Do it yourself! Delicious Clam and Bingo Records on the fun of building your own scene
The sounds of Sheffield's underground
By Dan Hayes
Lancaster isn’t a city I think about much. Perhaps that’s unfair on Lancaster — it’s got a whacking great castle and, if memory serves, a decent Maritime Museum. But in an unlikely twist of fate, it turns out the sleepy Lancashire city has given Sheffield one of its most exciting musical success stories in years.
I first found out about it via one of our readers, who emailed me last year to tell me that a host of bands signed to a small Sheffield-based independent record label called Bingo Records were being played on BBC Radio 6 Music “almost every day”. Some digging uncovers that this world we live in is not just small, but ant-sized: in my past life, working at The Star, I worked alongside Lloyd Bent, one of the three musical musketeers who co-founded the record label. Somehow, Lloyd has managed to exercise superhuman self control and omitted to mention that he was spending his nights building an indie record label, alongside his co-founders Ben Hall and Zac Barfoot. We arrange to meet at the Rutland Arms to discuss the DIY music scene here — I’ll also head for a second outing to the same pub with the founders of Delicious Clam, a cooperatively run venue, recording studio and practice space on Exchange Street in Castlegate. More on them in a second.
This particular pub feels like precisely the right place to meet the luminaries of Sheffield’s musical underground. On the jukebox at The Rutland Arms is a chalkboard list of “Forbidden Songs” — there’s no indication what would happen to you if you pressed play on any of these tunes, but I suspect it would be a slow and painful way to go. The list feels profoundly subjective: it includes popular acts such as The Beatles, Queen, U2, The Smiths, Oasis and Arctic Monkeys. It also includes the band Wolf Alice (who I was under the impression were quite cool) and randomly the Scottish funk and R&B group the Average White Band.
While it would be easy to dismiss the list as snobby, I think it’s trying to do something more subtle. “Don’t be obvious,” it implores. “Try something different.”
Which feels like a good summary of what these groups have been doing. Bingo Records’ journey started in Lancaster. I learn the three co-founders met there when Lloyd got a job on the local paper, the Westmorland Gazette. Bonding over a shared love of alternative music, they decided to start a record label in 2017. Their first release was Ben’s band (Mr Ben & the Bens) on one side and Zac’s band (Sun Drift) on the other. The £600 they saved up was initially only enough to press the record. “We had to wait until a few people had bought it so we had enough money to make the sleeve,” adds Lloyd.
Despite the DIY nature of its creation, the record was a surprise success. It was picked up almost immediately by BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Marc Riley, who has since gone on to be one of Bingo’s biggest cheerleaders (he is on record as saying the label’s owners have “the best ears in the business”). Partly as a result of his support, that one record sold well enough to make two more, and then they in turn sold well enough to make another three.
I feel a bit out of the loop when it comes to this kind of music so I ask the three to define, if they can, the kind of stuff they put out. It’s easier said than done. All three have to agree on who they sign, with the type of bands they take on dictated by their own eclectic tastes. Recent successes for the label have been garage rock three piece The Bug Club and the more psychedelic Melin Melyn, both of whom are from Wales. But they also put out jangly indie-rock like Mr Ben & the Bens as well as art-pop like all-girl Sheffield band Potpourri.
“We try to sign bands from areas that are unfashionable areas,” Lloyd tells me. The internet being the internet, however, they do get sent music from all over the world, and across a kaleidoscopic range of genres — including some from what you might politely call the wilder outer reaches of people’s imaginations.
Listening to some of their output on the music sharing website Bandcamp, the word eclectic doesn’t really do it justice. Much of it reminds me of the kind of music I used to listen to on John Peel’s BBC Radio One radio show in the early-1990s, before the Britpop explosion made indie music mainstream. One of my favourite bands from that era were Californian lo-fi rockers Pavement, who as it turns out The Bug Club supported on their recent tour.
Bingo are part of a wider network of creatives including musicians, artists and designers, and a linked club night called Legs Eleven (geddit?). Shortly after they released their first record, 12 of them moved en masse from Lancaster to Sheffield. Why did they choose here, I ask. Well, as creative types don’t tend to be phenomenally well paid, cheaper housing costs were a factor in them choosing the Steel City over other northern destinations like Manchester and Leeds (the cost of rehearsal and studio space is also cheaper here as many of the old industrial buildings in the city haven’t yet been converted into luxury flats like they have in Manchester).
The proceeds from the records are split 50/50, with half going to the band and half to the label. Until now, the label’s 50% has always been reinvested back into the business but they are now able to take out what they call a “fairly modest amount” of money. This has enabled Lloyd to leave his part-time job at the Showroom Cinema and work at Bingo full time.
As well as playing in bands signed to the label, Ben and Zac do a lot of stuff behind the scenes: mixing, mastering, artwork. The initial plan was to do everything in house and provide a service to bands that they wouldn't get elsewhere. “Our manifesto is to be artist-led,” says Ben. “We think if we were artists on our label, how would we want to be treated?”
Bingo currently have an office at Pinder Brothers on Matilda Street in the city centre’s cultural industries quarter, a still-functioning steel pewter works which also hosts an array of other creatives from potters to knife sharpeners. When I visit it’s endearingly chaotic inside, full of groaning shelves and found furniture. But evidence of the label’s success can be seen over the road above the Network nightclub, where they rent a space to store the hundreds of records they send out every month.
The DIY approach they exemplify is a world away from the more commercial indie music the city has become famous for. The laddish tunes sung in Sheffield accents that proliferated after Arctic Monkeys achieved worldwide stardom aren't exactly what they’re looking for. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” interjects the ever-polite Ben Russell from Delicious Clam. They just prefer to plough a different furrow.
