Legendary Liverpudlian radio station Melodic Distraction on community spirit in a time of creative crisis
In a post-Covid landscape, creativity and the subcultures which spring from it have been impacted in ways beyond measure. It is in this context that the Dr. Martens storytelling platform, Dr. Martens Presents, has pivoted, offering artists support to overcome the challenges they are facing at a time when it is needed most.
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Subcultures emerge from a shared collective energy. They are shaped by peer groups who embrace many creative disciplines, including art, music, photography, fashion and design. In turn, creators feed their own spirit back into the scenes around them.
With a second lockdown underway in the UK, musicians and creatives across the country continue to white-knuckle their way through 2020, a year which needs no introduction. So how are they helping each other through? THE FACE has teamed up with Dr. Martens Presents for multi-part series Collective Creativity which harnesses the power of collective creativity across the UK and Europe. First up: join Liverpudlian independent radio station Melodic Distraction and their friends musician iamkyami and Dig Vinyl record store’s boss Yvonne Page, as they reflect on how they’ve collectively been coping with the challenges and bolstered the mutual support of the creative community around them — with a little help from Dr. Martens Presents.
Liverpool-based community radio station Melodic Distraction’s co-founders Josh Aitman and James Zaremba are not originally from the Northern city. “We’re not scousers, we’re adopted scousers,” Aitman admits over a Zoom call. Raised in South West London and Hertfordshire respectively, the pair have been in the city for near-on eight years.
After meeting on the first day at the University of Liverpool, the pair went on to become good mates. After discovering a shared love of music, they pooled resources and started up a night at Constellations & The Observatory, a regenerated warehouse and recycling yard space which has since closed, a casualty of Covid-19. “It was one of the first venues to be situated in the Baltic triangle, a really amazing creative area,” the pair explain. Around the same time, Josh Aitman and James Zaremba started playing on student radio and began an online blog which they describe as “a very basic Wordpress site” where they started to write about music.
In 2017, with graduation behind them and the future stretching ahead, Josh spotted a work space down in Liverpool’s Baltic triangle. “I eventually convinced James to take on the space as our own office,” he remembers. “We didn’t expect to really run radio but we decided that we were going to have DJs come along and do sets to add content to the blog.” Over three months, community radio station Melodic Distraction exploded and the pair went from running four shows a month to 20. Now, Melodic Distraction is home to 180 shows a month with hosts from across Liverpool and the North West.
Over the past three years, Melodic Distraction has become the beating heart of the music scene in the city, bringing together DJs and artists from across the North West. But as Covid-19 has spread across the world, the global music scene has taken a huge hit.
“In Liverpool, we’ve seen amazing venues really, really struggle through the last six months,” Aitman explains. “I really hope that they survive because they are spaces that people really need for their mental health. Humans are social beings and they need those spaces.”
Josh Aitman and James Zaremba and their team at Melodic Distraction have been instrumental in getting the music community in the city back on their feet. “During the first lockdown, Josh and Nina Franklin went around town collecting all the equipment you need to have a very crude set up for broadcasting radio from your house,” Zaremba explains. “They set up a spreadsheet of everyone who needed tech, and they dropped it off to all these houses while maintaining social distancing so that we could go live from over 100 different locations in Liverpool.”
Running a radio station remotely is not straightforward, but the Melodic Distraction staff published a “how to” guide to help the DJs through the home recording process. “People were really willing to learn, be flexible and get involved. Upskilling people in that way was really rewarding,” Zaremba notes.
And if a global pandemic wasn’t enough, in October, Melodic Distraction were kicked out of their home of three years in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle. “Our landlord has been demanding full rent on our old building,” Zaremba explains. “We’ve essentially been forced out.” Which is where Dr. Martens came in. “They’ve been super supportive with time, resources, expertise in helping us find a temporary space and we’ve found one,” Zaremba smiles. “We’ve moved into a space, into a club which isn’t being used. DMs helped us get a studio in there, get set up and we’re in there for three months. We set up a Kickstarter to raise £35,000 to fund our new permanent home. DMs have been super supportive helping us buy that time and provide resources and ideas.”
“Every single time someone gets involved, they’re very much involved with the community,” Josh Aitman says. “Everyone feeds back into it and provides us with support and the ability to grow.” As for what’s next, the future is uncertain for the Melodic Distraction community. But together, with the help of peers like Yvonne Page and iamkyami, Melodic Distraction are finding a way through. “It may be stressful, but having that service, seeing people be able to continue doing what they love… It makes me really, really happy, because that’s that’s all that we want from the station; to be able to provide people with a platform for whatever they want.”
Tell us the story of how you first met Melodic Distraction.
I came to Liverpool to study music. Kate Hazeldine [from Melodic Distraction] and I would always hang out and we always had to go to the classes together. We went to BBC Introducing Live and when we were coming back I said to her, maybe we should start a podcast. A few weeks later, she got a job being a studio producer at Melodic Distraction and asked me if I wanted to do a show on there.
