As ideas go, trying to do a nice quiet interview in Newcastle City Centre on a Friday night in December wasn’t one of my best. Holed up in a pub so warm the windows have fogged over on the inside, Rhys Melhuish looks a little out of place between all the folk in their finest fairisle knit jumpers for the ongoing Christmas parties.
For the uninitiated, Rhys Melhuish is *almost* the Godfather of the North East music scene. He began life as the drummer of St Buryan, then started running Spark’s local music radio show on the side and since finishing uni has begun his own promotions company, Rhyme. If there’s a band about in the North East, Rhys knows about them and he’s probably mates with them too.
We’re approaching the end of the year and it’s been a massive 12 months for the North East, “That BRIT award for Sam Fender has to be the cream of the crop right now. That was unbelievable.” Rhys says, almost incredulous. It’s been a long time coming though. As we wandered up Pink Lane looking for a free corner of a pub before the mic was on, he mentioned the radio silence in the scene that came before the resurgence that we’re in the middle of.
We had Little Comets, The Futureheads, Maximo Park, and Frankie & the Heartstrings back in the day and then from there Lisbon and Coquin Migale readied the stage and were just breaking up as the current wave like The Pale White, The Old Pink House, and Sam Fender stepped forward. From here’s it has flourished as more and more bands step up to the plate.
“It is [the current state of the North East scene] absolutely mint for lack of a better word.” Rhys grins, “There’s just so much going on and it’s recovered from the lull it’s had. The likes of The Old Pink House are doing really well. Teesside is smashing it now as well with Cape Cub and Llovers. Even aside from that, the underground gigs, like the people who aren’t necessarily getting national attention, the likes of Holly Rees, for example, playing to that crowd the other week was fantastic.”
It’s no secret that the people make Newcastle. Up North we’re friendly and we’re a community, and the music scene is no different. “Everyone’s pulling together in the same direction, wanting everyone else to be successful. There’s no one out there putting anyone else down.”
“It could be really easy for the scene to be toxic. It would be easy for bands like The Pale White and FEVA for example, to have a rivalry going on between them but they’re not, they’re best mates.” He says, adding “I know that sort of happened before they got into their bands and everything but they could be rivals in a sense, wanting to outdo each other but they’re not.”
Everyone has an ear to the ground in Newcastle, no one wants to be the last one to cotton on to the next big thing. Regardless of who you are, starting a band in the North East is the easiest way to make friends, “A lot of the relationships have come beforehand, like friends from high school that have gone on to do their own musical things. A lot of times you can bump into someone that you’ve never met before but you know their band and be in a pub or wherever and be like you’re “so and so from this band” and they’ll say the same thing back to you.” Everyone knows everyone.
It’s a recurring idea that everyone knows each other from school, most of the bands in the North East have known each other long before instruments were involved, St Buryan are no different either Rhys explains, “we’ve all been mates since we were thirteen and when we all reached the age of sixteen we all started learning individual instruments but never together. We just did it for something to do.”
“We were all doing our own musical thing for nearly two years and playing in covers bands and we thought “shall we get together and have a bash at writing our own songs?” That was back around 2013 when the band formed though St Buryan have only been working properly for about two years.
For a guy that currently owns a promotions company and manages his own band, he’s quick to disappear behind a drum kit on stage. Is there a reason such a social guy takes a low-key position in the band? “Absolutely not” he laughs loudly, “The reason I play drums is that I couldn’t play anything else. I had guitar lessons when I was 13 because as a kid I was obsessed with guitar solos and the sound of guitars but I got lessons and I was useless.”
He has a chuckle thinking of all the times he’s been mistaken for the lead singer of St Buryan, even by the director of SoundHub (who’ve been involved in the band’s 2019 releases). Rhys laments that he doesn’t think he’d make a good frontman though “playing drums is like being on the radio, you’re not on full display, it’s just your voice or instrument coming through. I’m a bit shy, a lot of people don’t think I am but I’m not that confident or outgoing or anything”.
Despite describing himself as shy, Rhys clearly left an impression on the Spark team as a few months after having been a guest on the show himself with the other St Buryan lads, he was invited to be part of Spark. The old producer left and after stepping up to the plate Rhys settled right in from being “the guy who made teas for the guests in the background to arranging shows, arranging interviews and then became a presenter and head of local music as it were.”
“Some of the people I consider to be my closest, closest friends right now, like Holly Rees would be one of them, I met through Spark.” This is a particularly sweet moment in the evening because about six weeks previously PM interviewed Holly too and she told the exact same story about how she met Rhys and knew they were going to be friends.
