for almost as long as there has been house music, there has been house music in leeds. some of the city’s clubs and club nights can be traced back more than two decades to a time when much of the country was still unaware – if not afraid – of this thing called rave. nowadays, the importance of such historical ties cannot be over estimated: it’s unquestionably because leeds was there at the start, experimenting, importing and experiencing dance music proper that the city in 2012 can rightfully lay claims on being the finest electronic music hub anywhere in the united kingdom. people come here not just for the state of the scene now, but because of its heritage. but of course, everything must change in order to stay the same, and so it has over the years: a huge annual intake of students mean crowds and promotions are in constant flux, with natural selection weeding out any weak links before they get chance to take hold, all whilst being knitted together by those tendrils to the past.
said new generations have also done a fine job of broadening the city’s sonic horizons. the early days were all about house and techno, and those genres are still the predominant sound in the city, but so too are you as able to indulge in quality bass, d&b, dubstep, indie rave, future garage (whatever the genre du jour is, basically) should the need take you. the starting points for all this can be paired down to two significant, late 80s movements: the emerging house clubs of new york and chicago, and the feted heyday of manchester’s haçienda, just across the pennines.
steve raine cites both scenes as the inspiration behind his hard times night – a party, then label, which burnt very bright for a while from 1993 before taking a break, only to return in 2012 to just as excited an audience.
“i was always a suit and tie man, but i met this girl who kept telling me about this club she went to with friends. the hacienda. i got rid of my shoes, bought jeans and a top and went to the place. from that day to this i’ve never experienced anything like it. back to basics was going at that time, but the hacienda, you could just feel it. i got this need, a feeling inside that i needed to start something myself. i got a bank loan on the pretence of buying a car and spent it on flyers, a mixmag advert and djs. we were doing something different to anyone or anything – a party in a little old pub that used to be a cinema on the outskirts of leeds. people were searching around, looking for something new. house music had just been born and we happened to start at exactly the right time. “
after beating the emerging superclubs ministry of sound and cream to win mixmag’s club of the year award in 1994, the same problems that blighted the hacienda and went on to trouble sankeys also took a toll on hard times. “in the early days the word ‘rave’ followed us around,” says steve. “councils were always a bit edgy about dance clubs because of the drug association. we always had to watch the sound levels and things, but we kept moving around to keep them off our backs. we were always driven by passion, but leeds had undergone a time where it attracted some people who weren’t there for the right reasons. it went through a funny period. there was a bad element, some gangs, soccer hooligans and the like. you can’t have that when you want people to come to your night and have a good time. it was hard to not be affected by it and took away the pleasure. we were worried about incidents happening; there was some general unrest at the time so we thought it best to call it a day. “
recently, though, owing to popular consensus, the night returned to a new home the warehouse – a club which itself has played a huge role in the evolution of the leeds scene since first opening in 1979.
“all the clubs in leeds were still playing 45s with a talking dj, small sound systems and a lighting system consisting of par 38s, red, green, blue, and amber, flashing lights. it was very boring and surely didn’t wow me,” remembers the club’s first owner, american mike wiand. “in terms of influences on the warehouse, as well as going to marbella and being inspired by seeing djs spin 12”s, i started going to new york to some of the clubs and always purchased records. i believe we were the first to play “ring my bell” as i got the record on a pre-lease date and flew it back to leeds on concorde!”
as well as house music, the club was big on the new romantics scene in the late eighties, and in fact the door checker at the time was marc almond who allegedly formed soft cell on the warehouse’s dancefloor. in the decades since, seminal nights like vague and speed queen have pushed boundaries, not necessarily in terms of music – handbag house is often how it’s described – but in terms of hedonism, openness and forging head with gay and drag queen friendly nights it was second to none. nights like technique (with whom ra now host an annual garden party) have also had pioneering sojourns at the club, using the space to usher in the minimal wave of the naughties and bringing richie hawtin, magda, luciano et al to the city for the first time.
by then, techno in its earliest, purest, tops-off form had already been around a while. nights like arc had offered huge and sweaty raves with carl cox, dream sequence and slipmatt, whilst the much mythologised orbit was the sort of place that nosebleed technoists like sven vath could regularly be found spinning. it was there, in the early 90s, that one of leeds’ modern day promoting/club owning giants first saw the techno titan play, before becoming friends not long after. as a result, shane graham is the only man to bring sven to the city now, but does so regularly at the club he owns, mint, as well as the four year old festival he heads up, cocoon in the park. the mini-empire graham now oversees, though, has been a long time in the making.
