When I ask Shell Zenner to explain a bit about what she does, the first thing she replies with is “Well, I’m a bit of a new music obsessive”. Anyone who knows Shell Zenner and the work she does will know that this is about as much of an understatement as is saying that Queen were quite a popular in their day!
If Shell Zenner doesn’t know a new band, they either aren’t worth knowing, or haven’t yet played to anyone other than their mum! She DJs for Amazing Radio, Beatwolf and Salford City FM, she also runs her own blog, writes for numerous other online music magazines and appears at numerous talks and festivals. It’s safe to say she basically the font of all new musical knowledge!
It is no surprise therefore that the Association of Independent Music (AIM) has nominated her for the Indie Champion Award! She certainly feels right at home with new bands and artists: “When a band has just arrived from say Brooklyn,” says Zenner, “they’re a bit out of sorts and they’ve been on the road and pushed from pillar to post, it’s good for them to have someone to say ‘Hey, we think you’re great’. It’s not us and them on the radio, this is us all sitting around together, passing about cds and talking about music.”
Within five minute of talking to Zenner, my note pad is so rammed with band recommendations she has thrown my way that it looks as though a mad man has scribed it. It is clear that that if Shell weren’t occupying every spare waking minute broadcasting/writing/attending events about music, she would still be obsessively listening and talking about it to someone, somewhere.
Fortunately she is thoroughly entwined into the new music scene and so none of her musical enthusiasm goes to waste. Her innate energy makes her blogs and shows a real beacon amidst an online sea of broadcasting. Listening and reading is a pleasure, as you find yourself getting as enthused as she does about the music she likes and you never quite know what totally unheard of band she is going to spring on you.
Equally, for the bands and artists she interviews (I was once in a band, and trust me, we knew Shell was the person to get interested), she goes that extra mile to make the most of what they have to offer. “There are some bands you know absolutely everything about”, Says Zenner, as if knowing absolutely everything about an unheard of band were the most natural thing on earth, “and that’s brilliant, because when you interview them live on the radio, you’re never going to get boxed into a corner. But there are some times when you’re racing over to an interview and you’ve got like two minutes, you’ve heard their songs and you love their music but you don’t know any facts about them. You’re doing a bit of hasty research on the back of your hand and it’s not really great. But, you know, each interview is different.”
Despite this behind-the-scenes info, there is never a second when you listen to Zenner on the radio that she doesn’t sound completely in the know and at ease; this is reflected in the bands she showcases. “People can be having a bad day, or having a bad tour and you’ve got to react to that,” says Zenner. It is clear where her priorities lie when she says, “ you’ve always got to make it a good interview!”
“People can be having a bad day, or having a bad tour and you’ve got to react to that,” says Zenner. It is clear where her priorities lie when she says, “ you’ve always got to make it a good interview!”
You could think this focus was self-orientated. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be good at their job? With Zenner however, you really get the sense that such acute perfectionism – whether to conduct the most interesting interview or to add just another band to her list of weekly write-ups – is through her desire to get the most for the bands. Once she likes an artist, there is literally no stopping her: “I just love sharing the music and I love chatting to bands and i’ve tried to bring those two things together.” This is certainly the case with her radio shows. Respected as she is for properly decent new band sourcing, she is given free rein over all of her broadcasting. Once she’s aired a band, “I then social network about it, post it up for Listen Again and write about it.” Indie Champion? You can see why a striving artist would want her on their side.
Once she’s aired a band, “I then social network about it, post it up for Listen Again and write about it.” Indie Champion? You can see why a striving artist would want her on their side.
Being nominated for the AIM Indie Champion award is not only clearly well deserved, but something she is pretty pleased about. “It’s really, really thrilling actually,” she explains, “i’ve been saying for a long time the musicians like me, the labels like me, the PRs like me but the radio people either don’t understand me or get me maybe or don’t have a clue what i’m doing.” Yet this nomination shows she has more than a clue about what she is doing, “this is from the musicians and the labels saying ‘you’re championing independent music and we respect you for it’.”
They certainly should. Shell is ceaseless in her pursuit of new finds, “Most people go to gigs because they want to see the main band; I generally go because I want to see the first band.” There is nothing wrong with the main act as such, but by the time they’re at that level “I’ll have seen them at a far earlier stage. That is generally what I do.” Way before an act gets to headlines even a small venue, Shell will have picked them up via blogs, word-of-mouth, zines and random mix tapes, ensuring as soon as they hit the stage she is there. By the time they headline, she knows them inside out.
