INTERVIEW

East London’s DIY scene seems to have shrunk. Considerably so in the past 3 or 4 years, so it’s a good job for Sound Savers, a new DIY studio and practice space that’s adapting to the gentrification of Hackney

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“Most people round here seem to pay us no mind,” laughs Mark Jasper as we huddle around the drum kit at Sound Savers on a cold Monday night. “I did have the church from across the road come over and record a couple of their hymns a few months back; I just sat in the booth with the tape running while they sang for two and a half straight hours. It was actually pretty amazing.”

Located behind a Nigerian restaurant on Homerton High Street, in east London, it’s easy to see why the neighbours might have passed them by. It’s definitely not what most people imagine a recording studio to look like. Consisting of a large live room and small control room, there’s no chill out room with a pool table for band’s to relax in between takes – instead, all you get is an admittedly comfortable sofa to wait out your turn and a selection of herbal teas. It’s a pretty Spartan place, but it’s an environment that fits in with the owners’ ideology.

When Alex Clegg, Mark Jasper and Henry Withers decided to start a studio in an old warehouse next to Homerton station, the DIY scene in east London was arguably at its zenith. Built out of a shared love of lo-fi, punk and experimental records, and a vision to create a place where bands could record and practice for cheap. “We all had been in bands and run studios in the past, so we felt that we had a pretty good understanding to what band’s actually needed out of a studio – hence the name; Sound Savers,” explains Withers when I ask them how it all came together. “Originally we wanted to call it Ultimate Value,” says Jasper.

Jasper and Withers have long been involved with local bands (Witching Waves and Human Hair, respectively) but the guys are keen to point out that there is no driving principle or defining sound to the work they do at Sound Savers. “We’re more about trying to help people get their ideas than trying to impose a system of doing things or a certain aesthetic,” clarifies Clegg when I try to tease out the studio’s philosophy.

Jasper sets me straight. “We’re that bridge between the big studio where you get the super-polished Jesse J stuff and the guys trying out ideas on a laptop or an 8-track recorder,” he says, leaning over his knees, intently. “I get a lot comments about other people’s recording experiences where they ‘made me play to a click-track’, or they ‘made choices for me that I didn’t want’. I guess the difference is that we have always tried to be sympathetic to the needs of any band that comes in here – we try to put the band first, which, for me, is what DIY is about. It’s about supporting each other.”

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Despite having no stated aims or agenda, Sound Savers has become an important cog for up and coming London bands, with Joya, Primitive Parts, Primetime, Dignan Porch and Trash Kit all recording at the studio recently. “I’ve always enjoyed simple-sounding music,” offers Withers when I mention that a lot of these bands share fairly lo-fi sensibilities. “Those bands don’t seem to make lots of money, so you need places like this to be able to do music. Don’t get me wrong, I like big, expensive studios as well, but the music I make and like to be involved with doesn’t need to be in spaces like that, so you just end up where you end up.”

The perceived notion these days, is that east London’s DIY scene has its best days behind it. A quick look at my Facebook wall, with its litany of venue closures, bands breaking up and pictures of empty shows, seems to confirm it, so it’s refreshing to find three people who are still optimistic about the future of Hackney’s music scene.

“There are still bands that people are keen to see,” says Withers, looking a bit puzzled that I even asked them the question in the first place. “I mean, when Sauna Youth play the Shacklewell Arms, they still seem to bring a couple of hundred people down to see them.”

“There’s still a good DIY scene that has come together recently and there’s some younger bands leading the way; it’s just gotten a little bit harder to find,” asserts Jasper. “Last month we had two bands in playing stuff I’ve never even heard before and both were really good. Obviously the area is changing and it’s weird to think what the future of Sound Savers will be, as we’ve based ourselves on something that was easier to do a few years ago, but we seem to be doing alright at the moment.”

