we all liked, and we knew people would be really into. Sounds also put on WU LYF before they were even WU LYF.”
The festival’s reputation for showcasing talent in its early days is something Mark is proud of, with The Ting Tings (who were also based at Islington Mill) and Marina And The Diamonds often cited.
“I’m really happy that The Ting Tings played their first ever public gig at the Rovers Return,” he says. “When you think of the ride they went on afterwards it’s crazy to think that big things can grow from such small spaces – it’s magical!
“But we’ve had loads of others. Alt-J played back in 2011 when they were still called Films. Sampha played in 2011 ahead of his mega-success with SBTRKT and Marina And The Diamonds played at Sacred Trinity before going Hollywood! James Ferraro played one his first ever solo live sets a few years before being named Number 1 artist of 2011 by The Wire.
“But in classic Sounds fashion it will probably be someone that nobody is talking about now that will be going stratospheric in a few years. And even if nobody does we don’t mind either – the festival is not about future talent spotting, the talent is already there.”
“Superb for Salford”
While Sounds has impacted on the national scene, the festival’s influence on Salford has been significant to improving the city’s image and supporting the regeneration of the Chapel Street area where the festival is based.
“I think it is superb for Salford in particular,” says Bassinder. “There were all these old derelict buildings and homely boozers and when these started to get worked on, Mark and everybody at Islington Mill were right at the heart of that. It’s part of what makes the festival special: moving people out of their comfort zone and seeing bands as they never would normally. People are often put off by something being in Salford but as this festival shows, it’s not an intimidating place at all.”
Mark is a little more reserved about the festival’s impact – but he’s sure it’s inspiring people in some way.
“It’s really hard to quantify what the exact impact Sounds has had on Salford,” he says, “but one thing that is absolutely certain is that it brings with it a huge positive energy and a creativity that people seem to feed off.
“The festival and Islington Mill do signify that despite what people think, really good things are happening in Salford. I’ve always loved the area; the space and the opportunity to do things that are there – it’s always seemed like a natural fit for people who have ideas and want to be creative and make things happen. Hopefully that goes someway towards negating an often very negative bias towards the area, one which I think is really not founded on much reality – I’ve always found it a really safe and pleasant environment to live and work in.”
Sounds From The Other City demonstrates everything best about Salford and Manchester – the collaboration, enthusiasm and creativity demonstrated over the space of a single day, through months of planning, is arguably unlike any other festival in the country.
While billions have been spent miles up the road from Islington Mill on Salford Quays, the energy and imagination demonstrated by a core and committed group of promoters and artists is leaving just as wide a legacy, helping change Salford’s image in the process. Dirty old town it ain’t.
Sounds From The Other City takes place on Sunday 5 May. Tickets and further information can be found at the festival’s site, soundsfromtheothercity.com.