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Kode9Don’t Mention the Dubstep
From the Casio keyboard to sonic warfare via Les Dawson and the streets of Croydon, smug git Gary Weasel spends an evening in the company of fellow Scot Kode9
By Gary Weasel
Granted a rare face-to-face interview on the condition that at no point should the word d**s**p (heretofore only referred to as ‘D’) be mentioned, Werk’s Gary Weasel enjoyed some Irn-Bru and lively conversation in the confines of producer, DJ and all-round big-brain Kode9’s south London domicile, on the very day that his debut album Memories of the Future was released, and with 9 having just returned from the Red Bull Music Academy in Melbourne. They sat down to admire his new synth...
So tell me about your new synth. How’s it going to change the way you work?
So tell me about your new synth. How’s it going to change the way you work?
I’m doing some other stuff that’s not Kode9.
Do you get sent lots of stuff?
I get sent loads of shit. Burial’s been sending me loads of stuff since we started Hyperdub in 2001.
What was he making back then?
It sounded more like Ed Rush and Optical at ‘D’ speed…
[Laughs as suddenly realises 9 is indeed referring to d**s**p as ‘D’] It’s become ‘D’ hasn’t it. Is this before tonight?
No, it’s right now! Erm, but, his stuff was okay but wasn’t really… he gradually got more intricate and less just his version of garage.
I read an interview with him the other day, and he said he hadn’t sent tunes to anyone else.
Yeah, I had him on lockdown in my Stalinist regime… I’ve never had a synth before.But it’s not for your Kode9 stuff?
I’m sure it’ll appear somewhere. But the Kode9 instrument is the melodica. The melodica’s running a small Stalinist regime over Kode9 tracks.When did you learn to use that?
I didn’t learn to use it! You just blow into it, a bit of reverb, and you’re loving it. It’s that simple. It’s good for a musical illiterate to work out tunes. You can transpose them onto whatever. The other thing I use is this. Classic. [Whips out a mini Casio keyboard and triggers a tinny preset calypso rendition of the Marcellaise, and sings along with it]. Press the orange button to stop that.What can you actually do with it?
You can do the Sleng Teng bassline. [Plays slightly out of tune Sleng Teng bassline to general amusement]Quality. Have you actually been using these?
To work stuff out. More so the melodica. Someone bought me one a while ago.Yeah, I got into the cuica a while ago.
What’s that?It’s a Brazilian samba instrument, it’s the one where you had a little drum and a cloth and you wank it off.
What noise does it make?It goes… [mimics sound of the cuica]
Yeah, I’ve got one of those in a tune I made. The one that goes… [mimics cuica in a slightly more aggressive way]Yeah, that’s it.
[Plays new Kode9 tune with cuica sample in it]Is that a real one or a sample?
Sample. There’s the melodica and the [mimics cuica sound] together. What’s it called?Cuica. It’s meant to mimic the mating call of a female monkey. [Both begin enthusiastically mimicking cuica]. You can get some mad noises out of it. You use a little damp cloth and drag it down the stick. If you hold it in the right way you can do the whole gamut.
The whole 10-minute monkey shag?Yeah, you can build it up… [9 mimics the sound of a monkey in the vinegar strokes] …right up to consummation. Marvellous. [Gestures to new keyboard] You’re not really gonna be able to take this around to airports.
No.What’s the advantage of this keyboard for you then? I mean, these days, with the magic of music software, you can get any sound you want.
That’s true. I’ve got soft synths. For me it just helps me learn what I’m doing. Like playing with the knobs. It’s all very well doing LFOs on the screen with a mouse.Is it the equivalent of a city boy buying a fast sports car?
[Laughter] [Pause] No. I also like the ‘been in a smoky studio’ look of it. It’s all yellow…Tobacco-teeth coloured.
Yeah, sort of nicotine buttons.Is it nice to physically play something rather than put dots in a matrix on the computer?
Yeah. I’m trying to pick up random bits of kit like this, on the other side I want to do some more dots and matrices, things like Ableton. I’m trying to get my head round it. It doesn’t seem intuitive to me. We’re going to start doing this thing next year called bass poetry. Which is just dubbed out versions of what we’ve got already. Just bass, hardly any beats, and vocals. In a different kind of context. It’s just part of us wanting to do everything… to everyone… all the time. A kind of imperialist drive.Imperialism and Stalinism: are they the same thing?
