Celebrating togetherness: The power of communal movement in London’s underground music scene

 
Having it
Music

At the first edition of We Out Here in 2019, journalist and author Emma Warren hosted a panel discussion around her new book: ‘Make Some Space’. The book told the story of Total Refreshment Centre (TRC) — a music, arts and culture space that provided a home for a wealth of communities, artists and creatives until it’s unfortunate closure in 2018.

Although the book revolved around TRC specifically, the purpose of the story was to communicate an idea much bigger: the personal value and benefits of having a space where you truly belong.

But while these physical spaces provide the foundations for people to come together, what about the communities that exist within them? What united these people in the first place? What’s the mission behind their work and what space are they creating for themselves and for others?

 

This sentiment of celebrating communities is central to the ethos and programming at We Out Here, which is taking place this weekend (19 – 22 August) at its home in Abbots Ripton. This year in particular, their focus is on highlighting these movements and collectives, from those who have, in recent years, grown tight knit families and scenes from the ground up, to legendary institutions who are still at the top of their game.

In this story, music is of course the main glue that binds these groups of people together. What they’ve forged, however, is built on so much more than that. By harnessing a collective power and working towards a shared vision they’ve created their own sanctuary and community, inviting others along to be part of the ride.

As is the case for all of these collectives and musical movements, Lemon Lounge’s formation happened organically. The London-based soundsystem and party was the offspring of a group of close friends linking up — it just so happened they were all running soundsystems.

“We were both doing bits for years prior,” says George – one sixth of the core crew. “But it made sense to just combine forces and do something bigger and better than we had been doing separately — as a community. Once we had done a few parties together at Total Refreshment Centre and other DIY spaces around London, we pitched a stage to a bunch of festivals to do our own space with music and workshops. Lemon Lounge ended up giving the community a home essentially.”

Since those early days music has become just one facet of what Lemon Lounge does. On top of throwing parties in London and holding down residencies at We Out Here and Brainchild, as the group has grown, so have their activities, fellow member Oli explains. “With some of us being into other areas like design and hand crafts, but also into food, politics and social causes, we wanted to have a space where we could explore some of those interests via talks and workshops.”

Not only that, with important social and political conversations being had across the world, George noted the responsibility that Lemon Lounge had to be part of that.

“I think it became clear it wasn’t enough for us to just play tunes on a big rig. The community around the Lemon Lounge and the conversations and ideas that happen in the tent and the geodome are now as important as the musical offering. It’s a symbiotic relationship; the best times happen when people are comfortable and nourished, both musically and spiritually.”

Similarly for Errol Anderson and Alex Rita, two of the minds spearheading London’s Touching Bass, their function has grown and evolved since starting. “When people ask us what we do it’s so hard to explain – it’s so multifaceted,” Errol says. “The vision slowly unravelled over time. It started off with just one thing and then it was like wait, we could also probably do this. Try this. Try that.”

That outlook served them well; they’ve put their hands to many different things over the years. Aside from their intimate parties they now run a record label, host a bi-weekly show on NTS Radio, organise a concert series called Speaking in Sound, and more recently they’ve been dabbling in consulting and creative direction behind the scenes.

But this all started with an editorial column and mix series for Vice offshoot Noisey. Touching Bass’ mission expanded after Errol met his now good friend Amon who, like Errol, saw the potential in what Touching Bass could be. In 2014 they put on their first dance at Hackney Fields studio space.

“It was born out of frustration if I’m honest, off the back of not seeing enough of the kind of nights and gatherings and community that I really wanted to be a part of,” says Errol. “It just so happened that those first few nights, people just really magnetised to the energy and the vibe. And a lot of those people still come today.”

Energy is a core part of what makes these parties, and the communities around them, so special. The same goes for South East London’s Steam Down. At their regular jams the ensemble of artists and musicians are, as band leader Ahnansé AKA Wayne Francis puts it, “cultivating emotional energy”, which they then channel into positive transformation in their lives. This translates to those who attend their events too; you take something away from it and that’s what keeps you coming back.

Beginning in 2017 at Buster Mantis, a venue tucked away under a railway arch in Deptford, Steam Down offered a space for artists to come together and make music. With each member of the crew moving from one thing to the next in the city, Ahnansé describes the regular event as providing ‘a place to congregate and pause from the noise of day to day life’.

