Monday, November 2, 2009

interview with Space Age Bachelor Pad fanzine

***1 - Can you further expand on the concept of -audio
hallucinations ? Are these common, and what exactly are they like?
Are whole tracks totally recalled? It s a fascinating concept that
I d never heard of before.

Audio hallucinations are just auditory hallucinations -- we tend to think of hallucinations as visual delusions, but there are audio ones as well -- people tripping, or schizophrenics,can hear voices, uncanny sounds, foreboding hums etc. Certain drugs seem to expand the auditory threshold at both ends of the frequency spectrum,--ie bass and treble-- and heightening perceptual acuity means that you get the aural equivalent of catching things out of the corner of your eye. All this can feed into outright audio hallucinations-- sonic phantoms.

***2 - I can t remember where exactly, but I know that you ve used the
concept of Potlatch to describe the goings-on of the hardcore raver.
Could you elaborate on what Potlatch is, and how you think it relates
to rave behaviour?

I think it was in the last interview I did with you re. The Sex Revolts. Potlatch refers to rituals of ruinous gift-giving in tribal societies where one's rank is determined by how much wealth and resources one can waste, give away etc etc. It's related to the idea of sacrifice, where you're getting rid of precious resources (food, livestock, human life etc) to appease/please the God. Georges Bataille was very interested in potlatch --which is where rival chieftains or potentates would engage in gift-giving battles that escalated sometimes to the point of total ruination. He theorised that there was an innate, aristocratic drive in
human beings towards extravagance, a sort of will to expenditure-without-return (ie the opposite of Protestant bourgeois ethics of investment, prudence, thrift, providence etc). The Situationists were also interested in potlach and other acts of exorbitant generosity because they broke with the exchange and commodity relations of capitalism.

The link with rave culture is slightly farfetched, but i think there is something
striking about how much money people waste on getting wasted --the number of pills
people consume in a night is staggering, as is all the other substances on top --coke, weed, booze. With certain drugs, not only are you spending a lot of your income on them (plus all the soft drinks and ancillary expenditiures of going to a rave/club), but the drugs are also spending your energy --- I comment in the book on how Ecstasy depletes the brain's reserves of serotonin and dopamine, so that overdoing E is like going on a spending spree with one's future happiness -- you'll feel depressed for days, weeks, in some cases months afterwards. I'm sure there's an etymological connection between the idea of getting wasted and ideas of waste -- wasting your time, your energy, your youth etc -- all the things that
bourgeois society thinks should be productively invested in meaningful activity (career, family, politics, education, social/charity work etc). The current UK concept of larging it -- or having it, having it large, having it major -- also might have some link to largesse or the idea of extravagance -- a polydrug (and drink) riot of consumption, flash clothes, living like a playa (rather than a worker).

In a sense, raving is totally unproductive activity, all this energy is expended with
no goal apart from celebration. You have this culture organised around ritual festivity, orgiastic celebration, a Bacchanalian explosion -- all of which harks back to tribal, pagan folkways which were organised around sacrifice, extravagance. Rave culture is riddled with tribal imagery.

3 - From football hooligans to ravers, do you think there s a
barminess that is uniquely English, and how can you explain it?

Well, American fratboys can behave pretty boorishly, so I'm not sure about this. But
certainly, compared with Europeans, the English -- or rather the British, as the
Scottish/Welsh/etc also do this -- do tend to push it a bit further. Maybe cos we're more repressed/inhibited/reserved, so when this stuff finds an outlet (football, raving etc) it's really explosive.

***4 - What proportion of tracks in Energy Flash do you think were
actually recorded on drugs? What are the most noteworthy examples?

