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Smithdown Road occupies an important part of Liverpool’s mythology. Long known as the student area of the city, the thoroughfare has been through bust and boom. However, despite the transient nature of many of its residents and the hardships of the businesses, the road embodies a sense of community as strong as any conurbation.
That community has only strengthened in recent years with a string of independent businesses bringing new life to Smithdown. Defend Vinyl was one of those start-ups when Graham Jones opened his sunshine yellow vinyl emporium at number 150 five years ago. Around the same time, Smithdown Road Festival was going from strength to strength, animating everywhere from newly opened microbreweries in hardware shops and family-run Italian restaurants, to shops like Jones’s. Music bringing people together, a road united by sounds.
Standing in Defend’s new premises, having moved across the road to a larger space at number 395 in 2019, I’m here to speak about another new venture which the road has given birth to.
“Is that Lucy?” asks Chris McIntosh, incredulously looking out of the record shop’s glass frontage onto the rush-hour commuters. Typically reserved, Jones grabs his phone to communicate the spooky coincidence which has just occurred.
Ten minutes into the duo telling me their plans for Defend Vinyl Records, the friends of 20 years are excitedly singing the praises of the band Puzzle, whose record will be the second release for the soon-to-be-launched label. True to Smithdown Road’s village-like connectivity and cosmic ordering, Puzzle’s lead singer, Lucy Johnson, drives by while looking into the shop expectantly. The encounter typifies the environment fostered by Jones and McIntosh, who have come up through Liverpool’s indie punk scene with a torch burning for a DIY mentality and the power of friendship.
Meeting at a Widnes music festival two decades ago while in the bands The Blind Lemons and Voo respectively, the two Liverpudlians soon struck up a bond and proceeded to be instrumental in a scene which coalesced around the storied Korova club in the early noughties. Since then, the two have played in various incarnations of each other’s bands, as well as those of friends like Puzzle. But it’s the music from a more recent project which has proved the catalyst for the label.
“It must have been going on in my head,” McIntosh tells me when I ask if he’d always been party to Jones’s long-held label ambitions. “The bands that me and Graham have been in and the way we’ve always operated has always been, like, really DIY.” It’s a mentality which helped write an exciting chapter in Liverpool’s music history. Bands like McIntosh’s 28 Costumes played alongside buzz bands Hot Club De Paris and Elle S’Appelle who went on to release work on glamorous indie labels. But there is unfinished business; loose ends which inevitably come with instruments being replaced by familial responsibility and careers taking over.
“There’s loads of bands that we grew up with that are still active. Bands like Puzzle, who just finished an album which seems to have been around forever. They’ve never released an album before,” says McIntosh before Jones takes over excitedly: “I’ve been bugging them to finish it. Now to be able to actually put it out […] It’s just, you know, it’s so exciting.” The pair tell me about receiving the mastered tracks and the artwork for the album. It’s clear that this is a project that means more to them than simply shifting units and balancing books
Such unfinished business extends to the pair’s own music, too. It’s the solitary album by McIntosh’s songwriting vehicle, Silent Sleep, and along with a worrying bout of ill health, which has led to the lockdown-born project. As if the last 18 months haven’t delivered enough kicks to the teeth, McIntosh was diagnosed with immune thrombocytopenia in March. The rare blood disorder causes excessive bruising due to a low platelet count and landed McIntosh in hospital at the beginning of 2021. “For a short amount of time I was convinced I was actually going to die,” he tells me in a conversational shift in tone, “so I just wanted to make sure that the album did come out on vinyl, because that was really important to me. It kind of made me realise how fragile life is, I suppose, and just to do as much stuff as possible. All these things that we wanted to do but never did because time just fucking disappears.”
The artwork by Fiona Osborne that adorns the beautiful 12” that Jones proudly produces from the record shop’s storeroom is fitting: “I wanted it to look like the old photograph albums your mum would have in the loft.” McIntosh expands on the brief given to the long-time collaborator. “They used to have these mad designs on the front. Considering it’s just a fucking photograph album of just you and your family, like.” And therein lies tales of loves and friendships from years past, preserved in crafted songwriting which earned the band a dedicated following. The track On The Steps Of The Bombed Out Church became a veritable anthem for sentimental indie disciples.
After disappointments surrounding the initial digital release of Stay The Night, Stay The Morning Too, DVRPL001 provides the opportunity to right some wrongs. Osbourne’s artwork gets the canvas it deserves; the record will have pride of place on the racks at 395 Smithdown Road and the release will get a celebratory launch at Leaf on Bold Street. But about the future of the venture?
The Puzzle release will follow Silent Sleep in early 2022. Jones’ own band, Voo, have an album’s worth of material demoed and ready to go. An album on his own label would follow the 2013 LP Songs We Used To Dance To and is ripe for the Defend Vinyl Records treatment. With Korova scene lynchpin Paul Rafferty (Hot Club De Paris and latterly Doomshakalaka) on-hand with production capabilities and fellow Smithdown resident Stephen Kerrison (Tall Trees Audio Mastering) able to follow up mastering duties from Stay The Night…, it seems the obvious choice.
“We do want to put lots of good music out, but we don’t want to put any pressure on ourselves and say we’re an actual business. It’s a labour of love and maybe it’ll grow and maybe it won’t,” Chris says, tempering expectations. But with Defend’s network a community that reaches beyond Smithdown to the independent record shops and labels across the country, there are hopes of a small tour. A stripped back Silent Sleep album is also mooted, but before then there is the launch gig at Leaf. Literally getting the band back together, the challenge for Jones and McIntosh is now to choose which formation of the 17 musicians who appear on Stay The Night to perform, and which of the Defend community to serve as support acts for evening.
As family friends would say a quick goodbye to a newborn, there’s one last look at the freshly pressed vinyl and talk about inlays being printed and how it’s ahead of its developmental schedule with pre-orders. I step out into the Smithdown Village and leave the two proud parents to the next stage of their journey.
Stay The Night, Stay The Morning Too is out via Defend Vinyl Records on 5th November.