The Wire

In Writing

Richard Thomas: naive and co-opted

September 2015

Richard Thomas checks out – but not into – London's boutique Ace Hotel Shoreditch and its Paul Smith-curated, Moog supported experimental music residency series, where he finds Keiji Haino snoozing, chats Polari with cultural engineers while sipping on a Bibi Spritz and more. But was it all a dream? Or a nightmare?

I rollerbladed out of Shoreditch Station drinking an iced espresso through a straw. I was wearing vivid orange K2 VO2 100 X Boa 2015 skates, M&S Collection Water Resistant Shorts with adjustable waist, a royal blue, long sleeved Walmart employees shirt with the words Happy Holidays printed in red italics with a white border beneath the company logo. The W in Walmart acted as a hatstand for Santa's distinctive red and white hat while the T propped up a large snowflake. In between the flake and the hat is a trail of celestial snowflakes. If it were a sequence in an animated Walmart advert it would be soundtracked by a glockenspiel. I enjoyed the irony that my shirt was a seasonal anachronism: Christmas was six months away.

I was listening to my PA, Modafinil, reel off a variety of prices of ex-council flats in Haggerston and N16. I was looking to augment my portfolio. We'd been doing FaceTime on the East London Line but skate time and FaceTime aren't compatible. I was guiltily happy that the Tories were back in. I tossed the bulbous plastic cup of stained brown ice cubes into a bin and rolled into Sister Ray record shop and picked up a limited edition tartan vinyl copy of Russell Haswell’s Russell Haswell Vs Russell Haswell on a Finnish label called Russell Haswell. The artwork was by Russell Haswell and the text was some Heideggerian gibberish by Russell Haswell. Rashad Becker did the mastering. I paid £70 and got a free USB with a FLAC version of the record. I will never listen to it in either format. I left Sister Ray and clambered in my skates up the steps to MACE Hotel Shoreditch. I entered the lobby and glided to reception, almost colliding with two women who looked and acted like Courtney Love on a triple dose of Temazepam. I pulled my Beyerdynamic TP-5 headphones with Tesla technology from my ears and said my name. The concierge handed over a large retro key – none of that late 1990s swipe card bullshit. I was in room 526. This had extra kudos for me as the hotel only has 526 rooms. I felt like I was on the vertiginous precipice of luxury boutique hospitality. Beyond room 526 a void, or something called Bethnal Green.

My Superior Double Deluxe room was spacious with one king sized bed, a corner sofa, an oak table for dining or work, a Rega turntable with a selection of vinyl, an acoustic Martin Guitar, and Revo radio with a MACE-curated radio station. It also had a well-stocked minibar.

The bathroom looked like a kitchen. A separate closet/room featured an iPad controlled pan-Asian street food vending machine and an onsen-style hot spring powered coffee/tea maker. I wanted a snack so I plumped for Onsen Tamago in Dashi and Takoyaki. The Takoyaki was a bit light on the octopus but my snacks sat well with the bottle of Brew Dog Dead Pony Club I'd plucked from the minibar. The beer was crafted from an insane amount of US hops, delivering massive citrus aromas like lemongrass and lime zest.

I took off my skates and opened up my tan leather Armani Collezioni Weekend Bag. From it I picked out my evening wear: Gucci metallic leather high-top sneakers, Royal and Awesome Tartan Plus Twos (yellow, orange, magenta, baby blue, tartan), bright red Sondico Elite Football Socks purchased from Sports Direct on Stoke Newington High Street, a Denver Nuggets Dikembe Mutombo Mitchell & Ness Navy Blue Authentic Basketball vest and a blue Barbour/White Mountaineering wave print wax jacket. I took a shower, dried off, got dressed, applied a touch of Tom Ford's Neroli Portofino Eau de Parfum and slowly necked back an ice cold double shot of Tatenokawa 18 Junmai Daiginjo Nakadori Saki I'd selected from the vending machine. As I did so I checked myself out in the floor to ceiling mirror. I looked fresh. I put my phone in my pocket and headed out. I thought I'd drink a cocktail or two in the bar/restaurant and read the ebook version of Atlas Shrugged I'd downloaded earlier.