Now, four years later, their impact has spread much further than South London — they’ve toured venues and festivals across the UK like We Out Here and Boiler Room, won two Jazz FM awards and have put out a handful of releases, including a cover of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Etcetera’ for Blue Note — but they still host their SDWeekly live jams, continuing that exchange of energy between them as a group, and those who come to watch them play week on week.

This notion is the same for Touching Bass and what they set out to provide those who come to their parties. “What I would hope is that it offers an intentional space that is based around energy, and sharing energy,” Alex states.

A key intention of Touching Bass is painting a true picture of London’s multiculturalism on the dancefloor, in turn fostering a welcoming environment for everyone.

“One of the things that I enjoy most about Touching Bass is it’s always been multicultural. Always.” Errol says. “Me and Alex say to each other if you’re looking around the room, and it doesn’t look like what London looks like on a day to day basis then there’s something wrong.”

But more often than not London’s multiculturalism isn’t reflected at club nights; on the line ups or the dance floor. This is a main driver for Alex and Errol — that Touching Bass is representative of the place it exists in; the place that birthed it and shaped it.

“A lot of the time when I go out I just feel like I don’t see any black and brown people and I’m like how’s this even possible? This is something we care about a lot – creating a space that reflects what the streets of London actually look like. Make people feel like they want to enter. To make TB feel like it’s for them. That’s very important to us.”

To make sure this open and inclusive environment remains that way, and nurture the community they’ve built along the way, Alex and Errol keep TB’s dances somewhat under the radar. This approach works for them, it’s never been their objective to strive for publicity.

“I think, something that me and Errol don’t talk about so much anymore, because I also feel like our vision has become clearer and stronger with the time, is the concept of hype. We’re not trying to become the next thing, or the next party, or the next so and so. We don’t care about that because it can all be very short lived. Too many people care too much about numbers, Instagram photos, all those things.”

Errol agrees that intimacy and lack of ceremony is key. “The goal is to create a space that recreates the familiarity of a house party. A party where you can walk into the room and it feels like, even if you don’t know anyone, you can end up just having a conversation with a stranger and make a new friend.”

This outlook is the same for Lemon Lounge. They are fostering a space where people can express themselves freely and meet others on a similar wavelength. “Our ethos is to create a welcoming environment that everyone is encouraged to be themselves in,” Oli asserts. “I think that’s what makes it unique hopefully — in the sense that we try very hard not to be cliquey or take ourselves too seriously.”

Through their soundsystem and workshops Lemon Lounge is catering to a community of people who hold similar values and interests, and who have, and will continue to, grow with them.

“I think the people who come to the Lemon Lounge are brought together by being of a similar age, interested in counter culture, community and sound system music, plus everyone is of the same political persuasion and that’s quite tightly woven in there – I feel like we’re all working towards the same kind of future.”

It’s a two-way street; a dialogue between those that provide the space and those who attend. As Steam Down attest, ‘We do it to support each other and the community that supports us.”

Moreover those communities need to be nurtured and strengthened for them to sustain, which Alex and Errol put a strong emphasis on. This comes back to the subject of avoiding hype and remaining under the radar.

“That’s part of the reason why we don’t put most of our events online – you can kind of filter it a little bit and you can have friends of friends that come, so it’s not like people have never heard of Touching Bass before it’s always like word of mouth I guess, it’s just a more organic way.”

Alex continues, “Not to say there’s anything wrong with having your events online, I just think that what we were missing from other events was that feeling of it not being strange when people talk to each other, knowing each other and looking after each other because when you go out to places where it’s just randomers, people don’t always act nice. It’s very rare that anyone comes to a Touching Bass event and doesn’t act correctly.”

The sanctuary they’ve created didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken time and many heads and hands to cultivate a welcoming atmosphere and a genuine following. The communities around Touching Bass, Lemon Lounge and Steam Down wouldn’t exist in the way they do without the collaboration and collective vision of those making it happen; simply put, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“The music scene is often full of ego and individualism but here in Steam Down we are all about the village and building together ‘One Body’,” says Ahnansé. “[Steam Down] gives us a community of like-minded musicians, friendship and people to depend on and build with over time.”

