Michael Upson: Full Interview
Interviewed by Joseph Thompson
17th November 2018
JT: OK this is Joseph Thompson here for West Yorkshire Queer Stories, the date is 17th November, it's a Saturday 2018, the time is just about twenty past three and I'm here with Michael Upson and I'll ask him to introduce himself and his – Michael could you please say your name, your pronoun, your date of birth, where you live and how you identify?
MU: Yeah, hi, I'm Michael Upson, I am ‘he/him’. What was the rest what was the…? [laughs]
JT: Your date of birth, where you live –
MU: Fine. So my name, date of birth is 19th June 1989, I live in Burley in Leeds, I'm originally from Birmingham – and ‘he/him’. That was a shaky start wasn't it [laughs].
JT: I think it – identify – I guess it's referring to sexuality.
MU: Erm – as a gay man.
JT: Cool, OK. Michael, how long have you lived in Leeds and what brought you here?
MU: So I came to Leeds 11 years ago in September for University, mainly driven out of a club night called Back to Basics which was quite a famous old Leeds club night that still kind of runs today but not in the same regularity that it used to. And also for university, so I got on a philosophy course at Leeds. But mainly driven out of me wanting a sort of authentic clubbing experience and I felt that Leeds offered that. This was at a time when dance music was probably quite out of favour, and I had, sort of, I sought refuge in it I think as this weird kid at school who didn't really, not really, not get on with everybody else but didn't feel like he fitted in and had found this clubbing scene in Birmingham, and was going off to university and kind of wanted to replicate that I think.
JT: Where did Back to Basics take place?
MU: So Back to Basics used to be at a number of venues – I mean it started in 1992 and it's been at the Music Factory I think was the first venue, then the Pleasure Rooms which was the old, the Grand Arcade by where like Merrion Street is now where all those like dodgy bars are, and then it moved to a place called Stinky's Peep House which was a kind of gay space, so they used to do gay parties there a lot on the Sunday, but it was just a lawless. like, three-levelled almost like a terraced house thing, like a large terraced house that had a good sound system. And they used to just get good DJs in from all over the UK and further afield and was quite famous at the time – that was probably before I'd really started to explore my sexuality but it definitely helped me to do that I think, or to at least start that process...
JT: So it wasn't a queer night?
MU: Not a queer night no, but historically had a big gay following. So, you know, in the mid-‘90s as a result of a couple of other really good queer nights in Leeds, like Vague and Speed Queen, Leeds had quite a good sort of discerning queer night life in terms of music and maybe like early, sort of early – trying to think what the word is... flutterings with safer spaces. So not quite safer spaces, I mean they weren't safer spaces but... the sort of beginning of. So they had – places like Vague and Speed Queen they had quite strict door policies so they tried to, you know, limit the, you know, people who may not be... who may not have the best intentions of everybody at heart... sort of like the, you know, people who may be a threat to some of the clientele. And they did that through, you know, what you were wearing and having a quite sassy-mouthed drag queen on the door just to try and keep the bullish away. But yeah, so that meant that Back to Basics, you know, historically had this queer crowd, a lot of their old mix-tapes are, you know... a few of them have got queer DJs so Jon Pleased Wimmin who was an old London collective. The Pleased Wimmin which were a sort of drag troupe in London and Jon was a DJ and he used to come up to Leeds quite a lot and DJ at Back to Basics. So I had a few of those tapes – so there was... it allowed me to access my queerness in as much as it was a... it was somewhere where I could express myself basically and it – I think definitely music had been such a big part in me finding myself and me having an identity that the two sort of go hand in hand – that sort of like queerness and feeling good about yourself through music.
JT: That's interesting, thank you. And so – could you please explain how you got from this Michael going to Back to Basics, to the Michael that was prompted to set up Love Muscle?
MU: I think I'd been to other cities and seen what resources queer people had. Music resources. Queer spaced night club resources that people had in other cities so – I think I did a couple of trips to Berghain.
JT: In Berlin?
