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Inside Hope Works

15 May 2013


We are bouncing around in one of Sheffield's numerous cheap cabs. Holding a handle to steady myself, I angle my iPhone screen so the driver can see the map. “Sussex Road. Know it?” Already hurtling off into the city's industrial basin, the specifics of the location are still a bit fuzzy for everybody in the cab. “You going to that rave club? I think I know where it is” the driver offers back in a clipped Sheffield drawl. Without time to answer we speed through the rest of the city centre, down the hills and into the dusty cinderblock landscape that buffers Sheffield from the M1.

Concrete, exposed beams, vacuum ducts, sheet metal and yellow painted lines are a definite aesthetic. They are regularly replicated in trendy shops and restaurants the world over - trying to communicate a sense of urban authenticity. The warehouse look is a cultural shorthand for edgy, cool. This might have its origins in the way in which warehouses and disused factories have been used for nightclubs and art spaces all over. But there is a difference between the industrial feel of an Urban Outfitters and the real thing. A big difference.

For better or worse, Sheffield, like most cities in the North of England, has an abundance of industrial spaces. Most are just waiting for someone to use them or knock them down. It's a city where space is cheap. It's also a city where dance music is more than popular.

 The warehouse look is a cultural shorthand for edgy, cool.  But there is a difference between the industrial feel of an Urban Outfitters and the real thing. A big difference.

Since the birth of rave culture in the tail end of the eighties, Sheffield has had a bubbling warehouse scene. The genres change, but the principle is still the same: Warehouse, temporary bar, power source, DJs and big fuck off sound system. A good number of the city’s current mainstream clubs are even located in former factories and warehouses including DQ and the Leadmill. Over the last few years, however, there has been something of a resurgence, with spaces popping up all over the city, run on temporary licenses for a couple of events and then moving to other locations.

TENs, or Temporary Events Notices, are at the heart of the Sheffield scene. If you know what you are doing, you can apply for a TEN to sell alcohol and provide entertainment for a period of up to 7 days in an otherwise unlicensed venue. A crucial stipulation of these licenses is that you can only host 500 people using them. The result is that Sheffield parties in temporary spaces almost always sell out in advance, and are consistently intimate. This combined with unique old cutlery factories gives Sheffield a vibe of its own. Unpolished, raw, utilitarian and to the point.

One of the latest venues to open its door is Hope Works. It's where we are headed in the cab. On the drive we pass under a railway viaduct over the river that powered this city's industrial revolution, before abruptly swinging up an incline. Bright lights, a queue, fences and the din of bass tell us we have arrived. This place is literally in the middle of nowhere. The only way you can arrive is if you really mean to be here.

For the most part, no-one in Sheffield arrives at a party when it is supposed to start. It can take two or three hours from the doors opening for the party to even begin to get going. As a result, things run late. Six or seven AM is standard for the usual party, with headline DJs on around three and four.

"I think warehouse clubbing is no bullshit clubbing in a way. It's not so fake. It's real."

By one in the morning, Hope Works is packed. With the night sold out and zero footfall outside the club, the three bouncers have little to do but chill, smoke and banter. Inside the crowd is young and friendly, making an environment in which any kind of confrontation or aggression not only seems unlikely, but downright out of place.

We step out of the cab, hand over tickets, and are in. Once we pass the bouncers, gate and outdoor ticket table, there is a smoking area. On warm nights it feels full with about one hundred people. Inside, the club is based around one large room with small side rooms. About the size of an indoor football pitch, it is divided in half. The back half has a bar, a chill out area and the doors to three other rooms, separate toilets and the tiniest second room in the world! But more about that later. The other half is the dance floor. Nearly a perfect square, this dancefloor holds five hundred, packed in tight. Two enormous rigs stand either side of the stage. O'Shea, who runs the place, is a sound engineer by trade, so the system is top notch. Between the two stacks is the DJ booth. At the same height as the dance floor, it more similar to a long breakfast bar covered in decks, mixers and gear. Tonight it is a de facto space for DJs and dance music. Between the two speakers are live projections for the entire night. In addition to lasers, this is the club’s only lighting. Dark and geometric, it flows effortlessly with the techno and house music on blast. The second room is equally comedic and damn imposing. About the size of a student kitchen, it houses a booth for two DJs, and a twelve foot high speaker stack leaving about enough room for maybe ten people to dance like maniacs. Somehow it works. (If you are planning on checking it out, I would advise earplugs.)

