Read Derek Walmsley's unedited transcript from his interview with this month's cover artist Kode9
D: Can you expand on your ideas of collective rhythm cultures rather than straight Noise?
K: Yeah… I’m just fascinated by rhythmic collectivity, whether it’s pleasurable or not – just people moving together, differently, in time. I just think there’s something very fundamental or basic that comes before any political affiliation, ideaological affiliation, almost underneath social categories, a basic model of what a collective is. Which is people coming together, joined by one thing, rhythm. And rhythm is a very abstract thing, it’s not just something that makes you move. The way I see it rhythm is something that joins things together.
D: And to do that, it tends to be rhythms which are simple, or less simple?
K: Yeah, that’s a more aesthetic or tactical question… to do with specific music scenes, and how far you can go before a collective falls apart, how much can you fuck up a rhthm before it loses it groove, and these are very pertinent questions in the history of electronic music, aren’t they. How self-indulgent and obsessed can you get about unquantised beats before you make them completely dysfunctional. How asymmetric and disjointed can rhythms go while staying completely 4/4 and completely quantised. This is like a tactical aesthetic question that’s crucial to all electronic dance music cultures. Every single genre has different issues about how you experiment within the genre. At what point does it become a music which is purely for the producers, and the critics, and what point does it lose a dancefloor and so on.
D: How do you feel about the lowest common denominator argument with rhythm, whereby if rhyth is a value in itself, then surely Fat Boy Slim is the best music overall, because more people would dance together on Brighton Beach than anything else…?
K: Rhythmic collectives are never just an issue of size, are they. Never just an issue of quantity. Otherwise, trance, Fat Boy Slim and whatever utter bullshit you care to mention would be the ideal… so I think it’s really about quality rather than quantity. And quality is a very difficult thing to define.
D: Was your jungle set at BLOC, where you only had a certain number of people dancing, but people were really into it, is that the kind of experience which seems more meaningful somehow?
K: No, that was just me pissed off [laughs] And just wanting to
do something to make myself feel a bit happier. But I do find
myself turning my back on the audience quite a lot, metaphorically.
In other words just doing what I think I need to play because
that’s what I want to hear And dealing with the consequences of
that after the fact.
D: How crucial to the collective rhythmic dynamic are things like rewinds, some kind of interaction?
K: I suppose over the last couple of years I’ve been interested in … don’t release the tension until it’s worth releasing. I’ve enjoyed DJ sets recently where the tension just swells and swells and swells, and don’t allow a release… until.. you’re allowed two or three releases in the whole set. But you’re not just climaxing every two seconds. Because that’s not a climax, that’s just deflation, every two or three seconds. It’s just irritating to be honest, stop start. It’s simple for me, I like dark rooms, I like to be in complete darkness when I play, I like that feeling of intimacy in a room, it doesn’t matter how big the room is, but when it’s dark, and you’re not stopping and starting all the time, you build up this tense energy in the room that makes quite an intimate situation, and makes everyone really sensitive to what’s going on. Whereas if it’s all beer bottles in the air and shouting every three minutres because someone’s just rewound the tune, and moshpits, which is quite common in dubstep these days. I don’t find that particularly intimate.
D: Can you have intimacy in really intense music? If so, which music’s access those pleasure centres most?
K: ….. well, there’s certain rhythms that when they work create a very collective intimacy, and it’s something I found with UK garage a lot, the rhythms are so sensual, so lush, and they make people move in such a cool way, that there’s a real intimacy created by certain types of rhythm. When a rhythm is really fucked up, but not self-indulgently so, but really ‘wow’.. people work out how to move to it. And there’s something very intimate about people moving in ways they didn’t use to move in, and that process of finding their feet and working out how to .. not absorb the shock, but becoming accustomed to move in certain ways I think when people are open like that, and experimenting with the movement of their bodies, and it working as opposed to people floundering around like a fish out of water, when that works, definitely a kind of intimate energy is produced in a room. So all those key rhythmic moments, the rhythmic singularities, whether it’s jungle at a certain period, UK garage at a certain period… certainly the odd bit of other musics as well. Those two musics to me are important for me because I take them both to be rhythmic singularities in the recent history of music.
D: Do you think this is an intimacy which is lacking in other modern experience? Does this offer something which we didn’t have 30 years ago, or is it trying to recapture something we did have but have lost?
K: I think there’s an ahistorical dimension to this, which is that the minute music and dance were separated out of everyday life and forced into the split between work and leisure, and forced into the weekend, then something changed. So the minute dance experience was compartmentalised something was changed. But I suppose what I find interesting about it is the ambivalence. There’s an interesting quote by Friedrich Kitler, the German media theorist, and this is written in the 80s, at the height of the Cold War period, and it’s something like ‘discos are preparing our youth for the reaction speeds necessary for World War 3’. So the disco is like a training ground for upgrading the human nervous system, being able to react to sensory information faster. So there’s a kind of upgrading of what a body can do. Which I think is where this intimacy can come from. So it’s really ambivalent. It’s like, it’s partly about enjoyment, pleasure, with new styles of rhythm, new styles of dance… the minute a bodily potential is actualised, that’s both a creative and potentially destructive thing as well. That potential can be captured and taken off. That’s just another side of the commercialisation of dance music culture, the way dance crazes, especially how over exposed everything is, and how quickly something moves from being a cultural innovation to being mass-marketed. It’s just another aspect of that I suppose. I remember how quicklt there was a Bollywood craze in culture generally. And then very quickly you had all these dance moves in all the interludes in BBC TV. These cycles happen very quickly.
D: Although dance crazes have been going on since the 30s, 40s? And at that stage would be very powerful social forces.
K: It’s like what I was saying earlier. What interests me about these rhythmic culture things is that they’re one way of people doing things together, in time, that operates underneath or adjacent to ideological concerns, political concerns and so on. And part of that is they tend to operate contagiously. You got possessed by these dance crazes, they move like vectors through populations, from body to body, people copy moves, and don’t necessarily have control where they suddenly break out. In the early 20th century they used to call them literally contagions, like primative frenzies, these epidemics of tribal junglistic dance moves. So when you strip away the negative connotations that those discourses had, they described how movements tended to pass through populations in a mode of affective contagion. Possesion of your body by some kind of rhythmic agency, or entity, that is by it’s nature collective.