MU: In Berlin. Which is sort of very famous for its sort of queer night life. I think what cemented it was, and what made me think well OK this could be done in the UK – because even in, even in London there were only a few places that were really doing a good job of it. So there was The Eagle in London which was sort of Horse Meat Disco's home that started in the sort of like mid-noughties. Obviously previous to that there had been lots of great queer night life but sort of me growing up in that sort of 2004/5/6/7-era there weren't really any cities doing good queer night life. Dalston Superstore. And then I suppose the thing that really cemented it was Glastonbury and the NYC Downlow at Glastonbury. So again accessing that as, in a sort of non-queer way but then stumbling across this like, oh wow, this is amazing I feel really at home, this is what I want. And then coming back to Leeds and thinking, right, how do I set that up? How do we do something like that here? Because you know, Glastonbury which, you know, on the face of it is this like really free, liberal, hedonistic place but it had no queer presence whatsoever so, you know, it was this weird kind of, you know... what’s the word?...yeah, it was a very specific type of expression, shall we say. Sort of like, you know, straight people putting on fancy dress and thinking that that's their...yeah...
JT: So even this night, this event at Glastonbury wasn't a queer –
MU: No it was, so it was, it was, it was. But Glastonbury wasn't, that was the thing. So it was this really hedonistic place but it didn't have this queer presence. Gideon set up the NYC Downlow in a response to that, you know, in as much as this place stands for liberality, freedom, freedom of expression, yet it doesn't have a queer space so what does the rest of it mean if it doesn't have that, that sort of like core queer space? And that sort of changed my opinion on whether people wanted it in the UK or not because, you know, there was a room of three or four hundred people having the best time of their lives and they talked and looked and sounded like me and enjoyed music in the same way that I did and – yeah. So then we sort of brought that back to Leeds. But it was a bit of time before we actually got anything off the ground just because we couldn't find a venue. I feel like venues are really, really, really important. And using the same venue as well, you create a particular feeling or, you know, a smell, if you can keep doing a night at the same venue you create this kind of almost like emotive response every time you enter that room of the time you were there last almost and that's what I enjoyed about Basics, you know, it was weekly and it used to be in this same space and every time you went to the door of it you were like, ‘oh, I'm about to have a really nice time.’ So it was finding somewhere where we could do it regularly and the venue could be ours and there weren't many other places doing stuff there so it felt, you know, it would tie-in with the identity of the night.
JT: And you were mentioning a we, were there other people involved right from the start?
MU: I say we, it was me [laughs] but –
JT: So this you around 2000-?
MU: 2014/13. So 2012 was – 2011/12 were the sort of Glastonbury/Berghain experiences where I was like, ok this is really cool and I feel really at home here and this is actually what I've always wanted. You know, I've had a great time up until this point in night life but actually being with this crowd who actually like the music that I like and you know, it felt really gay, it felt really queer. Um –
JT: And you thought, ‘I want to bring that to Leeds’?
MU: Yeah, yeah, it’s like that's what Leeds is missing. And then it took obviously three or four years to sort of find the right venue and to find a name and to just get the aesthetic of it right I suppose. Because I wanted it to be something that would, that lasted, you know what I mean? I didn't want it to be sort of a flash in the pan thing.
JT: And how – could you talk a bit about that process? How long did it take for other people to get involved, did you need them to be involved? How did you start going about trying to get this off the ground?
MU: It was a while ago. So, I think my current housemate, Lucy, Lucy Lockett, she was a Speed Queen DJ, she ran the office at Speed Queen, she’s been quite central to Leeds queer night life for many years, and she was a friend, and she's a brilliant DJ, she is probably the best DJ in the city, and I wanted to do something with her but she didn't want anything to do with the involvement of it, she didn't want to do any – she didn't want the stress – she just wanted to DJ. So I had kind of the pair of us as residents. We eventually found Wharf [Wharf Chambers] as a venue. Didn't really understand Wharf as a queer space until maybe – I think we'd done a few – we'd gone to other people's parties there – but after then speaking to the people who were running it at the time, discovered as well, ok it is physically a great space but it is also queer operated and the people there actually understand queer politics and identity politics and this could be something really good. And then sort of did the first night and then no one came [laughs].
JT: And when was that?