Sheffield clubbing splits between two crowds. There are student nights, and there are other nights. The best nights out are the ones that mix things up and attract both. With current bookings, Hope Works lands at the more studenty end of the market, with an average age of twenty or so. But the mix is there. It may be studenty - but rest assured this ain't no student’s union WKD fuelled sports night out.

Liam O'Shea is the man largely behind Hope Works. A veteran of the Sheffield scene, and producer and DJ in his own right, Liam's motivations for the space are of someone directly invested and interested in dance music. His Mixed in Sheffield project, a successful attempt to bridge the boundaries of Sheffield's music scenes by providing a platform for artists to work with each other through remixing and events, is now in in its fourth year. "What I am actually about is artists in this city. My own chosen medium is music, but I am into encouraging all of it. I made a decision a few years ago that I wanted to leave a positive footprint. I wanted to make a positive impact on my own environment."

We sit down with Liam on a quiet weekday afternoon to talk about Hope Works, the history of clubbing in Sheffield, and the future of warehouses.

How did you find Hope Works and why did you choose it?

We wanted to move somewhere out of the city, in an industrial area, a proper working industrial area, and somewhere that if we wanted to do events we wouldn't get them shut down. And, if we did events, we could put massive sound systems in and there wouldn't be any problems with neighbours. There's hardly anywhere you can go in Sheffield without flats near you. And if they're not there now, they are gonna be built. So, it's becoming harder and harder to find anywhere in the centre. Hence us looking slightly outside the centre, we found this which is only like a ten minute walk from the city centre.

You've explained you want to make a positive space that is more than just a warehouse for music. So what's next?

The long term plan was always for it to be the hub of Mixed in Sheffield. A recording studio, an art space where people can do exhibitions, and ideally within that a meeting place for people, as well as occasional events. In the meantime, it's a place for people to get art up on the walls informally. But it has got a grander ambitions in the long term.

Are you gonna get a license for the venue, or keep running it on short term notices?

We are just looking into the pros and cons of it all. Ideally, it would make sense. I am looking at it long term, and it's never intended to be somewhere to just do events. It's not a club. It's a multi-function space that you can do events in.

I was asking about licensing because in writing this piece and writing about the Sheffield scene and trying to describe it to someone who is from outside, so much of the underground scene is about temporary small event spaces. And, it is a bit like this in other places as well, but it seems to me that Sheffield the scene is almost defined by the TEN. It's like it makes sure that the venues are under 500 capacity, and kind of keeps that intimacy. Do you think the city's dance music culture is defined by the TEN in this way, or what other factors do you think shape the Sheffield scene and make it what it is?

I think it's had a big part to play in it in recent years. A really big part. I don't think people were aware of the TEN a few years ago. And warehouse parties that went off were illegal. In which case, it wasn't defined. Warehouse parties are in the third wave now.  You could have ten thousand people in it or whatever, it didn't matter. Whereas now it's been chaperoned into a certain shape. So I do kind of agree with you. But it isn't just defined by that, there are all the other factors at play. For one, we've always had a healthy warehouse culture. It's a hard city to live in, there's not a lot of money, we've had to make do. We've had lots of factories and industrial decline. There's also a reaction to corporate clubbing. One of the things I like about Sheffield is the no bullshit approach. When you've got pretty things shoved under your nose, under certain conditions, I think it sends certain Sheffield people into revolt… You know what I mean; that's fucking bullshit. And I think warehouse clubbing is no bullshit clubbing in a way. It's not so fake. It's real.

