Features Mackem A Difference: Sunderland’s Relationship With Arts And Culture

Ahead of this weekend’s Sunderland Soundscape, Gareth Ware takes a closer look at the city.

Photo Credit: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

For many, mention the North East and the overriding association will be one of unused dockyards and mines, long since silenced in post-privatised Britain. Those with considerably shorter memories will immediately recall the brouhaha surrounding Sunderland F.C's latest managerial appointment and of the admittedly highly memorable image of a Newcastle supporter punching a police horse at last weekend's regional derby.

While the former is true to a degree and forms a central part of the poignant Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly short film on Middlesbrough (though not the be all and end all - in the interests of fairness it should be noted that Nissan's Sunderland car factory remains Europe's largest and most efficient), to base your assumptions purely on those two facets would sit somewhere in the realms of misguided and downright foolish. Lest we forget, Sunderland alone has produced Kenickie, The Futureheads, Field Music, and Frankie & The Heartstrings. They're bands who've respectively produced a national treasure in waiting as well as a key component in the city's local student population, a consistent producer of Top 20 albums, a dark horse for last year's Mercury Prize and one of Wichita's resident gangs of chart-troublers.

With this in mind, it's perhaps less of a surprise to learn that come Saturday - Record Store Day, no less - Sunderland will join the inner-city festival ranks via Sunderland Soundscape – a free entry multi-venue affair that sees local acts take over establishments from national retailers such as Costa, Café Nero, Krispy Kreme and Lush all the way to local live venues such as Plugged Inn via local record shop Hot Rats. It's taken the place of the currently-on-hiatus Split festival, which alongside support from council institutions as well as local radio and press outlets brought what critics dubbed a 'mini Glastonbury' in recent years, with last year's edition bringing the likes of PiL, Pulled Apart By Horses and Saint Etienne to the city's Ashbrooke sports ground alongside a slew of hometown heroes.

Speaking to organiser Hannah Matterson, a young geography graduate from Northumbria University-turned-local mover and shaker, and its clear she felt the need for something to fill the void left by a lack of Split Festival this year. “I wanted to take local music back to the general public of Sunderland, let them know what was creative talents were right on our own doorsteps, that they could go and see every single week for less than a tenth of the price to see Coldplay. I wanted to give new, emerging acts a chance to play in their own city - Sunderland lacks an established music venue, especially with [mid-size gig venue] Independent having to close its doors for a while - as it seems ridiculous that bands and artists from Sunderland find it perfectly normal and often prefer to play in Newcastle because of the lack of facilities to do so here. I wanted to show that anywhere can be a venue and that anyone can enjoy local, live music so by putting it in places you may not expect and making it inescapable for one day, surely someone will pay some attention.”

With Matterson's words being at once a rallying cry and a sobering view of the current cultural landscape in the city, it seemed as prescient a time as any to delve into the ins and outs of the city's relationship with arts and music as a whole. Pete Gofton, former Kenickie drummer and more recently a collaborator with both Field Music spin-off The Week That Was as well as Frankie & The Heartstrings, offers his own view of growing up of the city and how he feels its shaped him. “Most of my extended family played guitar in a band, or played an instrument, or sang. Many of my parents' friends did too. So I was aware of there being a lineage of local bands and musicians, of my dad’s band supporting Hendrix, or a family friend writing ‘Crocodile Shoes’. It wasn’t some faraway thing that one aspired to. It was just what you did. I didn’t really engage with the city as a cultural entity until a lot later. I realised there was a definite mindset that existed within the place, with regards to making ‘art’, grafting, whatever you call it. As an entity, whose culture informed my life and my choices, it’s been there all the time. I’ve probably not consciously expressed it, but I think it’s inherent in my actions, my attitude to the world, and definitely how people perceive me.”

However, he's also quick to outline the problems which faced the city during the 1990s and beyond. Speaking of how he, his bandmates and peers and the generations of bands beyond have faced challenges in engaging with the wider community, he opines bluntly, “The generation of bands after Kenickie, Field Music and the Futureheads, were much more community minded - in that they created their own. The thing no-one ever points out about those bands is that they weren’t ‘the scene’, they were a group of about 10-15 weirdos on the periphery. They had to put their own nights on, do their own thing, because they were outcasts. Kenickie were the same, but we were four people who all happened to be in the same band. We booked precisely one gig, The Yummy Fur at the Royalty. It was great fun, but a disaster. That was the sum total of our trying to engage with the local band scene in Sunderland.” Field Music's David Brewis goes even further, suggesting that a lot of the city's problems can be put down to those which the likes of Aidan Moffat and Belle & Sebastian's Stevie Jackson have cited as Edinburgh's issue, such as a lack of venues. “For every step forward, there's been a step back. The number of venues hosting new, live music (as opposed to cover bands) has decreased. Split Festival is a big, big plus but attempts to build up an audience are slow and difficult, and that will always mean they're walking a financial tightrope. The NGCA (Northern Gallery For Contemporary Art) is actually an excellent small gallery but most people in the city have no idea it exists, and even if they did, artistic endeavour is viewed with extreme suspicion here. It does seem that there are people from the City Council who are committed to making things better, but whether they have the patience or funds or mindset for 15 more years of audience development is impossible to say.”

