How DIY Label Howling Owl Rewired Bristol’s Entire Live Music Scene

Hazel Sheffield ventured to Bristol this July to witness the third anniversary of local indie + promoters Howling Owl. Label co-founder Joe Hatt offers an update on the interesting interim months.

“The article certainly ruffled a few feathers in Bristol, but we knew it would and it comes with the territory; seeing our little world in print way, way, way outweighed any grumblings. The whole weekend Hazel was there for was a real culmination of all the work everyone has put in over the past three years, and we were proud to show outsiders the monster we’ve created. Ironically, the band we are in [Spectres] got signed to Sonic Cathedral in the same week which meant we left Howling Owl, hopefully meaning we’ve now got an identity away from being ‘the band that those plebs from Howling Owl are in’. Things are still the same here, we put on a brutal techno night with Shackleton, Vessel, Container, Chipsy and Giant Swan in some prison cells last week, and next week is the Something Anorak album launch in a scout hut on the river, so business as usual.”

This is the story of how one tiny indie label defeated a cartel of controlling promoters to rewire a city’s entire live music scene

Barred from every venue in the city, Bristol label Howling Owl took things into their own hands. Hazel Sheffield joins them on their third birthday

It’s midnight on Bristol’s beer-soaked St Nicholas street and four shirtless men wielding wooden spears are destroying a giant cardboard, feather and foil effigy of an owl. Spilling out of a nearby bar, a group crowds around them in the muggy night air and begin pumping their fists. Passers-by stop and stare. A man in a second floor window looks out nervously, clutching a phone. The owl sails past him, landing square on the sharp point of a spear, and bursts, filling the air with a flurry of white feathers that rain down on those dancing below. They clutch one another’s clammy, feathered bodies and sing, “Happy birthday, Howling Owl, happy birthday to you“.

Let the window-watcher be reassured: this is not some kind of bird-slaughtering cult. This is the start of the anniversary celebrations for Howling Owl, a record label that has been rewiring Bristol’s microcosmic music industry for the last three years, pushing the once-powerful from their roost. Home to a small but diverse family of artists, Howling Owl has carved out a DIY scene in a place where music thrives but money-minded promoters and a few powerful venues run the show. This year alone, Howling Owl has filled Bristol’s world-class Arnolfini gallery with white noise and experimental art, bridged the gap between noise bands and the city’s enduring electronic focus, and made it onto the BBC 6Music playlist with Oliver Wilde, whose woozy wonderland of looping melodies – think the delicacy of Elliott Smith or Sparklehorse pushed through joyous walls of sound – are about to lift him way beyond this West Country community.

Who’s responsible? There’s Joe Hatt, still wielding his spear, kicking up damp feathers that stick to his skinny body and land in his black curly hair. He started a skateboarding zine in his North Devon nowhere town when he was 15, partly so he could get an interview with one of the older skaters who had started his own clothing brand, Adrian Dutt. Adrian’s here, bearded and birdlike, hugging people on the pavements. The pair of them moved to Bristol in 2011, searching for a new home for their noise band, Spectres, which kept getting booed off stages during support slots for Devon’s endless streams of reggae and ska acts.

Adrian and Joe knew Bristol was a breeding ground for arts and music. Two universities furnished the city with an annual influx of students looking for ways to waste time and borrowed cash. After the St Pauls district’s soundsystem scene and subsequently trip-hop put Bristol on the map in the early ’90s, Roni Size and his Reprazent associates crowned it the home of drum and bass. It later become a dubstep stronghold, exporting then-teenage stars like Joker. Invada, a label set up by Geoff Barrow of Portishead in 2003, had a reputation for supporting outsider artists like Boris, Anika and his own side-project, BEAK>.

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Bristol wasn’t short on musical history. So Joe and Adrian were surprised to find themselves playing the same crappy support slots for ageing acts – this time of the punk variety. Within two weeks they had been banned from a local (and now defunct) venue called The Croft for not bringing in enough business. It took a couple of months to scratch beneath the surface and find bands like Holy Stain, who made frenzied math rock, and Towns, whose baggy melodies earned them a place on NME‘s 50 bands to watch in 2011 within about five minutes of them putting something on the internet – something ripped from a £3 cassette that Adrian and Joe had designed and released under the umbrella Howling Owl. At the time, Adrian and Joe didn’t think they were starting a label. To this day, they’ve never written a business plan or a record contract. Soon, the cassettes became CDs so that more people would be able to listen to them, and the CDs spawned more gigs. The first Howling Owl night that Spectres headlined was in March 2012 at a bar called The Louisiana, which once hosted early shows by The White Stripes and The Libertines. It ended disastrously, in a fight. Word got out that the collective was trouble and the next time they went to book a show, they found they were banned, this time from most of the venues in town.