The nineties was the era of the super club. I was working for various clubs then, including Capital and Niche, so I saw all of this development of things going toward 2000s. And just after 2000 it all imploded. At the time, funky house was massive, it was where house music can go - really over cheesy and glitzy. And at one point there was a revolt against all that. Warehousing is almost a reaction to an era of super clubs.

After all that imploded shortly after 2000, that's when we started searching for more intimate things. Initially, it was done illegally, and then, as I see it, as it gained more momentum and more people picked up on the idea, more people saw opportunities and eventually the dots were connected. We said, hang on, there's some legislation here that clearly allows us to do this. Clubs don't provide us with what we want, it's some other person's agenda, which is really about selling alcohol, that's all it's about, and there's a lot of creative, energetic, restless people in the city who aren't interested in anything that that type of club has to offer. It was only a matter of time before people did it.

Basically, especially in the last two or three years, it's just expanded and blossomed. And to my mind it's really put Sheffield properly on the map again clubbing wise. Because left to its own devices with just what normal clubs had to offer, we didn't have anything in any way competitive on a national footing. It was just run of the mill. And so, just coming back to it, yeah I think the TENs really have had an effect on the shape of it right now. That and people's desire for something other than what's been on offer.

You said we are in the third wave of warehouse clubbing, could you describe those epochs?

The first wave was the Cabaret Voltaire Era. When you had the Leadmill setting up, in the late eighties and that. The Leadmill is effectively an old warehouse innit. So that's kind of the hub of the first wave.

The nineties was the second wave which saw The Wicker Arches featuring heavily. It was an old railway arch in the Wicker, not a warehouse, but it had that Rawness that's associated with warehousing. I actually started my DJ career in the mid 90's and it was a place where techno was played A LOT. You also had your free party scene blossoming. Out at the boundaries of that you had lots of sound systems developing, even though it was illegal. And also going out into the Peak District, lots of parties in the Peaks. So I think the nineties was defined by the free party scene really, as an undercurrent. And actually, that free party thing ran right into the late 2000s.

"You go from Leeds to Manchester to London, it's all about warehouses."

But it's only in the last three years that warehousing has kind of really come in. I mean, it's really come into its own and it's become the number one choice of how to party. It kind of feels like it's…. I'll be careful what to say… Where's this going? I'll leave it there. Leave it there.

For me it definitely feels like it is reaching a kind of crescendo and I wonder where it's going to go. Whether it's going to pop, or if this resurgence of house music and techno is going to keep growing. What do you think the trajectory is gonna be in a couple of years?

There are a few things at play at the moment. I think you are right in saying that we are reaching a crescendo, and it's definitely nationally, maybe internationally, but I know definitely nationally, everyone does warehousing. You go from Leeds to Manchester to London, it's all about warehouses. Even more glitzy house nights are going 'warehouse rave'. Everyone does it. And on the back of it, I do feel a bit of resurgence of, now it's called deep house, but it used to be called funky house. They've kind of renamed something, and where that kind of thing goes is to Big Room House, like the Roger Sanchezes of the world. That type of thing. Please don't get me wrong. I like vocals, I like soul, I like R'n'B and I like soulful House Music....it's just that as things get very commercial I feel that depth in the music is lost. For me, it has little interest at this point.

Added to that I don't know about you but I just see most of the energy, the youth energy at the moment is in electronic music. Bands, what's going on with bands? No one is really interested in seeing bands at all. At all! I've never noticed it this empty for bands. It’s like electronic music has caught on to the extent that it's not a scene; it's what all kids do. They go to electronic events. And kids with everything on offer now, that's what they've chosen.

Do you think there is this danger of dance music becoming way more commercial, especially on the events side?

Ultimately I'd say it's a good thing became it opens more people up to the possibilities. You know, there will be all the commercial stuff that doesn't really interest me so much. Brilliant, someone is doing that. That caters for that lot of people. I am more interested in the more left field, the more underground side of things. So while there's a big overground, there'll be an underground. Bigger the overground, bigger the underground as well.