Back in the dance – Hope Works celebrates ninth birthday

It’s been nine years since Sheffield’s iconic underground clubbing institution Hope Works first opened its doors. In that time they’ve seen some of the finest names in electronic music grace the decks, cultivated a vast array of up-and-coming artistic talent, set up their own innovative, boundary-smashing festival, and not to mention weathered a global pandemic that threatened to bulldoze the city’s cultural landscape.

Following the most successful No Bounds event to date and with a birthday celebration featuring Palms Trax and Bradley Zero just around the corner, we spoke to founder and co-curator Liam O’Shea about the memorable journey so far.

Let’s start with the huge success of the returning No Bounds Festival – more rave reviews (if you forgive the pun) and an already high bar surpassed. First of all, how was your experience this year?
It was such a big success this year. In the scale of festivals, it’s still relatively small, more of a boutique festival really. But the impact has been increasing year on year. We received the five star review in the Guardian this year, one star up from last year, and that was incredible to see. It spoke nicely about how No Bounds is mixing art with the diverse community that we have here. We’re joining the international conversation in terms of world class, multidisciplinary arts events, but doing it in an authentic Sheffield way, which is precisely what I set out to do.

Crowds at Hope Works

Frankie Casillo

How important is that authentic Sheffield aspect to the event?
It’s massive. I mean everyone’s just kind of sharing the world as they see it, aren’t they? The community that you’re part of and where you’re from informs the lens that you look at everything through. There was a line in the Guardian review, ‘Sheffield’s electro-industrial heart is still beating.’ That sums it up. It feels more significant with the unfortunate passing of Richard Kirk this year, a figure of huge importance to electronic music worldwide, and it does feel like we’re helping to carry on that tradition of underground culture and innovative music in warehouse spaces.

As you were saying, Sheffield is joining that international conversation again, but it helped lay foundations in underground electronic music a long time ago.
Yeah, Cabaret Voltaire were there right at the start of that form of music and that goes right on to spawning huge international bands like Human League and Heaven 17. This is all part of our heritage. We’re primarily concerned with that electronic underbelly and how that interfaces with other things – music, art and technology in particular.

What about the germination process for No Bounds growing into what it is today? When were those initial seeds planted in your head?
It feels like my life’s work to date, the culmination of a life in the music industry. I’ve been making music since the late-80s, initially as a guitarist. I came to Sheffield in ‘91 and it was always like I had one foot in the rave, one foot in bands. So I’m naturally interested in the whole hybrid nature of music and art, which eventually led to a project in 2009 called ‘Mixed in Sheffield’ – remixing a wide selection of Sheffield artists with a focus on electronic music. It was one way of connecting disparate crews that I’d met on my journeys through the Sheffield underground. I kind of wanted to build on that, so when I opened Hope Works in 2012 it was immediately covered in graph and art by Sheffield artists. I invited the community in from day one, and from there I was really able to find my voice as a promoter; it’s taken me years since to build up the confidence, connections and friendships to launch something genuinely collaborative like No Bounds.

Crowds at Hope Works

Frankie Casillo

In light of its constant growth, just how big do you think the potential is for No Bounds Festival?
It’s in the title: no bounds. Given the right circumstances, support, energy and bit of luck, there are no limits to where it can go. It’s something that could be built up to permeate all of city, showcasing so many art forms, bringing so many venues into the fold. It’s a recognised fixture on the calendar now and we’re looking to take it forward once again in 2022.

Hope Works heads towards its 9th birthday following an incredibly uncertain period for nightlife and events venues in general. The last 18 months must have been a scary ride. How do you reflect on that period?
First and foremost, we had our first child the week before lockdown, so it was a case of having some time with my family. Then of course there was a sense of genuine worry – really thinking, on a human level, that this could be it. Following the initial shock it was a case of trying to dig out of that hole, looking for alternative ways of making a living while also applying for funding grants. We then did the Crowdfunder, which was incredibly successful and so cathartic to receive the love and support we did from our audience and community. I needed that from a psychological perspective. As well as the Crowdfunder, we were also lucky enough to receive a CRF (Culture Recovery Fund) grant, which helped to stabilise things and enabled me to work through it, and also enabled the whole ecosystem of freelancers we work with to work through it. We kept the wheel turning and came out in good shape; it means we can carry on creating events like No Bounds and to keep on providing culture for people.

Next year will mark 10 years of Hope Works in Sheffield. How do you feel it has grown since starting out?
We started from an all-Sheffield line-up in 2012, a multi-genre ‘Mixed in Sheffield’ mashup, and then we did an end of the world party with DVS1 (if you remember that stuff with The Mayans). From that I just went straight into a load of shows like Blawan and Pangea, Theo Parrish and Maurice Fulton, Ben Klock, Motor City Drum Ensemble… we started with a run of shows like that, straight in with huge underground names. From then to now Hope Works has continued to host some of the biggest worldwide artists in electronic music: Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Helena Hauff, Ben UFO, Honey Dijon, Nina Kravitz, The Blessed Madonna, Skream, Mall Grab. Not bad for a little warehouse in Darnall, is it?

Helena Hauff at Hope Works

Helena Hauff at Hope Works. Photo credit: Frankie Casillo

That’s not to mention the up-and-coming talent that’s been cultivated behind the decks…
We’ve always prided ourselves in spotting talent. We want to help bring new artists through, and our residency programme helps us to do just that. We started that in 2019 and currently we’ve got Gracie T, 96 Back, Diessa, Nkisi, Porter Brook, Rumbi Tauro, Rian Treanor, Alex McLean (as well as myself Lo Shea and Chris Duckenfield) – all part of the Hope Works family residency. We want to support and help platform new artists, give them opportunities and invest time in them. We’ve made a name for ourselves as being a space where chances are taken, a place you can come and find artists you’ve never heard of before, but at the same time ones you’re quite likely to hear more of in the future.

You’ve already alluded to plenty of memorable events, but what seminal moments stand out for you over the last 9 years?
When I was stood there watching Jeff Mills play in 2014 – the master of techno playing Hope Works. That was monumental. Then this year’s No Bounds was incredibly special, and it felt like such an amazing way to come back after the pandemic. So many people said so many lovely things. It was definitely a lump in the throat time for us, to see such a diverse line-up and audience attend over the weekend.

What role would you like Hope Works to play moving forward as the city continues to dust itself down from the pandemic?
A few things I suppose. We want to continue offering a progressive space where diversity and differences are celebrated and championed. We want people to feel free to be themselves. I still want it to be a steadfast bastion of quality too. I would love for people to be able to trust and rely on us to be there for them. We’ve been there through the pandemic, we’ve kept the business and the freelancers we work with getting paid. We’ve made things happen. Even No Bounds 2020, the hybrid virtual festival that took place in the middle of the pandemic, we still actually made that happen. I just hope that reaffirms to people of our hard-working and passionate approach to things. We always strive to be better but fundamentally we want to continue to be run a family-run, little independent with a team of music lovers who put the music and art first.

Hope Works 9th Birthday ft. Palms Trax, Bradley Zero + more takes place on Sat 27th November. Tickets are on sale now at Resident Advisor.

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