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Mark Coles in his garden. Photo: Anna Musial
Surbiton, epitome of the Surrey commuter belt and setting for twee 1970s sitcom The Good Life. Days after the jubilee, the neighbours are clearly in no rush to take down the red, white and blue bunting. It’s the kind of place where you imagine the newsagents take care to stock enough copies of the Daily Mail.
On the face of it there is nothing remarkable about this particular garden. Its trampoline and slide indicate the presence of a young family, and the beds of broad beans and leafy vegetables suggest modest horticultural ambitions. The shed is an ordinary garden shed, used among other things to store tools and kids’ toys. Only the posters of Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix suggest that anything more rock ’n’ roll might emanate from within its walls. In fact, it’s the ‘studio’ from which radio broadcaster and DJ Mark Coles produces his internet radio show The Shed.
You might have heard Coles’ dulcet northern tones before. Having spent 13 years as a news reporter for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (for which he still contributes music features, including recent interviews with Wilko Johnson and Peter Hook), he’s thankful for the opportunity to live life at a more sedate pace. It must have come as a shock for someone used to recording light news features for Radio Sussex to be dropped into Mogadishu with US forces as a greenhorn war reporter.
‘It was when I narrowly avoided getting shot in Somalia that I first thought “I’m not altogether sure this is for me”,’ he laughs. ‘You’d be really put through your paces these days. But back then we were pretty much left to wander around with a microphone. It was madness really.’
Coles traces back his love of radio, like so many young Brits of his generation, to the experience of listening to John Peel’s legendary show on Radio 1. ‘I was sad as a young teenager and would write out the running order of the show and give each track a mark out of five,’ he confesses. His own mature broadcasting style exhibits a similarly lugubrious character and personal warmth to that of Peel, along with a genuine and unpretentious passion for the music.
I’m clearly not the first to notice the similarity: ‘My colleagues say that when I’m broadcasting from the shed “we can hear it in your voice, you’re so relaxed, your voice has dropped down a couple of tones.’’’ Coles himself wasn’t really aware of it until his then producer warned him before he was due to interview Peel’s widow, Sheila. ‘I listened back to the recording and thought, oh God, I did, I sounded just like him!’
But while Coles clearly owes a debt to Peel, perhaps particularly so in the domestic anecdotes, which recall Peel’s Radio 4 show Home Truths, he is not consciously mimicking him. ‘It is just that in listening to Peel I suppose I learnt unconsciously how you could broadcast naturally, in your own voice, telling stories, saying what you really thought.’
Peel also indirectly helped Coles to one of his biggest breaks as a music broadcaster, when he described the then unknown US rock act The White Stripes as ‘possibly the best live act I’ve seen since punk rock’. Coles figured they must be worth speaking to. With the NME advertising their first UK gigs in 2001, he pushed their lead vocalist Jack White for an interview. The resulting exchange was broadcast on the Today programme the day before they departed back to the US. That evening, on which a last secret gig had been arranged, the media were literally banging on the door to be allowed in.
‘It just exploded,’ Coles recalls. ‘Jack was asking me after the gig, “Man, what have you done?”’ Although Coles modestly rejects the claim to be ‘the man who broke The White Stripes on this side of the Atlantic’, Jack White clearly recalls how important his contribution was. A few weeks ago he recorded an interview that was broadcast in full exclusively on The Shed to promote his new album Blunderbuss.
Coles’ interest in music from around the world was stimulated by his stint as host of the BBC World Service show World of Music when the former presenter, the legendary Charlie Gillett, died. ‘It was a wonderful show, I loved it,’ Coles says, ‘and I stepped in to stop them from just axing it from the schedule straight away, which management tended to do once they had lost their iconic presenters – it was the same with John Peel’s show on World Service.’
After just over a year with Coles at the helm, World of Music was finally dropped, but the decision was certainly not driven by audience demand. ‘It was incredible the amount of emails we had trying to keep the show on air,’ Coles says. ‘People were begging, even offering to pay to keep it going.’ But to no avail. The cuts to the funding that the World Service received from the Foreign Office were no doubt at least partly to blame, but it still seems shortsighted to lose a platform that allowed 142 million listeners worldwide to listen to music from all around the globe.
