Drowned in Oxford: Past, Present & Future...
Continuing our regular series of local scene reports, Seb Reynolds talks us through the vibrant and varied music scene that Oxford has to offer...
The Oxford music scene has long been one of the jewels in the UK music crown, punching far above its weight in terms of geographical size, not least for the nurturing and development of Radiohead in their early days.
Radiohead - a band who have gone on to be one of the biggest guitar bands of all time, a band who have single-handedly rewritten the rule book; that a globally massive rock band can explore and incorporate avant-garde jazz, contemporary classical and IDM electronica into an album as brilliantly original as Kid A and score a number one album in the US with no singles or radio promotion is alone testament to their sheer force of creative will. Emerging around the same time were genre defining, Creation records signed shoegaze legends Ride, tragically nearly-massive indie pop almost-stars The Candyskins, and one of the most consistently excellent Britpop bands of the day, Supergrass. This particular period of Oxford Music is well documented and explored in great detail in local film maker Jon Spira’s excellent Anyone Can Play Guitar rockumentary, which is well worth a watch..
What is a true testament to the continued excellence of the scene is that fact that the film still barely scratches the surface of what makes Oxford so fascinating. Missing from the film is any mention of Nick Olivieri-collaborating, world-touring hardcore duo Winnebago Deal and the whole scene of post hardcore bands that they rose from, many of whom had links to the village of Eynsham out in north west Oxfordshire.
Also, the two latter day giants of Oxford music (Foals and Stornoway) have but a cursory mention in ACPG, when they are both following on the coat-tails of some of the aforementioned greats towards worldwide renown. Foals and Stornoway both released their new albums within a week of each other earlier this year (March 2013), and both secured respectable chart positions (Foals going in at number 2, pipped by the Les Mis soundtrack), both selling out massive London shows in the same week too - the future has never looked brighter for Oxford music. In terms of understanding the scene it can be viewed via the mini scenes that spawned the 2 bands.
There has been much in the national press/blogosphere particularly THAT NME piece by Laura Snapes that caused so much hoo-ha around Oxford’s Blessing Force collective. Involving bands such as Pet Moon (Andrew Mears – ex Youthmovies), Sam Scott’s Solid Gold Dragons, Trophy Wife, Jonquil, and Chad Valley, as well as artists Seb Thomas, Valeska Hykel and many more, BF has flourished with the continued support and patronage of Foals. Following Foals singer Yannis plugging Trophy Wife to NME in their very early days it led to TW being at the heart of a bidding war which saw them release their debut singles via Moshi Moshi and have just a few weeks ago unveiled a brand new track:
Chad Valley has toured with Friendly Fires and built himself a respectable following across Europe and in the US and BF champion Laura Snapes has continued to support the collective via her new post for Pitchfork which saw Pet Moon get a glowing track review ahead of their new tape release Trashnicolour.
Musically the acts involved in Blessing Force have a common theme of edgy, lush, electronica-infused neo R&B , perfect for their captive, post-Pitchfork target market.
On the other side of the coin Stornoway appeared in Oxford at a time I was running my monthly sit down PinDrop shows in the room above the rustic haven The Port Mahon. They played formative gigs for me and other promoters of acoustica as well as very early appearances at legendary folk/performance art club Catweazle. The band gigged regularly with other alt folk bands about town such as the now signed to PIAS in Europe The Epstein, casio pop band Foxes!(now located in Brighton and running Big Salad Records) and indie folk pop band Family Machine (of other Oxford based label/promotions collective Beard Museum) amongst others.
Aside from the hipster pop of Blessing Force and alt country vibes of The Epstein et al Oxford has long had an electronica scene worth mentioning. Current leading lights include kraut/cosmic duo Space Heroes of The People, banging, analogue techno geezer Manacles of Acid and After The Thought to name but a few.
A good word needs to be said on the subject of Oxford based promoters, who have done an awful lot to make Oxford’s scene what it is. As mentioned my own PinDrop Performances have brought a wide variety of major league acts to relatively intimate locations - our biggest coup to date was bringing Patti Smith to play an acoustic set in the 200 capacity venue the Holywell Music Room. We’ve also had Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy at the 280 capacity pub venue Bullingdon Arms and CocoRosie and Silver Mt Zion at the (now sadly passed) art deco cinema The Regal. We’ve booked many ace acts on the way up too, including very early gigs with Stornoway and Pet Moon’s first live show.
