“People grow up together here, it’s a home”: Why Huddersfield’s rock community saved The Parish

The pandemic wrought havoc on grassroots venues up and down the UK, with some forced into shutting their doors for good. In Huddersfield, the rock scene rallied round to save their beloved Parish venue from closure by raising close to £50,000. We paid a visit to find out what makes the venue so special...

“People grow up together here, it’s a home”: Why Huddersfield’s rock community saved The Parish
Words and photos:
Chris Bethell

The pandemic hit Britain's live music industry with the destructive force of a comet. The immediate closure of venues severed their blood supply of ticket and bar sales, with the lucky few with a kitchen shape-shifting into takeaways. Huge swathes of venues closed their doors for good after inadequate government financial aid, landlords offering little-to-no subsidies for their rent, and the general despair of not knowing if or when things would return to normal. The Parish, Huddersfield's home to its alternative music scene, was no stranger to these struggles as COVID settled in.

Opened 15 years ago by Tom Simpson and two friends after he finished uni, they covered the walls with posters of their favourite bands and filled the club with the sounds of Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy. Back then, The Parish was a small pub with a live music venue capped at roughly 150 people. Over the years they booked an impressive array of artists for a small-town club – from Every Time I Die to The Bronx. They brought big names into a small room for a die-hard crowd.

The much-celebrated venue was hit hard by COVID measures, and in an attempt to stay afloat, they launched a crowdfunder with the target of £25,000 to keep them going. The callout was live for three weeks and completely blew threw its target, almost doubling at £45,000.

Kerrang! was so inspired by this story that we wanted to meet the team and their punters to find out what's so special about The Parish.

Tom SimpsonCo-owner and founder of The Parish

Was there much of an alternative community in Huddersfield before The Parish opened?
"Yeah, I think Huddersfield is quite a punk town. I'm pretty sure the Sex Pistols played here a long time ago, Green Day played here. We have a bunch of proper old-school punks who still drink here now. There was also a bar called The West, which was open before us – it was a tiny bar and had a massive devil statue in the front. You couldn't fit many people in there, maybe 50 to 60 people. Unfortunately it closed not long after we opened.

Tell us about your old punk regulars.
"Well, they drink a lot. My favourite old punk is Sully – he does all of our electrics and he's amazing. They've all got kids now and since we've moved to this venue, our ground floor is a lot more accessible to family. When these guys were first coming to The Parish you'd have seen them in some right states, but now they're coming with their kids. It's going in a circle now and hopefully we can continue to build that and attract the new generations.

"We get a lot of the younger bands from around here coming through too, which is great, supporting the more established bands that play. This is a launching pad for some of them, sometimes going off on tour with these bigger bands. It feels great to be able to meet and support them."

When did you move into the new space?
"We opened here after the first lockdown, maybe August or September in 2020. That first six months was a nightmare and we didn't think we would be able to re-open. We tried to keep our kitchen open to bring some money in, selling food for takeaway or delivery, and we were doing everything we could to keep up paying our suppliers and our staff. But obviously, like everyone else, we weren't able to make enough money. One of our friends who owns a few venues around town talked to us about taking on a different site if the worst came to the worst – and he suggested looking at Tokyos; which is this building, it used to be a nightclub. It was intimidatingly big when we looked around, but he thought it could work. He said if you look upstairs you've got a 350-cap venue which you could fill if you got the right gigs. We didn't think we could afford it, but he very kindly said he wouldn't charge us rent until we're allowed to open. He just offered us a really good deal which was better than staying where we were."

So what happened with the crowdfunder?
"As soon as the lockdowns were announced, the three of us met up and realised there was no chance of us surviving here for longer than two or three months. We already had an account with Crowdfunder as we'd previously been thinking of launching one to help us refurb the original venue. We received an email from them asking if we'd considered using it as a means of raising funds in the pandemic, which seemed like an obvious decision so we launched it and it was only open for three weeks. We made £40,000, which is crazy – especially as we'd targeted £25,000. We were gobsmacked. One of the incentives that did really well was the gold card – this allowed you access to any gig that wasn't sold out for a year."