D: So there is a grain of truth in the moral panics?
K: Sure. Except the idea that’s it’s primitive is the wrong way round. These dance crazes, it’s not like getting back to raw nature, they tend to be very sophisticated, mathematically intricate series of movements. So the moral panic usually comes along with some idea of return to some primitive mode of being whereas actually they’re usually tacit, but actually very complex, mathematically intricate series of movements. And it’s that kind of abstract machine which spreads through populations, and possesses people, and I don’t think it’s something we should be scared of.
D: Discos in the 70s and 80s, would have power of bringing people together…. Gay and straight…
K: Exactly, this is this power of rhythmic sound to build affective collectivities underneath any kind of social collectivities. People getting together, brought together by nothing else but an affect, by a set of rhythmic sensations, or a way of collective way of feeling, a collective sensation. Not necessarily pleasure, I’m not just talking about hedonism here.
D: At some points this has been a force for breaking down social structures. Do you think this is still the case?
K: Electronic dance music culture now… there’s lots of tiny interesting things going on, but really it’s a mess. It doesn’t seem to have the profound life changing…. Well that’s not true, I’m sure it does for many people. But I think a lot of people think it’s in this entropic, dissipative phase, where it’s microsegmenting in all dimensions, tiny little niches…. It’s going into hyper niche mode. So that’s one tendency, it’s in this entropic phase of fragmentation. Lots of interesting little things, but nothing strong, unifying… but at the same time people are fascinated by whether something could happen which could transform the whole thing, transform all the rules of the game and make it into something else. Or whether it’s in terminal dissipation. It’s the unanswered questions that everybody who is interested in these broader trends, you have to be genuinely interested in that now…. Looking for clues and what’s happening.
D: On the DJ Rupture show (Mudd Up show on WFMU) recently, you were saying, you get sent a lot of music, and your process with that is to listen to a few seconds, and if it’s has got a certain tiny trace which is clichéd them you’ll throw it out the CD machine.
K: I don’t know…. I can make a judgment within a couple of seconds. I suppose a lot of it comes down to specific sounds that are used. I can listen to a track, with dubstep stuff it comes down to the kind of bass which is used. Because if you were to do a statistical chart of all the dubstep that exists in the world… well there’s something that exists in all of it, which is sub bass, which is something you don’t notice it. But in terms of bass you can hear, there’s a particular kind of bass sound which really fucks me off. And I hear it all the time. And it’s not specific to dubstep, I hear it across different dance music genres, and it’s a kind of lowest common denominator way of getting people to move. And I can kind of understand the tendency to go there, it’s a complex of frequencies which works on even the shittest soundsystems. And you can’t underestimate the impact having to play on shit sound systems has on a music culture, and it’s aesthetic decisions, and what it feels it needs to do to translate into as many environments as possible, especially when it’s growing.
D: Can you characterise it?
K: It’s nothing to do with sub-bass because I don’t have anything bad to say about sub-bass [laughs]. It’s not worth even commenting on because it’s like air, it’s like oxygen. It’s not even a sonic thing for me, it’s just a pressure, a vibrational physicality, it’s whether the music has a physical presence. Not in auditory sense, whether you’re in a room with an entity, sense. But. the sound that turns me off often seems to have a rocky quality to it, I always associated it in the late 90s with the Virus synth. I was reading a lot of producers talking about this Virus synth, and then listening to the music and hearing, OK, that’s the sound of that synth that people were jumping on. But it’s not just that synth, across genres, some styles of House Music, it’s got a jump-up edge to it. I’ve got various ways of describing it. Duck fart is one, angry pig [SNORTS].. it’s a kind of grunting pig sound. So it’s that, coupled with a certain amount of repetition of that sound which gets under my skin. It certainly sounds better in a club situation than it does listening at home. Because clearly the reason people do it is to almost rough up the top end of the bass, so the bass that you hear in an amplified situation isn’t just this rounded sub-bass, but also has this slightly aggressive edge to it. And it does sound much better, and less annoying, on a club situation. Almost like broken glass, or someone’s taken sand paper to this rounded thing, and just made it a bit more sharp, more abrasive. But it’s those sounds coupled with repetition, with this rocky repetition of riffs. It literally rubs you up the wrong way. I find it like being shouted out. And I don’t like being shouted at. I don’t mind being screamed at by synths. But being grunted at is not something I find particularly….
D: it’s a testosterone type thing?
K: It’s definitely got something to do with pumping up the testosterone. And almost universally, people love it. The reaction those sounds get is the hands in the air, pogo, mosh reaction. Which is not so much the reaction I’m looking for from dancing. If you’re got your hands in the air and you’re shouting you’re probably dancing less. You’re not really dancing. It’s certainly not what I like to look at, when you’re watching people dance, it’s certainly less interesting, less fun. I like watching cool dancers. That’s why I DJ a certain way, because I like watching people dance.
D: Wouldn’t the Simon Reynolds school of rave theory say these moments of people going nuts create the kind of ruptures, the feelings of excitement going through the crowd?
K: I don’t know how close or different I am from that, really…… just think about the way that happens in those two rhythmic singularities I mentioned, I talked about jungle and two-step, it certainly wasn’t jumping up and down and hands in the air when I was raving to those kinds of musics. It was when people were dancing in the most intense way, it was people lost in the music, as opposed to shouting about how lost they are in the music [laughs]
D: What I was getting at with your experience of getting sent music, and having to listen to it quickly, what position does that put you in, as an appreciator of the music? ….. if you have wonky and funky and lots of subgenres coming quicker and quicker, do you have as much chance to be a part of it, to feel it?
K: Well I guess that’s why I’ve ended up doing what I’m doing. I know genres and sub-genres exist, they’re real, in fact they’re the best places for music to evolve, in this kind of little ecology, with a name, and a scene and so on, but as a DJ you have to temporarily suspend the name, and let something grab you if it’s going to grab you. So I don’t certainly have any trouble getting enthused. But it’s almost like you have to engineer that space to allow yourself to be grabbed by the music, and part of that for me is just forgetting temporarily, just hiding the name of the genre and letting the music … do its work. I’m not saying ‘it’s all music, yeah man’. I think sub-genres are these protected ecologies for nurturing certain sounds, collectively. But increasingly as a DJ, someone who is selecting music to put on a label or to play, increasingly I’m selecting from a number of different sub-genres or niches.
