Derby, what’s going on in Derby? It’s fashionable, apparently, to say “nothing”. But, like other places in the UK not normally associated with having a strong rock and roll heritage (such as Hereford, or Swindon), Derby throws up a lot of sonic surprises. The city of Rolls Royce and Kevin Hector is currently the home of a lot of vital music. Maybe this creative flame is the result of the difficulties and frustrations in just trying to function in C21st Britain, rubbing up against each other.
I must add a personal disclaimer, here. I’m not from Derby, I’m from the Northwest of England, a region steeped in rock arcana and increasingly cluttered with “monuments” to the last 60 years of popular music. If you want, I can show you a place in a wall in Leigh where you can still breathe in the steam from Pet Shelley’s brew. Corona or no, this mystic fissure is in line to receive a local government preservation grant.
Another disclaimer: the city’s punk, jazz and grime scenes are not represented in this piece, though a space in this publication is reserved for that. At a later date, as someone also not from Derby once said.
This article will take a leaf from Julian Cope, who managed in his unique way to put another midland settlement, Tamworth, on rock’s map; through his first three solo records and the second part of his autobiography, Repossessed. Cope’s recruitment of Tamworth in his art – mythologising diffuse and odd monuments such as old priories, mounds of muck, ponds and scrap yards – meant that it could never be anything other than his to shape, in the way he wanted. I always liked the magic this approach allowed. And I hope readers can fill in their own descriptions from the music here.
Remapping the Middle Ground
Slap bang in the middle of England, Derby seems peripheral when it comes to amplified electronic sounds. It is seen as a city that is “shut for pop music”; especially since a controversial blaze in 2014 at the famous Assembly Rooms. People from the city wryly tell me that the best metaphor for its cultural ambitions in 2020 is the derelict hole in the ground at ‘Duckworth Square’; a once-bustling shopping precinct that was demolished in the late 1990s and is still awaiting a new life. It feels a long time since White Town had their charming hit, ‘Your Woman’. Yet some musicians – by simply existing and carrying on, or reforming in another creative shape with other, younger bandmates – throw a rope bridge to the past, while creating new possibilities in the present.
Derby’s lively nineties and noughties scenes currently find an afterglow with the work of Pet Crow and Biscuit Mouth. Energies are still beaming strong, especially with Pet Crow’s moreish new record, Take The Edge Off. Boasting established scene heads Sean Kenny and singer Danielle Ross, Pet Crow make a winning, everyday pop sound that may be familiar, though that, and the fact that the LP is a slow burner (asking you to do lots of very unC21st things like listen to it all the way through) should not put anyone off. Take The Edge Off is a set of witty, very British appropriations of alternative American guitar pop, in the way Lush and Long Blondes used to do. Have a listen to sparkling buzz cuts like ‘Hostage’, ‘One Whole Summer’ and ‘Insomnia’, where the sharp, sometimes wry lyrics dovetail well with the snappy sounds. And the last track, ‘Prick’, could be primetime Lush.
Necessity is the mother of invention with Mr Kenny it seems. His other current dalliance, Biscuit Mouth, makes abrasive music in strange places. Biscuit Mouth is also capable – unlike a certain government advisor – to follow the rules in these testing times. I quote: “Tim tracked the vocals in his car in an empty car park as to not disturb his neighbours.” We can also point to the Apache Beat-tastic ‘Eating the Ice Cream, Coming Back’, the text for which states it was “(m)ixed and mastered by Biscuit Mouth on a treadmill at Energie Fitness, Derby.”
Biscuit Mouth plunder rock’s back pages: tiny gestures also used by Can, White Hills, Neu!, Section 25 all leap out. Tracks such as ‘Hawaiian Tiger Fibre: I was born to jive’ remind me of Archie Bronson’s unhinged yawps and explosive passages of noise. Everything they’ve done that I have heard is great.
Nothing Has Never Happened in Derby
Casting the gaze a little further reveals others equally committed to making an interesting racket and sharing the creative load. It seems, then, that Kenny and Ross are just two of a bunch of committed alternative types who have mined a rich seam for Derby’s music since the early noughties, a period that boasted local acts like Komakino.