On my way down to the bar/restaurant I decided to visit room 500. I looked through the keyhole. Keiji Haino seemed to be half asleep, lying fully clothed on a huge bed in a Deluxe Suite. A black satin cape embroidered with matte black skulls covered Haino's torso, his arms were crossed. His skinny legs wore black velveteen trousers that looked like they had been painted on, wrap around shades the size of a motorcycle helmet's visor covered half his face. Haino looked like a sepulchral bat.

The room was dim save for the lights of an oscillating Brion Gysin Dreamachine. It created dazzling anguilliform patterns on his R Soles Full Python Natural snakeskin boots. Haino was one of the reasons I was there. Fashion designer Paul Smith was curating a series of events in collaboration with Moog and various artists. Moog is a worldwide designer, manufacturer and integrator of precision control components and systems. Moog’s high-performance systems control military and commercial aircraft, satellites and space vehicles, launch vehicles, missiles, automated industrial machinery, marine applications and medical equipment. Haino was one of the artists selected by Smith. Wafting through the keyhole like steam from a gravy boat, I could hear the sounds of Haino snoring contentedly. Haino had opted to experiment with a selection of Moog’s Ball and Planetary Roller Screws. Moog has been producing and designing customised high precision ball and planetary roller screws for over 30 years, and these screws are suitable for a variety of challenging motion control applications. But above all they are cool. I can't think of one electronic and noise producer that doesn’t desire one. I could just make out Haino's selection of screws neatly arranged in a circle on the floor of his hotel suite, the light of the Dreamachine glinting on their stainless steel surfaces. I had no idea what Haino would do with these things but I couldn't wait to hear the results. I left Haino to his hypnagogia and walked to the elevator.

Except I didn't walk to the elevator and I didn't spy on Keiji Haino. I wasn't expanding my property portfolio (in fact I was in rent arrears and fatally skint). And I didn't check into a luxury boutique hotel called MACE.

I did, however, visit a luxury boutique hotel called Ace Hotel Shoreditch. Rollerblades, a Dreamachine, Keiji Haino, a man called Paul Smith (not the fashion designer), and Moog are in the picture. Though not the Moog that manufactures Ball and Planetary Roller Screws, rather the renowned American manufacturer of electronic musical instruments, Moog Music Inc.

I made the visit to Ace because I wanted to experience what a leisure commodity is in 2015. I wanted to explore the schism between authenticity and luxury. I wanted to see what constitutes boutique luxury in a world of austerity and its intersection with contemporary, so called experimental music. Which I have, perhaps erroneously, often thought of as being an entity critical of dominant cultural forms. I suspect though that this is a nostalgic, false perception.

Like any other hotel or luxury leisure space Ace is both matter and gas, material and ambience. Part of that ambience is, of course, catalysed by the spatial design and furnishings of the hotel and customer relations. But Ace also, perhaps unusually, possesses an expanded notion of hospitality and brand ambience. One strategy they deploy is event based, via the formulation of relationships with surprisingly credible cultural agents, organisations and businesses. One such relationship has recently been formed with legendary synthesizer manufacturers Moog Music Inc and a bunch of alternative artists like Keiji Haino.

To understand how this relationship formed I needed to understand Ace. I wanted to immerse myself in Ace, albeit for no more than a few hours. Any more than that and I was priced out.

I sat in Ace's lobby waiting to meet Vickie Hayward, a former blacksmith and now an Ace cultural engineer. As I recall it, there was no music in the lobby but I could be wrong. There could have been a whiff of it but the jolly hubbub of human communications masked it. I sat on a bench with some other guests who were checking in or checking out. I observed two demanding customers who looked like they were in a 1980s soft rock group. The duo required the assistance of four concierges to figure out directions on Googlemap. A couple entered the lobby on rollerblades. After a few minutes Vickie showed up and took me on a short tour of the premises.