Part of Shell’s appeal is not only her reliably good music taste, but also her accessibility. “I’m always on social networks, email and on my website.” And when she’s not she can usually be found live on air. Because of that, “People are more likely to send you music. Having the time to listen to it all, when you work full-time as well, is another question.” Yes, you read that right. As well as spending the equivalent of two full-time jobs worth of hours hell-bent on sharing the best that the music world has to offer, Zenner actually works full-time hours at another job.
Despite everything on her creative plate, She does not allow herself to settle for a minute and even searches far outside the city to find new sounds. “There’s Sounds From The Other City, Constellations Festival, Live at Leeds, Great Escape, I’ve been to SXSW this year, Evo Emerging, Beacons.” I realise at this point that if I nattered to Zenner for a full two weeks she would not run out of musical facts, band and festivals with which to fill my mind, my note pad and my eternal list of albums to buy. As she says, “You know there are so many festivals you can go to and there are just so many new bands!”
When I ask why new bands in particular are her passion, she replies, “They just always have been. You know, I watched the Olympic opening ceremony and I saw Arctic Monkeys play and I thought, ‘I watched them play to a crowd of 50 people at Jabez Clegg!’” It is clear that having known the band for so long is exciting to her “At that Jabez Clegg gig I recorded them on an old Ericson phone and kept playing it back to my friends; that was Mardy Bum.”
I watched the Olympic opening ceremony and I saw Arctic Monkeys play and I thought, ‘I watched them play to a crowd of 50 people at Jabez Clegg. I recorded them on an old Ericson phone and kept playing it back to my friends; that was Mardy Bum!
Shell clearly gets satisfaction in seeing a band she loves work their way from dodgy bedroom demos and half empty gigs to playing sell out stadium shows. In a sense she is very much the mentoring godmother of new music. “I’m still proud to be the first person to play Patterns on the radio back in 2010. Mary Anne Hobbs has been playing them recently and then they were Steve Lemacq’s Rebel Playlist winners on BBC6 music. I am so proud that I played them back then that I played them again on my show now.”
While she keeps an eye on where a band ends up, she remains at all times right on the pulse of what is just emerging. Enthusing about the Manchester scene alone she says “There are so many people doing stuff here, so many promoters I can’t even remember of the top of my head; Grey Lantern, Drowned in Sound, High Voltage…” And when she starts to talk about bands she likes right now her energy reaches another level, “Ah there are too many. Pins are an absolutely astounding female four-piece; Money and Great Waves are so talented it blows my mind; Weird Era are really understated. Not many people have heard of them and they probably have one of the biggest musical legacies in Manchester. There’s Young British Artists, I can’t wait to hear their album it’s been so long coming. Milk Maid have a brand new second album out and Nine Black Alps are coming back with new materiel.” As I am moving onto a different topic Zenner cannot move away from the eternal lists of artists she adores “I haven’t even mentioned Temple Song yet. This is why I try to write about at least ten new bands in Louder Than War each month. Without turning to a pen, you just cannot do it justice. There is just a wealth of new talent in Manchester at the moment, it’s amazing.”
Zenner’s enthusiasm is ceaseless, and when she starts to talk about bands she likes right now her energy reaches another level
With so much music to explore, I ask Zenner where she sees her career going. Not for the first time in our meeting, she makes a huge understatement with regards to self-explanation, “I’m taking little steps at the moment.” Presenting numerous radio shows, writing for numerous sites and attending pretty much every new music night and festival that is hosted, are not, to most people, little steps. But Zenner is not most people. To repeat a description I have already used about her, she is completely ceaseless. This in itself is entirely contagious. To demonstrate this, if a demonstration were needed, one thing she would like to do is “Give up the day job” so she could further involve herself in new music!
The results of the AIM Indie Champion Award will be announced on 29th October. As Zenner herself says, “I’m overwhelmed to be nominated, it’s like a pat on the back saying ‘well done, you’re doing the right thing.’” This is deserving praise for the godmother of new music.
Hear more from Shell here
Images © Melanie Smith @ Mudkiss Photography