I've no idea. I don't think the creators necessarily need to be off their tits while working, but if you're living a hardcore lifestyle, in the thick of the rave experience, and going out partying your socks off at the weekend, then for the rest of the week you're still under the influence, in a sense -- the E-memories are very accessible cos they're fresh, you can trigger them by playing music, it's quite easy to flash back into that mode. The midweek comedown phase is quite close to being high, in so far as you're over-sensitized to stuff. So i remember hardcore producers like Acen telling me how back in the day they would spend all weekend raving and the experience would give them ideas for tracks -- through being in the crowd, seeing what sounds and riffs sent the crowd berserk, what noises gave you a rush when you were E'd up -- and then during the week they'd implement the ideas into tracks which they might have on dubplate by the weekend and give out to DJs, so they could actually hear if the track worked on the dancefloor. When they're in the thick of the
scene, hardcore producers are really only thinking a weekend or two ahead -- the next track, the next rave -- rather than long term careers and artistic development. And in a sense they're off their tits all the time.

But who knows, maybe a lot of them did take E while producing. I know that Goldie did E's while mixing down the final version of "Terminator", one of his trippiest
and most radical early tunes, a track that helped pioneer the darkside jungle sound. He told an interviewer that he took the E's cos you hear different things when high, your perceptual limits are expanded, "you hear things that aren't there" is how i think he put it -- feeding back to that idea of audio hallucinations. I know that most of the No U Turn tracks are made in a chronic state of being stoned on really strong weed. But I suspect most producers on the scene make music while stoned, as pot smoking is a really normal, banal thing in the UK for a certain generation, like drinking coffee.

***5 - What role does the evolution of weed play in the evolution of
the book, and how important is it to styles like darkcore and the
paranoid inflections of US hip-hop? (As far as I can tell, weed isn t
the same drug now as it was then -- it s a much heavier drug now,
while few seem to recognize it as such.)

Weed is definitely shitloads stronger now than it was in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. I can remember the first times I tried pot -- this would have been the early Eighties -- and I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. It seemed as much placebo effect as anything, giggling neo-hippies following the ritual, behaving as they thought they should under the influence. But the weed growers have bred stronger breeds and the THC content is several times higher today than it was back then. When I re-encountered weed in the mid-Nineties I finally saw the point of it, but I was also struck by how often as not you got a really paranoid buzz off it -- racing thoughts, uncomfortably fast heartbeat, unpleasantly enhanced peripheral vision. Not Bob Marley mellow vibes, but a real edgy and sometimes foreboding experience not unlike a mild version of a bad acid trip. Even when it's fun, the
enhancement of the senses, particularly sound, can be really intense -- mildly
hallucinogenic . For the life of me I cannot imagine how people can smoke this stuff
every day, all day -- as a lot of people in the jungle, trip hop, etc scenes do. No wonder the likes of the Wu Tang have an apocalyptic worldview. You can hear that stoned mindstate in the sound of the music -- the emphasis on timbre and texture, the loops that go nowhere, the subliminal Fx and details designed to catch the stoner's peripheral hearing.

In terms of music, one noticeable thing was the shift from hardcore rave music into
jungle and drum 'n' bass -- all the manic riffs and tingly textures in hardcore were designed to trigger the E-rush. But when people started having bad experiences on too many pills, they switched to smoking spliff -- gradually the bass became more prominent to please stoned ears, and the B-lines started to run at half-speed, reggae tempo, under the fast breakbeats, so that those who weren't hyped up on E-nergy could dance to the skanking B-line. Other people just dropped out of the rave scene and got into ambient and dub-influenced 'listening techno', which was more suitable to getting stoned -- more textures and space, less dance energy. The hardcore people incorporated the dub element within the hectic rave music, as an internal component; the 'intelligent' people just opted wholesale
for a Nineties dub sound.

6 - Rocketing -- The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers are marketed in a
rock way. Bob Marley was marketed in a rock way (I-Threes replacing
the Wailers, guitar put forward in the mix). How did rock marketing
gain such a hegemony in America, and has electronic music had a
genuine success in the music?

Don't really have an answer for this one except to allude to the hegemony of radio programmers and the way US radio stations all compete for the middle ground rather than spreading across a wide spectrum of diversity. Obviously Prodigy had to come with songs and a videogenic frontman and guitar-like riffs to succeed here, but let's not underestimate their achievement: the beats on 'Firestarter' and 'Breathe' are jungle breakbeats in essence. I think those two songs are two of the most radical pop productions of the decade, and remind me oddly of The Young Gods, sampler-wielding punks from the late Eigthies.

