Electronic psychonauts GNOD operate out of ISLINGTON MILL, a Grade II listed Victorian cotton mill in Salford that has somehow escaped the gentrification tidal wave and now houses a vibrant community of musicians, labels, artists, designers, photographers and printers. Gnod’s charismatic lynchpin Paddy Shine takes us on a tour of the unique building at the epicentre of a creative revolution
Words: CARL GRIFFIN
From Dylan being decried as “Judas!” at the Free Trade Hall to that famous band-spawning Sex Pistols gig at the same spot a decade later, to Tony Wilson’s Factory imprint and Hacienda nightclub and all the pills, thrills, bellyaches and voodoo rays that followed, Manchester is a city that has always had plenty going on musically.
A stone’s throw away in Salford sits Islington Mill, a ramshackle slice of Victorian Britain surrounded by 1970s tower blocks, humdrum utilitarian retail ephemera and dereliction. It’s home to a remarkable co-operative of industrious, free-thinking, creative trailblazers who are fast turning the place into the beating heart of a new, post-austerity counter-cultural scene.
From the outside, there’s little to indicate what goes on beyond the mill’s rusting iron gates. But pass through into the verdant cobbled courtyard and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d found a nifty space/time shortcut to a Berlin or Amsterdam bohemia.
We’ve been told to ask for Paddy Shine, frontman of post-kraut, part-kosmische, free jazz-inflected electronic psychonauts Gnod, the band that much revolves around at the mill. We’re reliably informed that he’s the peer-appointed spokesperson for the wider goings on here. It’s immediately clear to see why, such is the warmth of his energetic Irish-Mancunian welcome.
“Ah, it’s great to meet you at last,” he says dropping the gear he is midway through shifting in preparation for tonight’s gig at the mill to greet us with handshakes. “We’ve all been looking forward to this.”
The show he’s preparing for will see Gnod playing support to LA garage-psych out t White Hills, who are opening their European tour here.
“Have a seat in the courtyard while I sort these cables out and I’ll grab you a drink – tea, coffee? Or a beer maybe, to grease the wheels a bit?”
Five minutes later, we’re sitting outside supping tea in the spring sunshine. Above our heads, kestrels and jackdaws are squabbling over the prime nesting spots up in the mill’s inaccessible tower. Paddy wastes no time putting out the word that we’re here and we settle in for an afternoon of discovery with the musicians, label owners, artists, designers, printers and other creative visionaries who are currently working out of Islington Mill – both in its vast communal rehearsal spaces and also in its more intimate, light-filled private studios and workshops.
Fiercely independent and nurturing, risk-taking and experimental, this is one hell of an inspiring place. It’s quite some achievement for the self-deprecating owner, Bill Campbell, who is clearly intensely proud of the achievements of so many of the people based here and the impact that the environment of the mill has had on them. If Bill has a style of leadership, it comes with such a lightness of touch that it’s close on invisible.
“People often don’t know how or why the project exists, but they are always glad that it does,” he offers. When I ask Bill to sum up the credo and raison for his singular dream of forming a community of artists and musicians around the shared goal
of living and working as freely and creatively as possible, he simply says, “In the main, I just like partying”. As do the rest of this hardworking, hard-playing bunch, as becomes apparent once tools are downed for the day, the ale bottle tops start popping, and the excitement builds in anticipation of the White Hills gig.
While this is by no means a definitive guide to all the movers and doers of Islington Mill, these are some of the figures that the estimable Paddy Shine introduces us to during our memorable sojourn into the heart of the other city…
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ISLINGTON MILL
Islington Mill was built in 1823 for Nathan Gough, an entrepreneur who started out at the age of 10 as a cotton spinner, before becoming a manager at his brother’s cotton mill and eventually going on to manage a mill of his own. Gough later became famous as an engineer, inventing a portable steam-powered engine, which he used to ride around the streets of Manchester at speeds of up to seven miles an hour, as well as a variety of other labour-saving devices.
Islington Mill was hit by tragedy shortly after it was first opened, when the upper floor collapsed, killing 19 workers. After the accident, the original cast-iron beams were replaced by safer timber ones. The mill thrived throughout the 19th century and by 1891 was in the hands of HW Lee & Co, a cotton doubling rm. In 1996, the building (along with its engine and boiler houses, warehouses, stables and courtyard) was declared to be of special historic interest and granted a Grade II listing.
ISLINGTON MILL REBORN
The idea for an artistic community at Islington Mill has been a good while in the making. Founded in 2000 by self- funded creative visionary Bill Campbell, it’s seen a number of phases in its tentatively organic, proudly DIY and often seat-of-its-pants development.
After studying design at Central Saint Martins in London in the 1990s, Bill moved to Salford, living in one of the tower block flats opposite the mill. Noticing a small “For Rent” sign in a window of the 19th century wreck that he thought had lain empty for more than 30 years, he made a half- hearted enquiry about a studio space and ended up renting a whole floor, which first had to be cleared of hundreds of decaying old typewriter reels. Once established, he was energised by the possibilities.
“I felt it was a great privilege to be in a building with such an incredible sense of freedom,” he says, sitting at the mill’s huge communal dining table, the centrepiece of which is a large, ornate gothic candlestick holder. “I just thought that everyone who wanted it should have the same opportunity.”
Bill explains that the IRA bomb that caused so much devastation in central Manchester in 1996 proved to be an accidental catalyst for the urban living phenomenon to take hold in the area.
“Creative co-ops just weren’t happening at that time,” he recalls. “Old buildings were being snapped up by developers and turned into ridiculously expensive flats that only corporate professionals could afford. So I contacted the city council and the Arts Council with a proposition to turn the mill into a not-for-profit arts space, but unfortunately they turned it down.”
Bill then began to investigate the possibility of buying the mill with a bridging nance loan. To his complete surprise, he was offered a short term solution.
“But that meant I had to answer to business and it always felt precarious,” he says. “Artists started coming in to do installations, but there was too much uncertainty about what was happening here. By 2004, against my better instincts, I came close to selling up to the developers, but then I got a cold call from one of the big banks asking if I needed a mortgage. So I said yes!”