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Where are all the bands in Nottingham?

24 December 11 words: Chris Summerlin
Chris Summerlin, a one-time outsider, lays out exactly why our scene is so unique
Bob Tilton at Dubble Bubble in 1998 - photo by Chris Summerlin

Bob Tilton, Dubble Bubble, 1998. Pic: Chris Summerlin

Back in 1998 I was living in Northampton. I'd been to Nottingham just once to play a gig at Sam Fay's; an old railway building which then went on to become Hooters, and then a pile of bricks near the NHS walk-in centre. A largely pre-internet time, I relied on the network of printed fanzines to keep me in the know about things that might have otherwise been below the radar of the NME or Melody Maker.

It was through this network that I heard that American band Unwound were playing in Nottingham. Equally important to me at the time was that Nottingham band Bob Tilton were supporting. I'd looked everywhere for their LP Crescent before chancing upon it in the bargain bin at my local record shop (which says something about Northampton). In its own modest way, that album blew my mind. It sounded like a lot of American music I liked, but it was rougher and less defined and somehow more British - simultaneously familiar and alien. The biggest bonus was that they were playing at the one venue I knew how to get to: Sam Fay's. 

Easy.

I caught the train to Nottingham with my long-suffering girlfriend of the time and walked the short distance from the station to Sam Fay's. It was closed. Not just closed as in "not open yet", but as in "boarded up, never to re-open".

Balls.

Figuring that the gig was cancelled we began trudging back to the station, yet on the way by pure chance I saw a piece of crumpled paper on the floor that read: "UNWOUND MOVED TO DUBBLE BUBBLE". A stroke of luck - but what the hell was Dubble Bubble? This was worse than the gig being cancelled: it was happening somewhere but we just didn't know where. Nottingham seemed impossibly big to me then. The gig may as well have been moved to Spain.

We followed signs to the shops, resigned to getting a burger and then going home. 

However, walking into the Market Square (for the first time in my life) I could hear Bob Tilton playing, clear as day, coming from somewhere nearby. Like some pied piper nonsense.  I kid you not. We followed the noise to an alley off the Square and perfectly illuminated in the window of a café were Matt Newnham (Gringo Records) and an assortment of label mates. I think I'd met them all once before, but I knew Matt from the label and his fanzine Damn You. They banged on the glass and beckoned us in to explain that the bands were sound checking and the gig would open in a bit. 

Bob Tilton at Dubble Bubble in 1998 - photo by Chris Summerlin

Bob Tilton, Dubble Bubble, 1998. Pic: Chris Summerlin

When it finally did open, what struck me immediately was the range of people present. I was used to going to shows where everyone looked like they were from the same tribe almost, but it seemed like a whole variety of cultures and ages (and gender) had shown up. To my dismay, as Tilton set up, people were jokingly heckling them. I remember one older guy with a quiff shouting at them as they got ready to play. I couldn't believe someone would heckle a band this important and serious, so concluded from the way the guy looked that he must be the older brother of the guitarist and that this was deeply embarrassing for the artistes.

Tilton were amazing; loud, ferocious and genuinely unpredictable. People didn't treat them reverently like I had expected;  it was a loud and boozy crowd, but that just made it more alien to me and more exciting. They had their own sound man; a scary looking skinhead guy in a biker jacket, getting into the gig as much as any of the punters which just added to my confusion.  I'd been to plenty of gigs in my life but this somehow felt very different, all highlighted by the fact that maybe 75% of the people left before Unwound played. It was like an entire, characterful and portable audience had just been there for Bob Tilton and then disappeared like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn.

I recall trying to speak to some of the Tilton guys afterwards but far from being serious chin stroking musicians like I expected, they were either socially retarded or very drunk. Possibly a bit of both. Despite this, there was a moment where I had the strongest feeling that everybody around me was going to play a huge part in my own life at some point. It was the weirdest sensation. I even told my girlfriend. She suggested it was maybe time we went home.

In the following months I kept crossing paths with people. My first band recorded and Gringo put it out. I started writing for the fanzine Damn You and this expanded into putting on gigs under their banner, the first being in Matt's home town of Colchester. We continued going to see Bob Tilton play wherever we could and got on nodding terms with them, and when they played for the last time, at Bunkers Hill Inn, we all went to see it.

Having finished my degree, rather than stick a pin in the map, I felt Nottingham would be a good place to move to on instinct alone. Around this time and completely out of the blue, Neil from Bob Tilton called me up at my Mum's house. This was nothing short of crazy as we'd only spoken a few times before and usually in unflattering circumstances for both of us. He asked if I wanted to come and play guitar in a new band he was doing - Wolves Of Greece - as he heard I was thinking of moving to Nottingham. I figured the guy was psychic. I said yes.

So I moved to Nottingham and I've been here ever since. True to my instinct, everyone I met that night at Dubble Bubble had a huge impact on my life. I've been in countless bands with Neil and his friend Phil for over ten years now. I shared a house with Matt Gringo and we've put on about 150 gigs under the Damn You banner in the city since moving here. 

Bob Tilton at Dubble Bubble in 1998 - photo by Chris Summerlin

Bob Tilton, Dubble Bubble, 1998. Pic: Chris Summerlin

The terrifying soundman turned out to be former Radio Trent and Rock City DJ Mark Spivey, who now plays with Neil and myself in Kogumaza. The guy who'd scrawled the note I found was Anton Lockwood, aka Night With No Name, who amongst other feats of spectacular generosity over the years somehow wangled it for Wolves Of Greece to play live on John Peel when Radio One Sound City was in Nottingham. And the guy who heckled Bob Tilton? Coop from The X Rays. I played at his wedding a couple of years ago. He was deeply offended I thought he was related to Neil.

The point of all this, if there is one, is that the evening at Dubble Bubble was a perfect distillation of what is so good about music in Nottingham. Every few years some bright spark will write an article about how Nottingham never produces any bands. They wrongly assume that everyone in the city makes music with a common goal and that common goal is success and exposure on regular terms, or to "make it" as my Mum might say. As if we're all running the same race. The great thing about that Dubble Bubble gig was that this wasn't a stepping stone to success for the bands playing - it was the perfect environment for them. It was a literally life-changing experience for some of the people who attended and this happened almost in secret.

We live in a time where everything is easy to get hold of. If you miss a band first time round, don't worry because they'll reform eventually. You can book tickets for a gig, a meal beforehand and a taxi home with minimal effort and without even speaking to another human. But there's still an element of Nottingham and the music and art made here that's the antithesis of that. So much of what happens here happens in relative secret, not through cliqueyness but through a modesty and dignity on the part of those involved.  I love this about Nottingham: it's all there, under the surface and you have to work at finding it but when you do it's more special. It's why I moved to the city and why I'm still here and I know a lot of people who feel the same.

Nottingham consistently blows my mind by being a place where people know and support what others do - beyond the supposed boundaries of the styles of music they make. That's why the crowd seemed weird to me that night, because music is a rightfully social activity in this city and that means a diverse and seemingly unconnected bunch of people are going to be out supporting it. When idiots talk about the city being cliquey and bands backbiting they're not talking about people I know or people that I feel represent the city. The good stuff doesn't need or want to be shouted about. Understanding that this is what makes the city so special is key to answering the question "Why aren't there more bands from Nottingham?" The answer is "Why aren't you looking harder?"

 Visit Chris Summerlin's website and blog.

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