You now work with them as a DJ. Describe your “average” show on the station…
Since February 2019, I knew that I wanted to host a show that was going to bring some knowledge to other people but also shed some light on artists that I think are really cool. Being an emerging artist myself, I thought people needed to know more about a lot of things. I do radio and I’m a DJ and I’m launching a fashion line next year, so these are all things that I think that other people are probably interested in. I make this thing where artists that I’m friends with come on and speak about their own experiences, and we can talk about other social issues that are happening in the world. So that’s an average show for me.
I try to highlight artists from the UK and mostly from the North West. It’s important for me because during the time that I’ve been in the UK, I’ve noticed that there’s a division in the UK between the North and the South. It seems like all eyes are on London, but there’s talent in other places.
Where have you been recording from lately?
I’ve been recording most of the shows from home.
How do you stay connected with your city’s music scene in a socially distanced world?
This time has really been focused on being online. I know a lot of us really want to take time away from being on the internet as a whole but it’s a great tool to connect and collaborate with other artists.
What’s your go-to banger to get the (virtual, socially-distanced) party started?
I think one of my favourite songs at the moment is “Jewelz” by Anderson Paak. That has been on repeat for me.
What does collective creativity mean to you in 2020?
Collective creativity is an interesting one with a lot of aspects to it I believe. There’s a lot that we still have to learn, but I think that collective creativity at the moment means doing things that you wouldn’t necessarily have tried before. Just doing it for the sake of doing it to see if it works, or if you like it. But just doing it for the sake of fun.
Since lockdown’s happened, I’ve really started to look at my life and ask myself, why do I do the things that I do? Do I truly enjoy them? Or do I do it because it’s work? I’ve been trying to add a little bit more enjoyment into my life.
How have you and Melodic Distraction got each other through the challenges of 2020?
I’ve always thought of them as a second family; people that I can go to and that I can rely on and even ask for anything. I’m looking forward to doing more stuff with Melodic Distraction because they’ve got their heads screwed on the right way.
Any last words?
I’ve got an EP coming out at the end of the month titled Life of Ky. When I wrote the songs, I was working in Coles. It was such a mundane lifestyle and I had no idea what my future held. So this EP is a lot of the music that I wrote before my music career even started. It’s a really important project for me and I think it’s setting a foundation for what I have to come; I feel excited about what I have to bring to the table.
How did you come into contact with Melodic Distraction originally?
I’m the Business Manager at Dig Vinyl, which is an independent record store in LIverpool. We became aware of Melodic Distraction because Josh, James and Nina always came into the shop to buy records. I got chatting to them through that and the general Liverpool music scene; going to gigs, DJing and events. So I think as a shop we were aware who they were around the time that they started Melodic Distraction. Elliott, who works with Dig Vinyl recorded the first guest show on the station.
Tell us about your relationship with Melodic Distraction today.
Over the years, we’ve worked with them in so many different ways; we’ve DJed their events, they’ve DJed our events, we have hosted so many radio shows through their stations and currently Dig Vinyl has a monthly show every third Sunday on Melodic Distraction. It’s kind of a revolving show of different hosts, people involved in our shop. We cover all different bases, all different genres, so the show reflects the variety of what we all listen to and what we’re all interested in.
Can you describe Liverpool’s music scene for people who’ve never visited?
I’m half English and half American. I grew up mostly in the States, but I’ve been living in Liverpool for years. As someone who has lived in other countries, it’s very refreshing to see the music scene in Liverpool. It reminds me how lucky I am to live here. Liverpool is my home.
There’s not very many places in the world where you can make a career like I have working in the music industry. It’s so accessible and so easy to get involved in Liverpool. People are willing to help you out and willing to get other people involved.
What do you do at Dig Vinyl, day to day?
I do everything. My main goal is that I oversee the day to day running of the business. I oversee staff, I oversee scheduling, I do all the boring stuff like the accounts and bookkeeping but I also get my hands dirty; I’m cleaning records, I’m buying records over the counter.
Talk us through two records that you’ve been playing on repeat lately.
I’ve been listening to so much feel good music to cheer myself up. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The other record that I’ve listened to loads over lockdown (and lately) is Blackalicious’ Nia. It’s such an interesting and melodic album with so many layers and so much to say… A classic from over 20 years ago that really still stands out, and has become one of my favourites in my collection. I picked up my copy digging in a shop through a crate of pretty bland cheap stuff, imagine my surprise when I came across a near mint copy original press of this LP hiding in the midst of some really questionable records! Couldn’t believe my luck, and that truly is the beauty of digging and collecting records.
How have you and Melodic Distraction supported each other through the challenges of 2020?
Everything that Melodic Distraction do for the music community, and the Liverpool community in a wider way. During the initial lockdown, it was really a lifeline for everyone to be able to go online or go on the app to listen to people in your own city who were playing music to you. You were listening to this radio station and not only was it providing comfort in that you’re listening to music, and that’s a very comforting thing, but you’re listening to people who are experiencing the same thing as you, in the same place as you.
It provided people with a big sense of community and comfort. It was a huge support to everyone in Liverpool. And as a host myself, it really gave me purpose in my week when I knew I had a show.