Delicious what? I learned about this record label, venue, recording studio and rehearsal space via the same knowledgeable reader who tipped me off about Bingo Records. Originally a rehearsal space, they later started recording and releasing music as well, with bands they’ve signed (like Sheffield-based Welsh language quartet Sister Wives) going on to achieve national radio play.
After my enjoyably boozy interview with Bingo, the following week I meet Ed Crisp and Ben Russell from Delicious Clam in the same pub. “The Clam” as they affectionately call it started out as a practice space in 2014 before becoming a music venue and record label. Originally based in a venue on Sidney Street, they moved to their present premises on Exchange Street in Castlegate five years ago.
If a rock family tree were drawn of the current Sheffield alternative music scene, I reckon Delicious Clam would probably be at the top. The Bingo team say a lot of the credit for their growth goes to the space that Ed and Ben have created for new bands to practise, perform and record.
Like Bingo, Delicious Clam was initially created as a way of its founders making the music they wanted to hear. Former University of Sheffield student and founder Ed Crisp says it was “born out of necessity” when a group of bands needed a place to practise and it made sense to club together and rent a place rather than all having separate rehearsal rooms. Their main focus has always been a rehearsal space, with the bands who use the practise rooms paying £20 a month for the privilege (a fee that has stayed the same since they first opened eight years ago). The record label and music venue came along later as the bands who rehearsed there grew and needed places to record and perform.
Looking at their social media adverts gives you an understanding of the kind of place they are. The flyers are deliberately lo-fi, full of hand drawn cartoons and scrawled band names. They remind me a bit of punk era samizdat posters, when youth culture became more about doing things for yourself rather than everything being filtered through big record labels and slick marketing agencies.
As well as running Delicious Clam, both Ed and Ben play or have played in multiple bands who have used the rehearsal space, gigged there or released music on the label. These include Ed’s former bands Best Friends and Thumbuster, and his current group Town Cruise. Ben currently plays in a band called Big Break. But it’s not just about showcasing home grown talent. Bands from all over the world play at the Exchange Street venue now, including musicians from Australia, Canada and Japan.
All this has been achieved without any staff, with everyone who “works” for Delicious Clam doing so on a purely voluntary basis. At the time they set it up, Ed says he and Calum (Keiller, another founder) were working as ice-cream men. Now Ed is self-employed and also sometimes works in construction, while Ben works in geographic information system (GIS) mapping with the Coal Authority.
Both Ed and Ben say opening around four times a month as well as hosting special events like Clam-Lines (on the Tramlines weekend) and Clams in their Eyes (as you might have guessed, a Stars in their Eyes-style event every New Year) can be trying at times as a voluntary organisation. This perhaps helps explain why Bingo Records’ arrival in Sheffield in 2018 was so welcomed and has gone onto such success.
Lauren Dowling was also part of the creative exodus which came down to Sheffield from Lancaster in 2018. She tells me that while they loved Lancaster’s vibrant music scene, they realised after gigging down here that Sheffield’s was on another level. All of a sudden, they didn’t have to be the ones putting things on all the time and could instead feed off the huge amount of musical creativity that was already taking place in the city. “Sheffield was the place that really ignited something in our hearts,” she tells me.
Lauren is one quarter of Potpourri and one half of Legs Eleven with her band mate Evie Garner. Since being born as a radio show during lockdown, Legs Eleven have since gone on to host nights at Delicious Clam and at other venues in the city, featuring local bands and artists as well as those from further afield, including London punks Italia 90 and singer-songwriter Albertine Sarges from Berlin.
Sheffield’s more DIY approach, which is probably best exemplified by the collective ethos of Delicious Clam, also lends itself to a more collaborative approach, adds Lauren. It feels less competitive and has fewer egos, she says. And unlike much of the music industry, it’s also a place where it’s more common to see women promoting nights, as Legs Eleven do, or working as DJs or on the sound desk. “I think it can be a prototype in that way,” she says.
While Bingo and Delicious Clam are different organisations, they do enjoy a slightly symbiotic relationship. Both Bingo and Legs Eleven host nights at Delicious Clam, while Lloyd and his label mates regularly support Clam nights featuring Sheffield bands and artists from further afield. “They are all super creative and unbelievably talented,” says Ed, speaking about the Bingo crew. “Sometimes annoyingly so,” he jokes.
And their DIY ethos is mirrored across Sheffield’s alternative music ecosystem. Lloyd tells me a venue called Hatch puts on “wildly experimental” music at their base on Harwood Road in Highfield, while queer-led dance music venue and events space Gut Level have recently moved to new premises on Eyre Street. And volunteer-run gig space The Lughole in Neepsend has become a Mecca for those who like music from the heavier end of the punk music spectrum. Add in more established venues like Sidney and Matilda and it’s not surprising that Sheffield is starting to get noticed as a city with a vibrant and up-and-coming music scene.
Perhaps at my age I shouldn’t be surprised at all the musical activity going on in Sheffield which I wasn’t aware of. Ben from Bingo agrees that some of it isn’t easy to find, but says maybe that adds to the charm. “A lot of these places aren’t that visible,” he says. “If you’re a punter looking at listings on the internet, you wouldn't necessarily come across them. But if you delve a little deeper they are there.”
Lloyd agrees. “People will say there is nothing going on in Sheffield but that’s people who don’t scratch the surface,” he tells me. “There is actually a lot more going on than people think.”