INTERVIEW: The Fire Station | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Allison Russell by Marc Baptiste

What is it that makes a scene? Venues, infrastructure, money, an engaged audience…? Arguably the most important element for a healthy and supportive music scene comes from those with a passion to make it work. Sunderland has had passionate people at its heart for many years; spaces like The Bunker and Pop Recs Ltd. offer fruitful training grounds for musicians to learn, grassroots venues like Independent and The Peacock provide spaces for audiences and artists to connect, and organisations like Sunderland Culture and We Make Culture’s Young Musician’s Project nurture the next generation of stars.

So perhaps the most logical next step on Sunderland’s journey to be recognised as a vibrant musical city is a world-class venue…enter The Fire Station. Sunderland has a rich music heritage and a fine pedigree of artists. It deserves a world class, purpose-built music and performing arts venue to be both a community hub for artists and audiences and a place to have fun but also to welcome and to see world-class performers. There’s no doubt it will help put Sunderland on the map nationally and internationally.” So says venue director Tamsin Austin, whose enthusiasm about the state-of-the-art auditorium is infectious.

Having undergone an £18m redevelopment programme, the area around the so-called Cultural Quarter promises to provide opportunities for local audiences and artists alike to connect. “The Fire Station programme is there for Sunderland to enjoy so it needs to meet the tastes of the city and the region in their broadest sense. The programme will be both popular to the extent that everyone wants a great night out, however it will have a curated programme with more specialist offerings as well. I would love to develop the standing gigs and try to attract a broader range of dance/electronic artists to the venue, and with our theatre and dance programmer I’d love us to develop some multi-art form events.”

The venue’s Firestarters programme is already yielding some pretty exciting bookings. In the venue’s opening month alone Northumbrian pipes maestro Kathryn Tickell, celebrated local songwriter The Lake Poets, funk and soul kings Smoove & Turrell and up and coming rapper Kay Greyson will grace the stage. Into January and beyond their stage will welcome the likes of folk star Teddy Thompson, local avant-garde artist Richard Dawson, pop superstar Emile Sandé, country stars The Shires, multi-instrumentalist and activist Allison Russell, The Maccabees’ singer Orlando Weeks, Kate Staples’ extraordinary alt. rock project This Is The Kit, and celebrated folk group Flook among many others.

Sunderland has a rich music heritage and a fine pedigree of artists. It deserves a world class, purpose-built music and performing arts venue

The venue’s official opening event The Firestarters Revue will see Field Music joined by guests Martha Hill, Faye Fantarrow, Reali-T, Barry Hyde and Ross Millard from The Futureheads, Frankie Francis and many more on Friday 17th December. “We’ve tried to make this something fun and celebratory and maybe even a little bit silly, with a mix of the guests’ songs and surprising covers, and we were also keen for the line-up of guests to be fairly diverse and show off different facets of music in Sunderland and the North East.” Explains Field Music’s David Brewis.

I have many more ideas and artists up my sleeve to work on!” Tamsin enthuses about the programme. “It has been a very strange experience working through a pandemic, remotely from home, programming a venue I have barely set foot in, but I hope most people can find something they fancy in the programme we have released to date. I can’t wait for us to be on site and really living the live experience in there then we can really develop the programme. I also want to work with partners to develop our contribution to Sunderland’s festival offer.”

In addition to live music, theatre and dance are a priority for the venue; Dance City and Live Theatre are in residence in the building, and NAME (Northern Academy for Music Education) will run some of their courses there too. “It feels like a holistic offer of learning opportunities and performance, which is an energising combination.”

Tamsin is clearly in awe of her neighbours, and Sunderland’s legendary musical community have welcomed a new member into the fold. “As well as the Empire, now in the capable hands of Marie Nixon, we have The Peacock, now run by Barry Hyde and Dan Donnelly both as a live music pub and as a teaching space for their new Modern Music degree and the beautifully refurbished Dun Cow pub which is developing a small-scale comedy programme. We’re close to a network of brilliant grassroots venues like Independent, Pop Recs and The Bunker. Sunderland is a close-knit city and there is a feeling of support and camaraderie and excitement among the neighbours in the Cultural Quarter.”

While the Fire Station may be a shiny new jewel in the city’s musical crown, artists have plenty of options in the region already; is it simply a case of ‘build it and they will come’? “Sunderland is not traditionally a primary touring market, but we hope the auditorium can change that!” Tamsin remarks. “There is a thriving community of musicians, performing artists, promoters and advocates for Sunderland who regularly work in partnership to deliver festivals and special events in the city. There is a huge collective energy that originated from the City of Culture bid which continues apace and it is this that will keep Sunderland thriving and make it a success as a national centre.”

For a long time, Sunderland’s music scene was kind of hidden,” affirms David Brewis, “without a venue or two on the main regional or national touring circuit there’ll always be a limit as to how much music in the city can develop. The to-and-fro between renowned bands visiting a city and local bands being inspired by, or getting support slots with, those bands just feels essential. The opening of the Fire Station is only a piece in the jigsaw of making that happen but I think it’s given a jolt to the rest of the Sunderland music community. I think we’ve got some good reasons to be optimistic and The Fire Station is a central part of that.

For full listings visit the venue’s website


Orlando Weeks

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