Um, I’d say there’s a creative side to imperialism.That’s where you’re at. Are you going to militantly use bass for the bass poetry?
No. It will be loads of different things going through a mixer with the laptop as just one... and Spaceape another.It almost seems too easy with Ableton.
Because everything’s pre-programmed. You’re just holding the hand of the laptop as it does its thing. And the edits that people do live have become so generic. Ping pong delays [imitates ping pong delay sound]. Messing up the beats [Imitates fucking up the beats sound]. I mean it’s all well and good, but it’s not that well, and it’s not that good.It’s become a convention in electronica. And people are making tunes still around those effects. It’s a bit of a cliché these days isn’t it? The glitch has gone, hasn’t it? Ever hear any four-to-the-floor that interests you these days?
I hear some minimal mixes that are kind of fresh, cos they’re so bright and bristling against ‘D’. I’m looking for things that’s got stuff in it that ‘D’ doesn’t. Something colourful, not just sludged out.[Smirking annoyingly] Like funky house?
Whatever. I’ve been listening to more hip hop for the groove. Some minimal’s okay. Some is just dreary techno.I guess I have a slightly dark opinion because all the people I know who go out to it are ketamine freaks.
Yeah, it’s difficult. But I’ve only ever liked techno in a listening sense and not as a dance music, because the jackhammer kickdrum does my head in, in a club. If the kick is more muffled, or more subby, then it morphs into dub for me. A lot of dub and reggae and dancehall has that virtual 4/4 kick. The thing with weed is that it can predetermine the kind of sounds you choose. The minute I stop smoking weed… I find it really productive with music to stop smoking because it’s 100% more likely you’re going to make something that sounds more interesting. I noticed when I stopped smoking that the music had more colour in it. It wasn’t so monotonously driven by the bass.But I don’t smoke, and I like ‘D’.
Yeah, but it’s got better this year because it’s got more colourful. It used to be just bass and drum and effects. Sounded good in Plastic People but you knew why it wasn’t spreading. It didn’t have enough in it to translate into different contexts, and also it didn’t have enough in it to keep you interested in a club.It’s been interesting for me – not wishing to divert into the area we must not speak of – but your Tempa mix opened my eyes to it a bit more…
Well the mix was quite colourful, relatively to dubstep. It had riffs and melodies without being overly musical.Yeah, and the Spaceape vocal helped to give it a narrative and a context. I thought when it came out that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to this kind of music, but then I had kind of being paying attention. For me the biggest change was the half-step predominance. I can see the trajectory from what you were playing years ago from breakbeat garage, and you’ve been working at this sound and how it’s evolved. Then suddenly it’s become dub again – and I’ve never been a fan of electronic dub – but this is dub infused with rave and techno.
I think if people just see it as purely dub it’s a problem, because they’ll just make less good versions of reggae. But people need to remember what is interesting about these musics - jungle through to dubstep – is that they can weave together every single music ever, potentially, at that speed, with those basslines. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be aspects of techno, hip hop, reggae, soul, electro, house... I mean it’s just a speed. The danger right now is that it has become dominated by half-step. But I’m sure that won’t last.It’s a good rhythm!
But you know what media hype is like.It’s ridiculous. And when you have Dazed and Confused writing about it you know something’s gotta change.
Yeah, something’s got to give! The Burial album got into some interesting places. The Telegraph for example… that certainly wasn’t a target of our press strategy.Did you have a strategy?
Yeah! Just go to the post office every day and fling them out! The Burial vibe all happened after it came out, apart from the Mary Anne Hobbs mix. I haven’t got a big list of people to send things to. But it kinda worked out.It’s a bit soul-destroying doing press. Trying to sell the music to people.
I don’t see the point just right now. There’s not a huge difference between selling 5-10,000 or... It’s just a case of putting it in front of the faces of people who wouldn’t normally get it. I suppose that’s the decision we might need to make next year. Is it cool going along like this?But then you get into a whole world of…
Wank…Marketing strategies. [mock media serpent accent] ‘How do we get Burial into the 13-19 market?’
