A Neopolitan Ice Cream Of Noise

Text Annette Russell
Photography Jørn Tomter /
Published first time in I Love Chatsworth Road issue 9 / 2019

The recent Roots, Rhythms & Records exhibition at Hackney Museum presented the wealth of record shops and sound-system culture established in Clapton and Dalston in the ‘70s and ‘80s, sadly now just distant memories for older locals. Fortunately, the early impact of African and Caribbean music lives on at Church of Sound as well as its associated venue and recording studios, Total Refreshment Centre. Their monthly events take place at a church in Clapton, tucked into a grimy corner of Lea Bridge roundabout. We sat down with the promoters, Spencer and Lex, to hear how it all began.

The two met when Spencer’s band, Lunch Money, played at TRC. Lex recalls, “I think you were talking about doing a gig in the church you were rehearsing and recording music in. At the time at TRC, we had a lot of problems with neighbours and noise complaints. I was very frustrated at not being able to do gigs. There were quite a few jazz musicians around here; Shabaka Hutchings was one of the first. It took us about a year to put the first gig together.”

Spencer elaborates, “Yeah, I remember we pitched it to my church for about a year. We wrote up this document for such a long time, we refined and refined it. The first line was, ‘I’d like to propose putting on a jazz concert in the church.’ And their final reason was, ‘We don’t want any rock music.’ After a whole year! I’m surprised we even continued to be honest. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything unsuccessfully for a year.” But persist they did, finding a home at St James the Great, where open-minded vicar Preb Rosémia Brown asked when the first show would be at their very first meeting.

Three years later, the two laugh over their now explicit honesty when it comes to curating and producing events. “We are always telling each other our ideas are shite and then when the good one comes through, we know it!” says Spencer.

There is a real sense of love of music and loyalty from those who frequent and work at Church of Sound and TRC, which Lex confirms. “We work with a team we all know really well. We know we can count on them, and that’s priceless. Half of them did the first gig.”
The friendly crowd comprises an exceptional mix of age, ethnicity and gender, with even the south London nu-jazz massive venturing north to dance.

The broad concept is for acts to play two sets, one of covers, often from the canon of classic world music albums, followed by a set of original material. ILCR got to see the Church in action, catching a performance by rising stars of the UK jazz scene Kokoroko, led by talented young trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey. At other shows, Ezra Collective played songs of Fela Kuti, The Brother Moves On played Batsumi & Malombo, and New York jazz legends The Cookers made a special appearance. At the end of 2018, one particular show had a huge impact locally, when the Abram Wilson Foundation took Sheila Maurice-Grey into Mossbourne School to run workshops with the schoolchildren, culminating in a unique collaborative performance.

Spencer recalls how it differed from your usual school performance. “It had that big professional feeling, big sound system and lighting and cool staff, with a cool poster. They used all the recordings in their GCSEs.” Lex adds, smiling, “They all took solos, one after the other, and you’ve got rows of schoolkids in uniform just jamming…all kind of dancing together, going left and right - what a vibe!”

The Abram Wilson Foundation-led project was a pilot, so the hope is that there will be more events like it, but what else for Church of Sound? “We are sitting on a lot of recordings of amazing music that we’d like to put out into the world. That would be a really nice thing to do,” muses Lex. Inevitable interest from festivals comes with the challenge of recreating the Church off-site, both logistically and atmospherically. Another option, Lex explains, is to experiment with both the musical style and the format of the events. “It could be adapting the time the gig actually happens, presenting it in a different manner, from the lighting to how the sound is set up. People could be lying down instead of being seated. We love things that cross-pollinate. It’s nice to come up with new concepts, try new things.”

Being rooted in Clapton and the surrounding area, the conversation naturally turns to their favourite local spots. For Spencer, it’s “bonkers” nightspot Lumiere and the Castle Cinema, and for Lex, it’s Palm 2 for the buffet food and The Dentist for music. As for their tips for must-catch acts for the coming year, Lex laughs and says, “There’s a band called Lunch Money, they’ve got a cereal box coming out!” To which Spencer retorts, “Album at the end of the year!” Other ones to watch are Neue Grafik Ensemble, who are on Lex’s label, as well as TRC alumni Comet is Coming and Alabaster de Plume.

Many of the acts booked by Spencer and Lex have gone on to enjoy huge success both in the UK and internationally, so it’s no surprise Church of Sound sells out shows every time. There’s no doubt they’ll continue to reap support for their unique and convivial brand of musical religion.

Church of Sound happens most months at St James the Great, Lower Clapton
Instagram @church_of_sound

1st November 2019: Hackney's HAHA Sounds Collective perform David Axelrod's Earth Rot at Church of Sound, St James the Great Church
22nd November 2019: Jaimie Branch plays Church of Sound, St James the Great Church, co-promotion with Serious

All tickets will be available via