Iniquitous history and musical community go hand in hand in East London’s modish epicentre. Kieron Phelan takes a stroll down haunted, happening Hanbury Street.
Lovers of Victorian brickwork (and I know you’re out there) will disagree with me, but Hanbury Street is not much to look at. Within spitting distance of Rodinsky’s room, it’s a spindly little thing, shading its way down from Commercial Street at its western end, bisecting Brick Lane as it limps eastwards before giving up the ghost just out of reach of Vallance Road. But then we are talking about the old East End so, apart from the occasional burst of mid-Victorian architectural zeal, the buildings are grotty. The older ones are none too clever, and those that have, over the decades, fallen down or been pulled (or Luftwaffered) to the ground have mostly been replaced by equally unlovely modern edifices. This shabbiness is all the more apparent as the street sits cheek-by-jowl with the soaring glass and steel monoliths of the Liverpool Street/Broadgate financial sector.
The history of Hanbury Street is turbulent and grim. Number 29 hosted the second Jack the Ripper murder, that of young prostitute Annie Chapman. People paid to get into the house and look down upon the yard where her mutilated body was discovered. Nowadays there’s a nice little tour you can take. In the Sugarloaf pub (Number 187), Marie Lloyd, the music-hall star, drank (deeply) while around her seethed a hotbed of radical and anarchist activity. Soon enough the politics spilled out onto the street.
If Number 29 had proved to be a house of ill fortune then, across the road, Number 22 held a considerable measure of luck. In the same year as the Annie Chapman’s murder, the young women worker’s of the Bow Bryant and May factory gathered here to launch the Match Girls’ Strike- the first ever strike by a women’s trade union – in protest against their appalling working conditions, and in particular against the use of the yellow phosphorous that caused the cancerous ‘phooey jaw’. Against all the odds within three weeks the strike was won, the resolution and bravado of the women, most still in their teens, winning the sympathies of public and parliament alike.
Lucky Number 22- to which we’ll soon return. But, first, let’s take a little look around the place.
Since Spitalfields itself has almost entirely succumbed to the encroaching shadow of Mammon and his be-suited faithful (farewell, then, the Spitz), crossing into Hanbury Street feels like traversing a cultural and psychological frontier. Welcome to Tower Hamlets. Beauty it may not have- character it does. It’s been all too easy over the last few years to make fun of ‘Shoreditch twats’ (or, more politely, the Hoxton founding fathers) but there’s now a fully integrated atmosphere of artistic endeavour here, dovetailed into the make-a-few-quid reality of the aboriginal majority. Add in the bustle and colour of Brick Lane’s Bangla Town and the absence of lowest-common-denominator commercialisation, and you’ve got something that works: a mixture of energy, ideas and pragmatism, across the board.
Of course, you can still tell who’s what. Most of the younger people have that peculiar fashion sense that so clearly announces ‘l wasn’t actually born around here’. Its current designation is uncertain. It’s certainly moved on from the Hoxton art-school look of a few years back. There’s less sense of having been dragged backwards through a hedge to it, for one thing. When I questioned singer and local resident Galia Durant (of Psapp and Gray’s Anatomy-theme fame) about naming this style, she suggested ‘twatty fifties vintage retro nu-rave irony’. I’m not entirely sure that she was being serious. That said, the slightly edgy blokes looking like they just sold some stolen goods are most likely graphic designers.
But the people rub along- hard not to, given the narrowness of the place and the fact it’s permanently being dug up – in the street, in the pubs, ignoring each other’s incongruities with typically low-key London generosity. Drop into the Rossi Restaurant. It’s just about the first place you come to in Hanbury Street: a classic, Italian-run London cafe, comfortable and busy. Enjoy the droll sight of Gilbert and George having their late morning tea and toast surrounded by the working man – said working man being entirely aware of who they are and not giving a toss. This being G and G, of course, it means they’re in there pretty much every morning, cheerful of demeanour and always taking their leavings back to the counter. Manners maketh the man. Eat brunch at the Rossi, it’s greasy and great. Eat dinner at the Miraz – it’s spicy, sumptuous Bengali home cooking. And if you’re feeling especially adventurous the brain curry is a must!
