“I‘ve been so excited about playing... wherever this was going to be,“ says the man with the guitar. Jeremy Tuplin, one of this evening‘s four performers, is standing in front of a packed crowd in a Hackney Wick warehouse flat. The organisers have turned off the fish tank to avoid any wayward noise. There‘s just a faint murmur from the storm outside, and a trickle in the pipes. The room is dead silent, expectant.
Sofar Sounds is a project that brings gigs alive in people‘s homes. Since the first performance in a cramped North London living room in 2009, it has spread all over the UK to places like Hamburg, Costa Rica, Miami. Tonight‘s gig is in Sandra Ciampone‘s flatshare in the east wing of a disused factory. There‘s a transparent egg suspended from the ceiling, metal bars below the roof and a corner kitchen. The walls are bare and tall. Apparently it gets pretty cold in winter.
Sandra, a photographer and filmmaker, greets me at the door an hour before the event is meant to start. Now is, of course, the most awkward time for any host to do an interview, but she seems calm, chatting briefly to someone about the lighting and scribbling a last-minute note instructing guests to stay clear of the sofa table. Her flatmates are mingling with the organisers, grabbing wine from the fridge and helping out with the equipment. I bump into Rafe Offer, one of the co-founders of the project, who has brought his teenage daughter along to help out.
Sandra pours me a glass of lager. “You won‘t experience the atmosphere elsewhere,“ she says, “It‘s so intimate. Everyone sits down and is quiet and just listens to the music.“ Around us, the room is being discreetly groomed into shape. A bright spotlight comes on and cameras are mounted against the walls. The stage area is marked by a pair of microphones.
Sandra has lived in three different flats in the building since she moved from Italy eight years ago, but this one is her favourite. Squatters took over the unused factory in the 1970s and the landlord soon fitted a couple of kitchens and bathrooms and began charging rent. Hackney can hardly be described as affordable anymore, but according to Sandra its artistic community largely remains. “The nice thing about living here is that you get to know all the neighbours. It‘s going to be tricky to keep them out tonight. They will all be at the door.“
As the place fills up, new voices drop into our conversation. I‘m introduced to a flatmate who has just found a lover abroad. One of the musicians, in a rather bizarre moment, thanks Sandra for having him there.
Sofar Sounds is built around people who are willing to share their space with a hundred or so strangers. It‘s financed by donations, and cuts out the middle man, directly connecting journalists and bloggers with musicians without the promotional touch of the PR, venue or record label. In other words, it‘s democratic.
Sandra isn‘t worried about a bunch of unknowns rearranging her bathroom, but curious to see who‘s around—and who will stay on afterwards to help her with the cleaning. “People don‘t go with a big group of friends, but instead one or two, so you‘re open to chat with the person who sits next to you. I can be very reserved, but I don‘t know why, there‘s just something about the atmosphere. You end up being friends with everyone.“
It turns out she‘s right. During the course of the night, concert- goers huddle together on the floor, queue for the toilet or lean their achy backs against someone else‘s chair, and so strangers are somehow stripped of their strangeness. This is the first time I‘ve attended a gig alone, yet I have never felt less lonely or out of place. We‘re all here for the music. Sharing wine with a Turkish PhD student on holiday, our conversation is of that rare confessional kind you can only have with a stranger. Before the first performance has even begun, we have dealt with the topics of death, love and family.
The mosh pit often strikes me as the only splinter of anarchy left in our culture, where lunacy is the only way to survive your favourite songs. Sofar Sounds is not like that, but there‘s another kind of rare intimacy going on that‘s purely about music and the impressions it forms in our minds. When Ella Martini sings about her ex-boyfriends, I notice the vulnerability nestled between the R&B notes, the subtle change of pace and the cleverly mispronounced words.
For a few minutes, the world around me fades and I dress in the softness of her drums. Helen Moody demands another kind of attention: she bangs the body of her cello, strangles its strings with the palm of her hand and along its neck, connoting the eerie imagery of a rocket launch. Her vocals are at once a shriek, a whisper, an odd clucking beat. We hold our breaths as the collective silence brings us into new rooms of sound.
This article was originally published in issue 23 of Oh Comely.