Despite an obvious and infectious enthusiasm for a wide range of musical styles, Coles has little time for the label ‘world music’. ‘It doesn’t really mean anything, and it can be quite excluding. Take Spoek Mathambo, a South African artist from the house scene over there, but drawing on electro, indie rock, samples, all sorts. I first heard of him when someone sent me a YouTube link of a cover he did of [Manchester post-punk outfit] Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”. I mean, you see “South African house cover of Joy Division” and you’re going to open it, aren’t you! Well, his album deserves to be massive, it’s wonderful, it’ll be in my top five for the year. But you’ll be hard pushed to find it in a record shop. If you do, it’ll probably be in the “world music” section. His [Mathambo’s] career could suffer for it.’
So, too, Coles bemoans the culture of the ‘purist’ expert in other musical cultures, the kind of anthropological interest (for example, in different kora-playing techniques) that is at root a form of neocolonial classification. By contrast, Coles values a more immediate response to the music, something he valued in Charlie Gillett.
That said, Coles suggests that playing music from so many different places has expanded his horizons and got him thinking about what’s going on in the world. ‘If you listen to the Tunisian rapper El Général’s song “Rais Lebled” you can hear the anger and vitriol against the regime even without understanding the lyrics,’ he says.
Social revolution is unlikely to break out in Surbiton anytime soon, but the retreat to the shed has been a gesture of defiance, in a very English sort of way. ‘After World of Music was axed I was just getting exhausted, burnt out, and I wanted to spend a couple of years with the children before they’d be at school,’ Coles says. Although he was offered other presenting work on the World Service, and still does some on a semi-regular basis, he was ready for a break. ‘Why struggle through all the traffic to work in the daily grind of a broadcasting studio on someone else’s terms, when you can go down the bottom of your garden with a battery-laptop and mic and present the programme from there?’ The BBC’s loss was the internet’s gain.
I was expecting at least a small mixing desk and some sound-proofing. But no. The sound of the trains that periodically run behind the shed are muffled by a duvet. That’s about as technical as it gets. ‘It takes me about a day and a half to produce each show,’ Coles says. ‘But most of that is just on getting permissions for all the tracks I play. Apart from that, I do a bit of tinkering to get it the right length and put fade‑outs on the tracks, and upload it to the web. But it really isn’t complicated. Internet radio is back to the old DIY ethic of punk basically. Anyone can do it. You don’t need loads of equipment. It’s like a level playing field.’
The availability of music on demand via the internet means that people with regular web access can listen to pretty much whatever they like – any style, any era. It’s all very different to listening habits before the internet.
‘It used to be that you’d have to take a real chance on a band you hadn’t heard before, or else you’d be trying to borrow things from lending libraries and tape them at home,’ says Coles. ‘But today’s bands are saying things like “we really like the sound of the drummer” on some obscure 1958 recordings. Take a band like Alabama Shakes. They’re all about 23. But listen to their stuff and you can hear they’re drawing on Staxx, Atlantic soul, country, blues and all these different influences but giving it their own twist.’
But not everything about the way the internet makes music available meets Coles’ approval. ‘Take Last.fm. Total nonsense! It tells me all this stuff I’m supposed to like. Well I don’t! And I don’t care for these automatically generated “radio” stations either. Ultimately what I do is use new technologies to do something quite traditional. I still value a DJ talking passionately about what they’ve discovered, telling little stories, relating to the listener in a warm, personal way.’
And so, in a garden shed in what he refers to as the ‘Ditton delta’, Mark Coles does just that. And people are starting to take notice. Already picked up by World Radio Switzerland, a station in Australia and some in the US, Coles is hoping that his show can be syndicated around the world to the sorts of radio stations that previously broadcast World of Music. He’s realistic enough to know that there’s little money in radio these days, and that internet broadcasting alone won’t feed his children. But while The Shed’s audience might not match the numbers he got on the World Service, it’s clear that he loves what he’s doing. And if you listen, you might love it too.