The modern day story of Number 22 begins when man-with-a-plan (and unfeasibly large ukulele collection) Matthew Reynolds chanced across Simon Trought, a former member of indie sophisticates Tompaulin, now hitting his straps as a full-on recording engineer. Brought together through the auspices of the band Mathew Sawyer and The Ghosts – Reynolds being the former drummer when Simon was recording them- they began discussing a new, combined venture: for Reynolds a special kind of shop; for Trought the kind of studio that suited him.
Reynolds knew the area he needed to work out of, that he wanted something just off the main drag, somewhere people would have to seek out just a little. Pursuing contacts he chanced upon the vacant Number 22. The basement area had previously been a rehearsal room and would be ideal for Trought’s purposes. And, of course, they loved the brickwork. Perfect.
And so, in the spring of 2005 the Duke of Uke was born, with its sister venture, Soup Studio, snugly ensconced beneath it. The timing being fortuitous for Trought, as his previous and uninsured studio premises went up in flames the very day after he’d moved out his equipment. Let me repeat that word: ‘uninsured’.
Run by Matthew with his charming partner Ane and occasional friends (who subsequently became known as ‘interns’), ‘the Duke’ is not like other music shops. One simple reason is the peculiarity of the instruments for sale – ukuleles, of course, in abundance and of all shapes, sizes and colours. There are banjos too – and mandolins. The eye is drawn to oddly shaped stringed things. Some look like strange hybrids, some vaguely historical. Still more look like they’ve just been invented. But the real clue lies in the atmosphere of the place. It’s the complete antithesis of what music shops are habitually like. The grinding certainty that you should never, never enquire about any instrument unless you’re already a virtuoso on it; the whiff of second-hand-car salesmen (‘You don’t need that one, mate’); forbidding, overpriced and full of irksome wannabes – on both sides of the counter.
The Duke, by contrast, is light and airy. It is not monopolised by testosterone-heavy teenage angst, though there are East End trendies aplenty. In fact, the customers vary continuously, as eclectic a mix as the shop itself. First-timers express delight that they can get a working uke for only £2o. On occasion the place is full of kids and their parents (the ukulele now rating as the most popular children’s instrument). At any time you might hear some- one playing an old-time reel on a five-string banjo. And watching a young goth couple buying each other ukuleles as birthday presents is a surreal and yet. somehow, touching experience.
The occasional celeb will appear across the threshold. Pete Doherty rather amazed everyone by buying an expensive banjo instead of trying to do a runner with it, and the sight of Bob Geldof performing an impromptu tap dance with a seven-year-old girl proved to be strangely congruous with the vibe of the place.
So what is it that makes a man open up a ukulele shop and – big question – did he see the ‘uke boom’ coming? ‘It seemed like a mental idea, but I’d already collected so many of the things [ukes] that a light bulb went on,’ Matthew reflects. ‘I wasn’t drawn to business; I stumbled into it [he’s an ex-Chelsea art student]. But the figures seemed to add up. Maybe I saw the boom coming, but I really just wanted to sell good, cheap ukes, so it could become a normal instrument for, say, indie bands.’
And the importance of the location? ‘I think the combined nature of the area and the shop create the vibe – it’s part of the whole artistic community. So many odd or interest- ing people come in, it’s not like endless rock bands hanging out in Denmark Street. I actually enjoy spending time here.’
In fact, the Duke has become the place where musicians bump into each other – largely by design. The location, the friendliness, the individuality of the place and the simple proximity of the recording studio below all conspire to make this happen. As Matthew confirms, ‘The shop was intended as a community hub, not just a music shop, which is why we generate so many other activities.’
If the Duke is atypical as a music shop, then Soup is yet more so as a recording studio’ The control rooms of most studios have a big, heavy, fuck- off door that locks you in and the world out. This one doesn’t. Well, it has a door, an ordinary thin one, at the top of the stairs. But no one ever closes it. Besides which, from time to time, someone may wander down those stairs – like as not another musician, and perhaps, for the love of God, someone you don’t even know! Because here, not only is silence not golden, it’s not even considered desirable. Now, let’s be frank, if you are one of those musicians that simply must sit in a cathedral-like hush while you pursue your precious muse, this may not be for you. It does, at first, feel unusual (and I should mention to those of a technical and nervous disposition that the recording area is sound-sealed as tight as the Kursk), yet it serves many purposes. But how did this unorthodoxy begin? Well, people can’t normally just drop into a recording studio because it’s a closed place,’ reasons Simon. ‘But here, they can drop into the shop, put their head downstairs, and, if there’s a gap in proceedings, they can come and say hello, find out what’s going on. I do maintain quite a closely observed etiquette about this, but generally the bands don’t seem to mind. In fact, it seems to break up the usual insularity that can develop around them. They suddenly find they like it that other musicians are around, and sometimes whoever’s dropped in ends up playing on one of the songs.’
