BBC DJ Steve Lamacq on celebrating independent venues in Sheffield, his love of The Leadmill and the shock of his ‘4 Real’ interview with Richey Edwards
"The start of the year is a really hard time for independent venues," says Steve Lamacq, the BBC DJ and tireless supporter of alternative music who is about to visit Sheffield on a week-long tour of places that are the lifeblood of the grassroots live industry.
"Fewer bands are out touring usually so there's less choice of people to book and fewer big names, but also it's quite hard getting audiences out to see live music in the first couple of weeks. People like myself are desperate to get out after Christmas and will go and see virtually anything... but I know we're at a time when people are short of cash."
Independent Venue Week runs from January 27 to February 2, and is now in its seventh year. Lamacq will be devoting his weekday radio show on BBC 6 Music to the 'homecoming tour', broadcasting live performances, talking to fans and meeting figures in the business.
In Sheffield, he will be calling at The Leadmill ahead of a gig by Self Esteem, aka Rotherham-born singer-songwriter Rebecca Taylor, formerly one half of Slow Club.
"It's a good way to start the year, I guess, by maybe trying to change people's perception of what these places are about and encouraging them to turn over a new leaf and support these critical venues around the country," says Lamacq, who was born in Essex and studied journalism at Harlow College, laying the foundation for a later job writing for the New Musical Express. The town had a venue called The Square which closed in 2017 but was, Lamacq recalls, 'marvellous'.
"It used to be open in the day as well so you could just swing by. I made all sorts of friends. It was an education - I learned more about art, literature and politics in the bar there than I'd done if I'd gone to university. Sheffield is lucky because it still has one or two record shops, but certainly in places where there are no record shops any more there are very few places where those of musical like minds can get together and meet."
He cherishes The Leadmill, which marks its 40th anniversary this year.
"The first time I came to Sheffield would have been about 1984, probably," he says. "I'd just left school and a friend of mine went to Sheffield University - I surprised him and drove up in this battered old Mini I had at the time. He was the first person to tell me about The Leadmill, although I didn't go that time - he took me to The Limit, where we saw Treebound Story featuring a very young Richard Hawley.”
By the time he joined the NME at the end of the 1980s, The Leadmill was his favourite out-of-town venue. “Any time when life was getting a bit rubbish, or we found a band we really liked who were going on tour, we'd find an excuse to go. It wasn't just the live bands, the indie disco was always a cut above. It used to be our route of escape."
Lamacq acknowledges that times, and tastes, have changed - in the mid-2000s enough indie acts could be booked to fill an entire day at the 'Fuzztival', an extended version of the weekly Fuzz Club in Sheffield University's students' union. But he hopes Independent Venue Week will encourage newcomers to get involved in promoting events.
"You need dynamos, a driving force to make some of these things happen. Penny Blackham was one of those, whose passion was Fuzz Club. Music moves and shifts, but whether it's guitar music or not, I think it's just about putting on events in whatever genre, and people will come. If there is a generation coming through who haven't quite got the live music bug, this is another great opportunity to tempt them and get the thrill out of it that certainly I did in my teens and early 20s."
Before going to the NME, Lamacq worked as a reporter at the West Essex Gazette. News, he says, did not grab him.
"I was rubbish at news, I hated it," he admits. "I'd never be able to do the doorstep or anything like that. I didn't really have an appetite for it, but when you start in journalism you're doing things like golden weddings and council meetings and court on a Friday. For a while that was fine, but what I really wanted to do was write for the music papers."
Eventually he was shifted off the newsdesk and given the position of sports editor on sister paper The Harlow Gazette. "I was a bit better at that, but there's not a lot of glamour in spending your Saturday afternoons watching Bishop's Stortford or Harlow Town. I had to make it sound exciting."
Nevertheless, learning journalism's practicalities - conducting an interview, structuring a story and building contacts - stood him in very good stead.
"I joined the NME as a sub-editor but after doing that for a year a job came up on the newsdesk. I was one of only two people working for the NME who actually had any journalistic qualifications, so I got the job as assistant news editor without even having to apply. That was a good way of learning about the music industry - not just writing about the music. It was an eye-opener."
Lamacq started presenting shows on Radio 1 in the 1990s, most notably The Evening Session with Jo Whiley through the height of the Britpop period. Adept at discovering new acts – Coldplay got their first exposure on his programme – he also ran a record label called Deceptive which released the smash hit debut album by Elastica.
However, despite switching from print journalism to broadcasting, his approach hasn't changed.
"All the things you do as a journalist - just keeping your ear to the ground - are pretty much exactly what I do when it comes to trying to find new artists and keep abreast of what's going on around the country. It really helps knowing people in various towns who will occasionally drop you a line and say 'You should listen to this band, they pulled 200 in last night on a Tuesday in Hull'. Also I think there's a journalistic instinct when you meet someone and think 'You're going to be exceptionally good copy'."
Lamacq's highest-profile story at the NME came in 1991 when, during an interview with Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards, the lyricist and guitarist carved the words '4 Real' into his forearm with a razor blade to prove his band's authenticity. In an interview with comedian and podcaster Adam Buxton last year, the Manics' bass player Nicky Wire agreed the shocking incident - captured in disturbing photographs - was an early, pre-internet example of a story going viral.
"That's true, I hadn't really thought about it that way," says Lamacq. "It was hard to know how to cover it. Retelling the story now is strange, because you have to set it in the context of the time. Certainly issues of self-harm weren't prevalent in the mainstream press. All we could take it on was its face value, which was: 'This is a rock'n'roll statement'."
There was much debate in the NME office about where the graphic photos should be placed in the paper, he says.
"The word went round - at least in London, where I was - very quickly, to the point where after about three days I stopped going out because everyone was just asking me the same question. I wouldn't say I was in a state of shock, but once it sunk in it was hard to deal with. I don't think I drove him to it, because I think it was his way of making a point. But I suppose I did feel slightly culpable."
Lamacq, 55, still lives in the capital, and is father to a young daughter, Lizzie, with his wife Jen. He has hosted his teatime show on 6 Music since 2005, and says the station has immense value.
"There are not many places where you get some sort of consensus any more without the music papers. All the time you're trying to build up a level of trust with the audience - 'I found you this thing, here's another, go and have a listen to it'. It seems to work. There are cleverer people than I who know how to extract statistics from sales figures who say after big interviews on 6 Music there's always a spike on Amazon, and I imagine people still go to record shops and buy things they've heard. We do seem to be able to sell records."
He credits the 'brilliant' listeners - who rallied round to stave off the threat of closing 6 Music in 2010 - with its success.
"They're fans. They're curious, enthusiastic, quite adventurous, very loyal with some bands and obviously have a couple of bob to be able to spend still."
And sometimes, Lamacq says, hearing a song on the radio is the tonic some artists need to spur them on.
"A certain sense of vindication that they are doing something right leads them to up their game, or in some cases persevere. It's quite hard keeping body and soul together when you're in a penniless group."
Steve Lamacq's show will be broadcasting from his tour bus at The Leadmill in Sheffield on BBC 6 Music on Tuesday, January 28 from 4pm to 7pm. Self Esteem plays a gig organised by Independent Venue Week at The Leadmill the same night - see www.leadmill.co.uk/event/self-esteem to book tickets.