Inside the next wave of Manchester acts, from Pale Waves to Witch Fever
It’s hard to think of a place that’s given more to guitar music than Manchester, England. From Oasis to Joy Division and the Smiths, the northern city has redefined rock again and again. Now, there’s a new generation of Mancunian bands out to shake things up.
From alt-rockers Pale Waves and Creeper’s garage-punk side project Salem to the snarling pop of Phoebe Green, the doom metal of Witch Fever, Cody Frost’s rave rock and the ambitious emo stomp of Hot Milk, this new generation of bands are doing things their own way.
“It’s not so much a scene as a community,” Hannah Mee begins from Hot Milk, on a brief stopover at home in-between tours of North America and Australia. “Sometimes there's this animosity between bands. We try to counter that, though. Anytime a band is here in Manchester, we'll take them out. This is our city, welcome. The more the merrier. I preach that this city is the best one in the world, so I have to put my money where my mouth is.”
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“When you start making music, it’s all about coming together, family, community,” bandmate Jim Shaw adds. “Some people lose sight of that. Music’s a celebration, isn’t it? It’s all about bringing people together.”
Mee believes so many good bands come from Manchester because “you're influenced by the streets here. There's such a depth and variety of music that's happened in Manchester — it’s hard not to be inspired.” The city has a strong history of dance music, from iconic venues like The Hacienda that were the epicenter of rave culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s to contemporary festivals like Parklife (this year headlined by 50 Cent, Tyler, The Creator, Megan Thee Stallion and Bicep) and the famed electronic Warehouse Project. There’s also the legacy of bands like Oasis. “The fact that these local lads walked the same streets that we did and managed to sell out Knebworth is insane,” Mee explains, who started the band in the same apartment that Noel Gallagher wrote (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? in. “You do have that in the back of your mind — if they could fucking do it, then we can definitely have a bash at it. It makes you feel empowered.”
The current crop of artists emerging from Manchester might not be bonded by a singular musical style, but they’re united by a shared freedom to follow their gut.
“We're at a time now where genres are being completely broken down. It's not really important to be part of a specific subgenre anymore, which is letting people be a lot more expressive and creative,” Cody Frost says, who comes from nearby Burnley but spends most of their free time in Manchester. “I feel like my music doesn’t have a genre — it’s a real mix of emo and rave, but Manchester just seems to get it.”
“There's a huge queer scene in Manchester as well, and there's so much experimental music coming off the back of queer subcultures.” Frost believes the alt scene has a lot more work to do in terms of breaking down barriers and making it more inclusive but feels like Manchester is leading the way with its Gay Village and variety of nonbinary and queer events. “It feels like this safe space for anybody that’s queer or alternative.”
Phoebe Green released her debut album, Lucky Me, in August. A snarling, alt-pop record, she’s come a long way from the indie folk that kick-started her career. She says living in Manchester “encouraged me to pursue that type of music because no one else is really doing that here. I was inspired by the absence of it. But also, the Gay Village was very influential, just being around queer music that people are dancing to. Songs like 'Crying In The Club' and 'Just A Game' were definitely written with the idea of making people pop off.”
Green believes the people of Manchester are “enthusiastic about everything, even if it's not their thing. We all embrace whatever everyone else is doing just because we're supportive people. I don't think there's a lot of negative competition. Everyone really tries to lift each other up.”
“Everyone's so different but still so aware of each other. I guess that’s the scene,” Green continues. Because of that support, she believes everyone is trying to push themselves more than ever. Even indie bands looking to be the next Oasis are now “trying to be a very unique indie band, rather than simply copying what’s come before.”
One of the city’s biggest success stories in recent years is Pale Waves. Like a lot of bands, vocalist Heather Baron-Gracie wasn’t born in Manchester but moved there for university, attracted to the city’s rich musical heritage. “It has such a punk vibe to it. I felt really at home as soon as I moved here,” she says. When Pale Waves started in 2014, she found that people “were very receptive to the music.”
Like Green, Baron-Gracie wasn’t put off about living up to what had come before. “You want to strive to be just as big and just as good as those Manchester legends, so that naturally pushes you to want to be better. We always knew that from the get-go, we didn’t want to ever follow in someone else’s footsteps. We knew we had to make our own pathway. We wanted to make our own name. When people talk about Manchester, we want them to talk about Pale Waves.”
Baron-Gracie thinks the talent coming out of Manchester is so exciting because “people aren't afraid to talk about whatever they truly want to speak about. They're not scared about what other people think, either.”
She says Pale Waves wouldn’t be the band they are today without the numerous grassroots venues that Manchester has. From Gullivers and The Deaf Institute to Band On The Wall, Star And Garter, Gorilla and Yes, “there’s so many great spaces here. You’re really given this platform to hone your craft and get better.” Unlike most cities that have a few small venues, then an arena or an academy, Manchester has a series of venues of every size, which not only encourages artists' growth but actively provides a framework for it.
But that grassroots community needs protecting.
Over lockdown, Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham was dubbed “The King Of The North” for repeatedly standing up to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnston and his often unfair COVID-19 restrictions that penalized creative industries, hospitality and the north in general.
Mee has had an “ongoing relationship” with Burnham ever since she confronted him one night and asked him plainly, “What are you doing to protect the musical future of Manchester?” Hot Milk currently practice and record in a studio in the city center, but that’s set to be turned into flats in the near future.
“I said to him, ‘You can’t deny that the reason people come to Manchester, the reason so much has been invested in the city recently, is because of the massive amount of musical talent that’s come from here. How are you going to make sure that continues, if bands don’t have the space to practice and grow?’” There’s now a panel made up of local promoters and Sacha Lord (who runs Parklife Festival, Warehouse Project and is also the mayor’s Night Time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester).
“It’s about putting pressure on our local politicians to ensure that the future of Manchester still has grassroots music at its core,” Mee explains. “Manchester is a working-class city, and I don’t want music to become inaccessible to working-class kids. These politicians do the right thing sometimes, but you have to remember they’re millionaires. They’re very far away from what the core of Manchester is. This city's always been at the forefront of social change, be it working-class upheaval [like the 1819 Peterloo Massacre] to gay rights.”
“We've got a duty as musicians that are currently here, not only to protect our own business and passion but cultivate it and protect it for future generations,” Shaw adds. “One of the biggest reasons people move here is because of the culture. If you kill that culture, then what is Manchester?”
They both believe the grassroots scene in Manchester is finally finding its feet post-COVID-19. “People are exploring and experimenting,” Mee says, who tries to go out in Manchester as much as she can. “They're trying to create a little buzz in the city. Don't get me wrong: Half of them are a load of shit, but they might not be next year. These things always take time, and everything is slowly restarting. It's a really interesting time for expression in the city at the moment.”
“Manchester is one big safe space, where people can grow and find themselves,” Shaw reckons. “We want people to come here and express themselves like we could express ourselves. We want them to be able to let go and have fun.”
“People should just be able to be whoever they want to be, and Manchester really does encourage that,” Mee says. “Everyone is welcome, as long as you’re nice.”