As one of the UK’s most creative cities, Bristol has seen countless people pass through its doors. But whilst many come and go, the DJ Chris Farrell (owner of Idle Hands Records) has been there for the long haul.
Bristol city is a UK landmark for culture, with a noticeably vibrant music scene that dates back to the late 70’s. From the Jamaican sound-system culture of these formative years, the 80’s brought with it Hip Hop and the city’s owned unique twist – Trip Hop, epitomised by world renowned Bristolian artists like Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty.
Roni Size’s hugely influential Reprazent collective (teamed with artists Suv, Fynn, Krust and DJ Die) established its roots in Bristol, and with it – Drum & Bass was unleashed to a global audience. The soundtrack was a high octane 170 bpm carnival, peppered with the rapturous rat-a-tat of Gregory Sylvester Coleman’s Amen breaks sample.
By the mid 2000’s, an incandescent bassline painted the scene for a new wave – Dubstep. Spearheads would place Bristol on the map as the dubstep city. Tom Ford, aka Peverelist, later opened his shop Rooted Records, which for a short while would prove integral in providing the city with a home for vinyl collectors and the wider music community in general.
In 2010, Rooted records sadly closed down and with its omission a large hole was left in the fabric of the city’s music community. Chris Farrell, whom had worked at Rooted (alongside Imperial music and Replay records) was at the time running his own label, but when persuaded by a friend to take on the responsibility of running a record store in Bristol’s stagnating environment, he hesitantly proceeded with trepidation.
I ask Chris if he is glad that he made that decision over four years ago. He responds: “There’s days when I think it’s the best idea i’ve ever had, and there are days when I think it’s the worst. But generally I’m pleased to be doing what I’m doing, and actually 4 and a half years on we’re in a much stronger position than we’ve ever been and I can see us being here for a long time. I’m glad I do what I do.”
“Don’t be scared to test yourself, or to ask questions”
Bristol’s music community is strong, but for businesses operating in the city it can be both disappointing and unrelenting. Chris tries to explain the cause for this, saying “There’s not enough money, there’s not enough punters, there’s not enough fucking whatever. If you want to make a go of something, you’ve got to end up diluting what you do and then you’re just putting on shit.” Chris’ anxieties seem heightened by the fact that we’re in August – notoriously known for being the hardest time of the year for record stores. “Right so we’ve been stood here chattin’ for what 20 minutes, and like one person has come into the shop”.
“Generally in August it’s a fucking ghost town”
With this observation on topic, Record Store Day comes to mind. What with recent remarks from indie labels Howling Owl and Sonic Cathedral slamming the event as a big marketing spin, with detrimental effects on small record stores, I ask Chris on his opinion of the matter. “It is two things. Firstly, it fucks up the schedules. Generally Spring and Autumn are the key times to put out records, but because of record store day, a lot of stuff is coming out in August, which is actually a shit time for us you know. The other part of it is that as a label owner it completely screws release schedules to the point where I can’t get records out in time, and a lot of us are working to small budgets, and trying to move stuff around – and if there are production delays and things are taking longer, it’s harder to get stuff out. However, It can be looked at as the best day of the year and I work really hard to make it a good day and we take fucking loads of money. I like that part of it.”
“People value human relations here, more than they do in London where it’s aggressively individualistic”
Bristol’s musical landscape is one of resourcefulness. Currently caught in the sweeping winds of house music that have gripped nightclubs the world over, the city has been the platform for a number of prominent producers to bubble to the surface. Artists like Julio Bashmore, Shanti Celeste, Appleblim, Breach, Eats Everything, Kowton, Phaeleh (the list goes on) will allow their music to reach the farthest corners of the globe, whilst organisations like Futureboogie, Team Love, and Hypercolour have the resources to support that. So it comes with great confusion then to see the city suffering so badly from a lack of music venues. In Chris’ opinion: “I don’t see it being resolved really. The thing about running a nightclub is that you have a couple of nights to actually make money. Now any clubs that were opened here in the last 10 years that were opened on a labour of love thing – they end up having to stop doing it. It’s mostly just a financial constraint. We have heard recently about more pop-up venues happening – which is interesting – but it would be great to have a dedicated club, dedicated to underground music, with a good sound system, and good door policy, and a free kind of attitude.”
But when asked to compare that to the changes we’re seeing in London, Chris passionately remarks “London is fucked! They’re getting screwed at the moment. Underground culture is being trampled on, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg – before we talk about the social cleansing that’s going on. Where are all the good clubs in the UK? I’ve heard Hope Works in Sheffield is good. In Glasgow you’ve still got the Sub Club, and Manchester is kind of cool, but it’s different vibes you know”.