We walked through the lobby past a large conference table with up to 15 people sat around it pecking at MacBooks. Vickie showed me the various zones of this large, discretely partitioned space and told me about some of the free events they host there: literary events, DJs providing muzak, and so on. After that we paid a visit to two Ace franchises – a parfumerie and a branch of Sister Ray – we then descended below street level to the hotel's venue, Miranda.

Miranda could be any medium capacity venue in London but it’s a nice space that’s small enough to create an intimate ambience. Its events programme is eclectic enough to suggest it’s an openminded place. I noticed a fantastic abstract oxide-red patch of paint on the floor. It wasn't intentional. It was a remnant of the room's past use which, judging by the concrete functional staircase leading down to the venue, must have been the car park or loading bay of one of the many hotels that have previously occupied this site. The way that iron-red splat remained where it fell seemed emblematic of how Ace, in line with every other leisure brand, attempts to engineer an ambience of authenticity and credibility with the raw commodity that is history.

We returned to the ground floor and entered Hoi Polloi and Polari. Hoi Polloi is a restaurant and Polari is an adjoining bar that also serves food. Hoi Polloi is a class based derogatory term. They might just as well have called it The Feral Mob, The Great Unwashed, Scum or The Working Class. Me, I would have named it ProleFeed. Of course, Polari is not a derogatory term, but the casual appropriation of subcultural slang particularly synonymous with LGBT cultural history is cod*. Nonetheless, Hoi Polloi for the sake of appearances had to let in a few hoi polloi types, so I followed Vickie to a booth in the adjoining Polari bar. I checked what the menu had to offer: how about 600g rib “with herby butter and dripping chips” at £49 and the £195 Krug Grand Cuvée NV? Vegetarians get the predictable risotto treatment, Albeit of a forest mushroom buckwheat risotto kind.

[* cod = Polari for naff]

A Moog was nowhere to be seen. Three German businessmen sat to my right. Two women – one in a white lace vest the other in a black dress with white polka dots – sat immediately in front of me. Behind them stood staff dressed in black, their faces illuminated from below by the light of touch screen tills. A waiter sped past on roller blades. Polari had a touch of the 1950s and 60s about it: US diner style booths with tan leather benches, a table with a mottled grey surface that looked like a Lucio Fontana painting. But the subtle lighting wouldn't have been out of place in a Viennese cafe. A couple sat behind me at the bar evidently formulated their relationship in a workplace. They were both wearing the same uniform. Black trousers, white shirt, no tie. Fiddling with phone; black skirt, white blouse. Fiddling with phone.

To my left through the reinforced mottled glass was another Ace franchise, a florist. An amber street light outside pulsed through the glass. The plants and flowers were thrown into stroboscopic silhouette. The pleasant sound of a cocktail being shaken dominated my right ear. The cocktail turned out to be a milky concoction with what looked like a rubber plant leaf protruding like a shark’s fin from the glass. The lactose Jaws glided past me on a tray as the bearded waiter skated by with a balletic move of studied naturalism. Some sort of Euro disco thing was the muzak; before that Neil Young and miscellaneous 80s techno pop. The ambient noise a soothing thin stew of speech and incidental sounds.

We both ordered a Bibi Spritz (Aperol, grapefruit juice, Campari, Tanqueray, ginger ale: £7.50) and I quizzed Vickie. I asked her what Ace was trying to do. She told me that Ace is trying to share things that the hotel as a brand and she as one muscle in Ace's creative arm were interested in. She said that she enjoyed a certain amount of curatorial liberty, that the brand did not dictate events or any other extra-curricular activities. She emphasised Ace's location specificity and stressed that each hotel is a bespoke design that attempts to meld with the immediate local social, cultural and business environment. Vickie also explained that Ace maintains its boutique status by avoiding overt marketing. Rather, its approach to marketing was about creating diverse “content” or, as Vickie put it, creating products and layers in order to gain editorial coverage in print and online, and so on.

So: this article is one such layer.