MU: October 2015. Yeah… We did six, nine months of parties where nobody, nobody ever came. And then it just – it was almost like word of mouth, slowly people heard about it and then by the time we got to the – just before the summer – you know, we had queues around the corner and we were having to think about having a doors policy and tickets policy and – yeah it was really exciting that other people felt like that, that other people wanted that same thing that maybe I did. And then people just sort of came out the woodwork and they were my best friends, they were people who had been coming for years, people that used to go to Vague, Speed Queen, it really brought together lots of elements of those communities together.
JT: And I guess at this point could you explain a bit about what Love Muscle is, what you've managed to realise, what these people are all coming for?
MU: Yeah, I mean we probably should just cover off what, maybe what the state of the city was like before that. So, I think there were elements of queer parties that had started. There was basically a lull in the city's night life between about 2012/13/14 and 2015 where a lot of people had moved away from the city, some of the bigger club nights had stopped running because they couldn't find venues, people had moved to Berlin, people had moved to London, and a lot of the regular nights that we were going to had kind of ground to a halt and stopped. And then they just started this – that's when the sort of – I want to called it DIY scene – that very much like improvised find a space, do a club night scene started to pop back up again. So you had, Slut Drop I think had started in about – 2014 I think they did one of their first events. And then shortly after that in the October, in the June [corrects himself] just before we'd started – and I didn't really know that collective of group of people – Come Through started as well. So, there was a real void of good spaces to go out to and music to listen to and I think people just had just started to do their own thing I think and it was really exciting to see I think. And that is what Leeds is really, really good for is just – you know, there are the spaces that you can rent cheap enough to be able to just do your own party. You don't have to have funding, you don't have to have the backing of you know, multimillionaires to start up a club night or occupy a space like you do in places like London or New York. Yeah, and I think they were a reaction again to maybe Lower Briggate and the sort of homogenised money making operation that exists in those bars at the bottom of Lower Briggate.
JT: Did you ever enjoy going to clubs like that?
MU: No. No. No. Not that I want to, like, talk down people's queer experiences because for some people that is absolutely their thing but, I don't know. It doesn't feel like the people who run or own the bars have a vested interest in the people that visit them. You know, they're not community spaces, they are bars that are there to make money, do you know what I mean? And anything that gets in the way of that is a barrier. Whether that's being more inclusive or you know, having a political stance or shutting down on a Thursday so it's a quiet venue for people who don't like big, busy venues, any element of bending to the needs of the few I think gets in the way of them making money. So, I don't know – a) we couldn't ever do any – our night wouldn't work in any of those venues so it wasn't a consideration [unclear].
JT: So just briefly could you just say what Love Muscle is, just for a rough idea?
MU: So it's a queer club night, basically, that has a focus on – it has a safer spaces policy which is a sort of agreement between the people that enter the space – that they will abide by a particular set of rules around, like, no racism, no transphobia, no misogyny, that you would hopefully expect from anybody, right? But there is a way to report those issues back to us, and we are able to then process that and either say to somebody, ‘Don't come again’, or, ‘If you do that – have you thought about how that might affect somebody, or have you thought about how your behaviour impacted on this person?’, and it just, it gives people the confidence to come – people who wouldn't normally come down – gives them the confidence that if there was an issue, something would get sorted and done in the right way, sort of thing. So, you get, it’s become a place for slightly more vulnerable people to come and have a night out I think. But yeah, it’s basically, it’s a queer club night, and you know, therapy sessions and everything else that comes with it. People come there and let loose for six hours in a safer environment and can go home feeling happy, I hope.
JT: You mentioned a safer spaces policy and a door ticket policy, could you speak more about that?