Chris, what are your favourite jams at the moment?
“Benjamin Brunn and the stuff coming from Workshop records // Wake Up! records // Hunee – Hunch Music”
The London/ Bristol connection is a funny one though. Often looked down upon by “sniffy” Londoners, “joking about it being the graveyard of ambition”, Bristol like Berlin has in recent years begun to see a diaspora of out-priced Londoners making the move to the city for cheap rent without the compromise in culture. “You’ve got more room to do your own thing down here” Chris points out, going on to say that “actually some of the methods that work in London don’t work here because it’s not as cut-throat, and actually people value human relations here more than they do in London, where it’s aggressively individualistic”. And now with plans for a high speed rail network to connect the two cities in forty minutes, it seems like the future is set to integrate the two further.
“People from London would be pretty sniffy about the west country, joking about it being a graveyard of ambition. Now we’re at a position where you actually have people from London moving up here”
Chris’ vivacious enthusiasm for music is palpable and his successes are evidently drawn from this driving force. But in a changing landscape, where the pressures of running a profitable record store and label require dynamic strategy, I ask Chris how services like Landr and Qrates affect his business. [Regarding Qrates] “I imagine it’s just something for the middle classes to get gassed about their own releases (laughs). It’s fitting in with this fetishisation of vinyl. I think people can be a bit precious about it, and it can become a status symbol as opposed to a good format to listen to music.” [Regarding Landr] “You know, so I run BRSTL with my friend Shanti Celeste, and the other day we found out that we couldn’t use our usual mastering house, so we were like what the fuck else are we going to use? We’ve got such a good relationship with them and we want to use other people but we were like, we don’t want to lose what it is.” I think it is this romantic traditionalism in Chris that flows through his (at times) pessimistic viewpoints. It’s an endearing thing to be in the presence of people like this, not tainted by the grinding mechanism of the capitalist throw away culture.
Whilst on the subject of BRSTL, I ask Chris what advice he can offer DJs looking to get a record signed on his label: “Just write some good fucking tunes and don’t piss me off. Maybe blow a bit of smoke up my arse, tell me how great I am, and buy me a beer [laughs]. A lot of the stuff we sign is around our friendship group. And we have a bunch of core artists that we’d like to keep using. But a new artist needs a whole package you know, like you feel you can get behind them, like they’re a cool DJ or just a cool person. I’m very fucking particular. Shanti is pretty open to stuff.”
I ask Chris if he’d ever look to expand the Idle Hands reach further afield. He seems pretty sensitive to the idea, calling it ‘distasteful’. “The only other place I’d go would be Berlin, and I wouldn’t open a record shop in Berlin – there’s fucking loads of them. I fully expected someone else to start up a store in Bristol, but I think they’re going to find it fucking tough. And if they do, send the heavies around to let them know who is in charge [laughs].”
When asked what he does outside of the store, he banally replies “I don’t have a life outside of the shop”. I try to probe further – he offers me something to chew on; “I like reading about politics, history, I like fashion too. Life is about learning and that’s what I try and do: know stuff, and be that smart arse with an answer in the pub. I’m fascinated by 20th century, left-wing history, youth culture – you know, like what’s the correct amount of buttons on a shirt or how to wear your shoes properly. You know, my parents were both from that kind of soul scene, Mods when they were teens, and becoming Soul Boys/ Skinheads. I’m interested in British working class culture.”
I pick up on Chris’s affiliation with the working classes. Looking at the social construct of music, Chris’s observation is an interesting one – as he goes on to say; “there’s also a lot of fucking chancers who make terrible music but have good connections whether it’s from daddy or uncle, and as I get older you see that more, and when you do see people from ordinary backgrounds get through its more of an achievement.
Chris and myself had been speaking for about forty minutes, and by now I’d begun to get an idea for his interest in social politics. Like some esoteric anthropologist, selling vinyl by day and deconstructing the works of Nietzsche by night, his sharp honesty resonates a sense of sagacity. It seemed like a perfect theme to roll our conversation out on by asking Chris to explain what Turbo Island was. “It’s a fucking shit hole! [Laughs]. It’s a piece of land opposite the shop that doesn’t belong to anybody, and is traditionally where people who’ve fallen between the cracks of society congregate to drink booze and shout at each other. But more recently, Stokes Croft is COOL, and people wanna have fucking picnics on there. And I’m like – I’ve seen people take a shit there [laughs]. It’s kind of like the epicentre of weird Bristol, and a fucking pain in the arse as well!!!”
“Life is about learning and that’s what I try and do”