“I met her through Spark, she came in for an interview and within I’d say 20 seconds of the microphones going on I was thinking ‘This girl is awesome, exactly my kind of crack. I need to be mates with her.’” He had the same “instant chemistry” with PICNIC and Casual Threats when interviewing them too, which then became more human off air where they became friends too.
“You think, you know what sod the professional side of things I’m gonna add them on Facebook and see if they want to go for a coffee or a drink in the next week, they were class to talk to on air, let’s see what they’re like off air.” The two and a bit years breezed by though he tells me “in that time I interviewed Sam Fender, The Pale White, The Old Pink House, and Cape Cub I think I interviewed about three times”.
Spark was Rhys’s baby for the two and a bit years that he was involved in the local music show. He saw the numbers grow steadily as people began to trust the show as a source of new music and he’s proud to see the legacy continue. He tells me he’s relieved to see it flourish because there was a worry that no one would pick it up after he graduated or “maybe they’d struggle to find someone to come in with a similar enthusiasm because not everyone has an enthusiasm for local music”.
Dan Robinson, the current presenter and Rhys’ successor, he reckons is “spot on” for the job though and even recently had a face to face interview with Sam Fender whilst he was in town, proving that the show is still taken seriously as a source of new music.
It’s always been more than ‘local’ music though Rhys says, looking a bit more impassioned, “I’ve always found the term local to be derogatory. Do you think someone from Sheffield refers to Arctic Monkeys as a local band? No.” It’s a fair point he raises, it’s dismissive, almost cute to write off a band because they’re from your area. Afterall what’s better than songs that are practically written for you? There’s something special about bouncing into Gotham with ‘Downer’ in the back of your head or even driving around the coast with ‘Leave Fast’ in mind.
If anything that’s better right? “Why would you want to spend £70 on a ticket for Ed Sheeran? It’s probably more than that at St James’ Park and sit in the back row than to pay £10 and stand in the front row of a Sam Fender gig then potentially bump into him on a night out afterward.”
“You get that intimacy with them and you’re always there with them as the artists grow.” It’s unparalleled and he’s happy that now more and more people are beginning to realise that the likes of Sam Fender and The Pale White aren’t just ‘local bands’, they’re “very talented musicians that write good music that you should be excited about.”
Rhys’ always advocated for supporting the movement: “I’ve always thought more people should take a chance, you listen to them and if they’re not your cup of tea that’s absolutely fine but the more successful bands from Newcastle become, the more people are going to pay attention to what’s around them. Slowly but surely people are taking a band from Newcastle to not just be that but be a genuinely decent band.”
Recent examples have been Sam Fender’s BRIT award and The Pale White’s sold out show at Northumbria Institute at the start of the month. To think they’d be selling out 1,000 cap venues when they’d just played two nights at Tynemouth Surf Cafe 18 months ago is mind-boggling.
Even over the summer watching The Pale White headline Evo Emerging felt massive. “Genuinely one of my favourite days of my entire life was the Evo Emerging that’s just gone.” For those that don’t know, Evolution Emerging is a day festival in Ouseburn, set up by Generator. Its venues are actual venues, pubs, and even Blank Studios, where a lot of the North East bands record their new music. It’s a small but perfectly formed festival, this year was the 10th anniversary of the first Evolution Emerging.
As Rhys explains, the word ridiculous crops up a lot as he goes through how much he loves the bands of Newcastle. The weather was lush, all the crowds were packed with both fans and other bands that are also fans, and naturally, everyone’s playing incredible music. He finishes, grinning ear to ear by this point, by saying “the music in Newcastle right now? Long may it continue.”
Knowing his love for Newcastle and it’s lovely bands, after graduating from the University of Sunderland, he packed his bags and moved North of the water, knowing he had to keep a hand in somehow. “There wasn’t much else that I could think to do after Spark, just thinking I need to stay involved otherwise I’ll go mad.” Spark put Rhys right in the eye of the storm as the North East music scene as it all began and naturally he wasn’t ready to give up his spot in the scene he “fell madly in love with”.
“I didn’t want to stop involving myself in the scene so I thought why don’t I have a crack at being a promoter to kind of stay involved with it and that’s where that side of things came on. I’ve never really planned on anything in terms of music like I’ve always said ‘let’s have a go at this’”. Since the beginning, through St Buryan, Spark and Rhyme, Rhys’ goal has always been to work hard and be able to make enough money from it to live off of.
“I’m not expecting us to be the next SSD Concerts, booking Noel Gallagher to play Leazes Park, I’m probably not going to get to that stage” he laughs, “If I can just be responsible for arranging a night that people remember as being a night they really enjoyed then that’s all I want.”