***7 - I like the concept of -music as forcefield that you use to
write about Beltram s Energy Flash. It s the same sort of way I
feel about Phil Spector tracks like Be My Baby. But I ve had
trouble explaining this forcefield concept recently. What do you
think is going on in these tracks that makes them such
subjectivity-losing feelings?

In Spector and Beltram and similar things, I think there's a miasmic effect going on,
through distortion and saturated tones and overloaded frequencies -- it's like there's a loss of distinction between figure and ground (to use a metaphor from painting), so that the normal sense of aural perspective that allows you to think of the music as over there, at a safe remote distance, is diminished. With the Beltram stuff it's like the sound is swarming out, and you're going to be subsumed in the swarm -- which can be a blissful sensation or threatening (hence my over use of metaphors of marauding clouds of poison gas, killer bees etc!). With Spector, the figure (the vocalist) is lost or almost lost in the ground (the wall of sound) and whether through the listener's identification with the singer, or just through the overspill of sound coming out of the speakers, the listener also feels on the
verge of disappearing in the sonic deluge.

There's probably a sense in which all music is a forcefield -- unlike when we look
at a visual work of art, we are always 'inside' the music because the sound waves travel out, penetrate our bodies, surround us, reflect off the walls. Acoustic phenomenon are much more intimate and visceral than optical ones -- probably closer to touch and smell than sight; acoustic phenomema are also less under our control, we don't have earlids we can close, we can't direct our ear's gaze in a specific direction or turn away. We're much more vulnerable to sound, hence music's proximity to sensations of rapture, ravishment, being engulfed, overwhelmed. Whereas the eye is much more related to feelings of mastery and being in command. The eye is phallic, the ear vulvic (?).

That said, certain kinds of music -- those with high definition in the production,
precise borders in the mix between the instruments, 'naturalistic' production with drum kit here, the guitar there, the voice in the middle -- diminish the sense of music swarming out and surrounding you. They recreate the feeling of watching/listening to a band on stage, of the listener's detachment as a spectator. Other styles of production --- from My Bloody Valentine neo-psych blur to Eno's spatial ambience to dub's oceanic mesh-space to No U Turn's Gothic/industrial neo-Spector blare -- heighten the sense of the listener's immersion,
in different ways. Then there's that drum'n'bass style of cinematic production where you're in the environment (usually Blade Runner/noir sci-fi-esque) but the music somehow creates the sensation that you're the stalker within it, that you can direct your hearing like a rifle's crosshairs and aurally focus on whatever you're surveilling. Paranoid or panopticon hearing.

8 - Do you think there could be a dichotomy set up between the
concepts of -scenius and -genius that follows something like:
etcetera? (I mostly ask this question to find my own place in this
music -- I ve always been into the axis that connects records from Sly
Stone s There s A Riot to Maxinquaye to Keith Hudson s Pick A Dub --
music not to lose yourself in a crowd to, but music in which you lose
the crowd altogether.)

Yeah, that is pretty much the dichotomy I had in mind. Eno's idea of "scenius" really
appealed to me because it provided a way of understanding how rave music evolved
without the traditional music historian's reflex of fixating on specific individuals who changed the course of the music and precise places where the turning points occurred. So in dance music histories, specifically jungle, people will harp on endlesslly about Goldie, Fabio & Grooverider, the club Rage. The more hyperbolic acounts of jungle history will attribute the invention of breakbeat-driven hardcore/jungle/drum & bass to Fabio & Grooverider. In fact the idea of speeding up the breaks and chopping them up etc was occurring independently and simultaneously across the UK and in other countries too all through the period; breakbeat science evolved in tiny increments on a month by month basis; there were key people who made breakthroughs but no solitary geniuses who singlehandedly opened up a whole new frontier; on the DJ level, it wasn't just F&G at Rage but scores of dJs at dozens of clubs across London, the South East, the Midlands who were pushing the sound. A good example of scenius in action is how 4 Hero, Doc Scott, Goldie and others sampled and resampled off each other's records the Mentasm sound originally created by Joey Beltram -- a game of ping pong, as Goldie put it, that actually mutated the sound and intensified it over a period of several months. When they went back to the original record to sample it after these several months, it actually sounded
weak -- it wasn't as dirty and raw and evil as the sound they had collectively evolved through the back-and-forth sampling off each other. These guys were friends all affiliated to the Reinforced label, but this kind of traffic was going on across the entire scene, across the nation, between strangers -- there were producers who were more innovative than others, but even the cloners and copyists played their part in mutating the sound and coming up with new twists.

