Interview

The deeper south: the London DIY music scene’s next step

By fighting for their own spaces and communities, a new generation of South London artists and organisers are continuing the legacy of Black Midi, Squid and Goat Girl and pushing their scene forward

In stark contrast to the industrial estates and warehouses surrounding it, the glow of fairy lights and hum of chattering voices as you approach Avalon Cafe makes it appear as a sort of social and cultural oasis in a barren land. The South Bermondsey space, which serves as a cafe by day and a venue by night, also encompasses a record store and studios for creatives of all kinds. Across the board, they operate on a DIY and community-focused basis, regularly holding fundraisers – although their approach is more rooted in mutual aid than charity. 

On a dreary March night, the Cafe is playing host to one such fundraiser, for the artist Gordian Stimm’s transition fund. Ben Wyborn, who runs the independent record label Sad Machine, and also plays as Baggio, has put on the night, roping in their friends Piglet and Dasa to play. “It’s quite closely intertwined,” Ben says of the community around Avalon. “Everyone knows each other, and plays in each other’s bands.” 

The ethos is reminiscent of DIY Space For London, which was located not far from Avalon Café until its closure in 2020. DIYSFL was a hub for punk shows, zine fairs, fundraisers and anything anti-establishment; accessibility was always at its core, both financially and literally, with tickets for the low-waged and a ramp installed in the venue. Since the pandemic, the unit it once occupied has been turned into music studios which cost over £1000 a month to rent.

The closure of DIYSFL is not an isolated incident. A slew of South London venues have been lost in recent years. There was The Five Bells, where Fontaines D.C. and PVA played early gigs before the pub stopped booking live music in 2019. The Montague Arms, which played host to impromptu shows by King Krule, as well as plenty of other young independent bands and the legendary queer night Passionate Necking, closed in 2018 to be turned into flats, but currently remains unchanged and empty. Sister Midnight, the basement record shop/venue in Deptford which was a hub for local musicians and artists, closed during the pandemic (more on them later). Whilst the idea of a “South London scene” has gained traction over the past few years, following the successes of local bands like Black Midi, Shame and Goat Girl, the spaces which many of these bands grew up in no longer exist.

Untitled (Recs)

A notable exception to this is The Windmill, the Brixton pub which is largely credited as the birthplace of the scene, and which survived the pandemic thanks to a huge amount of fundraising, including gigs, a Crowdfunder campaign and an auction with items from the likes of Liam Gallagher and Sleaford Mods. Its mythical status was cemented when new 25,000-capacity festival Wide Awake festival named their main stage The Windmill stage, and roped in booker Tim Perry to help curate the line up, a bill which included Shame, PVA, Idles and Black Country, New Road, all of whom he gave slots to early in their career. 

“The thing that makes The Windmill such a special venue, and Tim such a genius curator, is the space they give to artists,” Alex Putman, founder of the Untitled (Recs) label, tells me. “He gave Jerskin (Fendrix, who is signed to Untitled) five nights to do what he wanted, and the same for Black Midi with their Sonic BM stuff.” Untitled (Recs) recently hosted their own residency at The Windmill, in honour of their fifth anniversary. Featuring many of their artists (Deathcrash, Rosie Alena, Famous, Elsas) and friends like Glows, Lou Terry and Tyler Cryde, the nights felt like a celebration of the community that the label has fostered, in part through coming to shows in that same room. The Untitled (Recs) roster came about organically, with Putman (alongside co-conspirators Camilla Simmons and Vincent Hasselbach) finding new acts through “a web of chats and recommendations,” although he’s hesitant to describe their approach as DIY. “I don’t know if that fits,” he says diplomatically. “We definitely ‘do it ourselves’, this is true, but I don’t think any of our artists have that aesthetic.” Indeed, the Untitled (Recs) sound is markedly different to the neo post-punk which is often associated with The Windmill. Their artists sit across a spectrum of genres, united by high production values and a shared creative sensibility rather than a specific style. Slow Dance, with whom Untitled (Recs) share an office space in London Fields, echo this sentiment. “We work with genre clashes that make no sense but at the same time make total sense. We wanted early on to echo the eclecticism that our generation exists in,” says Marco Pini, who alongside Darius Williams started Slow Dance as a zine while he was still at school, before it eventually became a night, a label and a management company.

Although they’ve always been based in north and east London, “it’s definitely connected to the mythology around the South London scene,” admits Maddy O’Keefe, who now co-runs Slow Dance with Pini and Williams. “We’re the same age as Sorry, Shame, HMLTD and Goat Girl, and started up when these bands were gaining traction. Everyone was hanging out at the same venues and working together – promoters like Black Cat White Cat (run by Sorry’s Campbell Baum), photographers like Holly Whitaker, artists, filmmakers and designers would just gravitate to South London as a creative nucleus.” 

Like Untitled (Recs), Slow Dance’s network of musicians and collaborators came about unintentionally. “It often is artists we meet from conversations in smoking areas of venues, friends of friends,” notes Pini. “Most of our artists are signed stemming from interesting conversations and friendship first.” They often refer to themselves as a collective, citing a “desire to bring people together” as a big motivation behind their output. As well as a growing roster of both label and management clients (which includes PVA, Platonica Erotica, Saint Jude and Sarah Meth), Slow Dance release an annual compilation with original tracks from a range of friends; previous iterations have included Lynks, Folly Group, and solo outings from members of Black Midi and Squid.

