As Long Division festival continues to epitomise Wakefield's revitalised scene, Dom Gourlay speaks with the city's hard-grafting promoters and musicians to get to the heart of what makes it tick
Dom Gourlay
13:10 28th May 2019

Situated on the River Calder just 14 kilometres south east of Leeds and approximately 40 kilometres west of Hull lies Wakefield. Currently the sixth largest city in Yorkshire by population density, it’s a place that’s often been forgotten and ignored. Yet, at its very heart exists a vibrant counterculture of art, craft and music to rival any other town or city in the UK.

This week, Wakefield will play host to Long Division which takes place across fourteen participating venues in and around the city over the course of five days. Kicking off on Wednesday 29 May with a Wakefield Artwalk featuring installations, presentations and talks at numerous locations around the city, Long Division affiliated events continue on Thursday and Friday before taking in a full day's worth of music on Saturday 1 June, before a series of live music shows and workshops bring the festival to a close on Sunday 2.

With so much happening in the city, Gigwise spoke to four of Wakefield’s key players: Dean Freeman, founder and festival director of Long Division; Emily Ingham, musician and promoter; Jonny Firth, probably Wakefield’s most renowned musician outside of The Cribs and guitarist/songwriter with rising stars Knuckle; and Rob Dee, founder of local record label Philophobia Music.

So I guess the best place to start is the beginning. Local musician Jonny Firth has played in a multitude of bands in and around the city for the best part of two decades. He remembers the peaks and troughs associated with Wakefield’s music scene.

“I was in the Leeds scene for a bit but it was with the majority of Wakefield bands who migrated there. When I was growing up it was more cover bands. If you were an original band nobody wanted to listen to you, so The Cribs were the only band I knew who had the balls to be original. I went to university so missed the first bit of The Cribs and I just got back to the Escobar where they’d just played, and it felt like a real scene was emerging. You had a similar thing happening with the Arctic Monkeys in Sheffield, and the NME were calling it 'New Yorkshire'. You’d walk around Wakefield and people were wearing cool clothes for once. Nobody got beaten up for wearing skinny jeans anymore. I remember the feeling. It was something good that felt deep. A real community of musicians who’d all got together and it was the underbelly of Wakefield that became popular. It was at its peak at that time, then it went down a bit but after Dean (Freeman) started Long Division in 2011 it soared again. Him and (fellow promoter) Chris Morse are geniuses. They’ve got a passion for this city to see it thrive and doing so well. Escobar in the early 2000s was the only place where bands could play. (Chris) Morsey used to put gigs on. When they weren’t happening it opened as a wine bar until 6am and was usually full of pricks. It was his shows in that bar which sent shockwaves through the city and the scene just exploded. He was like a magnet that brought people in. I remember it having a pillar in the middle of the stage so you had to play around it! It was just somebody’s idea that came to fruition at the right time. I met Rob Dee there and we became mates."

Long Division was conceived in 2011 by Dean Freeman, who was running a fanzine at the time called Rhubarb Bomb. He takes up the story.

“It seems like a different world when I think back to 2011 now! If you read Rob Dee’s book about the first 10 years of his label it brings it home just how much things have changed. There were loads of bands, loads to talk about but this recurring thing was you’d get a band playing in Wakefield but people won’t travel from Leeds so you’d get half the number attending that would if they played in Leeds. I spent half my time writing about these bands so I put my money where my mouth is, cashed in my pension with the NHS and started the festival.”

Initially partnering with Ossett Brewery for the first two years, Long Division hit its sales target of 1,000 tickets in the first year.

“I’d put on shows before but when it came to putting on a festival I didn’t really know what I was doing. But it was the right time for Wakefield and people really took to it. The Wedding Present headlining in Wakefield was a massive deal! Back then it was a big thing that had never happened before. The point of it in the beginning was to give a platform for all these great local bands that no one came to see. So I thought by putting on The Wedding Present people would come into town and see them, which was a massive success.”

Over its eight years of existence the festival has grown considerably. For instance, last year’s seventh edition (it took a year off in 2017) shifted 3,500 tickets, attracting the likes of The Membranes and The Lovely Eggs while providing a platform for local acts such as Drahla who’ve since gone onto release one of 2019’s finest debuts. While running a festival that sustains itself in the current climate can be considered a fine achievement, it has been an uphill struggle at times, which Freeman recognises only too well.