There is another reason why this curious inter-band bonhomie occurs, as Simon is aware. ‘I actually play stuff that’s been recorded here to other bands, if I think that they’ll like it (even though, strictly, I shouldn’t). Plus there’s the music that gets played upstairs in the shop, by people we like, new bands, etc. – things that have originated here, or are connected to people who’ve worked here. So, the bands that come in are almost primed to be interested in what each other is doing. The people who use the studio tend to be quite individualistic, they’re more open-minded than most.’
Open and welcoming as it is, if needs be the studio doubles as a secretive bolt-hole. As Jamie Hince, of Domino luminaries The Kills (and latterly supermodel paramour) reveals. ‘l heard of it through friend and label boss Laurence. Dan Treacy [Television Personalities] had been recording and writing there, and the rumour was he loved it. So, I suppose, in my mind that legitimised it. It’s good enough for me. I went down there and took a look. It had that sense of secrecy about it, you could really hole up and hide away and no one would know anyone was in there. You know Raskolnikov’s bedroom in Crime and Punishment? Well, I kept thinking of that. No room to swing a cat in but an infinite amount of space to hatch a plot. It was the room that was the thing for me. And having grilled sardines for lunch at St John . . . and half a Guinness at the Golden Heart on the corner.’
Both the Duke Soup engender an enthusiasm, even a loyalty, among their clientele. One such is Darren Hayman, erstwhile Hefner front man and flourishing solo artist: ‘It’s a creative success. The Duke of Uke and Soup Studio both work due to Simon and Matt’s personalities. They are both incredibly inclusive. They want you to know all the people they know. They are both constantly trying to make things happen. That happens around the shop couldn’t be described as a scene as such, but it does seem there is a certain kinship between some of the bands that work and hang out there. Maybe some of the bands don’t even like each other’s music all that much, but we end up on the same bills, we pool musicians and we have a vested interest in keeping Matt afloat, so we do what we can to help.’
David Tattersall of highly fancied Moshi Moshi signings The Wave Pictures is equally upbeat in his estimation: ‘I remember going to the Duke two or three times before I even found out there was a studio there I’ve met a lot of people as a result of being around that place. It was informal and friendly and everyone likes that. It’s relaxed down in the studio, everyone takes turns making the tea and it’s all right next door to Brick Lane! Not like a big completely isolated studio somewhere’ You can get off with stuff once you walk down the stairs, but you’ve got places to go where you need a break. It’s right there!’
Hannah Caughlin, mainstay in poetic folk-pop band The Bicycle Thieves and multimedia outfit The Long Way Round: ‘It’s got a cooler, vintage feel that excites me. Affordable spaces often conjure up images of sweat boys taking themselves too seriously in cold, smelly and damp rooms. But Soup is a whole other breed of studio.’
‘The Duke has become a bit of a second home,’ confesses Brian Eno biographer and man with his finger in every musical pie in the bakery David Sheppard. ‘It’s professional but unfussy, people wandering in and out every now and then. The sense of being part of a larger community was palpable from the word go- it felt like Big Pink had been plonked in the middle of trendy East London.’
Such much-ness. But any article that describes a recoding studio would be thin gravy indeed unless it mentioned ‘the gear’. It’s toys for boys time. The art is in the blend of retro and contemporary technology, and mixing the two without, as Simon puts it, ‘committing analogue crime’. He confessed that ‘If I see something chunky with big knobs, walnut sides and giant VU-meters I’m far more likely to buy it.’ David Sheppard: ‘At Soup you can sort of graze Simon’s vintage gear- his old-school plate reverb, antediluvian echo boxes, eccentric Hammond Organ, not to mention the world’s funkiest glockenspiel. Everything in there has a patina of ‘character’. It’s a real Tom Waits kind of place. There are other studios in London equally brimming with vintage kit, but they always seem to be bound up with an attendant retro aesthetic. Soup isn’t like that- there’s half-inch tape, by there’s also Pro Tools. It feels more like a sonic laboratory than a facility for counterfeiting the musical past.’