D: Listening for these little trace elements in sub-genres…. It’s like Roland Barthes, you’ve got this enormous flow of information, and you’re just looking for the little trace elements….
K: I prefer the metallurgy comparison. You’ve got all this mass of stuff going around, and you’re looking for these trace elements in order to smelt it together with other [connections]. You might hear some synth line in some 80s funk thing, and you hear it in Joker – forget about the fact that there’s 30, 40 years between them, that’s the thing that allows you to play them together, to connect them. So you follow these little traits in the sound you’re hearing, and whether it be the rhythm patterns in Funky, or the synth lines in some Grime and some dubstep and some hiphop stuff, or the syncopations in some House and Garage music, the way voices are processed…. So taking these lines and making new metals out of them.
D: Where does it lead in the end?
K: No idea, it’s a very immediate process. I don’t have any plan for the label in terms of a musical direction, I don’t have any plans for my DJing in terms of a musical direction, because it’s very immediate. This is like a real-time process, you’re surrounded by all of this stuff, you like some of it, you don’t like some of it, nothing unusual there, you take the bits you like, you don’t take the bits you don’t like, in fact you try and hide the bits, you get as far away from the bits you don’t like, because they can have a toxic effect on you, on your musical morale [laughs]. You get poisoned by some of these musical metals, they get in your blood and then you’re fucked.
D: this is the opposite of trying to synthesize a new genre. It’s just following the flow?
K: It’s following the flow but constantly trying to engineer the flow into something that’s going to work in the present. And I suppose this is a general, it’s not just my orientation it’s a maybe general orientation. Which is why futurism isn’t so big these days. Because it’s very hard to come with these big pronouncements about building new things, because you mght actually manage to pull it off, but bloggers, brand consultatants, futurologists, marketing experts, journalists, other musicians will make sure that gets over exposed very quickly. The time gap of doing something new and it not being new any more is so small, to the point where it’s almost flipped over where everything is being pre-empted. That’s the downside of Web 2.0 isn’t it, that everything essentially becomes a text, you just Google something, play around with the words a bit and you’ve pre-empted five, 15 different genres. I remember MP3.com used to have this genre generator. And it would come up some random conbination of words. Like ‘Hyperdub’ for example [laughs]. But everything has already been pre-empted. And that allows people to be so cynical when something actually does happen, because they think they foresaw it
D: so that means the motivation of pushing forward to the future, as No U Turn would say, the force of that has gone.
K: I don’t think the energy of that has gone, it’s just imploded a bit. Instead of the some weird, dystopian notion of the future, we’re in that, you don’t have to get to that future, it’s here. But I think what’s still interesting a valid is futurism is just a desire to make and hear something, and combine and synthesize things that will produce new sensations, new feelings, new rhythms. That’s the core of futurism for me, not some fantasy of how the future is going to be like. It’s more just that impetus to experience new stuff, which is obviously part of the logic of capitalism these days as well.
D: To lead back to more concrete things where the label has come
from, and your work as well. Talking about the last few years,
there’s been quite a radical change in the music you’ve been
putting out. Less half step beats, different textures. I wonder if
you can describe how this movement over the last couple of years
has come about.
K: I remember something happening when I made the Find My Way track, and Quantum, and the remix of Skeng. And it was using certain bleepy synth sounds. Just the way of adding… any music which starts so minimal, as it develops it’s going to explore how to fill in some of the gaps in different ways. Different spaces and different colours and so on. It wasn’t that I was particularly into video games in the 80s, or anything to do with that really…. It’s just certain sounds, the frequency of those sounds has a weird effect on me, it kind of gives me a bit of a tingle which I’ve started to actively pursue the sounds which gave me that shiver. It was after the Skeng remix, we did what was the crucial turning point for the label in a way, the Quarta 330 track. It’s something like the purity of those synthesized sounds, really crystalline, they’ve not been fucked with too much, you can hear the sound of the circuitry in such a pure but amusing way. Fun, but brain tingling sounds. So I think that was the turning point record, and there was a wave of stuff that came after that that was using more of those frequencies, that was colouring in the black and white of sub bass and drums. The combination of melodies and hearing circuitry crying, hearing circuitry singing.
D: Although those 8 bit sounds are less pure than the waves you get off the Roland keyboard or whatever.
K: It’s not raw in that sense, in the sense of unprosesed, I suppose I mean the texture. I’m not even talking about the crunchiness of 8 bit, which is not necessarily the most interesting thing about ht at Sunset Dub tune, it’s those singing synths sounds which play the melody. And when you get a number of them coming in at the same time they begin to vibrate together, tremelo together. That I thought was cool the first time I heard it, I was like woah… because it really just did something to my brain. So the keyto that direction that the label is taking is the way those sounds make me feel, the sensation I get from those different kind of synth tones, compared with another instrument playing those melodies. So there was the Quarta 330 and then there was the Ikonika stuff, the Zomby, the Samiyam 12 has got synths in it which just drive me crazy, Darkstar as well.
D: A benign derangement?
K: Clearly I’ve got something about, or I’ve been interested in the last year and a half or so in melancholy synth melodies, so what was quite a melancholy music before, but more in a dubbed out, dready kind of way, which still persists in the LV stuff and the Kind Midas Sound stuff, and some of the stuff I do with Spaceape still in live sets. You know one is this dread feeling of impending doom, almost pre-apocalyptic, and the other one… I supposed what happened is the sound of the label has developed this new side, instead of this sense of doom, which persist in some of the music still, the other stuff is like after the nuclear explosion, where everything is irradiated, and slightly mutant, and glowing in weird colours, and everything is seen through this orange or green lens. So everything is glowing with this toxic colour. So there’s these really sweet melodies, but there’s something a bit toxic about them, because it’s not humans, it sounds slightly weird and alien, but not cold. It’s not got this cold futuristic thing, it’s hot, because it’s fucking glow with radioactivity. That’s the kind of vision, I’m still trying to work this out, I’m putting together this compilation, and putting together some of the old stuff and the new stuff, it’s almost like the dread stuff has got this sense of impending doom, and the other stuff is after the event happened, and everything is like the Ready Brek advert, it’s got this glow of radioactivity. I’m just trying to picture what world this music has come from. Because it’s clearly not come from this world, not in a straightforward sense anyway.