Until 3 years or so ago i'd probably have shared your interest, at least in terms of
my overt ideology, in the individuals that stand out, who don't make their music to serve the crowd. but gradually i realised my fix wasn't just to do with records in isolation, heard at home on your lonesome onesome, it was the whole subcultural matrix -- music + crowd interaction + ritualised behavior + discourse. There a lot of records that work brilliantly as components of the DJ's mix, and with MC-ing over the top, but sound flat when heard in isolation. These days I'm more interested in how records feed into and sustain "vibe" (which i guessed i'd define as the forcefield where tribal energy/identity meets music, technology and drugs to create a collective mood in specific social spaces and geographic locales), and less interested in art as a quasi-autonomous realm that's supposedly separate
from the social, that's supposedly timeless and placeless. But there is a diagonal that may actually be the most interesting one to follow -- a line where there's a tension between the experimental/musical impulses of the auteur and the demands of the DJ/dancefloor. Some of my favorite stuff is created on that line -- hardcore/jungle 1992-94, dub and roots reggae in the Seventies, hip hop as it begins to move beyond party-rocking beats and gets adventurous-but-not-pretentious. Stuff that's either side of that diagonal line is either too homogenous (scenius) or too quirkily non-functional (genius).

***9 - Do you think Ecstacy manifests a uniquely deep sense of loss?
(Not having taken it, the descriptions of the comedown strike me as
heartbreak without even being left a memory of love to cling to.)

That's a very good description of what the E comedown is like -- and it figures into the book's idea of the essence of E/raving as intransitive -- there's no object to the verb "rave", there's no love object for the state of being loved-up. That's not totally true --people sort of fall in love with the scene, the experience, the culture -- and specifically with the gang of people they go raving with. The posse, the crew. That's where you get all that tight incestuous we-are-family type stuff amongst certain cliques in jungle, like the Metalheadz/Goldie/Kemistry&Storm/Fabio&Grooverider click -- it's all E bonds. Then it becomes a sort of quasi-military cameraderie thing, people waxing nostalgic about 'missions' they went on (really drug-binges and prolonged periods without sleep!). That song 'Let Be Your Fantasy' is classic example of rave-and-E as being in love with nothing -- the lyrics are one long paean to the state of being loved-up which is incarnated as this
fantasy-woman beseeching 'come and feel my energy, i've got what it takes to make you

***10 - Can you envisage anything like a deep conspiracy theory that
directly connects the brewing industry to the rave industry? (My take
on it is that whevever there s money spiralling up, there s going to
be someone at the top squeezing to get more. Isn t it possible that
spiked drugs could have begun as a brewing industry ploy?) When I
think of the fact that the vast majority of pubs in England, which
pose as charming locals, are actually owned by huge companies, and
when I think of the marketing of English football, where away jerseys
change every year, forcing supporters to make purchase after purchase,
and the marketing of SkyTV -- well anyway, what I m getting at it is
that it seems the tastes of England s lower and middle classes are
expertly exploited to the hilt, and I have a hard time imagining that
the commercial elites haven t made a helluva lot of money off of rave.
Can you think of anything that would feed this notion?

I think they've made, or have recently come up with ways to make, lots of money out of it NOW. The clubbing and dance record industries are hugely organised, professionalized things now. But conspiracy theories aren't really required to explain how this came about.