That's such a great idea. What else was there?
"There was actually a £1,000 pledge that was bought! It was to have an item on the menu names after you, a guy called Orta pledged, so we made Tom-Orta Ketchup. He was pretty happy with that!

"Frank Turner actually did a sing-along stream for us – that brought in £6,000 in one night. He's an absolute legend for doing that."

How did it feel to have raised so much money?
"It was overwhelming, and kind of stressful, because once people have been that generous and supportive, you have to make it up to them. Imagine if everyone had donated all that money and then we'd not been able to open. The money gave us the will to carry on and helped us to pay a lot of the rent debt we'd accumulated, but it was still a lot more than we'd raised. We know we've got a good group of customers and people who love us who want to come back. We knew we had to do it. For a tiny little place, we've affected quite a lot of people's lives in Huddersfield, and this was a heartwarming statement of that."

Mikey ShirazPromoter at The Parish

You started at The Parish in 2007, so you've been here from right near the start?
Yeah! I was brought along to The Parish after two years of running The West, a punk rock bar in Huddersfield. We didn't know how to run a business and had opened it after having been in a touring band, wanting to put on some shows locally. I became their promoter and helped take them from doing two or three gigs a month to 10 or 20. Tom actually worked for me at The West while we were still open and he was the worst barman ever!"

What's the alternative scene like in Huddersfield?
"The alternative scene here is a community, it's a beautiful thing. I used to work in a place called Joseph's Well in Leeds – you'd find the metallers would be with the metallers, the punks with the punks, indies with the indie lot. But in Huddersfield it seems like if you're even slightly alternative, everyone is in it together. There's a real sense of community from the people, the bands, everyone just gets along. Huddersfield is not like any other town I know. It's a drunk town, but it is such a friendly town – everyone's so welcome. We're also really near to the uni, so we've been welcoming in new groups of students every year. A lot of people now have also realised that 'alternative' isn't a scary word, so we even get townies coming into The Parish and telling us it's their favourite bar."

How would the closure of The Parish have affected the community?
"I don't want to be big-headed, but I think it would have been the end of the music scene in Huddersfield. I really, really do. There are other venues, but they do very different things to us – open mics, folk, etc. But we're the ones that want to bring music in to Huddersfield, everyone that works here are music lovers and a lot have been in bands. A lot of people travel to gigs here too as they know we're such a welcoming, happy place. We're always looking out for the best interest of everyone."

Tell us about some of the best bands you've booked for The Parish.
"We've had The Bronx a few times! Twice as The Bronx and once as Mariachi El Bronx, which is great because, as we all know, they're the greatest rock'n'roll band in the whole world. We've had Every Time I Die, Cancer Bats, Snot – the lead singer got his front tooth knocked out in the first song. Bouncing Souls, White She Sleeps… the list goes on! I think our name is out there; if you come to The Parish you're going to be treated well and you'll have a really good time. You'll remember it!"

Liam KnowlesRegular visitor

How long have you been coming to The Parish?
"Pretty much since I first moved here, and I moved here 15 years ago. As far as I can remember, The Parish has always been here. Apart from my own house, it's the place I'd spend the most time. It's the hub of alternative music in Huddersfield, so why would I go anywhere else?"

Do you remember your first time?
"The first time I really remember coming to The Parish, my old band were playing a show here – it must have been 2008. I remember thinking, 'Where has this place been?' We'd needed somewhere like this forever. There were alternative pubs we'd been to before but nothing with the vibe. I completely found my home here; we wouldn't go anywhere else."

Tell us a bit about the community around it.
"Eighty per cent of the friends I know in Huddersfield I know through coming here. It's the hub for anyone who is remotely alternative. Some of the shows they've had in such a small venue have been absolutely mad. Bookings that no other small venue would have got. So to be in those kind of high energy situations in such small environments, you build a lot of friendships and relationships quickly. The Parish is so formative for me as a person and all my friendship groups."