D: Something like the Quarta 330 track, it’s like you’re plugged directly into the circuits. You’re not necessarily in a human space. There’s no sense of ambience there.
K: But it’s not robotic. It’s not that notion… it’s a computer with affects, it’s a joyful computer, a sad computer, it’s not that cold techno futurism. that’s what I always like about Drexciya. Those synth melodies in Drexciya were just really funky, okay some of their stuff was cold and desolate, but not the stuff I liked the most.
D: With Hyperdub itself, you’re releasing loads more. It’s a deluge. Is here a strategy behind that?
K: Really, what it is, is, I thought sometime last hear, really it would be much more productive than me constantly whinging in interviews about how I don’t like this and I don’t like that, and how it’s all gone to shit and how it was much better before, and all these whinging laments that I have a tendency to do, it would be much more constructive from everyone’s point of view, if I just released more music.
D: And the music was out there already?
K: Well it was that sentiment on my behalf alongside simultaneously hearing music which made me think, – because if there wasn’t music which was worth releasing I would just continue to whinge – so it was the fact that I wanted to get rid of these negative feelings, of it had all gone to shit within the music I was interested in.. and also to like purge that fucking boring thing of “I saw the Sex Pistols in my pram in 1977, and everything has gone to shit since then”, you know you don’t want to become that person who is like “I went to a jungle rave in ra-ra-ra”, it’s boring and it’s a sign of getting old when you do that, it’s a sign of being jaded. OK, objectively things are different, and so on, but I really wanted to in myself counter that index of becoming jaded with music, and make more of an effort to, if not keep something boiling, then make something new for me to get excited about. There’s only so far you can take the lament of a time gone by, you can run with this kind of “it used to be so much better” kind of thing.
D: to go back further to when you were interested in music, but before you made music, when did you hook onto the idea of electronic music being a uniquely useful tool for you?
K: Well, I used to go to two clubs in Edinburgh in the early 90s at this place called The Venue, one was called Chocolate City, and the other was called Pure. I didn’t go to Pure that much. I was about 17, 18 or something. Chocolate City was a club who played Rare Groove, JBs, herbie Hancock, pre-disco 70s funk, quite psychedelic… and I remember hearing certain tracks like Fred Wesley’s “Blow Your Head”, and the synth in that, and this was like some of my earliest drug experiences basically. This was kind of my introduction to dance music and Ecstacy. That’s the Thursday night at the venue, and the Friday night was a night called Pure - hardcore techno, and people off their faces. So particularly after an experience at Chocolate City, I started DJing. I can nail a particular experience, after that event, records were bought, decks were bought… Herbie Hancock, Headhunters stuff, my first experience of Ecstacy was to that kind of music, not rave. Pure entered the equation a bit, but never really grabbed me quite as much at that point, even though I went to some of those huge Resurrection raves near Edinburgh. Rave music didn’t grab me fully till jungle. I picked up some hardcore tapes in Edinburgh, and they had early DJ Hype stuff, scratching, maybe 92 or 93. It was totally bizarre music at that point. But, I suppose it was jungle which bought these sides together. …
D: When did you start making music?
K: I lived in London for a summer in 95. I was going to Metalheadz every week, and was here for 4-5 months, and bought equipment, bought a little sampler and so on , and started trying to make stuff then.
D: how did it turn out?
K: It turned out like bad copies of the music I was buying…
D: Where did the notion of Hyperdub enter the equation?
K: I came up with it as a concept for a website, it was a way of trying to have a word that would just describe a lineage of Black Atlantian music particularly coming out of dub and funk. Early 70s Jamaican and afro American music in particular, right through to Jungle and Garage. It was just an attempt to… not an exact word that captures that, but just have a loose sense of the feeling of those musics for about the last 40 or 50 years, and the skeleton of what is it was that held them together … just rhythm and bass.
D: Was there abything about the notion of dub you particularly wanted to latch on… the remixology, or?
K: Bass, remixology and accelerated rhythm. If you want to distill the absense of hyperdub.
D: So the dub relates to the physical side…
K: Yeah, but the dub is also the remixology…. Initally I was thinking of this as this kind of cultural virus that just persists, but it’s constantly changing.
D: Were you at the CCRU at this time?
K: Just before I went to the CCRU. But Hyperdub was much later, it was 2000, that was 1999 when that word emerged as a way of bring a lot of that stuff together.
D: So you were interested in that before you went to the CCRU?
K: Yeah, but I think being involved with the CCRU and meeting Mark [Fisher] and Kodwo [Eshun] definitely made it possible to bring together my musical interests and my theoretical interests in a way that I’d never envisaged. Because I’d never studied music, I’d never written about music, never had a desire to write about music, or think particularly conceptually about music until I met Mark and Kodwo. And not just meeting but reading their stuff.
D: is it possible to sum up what it is about those ideas which made you want to incorporate them? Did it suggests a way of accelerating the music or accelerating the concepts somehow?
K: I suppose part of what it was is the sense that music doesn’t need the help of theory, but music produces theory. And so these very intense musics that were kicking around in the mid-90s were implicitly conceptual.
D: A criticism of a an overly theoretical approach to music is that it puts the cart before the horse.
K: The problem isn’t the concepts. It’s to get away from the idea that the concepts are anathema to experiencing musical intensity. It’s to get away from the clichéd idea that the minute you start conceptualising about music you kill its vibe or energy. Instead of that it’s more that being immersed in music generates its own conceptual tools, immanently. If you immerse yourself in a kind of music, the music will suggest the kind of conceptual tools that are most appropriate for channelling the music into another medium, into discourse. So it’s not that musical intensity is on one plane and the minute you start talking about it it’s like a capture mechanism, it’s more like, what are the most efficient ways of transferring that intensity out of that music and into language. Or even better, intensifying the energy in the music and intensifying it through the way that that energy transfers into language. And that’s what I was getting from Mark and Kodwo. They wrote in such, not just a vivid way… it’s a sonic fiction thing, they were hearing things in the music that were not actually there, but were virtually there. And they were extrapolating them out of the music, hearing the potential sonic worlds that were in the music and then colouring in those sonic worlds, making them explicit … making explicity what’s taken for granted by taking certain combinations of sound and certain combinations of rhythms. And that’s very inspirational in terms of also being a producer because, like listening to good music, it’s just a constant source of ideas, of potential ways of treating sound and potential directions and possibilities. Just like a good music writer is very inspiring, I would have thought, well it is for me, in the same way that a musician might be inspired by a piece of fiction. The writer produces a discursive world that doesn’t have a sound to it, but suggests, implies that it must sound a certain way. And you wanna hear what that sounds like, so you try and make it.