MU: Yeah so, keeping a queer space queer at the moment in a really difficult job. It's a, it's become a commodity, queerness, I think. It's cool, and everybody wants a little bit of it, regardless of whether they're queer or not. Which is fine, which is really great, how amazing is that compared you know, to twenty years ago when it was demonised and you know, you've come full circle to where, like, it's idolised and how queer you can make your Instagram story is a really cool thing, sort of thing. But it just means that, because we are only a small night and there is only 200 tickets, the capacity in the venue is 200, if we left it unchecked it would mean that there would probably be a lot of non-LGBTQ-identifying people in that space, taking up the space of who it's for almost, what the night was set up for, to give, you know, queer people a space to party in a way that they wouldn't be able to do elsewhere. And you know, there are lots of lots places for straight people to go and do that. The idea is that we make it as difficult as possible for people to get tickets. And what that does I think is it just means that only people who really want to be in the space actually end up in the space. We've got physical tickets, all physical tickets, so it means you have to – and you can only buy them from the venue itself so, even before the party started you have to have an interaction with the venue, so you get an understanding for what the venue is about, who the people are, their, you know, what you can and can't do in that venue even before you get there. And I think just that bit around, you know, that physical effort from going to get a ticket separates a lot of people out, because there are lots of people who are just like, ‘Oh I'll go with my friends because I think that this is a cool thing to go to’, and if you actually have to physically go somewhere and do something beforehand, it's a lot of effort, people are busy – so we did that, then we also have our own Love Muscle membership, there are 50 Love Muscle membership places, and each of those people can invite one other person so they get two tickets reserved for each party. And they're made up of our sort of our original regulars to people who have just joined this year, it's designed to sort of safeguard at least half the tickets for queer people. We're never going to ever say, you know, ‘This party is only for a certain type of people’, you know what I mean, we will never say, ‘Straight people are not allowed to come down’, because I think that – there's a couple of things at play there. So there are people who are not out who have anonymity in that crowd almost, and are able to sort of find themselves within the Love Muscle space and have done, and if we were to only say people who currently identify as being queer can come down, then you kind of eliminate a bit that. But also there's an education piece around that as well and if you can, if there are 25/30 straight people within that room who are interacting and mixing with people who have like people who have like really well thought-out like queer politics, queer political ideas or gender identity theories or you know, and they interact with those people it's an education piece as well and somebody might go away knowing something a lot better than they did before they came. So I think there should never an absolute exclusivity on who can and can't come but it's almost like a – it's a two-way system, so it only works if people respect that. We've had a couple of incidences where people haven't respected that and have organised birthday parties and tried to get people to buy tickets en masse and – but yeah, I think we do an alright job.
The crowd is really fab at the moment, I'm really enjoying the crowd at the moment. Especially if we time it with a night when there's like something big on in the city somewhere else, then you only get the people who really, really want to be there. And then you get some really, really queer crowds.
But yeah, the ticketing thing, I think, it's a fine balance of how you try and get those into the hands of queer people I think. We try our best. We've got queer ticket sellers as well, which works I think, which works really well. People who are part of different social groups of queer people, who have access to tickets, to sell tickets, and I think that works quite nicely as well.
JT: Interesting, thank you. Thank you. How is Love Muscle organised and run, and is it just you who sets the night or do you have a board now of people that help you?
MU: Yeah, so, originally it was just me and then we've probably got seven people now I think. Mixture of gender identities, ethnicities, DJs, non-DJs, people who just take an interest in what we do, and it's a sort of very, you know, we all have little jobs that we look after, so people do the minutes, some people look after the art work, I'll do the bookings, we'll discuss who wants to DJ as a group. But the majority of the time we'll have, you know, an agenda of things that maybe happened at the last party, things that happened at the last meeting, we'll go round the table and just – everybody sort of fleshes their own ideas and views out, so we try and give everybody an equal say and then formulate plans on the back of that I think.
JT: Do you meet regularly or is it – do you only enter these discussions as it's time for a new Love Muscle?
MU: We probably meet twice a month. So, one is a debrief for the last party and one is a set up for the next party. The second meeting is more of a logistics side.
JT: Where does that take place? At Wharf as well?
MU: We tend to do it outside of Wharf, just because if we ever have anything to talk about Wharf [laughs] – they're a mix, sometimes they happen at Wharf, sometimes we do them at Outlaws Yacht Club which is a bar round the corner.
JT: Could you speak about how the information for the event is distributed? Does it have a big online profile?
MU: Yeah. It used to be tickets and flyers – sorry, posters and flyers, which, I've brought some of those with me. And we used to sort of like hit queer spots around Leeds. MESMAC office, bars in town. But, it’s now the majority of it is done online, we have a good online presence, people are very aware of who we are. We can put an event up and not invite anyone to it and still have around 150 people respond to it within around 10 minutes so, we've got a good online presence. We don't really do anything with it but, we've got a good online presence. I think I'm always very conscious that it may, it certainly did anyway exist within its, in a bubble maybe, a little bit separately to lots of other queer communities but I think we've done a really good job of making sure we reach out to everybody now. We've got Kat on our board now, Kat Sophia, who runs a night called 'Our Space' which is a QTIPoC night, and they do vogue workshops, they'll do club nights –
JT: A what night, sorry?
