People of the Party #4 - Church Of Sound
Since its inception in early 2016, East London’s Church of Sound (co-founded by Lex Blondin and Spencer Martin) has provided one of the foremost platforms for the UK’s burgeoning jazz scene. The team regularly host some of the finest contemporary jazz musicians, from the likes of London wonderkid Moses Boyd to Afrobeat-inspired collective, Kokoroko. This all takes place within the intimate, unique setting of St James The Great Church, Clapton.
As well as the unique setting, music and vibe, money from the event’s tickets sales goes towards music education outreach programme, the Abram Wilson Foundation, through a partnership with us here at PFTP. Ahead of last month’s show (featuring Nick Walters and his 12 piece ensemble), we caught up with co-founder Spencer Martin to talk in-depth about Church of Sound, the rise of London’s scene, the impact of the Abram Wilson Foundation and more..
To kick things off, what is Church of Sound?
Spencer: So Church of Sound is a monthly gig in Clapton, at St. James The Great Church, with most of the music being rooted in Jazz. Usually at the start of the night there is about two hours in which people just hang out, eat and listen to records. And then for the next three hours or so we have a band go really hard, usually for two sets, with a break in the middle. Usually we have a set of covers first, and then a set of originals, usually split but sometimes they are all combined in to one. It’s developed a bit over the course of time.
When we started out it was like, "shit, we need some people to actually come", so let’s say the band will at least play some covers that people will recognise. The first gig we had, which was Yussef Kamaal (Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams), we were really thinking at the time that Yussef’s playing sounded like Idris Muhammad’s playing, so it just made sense.
The great thing about having the two sets is - if you get a headline band in that nobody knows, but playing the music of a well-known artist - people will come in with the sense that “I think this is good already”, so they don’t have to be won over. That’s what they get from the first set, in raw terms. And then by the 2nd set, which are originals - everybody in the room has already accepted that these guys are fucking sick, which is great because that is a really hard thing to achieve in the gig. Usually, in the first half of a set it’s like the band trying to convince everyone that they’re worth their time. But with our structure, you just skip that shit right out.
It’s great - what it means is that you can have a really not-known band play the gig, and not only will lots of people come but also they will also go and listen to the band’s music afterwards, see it slightly through the frame of the covers, but also accept it as on a platform with that. I didn’t realise that shit to be honest, until it started happening.
Cool, so you just tried something new, and it so happened that it really worked and you just ran with it..
Yeh I mean that is really not a bad description of most of Church of Sound really.. It just so happened that most of it went right, quite early on.
Looking back at some of your previous gigs, the ‘covers’ section is often focussed on 1 artist or discography. But tonight, the songs are picked from a few artists. Why is this?
So yeah it’s a few heads tonight.. It varies from time to time. Like sometimes the band will come in and say, “we really want to do it this way”, and we’ll be all for it. Sometimes, we’ll approach a band and say “do you want to try doing this”. Other times, we’ll say “but what if we try doing it a bit more like this”, say a retrospective of a certain era, or a particular style. It’s really whatever suits the band, and whatever suits us really.
So it’s collaborative?
Yeh, sometimes it’s been very hands off. But as time has gone on, Lex (the other co-founder) has taken a heavier hand in making sure the music has been what we want it to be, which is a tricky line to tread. It depends whether you think of us as ‘promoters’ or not, basically. If you think of us as promoters, and we’re saying, “well we want you to play this sort of stuff” - that smacks of someone saying “okay mate, we’ll give you 200 quid to DJ but you have to play Hip Hop, R&B and party classics”. But if you think of us more as creators of something, and that there is a collaborative element to the curation of the night, then it becomes legit. So yeah it’s a tricky line to tread.
There’s a lot of buzz surrounding UK Jazz, and particularly London Jazz at the moment. What’s your take on this revival? And where do you see Church of Sound fitting in with this?
Well yeah it’s always nuanced, so it’s never as simple as like “Church Of Sound has been really good for the Jazz scene.. Or it’s thanks to Total Refreshment Centre (TRC) that this or that happened or whatever..” But it’s not like we haven’t benefited the scene either. A lot of articles tend not to be written in a very nuanced way. Unless the journalist is given time or room to actually space out and muse on the possibility of two things being true at the same time..
What I think is that Church of Sound came into existence at just the right time, to then receive a lot of credit for the things we’ve put on.. Even though things have been brewing for years before us man, and some of that’s down to TRC, a lot of it is down to Jazz Re:freshed, Tomorrow’s Warriors..
And Tomorrow’s Warriors is the education and teaching aspect right?
