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Art by the Shedload

March 22, 2012

In my time I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time chilling in the Barri Gotic district of Barcelona. A million miles for the new town of Milton Keynes, the streets are actually narrow, winding alleys littered with small boutiques and bars. Not a chain store to be seen. Many of the clothes shops put their rails away in the early evening, pull out some turntables or get a band in, adjust the lighting and set up as a bar until the wee, small hours. It’s cool, quirky, resourceful and I love it. Barcelona has a great many things that MK can only dream of; history, the sea, an innate sense of community identity and a world class football team. Oh, and a music scene.

Venues have come and gone, The Pitz and The Sanctuary to name two of the most significant ones, and local musicians can only look on with envy at places like Northampton, that continue to thrive. The Craufurd Arms in Wolverton seems to have picked up from where The Pitz left off, but unless you have narrow tastes, you might be left disappointed by their fayre. What they do they do well, but who wants to go to a restaurant and eat the same meal every night? Variety is the spice of life and all that.

In November last year I was invited by an artist friend of mine to show at a venue I’d never heard of before. The Watershed is tucked away at the far end of Tickford Arcade in Newport Pagnell. It is neither lurking, menacingly in the shadows, nor indulging in a game of hide-and-seek with the world that it hopes to set some kind of record for. It is simply where it is, doing what it does. Just being itself. And we should be thankful and the richer for it. The moment I set foot inside, I was transported back to the Barri Gotic. The short walk down the arcade probably helped, but there was an instant and tangible sense of diversity, warmth and friendliness, all entirely unthreatening and deliciously bohemian. Artists were exchanging anecdotes, phone numbers and casually chatting about their ‘journeys’. Musicians were setting up P.A.s and running cables from A to B. Acoustic instruments were being picked up, played and the wise and initiated were relaxing with cans on sofas whilst some played Sonic on an old Mega Drive.

Toy Horses at The Watershed 04/03/12
Photo - cariadweez

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get a press pass for the Toy Horses gig. Let me put this into perspective quickly. Toy Horses are Stephen Fry’s, “favourite, new indie band.” Mr Fry has just broken the 4million followers on Twitter barrier. Last year, Toy Horses were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. They have played SXSW. They could be described as ‘quite big’. The Watershed, on the other hand, can’t. Even estate agents would be stretching credibility by describing it as ‘compact and bijou’. That The Watershed was able to host this gig in the first place is one thing. The fact that the band tweeted that it was their favourite venue of the tour is another. Yet for Andy, the man behind The Watershed, it may be a source of great pride, but nothing completely out-of-the-ordinary.

At the end of March 2012, The Watershed celebrates its first birthday. It is often said that what makes any venue are the personalities behind the bricks and mortar and in Andy, along with his partner Jen, there are two determined, focussed, forthright and yet refreshingly warm and open human beings.

“It’s everybody’s living room,” beams Andy as we break into our coffees. We are downstairs in the bar area, but yes, with its sofas, piano, artwork and TV monitor (which is linked to a camera upstairs that feeds back performances) it does feel homely. There is barely a square inch of wall that hasn’t been utilised as a canvas in one way or other and I’m pretty sure it’s advert free. It has character in exactly the same way that Milton Keynes hasn’t.

“I always thought this was perfect,” he continues. “It’s compact and social. Small equals lower overheads. And it has to be bona fide. Advertising is by word of mouth. Our Facebook and Twitter pages never lose followers and we never add them. Everyone adds themselves.”

“I’ve always been into music,” Andy declares as I ask what music influences he has. But from a man sporting a well-cultivated set of dreadlocks, I am mildly surprised, and no less impressed as he cites the Pet Shop Boys as one of his first favourite bands. “Nirvana became a massive influence on my life, but I still love The Beach Boys and Kim Wilde too.”

Now there’s a quartet I never thought I’d mention in the same paragraph!