“The cost of bands is going up all the time, so you have to grow or die really," says Freeman. "2018 was the first year where we altered the structure of it. There was a lot of free access stuff for the first time. I had a break for a year, and I realised a lot more came from outside of Wakefield than inside the city. So I went to the council and showed them what we could do for tourism. We’ve got such a low cultural engagement here with studies and statistics to back that up, so asking folks to pay £25 for bands they’ve never heard of is a massive risk. The likes of you and me would probably take a punt, but someone from Featherstone or wherever would be put off by that. So last year we made 90% of the festival free access, which needed a lot of funding to make that happen but it worked because we got a lot of people who’d never been to Long Division before. It put the city centre in a new light for them.”

When talking about the city’s infrastructure, it’s difficult to argue that Wakefield is anything but an ideal host for a multi-venue music festival. Yet Freeman admits to being something of a perfectionist. Always looking for new spaces or outlets, and more often than not, coming up trumps.

“I’ve come to a point where I’ll never accept this is alright now. It will be a battle forever but that’s OK. That can produce great things. I don’t think it will ever be easy though. If you get off at Westgate train station you walk out and wonder what is this beautiful metropolis, whereas you get off at Kirkgate and everything looks terrible. It’s this weird geography around smaller cities. The great thing about Long Division is it’s so compact. You’ve not got this thing like Live At Leeds for example where you’re walking half an hour to see something. People don’t enjoy that. That’s why we use weird spaces like abandoned shops or extinct nightclubs.”

Which takes us back to a time before Long Division. The early 2000s just before The Cribs broke when a place like the Escobar was considered to be one of the finest independent music venues outside of London. Bands like The Spills and Runaround Kids were also receiving a modicum of attention and everything seemed to be rosy in Wakefield’s creative garden. Then, nothing. So what happened?

“It’s really hard to say why they didn’t make it. I’ve thought about it a lot, Runaround Kids especially. Because they were on a trajectory that was fast. They ended up playing Leeds Festival then Rob (Dee) rushed through a single,” admits a puzzled Dean Freeman. “The album did well and they did a tour but then it just tailed off. Maybe they could have made it if they’d all decided to leave Wakefield at that point?”

Which is something that not only crops up with people moving out of Wakefield, but also the threat of gentrification through commuters moving in due to cheaper rents, affordable house prices and it being less than two hours away from London by train.

“It’s possible. The travel options are extremely good from Wakefield. There was a golden period when Wakefield was really great around 2005. It was a vibrant time and we had a University campus here where they put on shows which attracted a lot of people to the city, so maybe it wouldn’t be that much of a bad thing?” says Freeman.

However, Knuckle’s Jonny Firth sees it differently.

“I think Wakefield is immune to that kind of thing. We’ve got an inoculation to London and gentrification. Against the bullshit. We’ve got our jabs for London so they can’t penetrate us. Wakefield’s always had an underbelly. It’s gritty. There’s a lot of hardship there, but as long as we have musicians that stick together it will continue to thrive. I remember the nineties when if you went to play with another band people wouldn’t talk to you. Bands wouldn’t help each other out whereas nowadays we all muck in to help one another.”

There is definitely a spotlight on the city right now though, not just due to Long Division announcing yet another fantastic line up this summer. But also Drahla signing to Captured Tracks and releasing their excellent debut album Useless Coordinates to a wealth of positive reviews from all angles of the media. So why is the focus back on Wakefield? Jonny Firth pulls no punches on what he puts it down to.

“I think it’s because the musicians who are up here are honest. There’s no bullshit. We’re hardworking bands and we do it because we love it. We’re not doing it for a £75 haircut that we get paid for like some of the bands in London. We’re doing it because we’re actually passionate about music and because we’ve got a good work ethic up here. We’re northerners and we graft. We’re not bothered about looking cool. It’s about music. Lots of these London bands are so apolitical. How can you see what’s going on around you and have no opinion?”

Which he should know all too well. His band Knuckle have just put out their debut album Life Is Hard When You’re Soft Inside via Philophobia Music, and are now starting to reap the dividends themselves. Comparisons with Idles, Slaves and Sleaford Mods aren’t far off the mark, and on heavily politicised numbers like ‘Spilt Milk’ and ‘Spinning In The Gutter’, they’re already attracting attention far and beyond the band’s Huddersfield base. It seems like the time is right for a socially conscious and politically astute band like Knuckle. A point Firth agrees.