More of “all that” later. Mention should now be made of Tom John Hall (Papayér) who makes endearing alternative pop. Mention, also, of Maria Michael Machin of ((Maria)) and the remarkable Grawlix. Then there is Shelley Jane Newman, who plays in GodNo, Mighty Kids and – currently – in Grawlix’s live band. Chris Marsh is in Cheap Jazz and a-tota-so. And another Chris, Chris Jones, was in Unqualified Nurse Band and now creates ambient music as Peace Tape, and The Sky is a Painting. Other current, established alternative acts such as the Savage Hell, the “free-everything” Vikasati and Goddesses (about to release a new record) are also deserving of a nod at this point.
All of these acts are worth your time, and some are making some remarkable records as we speak: Papayér’s new single is lush anti-pop, and GodNo’s last two singles are a whirligig of post-rock attitudes. Material flowing out of a city in lockdown, with no place to play.
But we should maybe pick out Grawlix, who have been plowing a singular furrow for a number of years. This sprawling collective (I say sprawling that because it seems everyone who’s anyone is in, or contributing to, this act) makes records that at first listen seem to nibble at the table of C21st American college pop. You may recognise sounds that hark to the likes of Deerhunter, Animal Collective, or Sufjan Stevens. But Grawlix are a powerful and otherworldly chamber pop act, and with the singular Maria Michael Machin at the helm, they also remind me of Current 93 in terms of sheer insistence and singular vision. Rapidly changing constructs that could sound laboured or cobbled together in an overly academic way here seem to escape into another airspace. The music is fascinating.
One final “Janus-like” character to mention is Robbie Newman, who plays in Mighty Kids and (you guessed), Grawlix. He also runs Snug Studios responsible for some great local releases such as those of Umbilica. Newman has worked on most of Haiku Salut’s recordings and is mastermind of their Lamp Shows. Haiku Salut have picked up a fair bit of acclaim for their studious, but very atmospheric releases and these aforementioned lamp shows, where “a stageful of vintage lamps which are programmed to flash, fade and flicker in time to the music”. There is something very determined about Haiku Salut’s output which – on reflection – they share with many acts here, some kind of singular, inwards-looking resolve to press on, no matter what.
I suppose (given the proprietor of this publication will have a quiet word if I don’t) I must mention Cable; local kings in a period when Derby was a magnet for lots of disparate scenes. Back in the 1990s the city was a renowned clubbing destination and a key stop for all upcoming bands whether it be Oasis, Radiohead, Bikini Kill or Mogwai. And locally, many creative roads still lead back to Cable who achieved a fair degree of notoriety. Not only did the band indulge in a “ruck” with Oasis that reached the national press, they recorded their debut LP with Mr John Robb. Signed to Infectious label the four-piece made abrasive and very catchy nineties “indie” rock that still stands up, certainly much more so, in retrospect, when compared with some of their more famous peers.
Cable wasn’t alone in gettin’ outta Derbz; the energetic if very different rackets made by The Beekeepers (Beggars Banquet) and The Beyond (Harvest) also blazed trails with industry support. Not to forget the screamtastic Twinkie and the lush-sounding Cato, both of whom eventually released their sounds in the noughties. And although the story of fisticuffs with Broughton’s finest is not a legacy anyone would want to keep, Cable’s efforts – covered by the likes of YouNoGoDie – seem to have acted as the springboard for a very creative couple of decades in the city.
Running with a nineties legacy the noughties and teens seem to have been a very creative period in Derby: one that was initially captured by local label Stressed Records’ “Stressed” compilations (three volumes’ worth, no less). As well as the aforementioned Twinkie and Cato’s releases, the decades also spawned some really clever, winning pop from the likes of Plans and Apologies and Crushing Blows (who later became Ghost Twins). For local noiseniks the thumping, mentalist blues-punk from Fixit Kid must have given a fair bit of succour. Then there was Komakino, whose post-punk nuclear-noises inspired some breathless “lights-out-in-the-dorm” prose from the likes of the Guardian.
