Tom Kerswill


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Tom Kerswill takes a look at the music you can expect to find in the South West of England

This article was written for the National Music Network

Sounding out the South West music scene

"The land of Summer sun" - that's how Kula Shaker (remember them?) lyrically described the West Country in their song 303. But then their front-man did go on to form the Jeevas.

The South West has got Newquay, seasides, Glastonbury... but it it true that its inhabitants live in blissed out hippy-spliffdom and blazing sun?

"Well, it's always pissing down, isn't it? And the reality is there's a lot of hardship - there's a lot of rough areas" says Mark Chadwick from the Levellers. Muse might well agree. When front-man Matt Bellamy described their hometown of Teignmouth as "a living hell" local papers pictured its mayor throwing copies of their debut album into a bin in a fit of rage. If Muse doesn't float the locals' boats, what does? I headed deep onto the Dartmoor hills to find out.

In the backroom of a secluded hotel in a place called Wotter, and feeling like David Attenborough, I found my first folk club. There was a guy playing guitar and singing amusing songs and... well, lots of people having a good time. I've been back several times since.

The South West is the birthplace of folk music, at least as we know it now. It was Somerset-born Cecil Sharpe who first wrote down the words to many traditional songs - they would otherwise have been lost. But is folk music itself now being forgotten?

"No, it's just changing" says Seth Lakeman, a singer-songwriter who has worked with the likes of Cara Dillon and Kathryn Williams. "I don't think there's enough live music now." Like many other artists, the landscape and people are an influence on Seth's music. "Dartmoor is a wonderful place to write people-music."

And unlike Kula Shaker's 303, Seth's music conveys a real impression of what life is - and has been - like in the South West. The title track of his latest album "Kitty Jay" tells the story of a pregnant servant who committed suicide. She's buried up on the Moor, and it's said fresh flowers still appear mysteriously on her grave. If you want folk, this is where it's at.

But does the South West have anything else to offer musically? Bristol is an obvious focal point. As the biggest city in the area it's got the critical mass needed to actually "have a scene". Massive Attack, Tricky, Reprazent and Portishead set a precedent in the 90s, and it's still a vibrant place to go for new acts.

Go deeper into the South West and you'll find evidence of great music - it's just harder to find. Sawmill studios in Cornwall has become legendary. It's hosted Oasis, the Stone Roses, Idlewild... even Robert Plant. It's in a peaceful, remote location. No doubt the lack of neighbours is crucial when Plant begins singing.

Muse also recorded their first two albums there. But - though they're the best-known local band this side of Bristol - Muse first hit it big in America, not the UK. What's going on? Why did the South West miss what was under their noses?

"It's a weird illusion that people have that if you're in the UK you have to get signed to a UK label. You don't." I'm talking to Darren, lead singer of local band Stephenson's Rocket. They're in a similar position to the Muse of '97. Though based in Devon, Stephenson's Rocket spend more time playing in London. And, in what's become a familiar situation, they're getting strong interest from the US.

But the band say getting exposure outside the West Country is vital. "The record companies are running out of money. They won't come and see people out here. No matter how big you are locally, you're not going to get recognition unless you travel."

And the South West is diffuse. With few big towns it's not easy to create the buzz needed to attract attention. All the bands I interviewed list the Cavern Club in Exeter as the best venue for getting noticed. "People hear you've played the Cavern, and they think it's a nice level to reach" says Darren. "It's one of those places where, when it's full, you get this amazing atmosphere."

But it's getting harder to find good rock clubs. New lisensing laws mean venues must pay to host acts with more than two members. This is "killing the live music scene" say Stephenson's Rocket. The result is that bands have to be a bit special even to get a gig.

The Cavern club was formed in the early 90s as a platform for local bands. A scene built round it from the word go. Manager David Goodchild puts this down to talented visiting artists.

"The first band we ever put on at the Cavern was the US band Quicksand. That set the tone for the venue really. Their influence, in my opinion, is why Exeter has a bias toward punk-rock, emo and post hardcore."

It's also a place to discover more wide-ranging talent - Hundred Reasons, Biffy Clyro and Instruction all played their first English shows at the club.

The South West is renowned for its festivals - not least Glastonbury, Holy Grail of them all. [Click to read a review on Glastonbury 2004 or Glastonbury 2005] Last year also saw the first "Beautiful Days" festival, hosted by the Levellers. I asked singer Mark why they'd chosen the West Country.

"Brighton's a great city, but it's not great for festivals. Devon seemed like a good place. We like it and we've got good friends down there. We've recorded in studios like Sawmill, and in people's front rooms."

The festival makes a refreshing change. "We're not trying to be commercial. We get reasonably-priced bands. And we only charge 2 for beer, unlike some other festivals. All the money goes into the event." It also provides another outlet for South West bands. Following last year's success, a second festival is planned for August.

As for Glastonbury, they claim to get more demos than they could ever listen to. This year unsigned bands can enter a competition, fighting for reserved slots on the main stages. So, as always with Glastonbury, you can look forward to discovering tonnes of new talent.

But which bands to look out for? I asked David for his hot tips. "There's a buzz around Bullet Union - though they're based in Camden they've got strong links to Exeter. It's a post-punk kind of thing, like the Oxes."

Other bands to look out for are An Emergency, Shoe, and David's own band Annalise - yet another outfit that's releasing in the US.

Wanting to find out where some of this stuff is coming from, I headed to MoJo studios in Torquay. Its owner, Leo Brown, is infectiously enthusiastic about the local music scene. Accompanied by his dog - now unfortunately deaf - he produces up-and-coming bands in the new studio. The place is plush but cosy - and has facilities for bands to stay overnight. Perhaps one day it will be another Sawmill. At the moment, Leo is busy producing tracks for Stephenson's Rocket. You get the feeling that because of places like this we'll be hearing a lot more music from the South West.

As for Stephenson's Rocket, they still enjoy gigging at home. "It's good playing down here. But the fans have started following us. We took a coach to London and filled it with people."

Determined bands are the other ingredient to a good music scene, and there's no shortage of them here. It's a stubborn, but necessary, attitude - if the world won't come to us, we'll go out to the world - and take the rest of the South West with us.

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