We’ll always try to think outside of the box, or do something that will enhance the music or whatever the artist is trying to do,” says O’Keefe. “We’ve also on-and-off had our own space [Slow Space] in our studio complex, where we’ve had some really lovely intimate shows, exhibitions and screenings.”

The pair speak highly of The Windmill. “I do think there’s nowhere like it really,” says O’Keefe. “I feel very sentimental towards it and think I always will.” Pini emphasises the importance of recognising the people behind the venues, “like Tim from The Windmill and Annie from Bunker Club in Deptford (who sadly passed away recently). They were really what allowed us to do what we do now. They had such care and enthusiasm for our enthusiasm – it made us feel like there is some hope out there in a city which is usually led by money over creating community.”

Sister Midnight

Lenny Watson, Lottie Pendlebury and Sophie Farrell – the team behind Sister Midnight – recognise the need for this care and enthusiasm more than most. Since their original Lewisham venue shuttered during the pandemic, the group have turned their attention towards a much bigger project – turning The Ravensbourne Arms, a disused pub moments away from the old Sister Midnight, into a community-owned venue.

“The Windmill is great, but it can’t sustain itself by itself,” argues Watson, who acquired the original venue, saving it from a fate as a wine-and-cheese bar (“fuck that”) in 2018 having worked there for years. “You can’t just have one great venue, you need to have the Five Bells, you need to have the Ivy House, Off The Cuff, DIY Space – you need this whole ecosystem that supports the music scene. We have that in South London, but it’s rapidly disappearing as the areas that these spaces exist in become more gentrified. I think that’s why it’s so important that we start understanding as a community, these tools like community ownership and assets of community value, and all these mechanisms to save important community spaces and hold on to them. Because the culture and the heritage that we have will get pushed out if not”

Since beginning their campaign in January 2021, the Sister Midnight team have raised more than £260,000 (over half of their £500,000 target), with high-profile investors and supporters including Beggars Group, Music Venue Trust, Jools Holland, Amy Lamé and bands like Black Midi and Fontaines D.C., as well as plenty of individual shareholders (shares started at £100, with £25 shares available for those on low incomes). Their mission is far from complete, and could be thwarted by a competing offer to buy The Ravensbourne (at the time of writing, they are in the process of trying to obtain a loan to counter the offer) but the group remains dedicated to building a grassroots space in South London. For them, a community-owned venue offers not just stability, but the creative freedom that comes from a truly independent operation. 

“Without these kinds of venues, we’d be playing at company owned, big branded venues that don’t really hold that same ethos,” Pendlebury, who also fronts Goat Girl, tells me. “So I think what you’ll see are people maybe even like catering to that kind of environment and not really being able to express themselves to their full creative capacity”

When I speak to Charlie Loane, aka Piglet, after he plays at that Avalon Cafe show, he agrees. “We just need more cooperatives really, and less… it sounds harsh, but things like Old Blue Last which are owned by Vice. We need things that are not just trying to get a few bands in so they can sell a bit more on the bar. So much of playing music is facilitating the sale of alcohol, but there’s a way to do that that’s not so horrible.”

For Loane, who moved to South London from Belfast in 2018, the original Sister Midnight provided an important space to develop as a musician, and build a creative network. “It was the kind of place where I’d be like, I’m gonna try this new thing out. It always felt really homely,” he says. “It’s such a shame that it’s momentarily gone.” 

“Losing that was massive,” says Sad Machine’s Ben Wyborn, back at Avalon. “I met half the people [at this gig] going to shows at Sister Midnight.”

Slow Dance

For all of these artists and organisations, inclusivity and accessibility is of paramount importance. Building something from scratch offers the possibility of leaving behind the prejudices and inequalities that historically exist in many music spaces and communities.

“We’d like to think of our platforms and events as a safe space for creativity where there’s less judgement, pressure and anything goes really,” says O’Keefe. 

The Sister Midnight collective see The Ravensbourne Arms as having similar potential. “There’s this incredible sense of social justice and solidarity, and wanting to uplift marginalised communities, and I feel like that’s what unites the scene,” Watson tells me. “And that’s what gives space for experimentation and risk-taking, and, like, hearing new types of music and understanding new viewpoints and worldviews – hearing a lived experience through people’s music. And I think that’s what’s special about the scene, not the specific spaces – although those spaces are so important, because they’re the platform for all of that.”

Back at the Avalon Café, the crowd of friends, fans and fellow musicians pile in to watch Piglet’s headline slot. Lou Terry has stepped in to cover for the usual guitarist, who has Covid, but the set is a triumphant one – there’s a running dialogue between Loane and the audience, who enthusiastically heckle and request their favourite songs. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly warm and supportive, a group of people cherishing the ability to get together to watch and play music, something which it’s hard to take for granted after the last two years of lockdowns, and the barrage of venue closures.

Against a number of odds, these independent music communities which have blossomed  in South London and beyond continue to thrive thanks to a huge amount of determination and commitment from those involved. “Covid’s not helped, and the government’s not helped, these little venues are closing down,” laments Wyborn. “But the scene is still going strong.” 

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