It’s clear that Andy and Jen’s style is both eclectic and selective. When it comes to the acts, Andy is, once again, true to his beliefs. “We have acts all the time, but a lot of them you’re never going to have heard of. But they’re all handpicked and booked by people who have listened to them or checked them out and actually think, ‘yeah that’s worth putting on’. It’s not just booked by availability, that’s what the Open Mic’s for. If you just want to get a spot here to play, just come and play at the Open Mic. If you want us to book you for a gig, send us a demo. We’ll listen to it. If we like it, we like it. If we see something in it that other people might like and we can see that you believe in it, then we’ll get it on at some point. But there’s no point being offended if we don’t want it here because we are pretty selective.”

But there have been ‘names’ like Toy Horses and Cosmo Jarvis and later this month The Watershed plays host to Carter USM’s Jim Bob, which is down, in no small part, to Andy’s connections. Yet this is the first time he has run a venue and he admits there is a lot of making it up as they go along. I find this willingness to improvise pleasing, however, Andy has a plan. And he’s shrewd enough to play his cards close to his chest.

“I know what the plan is. I don’t talk about it. People who know what I’m about and people who are part of the ‘unincorporated collective’, they kind of know what the big plan is. I don’t boast about it for two reasons. Partly, it might be a pipe dream that doesn’t go anywhere, it might not work and I don’t like looking stupid and say I’m going to do things and then not do them. And secondly, it’s an absolutely brilliant idea and some other sod will steal it!”

It’s a shame really, because The Watershed is unique and would, by definition be impossible to replicate. Yes, the bricks and mortar, but not the characters. What Milton Keynes is crying out for is a vibrant, healthy music scene and that will only come when others with Andy’s drive and passion step up and make it happen. That said, there is enormous scope for live theatre and comedy, as well as the music, and plans are afoot to deliver the best little arts venue in the area. As the website proudly declares, “No Art Barred.”

Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day and we should be concentrating on celebrating The Watershed’s birthday; wishing it well for many years to come, as we blow out the candle on its cake. I’ll be there. I’ve got a feeling The ‘Shed is going to become my second living room.

For forthcoming events, including ‘The Sheding Festival birthday celebrations, please check the website.

@devilsaardvark

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From → devilsaardvark, Music

4 Comments
  1. a very top down reading of this had me thinking that i will look this up when i am in barcelona ….and then i realised that it is newport pagnell we are talking about. only joking ….. but, yes, barcelona are not milton keynes dons, are they? if the said mk dons got only one the magic triangle – messi, xavi, inesta – to sign up for them, they would probably march through to the premier. alright, one plus fabergas.

    never really got involved in any music scene but when i was in my late teens in glasgow i hung around with a bunch of very talented lads, well, that’s what they told everyone they were …. and off they would go down to sauchiehall street, playing tea pots, and guitars and all sorts of things and singing …..”the answer my friend is blowing in the wind”.

    they would sometimes have a gig at a watering hole in the city and bobby and crawford would turn their backs on the audience so that nobody could see the chords they were playing. is that normal behaviour among musicians?

    • Musicians, my friend, are a law unto themselves and that’s just they way it should be! I remember going to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow many years ago, but alas, can’t recall the name of the band! (probably due to the amount of Heavy I’d drunk that night!)
      I think for research purposes, I should haul my carcass back to Barcelona… It’s a tough life being a writer. As far as Milton Keynes is concerned, there’s only so much one can say about concrete. Newport Pagnell has infinitely more character, even if it does suffer from the stigma of having given its name to the first ever motorway service station. We won’t hold that against it. And I think with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, even Newport Pagnell Town would become pretty unstoppable!
      Danke schön.

      • but they were only getting one of them plus, maybe, fabergas ….. with the three of them they would win the premiership these days!

  2. Sorry – my misread. Next time I bump into him, I’ll ask Pete Winkelman which one of the 3 he’d choose.
    My money’s on Messi.

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