“We’re listening to people getting it wrong” — Mark Hubbard, Old Chapel Studios
BY Daniel Chapman
Since the days when troubadours tramped the riverbanks of Leeds with hearts full of love and lutes full of songs, music has been easy to romanticise but hard to do.
Many of those wandering men of songs gazing forlornly across the Aire in Leeds’ early days would actually have found themselves serenading a cloth market, but the relationship between music and commerce has always been closer than it’s popular to imagine, and more difficult to mediate.
Hard work in your spare time, and constant practice and expensive equipment and intimidating recording studios, all stand between raw talent and the polish of fame.
“It’s not easy, as a band starting out, to find somewhere you can make a load of horrible noise and not annoy the neighbours,” says Mark Hubbard, director of Old Chapel Studios in Holbeck.
“That’s what places like Old Chapel are all about. People are rehearsing and writing and trying, so a lot of the time here we’re listening to people getting it wrong.”
Mark has run Old Chapel since the early nineties, when it opened in its current home, an old Wesleyan chapel in Holbeck; but before he was manager, he was a customer, in its original guise of Parkside Studios in Armley.
“Parkside Studios was, as far as I know, the first commercial rehearsal space open for musicians in Leeds. It was opened by a Czech guy called Mick in 1982.
“I was in the position back then that a lot of the young bands here are in now: I was in a band at school and we had nowhere to rehearse, so we became one of Mick’s first customers.
“We were called Act Natural. We started out rehearsing in the school art block, with the help of a guy called Malcolm Arnold, who had his own band and knew what it was all about. He put on a show – The Rockshop – at Wetherby High School in 1981/82, and helped us get off the starting blocks.
“We used to come in on the bus into Leeds city centre, then get another bus out to Armley with our guitars, amps, everything, and chuck it all into this studio down some basement steps off Stanningley Road.”
The current building was renovated and opened as Old Chapel Studios by Dez and Simon, who had been running Parkside, but no sooner were the doors open than Simon had left for Australia and Des had put the business up for sale.
“I was doing a day job I absolutely hated while trying to stay involved in the music scene,” says Mark, “So I just took a punt on running it. I went part-time and ran this for six months in the evenings and weekends, which nearly killed me, but I worked out that I could make a living by doing it.”
Rehearsal studios are often evening-and- weekend places, as the bands themselves are usually trying to work around their own job/music splits. That means Old Chapel can do more with its daytime hours than operate as a strictly commercial space.
“I suppose I’ve always had that in mind,” says Mark. “There were always people like Malcolm and Mick and Si and Dez, who ran studios, lent me gear, helped me get gigs; I got the idea from them that what young bands need is just somebody with a little bit of experience to give them a leg up. There aren’t many places that will do it.”
Accessibility is important, both in the literal sense of how people get into the building, and the wider ways that people can have a rehearsal and recording space within their reach.
“After the help I had from Malcolm Arnold, he is now a customer down here. Malcolm has MS, and has gradually become more restricted by that to the point where he’s in a wheelchair now, but he can still come here with his band. That’s a driving force behind what we’re trying to do at Old Chapel and with Leeds Music Trust, to give access to people who couldn’t normally make music in places like this.
“Leeds has always been quite affluent, so while in Bradford or Manchester there are spaces where kids can afford to rehearse at very low rates, in Leeds it’s top dollar. Even places like this, in really the most undesirable areas of town, cost a lot in rent. I’ve got to make £20-£30,000 before I can even open the door, let alone pay anybody.”
Despite the high costs, part of the beauty of Old Chapel is that those costs are kept as far as possible from the users; when money isn’t a motivation, money isn’t a barrier.
“We don’t have rates as such in the recording studio,” says Adrian Burch. “It would be absolutely pointless doing that here. We’re symbiotic with the place we’re in, so we can’t say: this is how much, and if you haven’t got that you can’t record. That just will not ever happen. So people have to come with the right attitude – but it works.”
The relationships with the surrounding area have changed over the years, as the development of Holbeck Urban Village sought to give homes to creative industries, but didn’t develop as far as the existing creativity at Old Chapel on Czar
Street before the recession hit and the money ran out.
“That divide has remained almost a Berlin Wall between Old Holbeck and New Holbeck,” says Mark. “Some of the businesses are receptive and some aren’t, but down here the pubs have closed and supermarkets are selling cheap booze to people who drink at home and feel depressed, while up the road people are paying £4 a pint and having a great time.
“It’s one of the reasons why I stuck here I suppose; we could afford to, because the development stopped, but at the same time I wanted to put a flag in the ground and say right, we’ve been here longer than you. So that the city will hopefully recognise that, and not flatten us.”
If development does start up again in Holbeck, after attention-grabbing support from regular customers like the Kaiser Chiefs and The Pigeon Detectives, and by helping countless numbers of musicians to make a racket, Old Chapel ought to be hard to shift.
“You’ve got to cement it in some way,” says Adrian. “The only real way is to become something that nobody would dream of closing down. So it’s not about money, it’s about being so influential within the landscape of this city that you become untouchable.”
Does Old Chapel feel secure?
“I don’t know!” says Mark. “A little bit of financial assistance from anyone would go a long way. But it feels secure in that I’ve got a great bunch of people here who are all helping. That’s great. But like a lot of people, I think we’re all just clinging on.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 19