Yeah I mean fuck that. It doesn’t need it. It’s an experiment and it’s great to see how the music can spread with a press release and some mail-outs. By word of mouth and on the power of music.Do you think it’s important to have artists who aren’t desperate to make a living on music?
Yeah, I don’t know anyone making a living from D. People either have full or part-time jobs or sign on. Nobody’s making a living from it. That would be nice, undeniably. The minute you start trying to make a living from it then you put a certain pressure on it to pay you, and that’s what it’s good to avoid right now. I’d rather spend the dribble of cash the label makes on that [points at new synthesiser], than on toilet paper… funnily enough!You couldn’t wipe you arse with that anyway, without making quite a mess…
It’s gonna hurt. But it’d add to the brown keys.So what if D became more mainstream trendy…?
I don’t think anybody’s against making money…What about if it’s corporate money?
Well we’ve just had some tracks in a film, Children of Men. So I suppose that’s taking money off Hollywood. Feels good actually! Our tune Backward, and the Warrior Queen tune Money Honey. The guy who did the music set up Science at Virgin, and signed Photek and Source Direct, so he’d been following dubstep. And he infected the director, Alfonso Cuarón. We played at a party for the film recently, and we played after Jarvis Cocker. That was weird. He had a track in the film called The Cunts Still Rule the World. We did a 15-minute set after him.Did he blow cocaine up your arse?
Eh, no. I played at the launch of the film at the Venice Film Festival. That was dark. There was like a fake gold dancefloor. They seemed to hate what I played with a passion. I played D and a bit of HH.Happy hardcore?
No, hip hop! The people who worked on the film, the director and the editor, they all seemed to love it. But all the coked up local Italian blaggers were hating it. The DJ on after me played some electro house. The place went off within about three tunes [self-deprecating cackle]. Nothing’s changed really. It’s still a labour of love.This tune has got some legs! [referring to the loop from the new Kode9 tune that has been on for 25 minutes]
It’s got a nice groove. I’ve been listening to a lot of Sa-Ra. A lot. Since the DMZ last March, when it grew out of Third Base and into Mass and when I had bass overdose, I’ve been listening to a lot of weirder R&B with sweet vocals. That night was a turning point for everyone. So you haven’t heard my album yet?No, not yet.
It went up on a Russian pirate site two weeks ago. I have no idea how it got there. I think everything comes out on the internet first. You can’t do anything about it. You can get bolshy about it and send people emails or hack into people’s servers.Are you pleased with it then?
[triggers off the Marcellaise again on the tiny handheld Casio keyboard] I’m more pleased with this. You can slow it down to that half-step. [slows the Marcellaise down to half-step and starts wailing along with it]. Sounds like Skream… Am I pleased with it? It’s done. Next. The thing is I put the whole thing together, the music, the artwork… If you do everything, including going to the post office to send it out and everything, it does kill the excitement a bit.How do you feel about MySpace?
It has its uses. If you see it in a positive way it cuts out that bullshit of linking people and needing a crappy introduction to give someone some tunes. When you don’t have an advertising budget for the label, it’s useful. I find the proactive friend-hunting approach a bit pointless.Did you see the Culture Show last weekend?
No. Did they have Skream on discussing Picasso?They had Outkast on there, and as they seem to do in every interview name-checking Squarepusher, saying they were really influenced by him. And then Andre 2000 going to camera: “If anyone knows where SP is, get him in touch with me.” Surely if he wanted to get in touch with Squarepusher he’d just ring Warp up. Seemed a strange bit of posturing.
It’s an anti-street posturing. Like saying “I’m bigger than that, and I like weird music as well”. From an American hip hop perspective you have to realise that IDM is like an escape. But over here it can seem like geek drudgery. But to them it’s alien and something sonically interesting.It was quite funny because then they cut to the studio and there’s Squarepusher going “Hello!” And then doing a bass solo…
[Laughs] As he does…Also, what struck me was two years ago I wouldn’t have imagined seeing Squarepusher on the BBC 2 Culture Show…
Even your most geeked-out producer of a few years ago has now got at least 20,000 album sales to protect, or something.But isn’t that where it all goes wrong, and the ‘art’ gets dented?
