Durham Duz Dance 001: SNAFU’s first bday with Barry Can’t Swim

The Situation [was] Normal: All Fucked Up at Loft a couple Fridays ago

Durham Duz Dance is a pursuit into ongoing documentation of the city’s burgeoning dance music scene. It’s the serial source providing stories of people making it happen and nights where it happens.

This first edition recounts my time at SNAFU’s (a student-led events group) first birthday. To help celebrate, student DJs and headliner Barry Can’t Swim lent their helping hands on deck. 

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Barry Can’t Swim at Fab’s last year

The event was held at Loft, tucked away above the more ostentatious ‘Babs’. Aptly, SNAFU’s events are a backdoor into the circuit of an underground night-life scene. It’s the locus where clubbers indulge in dance music, and its happy family of sub-genres delivered on a sizzling platter by the hottest DJs; Barry Can’t Swim is no exception. From earning spots on a BBC radio 1 playlist to Billboard’s list of ’10 Dance Artists To Watch in 2022′, Durham embraced the heat of a class musician. 

The night was underway. Muffled melodies seeped through into the stairwell leading to Loft, an instant indication of the atmosphere to come. Reaching the top, I was warmly met by Brett and Lily from SNAFU’s team. They briefed me on the event’s play-by-play and how snagging an interview with the night’s headliner would happen.

Brett: the brains of SNAFU (left), Lily: the right hand woman (right). 

By 11:30pm, a line snaked down the stairs and through the booming corridors. The place filled up as the night was eased into by student DJs. The uni’s very own Finn Milbank took to the decks while visiting from his year abroad. Working with SNAFU since its early days, he was more than happy to jump back in. I caught up with him at The Swan before the event. He was buzzing to hit the decks for a set as a favour to Brett, someone he’s admired as a friend and colleague. 

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Finn loving life in his natural element

Around midnight, Brett told me “Josh” (Mr. Can’t Swim’s real name) was en route. We waited outside, amongst the costume-cladded ‘Babylonians’. Amid the scenes, the man himself emerged, strolling up in an inconspicuous all-black outfit: joggers, quarter-zip and a backpack. Admittedly, my nerves were wracking enough for me to forget I was completely unprotected from the chill in a tank top. Lit by the off licence’s fluorescent lights, with a clip-on mic in one hand and questions scribbled on a random postcard in the other, I did indeed snag an interview. 

(left-right) Columba our cameraman, Barry Can’t Swim, me, Cameron (provider of ample phone storage)

He spoke completely unhurried, making it feel like I was speaking to a solid guy who just loves music, not a rapidly rising talent going on to heat up the Warehouse Project in 24 hours. Before the big dog gigs, SNAFU’s had him up in Durham a couple times before. No stranger to the city, Josh found it has a “good vibe, it’s a proper student vibe innit?”, he added, “it really reminds me of home actually”. Home being Edinburgh, where he went on to have the uni experience as well. 

He reminisced about those years, “the best clubs are all on one street”, “everything finishes at three and everyone just pours out into this one street and then it’s like ‘what we doing?’’’. He emphasised a “real sense of community and a real sense of a scene which you just— I don’t know what it’s like here but it’s definitely not like that in London, where I live now, everything is so far apart”. We agreed less space means community, something you hear a lot when describing the nature of student life at Durham. So it is, in fact, like that here too, except that the sobering lights switch on by two. 

“That’s one of my favourite things about club culture in Edinburgh, the fact that it’s all on that one strip and you just end up meeting so many people. I could end up going to the clubs on my own and I’d be like ‘how you doing’, ‘what’s happening?’. You just know everyone. It’s brilliant, yeah no, I miss that, I really miss that.”

While cutting about the dance music scene at uni, the artist pointed out he “didn’t really DJ” during then, and that he’d “always been a producer”, “played quite a few instruments”. Learning to DJ was out of necessity, he explained, “I ended up having to learn to DJ because my tunes started doing alright so people started booking me. I was like, shit, I need to learn to DJ”. 

Beyond clubs and nights out, music followed him on campus where he studied the subject in an academic environment. When asked if he ever went through phases of burnout from music. He frankly expressed he never has or ever thinks he will, laughing he said, “I think I’m just a bit weird in that sense”.

“I would just never get burnt-out from music, even for me to just relax, to fall asleep, I just think about writing music. It’s like how I switch off so it’s like my social life and it’s my sort of down time. Yeah, I don’t know I’ve never felt that to be honest.”

Shout out to the off-licence for the studio-quality lighting

With music being his go-to outlet, the artist turned to producing during lockdown. While COVID made clubbing culture an alien concept, producers like Josh kept dregs of it alive by releasing tracks to turn our bedrooms into clubs-for-one. One of these tracks being ‘Lone Raver’. When asked about his creative process during lockdown, he reflects, “sort of weird, I don’t know where it came from. I wanted to make something that was like ‘introverted euphoria’”.

“I was walking around these little like that street I was telling you about back in Edinburgh, and I was looking at all these places where I used to feel so much euphoria, but it was at a time of such solitude.”

He realised, “it makes total sense where that was coming from now,” when he looks back, “a couple years later”. Josh reckoned he “really wasn’t aware of what [he] was doing, at the time,” and that “it wasn’t at a conscious level. It was subconscious”.

COVID-19 transformed what it meant to appreciate dance music, it made us reminisce and re-evaluate how much we valued being shoulder to shoulder, face to face. Josh captures what he feels (though he may not be aware of it at the time) and ‘Lone Raver’ was a lockdown induced expression of an internal intuition. Keeping true to his sentiment-heavy artistry, his latest release ‘Like The Old Days’ was a deeply personal thank you note.

“I really wanted to do something that honoured my family, specifically my grandad as well ’cause he’s the one that got me into music so it felt like it was the right thing to do coming to this stage now. If he’s the one that got me started on this path then I should acknowledge that, you know?”

Already making its way into Spotify’s ‘UK House Music’ (for which Barry Can’t Swim was previously featured as the playlist’s cover artist), the light-hearted yet equally whole-hearted tune is already making its way as a certified groover. Check out the playlist below.

With much regret, I did not ask him if he actually could swim, there was simply not enough time. Five minutes were up and soon enough Barry Can’t Swim was hyping up the floor with bassy beats and a silky set. The space was alive, bouncing to consistent rhythms melting into well earned build-ups. Vines hung low from the ceiling grazing hands that reached up in unconfined euphoria. The tunes were tight and the crowd most certainly loose.

Barry Can’t Swim sending the place into madness

Thought I’d throw in another POV for you good readers ; )

A year on, it seems SNAFU has been a part of the effort to fill the void of an ‘alternative’ clubbing scene. SNAFU’s events stand in contrast to nights put on by the likes of aforementioned ‘Babs’ or the infamous ‘Jimmy’s’. Brett’s foresight and love of dance music put into motion the beginnings of, in his words, bringing the “biggest talent from around the UK” to Durham. I asked Brett how he first connected with Barry Can’t Swim, he “just found him on Spotify, loved his stuff and then just emailed his agent and then, that was it”. 

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Sea of swimmers and non-swimmers alike

The offset of Durham’s dance music scene intersected the rise of an unbridled talent who is on the precipice of making it insanely big. Durham being a side-plot of Barry Can’t Swim’s story meant we got to party with him in a little corner of this little city. Special stuff.

Find Barry Can’t Swim’s work on Spotify or Soundcloud and follow his Instagram to keep up with his journey.

If you missed out, there’s no need to fret, SNAFU’s making more noise next term. Follow their Instagram and Facebook page to experience the chaos for yourself.

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• The 9 types of boys you will meet out clubbing in Durham