“‘Spilt Milk’ was about me saying there’s no point crying over spilt milk because I haven’t got a choice anyway. I find it hard to understand everything about politics. So I wanted to write a seventies sounding anti-establishment song. I wanted the words to be really simple, not complex. Life Is Hard When You’re Soft Inside are all songs that mean something to me. As an album I wouldn’t say the continuity’s great but those ten songs are what makes it the album it is. I understand this feeling that your vote matters. Maybe it did back then but now it feels as though it doesn’t. I think the government now are trying to polish a turd. You can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter and that’s exactly what this government are doing.”

Firth is an interesting character, talking us through his first forays into music whereby his mother bought him his first kit as a way of avoiding fights at school so he’d take out that aggression the drums instead. By his late teens he was playing in several function bands which is where he first came across The Cribs (“They were called Wrinkle back then”). Several projects ensued including a one-man band entitled Jonny The Firth before teaming up with Rosie Doonan in Cry Baby Cry. It was here Firth came across future Knuckle bandmates Ben Wallbanks (drums) and Rob Crisp (bass) as they were playing in a band called Steve Albino And The Love Socks who just happened to share a bill one evening. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I was in Cry Baby Cry and we were booked to play a gig at The Parish in Huddersfield on Bonfire Night," says Firth. "Then Rosie couldn’t do the gig so I had the option of doing it as a one-man band, which I did. They were pretty much a Cramps tribute band, and Ben the drummer came up to me and said, 'I play drums like you play guitar. Do you want to be in a band?' So we had a jam the night after and ended up writing 12 songs in one go as a two-piece. We played our first gig the week after and took anything that was offered to us. I think we played nine gigs one weekend! We did an EP together but it came to nothing, then the guy who played sax in Steve Albino And The Love Socks was Rob. He’s a bit of an all round musician so we decided to get him in for the next release, which changed it to a three-piece.”

We talk about bands from unfashionable parts of the UK gaining recognition now. Places like Halifax over the other side of the county for example, or my home city of Nottingham which seems to go through similar ups and downs with its music scene to the one in Wakefield.

“It’s what’s really needed right now. The industry is so fickle looking for the next big thing. Even if they don’t like something they’ll sign because they think it’s going to make some money. I guarantee there’ll be an influx of London labels trying to sign punk bands, but they’ll end up being like McFly because these people haven’t got a clue.”

Someone else revitalising Wakefield’s live scene is Emily Ingham. Earlier this year, she started a night called Body’s at a venue called The Establishment. Although only a handful of shows into its lifespan, Body’s has been a roaring success to date, as Gigwise witnesses later that evening. So how did Body’s come to be?

“I’m originally from Wakefield, then I moved away for university, jobs and to go travelling. Then one winter I came back for what I thought would be temporarily and met my boyfriend Jamie (Lockhart) who’s part of this scene. I missed all that when I was growing up, as I didn’t go to school in Wakefield. There were gigs all the time and I met so many people in bands and learned about all this history of the city and its amazing scene. So I ended up staying and a big part of my life was going to gigs all the time. Over the last two years, a couple of venues in Wakefield closed and I found myself complaining that I’d have to go to Leeds for gigs. I was a bit nervous about it because even though I’ve recently become a member of a band [Mi Mye], I’d never put on a gig at all. I’d never planned a party either, so I thought about it for ages then a few right things fell into place. When I decided to put shows on at The Establishment I signed up and committed myself for a year. I didn’t want the first one to be quiet because I didn’t know what I was doing and therefore put me off. Fortunately it wasn’t, it was really busy. Loads of people came to the first one and it was even busier the next time. I just wanted it in my head that I would keep going at least for a year. Also, I wanted to inspire other people to put on a gigs and think it's not that hard because if Emily can do it, anyone can do it! So that’s where Body’s comes from, and I’m really enjoying it. Part of what inspired me was when I lived in New Zealand and went to this night in Wellington called Puppies and it just struck me immediately as being amazing. It didn’t matter which bands were on. You paid to get in but that didn’t matter because it was always fun. I only managed to go three or four times before I moved away, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the promoter of that night (Ian Jorgensen) has written a book called The Problem With Music In New Zealand And How To Fix It. When you read it, it’s actually like a blueprint for every small city and one thing he says is do not let people in for free.”