I think it’s wrong to think that underground to mainstream equals good to bad music. You’re on a hiding to nothing with that. I think that’s the error a lot of purists still fall into.But is it, though? Is it?
Just because you’ve gone bigger, doesn’t mean you have to become shit. I mean there’s been good pop music in… oooh, the last 70 years…That’s a get-out clause!
It’s slightly different now but if you look at Timbaland in the late 90s, he was like the best example of how you can do stuff that’s more sonically interesting than what self-consciously experimental producers are doing, and is very popular.Squarepusher for 10 years has been this maverick underground producer, and suddenly he pops up on the Culture Show… Do you listen to electronica?
[long pause] I don’t have a huge amount of time for it, “whatever” electronica. But I can do weirded out synth symphonies from 1965. I don’t know. It’s too general a question.Sorry, it’a terrible question. [hangs head in shame for several moments] So, the new Skream album. Discuss.
I love Skream’s stuff. It’s great. He’s added a lot of life to the D.What about the two-finger melodies? Will people tire of them?
I’m not sure that’s very fair. The two-finger melodies thing doesn’t bug me. I can’t even do two fingers. I use one finger. The danger is when it gets too musical, and too wrapped up in its own musicality. If anything… The problem is live musicians. Dead musicians, I can deal with. Live musicians are a problem for me.We’re getting a bit close to D here.
Yeah, fuck that… I’m not interested in having live musicians. There’s something positive in not knowing how to play an instrument and trying to play an instrument. My keyboard icon is Les Dawson. If anyone can get hold of videos of Les Dawson playing the piano… that stuff is the shit. People don’t know about Les. Something to do with dissonance. To be able to play an instrument good-badly.Les could probably play the instrument properly.
He could. But it’s like the best jazz musicians who can play an instrument so well that they can play it badly and get respect. But I’m coming from not being able to play it well and try and do stuff that is on the edge of off-tune.So outside of D what examples would you give of people doing that?
I don’t hear a lot of it to be honest. I think off-tune music has got a really bad press… since Pythagoras.That’s a great quote…
You can’t press me too hard on this because I can’t give you exact musicological definitions of what I mean. But you know when you’re playing notes that don’t sound right together. You know there’s an interzone between stuff that’s just bad, stuff that’s well played on an instrument. Which is what the best jazz always dabbled with. There’s stuff I don’t know about: keys and chords and weird chords that might sound off tune to me and I think I’m playing it wrong, but actually fits into some weird tuning system.But then there’s actual bad music, because it evokes more of a reaction than bland music.
I’m not really into that. It’s like noise stuff. It’s just like, “take the pain”. Bend over and take the pain. I’m not talking about distortion and noise. I kind of think it’s overrated. I learnt this off-tune thing partly from Les Dawson, but not from hearing musicians who were doing it, but from warped records, or acid trips when you're slowing down your records. Just playing records with your finger instead of the turntable motor. And spending too much time in that zone.Could that be the natural progression for D? To take it in a more interesting way could be starting to warp the sound…
There’s a difference between warping it and spasticating it. All we’re trying to do is try and explore that particular speed.But you were being critical about the speed weren’t you? Saying it’s the same music at a different speed.
No, the opposite, I was being positive about that. All you can hope to do is try and cram the whole universe of music onto a speed, explore its extreme parameters before it becomes... a different set of speeds. I like beat matching. I love DJ mixing. But everything’s got to be the same speed. All you can hope to do is have as much variety at that speed as you could want.But where could it possibly go from there? Intelligent dubstep?
No forget the intelligent thing. Drum 'n' bass didn’t just become ‘intelligent’, it became 50 different subgenres. That’s the danger, that it becomes a global industry, that the main players earn a good living off of it, which is not a bad thing, but the music loses its edge. That’s why I prefer the term Hyperdub. It’s a bit looser as a concept than D has become.I’d quite like to talk about Scotland. [awful Scottish accent] As fellow Scots.
Mmm. So what do you want to talk about? My influences? Have you heard The Associates? Let me play you this tune, it’s fucking amazing.No. Are they like the Residents?
Probably not. You know, there’s not many things that make me proud to be Scottish, but this…[Paxman style] Do you reject your Scottishness?
I’m a self-hater. [Plays incredible Associates tune from the early eighties].Wow. That’s really fucking good, man.