D: Is that still a motivating force these days?
K: I’m finding it harder and harder to find music writing that I find so inspiring.
D: because there’s less future territory to suggest?
K: maybe, I mean this relates to whether dance/electronic music culture is in this terminal entropic state of fragmentation, niching. So you know, obviously writers have to be inspired by the music in a way to be inspiring, and it’s part of this question of entropy, heat death. [heat death explanation]
D: Lets go back to when your music making started interlocking with the pirate stations. When did that happen?
K: Well I’ve been DJing since 91. I was getting pirate tapes from the mid-90s sent from London, both House tapes and Jungle tapes. First pirate I played, I was living in Brixton, it must have been 99, something like that, it was based just off Colharbour Lane in Brixton, South London. A little pirate station, I was playing Garage, most of the other music was bashment and dancehall and reggae. Did a couple of shows there, didn’t really go anywhere, and then 2002 or 2003 the guys at Ammunition, Sarah and Neil, asked me if I wanted to do the FWD>> show on Rinse. They came up with the name, and just asked me if I wanted to host it, to be the radio show in relation to the night, so I was up for that. I’d released Fat Larry’s Skank with Benny Ill of Horsepower the year or two before, and I’d worked really closely with them from the beginning, helping run dubplate.net. When they started Forward I was doing a little night in Brixton called Hyperdub, in the Bug Bar. I was playing two-step and the dubbier sound of two-step, and there was a couple of other guys playing, one of them was Darren, the guy who runs Werk records, and he would play Detroit techno and electro, and there was another guy Gavin playing Broken beat etc.. We used to call it Hyperdub 130, because everything was roundabout 130 bpm, because I was interested in the way BPMs… the way cultures would congregate around speeds. And we all played different musics and we decided we needed something to bring us together, so we decided to be literal about it, it’s a speed. It’s funny because I returned to that speed quite recently.
D: So how did you end up doing stuff which feels slower with Spaceape.
K: No, it’s all dubstep speed, 70/140 bpm. But maybe feels slow. On the half-beat or on the no beat [laughs]
D: Describe how that came about. Spaceape was someone living with you?
K: We shared a flat together and I was playing around the studio, and he was with me, and we thought why don’t try and do something. He was like, what, I haven’t done anything before. I was like pick your favourite record and read the lyrics, and I’ll fuck with your voice. Out came “Sine Of The Times”.
D: Spaceape’s real voice is nothing like that. So obviously it’s an invention, pitching it down, putting on as much effects as possible.
K: Well, not as much as possible, but there’s an element of like making a mask. He’s much more confident now, but when we used to MC from underneath the decks. So it’s part of just masking the voice and experimenting with what you can do without being you. So, pitching the voice fitted how down the music was, it was very down, very catatonic, almost in a trance. Have you seen this Werner Herzog film, Heart Of Glass? The story was that all the actors were hypnotized, so they had this glazed look. And when I listen back to that record, I’m like, fucking hell, how did we get into that zone? Because it’s really catatonic, really zombie eyed. Whereas the stuff we’re doing now, the new stuff, is more awake. We haven’t released any of the new stuff, the track Konfusion we released last year was made that the same time as the album. So the new stuff, his voice isn’t pitched.
D: So the Prince Far I in digital dub thing is constructed?
K: not constructed in a contrived way. . . just constructed as a way of making him feel comfortable doing stuff at the time. OK, if I manipulate your voice, will you be comfortable doing this? And everyone is like, ah, it sounds like Linton Kwesi Johnson, and I mean we know who Linton Kwesi Johnson is, but we had no intention of sounding like him, it was an accident. So really the voice manipulation was to break the embarrassment threshold and just get things rolling.
D: Do you see an analogue with your fear of photography?
K: Well clearly I’m showing more face than I used to. But I draw the line at the eyes.
D: The spaceape stuff has this synthetic feel, and a basic feel, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
K: Definitely we play with monotone, we see that as a positive value in his voice. And I’m kind of interested in droning synths, and there’s a certain drone in his voice that we try and play with. And again, drone is the sense of nothing changing, or nothing happening, it’s got continuity.
D: A lot of the tracks, Portal and Kingstown have descending melodies. And rhythmically it advances in a non-fluid. The melodies, were you looking for something quite basic?
K: this is my inadequacy as a producer, probably.
D: Where was it produced?
K: Mostly here, aside from Sine Of the Dub and some early tracks which were produced where we used to live in a tower block in Kennington. It was pretty much all done on a computer. Whereas the newer stuff means more external keyboards. I agree, it’s part of the state of trance or coma that that album is in, part of that is that rhythmically it feels quite restrained and rigid, and melodically quite basic. I mean I don’t know if I’m capable of stuff that’s not melodically basic anyway. I suppose more recently … at a certain point you start to notice your limitations and not worry about them anymore, and I’m a lot less worried about things being in tune or not. Because I’ve kind of realised my limitations melodically.
D: I was listening to the album recently, and it was feeling quite masculine. There’s not much fluidity or lyricism there.
