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Behind the Decks: Interview with Brotherhood Sound System

It would be difficult to imagine the landscape of Leeds' sound system culture without Brotherhood Sound System. Rooted in the sounds of UK bass, Brotherhood has been gradually accruing popularity for the last decade, and have since put on parties with the likes of Bradley Zero, DJ Boring, Mr Scruff, and countless more. Having recently celebrated their 8th birthday with Jeremy Underground, we decided to have a chat with head honcho George Hartshorn, where we talked roots and origins, the development of Brotherhood's sound, and how they've been holding up since the announcement of lockdown.

For people who haven’t heard of you, could you just explain what Brotherhood Sound System is all about?

Brotherhood is a party that’s been running for about 8 years now. In fact, we just celebrated our 8th birthday with Jeremy Underground. We’re rooted in sound system culture and free parties, so, when we originally started out, Brotherhood Sound System was an actual sound system. We used to take that out to forests and warehouses, and would basically run parties. This was back in the day when we were playing dubstep and drum and bass, and just running parties for free for a bit of a laugh. Then when I came over from Manchester to Leeds for uni, we started running events in clubs rather than taking them out to the countryside, and that's how the modern incarnation of Brotherhood was born. So we have our roots in the free party vibe, that's why we’ve always been drawn to places like Freedom Mills, which is where we now host a residency. It’s got a warehouse vibe, and, compared to other clubs like Mint Club, it’s definitely got a freer atmosphere; less money and more people just partying with their friends. We’ve always been drawn to those kind of venues. Beaver Works is another big one, as they are rooted in a similar culture, and there's our little secret Warehouse party series that we have been doing on and off over the last few years. We always try and find somewhere new and exciting just to add a little bit of adventure into a night out, because no one likes to go to the same club all the time.

How are some of the key people involved in Brotherhood?

So at the moment there’s myself, leading on bookings and the event management, but i'm based in London now so we've got a great team of promoters on the ground helping us spread the party far and wide. Then there's Tami, aka DJ TAMTAM, she’s been our resident for the last couple of years, someone on the ground being a face for Brotherhood, playing out all the house parties and club nights making sure we have a good presence in Leeds. Having said that, over the years there have been so many people instrumental to Brotherhood so it's hard to list everyone. Will and Silas (AKA Silas & Snare) helped found the parties and when they left Leeds they went on to run the label, Brotherhood Sound system Records, which now runs independently of the club night and continues promoting bass music.

So you’ve talked a bit about the influences from when you first started out. How much have you moved away from these roots as the years have gone by?

I guess for me, my journey of musical discovery started out when I was very young. I used to play in a Latin and salsa band, and that was the music I was really into. However, as far as I was concerned, you could never play Latin, funk, salsa, disco or that out in a club. Music that you heard in clubs was dubstep and drum and bass. This is circa 2006 when I first started clubbing, and that was the music I heard. Then coming to Leeds from Manchester, Leeds has this massive house music scene. I was seeing all my friends going to out to these house nights, at first I was like ‘you’ll never catch me at a house night’. I was working with events like SubDub and Jungle Jam, and that was the kind of music which we listened to. But then slowly over the years, when all of my other friends were out listening to house music, every now again they would play a song and I’d think to myself ‘oh, I actually quite like that one.’ So then after a little while, something clicked. I realised a lot of these house tunes were sampling old disco and funk tunes, and before that point I didn't understand you could play that type of music in clubs. That epiphany happened whilst I was at university, so whilst we were promoting dubstep, drum and bass, and this sound of the UK bass, I started DJing out at Flux, where I’d be playing some disco classics. So whilst Brotherhood was putting out dubstep etc. and having parties with Swamp 81 etc., I was playing these other genres on nights when we weren't hosting events. So when Silas and Will eventually left the team and went onto other things, the booking policy then fell down to myself. So I used that as an opportunity to reinvent Brotherhood and change the direction that it was going in. Obviously I loved all the bass music that we were playing, but that wasn’t the music that I wanted to play. I wasn’t going to see the standard bass DJs anymore, and I was going to check out new artists that I haven’t heard of before: Motor City Drum Ensemble, Jeremy Underground, Bradley Zero. They were the people I was excited to see, so I figured those were the people that I need to be putting on and booking. So we went from putting on people like SWAMP81, and Alix Perez, to people like Bonobo, Giles Peterson, Dan Shake, Bradley Zero. I wouldn't necessarily say we are now a house night, but we are definitely more geared towards it.

So I was going to ask you firstly what makes Leeds so special for nightlife, and then what venues you would say have been instrumental in your journey over the last few years, but you’ve already touched on that. So to refine the question a bit, what would you say are some of the stand out significant moments in that journey that shaped what Brotherhood has become today?

