Music interview: 100 years of the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Nathan Clark at Brudenell Social Club. Picture: Steve Riding
Nathan Clark at Brudenell Social Club. Picture: Steve Riding
0
Have your say

DOTTED around the walls of the Brudenell Social Club are a series of posters advertising forthcoming concerts.

Cult artists such as The Wedding Present, The Fall, American singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson and reformed 90s shoegazing band Loop are all due to play at the Hyde Park venue in the next couple of weeks.

What you won’t find are any banners proclaiming a looming anniversary for the club. This week it celebrates its 100th anniversary but, true to the spirit of understatement about the place, it seems festivities will be on a modest scale.

Nathan Clark, who took over the running of the venue from his parents Malcolm and Patricia in 2004, explains the Brudenell was founded in 1913. “There’s a bit of ambiguity over how it started. The story goes it was a group of wealthy businessmen who started it as a not-for-profit social enterprise for the community that can’t be affiliated to any particular party or any kind of movement. It had got to be 100 per cent neutral and independent.

“Unlike every other typical social club it has never been affiliated to any CIU [the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union] or typical club body. It’s one of the reasons why it’s given it more flexibility to be able to go out from the strict guidelines of the CIU and other places.

“It was formed as a business in late November 1913. The old clubhouse at [what is now] the car park was opened on December 2.”

It seems the club’s founders originally had eyes on a site at the top of Queens Road. The following year, 1914, that opened as the Hyde Park Picture House. “There was some weird covenant back then from Lord Cardigan, who owned this area, that said no licensed establishments could be built within a square mile of his manor on Cardigan Road,” Nathan explains. “That’s why Haddon Hall [in nearby Kirkstall] is just outside it and the war veterans’ club was built further down the road.”

For 65 years the venue operated as a meeting point for the local community in a wooden hut. “Skip forward to 1978 and the old building started to come into disrepair,” says Nathan. “They decided to build this [brick] one. It opened on November 30, 1978 and was officially opened a week later, on December 7.

“Within the space of two weeks a lot of anniversaries fall about the opening of this building and the formation of the club.”

Remarkably, it seems that none of the club’s rules have really changed over the years. “Things made have always gone back into the place,” says Nathan. “There’s still a lot put back into the community.”

One regular patron is aged 93, another is 84. “There are still people who’ve been coming here for more than 60 years who are important to the place and make it what it is,” Nathan says.

Thirty-three-year-old Nathan’s association with the Brudenell began in 1992, when his parents became its licencees. “I was 12 years old when I started glass collecting here,” he recalls.

Patricia Clark remains an important figure at the club. She’s the first to greet me as I arrive, quickly offering a large mug of cappuccino. It seems she’s welcoming to all the bands that appear at the venue. “Instantly they feel more welcome and at home than at a lot of other places, “ says Nathan. Indeed he recalls a 12-piece band once turned up with 10 bags of laundry; by the next morning they were returned to them, washed and clean.

When his father fell ill nine years ago, Nathan Clark quit a Masters degree in business and “kind of took over” the running of the Brudenell. It was a fast learning curve. “I had a background in playing football,” he says. “It was not as though I had gone out to be a promoter or anything like that. Things like I was doing this morning – beer line cleaning – they came naturally, I’d seen it over time.” He strove to learn best practice from others in the profession. “We’ve never gone out to be big promoters, just somewhere that puts on good music, entertainment and arts.”

The biggest turning point in the club’s recent history happened with the change of licensing laws and the advent of the smoking ban in 2007. At that point it operated to become a fully public venture, rather than a members’ club, as it had been for 94 years. “We had to make a decision to evolve or die,” says Nathan.

The new flexibility meant “we could appeal to more of a wider audience” and the diversity of acts they’ve booked ever since, from Johnny Marr of The Smiths and Albert Hammond Jr of The Strokes to the rather less well-known Bosnian Rainbows or Psychic Ills, continues to reflect that.

“We’ve strived not to pigeonhole ourselves in any way,” says Nathan. “We don’t just put on one genre of music. We’ve had beer festivals and comedy, lots of other different aspects such as Bettakultcha [who stage talking events]. We keep close links with all the universities and colleges in Leeds.”

Situated in the heart of Leeds’s student land, the 400-capacity Brudenell draws a sizeable audience from undergraduates. “If you look at this area it has the highest population of 18 to 25-year-olds in the country within 1.2 square miles of this location,” Nathan acknowledges. “It’s the most densely populated area in the country, even more so than Greater London. It has the highest concentration of people living in student houses than any area in the UK.”