They have a point; the idea that music scenes coalesce, grow, become stale and die is an easy narrative for people like me to spin, but it’s rarely the case in real life. Music scenes don’t grow and decline like empires but rather edge forward like learner drivers, jerking forward suddenly when they find gear for a bit, while periodically stuttering to a halt while people frantically search for another gear. Yeah, the Stag’s Head might be a bit cruddy now, The Buffalo Bar is gone and the Shacklewell Arms might seem a bit old hat, but try telling the people throwing themselves around to Lowest Form at Power Lunches that there is no scene left in east London.

In some ways, the relative lack of attention is helping east London’s musicians to find their feet again. With the pressure of having to be the next big thing easing off, the scene is starting to regenerate, with a small cottage industry of practice studios, promoters and venues allowing bands and artists to find and develop their sound and followings at what feels like a more natural pace.

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Thanks to places like Dalston café/venue Power Lunches and Stoke Newington’s creative space Total Refreshment Centre, the small, ramshackle gigs that Hackney used to be famous for are starting to make a bit of a comeback. They may be niche shows, but they have a spirit of adventure and sense of discovery that the area has been missing for a few year’s now, and in their own way Sound Savers are adding to that by allowing bands to play free shows at their studios on an ad-hoc basis.

“There seemed to be a lot of warehouse and weird shows around here four or five years ago, and I really enjoyed that and wanted to try and recapture it. There are four or five spaces that everyone plays and I think it’s nice to have somewhere that’s a bit different,” says Jasper, who has been the main driver behind these intimate shows.

“The connection with Power Lunches is pretty strong. We both try and support grassroots stuff and build a community. That was why I wanted to do the shows here, so that there are more spaces for people to play, especially when you consider that everywhere is getting more expensive and it’s getting a harder city to live in if you’re in a band or doing something creative.”

For Clegg, these open studios are as much about demystifying the recording process as they are a chance to show off some of the bands they’ve been working with. “It just gives more people the chance to be involved,” he says. “Most studios are like these ‘secret places’ where only the band and the engineers get to go – we just wanted to make this place open to anyone who wants to hang out.”

It’s hard not to get excited about all this talk of emergent movements and regenerating art scenes, but the walk from the studio back to Homerton train highlights the uncertain economic situation that they all face. Everywhere is new build flats, bringing their affluent residents and rising rents. Like it or not, Hackney is changing. Even before the interview had started, the guys were discussing how a new block of flats might mean that they would have to shell out to soundproof one of their practice rooms.

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“It’s really hard to find units like this,” says Withers when I ask if it’s getting harder for Sound Saver’s to exist in Homerton. “We’ve tried to find places for an extra practice room or something like that, but it’s hard to find somewhere that you don’t have to soundproof because there’s posh flats next door, or have to have crazy security because it’s in a super dodgy area or whatever. Also, it’s getting more difficult to find places that you can keep going for a long time and feel safe to invest in; it seems a lot of things going are for six month periods until they get converted into apartment buildings.”

Luckily, it doesn’t seem like the guys will be going anywhere soon. Like many of the people still managing to cling on in the fast rising river that is Hackney’s rental market, Sound Savers seemed to have lucked out with their landlord. “He’s a pretty unusual guy,” observes Clegg. “He has all these units and he could easily sell the land and convert them into flats or whatever, but he seems to like to have this little business empire and has a pretty chilled out attitude to what we do.”

Rather than struggling into the economic headwinds caused by Hackney’s redevelopment, Sound Savers is, in fact, thriving. Both Jasper and Clegg are eager to mention that they’ve begun to carve out full-time careers as sound engineers and the studio has just enjoyed its busiest January ever. Gentrification might be bringing with it an arm full of challenges, but it is also opening up a lot of opportunities, as Mark identifies. “Maybe with all this urban growth, there is more and more demand for these kinds of spaces.”

Besides, it’s not like music is wedded to an area. Even if Hackney just becomes a massive warren of wine bars and expensive loft apartments, there is always going to be something going on somewhere, so Sound Savers will always have a niche to fill. Henry sums up the trio’s attitude of breezy optimism perfectly: “There’s always going to be one or two places around and as long as there’s places like this, we’ll survive. I mean we might have to move out to Tottenham one day, but all the punk kids would be living out in Tottenham by then, so what’s the difference?”

Check out our photo gallery inside Sound Savers here

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