11 - How much credit can the instruments (Roland 303, as the most
obvious example) themselves take for the production of the tracks?
Would it be useful to see sampledelia (whether it s sampling your own
records or someone else s) as opening up a more genuine mode of
artistic expression in electronic music, since it s not using an
engineer s presets, and since sounds can be morphed to such a higher

Well the Roland 303 is only a tool, to get anything out of it you have to play a pattern of notes into and jiggle the knobs around to tweak all the parameters. There's no presets, there's a basic sound (like there's a basic timbre to a piano, but all these notes, pedals, ways you can plays it) --similarly with the 303 there's a huge range of ways you can tweak it. I'd say the 303 is somewhere between an effects pedal like the wah wah and a proper instrument. A lot of 'real' musicians prefer the 303 to a sampler cos of its hands-on nature. Where I sort of agree with you is that the creativity of sampling is sometimes undervalued by these analog synth bores who think that playing keyboard patterns manually is more 'musical' than chopping up samples and feeding then through-Fx on a screen using a mouse. Sampling has developed to such a microscopic and intensive level, with tiny fragments being used and things being fed through so many warping processes/filters/FX, that it's almost irrelevant that the original sound comes from someone else's record. In some ways it's gone too far and the idiomatic 'quote machine' nature of the
sampler's been lost -- they might as well be using a synth, cos all the original 'aura' and 'grain' of the sample-source has gone, it's a totally denatured, synthetic sound.

***12 - Do you think there s a structural difference to the record
industry in America that makes scenes harder to develop? (I ve heard
about situations in England, where a record will come out one week,
and be sampled by someone else the next. But in North America, it
seems to me that the industry moves so slowly that -response records
become impossible.)

It's not structural to the record industry but related to the sheer size of the country -- organic scenes seem to take much longer to build -- what can explode within months in the UK cos of the hothouse atmosphere of the music press/industry, seems to take years, even decades, to reach critical mass in the USA. The record industry seems fairly responsive in terms of signing stuff up -- there's been not one but *two* waves of US major labels going crazy for UK rave music -- the first was in late 91-early 92 (the first time The Prodigy got signed -- then to Elektra) in response to the spate of UK hardcore tunes hitting the Top Ten in England -- acts like N-Joi, Bizarrre Inc, Eon, Quadrophonia, Shamen, T99, all had records out on US majors -- but the majors didn't know how to market the groups -- the
second wave of mass signing of course was 97's electronica frenzy, with some groups
signed (Prodigy for the second time, to Maverick -- although it's actually the third time if you count Mute as a major) and majors also trying to make alliances with indie dance labels or form their own boutique electronica sub-labels -- that too foundered on the problem of radio and MTV"s rapid retreat from dance music. In both cases the record industry was ahead of public taste -- the youth were way behind the A&R guys (who are usually quite hip). A similar thing happened in the late Eighties when bands like Dinosaur Jr, Husker Du, Throwing Muses, Pixies all got signed to majors but failed in the market place -- it was three or four years too soon, and it was only with grunge that the public, MTV and radio were ready for those kind of sounds/emotions/anti-fashion images. So the real question is why does it take so long for the demand to build up on a popular level? Why is the British youth market more volatile and hungry for the new and prepared to switch allegiances where the American youth seem more inertia-bound and slow-moving? Loyalty to styles, bands etc seems a bigger deal here.

***13 - When you introduce the concept of minor language in the
context of the pirate DJ s, somehow it brought theatrics to mind. Are
subcultures more than anything else a place for youth to reinvent
themselves, or moreover to outright get out of themselves?

There's an element of that I think in the way MCs and DJs invent personae for themselves to hide behind -- Easy E, Man Like Liam, A guy Called Gerald, Dominator, etc... But the minor language concept is really about tribal identity -- dissident folkways within the larger culture. Maybe soon there will no longer be a mainstream culture, just a profusion of specialised knowledges, tribal identities, idiolects and subcultures. (Marshall McLuhan had a big riff about the resurgence of tribalism in the age of mass media, regarding tribal consciousness as our natural state). A lot of the rhetoric in the pirate culture is to do with knowing the score, knowing the code -- to do with initiation, or fending off the uninitiated. -- and tribes function through rituals, initiation ceremonies etc

14 - Where do you see the state of drum n bass/jungle in 1998/99? I
keep seeing hype-in-the-press about so-and-so, who s going to break
drum n bass -- like the press on the recent Grooverider LP, or else
Lady Miss Kier s upcoming jungle album. It seems to me by this
juncture, it s all over. It can get consigned to its one night of the
week at the local club, just like all the other sub-genres. But
people cling to it so heavily that I almost get the impression they
need it to be big for their own sense of validation.