Moog Music Inc is another layer. Moog Music Inc appears to be on a massive global marketing campaign. Moog Music Inc has credibility, authenticity and history in abundance. Paul Smith is the curator of Moog's cultural activities in Europe. As the proprietor of Blast First and the Blast First Petite labels, co-ordinator of Disobey and countless other countercultural activities, Smith comes with authenticity in buckets. This venture with Ace is one of several of Moog's marketing campaigns.

Moog trades on its historic reputation for imaginative, superbly handcrafted electronic instruments. These instruments have had a substantial impact upon popular culture beyond mere sounds. Moog’s broad cultural mythos is paradoxical. Moog has a sort of futurist heritage. Moog is a technologically mediated past-future. Moog is today, yesterday and tomorrow simultaneously. Moog trades with the commodity known as legacy.

Seemingly, over the course of the six decades since Moog started, the company's reputation has never declined. As a business, however, Moog has certainly faced substantial fiscal decline. But in the last decade Moog's fortunes have burgeoned, and so have the fortunes of Moog's employees. Recently, The New York Times reported that Moog has become a worker owned factory, with the workforce owning 49% of the company.

Moog Soundlab is part of that renewed company confidence and is obviously an essential weapon in Moog's marketing arsenal.

I interviewed Paul Smith via email. I began by asking how his relationship with Moog Soundlab was forged. His concise explanation is an interesting insight into networking: “Jan 2014 in New York with Chris & Cosey. I got an email inviting them to open for Gary Numan on the Moog stage of SxSW. I took a quick look at the Moog website, saw their Soundlab, side googled Bob Moog for an anniversary (2015, tenth since his passing). Overnight emailed Mr Chris Sharp at [London’s] Barbican as to if they would be interested to present some Moog concerts to celebrate Bob's life and work. Woke up next day to Barbican email saying yes they would. Blind emailed info@moogmusic.com – got a reply the next day from Emmy Parker. Spoke on the phone, and she was immediately ready to run with the idea.”

Smith also outlined his vision of Moog Soundlab: “I was primarily interested in returning more to the ideas of Bob's [Bob Moog] original eclectic choices of the artists he supported early on – Wendy Carlos, David Borden, Sun Ra and Annette Peacock and the like. In part to differentiate the curation from Moog's own existing strand of young bands visiting the Soundlab in the Moog factory and of course following my own taste in music. I’m very keen the Soundlab makes new music.”

Clearly enthralled by the project, Smith enthused about how Moog Soundlab was also a “social synthesizer as well as a musical one”. I asked him about declining music industry revenues, and I suggested that projects such as this were indicative of the music industry, on whatever scale, seeking out new spaces of mediation and new revenue streams. Rather oddly, and amusingly for a bloke with a legacy of 30-odd years in the dissemination of music products, refusenik Smith said he “does not consider himself part of the music industry" but conceded that “artists will always need help finding new platforms for their work”. When I asked him what he thought about experimental music liaising with leisure spaces like hotels, he, as anticipated, evaded it. He claimed to have no idea what I was talking about.

The Moog Soundlab project also involves a Dreamachine. I asked Smith what he thought linked the Dreamachine with the Moog. He responded in surprisingly mystical terms: “There's no real connection that I know of. For me it’s opening the portals, calling the spirits. Analogue equipment seems far more sensitive to ghosting than digital. Closer to the first tamed electricity.” Good old electrickery, that unheimlich wild beast, still generating secular spiritualism well into the 21st century.

In August Moog Soundlab UK got the Five Star treatment and set up shop in an undisclosed room in Ace Hotel Shoreditch.

Once settled in a large suite sat among ‘sexy oak tables’, speakers by Bowers & Wilkins, a Neve mixing desk, Prism-sound AD/DAs, Elektron drum machines and, of course, banks of Moog modular equipment, the likes of Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, Dave Colohan, Blanck Mass, Andy Blake, Keiji Haino and others hurl themselves into Dreamachine-catalysed hypnagogic states and produce abstract psychedelic electronic sounds that stir the ether and arouse phantoms. On the fourth and final day of each artist’s residency, they perform the fruits of their labour live in Ace's basement venue Miranda amid a cluster of oscillating Dreamachines.

