Leeds aerial shot (Credit: Benjamin Elliott, Unsplash)

The Sound of Leeds: bold, supportive and proudly independent

From English Teacher to the Brudenell, BBC Music Introducing's Emily Pilbeam delves into what makes the local music scene so special.

Emily Pilbeam
  • By Emily Pilbeam
  • 26 Feb 2024
  • min read

I first moved to Leeds in July 2015 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, eager to make my own start in life. I’d grown up in a small village in Norfolk longing for some adventure in my life, and Leeds seemed like the perfect place to find that.

Why Leeds? Around the age of 13, I became pretty obsessed with the Leeds band Pulled Apart By Horses. I remember hearing them for the first time on Huw Stephens’ weekend show on Radio 1 and instantly became a bit of a mega-fan: their sound provided exactly the kind of chaos and excitement I'd been looking for. Pulled Apart By Horses’ love for Leeds shone through, too. They’d always champion the Yorkshire city, shouting out certain local venues and artists and making Leeds sound like a dream world for musicians and music-lovers alike. It seemed only right, then, that I make the move up North.

English Teacher, the Leeds band on everyone's lips right now, have a similar origin story. Frontwoman Lily Fontaine tells M that, for her, it was ‘a gut instinct’ to move to the city, while guitarist Lewis Whiting notes that ‘a lot of the bands I was into at the time were based in Leeds, and it seemed like it had a great music scene’. Aidan Razzall, who works behind the counter at the long-running Jumbo Records store, moved to Leeds primarily to get involved in the local scene. ‘I’d done some recording at Leeds College of Music as a teenager,’ he recalls. ‘Visiting [local venue] Brudenell during that time was incredibly formative: it made me want to play on that stage.’

When you think of the Leeds music scene, the first thing that often springs to mind is the Brudenell Social Club. An award-winning grassroots music venue described as ‘a centrepiece’ of the local scene, the Brudenell has hosted the likes of The Cribs, Franz Ferdinand and even Tom Jones — and that’s before we even mention the live wrestling that regularly takes place there! The Brudenell’s ethos is representative of the Leeds scene on the whole: bold, supportive and proudly independent.

Jumbo Records’ Aidan believes that Leeds’ independent spirit dates back several years. ‘Leeds has a proud history of independent culture, from the post-punk and feminist movements that sprung from the city’s art colleges in the 70s and 80s, right through to the independent scenes of today,’ he tells M. ‘Le Phonographique, a stone's throw from Jumbo’s doors, is regarded as one of the birthplaces of the goth scene, while Leeds Carnival is legendary: it’s one of the longest-running carnivals in Europe.’

Samuel Nicholls, who heads the local music organisations Music:Leeds and Launchpad (and was also in the cult local band ¡Forward, Russia!), has lived in Leeds his whole life. The reason that Leeds is such a special place, he tells M, is because it’s ‘brave and experimental. So many artists make exciting music that breaks the mold — even the popular ones — and because of that, it’s had a whole under-appreciated global influence, from goth and post-punk to dub and house music. Nothing fits directly with trends, which is why I think Leeds often gets overlooked.’

As someone who essentially moved to Leeds because of its music scene circa 2010 - 2015, I can wholeheartedly agree with this latter point. Let’s not forget that Leeds is where Gang of Four called home, Soft Cell learned their craft and alt-J played their very first gigs. And away from guitar music, there are so many other layers to the Leeds music scene: take its influential electronic scene. When I first started working on the local BBC Music Introducing show, I was struck by just how many talented DJs and producers hailed from LS6.

Junior Simba, one of Leeds’ finest DJs who has previously supported Fatboy Slim, sees the city as a ‘gateway’ for aspiring DJs. ‘Maybe it’s because we have venues that nurture young DJs as they come through: opportunities are always popping up,’ he says, before mentioning the impact of Leeds University’s LSR radio station and BPM, its dedicated electronic music and DJ society. ‘They enabled us to explore more of the electronic [scene], whether through certain radio show ideas or open deck sessions where any sound is welcome.’

'I think we have a city where people are generally positive, genuine and supportive of each other.' - Junior Simba

Junior Simba says that the most exciting thing about Leeds’ electronic scene is ‘the people… I think we have a city where people are generally positive, genuine and supportive of each other. Many people start their own club nights and support is always given — even in the last year when things have been getting harder, I’ve seen people rally together to support each other.’ It’s a sentiment that English Teacher agree with: ‘The Leeds scene is very welcoming to new artists. There’s always enthusiasm around new bands becoming involved in things.’

This widespread willingness to support new Leeds artists is demonstrated by the many independent music organisations — Music:Leeds, Launchpad, Come Play With Me, Clue Records, Studio12, MAP Charity — that are helping push future talent forwards. Local record stores are also offering their support: take Jumbo Records, which, Aidan says, is a ‘public service open to everyone, and not just a shop’. From staging in-store sessions to stocking releases by local artists, Jumbo ‘strive to support local artists in any way we can. We always try to remember that record stores can be intimidating places for people, and we try to be friendly, welcoming and open to all. That includes local artists wanting to sell their records in our shop.’

Since I moved to Leeds, my life has changed drastically. I’ve realised my dream of becoming a radio presenter, I've DJ’d at Leeds Festival, worked at Radio 1, regularly present on 6 Music and have done so many more amazing things that a country bumpkin from Norfolk could never have imagined doing. I honestly don’t think I’d have had these opportunities had I not been welcomed and embraced by the Leeds music community when I made the decision to move here nearly a decade ago.

Junior Simba agrees. ‘I think without Leeds, I wouldn’t have fallen into music the way I have. There were people to help and guide me, opportunities to play venues and learn how to DJ properly in clubs.’ For Aidan, a musician himself, Leeds is ‘a big enough city for it to feel exciting, but also small enough to be able to progress and refine your art within a community’. This is reflected, he says, in the huge breadth of music venues across the city, from small DIY spaces like Mabgate Bleach to larger institutions like the Brudenell.

‘There’s so much going on in such a small geographic area,’ English Teacher’s Lily adds. ‘The close proximity everyone has to venues and community spaces encourages collaboration and creates opportunities for people to meet. Many of those independent venues are fairly cheap to hire, which allows people in the scene to put on their own events.’

One of the main reasons why Leeds is such a perfect place to be a creative is because it is an affordable place to live. The city has been so overlooked for such a long time (Aidan suggests this is because, historically, Leeds has been in the shadow of Manchester and Birmingham) that the cost of living in Leeds has remained somewhat affordable over the years. This is not guaranteed to continue, though, and the housing crisis that is threatening to bubble over in the city could mean that it’s only a matter of time before the luxury of being able to work a part-time job and pursue a creative career is sadly not viable.

That being said, there are still so many amazing places to go, be a part of and explore in Leeds. Aidan mentions the likes of Damaged Goods, Cosmic Slop and Sable Radio as creative organisations to look out for, as they are ‘proudly independent and radically diverse in style, yet invaluable operations that are consistently pushing the envelope’. With artists like English Teacher and Junior Simba paving the way for the next wave of talent, the future is very bright indeed for the Leeds music scene.

Don't miss out on Members' Day Leeds on 28 February at The Wardrobe, Leeds - get your ticket here.