“we actually started [system] in a local pub on our estate” he remembers. “those parties were brilliant, really raw, 200-300 people, full of locals and some students who used to come up. they were always free entry and we brought in djs like slam, funk d’void, billy nasty and many more. sadly, the police stopped them after a while as students put videos of the cellar all over youtube. you can imagine how messy it looked: army netting, lots of smoke and seedy red lights … it was like a zoo!”
enter mint club, the proper space shane acquired so his parties could continue. “our aim was to make it a place with top sound [mission accomplished: the club is renowned europe-wide for its spot on funktion one] and a great atmosphere. mint was always a good club years before and had great nights in like basics, technique, asylum so we knew it could work, we were confident after we refurbished it and brought the new sound system in, that it would give it the lift it needed.”
ever since then, roughly four years ago, mint has been in full focus as one of leeds’ best spots. as such, it was something of a surprise late last year when the mint warehouse was announced. previously a difficult to master out of town garage space, the mint team have transformed it into a multi-roomed and outdoor terrace space that hosts larger system and louche gatherings, as well as nights like wax: on.
“the venue was in very bad condition but i could see potential and leeds needed something fresh. when we did the refurb’ we wanted to keep it in line with mint club, but on a bigger scale. at the same time we wanted to keep it raw with a warehouse feel and keep it comfortable for people with good clean toilets.” it’s plugged something of a gap in the leeds landscape, as will yet another project from the same crew come september, mint festival. “watching cocoon in the park grow, i knew that there would be a market for it, i mean leeds does have a lot of people who love their music!”
it certainly does, but it also has a lot of nights. too many, maybe, if you listen to rumblings on the street. “there are a lot of nights doing the same style” admits shane. “lots of promoters have crossed over to the tech house/techno style and it is very difficult sometimes. especially in these times when people don’t have much money and are really picking where to go. you are up against it, you need to make sure you get the right bookings and must work hard with promotion. people come from all over the uk and even abroad to have a night out here, though, because it’s not too expensive, it’s easy to get here and the people are really friendly and the parties can go on for days sometimes.”
because the city’s scene has been so established for so long, so too are the venues, with the council seemingly not that struck on allowing too many new ones to open (though graham reckons “the council have been very strict but good with us so far”). it’s not something that strangles the city, mind, because promoters still have a wide choice of venues to choose from… brick lined cellars in wire, sprawling old garages-cum-warehouse in mint warehouse, multi roomed spaces with gardens and terraces like the faversham, something close to a superclub in the university’s stylus venue and all sorts of bars with open courtyards for day time and bank holiday extravaganzas (of which, naturally, there are loads). however, one recent new addition to the city is the garage. of course, though, even this new club space and record shop has ties to the old days, for it is run by long time back to basics resident tristan da cunha, with fellow (though more recently appointed) resident, iain “frenchy” french.
“it was so eye opening when i first got into basics at about 14 years old,” beams tristan. he talks of when dave beer’s night was at the pleasure rooms – a club previously known as the gallery/ricky’s and somewhere clubbers from around europe had flocked to catch sasha and nightmares on wax in the early stages of their careers. “there was a much more refined, exciting and mature sound than the raves i’d been going to at the university. all the music was coming from america; chez damier, ron trent and so on, it was such a fertile period for house music and such a great honour to eventually become resident. over the years the people, venue and drugs have all changed, but there’s still a great energy to all the parties. it can be a like a football match sometimes but it does go in cycles. as you lose people that get older, get jobs, responsibilities, you get a new wave of kids that experience it all for the first time but connect with the same spirit that has been keeping basics alive for 20 years.”
now, and having been privy to such spirit, party hedonism and the halcyon days of house music for so long, tristan has bottled up his years of experience and is running forward with it at the new venture. called the garage – it used to be a garage – it plugs more than one gap in leeds ‘ landscape. firstly, as a club space, it is raw, dark and gritty. the dj booth is the front of an old chevy fire truck (as it was at the pleasure rooms where basics first started 20 years ago, nostalgia fans) and the space allows for some of the most underground bookings in the city given its 350 capacity. secondly, adjoined to the main room by a warren of corridors is waxwerks, the first record shop to open and specialise in dance music since the digital revolution and glut of download stores forced former outlets to close their doors a decade ago (including one run at the time by tristan and friends matt playford and ben brophy, play records).