What are some of your favourite memories here?
"My favourite show ever has to be Every Time I Die, who sadly split up recently. Seeing them in a 150-capacity room behind a pub is really irresponsible for the people who booked it, but it was really, really good! Also on the 10-year anniversary of The Parish they did a week of gigs, the one that stuck out was SikTh's gig – it was chaos. Our current band, Hidden Mothers, played their first show here. It felt right for this to be where we started things off.

Did you donate to the crowdfunder?
"I'm pretty sure I donated about £50 for the gold package. There were a few things that came with it, but the only one I remember was free entry to gigs that haven't sold out for a year – which has been awesome. I've definitely already had my worth out of it. It's a great idea as it gets people in through the doors for bands that otherwise would have had a smaller crowd."

Karen Bickley, Nick Spragg, Ruth Rock, Ila Desai, Andy BorrellRegular visitor to The Parish

How long have you all been coming to The Parish for?
"Seven years, did we work out? 2015 I think, maybe 2014."
"We're relative newcomers!"

That's a pretty good innings!
Ruth: "Especially when none of us live near it!"

Oh wow, so where have you all come from?
Nick: "We're probably the nearest [Nick and Karen], we're over in Oldham. So if a gig pops up over here as well as playing Manchester, it's no comparison – we always come here!"
"We live in Nottingham [Ruth and Andy]."
"It takes us about an hour and a half, two hours to get here. Rock City is great, but there's just something else about this place. The first few times we came we just fell in love with it."
"At the beginning of the pandemic I was just outside of London, so I was unsure how often I'd be able to come up. But I've moved up to Yorkshire now, so I'm relatively local. When I pledged on the crowdfunder for the gold package I wasn't sure about how many gigs I'd make it to, but I wanted to support them anyway."
"One of the main draws is Mikey, he's amazing. He helped me to put on a few charity gigs here where we raised money for Scott Sorry of The Wildhearts. He was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour and racked up a lot of debt in medical bills, but four years on he's still going strong!"

Were you all friends before coming to The Parish or did you meet here?
Ruth: "We met in the gig scene."
"But yeah, I think this is one of the places where we really got to know each other."
"We were all looking for a home, which sounds cheesy. But every time there was a Parish gig, we'd message each other to see who was going. It started becoming silly, there was a gig on a Monday but someone would be living in South London, but they'd still say yes! I think we're looking deep down in our souls…"
"Take the beer off him!"
"We're looking for a place that is a home, and I sit here and wave at most people coming through the door. We know about half of the people that come here!"

Ollie SaleemBar Manager

How did it feel to see that The Parish had managed to raise so much money during the pandemic?
"Well, I was in New Zealand at the time. I hadn't been a part of any of that, it was hard to see that they were struggling. To see that shit's going on, lockdown is happening, but then to see Frank Turner was helping out was awesome. They smashed it. It just showed to me how many people care about The Parish. It's not just about beer, it's not just about gigs, or dancing, or whatever else – it's about people. People grow up together here, it's a home. Unless you know The Parish, it's hard to describe what it means to you. We've got regulars who have been going since the dawn of time. It's a special place. Moving from the old building to this one was a worrying thing, you worry that it's still going to be The Parish. But then we realised that as much as you put the effort into the decoration, furniture or whatever, it's the people that make it."

What do you think Huddersfield would have lost with The Parish if it hadn't re-opened?
"So much. It would have lost the music scene. There's no music culture without The Parish. Granted most of our music is rock, but there's no other real live music venues in town. It would have just been another dead independent bar. But not just the music actually, the bar itself is a safe space, welcoming space to anyone, and is somewhere LGBTQ+ people feel comfortable to be themselves. It doesn't matter who you are, what you look like, as long as you're not a dickhead then you're welcome here. It was an unwritten rule that stuck here – the wrong people avoided it and the good people came. Huddersfield would be lost without it. I see the good it does in people, customers and staff."

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