Well the stand-out moment that have shaped who we are tend to be those moments when there’s just an electricity in the atmosphere. Leeds has a lot of amazing clubs, and a lot of those clubs are often full. However, a club being full doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a pivotal moment or a turning point. What really makes an event special is when there’s that feeling in the air, and everyone can feel it. One of those moments when we were in the bass music era was when we did a party at what was called Full Circle, which is now called Open Source Arts. We had a DJ called Mickey Pearce playing. The club nights back then were a slightly different affair back then, as we were at uni. So when we say that every single person in the club was someone that we knew personally, that's not an exaggeration. So there was this amazing atmosphere and I can remember we pulled out a deodorant can and a lighter and when Mickey Pearce was playing we were just creating flame behind the decks, and it was just a proper wild and unruly atmosphere. At this point the venue was being run by a guy called Ant who was a major hippy who just lived in the venue. Very strange character, so it felt more like a house party more than anything else. That was one of those moments when we had had a few amazing nights in Wire, but then we got to Full Circle and it was just lawless, and it's a night we won't be forgetting any time soon. Another really pivotal moment for us was when we had switched from the bass music and were now focussing on the more housey sounds. We had a night with Bradley Zero and Andrew Ashong. These two DJs are just absolutely incredible selectors, and they have such a great taste. Especially Bradley Zero who is still now a major taste maker. Andrew Ashong was someone who I didn't really know as a DJ, but I knew his music that he had made with Theo Parrish like ‘Flowers’. So when I was booking Bradley and I was asking other artists ‘Who's going to step up to playing toe to toe with Bradley Zero?’, a lot of people recommended him.

Northern Monk Brewery

So we got him in, and I remember taking him to Northern Monk Brewery. I managed to persuade them to let us run parties on the top floor of their brewery. The first floor is a tap room, and then on the top floor there’s just this big empty space. They weren’t doing anything with it at the time and I just happened to stumble across it and got talking to them. So we held a little residency there for a while, and it’s amazing because you’re on the third floor of this brewery, and it had these big open plan which looks down onto the courtyard . So unlike a normal club with everyone heads down, minimal lighting, cramped conditions, this was a big expansive loft space. Up there, you’re looking out over the whole of Leeds looking at the skyline. This lifted the atmosphere from the usual dark and dirty bass nights. I can just remember Bradley Zero brought down his rotary mixer, and this was the first rotary mixer I’d ever seen, and they were just playing song for song and by the time we got to the end of the night, there were just about 50 or 60 people left. I’ve never seen so many amazing dance moves. Everyone had a good metre around them. There was no crowding, just people lost in their element. I’ve got a few tunes from that after I went up to the front, and had to beg for a couple I’d heard which had such high energy. To see that hard core crew there at the end for the last few tunes with that much energy and power, I could see where this was going, really.

Atlantic Starr- Don't Abuse My Love: One of the final tracks played by Bradley Zero.

Now of course, the inevitable topic of coronavirus; with events called off for the foreseeable, how have you been dealing with Lockdown?

Well the first thing is a lot of sleep! It's been a couple of years of no sleep stored up, so I’ve done my best to really take it in my stride, because if we try and fight this and fight the lockdown, it’s a losing battle. Things aren’t gonna return to normal for a while. So I’ve just accepted it and worked with it. I absolutely love running events, and it's been my life for ten years. However, it’s a lot of work, effort, and financial stress. So for the first time, I don't have 5 or 6 club nights pending, and I'm trying to book all these artists. I can just relax. So now we are looking at what we can do with Brotherhood as a platform. We’ve got 10,000 followers, and a lot of people we want to stay connected with. Previously, we hadn't put much thought into things like a mix series or having more of an online presence, but now all of this coronavirus business has given us an opportunity to do that. We are getting onto friends and previous artists so we can get started with a series, and we’ve also been doing a fundraiser with Pomona Illustrations.

Yes, that did really well didn’t it. You raised about £700, didn’t you?

Yeah we did! About 3 years ago when we had changed the music, we decided we needed to rebrand the artwork. So Will (Pomona), a good friend of mine, always has artwork popping up on my feed. I just contacted him and said I absolutely love your art work, can we start doing stuff together? He agrred to get involved, I just told him that we are running parties around Leeds and there’s some great buildings around here, so let's do something with that. Other than that, you do what you want. That turned out to be a great decision because the stuff that he came back with, without all these constraints of briefs, was just amazing. So we decided to do an art exhibition at Outlaws’ Yacht Club and we made a load of prints, but we had a load left over which have been sat gathering dust in a box in my room for 3 years. So we did this fundraiser and managed to sell about 70 prints!

Artwork for Brotherhood's 8th birthday with Jeremy Underground by Pomona

And that was for the Trussell Trust, yeah?

Yeah it was, and they basically support foodbanks across the UK. We felt that this was one of the best places for the money to go at the moment. Of course there’s been a lot of high profile fundraising for the NHS, but the people who will really suffer from this crisis both now and over the next year are the people in the low income bracket. They rely on foodbanks and those food banks have been suffering as there’s nothing left over in the supermarkets due to stockpiling. So we felt that was a good cause to raise for.

Be it DJs, producers, or event organisers, what advice would you give to creatives in Leeds during this isolation period?

I would say don't let it stop you from doing something creative. Sometimes restriction creates creativity. You can't go out, you can’t go to the club, you can’t put on an events, so what would you be excited for someone to put on your plate and say 'hey I’m organising this thing over zoom, or this thing over the internet'. If you have anidea, even if it might brighten 1 or 2 people's times whilst they are in quarantine, just go ahead and do it. I think often people are held back by a fear that something won't work out, but we are literally in a position where there’s literally nothing to lose. We are in completely uncharted waters. So if you do a Zoom DJ workshops, or put out a livestream and it works, then that’s great! If it doesn’t but you’ve had fun, then it’s also a success. Don't use this time waiting until it’s over to start what you want to do. Do it now, and find a way to do it digitally.

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