Forced out, they went underground. They found a working church in the city’s southerly Southville district and fitted out the crypt with makeshift stages for a show with Towns and Spectres. They crashed an old diving school hidden away on Bristol’s harbour to launch an album by local punk band Velcro Hooks, which ended in mayhem when the crowd got so rowdy that the electrics momentarily blew from all the beer being poured into the plug sockets. Local art galleries, impressed with Howling Owl’s visual presence – Adrian’s distinctive illustrated posters and Spectres’ zines, the painstakingly hand-screenprinted album covers and tote bags – agreed to surrender their precious white spaces. One called Motorcade/Flashparade down in Bedminster (next to Southville) hosted Spectres’ ‘Hunger EP’ launch in March 2013. Riverside arts centre Spike Island welcomed Oliver Wilde for an unplugged gig in January 2014, and today, on this sticky midsummer Saturday, a small central gallery called Centrespace (just across from the city’s biggest venue, the illustrious Colston Hall) has been stripped of art and filled with speakers for four nights of free Howling Owl birthday parties featuring the label’s favourite bands, as well as the impromptu owl-slaying.

Centrespace fills with equal numbers Howling Owl devotees and locals who look like the last time they heard white noise was before televisions went digital. “It’s like the opposite of music,” one guy in a polo shirt whispers to his mate while Hitcha, a giant, pale-faced teenager in an oversized black t-shirt, mixes looping sounds from an Octotrack sampler hidden in a silver briefcase. “Good though,” he concludes, before they shuffle over to the makeshift bar where Adrian and Joe are selling dumpy bottles of lager for £1 next to vinyl and CDs from the Howling Owl back catalogue, hoping to make back the £300 it cost them to hire the space.

NME

A crowd spills out into a narrow alleyway. Among them is Harry Wright, guitarist with The Naturals, who had been developing their own kind of atmospheric noise rock for seven years by the time Howling Owl came along and offered to make their album the first 12″ release on the label. Before that, Harry says the band was at the mercy of a cohort of Bristol promoters who expected them to support touring acts that came to town for free, to bring in local fans. “Spectres found new venues and that meant we didn’t have to be the support act, we could curate our own nights and play with our friends. It transformed the music scene,” he says.

Later, Joe tells me they got so fed up with promoters using Howling Owl bands as supports that he tried to set a £50 fee per show. It didn’t go down so well. Tim Bailey, who has worked as a promoter in Bristol for eight years, says Howling Owl were rewriting the rules. “I wouldn’t dream of putting these things on, it would be a practical nightmare!” he laughs. “I promoted 244 touring shows in Bristol last year, with a seven-person staff. I don’t know how they do it – putting out a hundred handcrafted 12″s, the hours and hours that go into that, for literally no financial gain.”

Geoff Barrow agrees that the Bristol scene has become less diverse and more commercial over the 10 years he’s run Invada. “Howling Owl are the good guys!” he insists. “A lot of labels run by managers ultimately want to become funded by majors. Most – if not all – Bristol independents in the past wouldn’t dream of it.”

Neither would Howling Owl, who aren’t precious about letting their artists fly the coop. Oliver Wilde will inevitably be the first to leave. The following night he sits hunched over his knees outside Centrespace, where Adrian and Joe have spent the whole day cleaning up bottles and cigarettes butts, in preparation for his set later that night. “One thing Howling Owl did is give me confidence – otherwise I would still have been making music in my bedroom,” he says. Oliver met Adrian while they were both working in Rise, a local record store, but it was only after Adrian found some of Oliver’s music online that he admitted to being a bedroom songwriter. “They literally forced me to put my music out there,” Oliver says. “The best thing that could happen to them is for us to get signed to bigger labels and then they can do it all over again.”

NME

Later, Adrian says Oliver’s reputation grew so quickly that they already knew they were ‘pushing it’ when they put out his second record. “Something would have to go very wrong for us to put out his third,” Adrian says. “It proves that we were right in the first place. We saw and heard something that we believed in and we were able to help, even if we’re just a stepping stone on a journey.”

As his set beckons, Oliver’s nervous. Almost all the Howling Owl bands have turned out to see him debut material from his third album, which he just recorded down in Cornwall. “These are the only people who matter, really,” Oliver says, looking around. Joe and Adrian chat with people and hand out beers from behind a table. As darkness descends, the band assemble behind the makeshift PA and the crowd squeeze in, forming a tight circle round them. Angled towards his drummer, Oliver lifts his guitar high and slams into the first chord. The room fills with a glorious fuzz. Smiles creep across the faces of his friends. He turns towards them, the feathers shifting underfoot.