I would concur here -- people routinely give respectful reviews to the latest double-or- triple album by such-and-such a drum & bass innovator, but these major label records -- 4 Hero, Grooverider, Peshay and Dillinja next year -- are just glum relics of the year-before- last's A&R frenzy. There's few things sadder than watching these records, bloated and overproduced, limp into the public eye long after the moment has passed. The vibe element of jungle has long since migrated into London speed garage and two-step garage scene; what's left is a grim bunch of pseudo-experimentalists who are now servicing a totally different audience to the one they started with -- now their following is largelly white middle class students. Drum and bass has become the new techno; and as you say, techno long ago went through this shift where one minute (1991-92) it was the word people used to describe the whole culture, the next it was this specific purist genre within
the culture, and an increasingly unpopular genre at that. The same thing's happened to jungle -- it's just one of the genres rather than the leading edge.

15 - Now that movies like Modulations amongst other smaller ones have
come out, and magazines like Wire and Urb have entrenched themselves
over the last few years -- how do we stop the discourse of electronica
from becoming as overbearing as the History of Rock n Roll? It s grown
so tiring to have all these people from Luigi Russolo, to Stockhausen,
to Pierre Henri, to Kraftwerk shoved at me, as if I m supposed to
revere them. No magazine or movie is specifically at fault for this,
but still I can t help thinking that once history is written, it seems
that the present and the future shrink. Do you think Energy Flash did
anything to try to navigate this problem, to keep discourse open, to
write about the music without killing it?

You're right, that whole history of electronic explorers thing has gotten pretty terra cognita in the last few years -- and an aura of dull'n'worthy has gathered around some of those figures, undeservedly in most cases -- usually as a result of the pious way they're written about.

I tried to navigate this problem by avoiding the 'experimental' as a category as
much as possible -- in Energy Flash/Generation Ecstasy, that sort of Modulations/The
Wire type music takes only a couple of chapters (the one on Ambient echno/Intelligent Techno', and the one on the post-rave art-techno fringe of Oval, Squarepusher, Spooky etc). I decided to focus on the dancefloor, on that tension between experimental/ auteurist impulses and the imperatives of danceability/populism/functionalism. It's not that I don't like a lot of experimental electronic music, but I realised that what really excited me was when those ideas impacted society -- that interaction and friction between experimental/futuristic stuff and socio-political reality (class, race, gender, economics) is what created the most interesting cultural phenomena. It also created the most 'vibe' -- it's
where the fun and the intensity was. 'Ardkore and jungle remain the model for me of this kind of interface between avant-gardism and populism. I realised that the experimental-ness of jungle was only one of the things I loved about it, and only one of the things that made it 'work' -- as a music and as a culture. I loved it cos it was danceable, druggable, an amazing subculture with weird rituals, because it was multicultural and prophetic of a new British identity that mixed up black and white. Because it was fun, because it was dangerous, because it gave me a rush. The experimentalism and futurism of breakbeat science was maybe 20 percent of why i liked it, the bit that appealed to the intellect.

Any cultural phenomenon is going to be a mix of what Raymond Williams called
'residual' and 'emergent' -- ie. tradition and progressive, or in jungle lingo "roots 'n' phuture". The "emergent", avant-garde elements in jungle wouldn't have worked without the "residual" stuff: a specific example is that to have breakbeat science, you need to have breakbeats (sweaty, human musicians playing live funk) in the first place. In the book i tried to avoid a lot of the vague phuturistic rhetoric and discourse that surrounds techno culture -- instead my interest is really in the now as the point where the future rubs against the past, and sparks fly.

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