Regular readers of Joyzine will know Stephen Gilchrist under many names and guises, as the singing drummer frontman of Stuffy & The Fuses, under his solo moniker Stephen Evens or playing bass in Hot Sauce Pony amongst a myriad of other musical projects. There’s also a fairly good chance that he has at some point been the drummer in your favourite band.
However today we meet him as proprietor of Brixton Hill Studios, the South London institution whose studio and rehearsal spaces have been forge in which many of the capital’s most exciting bands have honed their craft over the past decade and more. The studio recently faced closure following an eye-watering 133% rent hike by their landlords Lexadon Property Group, but with the backing of almost 6,000 locals, musicians and music fans who signed an online petition (including Black Midi, Tom Robinson, Steve Lamacq, John Kennedy, Graham Coxon, Big Joanie, Jim Bob and Tony Visconti), and the intervention of MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a lease extension was agreed to keep the studio open for the time being at least.
John Clay caught up with Stephen to find out what happens next.
John Clay: Hello Stephen. We have so much to cover and I am glad you have put some time aside to get your story out there. How are you today?
Stephen Gilchrist: I feel like I am sat upon a large pile of tasks; a heady mixture of administrative tasks and projects for the studio, creative projects both professional and personal. Some based in the present, some looking towards the future and a large pile of neglected tasks that got moved to the bottom of the pile whilst we worked on retaining the studio. I am upright, hydrated and keeping a level head. I am definitely not panicking, procrastinating or hiding under the table with my jumper pulled over my head. It’s summer, why would I even have a jumper on?
John: I’m sure the readership can detect no alarm or unease in your answer at all. The big push to save your studio from having to move on this year has proved successful. Care to break down the state of play for those of us out of the loop?
Stephen: Firstly I cannot stress enough that I did not expect to be sat here in the studio answering questions on our future. I was expecting to be knocking down the studios, moving our junk out of here and returning the building to the state it was before we came in.
We had been battling behind the scenes to stay open with no movement or negotiation offered. Our announcement was the white flag letting everyone know that we had to go.
The immediate support that sprung up in forms of letters, petitions and social media posts was not unexpected but the sheer volume of it was quite humbling to say the least. Without all those people; clients of the studio, local friends, the council, our MP and the press I do not think there would have been any movement to come back to the negotiating table.
But that’s not what you asked. The victory is that we’ve managed to secure a 3 year extension so we can continue trading, but it’s not been without a serious financial commitment. There are plans to try and purchase a community owned property for us and other arts projects and those of us who are working on it have a very steep learning curve to undertake. 3 years may seem like a long time but it really isn’t.
So it’s a long road ahead, we are travelling at twice the speed of light, the brakes don’t work and we are currently holding a provisional driver’s licence. (see question 1).
John: Yes, the battle may have been won but the war isn’t over. The unique idea to own your own building demands some investigation, and we’ll get to that. First, let’s cover some of the amazing ways you run Brixton Hill Studios. How come all the equipment works and there’s always a staff member available? How on earth do you do it?
Stephen: The studio was built out of necessity. I was tired of places where the equipment was run down, didn’t work properly and stank of cat pee. Also the staff were often disinterested or unpleasant, often a mixture of the two. Knowing what I know now, probably because they were not valued and often paid very badly. I understand why that would have been the case, to some extent, as it’s not a hugely profitable business. If you are in the game to make money you should probably look at a different sector.
At BXHS we always make sure that the equipment is not only serviced regularly but it also something you would expect to see on stage. Even the smaller rooms will have amps and kits that are at least worthy of your smallest well run venue up to the biggest rooms that will have tour grade equipment. From VOX AC & Marshall amps to Mapex Saturn kits and it is all included as a free extra. We make sure that the drum kits are tuned and we do not wait until the heads are dimpled and devoid of tension before we change them. The PAs are serviced by a former Brit Row manager and our ACs are cleaned and serviced regularly.
The staff to me are the main selling point of the business and it is often commented on about how knowledgeable and helpful they are. They also know instinctively to treat people equally devoid of their perceived status. We strive to pay the best wages we can and when there is profit in the business they get to see a portion of that in their pay packet. We keep an open dialogue about how the studio should be run and have regular meetings to discuss how we develop. We do what we can to support our staff in unforeseen circumstances and they often turn that 360 degrees when the business and I are in need. The result is that we have a happy and enthusiastic workforce and little turnaround in staff. I don’t always get it right but I am always prepared to eat a certain amount of humble pie when I don’t. I trust them all implicitly.
