CoreTalks: Dan Coggins – from Durham to Hexham, the long way round
A County Durham childhood to Core Music via a career in London’s music business has been an eventful journey for Dan Coggins, guitar teacher and co-founder of The Shining Levels
Dan Coggins was born in the 1970s and grew up in County Durham. He lived in rural Holmside but went to school in Sacriston during the dying years of the pits. He remembers the impact of the coal strike and pit closures on the community: his friends collected newspapers to sell to the local fish and chip shop so the family would have enough money to buy food. He was luckier – his father had a regular job – but you can’t grow up in an area where almost everyone relied on the mining industry for work without the events of those times colouring your outlook on life. “The village fell to bits,” he says. “It was not a happy place.”
He left school after GCSEs to do A-levels at college. Aged 16 he joined a band with a strong liking for synth music, playing covers of Roxy Music and Duran Duran songs as well as original material. People who know Dan might raise their eyebrows at this – he prefers early blues – but he says he was just happy to be making music.
“It was definitely an aspiration since I was young to be in a band,” he says. “There was always a lot of music in our house and always a guitar lying around.” His first musical memories are playing his Mum’s record collection on his Grandma’s stereogram: 45s from the 1950s like Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, so he grew up loving RnB, rockabilly and jazz-influenced tunes. He got his first electric guitar (a Kay Les Paul copy) at age 13 or 14 and never looked back. Living in a rural area there was not much to distract him from practising until he could play along with the 50s classics.
The early 1990s was a great time to be in a band and Dan’s taste in music broadened to include everything from punk to the Pixies as well 60s greats like the Kinks and the Stones. He learned to play guitar in many different styles. “I was just curious about music,” he recalls. When the band split, Dan and the drummer formed a new band – Mooch – and started gigging around the North East. They attracted interest from major labels, moved to London, recorded in the best studios and toured nationally but their management didn’t work and the whole lot eventually fell to bits. A regular wage must have looked appealing and Dan started at Mushroom Records and its subsidiary Infectious Records – labels whose rosters included the likes of Ash and Garbage as well as the Minogue sisters. Exciting as it was to be London at this time, the music industry was cut-throat and dirty. “It was hard for musicians – they’d come back from touring the United States and I was employing them to sweep the floor just so they could afford to eat,” Dan remembers.
He took a year out to travel and returned to work at a friend’s recording London studio. “I was playing with people I respected,” he says. “They were cool people who knew a lot about music and production. I played with some astounding musicians. I didn’t make any money long-term but I learned a lot.” From there he moved to the film industry and, though it was fun working on big productions, the pressure was intense. “I was just about to get married and realised I couldn’t start my new life being on-call 24/7,” Dan says. He and his wife came to a friend’s wedding at Slaley Hall, took a morning walk in Corbridge and decided it was the place to raise a family.
The experience of the film industry was put to good use when Dan produced the North East Arts and Culture Show for Made in Tyne & Wear TV (now Tyne & Wear TV). He had begun teaching guitar in London to help out a friend and realised he really enjoyed it, so he started tutoring one afternoon a week. This was how he came to meet Core Music founder Mike Coleman.
“I totally loved what Mike was doing at Core – what he’d put together was really impressive,” Dan says. “He was doing it because he has a total belief in making music accessible to everyone.” He started one afternoon a week at Core Music and enjoyed the feel of the place. “I started telling Mike what to do and he invited me to join the Board so I could tell him in an official capacity!”
Dan is keen to share his experience of performing and the music industry through Core Music. “I know what benefits it has given me,” he says. “I’ve done what I have because I picked up that guitar at age 11. It opened up a path in my life that I wouldn’t have followed otherwise. It’s great to be able to share this knowledge.”
Core Music is working hard to develop an environment that nurtures music-making in Tynedale and Dan sees this as the best way to help people. “They’ll find a way if they really want to do it but they need the ecosystem around them for support,” he explains. “I found I learned best by being around people who were making music. Core Music provides the experience of a generation of musicians, writers and recording engineers. Being able to recognise people with creative talent and encourage them is the reason I’m here.”
Core Music has put on gigs for budding musicians to play in a safe environment and it aims to establish an accessible recording and rehearsal space for local musicians. “People need a permanent place to go, a hub – somewhere they can buy gear and have lessons but also somewhere to hang out and be creative,” Dan says.
Dan has been creative himself this past year. He and long-time friend Davey J – aka The Shining Levels – have composed an album of music inspired by The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose Books), written by Davey’s friend Ben Myers. The novel has been well received, winning the coveted Walter Scott prize for historical fiction in 2018. Ben has now been signed by Bloomsbury and The Gallows Pole will released in the US by Third Man Books, the publishing company set up by musical genius Jack White.
This noir tale describes the death of 18th century moorland culture as the industrial age approaches through the fall of the charismatic self-styled King David Hartley and his gang of coiners. Set in the bleak moors above the Calder valley, it is richly atmospheric and it revived memories of the north Pennine moors for Dan and Davey. They began composing as they read the book. “It seemed natural,” Dan says. “Living in Northumberland, you feel like you want to write something in keeping with the local traditions.” He sampled instruments such as fiddles and accordions to create sound collages and wove these into tuneful and reflective songs. “It’s earthy, very natural-sounding,” he adds. “We were writing very instinctively, an emotional response to the book.” The album credits several great local musicians, including Core Music’s own Mike Coleman, George Hutton and Owain Bennett.
The Shining Levels didn’t expect to shine quite so brightly. “We didn’t plan to perform the music live,” Dan explains,“but Ben Myers thought the music really suited the book and the album had over a thousand plays when it was posted online.” Rehearsals are now underway as four musicians work out how to perform songs that each used up to 35 tracks in the recording studio.
The Shining Levels will premiere The Gallows Pole at Forum Books, Corbridge on January 19th (Facebook: @forumbookscorbridge; tickets available by clicking here). “It was the first place we thought of to perform it,” Dan says. “Forum Books supported Ben from the outset and the chapel [which is the bookshop] is a great music venue.” (For those who can’t make the premiere, there will be performances in Durham and Halifax).
Few can claim (or even imagine) a musical heritage stretching from Duran Duran to The Gallows Pole but Dan Coggins has learned a thing or two about making music on his long roundabout journey from Durham to Hexham and he wants to share what he knows. “I believe everyone who wants to should get involved in making music,” he says. “The main thing is, enjoy it.”
The Gallows Pole album is available to download at https://theshininglevels1.bandcamp.com/releases