Her shows have already created a healthy buzz around the city and the band we witness, Disguises, bare all the hallmarks of becoming one of Wakefield’s next musical exports. Body’s already runs like a well-oiled machine, mainly due to Emily’s insistence on bringing people what they want at a time suitable for them.

“I only want to keep Body’s to two bands per night so as it doesn’t go on too late because it’s during the week. But I also don’t want it to start too early incase people think I’ve missed the first band so I won’t bother going. Doors always open at 8pm, the first band is always on at 8.30pm and the second 9.15pm with the show always finished by 10pm. So it’s basically the same amount of time you’d spend if you went to the cinema. That was how I planned it, so basically people can come home from work, have a shower and get changed, eat your dinner then come out, watch two amazing bands and have an early night if you want, or stay out and enjoy the rest of Wakefield. Whereas if there were three or four bands playing, we’d have to do doors at 7, which is a push for everybody including the bands, then we didn’t want it going on too late. I work full-time but I still want to put on a show, and I’ve been to loads of midweek shows where the headline band still hasn’t come on for 10.30pm, and by that point I’m ready to leave. We didn’t want any of that where people had to be up for work the next morning so left before the end. So times are always the same at Body’s nights. We already have a regular audience and don’t really get stragglers. I guess because it’s not free. People aren’t necessarily used to paying to get into places in Wakefield so if they don’t want to be there they’re not going to come in. We normally charge £6 so that’s quite a lot to pay if you’re not interested and want to just talk at the back of the room. I wanted to charge an amount that pushed it on in Wakefield because for years and years it was £4 to come and see a gig here. Everything else has gone up. We’re paying more for pints and the cinema. If they see no value in live music then they don’t need to be there. Even if the only outcome was that I got to go to some gigs in Wakefield, then that will be enough. As long as I’m there having a good time, that’s good enough for me. Plus I get to book all the bands I want to hear!”

Disguises are very, very good indeed. Which doesn’t come as any surprise when we find out they’re a local supergroup of sorts. Comprised of past and present members of bands who all had a part to play in Wakefield’s independent music scene over the past decade or so. We’re even more intrigued when Emily tells us they’re at the forefront of “Wakey indie.”

“Disguises are quite a new Wakefield band, but they’re also part of the scene that I moved into. So when I got here all the bands they came from were doing really well. They’re made up of members of Runaround Kids, The Spills, The Old House and Mi Mye. They describe themselves as slacker. Wakey indie. I don’t know if that’s only here but “Wakey indie” means you know what that is if you’re from Wakefield! I guess it’s just a fusion of all the bands they were in before.”

“It’s not a polished sound,” adds Rob Dee. “None of the bands described as being “Wakey indie” are afraid of having rough edges. It’s not slick. There’s a lot of grit in their music. It’s a bit more real.”

As she mentioned earlier, Emily Ingham also plays in experimental folk act Mi Mye and they’re playing Body’s night as part of Long Division with Meursault on Thursday 30 May. It’s a show she’s looking forward to in more ways than one.

“We played with them in Glasgow last October, which sold out and was amazing. That was their home patch so we’re doing the same here. Also, it means I get to actually experience the Saturday at Long Division as a punter for the first time in ages this year, so I’ll be able to see loads of great bands!”

It’s this passion and enthusiasm that resonates through everyone Gigwise has spoken to, not least Rob Dee, founder of Philophobia Music. Named after a 1998 album by Arab Strap, Philophobia is the only active record label currently operating in Wakefield. Pretty much every band or musician to come out of the city in the last decade has released something on Philophobia, and with over 150 releases to its name already since putting out its first release back in July 2008 (The ‘Painted Skeletons’ 7-inch by Lapels), Dee has no intention of slowing down or stopping just yet. So what made him start a record label, particularly in such a precarious climate of (then) impending austerity?

“I have genuinely sat down a couple of times in the past year and thought about calling it a day, but I am going to carry on a bit longer. I can’t quite give it up just yet. It's not just the financial climate on the outside, but also how much things have changed within the music industry as well in the ten or eleven years I’ve been doing it. I’d been going to loads of gigs and seeing a lot of bands I liked, then all of a sudden they disappeared and I wanted to put on their records and listen to them at home. So I thought surely I can’t be the only one that wants to do this? It really was as simple as that! My tastes aren’t that obscure, but if I’m not the only person that likes these bands let’s go and find their audience.”

Which is exactly what he did, having previously put out records under the Rhubarb Bomb and Louder Than Bombs imprints beforehand.