Errol echoes Ahnansé’s statement about individualism. “I feel that 2021 and the last 10 years have made people a lot more individualistic and in their own heads. Social media forced a lot of people who might otherwise just be an artist to think like brands, and I’m sure there are positives to that as well but, what about people that just want to do stuff for the sake of creating? I think it’s quite nice to be able to share responsibilities amongst a group of people who have similar motives, energies, ethos and to share it, because at the end of the day, we’re humans and humans are social beings.”

This is not to say that people can’t make things happen on their own, Errol points out, but there’s a greater sense of fulfillment when working with others who share the same vision as you. There’s so much power in collective action.

“Sometimes people, myself included at the start of Touching Bass, have a vision for this utopian space,” Errol continues. “You very quickly realise that it helps to make it a shared dream, because working by yourself is hard work and it’s nice to work with people who have a shared ethos or at least a smidgen of a shared understanding. It’s so powerful that you’re working with other people that feel similar to how you do and want to help build something, together.”

There’s a lot of people involved in the running of Touching Bass, Lemon Lounge and Steam Down; everyone has a role to play in making the conversations and ideas a reality.

At Touching Bass they have people working on the bookings, resident DJs – Shy One, Wu-Lu, Sammseedeed and Poison Zcora – a visual and creative team, and they’ve just made their first official hire: a label assistant and community manager.

Lemon Lounge also has a huge family of people pitching in, particularly when hosting their festival residencies at We Out Here and Brainchild. Some are focused on bookings and workshops, others on site builds, event production and decor, while many helping hands ebb and flow in and out, year on year.

Steam Down class themselves as more of an organisation in terms of how they’re structured. “Everyone is so important to making the vibes and energy in the music,” Ahnansé explains. “Some people are working on the records, some touring the music and others holding down the village at SDWeekly.”

There’s a huge pay off when you’re sharing the work and the rewards; for Oli at Lemon Lounge, seeing the physical and emotional results is what makes it all worth it.

“It’s such a great feeling seeing loads of smiling faces on the dance floor and knowing that we’ve built this from the ground up from the sound system itself to the music curation and decor. It’s really special to welcome new people in and see them get taken away with the atmosphere.”

It’s moments of gratification like these that keep these communities going. As Alex and Errol concur: it gives them purpose. “I knew I had something I needed to do, or we needed to do: to offer, create and facilitate,” Errol explains. “Touching Bass gave me a sense of direction. Like Alex said earlier, we’ve grown into the vision and it has become more clear. We know what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to say and how we’re trying to say it. That’s definitely very meaningful and powerful.”

Looking to the future, Errol wants to put more emphasis on supporting the next generation, be that through facilitating conversations, opportunities or mentorships.

“I just want to continue to create a doorway for others like me. So, education, mentoring and support networks. Whether it’s a studio space which young people can use or something like that, that’s definitely going to be a part of it.”

This type of work could help to inspire a new wave of young people to begin their own movements or collectives. Touching Bass, Lemon Lounge and Steam Down are proof you can build a special community from the ground up; it just comes down to motive and intention.

“Make sure you know why you are doing what you do,” Steam Down band leader Wayne affirms. “Your ‘why’ drives everything and clarifying it as much as possible at the beginning determines where you’ll end up. Secondly, be prepared to work hard for it.”

Oli agrees that authenticity and purpose has to guide what you’re doing. “Book your mates to DJ, create the right atmosphere, don’t be too business about it and have a smile on your face. If your main objective is to make money with it, the audience will smell that a mile off and it’s off putting. If your objective is to have a great night, then that will rub off too.”

For Touching Bass, just like Emma Warren’s book advocates, it comes back to the importance of having the right physical space, and people around you are willing to help make things happen. “It’s about finding a nice little space where you can just gather, and then get your friends to help you, because you can’t do it by yourself,” Alex says.

She notes the need for patience too. “Don’t worry too much about how many people come in the beginning because it takes time. The start is so up and down but you just have to keep pushing and believe in your gut.”

Lemon Lounge, Steam Down and Touching Bass all play at We Out Here (17-22 August).