Jim Ottewill investigates Bristol’s music scene to uncover the source of the city’s creative pulse.
‘Someone once said that a crest for Bristol could feature two fingers pointing towards London. It’s a place that doesn’t care that much about what other people think,’ says Phil Johnson, author of trip-hop book Straight Outta Bristol and co-curator at live music venue St George’s.
Sure enough, if you slice Bristol’s music scene in half you’ll find a fierce spirit of independence running right through it. There’s an open minded approach to collaboration and a tight network of artists and musicians all keen to give each other a helping hand.
Chris Farrell, owner of the local Idle Hands independent label and record shop, agrees. ‘There is a really healthy culture of exchange between Bristol musicians. Everyone is glad to see other people do well. It’s very supportive as a city.’
Scene stalwarts would argue that this isn’t anything new – indeed it’s been ongoing since those much lauded trip-hop days – only now it seems the media are paying attention again. Dance music artists Julio Bashmore, Eats Everything and Joker have helped give Bristol’s beats an international profile while outside the clubs, a diverse programme of live music and artistic events hosted by the likes of Qu Junktions, St George’s and the Louisiana is keeping creativity buzzing.
This activity all points to a city whose scene is evolving faster than ever before. A 2010 PRS for Music survey supports this, claiming Bristol was the UK’s most musical city with more songwriters per capita originating from the city than any other place.
So how did Bristol get here? Back in the nineties, Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky released critically and commercially acclaimed trip-hop albums. Drum ‘n’ bass, spearheaded by Roni Size and his Reprazent crew, gained the city yet more column inches. And then a period of relative quiet?
John Parish, a Bristol resident, musician, film composer and PJ Harvey collaborator, disagrees. He says these zeitgeist moments always occur when the musical rhythms of a city beat in time with the media’s glare. ‘Many cities, whether they’re Sheffield or Seattle, have a moment where there’s a large amount of interest.
A city becomes fashionable and inevitably that is going to pass. It doesn’t mean interesting things are going to stop happening.’
John’s musical career, as well as those of Massive Attack and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, show that artists can still creatively evolve whether the spotlight is on them or not. Massive Attack will appear at this year’s Manchester International Festival collaborating on a new audiovisual project dubbed ‘a collective hallucination’ with acclaimed filmmaker Adam Curtis. Meanwhile Geoff continues to run his own Invada imprint and release new music as BEAK>. Both he and John will appear at the Bristol Filmic event this spring, with the latter performing a collection of his film compositions. Geoff is performing Drokk, a collaboration with soundtrack composer Ben Salisbury inspired by 2000AD’s Judge Dredd comic strip. As yet, there’s no sign of either’s well of musical innovation running dry.
St George’s Phil Johnson explains: ‘That generation has continued to produce work which has expanded beyond those first pop albums and looked towards more personal ambitions. Those who were the young kids on the block 20 years ago are now the senior citizens of the local scene.’
The continued engagement of artists who are both local and internationally renowned is a key ingredient in the city’s musical personality. Matt Booth at Bristol Music Foundation (BMF) says this is typical of the city’s loyal musical community: ‘The whole scene in Bristol is very tight here. Everyone knows everyone else. But this is an environment where people are close together both geographically and artistically.’
Since forming in 2006, his organisation has done much to galvanise the scene, attracting more than 600 members and providing a business backbone for creators. The BMF is currently working with Seth Jackson, Director of PIAS Media, and Infectious Records’ Korda Marshall to develop Music South West, an Exeter-based organisation that will enhance the region’s musical networks. Last year Matt, along with John Parish and one time Reprazent member Krust, led Teenage Rampage, an initiative giving young musicians the opportunity to perform at the Olympic Park during London 2012. Both the BMF and Music South West initiatives aim to attract the music industry to Bristol too.
Meanwhile, the arrival of new management and booking agency Futureboogie has done much to further the city’s reputation as a hub for new music, with Quantic, Bonobo and dance act Waifs and Strays all on its roster. Co-founder Steve Nickolls says: ‘Here there are more avenues for music to emerge than in the past — good labels, venues and record shops are all helping. There are a lot of cities which have great music but don’t necessarily have the infrastructure or network to put it out.’
A recent event called Adhesive at Colston Hall perfectly encapsulates this collaborative spirit. Organised by solo artist and Reprazent singer Jay Wilcox, it featured a drum ‘n’ bass band performing alongside an orchestra and gospel choir, and attracted an audience of 1,000. Jay explains why it worked so well in Bristol: ‘Because of the pace of London — it’s very competitive — certain producers only work with certain people. The music doesn’t have a lot of time to grow or progress. Here, we’re making music as if we’re just making it for fun.’
DJs and producers Julio Bashmore and Eats Everything are both fixtures at parties across the UK. One of the biggest is Bristol’s Motion, a cavernous rave which packs dancers in week after week. It highlights how the popularity of club music in the city has never been higher. Eats Everything, aka Dan Pearce, is particularly enthused about the scene, explaining that while 10 or 15 years ago it seemed like the city was all about Roni Size, the buzz is building around new talent these days. And, while the media gaze is back on Bristol, he predicts more local talent is set to emerge.
Upcoming artist Joe Cowton, who records as Kowton, works behind the counter of the Idle Hands music shop. He’s part of a new wave of electronic artists thriving in the wake of dubstep with his futuristic house and techno. ‘It’s a very supportive environment,’ he says. ‘There’s not a lot of egos out there and the more established figures are always pushing the younger ones through. It’s a very positive system.’
The live scene
While Bristol’s clubs couldn’t be busier, the city’s live music scene is also flourishing with venues like the Louisiana, The Croft and Thekla taking it in turns to host established and emerging talent night after night.
Conar Dodds, from Metropolis Music, says: ‘There are about ten times as many live music venues in the city compared with 20 years ago. Established acts play The Academy and Colston Hall but there are plenty of cool club and bar venues. The competition makes it difficult for local promoters but for the audience it means there is plenty of choice.’
Sarah Class, an Emmy and BRIT nominated classical composer based in Bristol, is also excited by live music in the city. ‘St George’s is the hub of everything jazz,’ she says. ‘There are so many bands and ensembles that play there. There’s a massive jazz scene with incredibly talented players performing that should be up there with the jazz greats. It’s thriving with more bars and venues opening up all the time.’
Meanwhile, experimental initiative Qu Junktions brings a more leftfield music agenda to the city and is also flourishing. Its organisers receive support from PRS for Music Foundation to stage increasingly popular musical events around the city. Chris Williams, partner at Qu Junktions, explains that there is a growing number of promoters looking to use new musical spaces, allowing venues like The Croft and St George’s to prosper.
Back to front
Stephen Barnes, co-Manager of the Bristol Exchange of Arts & Music and artist management business Upshot, believes that the future looks bright for Bristol, explaining how it has come to terms with its trip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass past. He says the city has moved forward due to its unique networks and collaborations, and its thirst for artistic adventure. And, while the ‘Bristol Sound’ and soundsystem culture will always be in the city’s musical blood, Bristol’s strength is far greater than the sum of its parts. The thread running through local music makers, from Massive Attack to John Parish to newer acts like Kowton, is more than just a sound – it’s an attitude. ‘If Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack did anything for Bristol, it was to instil a pioneering and challenging spirit into the music being made, whatever the genre,’ he concludes.