“the record shop idea definitely didn’t come first. it was just a certain set of circumstances that made it make sense. we wanted to do a venue mainly. we wanted it to be unique and original, and soon we found the space which then influenced the concept overall. we had a view of it being a little nucleus in leeds where people come and hang out. we hooked up with an artist, victoria topping, who does the art for our throwing shapes label, and it all came together quite quickly. one half is raw, edgy and grungy, and the other is design-y, arty, gallery style… you know, just a nice place. “
he’s not wrong, because waxwerks is the nicest looking and feeling space in the city for this sort of thing. record shop and bar by day, the garage’s room 2 at night, it’s fully decked out with leather sofas and low tables, a beautiful custom built dj booth and has classic records framed on the walls. said walls are covered in specially designed wallpaper, the toilets are themed (space, sexy phone booth complete with old pay phone on the wall, musical notes) and candles line the walkways. by day a comfy place to browse classic house, disco and offerings from the electronic vanguard – by night the setting for people like linkwood, steffi and nicholas to play to very up close and personal crowds. so what’s it like to open a new space in the city given the competition?
“there are club politics now – everyone is struggling to be one step ahead. only so many people go out and listen to dance music on a weekend, so if there are four or five nights over a weekend it can dilute it, for sure. we’ve noticed numbers at basics varying from week to week – you can tell when there is a lot of stuff going on. there’s a flip side to that in that, collectively, it makes the city a powerhouse for house and techno, so it’s now renowned for being one of the best places to party in the uk.“
there are many promotions to thank for that. scores are less than a year or two old (including – take a breath – flux, butter side up, nest, hush house, absentminds, square one, lowbrow and pearson sound’s acetate) and have changed leeds considerably. six years ago there might have been four or five decent events a month including basics and technique, as well as similarly definitive parties like dirty disco and asylum, where now there are four or five a weekend. that said, their value cannot be overstated, as it’s these small and nascent parties who can dare to take more chances. they don’t need big numbers to fill their chosen venues so can happily offer city debuts to breakthrough acts still on the rise.
there also exists, however, plenty of nights in between the veterans and the newbies. these include mono_cult, one of the freest roaming promotions in the city that happily takes up residence at a number of different venues depending on the pull of any given line-up they put out. so too, though, does this party search out new and previously unused spaces such as fullcircle – an open plan events and art space across two floors that often leaves you wondering if you are actually in leeds, and not new york or berlin. it is spaces like this that have seen mono_cult slowly infuse the leeds scene with more and more bass acts alongside their usual deep house offerings. ame, dixon, julio bashmore and joy orbison are all fair game, on the same night, at mono_cult.
of similar age is louche, a night that has been instrumental in taking leeds forwards over the last five years, away from big name and safe old veterans to new school champs. since then it has proved so successful in leeds – with clubbers as well as djs – that it now also runs in london, hooks up with big wigs like the red bull music academy, hosts tents at various festivals around europe and even room three at fabric on a fairly regular basis. “everything in leeds starts with back to basics really” says brinsley kazak, louche co-founder alongside josh t. “i’d heard of it before i even went to university in the city and went there on my first night. looking around, seeing the faces, knowing they were there for basics, not whichever headliner happened to be on, really struck me. “
now a respected promoter in his own right, brinsley admits that balance is hard to find at his own party, especially given the turnover of students in leeds. lots of them arrive in the city each year and few are educated ‘heads’. the result is that clubbing tourists can abound, thereby dictating what sort of headliners will and won’t make any given party viable. “if we book lee foss, we know the club will be full. if we book john heckle, we know it will be a struggle” he says at pain. a victim of their of success then, maybe?
“to be honest, it was just as tough when we started. there was a lot of politics, djs often only played the city once a year and agents held us to ransom over fees. at least now we are established we can stick to our guns and happily do our own thing knowing we have a certain crowd who will always turn out.“
and there is always likely to be a crowd: leeds city centre gets shinier and shiner by the year, with new buildings, restaurants and hotels continually popping up to accompany the largest financial, legal and business districts outside london. new labels are also spawning more and more frequently, following in the footsteps of ralph lawson’s 2020vision, whilst producers such as pearson sound, midland, simon baker, youandewan, pbr streetgang, josh t, last magpie continue to rise up through the ranks having gotten the electronic bug at various parties around the city.