MU: QTIPoC so Queer, Trans, Intersex People of Colour night. And they do very specific things like QTIPoC only events, which are, you know, really, really well received and really, really busy and really, really popular. Kat DJs for us and we did a really good, joint Alternative Pride festival in the summer. So, again because Pride tends to be dominated by that Lower Briggate set of bars and the committee and the organising committee around Pride is heavily intertwined with those bars, we decided to do our own separate mini-festival with Leeds Queer Film Fest, Our Space which is Kat's night, and Love Muscle, and we had a week long programme of events which was really fun. So, spoken word poetry, vogue workshops, club nights, film screenings, drag ball, lots of exciting things. I've forgotten what the question was –
JT: Yeah, me too –
JT: I think I was asking you about the online presence, yeah? But I think we've got there.
MU: We have an online presence, yes.
JT: Is this through Facebook?
MU: But it was about, that can sometimes be very specific to people who just use Facebook for example, or friends of friends on Facebook, but I feel like through the community work that we've been doing and through funding different groups and getting involved with lots of different projects we've managed to broaden the reach of who comes to Love Muscle.
JT: Funding different groups?
MU: Yeah, so we funded Our Space to do the vogue workshops. So they got House of Ghetto over from Manchester and we paid for that. And that's the power of what we have I suppose, when we haven't booked a resident because we tend to, sorry, when we haven't booked a DJ, if we book a DJ we tend to just break even. We run very like, a very low cost model, which means that is really cheap for people to come in but then we just don't make any profit off the back of it, but we can do a fund raiser where, I'll only have to sort of pay our DJs and not get a guest in and pay all the things that come with that. We can generate a bit of cash for people, so we've done a few fundraisers over the past couple of years for people.
JT: Could you speak about some of the other ones that you've done?
MU: Basically just been fundraisers for Pride, so we've done a couple of drag balls for people who have never done drag before. So again, trying to break down the access barriers that there are to performing drag in Leeds, again because those bars in Lower Briggate tend to have a bit of a monopoly. We wanted to create a space where people who have never done drag before ever could come and just do three minutes in a really supportive environment where everyone was aware that it was their first time, so they're going to cheer whatever happens so you can fall over, do whatever you want and people will still clap. And maybe that would be the springboard for people to do bigger and better things, we've seen a couple of people, our friend Jake now actually performs in those bars [laughs] but started their career doing one of those sort of drag balls for first timers. We've done a couple of those and then probably the last funding exercise we did was for Our Space for Pride.
JT: Interesting, thank you. Do you have a favourite other queer space in Leeds or West Yorkshire at the moment that you like to go to?
MU: I really like Equaliser, so that's a sort of off-shoot. It was started by – it's a female, trans, non-binary night that works at platforming non-male DJs basically, because of how male-dominated the dance music industry is. And that's made up of people who have come to Love Muscle, Lucy who DJs for me, she also helps with that and has set up, like, DJ workshops to help non-male people learn to DJ to sort of level the balance out almost – again, what was the question? [laughs]
JT: Do you have favourite queer space in Leeds?
MU: Yeah, so I really really like Equaliser, yeah, love Equaliser. I've still never been to Slut Drop, so I need to go to Slut Drop, I think, I've been here long enough. I hear good things about Slut Drop. And Come Through as well. Come Through is finished now but that was also a really, really good night.
JT: Was that a queer space?
MU: Yeah, it was, yeah.
JT: Have you heard about Flamingo [Flamingos Café]?