K: Mmmmm. I mean you’re probably right. I mean it depends what you mean by femininity. Because there’s the odd appearance from Ms. Haptic. But I think it’s important to be more specific about what you mean by masculinity or femininity in relation to music, because I think it’s used a bit willy-nilly as a way of criticising stuff as being too masculine or… so the sense in which I’d agree with you, but I wouldn’t necessarily use masculine or feminine, it’s not very mobile. It’s a bit inert, it feels weighed down by the world. And often people would use masculine or feminine to denote how rhythmically energised the music is, whether it’s got a libido in it, and there certainly wasn’t in that album, it’s a very tranced out, catatonic album. It’s not an album that makes you want to move, really. … usually the way people use masculine or feminine it’s to do with presence of a female voice, or how sensual the grooves are. And I suppose I can see where you’re getting at, but I think it tends to lead to huge generalisations, I’m thinking particularly of writers like Simon Reynolds… that kind of binary opposition, while I know and kind of agree where it’s coming from, and how it’s applied… it’s using that gender binary and superimposing it on top of what is a much complicated field, because women from different races and different classes really have very different musical preferences. So it’s very difficult to generalise. I’d prefer to think of it in terms of energy levels, and rhythm. And having dancefloors with people on them ,which is a crucial difference between early dubstep and where we are now. Because when we made those tracks, it’s not as if we had people on dancefloors. And if you had people on dancefloors, they didn’t get it. They often didn’t get the more dubbed out side of two-step, even the horsepower stuff, they didn’t know how to move to it, garage was starting to leak out of garage culture, and people outside it didn’t know how to move to it. It wasn’t blocky, it wasn’t simple enough rhythmically. So certainly our early stuff, other more minimal early dubstep stuff, it’s not as if there were dancefloors full of people that we were making it for, we were making it for noone, we were making it for a handful of people. Men or women, it’s not as if that audience existed. Whereas now it’s different.. you can have music that shouts at people and kind of commands people to dance, or try to make music that’s rhythmically interesting and a bit more seductive in how it gets people dancing, and tries to build up a tension and an intensity, as opposed to breaking a beer bottle and smashing it in their face.
D: Knowing your interest in tempo and dance, did you intend the spaceape album for that?
K: no, it’s not as if I wanted to or felt comfortable playing any of the stuff on that album, apart from 9 Samurai, in a DJ set, that wasn’t the agenda.
D: What was the agenda?
K: the agenda was….. what could we do together. We were interested in following this mood that when we got together in the studio, the music seemed to come out with this heavy, almost suffocating mood. So the agenda came after the fact, because we made this always quite oppressive music together.
D: Why do you think this was? Did it feel a very urban
K: It’s a really beautiful environment actually, ten floors up with this amazing view of South London, it’s quite a sublime experience. … don’t know why, we’d get together we’d make this stuff, it would have this mood, and after the fact we’d kind of see that it actually kind of resonated with something in the world – the way the world was, or the way the world is – so you start to hear the music as amplifying certain aspects of how the world is, and it starts to cohere as a kind of dystopian picture of the present. You know, maybe part of it is, again, your limitation as a musician or producer, or vocalist, can lead to something that is, if there’s anything interesting about it at all, it’s exactly the limiation that that imposes on the end result. We are both quite struck by listening, when we can bear to listen back to the record, this kind of overwhelming, suffocating, claustrophobic mood of it, where the fuck did that come from… we don’t know quite where that came from, all our rationalisations are after the event.
It goes in waves, like complete nausea, listening to it, how could I leave it in the state, that typical musician/producer feeling of disgust. And other moments where, OK, that’s interesting, how did we get to there. How does that connect to what came afterwards. Portal for example is not so far away from where we are now, it’s got some of those squiggly synths in it, it’s got a hiphop feel to it. But it’s sobering to listen back to what you’ve done before, to check your own sense of excitement about what you’re doing now, and see how little or how much distance there is.
D: Your recent stuff, you say your not so bothered about things being in or out of tune.
K: Not so much… I’m trying to break out of that harmonic grid of just worrying about everything working together. Again, it starts with your own inadequacy and limitations, and you just learn to take it positively, and you start to get a buzz out of hearing certain sounds thrown together.. or… not necessary strictly atonal or unpitched, but just wavering tones, drifting off.
D: how does that happen?
K: I use the Juno 60 a lot, and use that for Black Sun and Magnetic City, and it’s just off-tune. It’s got a tuning thing at the back, but I just can’t get it tuned properly. So when I play it with other instruments, it’s always slightly off. And then it’s got a pitch bend thing that I play around with a lot on Black Sun. I play it live and record it in to the computer and then cut it up, so there’s always glitches, and there’s always little accidents in the mix. So you just learn to love that.
D: there’s no agenda behind the atonality? It’s just something you’re drawn to and are working with?
[a police radio voice comes through the studio speaker, and Kode9 remarks on the fact that it’s the same volume even if he turns the volume up…. That is, it must be coming through something internal to the speaker]
K: It’s not as if there’s not atonal music I’m not influenced by. I’ve always enjoyed synthetic sounds in the context of … a good example of an album…. I talked about these two clubs in Edinburgh, somehow, retrospectively they seem to demarcate, musically I’m somewhere in the middle of these two things, and an album which does that is the Miles Davis On The Corner album – it just get the synthetic, and the groove, asymmetric groove and synthetic sounds.
There’s various points in the history of music which just nail that combination of groove and alien sound. And On The Corner is one of my favourite ones for nailing that. So it’s not as if microtonal stuff – I teach stuff about the history of experimental music and sound art, so I’m not unaware of that stuff, so no doubt that percolates into what I’m trying to do, but my agenda is not to make experimental music as such, but somehow to get alien groove music.
Black Sun… it’s pretty straight rhythmically, it’s quite a broken beat type feel, but it’s not difficult to dance to. Certainly the synths in it are Marmite, they really piss people off or they find it sublime. It’s pretty full-on on a big system. Those synths are pretty in your face. … retrospectively I start playing certain stuff in my sets again, there’s a period turn of the century, broken beat stuff… I’m not sure if I’m happy calling it broken beat, maybe broken techno… Nubian Minds, who I wrote about on hyperdub years ago, and there’s one track, rhythmically it resonates a lot with where funky is at, and it’s really fun to mix with funky, but they have what is sometimes lacking in the UK, which is these synth lines. It sounds kind of breakbeat but it’s kind of House tempo…. [discussion of track]
D: .. maybe it’s only synths which can do that.
K: yeah, guitars are so over coded. The minute you hear someone trying to get squiggly with a guitar, you can’t help but see a fucking guitarist doing it, but a synth, because the sound is more abstract, because it’s not made by someone hitting something, it’s someone modulating a current, it’s a more abstract sound, so it’s coming to you less over-coded with the image of the person making it. So the worm can manifest itself in its true alien glory.
D: the new album, is it in the same zone lyrically?
K: Similar zone lyrically, but the energy is completely different I think. Like when we do a live set we do stuff without beats still. But we dance to it. The best live set we’ve done was at Mutek last year, and we went around 20 minutes without beats. It was really such a fucking amazing atmosphere and people went for it from the beginning. It was just amazing to see people really going off to what go off to in our living room, when we’re rehearsing it. Just a bassline and vocals, and me throwing things on top of that. But it’s just a bit more colourful, maybe a bit more confident sounding, a bit more upfront. It’s still mostly dubstep tempo.