“I guess when we initially started as Louder Than Bombs there was a club night to go with it, so the bands we liked that played there and had a bit of a presence in the local scene – we’d seen them play their first gigs and develop, so we wanted to help them continue that development – were the ones we wanted to push forwards.”

Nevertheless, he’s under no illusions about Philophobia Music being a stepping-stone for bands that might want to move onto bigger labels in the future.

“That was certainly the thought in the first place. I remember very early on with Philophobia, Lapels had got the attention of everybody in the industry. At the time, the label had formed around Lapels. There’s a bit of sadness in me that more of our bands haven’t got to the point where bigger labels signed them. I don’t think the larger labels want to take risks. I don’t think I’ve ever had a band that’s got to the point where it’s not risky for them. They’ve not been able to tour, as much of any of them would have liked. Mainly due to lack of finances, work and other bits of life.”

Last year, Dee had a book published about the first ten years of Philophobia, entitled Wanna Buy A Record? The Memoirs Of Rob Dee. It's an honest, funny and occasionally painstaking account of running a label and making ends meet while getting to work with so many people you admire who then become friends for life.

“It was quite good to get everything down as it made me think about where to go next. It was a bit of a vanity project but I enjoyed it.”

When questioned about what the future holds for Wakefield, Jonny Firth believes the feeling of camaraderie across the scene cannot be underestimated.

“All of the people in bands like Disguises and Cruel World [another supergroup of sorts featuring former members of Post War Glamour Girls among others] have been around a while, so they’ve experienced all the bullshit and the politics,” he declares in forthright fashion. “They’re all in it for the same reasons. Everyone’s enjoying each other.”

Emily Ingham on the other hand, offers sound advice to both musicians and promoters with the emphasis clearly accentuated on having a first class work ethic.

“Practice so that you’re very good. It’s really cool being in a band and playing gigs with your mates but I also think you need to be really tight and as good as you possibly can be because people are paying to come and see you. Give it your all and don’t phone it in. Do it really well. If you’re going to be a promoter really promote your gig. If you’re going to be in a band really practice. Try hard, even if you’re not quite as good as you’d like to be. Apply yourself. Invest in a good recording of yourself. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation because without a demo you won’t get a gig, so make sure that demo’s as good as it can be otherwise why would anyone book you. If you’re going to bother doing something do it well, otherwise what’s the point.”

“I’m slightly more pragmatic now than I was 10 years ago. If it gets too much I’ll probably walk away, but then in making that decision myself I’ve also decided that I’m not gonna walk away! Knowing that I can makes me want to carry on. Every time things get a bit heavy a new song drops on my doorstep,” chirps an enthusiastic Rob Dee. “I’ve got the new EP from Climbing Alice this week and it’s the best stuff they’ve done.”

Back to Dean Freeman, both he and Long Division are already thinking about the future. They’re joining The Cribs in becoming official sponsors of the recently founded Wakefield AFC. Born out the ashes of the now defunct Emley AFC, Wakefield will be playing in the Central Midlands League next season, which forms part of English football’s seventh tier. While proudly displaying the Long Division logo on their away shirts, something which Freeman is equally buoyant about.

“You need to change what you do and its us that needs to connect with the people here. So the football club like Wakefield Trinity with the rugby is a big deal. We started chatting with them six months ago when it was just going to be a team based around refugees and asylum seekers. It’s grown into something quite big now which I think is really good and its nice to see The Cribs getting behind it as well.”

And as for the future of Long Division?

“We have the tenth anniversary coming up soon and it’s already playing on my mind! When we started it was just about putting on bands I wanted whereas nowadays I have to be a bit more mindful. So it might be a big festival. I don’t know yet. The thing I’ve really enjoyed this year has been the Young Team educational project we’ve launched. It’s only a pilot with ten young people from Wakefield who have a variety of artistic interests but we’re hoping they’ll become the DIY promoters of the future. We’ve written our own curriculum, which is a GCSE level qualification. I don’t think anything like this exists anywhere else in the country, certainly not in Wakefield anyway. So if I can get a year of that activity not only do I get a break, but it also encourages a level of youth leadership which hopefully they’ll pass onto their generation. Once they get that qualification it’s a case of now, what else can you do? That’s the future for us.”

Long Division takes place from Wednesday 29 May to Sunday 2 June. Check their website here.

Dom Gourlay

Photo: Long Division festival press