Current promoters worth a shout are Irregular Folk, Beard Museum, Daisy Rodgers, Upstairs Oxford crew, TMD Music and Tertium Quid who are all giving new bands a leg up as well as helping to bring some ace national and international acts to the City. Beard Museum in particular have been doing an ace job of late - they recently hosted a rare acoustic show with Patrick Wolf at St John The Evangelist church. OCM (Oxford Contemporary Music) have long since programmed a brilliantly esoteric mix of world music, contemporary classical and leftfield pop shows. And although I know nothing about it I’m led to believe that Buried In Smoke and Skeletor are 2 ace metal promoters worth following if you like that type of thing.
On the line of venues, as well as having an o2 Academy that is run by people who want to engage the local scene as much as they can by running regular Upstairs Oxford nights and giving local bands opening slots of touring bands as much as they can, we also have longstanding pub/club venues with a rich history of live music – The Wheatsheaf, The Cellar, The Jericho Tavern and Port Mahon all continue to do what pub venues do best. Special mention needs to go to buzz venue SJE Arts (St John The Evangelist). SJE has only really opened up for band gigs in the last few months, but is a spectacular, 450 capacity church space right in the heart of the scene in east Oxford.
Ones to Watch
As for acts that are worth investigating at the moment, two of the bands getting the most hype nationally and beyond are mathy, indie doom mongers Spring Offensive who were playlisted on Radio 1 with 2012’s single 'Worry Fill My Heart', and have been touring with Gaz Coombes and getting a steady flow of press adulation from across the board.
Wild Swim, managed by the same team as Stornoway, are also riding a crest of hype that could take them a long way. It’s great that a band of such cosmic, spaced out leanings is getting some press attention…
Pixel Fix seem to be getting hella blog love for their lush, post dream-wave electronica/post rock ting, and on that side of things Salvation Bill and Limbo Kids both get honorable mentions as well as blissed out chill poppers Grudle Bay and much hyped Oxford super group Kill Murray:
On the alt folk/Americana side of the fence I have to give a shout out to porch folk, married couple duo The August List, roots collective Swindlestock, a one man embodiment of trad country Ags Connolly and long time faves of mine The Yarns who mix up a rustic, Bright Eyes influenced edge with a resolutely british flavor in Tom Hodgson’s excellent trumpet work and singer John Mcmanus’s rich, baritone, literary lyricism - .
Hot on the alt folk scene at the moment is singer Jess Hall who has a truly affecting way with a simple melody.
On the subject of affecting folk acts Until the Bird are worth a click through, think Richard Thompson via A Hawk and A Hacksaw - and honorary Oxfordian folk troubadour Marcus Corbett, who divides his time between Oxford, Marlborough and Pune in western India, has allowed his globetrotting to rub off on his exotic, esoteric new folk fusion album Strung Deep.
Skirting a line between the city’s alt Americana/country rock scene and a harder, early emo/hardcore influence are Empty White Circles and ToLiesel. Getting some serious radio airtime and press are The Dreaming Spires who continually gain plaudits a-plenty for their Gram Parsons/Tom Petty/Big Star indie pop.
Also part of this Oxfor-cana clique are The Epstein and Winchester/Oxon located close harmony/alt-country group Co-pilgrim who’s album title track ‘A Fairer Sea’ is never far from my must listen to list at the moment.
American ex-pat oddball singer Rainbow Reservoir tows a great line in Magnetic Fields-esque piano pop - h and, although Angela doesn’t play much country music, she’s a part of the Oxfor-cana scene by virtue of being an actual American.
I won’t give any critical judgment on my own band – Flights of Helios - but I will say that we are the only Oxford band playing Artrocker’s New Blood festival in June this year and have been praised here on Drowned in Sound by Dom Gourlay in his round up of UK psychedelia/shoe-gaze.
Not fitting into an easy pigeon hole but still excellent are post ska party pop band Marvellous Medicine, who, along with The Yarns and Wild Swim are a university band but, while the others have distanced themselves from the tag, Marvellous Medicine have created a rather impressive following off the back of a series of balls and town gigs. Their recordings perfectly encapsulate the pure, unselfconscious joy of their live show. In a similar musical vein of unashamed pop joy are Alphabet Backwards, these guys should definitely gig together -
Local Broken Social Scene meets Belle and Sebastian type alt folk arkestra We Aeronauts are gearing up to release their 2nd EP via Beard Museum, a label who also currently release Family Machine and Bernard Butler collaborating singer songwriter Richard Walters, a formidably talented crooner who has a following across Europe and in the States.
