Something is stirring in the old streets of York. Whilst it’s easy to dismiss the local music scene in York as stagnant and uninspiring, plagued by tribute acts and open mic nights too frequented by acoustic singer-songwriters, when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find fantastic people who are passionate about offering the city something fresh and exciting. One of these fine folks is Dan Johnson, creator of a new DIY gig promotion company, Odd Horizon. I caught up with Dan for a coffee in one of his usual haunts, Dusk, to talk about making things happen for yourself.
The roots of Odd Horizon began in Dan’s second year as a music student at the University of York, when he started putting on gigs at The Woolpack with his best friend and electronic musician, Jack McNeil, who is now based in Berlin. The Woolpack used to play host to a lively independent scene, especially for local punk and indie bands. Unfortunately, it changed hands in 2014, and ceased to operate as a venue. While initially it seemed that the loss of The Woolpack would leave a hole in York’s DIY scene, venues such as The Fulford Arms, which has a monthly bill of both local and touring bands, and more recently, The Crescent, have jumped in to keep live music alive and kicking in York.
York falls somewhat in the shadow of Leeds, its bigger, badder neighbour, which boasts a thriving DIY scene especially in punk, hardcore, electronic and ska. Originally from “the Southest part of the South, Hertfordshire, dahling” Dan has fallen in love with the North and claims the scene in Leeds to be his biggest inspiration. Though Leeds has somehow, too, slipped under the radar of musical history, unlike Manchester, with its legacy of The Smiths, Factory Records and ‘Madchester’, Leeds doesn’t bear a definitive place. However, with the prominence of home-grown bands like Hookworms and Eagulls, and the excellence of its independent venues, Leeds’ DIY scene is edging into the spotlight. The London-centric belief that nothing happens outside of the big smoke is being shaken, and the booming independent music scenes in both cities are proving that it ain’t so grim up North. So, could it be possible for York to feed off this energy and draw a place for itself on The North’s DIY map? Odd Horizon is taking it one step at a time.
Dan cites Joe Coates of the fellow York-based promoter Please Please You as a great inspiration, as a figurehead of York’s independent music scene. In the three or so years in which Dan has lived in the city, he says he’s already seen a musical awakening, from his early days here when Fibbers and Duchess were literally all York offered. His share of bad experiences both as a musician and a promoter, especially being ripped off by larger and less-than-fairly-organised venues, have formed the foundation for Odd Horizon’s ethos. He aims to build an independent company based on mutual respect between promoter and artist. Whilst larger gig promoters are driven by profit-making, at the expense of the bands being paid fairly, Dan treats Odd Horizon as his hobby, and aims to carve out a name for himself as a principled promoter who engages with a community of artists, offering them more than pure “exposure”. For him, it’s an investment, both for himself and for the city and its people.
Odd Horizon’s first gig happened on 22nd January at Dusk, with five piece shoegaze rockers Rain, supported by indie band Frames and melodious alt rock four-piece MOM. Dan tells me he was a little nervous since Rain had driven five hours from Swindon especially for the gig, but all three acts went down a storm, with MOM saying it was the “best gig they’d ever played.” For Dan, the most rewarding part of the experience is the opportunity to meet fascinating, talented and inspiring people from all over the country. He conducted the whole thing in truly independent style, taking everything upon himself and somehow managing both the door and the sound engineering. He tells me he’s “never had a gig where something didn’t go wrong” and his key piece of advice for anyone who wants to put on their own shows is “to always have your own stuff, as something always breaks.” Dan plans to host an Odd Horizon gig every last Friday of the month at Dusk, with the next event on the 26th February. Billed for the show is dreamy alt-pop/rockers Exit Earth, Leeds trap-hop duo Lab Partners and the immersive ambient soundscapes of Antiphonal. We talk a little bit about Dan’s other plans, including a possible show around International Women’s Day to challenge gender inequality in music and display women’s contributions to the DIY scene, as well as regular, more intimate gigs at The Fossgate Social, and an Odd Horizon festival in future years.
As our conversation draws to a close, we’re joined by Odd Horizon’s artist, Ellie Sutherland, responsible for the branding and poster art work. It’s early days for Odd Horizon and though this new wave of DIY music in York is also young, it’s definitely gaining momentum. And the greatest thing about living in small, friendly city where everyone likes to help each other out? You can make your mark too: all it takes is a few passionate people dedicated to shaking up the habitual here, and York could be championing its own enviable independent music scene. Dip your toes in and you’ll hear things that will surprise you.By Sophie Brear