MU: Yeah, love Flamingo. Flamingo [laughs]. Forgot. Yeah, that's great, really, really great. And I think that's really important as well like, Wharf's brilliant, but it's only open between five and two in the morning most nights and there are lots of different people who need to use that space and they all co-exist in this very short frame time. So you have, you know, trans people who just want to come and play a board game and sit down and just have some space, you know, an hour and a half away from rowdy club-kids who just want to come down and have a dance so, we just need a few more different spaces in Leeds I think at the moment. They’ve started up here. Yeah, Live Art Bistro, as well, is actually working with the council to try and create a new queer space or find out what people want for a queer space in Leeds. And whereas Live Art Bistro isn’t necessarily a queer run organisation it does a lot of queer nights there, I really love Live Art Bistro. So that's a, it's like a live art performance night, lots of really weird and wonderful, often very queer live performance art. And they push the boundaries of what performance art can be. I once saw a thing there called the Theresa May smack-down. Which was very good and it was the night of the election night results and every time a constituency was announced somebody would sound a gong and then two of this girl collective would have a wrestle over who would win whilst somebody was playing like weird synth in the background, like distorted music, it was really, really great. So yeah, Live Art Bistro, I love it as well. Wharf are looking to open a cafe as well, at some stage. And that will be really good for just allowing people to use the space in a different way than just a bar.
JT: Which is the idea behind Flamingo.
MU: Yeah, exactly that. It's a dry, late night cafe. Which is really fab and the food’s really nice. I don't know if this is going to be advertisement for Flamingo -
JT: I'm underlining it now.
JT: Any future plans for Love Muscle?
MU: We're trying to link up with other queer nights that do similar things in other cities. Since we started there have been a handful of other things happening in other big cities and they are people that come to our night or, you know, friends of friends and we are starting to put together a mini-tour of the UK, so trying to go to different cities to sort of show case what Love Muscle has got to offer. So we are at Club Rush on the 7th December in Sheffield. But then we've also been across to Manchester to Homo Electric, which again is another, probably a place that influenced us quite a bit in terms of a queer clubbing space.
JT: How about yourself personally, do you have any plans for the future? Can you envision staying in Leeds?
MU: Maybe go back to Love Muscle …
Yeah I think maybe in terms of inclusivity within Love Muscle I think we've got, we are trying to make our space accessible for lots of different communities in Leeds. I think that's really important that queer, night-life spaces shouldn't just be for gay men. I think, historically, they always have been, but there are so many people that can get something from that space that isn't just queer men and will get more from it than queer men will. Because of, you know, the extra prejudice that exists in the world towards non-male queer people, and non-male, non-white queer people. So I think we're just pushing towards doing a better job for those communities at the moment and making sure that we do different events, inclusive events, events in different venues. That sort of thing.
JT: Could you speak a little about the steps that you are taking?
MU: Working closely with Kat from Our Space, funding different projects, doing things in venues which are more QTIPoC friendly. Just reaching out. And also just reading, learning. I think there were me and Kat and a couple of other people in our circle of friends are trying to develop a power and privileges workshop that we can hopefully train out to other club nights, or create a resource pack, so if you are going to start a club-night and you want to be inclusive, could the people who organise it all go on this particular training. Just get people to think differently from the very beginning about when they start a club night as to who it could be for and what, you know, how – if you just put a bit of extra work in it could mean a lot for a lot more different people. It’s just really important to be really intersectional at the moment, that's what I think.
JT: Is there anything you'd like to say about Love Muscle, about Leeds, about your experience as a gay man in Leeds?
MU: I think Leeds is a really exciting place to live, and I think you can mould it into your most private need, that's a Maya Angelou quote there. But I really do think you can at the moment. I think there are the spaces, there are the people, there are the resources to kind of make Leeds what you want. I think there are some exciting things happening, so Channel 4 are moving here, I think the creative scene in Leeds is flourishing, but I feel like it's at the beginning of something really exciting.
JT: And just briefly, future plans personally, staying in Leeds or – who knows?
MU: Staying in Leeds. I've always said I would go somewhere else. I love Berlin, I think politically it sits with me really well, but, I've been here 11 years I'm probably not going anywhere. I'm looking at a house next week, so I'm probably not going anywhere. I know, it's home, it's become home. You know, I ran away when I was 18 a little bit, I think, and I've not gone back. There you go.
JT: That's lovely. Anything else you would like to say, that you envisioned saying?
MU: No I think I've said it all.
JT: That was really great, thank you very much.
MU: Thanks, ta. What time are we on?