Yeh so basically Tomorrow’s Warriors have been doing workshops in schools for ages, and saying to kids, “come hang out and play some music”. They were the first black-focussed workshop system to exist in the UK school system, so I’m told. Obviously that’s going to make a huge difference. And in the first year we did Church of Sound, pretty much every single band we put on, there would be at least one person who had been part of Tomorrow’s Warriors like 10 years before. So there is a very clear lineage there, where we could see like “this wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for that”.
Something that we’ve been able to contribute actively to the scene, is create a very popular night, sell lots of tickets, but by putting on bands that aren’t that famous or popular yet. We don’t rely on big names or need someone to be big before we decide to put them on at a gig. I’d say we were early proof that music like this, could be massive. I mean we only have a 350 cap, but you know, we can pack out a room. So that is something that we’ve managed to do, that wasn’t really happening before.
TRC did a better job at doing stuff small as well. Lex has done a lot of gigs similar to here, but because TRC was open every night, it was never like “shit, it’s TRC tonight”, which is what we have just by virtue of not being able to be open every week. So with TRC, it was more committed, like “we’ll put you on because we really love you.. We’ll probably lose money on you”. You need that TRC-type place earlier in the chain than us, to get those guys then good enough to come here and play on a larger scale. We’re basically later in the chain, than say TRC, Tomorrow’s Warriors, Jazz re:freshed - but we couldn’t exist without them.
Just thinking more broadly about UK and London Jazz, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of young people involved, and interested in the music. It’s no longer a middle-aged type of scene and pursuit. What’s behind this?
Yeh you’re right, but it’s hard to say why, there are so many hundreds of threads coming together at the same time. Obviously, there are the guys I just mentioned. It’s definitely key that Tomorrow’s Warriors were allowing these young people a place to play this kind of music. Basically, allowing a lot of young people to get really into a type of music, will result in that type of music getting big, further down the road.
There’s also an argument to be made that you could relate it to the vinyl revival, you know, old Jazz records. Even things like Youtube, it’s been like 10 years since that really became a really big part of people’s lives. So you’d have young people on Youtube, listening to whatever they want. I reckon stuff like that contributed, it did for me anyway - I can remember sitting around on Youtube and listening to bare old Jazz songs. My way into Jazz was because all my teachers at school who taught Classical were wack, in my head, but all the ones who taught Jazz were fucking cool. So that was it for me, I was like “well I want to be cool” so I’m gonna hang out with those guys. Obviously then I became a Church organist so I slightly fucked it haha.
Jazz music is traditionally dance music right.. and it seems to be played in club settings and DJ sets more now too. What is it about the style that makes it work you think?
Yeh it’s definitely a type of dance music. You know what, you might actually be better off asking Lex that question, he’s the guy who really loves DJing Jazz. He’s also super into Jazz Dance, that was a style of dancing and music that was produced at a certain period of time, I can’t remember when exactly.. But yeh Jazz played as part of a club set can be really exciting. Part of it is a DJ being like “check this out”, which you know is the DJ prerogative. Also, it’s a bit like the covers and originals thing, if you hear something alongside the next thing it allows you to contextually reframe it.
We see you guys have a strong link with Abram Wilson Foundation. A cut of the PFTP ticketing fees from your events are directed to this cause. Can you tell us a bit more about who they are and what they do?
Yeh so Abram Wilson exists to try and encourage young people in disadvantaged living situations, to allow themselves to be creative and see what that feels like for them. And that’s pretty sick, I’m really into that. I’ve seen first hand the results that they get and the happiness they spread amongst these people, and it’s super tight. Last year we did these workshops with them in some schools and you know, some of these kids are having such a wack time at home, but then they come in and hang out with all their crew, and play all this music. And it’s so sick, everyone’s having a great time. Then they got to come here and play this big gig, shining lights and all that and it’s just so tight for them. Abram Wilson do that stuff everyday, in different ways.
Also they were mentoring Moses Boyd at the time of our second gig, when he played for us. They’re just part of that world, they’re very switched on and really capable of doing a lot of stuff that we’re not. We have a mutually beneficial relationship, and they mentor us in a way too. Also their association with us also makes them look cool - foundations and stuff often struggle with image and reaching out to people. And through us, we just get to say their name all the time, that’s how we benefit them. It’s just a mutually beneficial relationship, in the best type of way. It’s like what we were saying earlier about donating a proportion of the booking fee, how you guys do .. it’s just a good idea, and there is no downside.
Thanks for the chat Spencer.
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By: Arthur Dickinson
Images: Lorna Robertson