On top of its internal issues communicated by the local music community – lack of venues, a council emphasis on the Stadium Of Light gigs (which everyone agrees are great for the local image but ultimately add nothing to the local scene), a lack of artistic hub – there's also the regional capital looming large, a mere twelve miles away. On the topic of Sunderland's dynamic with Newcastle Gofton says, “I love Newcastle, but by it’s nature, it’s a huge drain on the resources and the culture on all neighbouring towns. It’s the regional capital, so it has always gotten more attention, in terms of media visibility, Arts funding etc. Also, touring bands, if they play the NE at all, would only play there, so if you wanted to see anyone, you have to travel. For this reason, the well spec’d venues open there, rehearsal and recording studios are there etc. Interestingly, Newcastle hasn’t produced a native band of any note for quite a while. Per capita, Sunderland has an embarrassment of successful native born bands. I can’t really put my finger on why. Newcastle has all the money and resources, but doesn’t produce a band that can sum up that experience.” It's a view at odds with that of David Brewis, who sees shared experience and expertise as being a key component in development on a regional scale. “For me and most of my peers, and especially with regard to music, the to and fro between Sunderland and Newcastle is healthy and helpful. The bands mostly get on, experience and expertise is shared. Sunderland's probably produced more bands who've had a wider impact in recent years but all of those bands are reliant upon and grateful for facilities and audiences in Newcastle.” Neil Wood, local musician in Let's Away and co-founder of respected local music and culture site Abacus Post agrees, adding: “Taking Soundscape as an example; there are bands from Newcastle (a half hour metro journey away) that have never played in Sunderland. Then looking at something much bigger like Evolution Festival in Newcastle; there have always been Sunderland bands that have triumphed there. When it comes to arts and creative culture, the two cities can only ever be hand in hand and not opposing or obstructing each other.”

The Futureheads' Ross Millard, meanwhile, sees the key to Sunderland's growth as being dependant to an extent on turning the tables on the masses who flock from Sunderland to Newcastle for entertainment, and tapping into Newscastle's potential audiences. “Figuring out a way of attracting an audience from Newcastle is the holy grail. When a promoter puts on a show in Newcastle, people from Sunderland don't think twice about hopping on the Metro and buying tickets. It just doesn't work the other way 'round, and I think that's because Sunderland currently lacks that 'arts and culture' image. It's a post-industrial call-centre town. No great gallery, no larger venues, no great restaurants, not a huge amount of shops... “

What is widely agreed is the need for Sunderland to cease trying to emulate its bigger neighbour, and to instead focus on carving out its own identity via its virulent musical community. It's certainly a viewpoint Soundscape's Hannah Matterson stands by. “It needs to stop comparing itself to Newcastle, because, right now, we can't compete with that. There are a few people in our city who are doing their best at promoting live music events from local gigs to internationally known bands playing in the city, and that's great. We need that. But we also need to build on our DIY culture and identity to make ourselves known for being Sunderland, not the city near Newcastle. There's no point in replicating what Newcastle has, we need our own identity of a music scene. No matter what goes on in Newcastle, we have to think about what we can do in Sunderland.” David Brewis, meanwhile, adds: “Sunderland cannot compete with Newcastle's artistic infrastructure. We should be thinking on a much smaller, more independent scale and offer unique, gnarly things, which Newcastle doesn't necessarily have, and allow things to grow and develop at a slower pace without getting hung up about comparisons to other cities.”

(A showcase of current local acts, kindly put together by Abacus Post' Neil Wood)

On the back of this, much like Wakefield, Sunderland seems to be an area which despite proximity to a regional hub allows artists to work away in private to hone their sound without any undue pressure. Is this so and what effect has it had on local output? It's certainly an element that Ross Millard felt helped shaped the Futureheads' career path, saying: “We've found writing and demo'ing in Sunderland to be great - it's certainly true that you can go to rehearse every day without distraction and just crack on with the task at hand. Coming from Sunderland allowed us to play a lot of hometown shows to get our confidence and chops down in the beginning, too. No industry were ever going to see us upstairs in the Royalty so you could do your thing, and get it right. When we played in London etc we were ready.” Matterson adds: “Definitely. We are so geographically limited in terms of connecting to other music hubs and creative cities that there's really been no other way to do things but on our own. I certainly don't think it's a bad thing. We've created our own knowledge set of how to do things. There's less pressure to be like something you're not up here. You can produce an album of any genre of music, but it'll still have that DIY aura about it. Technology allows people to access all the information they need from anywhere in the world now, so I think it's somewhat essential for Sunderland to be able to go within itself to produce creativity from its culture and not have to rely on others”