We’re having a hard time finishing it because neither of us have much time. I get to spend two or three hours in the studio without being distracted by something. So I need to ease off the gigs in order to just have time to make stuff. The plan is to have finished it by the middle out of the year, come out after the summer. But really I want to spend the second half of the year, for the first time in my life, actually giving some love to making music. Because I’ve never done that, I’ve always been distracted by teaching or writing or DJing. I’ve never done what a lot of people do, which is just spend days in the studio, and really go deeper on what you can do, and … get on a roll, because you do get on a roll, if you spend a number of hours, you like work things out, and find you can do things. I’m so bitty when it comes to spending time in studio, a bit here, a bit there, that I’ve never really got out of first gear with my productions, as far as I’m concerned. So I want to find out what happens if I can get into second gear, or third gear…..
D: One thing I was going to mention about both your stuff and other Hyperdub stuff, in terms of structures, there’s very rarely a track with lots of sections, bass drops. A track like Stung, often it feels like a short section expanded to the length of a track. As if it’s just a mini-idea which you’re working on a track and then putting it out there.
K: Again, that’s dance music isn’t it. Generally it depends to be an idea or two in each track. So it’s partly that, partly my inadequacy as a producer to do anything much more interesting than that maybe.
D: It seems a reflection of your ideas of living in the present to do the track, get it out there.
K: I always feel I’m trying to counter the opposite tendency, the tendency you get involved in when you’re in the studio of over-elaborating, of constantly adding another idea into a track. One thing I was always told by other people from when I started making tracks is, too many ideas, simplify it, less is more. One idea per track. Not quite that, but that’s the general tendency, reduce the idea in the track. Because obviously it’s going into the mix and so on. And the tracks of mine that seems to get received best are the simplest ones in a way. It’s functional. I don’t want to do that forever…
D: Sonic Warfare…. You were talking about sound being used in the climate fear. Is there a climate of fear which is perpetuated somehow? Is there a climate of fear which is perpetuated and controlled over it? What kind of concrete instances are those of being worked?
K: The one idea I talk about in the book is the use of , the Israeli air force flying over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, using sonic booms in the middle of the night, just to put a population on edge. They have a rationale for it, which is, ‘it’s better than us bombing them’. The book starts with this example, it’s like, what is actually going on there? It’s a technique which is used in the Second World War, the Blitzkreig, the diving bombers, and the diving bombers, and the screeching, screaming noise which is given off, and how that creates this sense of anticipation for what’s to happen, this sense of anticipation for what’s about to happen, this sense of doom of dread and fear, and anxiety, it creates a climate of kind of existential anxiousness and nervousness. Obviously if you’ve got sonic booms in the middle of the night you’re waking people, they think it’s a bomb so they’re scared. So I was kind of interested in the way sound is used to change the way people feel particularly in relation to fear. It happens in film all the time, most obvious example, where a certain tonality, a certain musical tonality creates an affective tonality, or a mood or a vibe, in the audience. It’s the meat and potatoes of film sound design. Manipulating mood using tone. There’s loads of examples. The Jamaican Maroons, who were the tribe in Jamaica in the colonial period, who famously had a number of victories against the English. And one of the techniques of communication they used was a cows horn, called the abeng, or a rams horn or something, it’s a horn for communicating through the jungle. Anyway this abeng has a very shrill pitch to it. The Maroons were the tribe who practically invented the notion of the ambush. Of the jungle coming alive and suddenly attacking you. And so the sound of this horn was said to instil dread into the English invaders, the English colonialists. So it’s everything from that kind of stuff right through to basic dynamics of how do sirens and alarm clocks work. We all know that a siren, an alert siren, an air raid siren, or your alarm clock, we all know what they mean, but there’s a level at which they just directly get on your nerves, they’re frequencies that are there to get on your nerves and to make you act, to make you alert, and to take action immediately. Because they’ve either woken you up or they’re a signal of danger. So there’s a direct immediacy of sound, getting under your skin, on your nerves, making you respond to danger, in a fight or flight… basically reflexive or autonomic response. So I suppose the book is taking some of these examples and just thinking… because the climate of fear we live in politically is nothing particularly to do with sound, apart from politicians scaremongering and so on, so I was really interested in just exploring one little microcosm of this general climate of fear, whether it be ecological fear, or financial recessionary fear, and just thinking how sound works in relation to fear, and then seeing if you can learn anything by looking at this little tiny microcosm which is not important to geostrategy particularly, but is a really fascinating microcosm. If you can learn anything about the way the world works by just looking at this little bubble. Because I’m kind of interested in the idea, which I think is Jacques Attalli’s, that there’s something about sound and music culture which is a microcosm of the way economics works, or politics works generally, something about this little very fluid dynamic microcosm of music and sound culture which is ahead of the game somehow. He describes it as prophetic.
D: how so?
K: He does it economically. We can tell what kind of economic power relations are going to transform society generally by looking at the way economic and power relations are transformed within the political economy of music.
D: So you can see what’s going on in the charts, and…
K: Not exactly the charts… but for example sampling in music. I suppose from his point of view we’d argue that sampling in music culture and the impact it had on music culture is some kind of social prophecy of the impact on copyright generally. And he seems to thing there’s something particularly….. in a way it’s like an inversion of the Marxist perspective, where culture will always follow the economic base, and part of what he’s doing is kind of turning that round so that you have various instances where culture or the superstructure will precede the economy, or instead of looking for the future in what’s happening economically, we can see what’s going to happen economically by looking at various cultural dynamics. Maybe that’s part of what I’m doing by looking at how sound and fear works, and seeing if that tells us anything about the ecology of fear generally.
D: Is that because music exists in this bubble, you could say it’s the most abstract art form?
K: yeah, Exactly, for that reason it’s quite fluid, and you can move from one code to another code very quickly without too much of a physical upheaval, because as you say it’s abstract, it’s mutable, it’s very fluid, as a cultural form.
D: So what does the squiggly worm mean?
K: Yeah…. I’m sure I could fictionalise some theory about it being a prophecy of some earmworm culture.. sonic branding … annoying tunes [LAUGHS]
D: I guess what I’m getting at is, do you feel what you’re doing with sound and creating the label, do you feel it’s a way of asserting your own power over sound, where elsewhere sound is very controlled?