On the heavier side of the indie/rock ting my personal highlights are Melvins gone prog behemoth Komrad, angular, post Mclusky rockers Dallas Don’t. Sky scraping anthemic troop Deer Chicago and instrumental, nautically themed post kraut/rock trio Listing Ships
Deserving of a paragraph all of their own is legendary dub/dancehall band Dubwiser. In their time they’ve supported Lee Perry, The Wailers, The Beat and many of the biggest names of the ska/reggae world. The band’s drummer and producer Spider Johnson is a genuine musical hero in his own right. Having led Lee Perry’s live band for many years Spider was part of production duo UK Apache who produced the first commercially successful Jungle track Original Nutter, since then he’s produced Killa Kela and worked with Mad Professor, Horace Andy and a whole swathe of the UK’s urban talent. Oxford has long had a niche but flourishing roots scene with promoters such as SNSBL DNCHLL, Destination and Skylarkin nurturing local talent and bringing many big names to town. On the urban tip BG Records have been building on the ever present rap scene in Oxford, hip/hop acts I’ve particularly enjoyed over the years include Asher Dust and Mr ShaoDow.
A curio that’s sums up the fluidity and creative thinking in Oxford is a theatre/music piece that we (PinDrop) are currently producing entitled Alexander The Great. Written by howling bluesman about town Huck (bassist in The Epstein and former bassist with ferociously heavy doom metallers Sextodecimo) the Operetta is a mix of live musical performance by Huck and his band and live acted, dramatic scenes. As well as the thriving music bustle historically the theatre scene has long flourished, it’s nice to be working on something to bridge the gap…
Oxford certainly wouldn’t be what it is musically speaking without a local, independent record store and we are lucky to have one as open minded and engaged as Truck Store on Cowley Road. Matt and Carl regularly host instores, recently for record store day they pulled a coup of epic proportions and booked The Wedding Present to play alongside Wild Swim et al… They have an extensive catalogue of local releases and it continues to be a central hub of Oxford Music. Another active hub of creativity and progressive thinking has been Modern Art Oxford. Home to some epic, cross art/music events curated by Blessing Force and a regular haunt for PinDrop events it’s a beautiful, sanguine environment for taking in ART of all forms. And talking of ART local arts community charity ARTISJUSTAWORD is deserving of a mention for all that they do to put on and support interesting cross artform events and talks -
In terms of local music festivals there are plenty to mention but the two that have been cornerstones of the music calendar for as long as I can remember are Truck Festival and The Punt. Set up by the Krays of the Oxfor-cana scene the Bennett brothers in their native Steventon, just south of Oxford near Abingdon and Didcot, Truck has long been the first shot many Oxfordshire bands have had at playing an established festival alongside many of their heroes. Having gone bankrupt 2 years ago and then coming back under new management (YNot Festivals) and selling out last year, this year it’s selling well and boasts one of the best line ups of the summer (The Horrors/Spiritualized and a plethora of ace bands, local and national). The Punt, however, is a purely Oxfordshire music affair. Curated by Oxford music bible, the long running Nightshift zine, The Punt is a Camden Crawl style multi venue one night affair in mid May, with many of the hippest, most buzzy bands all on the bill. We also have Wilderness just down the road and Charlbury Riverside, Cornbury, Wychwood, Wood, and many more across Oxfordshire: we are indeed spoilt for open air shindigs. Along the Thames, a short bike ride from the centre of town, there’s the Isis and Perch pubs who will both be hosting live events outdoors by the riverside.
On Friday 20th June at the Bullingdon Arms, we are co promoting a show by legendary electronica/shoegaze drone-wave producer Ulrich Schnauss, with support from local talent After The Thought and DJ Ollie Castell. Saturday 21st June it's an Upstairs Oxford night at the Academy with many of our fave acts including Empty White Circles, Co-pilgrim and The August List, and The Epstein are launching the new Murmurations album in style at St Alban's Church in Cowley, with support from The Dreaming Spires and Jordan O'Shea on Thursday 27th June.
What is a REAL testament to the brilliance of the Oxford scene is that, over the course of 2600+ words here I’ve still only scratched the surface of what’s going on in Oxford, have a look at Nightshift some time and pop up when there’s something cool going on… You can also keep up with the musical comings and goings in Oxford by following the excellent BBC Introducing in Oxford show, run by Liz Green and Dave Gilyeat.