“I remember Sam Fender announced a Cluny gig that sold out within five minutes, and then he did Riverside and sold that out, did Newcastle Uni and sold that out. All of these artists are getting to play the likes of R&L or Glastonbury on BBC Introducing stages but even the smaller bands getting some of that attention, like Deep.Sleep and Ghost//Signals getting to play Lindisfarne, Kendall Calling, stuff like that.”
He rattles off the gigs he remembers for how class they were, The Old Pink House at Jumpin Jacks (RIP) and FEVA at Jumpin Jacks again then Northumbria University SU make the list. He wants to put on nights people will remember, like the gigs he’s just mentioned. A couple of people have already told him he’s done that and the look on his face says he’s quietly proud of it.
A lot of the gigs come about through just asking, after all, shy bairns get nowt, “I see a lot of out of town bands announce tours with no Newcastle date, like Sports Team for example, and they’re not playing Newcastle and part of me was saying “Should I just message them?” A lot of the time SSD and Eastside Concerts are ahead of the trend when it comes to touring bands from outside the area, but it’s not a concert for Rhys “if I only end up putting on shows in the North East with artists from the North East then that’ll do me well because it’s what I know and what I love”.
“It’s just wanting to do your bit and help out” having been on the receiving end of dodgy deals as a band, Rhyme is in the unique position of having seen both sides of promoting so Rhys vows not to make the same mistakes others have in the past. It’s honourable how transparent he is but as he says, it’s got a lot to do with being on the receiving end of dodgy deals in the past, “every show that I’ve put on the bands have made more than what I have, which is how it should be.” As far as a USP goes, the working title is “nice guy promoting gigs because he wants to, not because he wants to make money off it.” Catchy.
Finishing up we talk about the best releases of the year and it looks like I’ve stumped him for a few seconds. He mentions that he always used to be ahead of the game with Spark but these days he has to dig a little deeper to find new music, relying on the likes of NARC. magazine, The Crack, Peanut Mixtape and even becoming a listener of Spark himself.
I get the ball rolling with some of our favourites from PM, being in the midst of writing up our end of year lists and then he conjures up some favourites. ‘Go Get Her, Go Getter’ by Llovers, ‘Dead Boys’ by Sam Fender, ‘Hectoring’ by Ghost//Signals, the list goes on.
“‘Loveless’ by The Pale White is still one of my favourite songs, love that. I do enjoy it when a band does that like it’s not that you don’t rate them but you feel like you know what they have to offer and they surpass your expectations. It’s sort of what I’m hoping to do with our new releases, personally, I think they sound a hell of a lot better than what we’ve released so far so I hoping everyone else thinks so as well.”
Picnic, he feels are at a similar point following the release of ‘Girls Night’, they’re on the cusp of something really special. “The new material they’ve written with ‘Girls Night’, ‘Caviar’, ‘Trying My Best’ and ‘Wishful Drinking’, songwriting-wise complex pop is how I describe it, like it’s poppy, it’s catchy, it has the hooks and the simplicity of what makes a pop song but the structures, it takes you somewhere that you don’t expect it to, I genuinely don’t know how they do it.”
Albums are where he falls short but he justifies “most of the bands I listen to aren’t at an album stage yet.” He does mention The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry though, he’s been a fan since just after their changed their name from Drive Like I Do and is unafraid to say the band “nailed it” on their opinion splitting third album.
There’s mention of Nothing but Thieves’ Broken Machine as another game-changing album and Flyte comes up too with their debut The Loved Ones. For an EP he suggests YONAKA’s Teach Me to Fight after having seen them on the recommendation of friends at NBHD Festival this year.
It’s quite an eclectic mix of bands on the list but he points out it’s always been that way: “Even when I was younger, my music taste has always been all over the place. I loved MIKA, his debut album Life in Cartoon Motion, one of the best albums I’ve ever heard but then I also really love Iron Maiden and Aerosmith. If B*Witched comes on, equally that’s great too.”
His love of eclectic music extends as far as Barenaked Ladies, for which he has a party trick. At any given time he was rap the entirety of ‘One Week’, which if you know it, is bloody fast. “I can’t sing but apparently I can rap that song. Most people if it comes on and I just start going people just turn around like “hang on, what?”” His other party trick I’ve found out through a lot of googling is called Hitchhiker’s Thumb. It means he can bend the top part of his thumb to a near 90 degree angle back. It’s impressive enough that I catch a woman at the table over watching him do it with a look of mild disgust. Thumb bending, rapping, promoting, drumming and presenting, Rhys Melhuish certainly is a jack of all trades.