K: I’m definitely keen on helping create a bit of an autonomous space for musical and conceptual experimentation. Where there’s not a tedious conflict between producing the music and the discourse about sound and music, where it’s not polarised into us and them, which the music/journalist relationship often seems to be, and things like the recent Simon Reynolds ketamine article just stoked that fire really, of us and them between critic and the music culture that’s being represented. Basically I’ve stopped trusting music writers a little. And stopped trusting the scenes that are around just now, or the musicians that are around just now, to represent what I want to do. So, I’m not sure what I want to do, but it seems like I have no choice but to work out what it is I’m trying to do and create a space for it to happen, which other people’s use of words and sounds doesn’t necessarily help with.
D: Hence the don’t call it wonky business on myspace?
K: I understand what wonky means, I understand why it’s a useful term for people, I understand why musicians resist it… I understand all that, it’s just not the way I describe the music, it’s not a way that’s useful for me to think about it. It’s a classic example where there’s a bit of an us and them mentality, where the word didn’t come out of the musicians themselves, therefore they resent it being used and find it capturing. But from the journalistic point of view, it clearly nails something quite concrete, a certain set of processes, certain sounds. It’s just neither of them deal with .. it’s not a word that I find useful to describe, to join together music that I want to join together…
D: It sounds like you’re resisting that power relation of things getting named, thing getting branded…
K: It’s not just that, I just want to reserve the right of naming or not naming stuff that I’m related to, and not using other people’s words when I feel they don’t quite nail it. On the one hand it’s that, on the other side, I really don’t like the thing you get in certain scenes, or I just don’t identify with this thing of the refusal to take responsibility for the way your music is described or named. If you refuse responsibility for the way your music is named it will get named in ways you don’t like, and tough. So it’s up to musicians. If they don’t want to get pigeon holed, then deal with the consequences of not pigeon holing yourself, or not naming what you do. I suppose my feelings are somewhere in between these poles of hostile muscians pissed off at being pigeon holed on the one hand, the anti-naming, anti-branding thing on the one hand, and on the other hand the journalistic need to name…. I just don’t necessarily accept others use words … I think it’s important to name things, I just won’t use other people’s names if I find them restrictive, or until I find them ceasing to be restrictive to me.
D: So you have to be in a position of being both a musician and being a kind of advocate of the music in one. That’s the role which you find is more comfortable than an us and them situation.
K: I suppose philosophically, irrelevant of making music or running a label, I’m interested in the way music spreads virally. And that takes up musicians, producers, scenes, journalists, bloggers, flattens them out on one plane. Major corporations, they’re all just part of a musical ecology. A system in which they’re all components, an environment. It’s clear that the way critics, journalists, bloggers work is as transmission vectors for music, even music they hate, music they spend all their time slagging off, sneering at, being cynical at, whether they intend this or not, you’re a transmission vector. At the same time it’s kind of crazy, musicians are concerned that their music is represented as accurately as possible, and they’re not pigeon holed and so on.. implicitly what that’s about is how they’d like their music spread. Or not. Because the idea of not wanting your music your music to spread is increasingly an interesting idea in a world that’s so over exposed.
D: Are you sympathetic to that idea?
K: More and more [laughs]. The more nervously exhausted I become, the more sympathetic to the idea of under-exposed music, of being off the radar one way or another.
D: Do you think that’s worked for anyone in particular?
K: I don’t know…. The bind most artists are in, one way or another, musicans, producers, is, how much do you just give to the system to allow you to be sustainable to just do what you want to do, to just get on with producing and making stuff. And, its like a drug. In other words, are you always in this position where you have to give and take a little bit more in order to give and take a little bit more in order to get that little bit more autonomy? So this is like, the question of being any kind of cultural producer. Because what you want to do is in front of you, you just want to do music, or write, or make films, or paint… whatever. But the issue is having economic autonomy, and time and space to do things which are in front of you but everything is competing for your attention and your time… the idea of just being left to your own devices to just get on with what you know you want to do is certainly appealing.
D: Aren’t you also keen to hear what, say, Quarta 330 or Ikonika are doing also?
K: Sure, sure… this is the problem of being in a metropolis, and being part of a scene and an economy and part of a totally overloaded media ecology, that is London. You do want over-stimulation, constantly, you crave it. I’d probably be bored if I just went to the Shetland islands, and had a house, and just me and my music, I’d go fucking crazy. But occasionally you do get to those points of nervous exhaustion where you want to disconnect, and you want to be underexposed.
D: Why do people want to over-stimulated, then, is that just the modern condition?
K: Well it’s part of capitalism isn’t it, captialism wants you to be over stimulated. And it’s exciting.
D: But you’re an intelligent guy…
K:… it’s exciting though.
D: … there’s no way you can control your….
K: nah [laughs]. I mean it’s completely, it really just possesses you. When you’re plugged into the system, you just get wound up tighter and tighter and tighter. You know what it’s like in London, there’s never enough time for everything. I’m already doing four or five what essentially could be full time jobs. So you just want to cram in as much as possible.
D: that’s just the nature of the beast?
K: Well, not everyone is like that. I’m wired up in a way that needs over-stimulation. And I get distracted, I’m very easily distracted, I need distraction. I need to be doing something constantly. I’m just like a workaholic basically. And that’s like, it’s a drug, it’s addictive, you get addicted to running around like a headless chicken, doing stuff. More records… what happened with the label is just a symptom of my malaise. [laughs] I think it’s the problem that we talked about earlier of not really having a distinction between work and lesiure. Like, being passionate about what your work is, therefore what would it be to take a holiday from that? It would be to be bored.
D: From what I gather about your past, it’s music and sound
which got its hooks into you at that formative age. So, why do you
work with sound? Why don’t you work with visual mediums? Because
you’re interested in theory, memory etc? Why don’t you work with
film? Is it because music is too addictive?
K: umm… physiologically I have trouble with some visual art, and the context of visual at. If I go to an art gallery I can’t stand still and look at something. I basically think the architecture of art galleries is just wrong. There should be more seats. I hate this fucking conveyer belt thing that is art galleries that is like, stand, look at one thing, move to the next thing. I just go in and I walk through as fast as possible, and I might come back. I’ll pick and choose, but I’ll do it really fast. The slow contemplation thing is something I find difficult when I’m standing in an