Has Exeter's Nightlife Lost Its Middle-Ground?

by Jed Fletcher

Exeter is not the centre of cool in the South West, Bristol attracts all the talent and even Plymouth boasts a higher profile frequency of gigs than our quaint city. But I think that we commonly misconceive the indie scene in Exeter to be of a lower calibre than it actually is. Through Mahatma Music, Kink, and other nights, we’ve seen our fair share of killer sets from some of the genre’s contemporary pioneers. In my first year, Wolf Alice and Mausi lit up the Cavern stage, and this year loyal fans braved infamous sticky floors to see electro-indie giants, Years & Years, perform at the Lemon Grove. I’ve personally found myself floating in a cynical realm between thinking all the big acts were too mainstream and expensive, and all the up-and-coming ones were destined to fade into obscurity in the future. Yet again I’ve reached the end of the year and regret not soaking up more of the rock music scene that Exeter had to offer. I find myself wondering, why is it that this area of Exeter’s appeal isn’t a bigger deal, when it is in other student cities?

I came to a conclusion in the appropriate setting of Cavern’s Indie Club which regularly takes place on Saturday nights. For those who don’t know, the music at Indie Club ranges from Pulp and The Smiths to Bastille and Of Monsters and Men. It was a rare occasion where I’d managed to get some of my more Lemmy-inclined friends to sample something different from the norm, and one of their comments during the night was an eye opener. She turned to me, puzzled, and revealed that she knew the words to most of the songs playing. It’s struck me that live music of the indie rock variety has been a victim of categorical dismissal in a town in which types of music are now being aggressively compartmentalised. Packaging a playlist under the title of “indie” now alienates it from masses of students, who will reject it based on a misunderstanding of what it means, and how it relates to what they enjoy on a night out.

We can agree to say that the nightlife here can be boiled down to two themes: cheese vs house. The nights most frequently talked about (excluding Wednesday TP where the music probably isn’t the main attraction for anyone) are Cheesy Tuesdays at the Arena, Saturday night at the Lemmy, Dirty Beat at Mosaic, and house nights such as Thick as Thieves. The remaining slots being occupied by filler nights, which play generic (yet admittedly well-assembled) club-hit playlists. Before the Cellar Door closed last year, arguments would bubble up in lecture theatres, halls, and houses alike over whether seeing an amazing DJ on the rise was better than singing along to the Grease megamix for yet another time. Those who favoured the former were patronised as “ooh edgy” and the latter were labelled as boring or unadventurous. This basic, quite navigable conflict has erupted into a situation where those who want variety end up only going to house nights, and cheese lovers cowering from a playlist they can’t recite on the train to Exmouth.

To be honest, this isn’t exclusive to Exeter. All around the country there will be people who can’t fathom a song without lyrics, and others who loathe themselves for finding any chart song catchy. Where Exeter has fallen is in its inhabitants’ aversion to the middle ground – this is where nights which operate under the wide scope of “indie” come in.

In a short interview with DJ Tom Drackett of Cavern’s Indie Club, he told me that his weekly playlist is not only gauged on how many people hit the floor to dance, but also by an audience participation in the songs themselves – one of his favourite tracks to play is “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis, because of how passionately the crowd belt out the chorus. But then again, his definitive answer to my question of which song is his favourite to play, he cited The Rat by The Walkmen, a heavier indie-rock piece which he plays, above all, for his own enjoyment. And in that we have the essence of what the forgotten middle ground gives to Exeter’s nightlife – the appeal of singing along to songs we all know, fused with the intrigue of something new to the audience.

Looking at Mahatma Music and Kink, the two main nights to promote live rock music in the last couple of years, they both advocated variation by letting their post-act playlists stray from the genre of their performers; Kink pairing the likes of indie-punk band Wolf Alice with songs by electro-pop artists (e.g. Hot Chip), and Mahatma more boldly coupling another indie-punk band, Heyrocco, with the Mahatma Music house set (a permanent fixture at their events).

I wouldn’t call the inherent variation provided by live music and indie nights a winning formula, but you couldn’t refute the fact that it’s a strong selling point. So why have such nights struggled so much to contend with Exit, Our House, and the Lemmy?

I got in touch with Colin Bugler, Joe Alexander, and Jon Coller, the guys responsible for Mahatma Music, to get an idea of what their biggest challenge was in terms of running the night throughout the year. The response I got confirmed my belief that Exeter is too set in its ways over club nights. Mr Alexander underlined the main obstacle to overcome as “convincing Exeter students to still attend gig/club nights playing indie/rock music when clearly house music is dominating the student-run nights”. All three co-founders referred to promoting Mahatma Music’s USP, the combination of a live performance and a professional club night afterwards. They had a thoughtfully devised selling point, they had a full team of reps, posters, a brand, and renowned headliners, yet still they sometimes found it a struggle to compete.

Bugler and Coller both raised the issue of balancing their studies and social life with running a bi-monthly event. Cheesy Tuesdays and Lemmy Saturdays are put on by institutions (Arena and the SU respectively), but this challenge faced by the Mahatma Music crew begs the question of how and why their events dwindled in attendance compared to the likes of Our House? This brings us back to pondering over the cultural dominance of house music in the city. Mahatma Music and Kink were held back by a lacking campus-wide participation in backing the brand. It’s quite frequent that a good looking fresher will join Exeter, with a slick haircut and meticulously selected wardrobe, and immediately join in with the Thick as Thieves or Our House teams, but the same isn’t true for indie nights. It becomes a vicious circle, wherein those who want an alternative night join the house hype and settle into the routine of solely attending house sets (and who can blame them – our student house nights are up there with the best in the country), and so attending these nights becomes the norm and the cycle repeats. If a few less people jumped on the golden bandwagon of repping these nights, and instead devoted their time to promoting some of the soon to be high profile bands performing at Cavern, then it’s quite possible the alternative scene in Exeter might grow another arm.

Thousands of new students will arrive in Exeter next year, and a large percentage will listen to rock, indie and electro music. As it stands, most will follow their friends to Arena and Timepiece for club nights that are generic throughout the country, which isn’t a bad thing, but those who get bored will be enveloped by the Exeter house machine. If we all take a step back and look at the nightlife on offer, surely a night which isn’t directly comparable to the others must catch our eye? So let’s go into next year with a fresh perspective, let’s link arms and embrace an unharnessed world of nights out that can appeal to any one of us. Who knows, maybe then we’ll see more of the likes of TEED and Muse gracing the stage in our not-so-lowly land of Exeter?