When the club suffered a sizeable dip in its audience in the late 1990s as “a lot of the community sold their houses and moved on”, those running the Brudenell knew it had to appeal to a younger demographic. “Music was one of the things that happened,” says Nathan. “There was no plan to do that. It just coincided with various DIY local musicians and groups wanting to put on shows here – people like Mike Jolley of Cloth Cat, the old Cops and Robbers scene – they brought Deerhoof before anyone had heard of them – and the Termite Club that put on a lot of noise events. They brought some of the weirdest things to Leeds.”

Today the club is thriving, as the constant phone calls and emails that arrive during our conversation attest. Yet the guiding principles remain the same. “Our ethos is the next person stood at the end of the bar could be the next local for 10 years, we treat everyone equally,” Nathan says. “As much as we are supportive of the community, we realise it’s got to carry on as well, to be inclusive rather than exclusive.”

They even work together with local breweries, such as Kirkstall, so the prices of drinks are reasonable. “We want to appear that we are not taking advantage of people just because they are a captive audience.”

The bill they have gathered together to mark the Brudenell’s centenary is typically varied. “When we were looking to do something for the anniversary I’ve always been very aware it was not about getting the biggest band possible,” Nathan says. “That would detract from what it’s about. So it’s an eclectic mixture that ticks a lot of boxes for a whole range of genres that expressed the values of what we like as a music venue.”

Thus the acts coming up in the next two weeks include The Wedding Present (“a cultish band with Leeds roots”), the briefly reformed !Forward Russia! (“a Leeds band who are going to play a one-off”), The Fall (“a band that have the same way of doing things as us – the way they keep going against what should actually work”), Rocket From the Crypt and Girls Against Boys (“that hits the punk audience”), Loop (“a classic old cult band”) and Jonathan Wilson (“the first time we booked him we got on really well and he chose to come back and play his only UK show here”).

Nathan seems proud of the affinity the club has built up with the many of the musicians who have performed there over the years. Its intimate atmosphere is justly appreciated by bands and music lovers alike. He recalls how once cult musician seemed perturbed by the absence of a barrier between the audience and the stage. “We don’t have barriers here,” he says. “There’s a bit more of an atmosphere. Once you take down barriers people see they are not going to carry on.”

Nathan’s own favourite shows over the last few years have included Tuneyards (“she was just sensational”), Edwyn Collins (“he’s someone we have a relationship with”) and double bill of Explosions in the Sky and ForTet. “I could go on forever,” he says. “There have been many great performances.”

Another personal highlight was the Tom Tom Club, the US group formed by Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, formerly of multi-million-selling band Talking Heads. The group played an exclusive warm-up date at the Brudenell before their appearance at this year’s Glastonbury festival. “They parked their van in our car park and we went around with them for a couple of days. It was strange seeing Tina and Chris buying bread from the local shop. We became friends,” Nathan smiles.

For further information on the Brudenell Social Club’s centenary concerts visit www.brudenellsocialclub.co.uk

Musicians sing the praises of ‘hidden gem’

Whiskas of ¡Forward Russia!: “I don’t think Forward Russia had ever thought about playing another show again, I certainly hadn’t. But when Nath asked Tom and myself to play a show for the Brudenell’s 100th birthday it didn’t take long to decide this one good reason to do it.”

David Martin of I Like Trains: “The Brudenell is very much our spiritual home. I couldn’t say how many times we’ve played there, or how many unbelievable shows I’ve witnessed there. It has quite rightly become a world renowned venue, with bands falling over themselves to play it, and yet it still maintains a certain ‘hidden gem’ status within Leeds. Nathan has always supported us, and we’re really pleased that we can be part of the Brudenell’s centenary celebrations.”

MJ of Hookworms: “I’ve lived in the same house in Hyde Park for eight years now and pretty much the only reason I’ve stayed there is for the Brudenell. It’s easily my favourite music venue in the country either to play or to see gigs at and the beer is amazing. Thanks, Nathan.”

Katie Harkin of Sky Larkin: “The impact of the Brudenell Social Club on the history of Leeds music is something history will surely measure. Someone’s definitely going to write a book about it. In fact if anyone would like to print one, I’ll write it myself.”

David Gedge of The Wedding Present: “When our booking agent said that we’d been invited to play at the Brudenell Social Club as part of their 100th anniversary I actually thought it was a misprint. I thought... hasn’t that place been going about 10 years?

“I’m aware of the venue by virtue of the lengthy list of noteworthy artists that have played there, which includes some ‘big’ names that you would never expect to play in such intimate surroundings, but I had no idea about it’s historic status. I’ve never actually visited the club myself because I stopped living in Leeds in the early 2000s, but many of my friends tell me it’s their favourite venue in the city.

So I’m really looking forward to making my first trip... I’m just sorry it’s taken me 100 years to get there!