With a capital of culture bid in the works now is a great time to explore Leeds’ DIY and underground scene where friendly music, art and food venues flourish and the nightlife is among the best in the country
‘Leeds is quite modest,” insists Bryony Bond, creative director at the Tetley gallery. “It doesn’t market or push itself, which is endearing – but the stuff going on here is brilliant.”
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That may be changing. But compared with Manchester or Liverpool, Leeds has been reticent about celebrating its creativity. Historically, it has preferred to sell itself as a glitzy shopping-and-dining destination. Perhaps such modesty is rooted in an inferiority complex. Leeds has never had a seismic pop-culture moment – a Merseybeat or Madchester – and its big bands (Sisters of Mercy, The Wedding Present, Kaiser Chiefs), are also-rans in the grand annals of rock history. But at a far grittier, more chaotic, underground level, there is always plenty happening here.
From the rave heyday of Back To Basics and Up Yer Ronson onwards, this city has maintained a club scene that is, arguably, the best outside London. Similarly, look past the shiny facade of developments such as the Trinity and Victoria Gate shopping centres, and there are numerous creative hubs, sustained by musicians and artists who have learned to exist in the margins: skint but resourceful, bolstered by the enthusiasm of the city’s students. If that creative ecology leads to transience – from Soft Cell to Hessle Audio, plenty of influential musicians meet as students in Leeds then leave – it has also fostered a DIY ethic among those who stay.
The visual arts scene, says Nicola Greenan, external relations director at East Street Arts, has been built by local activism, piece-by-piece: “It’s very DIY. That’s where Leeds’ strength is. There hasn’t been a lot of money to support [the arts]. Instead, artists have come together as collectives to create their own ecology. The visual arts infrastructure – studios, opportunities to make work and get it out there – is really growing but in an artist-led way.”
“I was sick of DJ and producer friends leaving for London and Berlin, so tried to create something that might keep them in Leeds,” says co-founder Kristan J Caryl. “We wanted a project they’d feel part of, a scene focal-point. We now have hosts who range in age from 19 to their mid 50s, from Cuban jazz specialists to techno DJs. The talent here amazes me.”
Even Leeds’ flourishing independent food and craft beer scenes, which are closely linked to the art and music worlds, share a similar sense of community (see the annual Leeds Indie Food festival)
It may not be in the spotlight nationally but in terms of how friendly and collaborative it is, the local music scene feels healthy, says writer and DIY music promoter Hayley Scott: “There’s no rivalry or superiority. It’s diverse and we don’t have much time for rock’n’roll anachronisms: the archetypal lads-in-bands and their shitty behaviour.”
“Generally everyone supports each other, and why wouldn’t you? It’s exciting,” says chef Ben Davy, the creator of cracking food outlets at the multifunctional Belgrave Music Hall and Headrow House.
That tension between wanting to promote Leeds and protecting its grassroots authenticity (“I’m all for civic pride,” says Greenan, “but maybe that’s what’s refreshing about it: it hasn’t been oversold.”) will be severely tested if that 2023 bid is successful. But for now, Leeds remains relatively uncharted cultural territory. Go, explore.