Perhaps Derby’s effervescence back then (and its ongoing inclination to take a sideways look at itself) can be heard in this instrumental EP from The Jesus Years (who later became the equally noisesome Crash of Rhinos). Their track ‘Throwing Beers at Rick Parfitt’ sounds as sweet as can be.
As you can see, these years saw an awful lot of what could all loosely be classified as “alternative guitar music”. And what comes across when listening back to the likes of Cheap Jazz, My Psychoanalyst and You Slut! (all of whom sound boss squared, by the way), is the sheer inventiveness of the music. It’s music that threatens to bubble up through the cracks, to trip over itself at any moment, maybe because all these sounds seem in love with too many ideas at once. There is also – given the more starry-eyed, rockist rackets made by The Little Explorer, In Flight Program and Dragonflies Draw Flame – a collective reminder that guitars can be put to many purposes if the will is there.
All of this seems to show that, for the last 25 years or so, Derby’s pop culture seems battered but certainly not beaten. Which begs the following question.
Why Isn’t Derbz On The Map?
One local journalist tells me that “Derby is a city that supports football crowds and drunken antics in Revolution, but frowns upon music gigs. Where did the excellent multi-venue 2Q festival go? It still exists, in Lincoln!” There ARE places, such as the celebrated arts centre The Quad, but the city only has The Venue, The Hairy Dog and Dubrek as the only bastions of live music in the city. Dubrek acts as a rehearsal space, recording studio and hang-out spot with so much of the local talent connected in some way. It often pushes its 50 capacity space to the limit in putting on acts like Part Chimp and Sly and the Family Drone.
And then there is the initiative that Eyez, a very popular grime artist from Normanton – the multi-cultural part of town often ignored by the city’s well-heeled types – has tried and thus far failed to get going. Eyez often bemoans his inability to get shows in the city when he sells out in London and even other countries. His ‘Derbz on the Map’ showcase event seems to be a lead balloon, a magnet for organisational and civic strife.
What then – away from civic troubles, holes in the ground and hardy outposts from past glories – of now? There is the powerful and emotional metal of MYOK, an act which has some traction with those who like Kerrang on their cornflakes. But elsewhere it seems the Youth of Derby like making rocky, acerbic guitar pop. Witness Marvin’s Revenge who have that unmistakable acerbity and bounce that trios have. And Sergarra who have landed – just – on the right side of lad rock, even if they – automatically – pick the chords and phrases that British lads always do (like their distant ancestors would have done, stringing lucky arrows in their longbows in a French field). There’s luckily more of Eaguls than Oasis here, and they carry a powerful sound too; mainly because the singer’s lungs sound like they could light a campfire.
But some newer acts sound odd, off kilter, even. The Honeymoon Suite make lush impassioned power pop that wants to invoke emo’s ghost. The constant switches, between a singer with a pronounced Derby accent bemoaning local inanities and doomed love affairs, and some very swish production does suck you in after a bit. There’s something here that is very awkward and disaffected here, something that doesn’t fit. Glass Cannons also make heartfelt, well-constructed emotional rock, again with an itchy outsider air, even if it’s more aimed at the charts or local lasses than taking on Nurse with Wound. (A point that hit me while listening to their song ‘Runaway’ – maybe it was the title and the lyrical content of this song, but it’s really noticeable that a lot of the singers in these bands sound restless, or disaffected, annoyed, or trapped. Is there an exodus due in Derbyshire?)
Ill-fitting noise is a special dish also cooked by Tor, a noise / math duo of some abandon. Tor was picked up by this very publication some years back, and described as making an “insane amount of noise”, which is fair comment. When time signatures and key progressions aren’t being stretched to breaking point, riffs get thrown around in the same manner bricks are when hurled at windows.
Final word will go to the remarkable AI Bamfs, though, whose reflective soliloquies have the stamp of brilliance. Going off his home baked imusic, AI Bampfs has a morose, post-punk, hermetic sensibility that is not averse to standing in front of his bedroom mirror. Because he’s a funny man it seems.
(Photograph courtesy of Grawlix)