But what of the future? Despite several, well-communicated frustrations from the local community, there appears to be a realisation that to succeed Sunderland needs to focus on its inherent community spirit within the arts community. Moreso, there are green shoots sprouting up to demonstrate that this is starting to happen. A recent council-supported funding application was put in to instigate a Manchester International Festival-type large scale arts and culture event, while plans are underway for a Music, Arts And Culture Quarter (MacQ), centred on an inner-city disused fire station. Elsewhere, The Bunker continues to provide a rehearsal/recording space for local bands, as well as workshops for the city's young people. Pete Gofton details his recent experiences: “8Music [The cooperative formed by Field Music, The Futureheads, and Amateur Dramatics] had an entirely separate thing going on. They worked on their own terms, and helped each other-sharing bills, gear, recording skills etc. When they ‘got big’, Field Music extended that largesse to other bands or musicians. Peter [Brewis] was involved in social work, so he’s always had a communitarian, cooperative view of music. This attitude extended out Ben Wall, manager of Independent venue, let the Heartstrings rehearse and record there for free for nearly a year. This was just how it was.”

Ross Millard agrees that having had experiences of co-operative venues both in UK, that its a model the city needs to consider. “Take Bradford's 1 In 12 Club for example, or Wharf Chambers in Leeds. Even the Star And Shadow in Newcastle is a blueprint for success; volunteers offering their time in exchange for a great space to bring music, dance, cinema etc. Of course, one thing about all of these aforementioned venues is that they have been started by creative individuals off their own back. It's only after their inception that they've gone to local council for extra support.' He continues, detailing what he sees are the current happenings in the city. “The Bunker, Sunderland's 'famous' rehearsal rooms is managed a lot more efficiently now, and is still the nucleus of the city's music scene. They do a decent fanzine, and Abacus Post have been busy putting on shows. A young girl called Alex Burgess has, in the last year or so, started to organise a few things in the city, and that is exciting because she is concentrating on the newest wave of local music, and she has that unwavering desire to be at a gig every night of the week.”

Speaking to people and garnering opinions far too wide-ranging and different to fit into this piece, you get the impression that it's a city currently at a crossroads with regard to the development of its own cultural identity. While there are inherent flaws in the dynamic between the arts sector and the city as a whole, there's also a lot of good too which is being pushed by a band of enthusiastic and motivated people. It's a view shared by Brewis, who offers the blunt rhetorical question: “Can we take advantage of the pockets of enthusiasm there are and stoke up a less monotone cultural identity? Or will the commitment fade, leaving us to sit around and wait for the next incongruous artistic outburst?” Matterson herself has reservations, even with regard to her own work at Soundscape. “If all those bands and artists who are playing Sunderland Soundscape gain one or two more listeners, followers on Twitter, likes on Facebook and sell a couple of tickets for their next gig because they played to a new audience, I'll have done my job. If the people of Sunderland embrace the culture of live music for just one day, maybe they'll be tempted to do so again in the future. With the event being completely free, there should be no reason for people not to attend. Having said that, I have my own reservations about what I'm doing. We tried to make the event as accessible to as many people as possible over the course of the day, but I know that many will turn their heads. I can only hope that people take a chance on it and find something that they like. I think it has all the potential to be a great day, but it has to prove itself to the public first.”

Neil Wood, meanwhile, takes a more positive view, seeing the likes of Split and Soundscape as welcome and necessary showcases for the city. “Split festival and all of the offshoots that come with it are a leading light in Sunderland. It displays a spectrum of what goes on here - not just for bands, but with locally sourced foods and entertainment there's an overwhelming sense of community to be seen. I'd like to see people really supporting the imminent opening of Independent 2 as music venue as well as a part of the nightlife. It's been sorely missed since its closure [for relocation] and it's always been a great place to go and watch bands. So far 2013 has been a bit strange with the (albeit brief) closure of Independent and with there not being a Split Festival this year - but with the rise of events like Soundscape, Sunderland can still show what it has to offer.'

Where the city goes next is anyone's guess, and a destiny which is very much in its own hands. One thing Wood is certain of, however, is that it possesses the determination and care from those who live within it to progress. “Certainly as I've grown up in the city there has been a real sense of local pride. Massive in fact. To make something artistically and culturally successful in Sunderland requires the hard work and the love/passion of the people involved - that love and passion will always be there.”


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