“i go around the world a lot,” says tristan. “leeds is definitely up there with the best of them, even if it hasn’t had its moment in the spotlight quite like manchester did during the hacienda days.”
you could well argue that time is now.
where to start? fans of great cocktails should try sandanista, cask ale and belgium beer lovers need to go to north bar and if you like rubbing shoulders with suited and booted, intellectual folk, check out the reliance. leeds’ oldest pub is whitelocks and deals in quality local brews, whilst sela bar serves quality pizza, great bottled beers and even has a decent soul/funk soundtrack. for the non-trainer wearing folk amongst you, try the ever-popular jake’s bar on call lane, something of a hotbed for such establishments that also leads towards leeds’ very own riviera (!), aka the drinking hub cum waterfront of granary wharf.
unless you are wholly averse to walking, pretty much everything in leeds – in terms of eating, drinking and raving – is within walking distance of each other because, from top to bottom, you can walk the city-centre in around 20 minutes. taxi drivers in leeds are smart, though, so come the end of your night, chances are you’ll find banks of them queuing up outside the venue to take you wherever you wish to go. thankfully for us, they always seem to know what’s going on and where.
although rumour has it that the leeds arena – a purpose built, all singing all dancing live concert venue – is coming next year, there isn’t one as yet. what the city does have, though, are plenty of smaller live music venues. the o2 academy, for one, hosts a dizzying schedule of events that see the likes of primal scream, leftfield, orbital and other electronic megaliths pass through the city on a regular basis. so too is there the sweaty indie cavern that is cockpit, where you will catch bands in the early stages of their careers: delphic, metronomy and d/r/u/g/s all played early gigs here. listings at the brudenell social club are also worth checking: the grubby working mens’ club style venue hosts intimate performances from the likes of prefuse 73 and pantha du prince. finally, fans of live jazz, soul and funk will want to take a trip to the cosy confines of the long-running hi fi club.
leeds has plenty of this stuff, no matter your preference. if you like war memorabilia, head to the royal armouries. fancy seeing an early damien hurst, classic henry moore or influential barbara hepworth statue? then the leeds art gallery is for you. if you prefer ancient art, fossils, mummies and the like, then pay leeds city museum a visit. finally, if you like walking in the lush green gardens of large and historic houses, check out either lotherton hall (which also has an enjoyable big-bird garden) or temple newsam, both on the outskirts of leeds, and both settings for various festivals throughout the year.
leeds is not short on places to eat. one such concentrated spot is greek street where you’ll find solid italian chains like carluccio’s, tapas bars, steak houses and more. there’s also one of jamie oliver’s italian restaurants, a specialist fish restaurant in white bait, highfalutin 14 course taster menus at antonio’s and subterranean french brassieres like souz le nez scattered around the rest of the city centre. for arty folk, the relaxed and friendly arts café is a wise choice whilst distrikt offers a great range of middle eastern tapas in laid-back surrounds.
over the years there have been many of these. it’s a tale oft told that this or that night started after a sideways conversation at some after party, with many djs leaving the city completely ruined having been entertained ‘leeds style’ long into the next day. non are more famous (or illegal) than ketoloco, which managed to attract hundreds of clubbers, djs like paul woolford, ralph lawson and, eventually, the police (lower case) to their student basement in headingly. now, promoters tend to team up and share after parties, anywhere from the brick-lined cellar that is wire, to the underground tunnel that is distrikt (which also hosts a large number of pre-parties) or the raw garage space of, um, the garage. best thing to do is keep an eye out on social media in the days leading up to the party, look for flyers at the event itself or simply ask around on the night. rest assured, though, few people in the city go straight to bed once the main event has finished…
non-house and techno parties
there are also more than enough of these to feed your bass, indie or electro needs. wax: on, metropolis and absentminds are the leading purveyors, but so too is the west indian centre worth checking for a show from the famed iration steppas. of course, pearson sound’s own sporadic night, acetate, also offers a fine line in the more connoisseur sounds of said spectrum.
all photo credits: igr::photo