John: The hands-on experience is certainly a big pull for clientele.
There is much talk about ethical pay and treatment of staff across all sectors now. Your politics and commitment to creating and sustaining a community which is positive for Brixton is in stark contrast to unmanned studios which are peppered throughout the UK. Any comment to make on them which may be insightful to musicians with similar outlooks but unaware of certain practices?
Stephen: In terms of unmanned studios I do not think that is either an ethically sound or safe model and it wouldn’t be an avenue I would pursue. It is not offering musicians a good service, the reason people come back to us after using these places is because they know that there is a team behind it that cares and that there is always staff on site. I personally think that it is a cynical and aggressive model that is damaging our sector of the industry on many levels.
John: At the top end of this convo you spoke of hiding under a table with multiple projects on your mind. Care to lighten the burden?
Stephen: Since the madness erupted I have had to put a lot of things on the back burner. On the vanity side I have a new Stephen Evens album that has been pencilled for release next year so I have had that to put to bed. But also I’ve been working on Paul Morricone’s new solo album and some other peoples projects to get finished. That’s on top of the day to day running of the business which has taken a bit of a backseat in recent weeks. On top of this we have the task of finding a new home for the studio which is going to take a considerable amount of dedication on top of this. But if we pull it off it will have positive consequences not only for us but for the surrounding music and arts scene in general.
John: You really have been busy. The perception the public have of the studio is bound to be very positive after the campaign to buy it more time. Arguably many might even be given the impression that there is nothing left for them to do in terms of assistance…or is there?
Stephen: Obviously the one thing they can do is to book out the studios and keep us busy. That’s essential to our survival. Use it or lose it. Like most things that are run for the benefit of the arts there is not a huge amount of money in it but it needs a lot of resources to run properly.
We are in the process of forming a Community Benefit Society which is a co-operative business of sorts. Separate to Brixton Hill Studios but run by a mixture of people from the studio and who use it, it is going to be used to raise funds for the purchase of a building, a permanent home not only for Brixton Hill Studios but for other arts businesses that need a space.
There will be the opportunity for the community to buy shares. The upshot of this will be that we have a building that is owned by the community, not a single person or property tycoon. It will be protected from development and held in trust for the use of arts related businesses, charities and organisations. But most importantly we want to put in place rent controls so these businesses can thrive and not worry about extortionate rent rises or the threat of eviction. That is time better spent creating great art and supporting the arts community to grow and strengthen for everyone’s benefit.
In this country (and I don’t know perhaps the western world in general) we have become resilient to constant price rises, so called regenerations and developments that do very little to benefit anyone other than a small group of people. Art contributes so much to people’s lives and it contributes to the economy and visibility of this country. Yet we are constantly seeing cuts to education and subsidies pushing it further and further out of people’s reach. Something needs to be done. What we are trying to achieve is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things but it is something and maybe it could grow into something bigger.
John Clay: Robin Williams’ teacher character in Dead Poet Society said something to the effect of engineering, science and industry make life possible but the arts make life worth living. Seems you share that philosophy. How did you come up with this amazing idea and is there a practical way for readers of our chit chat to invest?
Stephen: It was totally inspired by the Music Venues Trust campaign to fundraise to save the UK’s venues. Venues, theatres, art galleries, etc are the end result and therefore the public facing portals into the arts (for want of a better description). Businesses like ours, the workshops, the studios and the pre-production side of things are the invisible yet essential cogs in the system but they are also the places where everyone can come and create whoever they are. What we intend to do is very similar to the MVT (this section of MVT now going under the name Music Venue Properties). Once we are set up we shall launch a fundraising campaign where people can donate small amounts or become members of the CBS by buying shares. We will be looking at 18 months to raise the capital needed to invest after which we will know if we can invest in a sufficiently large building to house BXHS and other tenants. In the meantime we are collecting feedback from the community in the form of an online survey.
This is a really important first step. It not only gives everyone a good grounding in what we are trying to achieve but it also gives you the chance to contribute towards the genesis of the project, getting involved from the ground floor upwards.
John: A wonderful idea and a really interesting backstory behind it all. Any parting words before we leave you to spin all those metaphorical plates?
Stephen: Send help!
Find out more about Brixton Hill Studios (and book a rehearsal!): brixtonhillstudios.com
Take part in the survey: http://tiny.cc/APerfectPitch
Interview and photography by John Clay: chemicallysinister.myportfolio.com