One further plus- remember those weird stringed instruments upstairs in the shop? With a polite word to Mr Reynolds you can borrow them for your recording. You may find yourself suddenly rearranging whatever music you’ve been working on to accommodate something exotic.
A recurrent problem with so many studios is, to be blunt, the engineer. They break down into two main types. Type 1 will do nothing for you, short of clicking ‘record’, unless specifically asked. He’ll offer no suggestion or explanations. You work it out yourself, mate. It’s your session, not his. Type 2 will try to make the whole recording for you, in exactly the way you don’t want. It’s his session, not yours.
‘The problem is maybe that a lot of engineers get such a random selection of bands to work with that they end up not very interested’, considers a mildly sympathetic Simon. ‘I’m lucky- 90 per cent of the time I get to work with musician I like. A lot of them have heard about the place by word of mouth or just dropping in, so there’s an existing connection anyway. And the place just seems to attract unusual people.’
Many of Soup’s adherents seem to consider Trought’s recording technique as almost psychological in its nature. ‘He’s sympathetic to the song, the performance,’ observes Darren Hayman, ‘as opposed to just the fidelity of the recordings. It’s very unusual in a sound engineer. That’s why I’d started recordings at home until I met Simon. He’s become incredibly important to bands who have no experience of recording studios that they’re used to. Nobody’s really interested in the psychology of what makes a good recording, but Simon’s smarter than that.’
Dave Tattersall agrees: ‘One thing he’s very good at is telling good from bad live takes. I trust his judgement on that. He’s good at telling which are the best songs too, he isn’t as detached as a lot of engineers are. And we have fun down there!’
All this takes the man himself somewhat by surprise. ‘Maybe it does come lrom having been a musician first, but it’s not conscious,’ Simon muses. ‘I think it’s an obvious thing for an engineer to do, to enthuse. I mean, why wouldn’t I?’
Nobody’s really interested in the psychology of what makes a good recording, but Simon’s much smarted than that.
He’s held in equal affection by current music-press darlings Let’s Wrestle, who recorded their debut (NME Single of the Week) at Soup. They were the most straight up in their assessment: ‘We liked that Simon the Sound Baron let us run riot in his underground dungeon,’reveals lead singer WPG. ‘We got a discount so we thought, as mere peasants, this is the place for us. We knew people who’d recorded there before, such as Television Personalities and Darren Hayman, so we thought, “Gee, that’s pretty bodacious.” All our recordings have been made there. It just feels like the most comfortable place to rock out. The vibe is nice and people drop in so we don’t get bored with each other.’
That last point is an important but rarely observed one. So, top marks to Simon for understanding. But in a world that loves its intricate hardware, he’s as clever as he is empathetic. A last word of praise from David Sheppard: ‘I’ve been working on a new project at Soup, kind of Japanese avant-pop (it’s called Smile Down upon Us). The singer’s in Tokyo, the rest of us in London, so the whole thing had to be done by file exchange. It could have descended into digital hell, but Simon prevented the burden ever falling us. Whatever the format, analogue or otherwise, he always allows the music to dictate to the studio, not the other way round . . . If only they’d get the one and only toilet to flush properly, this place would be perfect!’
Ask Matthew Reynolds about plans for the Duke’s future and he’ll ignore plumbing problems, but ‘flush’ effervescently for half an hour about creative possibilities. We already run workshops out of here so there’ll be more of those. A lot of people in bands come along to learn various bits of stuff which is another way people get to meet up. There’ll be more acoustic gigs in the shop, which really are nothing like record-shop in-store gigs. Ours often go on into the early hours. It’s more like a little party sometimes. We’d certainly like to do a compilation CD of all the people who’ve played gigs in the shop. Probably there’ll be a Sunday-night residency at the Horse and Groom on Curtain Road. It’s an umbrella concept really – each night would run according to a different idea. So, some music, certainly, but it could be anything: comedy, a pub quiz, an auction of odd things, like home- made acoustic instruments – see how loud you can make them!’
Finally, does Matthew fear the encroaching tide of Broadgate ‘business’ sweeping across precious Hanbury Street? ‘It’s possible,’ he muses through his vast beard, ‘but I think it’s unlikely. The buildings are just the wrong shape for the financial sector for one thing – the street too. They’d have to knock a whole lot of stuff down. Did I tell you that the front of the shop is listed?’ …Hmm. Maybe I ought to take another look at that brickwork after all.