Take it from me, I have read it in the runes, neopsychedelic phantasmagoria is where it is at, and here are my clairvoyant predictions: 2016 will see a Dreamachine in every former council house dream home in East London. Harvey Nichols' Dalston pop-up shop will sell inaudible bespoke sounds made by Merzbow inside a coffin. ATP launches BTG – Beyond The Grave, a festival series curated by dead rock stars. Cafe Oto launches a signature series of organic condiments themed around deceased jazz legends. The Hot Five range consists of John Coltrane’s tabasco, Sun Ra’s piccalilli, Eric Dolphy's sweet and sour ketchup, Albert Ayler's wasabi and Ornette Coleman's mustard.

But seriously, if I was surprised by Smith's necromantic response, in some ways it chimes with the fugitive, nebulous nature of the hospitality industry.

The hospitality business of hotels is largely predicated upon something ineffable and transient: experience. Yet hotels are also fixed social spaces. For instance the site Hotel Ace Shoreditch is perched on was previously home to the Crown Plaza and The Gregory hotels. Hotels have to shape-shift. Hospitality flirts with the existential schism that arises between the nomadic and the fixed. The authentic is relentlessly pursued to bolster the perceived absence of substantive, permanent character. Culture is eaten.

Authenticity is a time based commodity and some brands need the prop of history to stay upright. Bespoke, boutique, handcrafted, custom made, limited edition, vintage, exclusive. Anything that makes one feel unique and less like a regular consumer.

It’s interesting that the hospitality industry now finds the authentic in what can loosely be described as underground, experimental, alternative music and the inherent technologies, cultural tropes and agencies associated with it. This says much about Ace's canny cultural engineers.

It is odd to witness how fluidly this cultural appropriation happens. I have long maintained an evidently delusory belief that the nebulous avant garde, its practices and networks, existed despite commerce. I also presumed it existed partially to critique dominant cultural forms and by extension the dominant culture. I know there have been symbiotic moments, eg avant garde acts on major labels when the music biz was cash rich in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Yet, as well as being an engagement with the raw matter that is music, I somehow still persisted in believing one also made and performed music critically, as a prefigurative demonstration of a different way of being, a different way of thinking. Or at least pretended to. At the same time it is perfectly understandable, el dinero no es abundante. In 20-odd years of composing and performing experimental music, I have made an extremely modest living that always had to be subsidised by other jobs. Cash doesn't flow so much as it trickles. I never expected to make any money but after two decades one would like a little return on one's investment. Certainly, contact with broader audiences is very invigorating. Escape from a niche can be risky but hermeticism riskier. Getting cosy with the hospitality industry seems strangely novel to me but there are more sinister bedfellows.

I recently performed at two festivals, one in Spain the other in Norway. The festival in Spain had some bizarre partners touting absolute absurdities. One stage was sponsored by Toshiba and was called the Toshiba Rebels stage. On the walls outside Toshiba had placed a blurb about how (Toshiba) technology has enabled social movements to blossom and revolution to ferment. On returning from the festival in Norway, in a car to the airport supplied by the festival, the driver told me that one of its main sponsors was a Norwegian weapons manufacturer. I didn't return my fee. I had been co-opted. Totally and utterly co-opted.

Comments

Chuck Berry

As you probably secretly know, "avant garde" and "experimental" are both long redundant terms, but there is still plenty of millage in their commercial usage. So all that remains to be done is to spin, rinse and freshly scent the room ready for the next weary traveler

Given The Wire has just announced an event/residency in London with high end furniture designers Vitsoe and an 'artisanal' tea company (Postcard Teas) it feels like you're skating on thin ice here...

I would say the real "traitor" here is music - or sound - if it makes you believe that the feelings and ideas it communicates exist separately from this endless curse of abuse and deception that is society as we know it. Hah.
Also:
"Temptation comes not from hell but from above." In this case, the temptation of "money" that the "underground musician" falls prey to (inevitably) makes the abuse more obvious; and that, is actually... "cool"?
:-)

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