[Plays first Simple Minds album] This is from about 1978 or ‘79. There was a stage when they were like Kraftwerk crossed with… whatever. There’s an album called New Gold Dream in about 1982-3. Some of the stuff on the album, and before it, is great.So is that the extent you doff your cap…?
That’s my flower of Scotland… I don’t hate Scotland. But what annoys me a bit is the monoculturalism of Scottish cities. There is a large Pakistani community in Glasgow, so it’s not all white, but I’m not into living in all white places. I find it a bit depressing.Surely Scotland’s not as racist or bigoted as England… apart from against the English.
But I like that part of Scottish culture, hating the English... haha... I’m not saying Scotland is racist or bigoted. It’s just somewhere to live. You don’t wanna just do what you do, you wanna trade what you do with other people. There’s gotta be some kind of mixing going on. It’d do my head in to live somewhere where everyone has been there for hundreds of years and it’s just claustrophobic.So the grey, slate lanes of Stirling aren’t that welcoming…
Yeah it’s like the witch trials. I always get that sense that there’s too many people that’ve been there for too long. And there’s always that danger of getting burnt at the stake!Let’s talk about Croydon.
Okay, let’s talk about Croydon.Croydon has got the JG Ballard vibes about it. It’s a Ballard area. I imagine Croydon is Shepperton in the south. You’ve got some connections with Ballard haven’t you?
Yeah, I mean you know Croydon better than I do, but Croydon seems a bit grimey for Ballard. The Ballard thing is about the suburbs. The future of the city is not urban, it’s suburban and Croydon itself has got loads of suburbs.What’s grimey about it?
Maybe it’s just the side I know. The side of Croydon I know is the nutcases going out on Saturday night, getting pissed, and fighting…That is Croydon.
… but the Croydon I know is also Big Apple records and various people that live around there. What do you think it is about Croydon?I think Croydon is an enormous suburb, that’s what it’s all about.
You can either see it as a small city or a mega-suburb, and it’s caught in the middle there, isn’t it. It wants to be a city and at night it’s got the lit-up city centre, the fast roads going through the middle of the city…It’s like an ugly growth, or manifestation. But that’s what Croydon is. It’s like a growth on the edge of London, but it is the size of most medium-sized cities nation-wide. I’ve always thought of it as a proper city with its cod-skyscrapers, overpasses and underpasses.
I see it as a suburb of London. But people who live there see it more as a city centre.But it’s not a hub because there’s nothing there.
Is that what’s crucial about Croydon? That there’s nothing…There’s no culture there.
So what’s wrong with it? Sounds good.What’s wrong with it is that all you can do in Croydon is head in to the centre and scratch your retail itch. There’s nothing else you can do. However much good music has come out of Croydon, I don’t see much of a hub for it there. It seems like a real culture vacuum.
But good music tends to come from places that are devoid of culture. Like Coventry, Detroit. Cultural black-holes.But it fascinates me that there’s a kind of music that comes out of Croydon. It might not have the hugest shelf life, but it’s got all the right touchpoints.
Don’t you think it’s got a long shelf life?It’s possible. Like you said earlier, I’m just looking at it in the way jungle went. I bet you don’t sit down and say I’m going to make a dubstep track.
No. Because that word is a genre name that has come about, and the sound has crystallised around that. That’s how things grow.But this is a sound you’ve helped to grow and create.
But as usual, when something becomes clear in your windscreen you have to start swerving away from it! Everything has to be smeared. The minute it becomes clear it risks boredom. It’s the H, not the D. The H is looser. I’m not denying it [d******], I’m just avoiding it, because I’ve had to define it endlessly in the last few months. What it is to me is Skream, Digital Mystikz, Loefah and a handful of other producers. That’s why I wouldn’t want to discard it, because there’s all this good stuff. But someone said to me today that 5% of every genre is good, 95% is shit. D’s no different in that respect. There’s a core of good producers who are doing stuff you haven’t heard before. And then there’s the periphery that grows, and the periphery gets an idea of how the genre sounds and they use that as a guide. That’s a natural evolutionary process. Then someone will do something on the periphery, like Burial, and most people will just produce bread and butter on the dancefloor. That’s the way the shit happens. A scene needs both tendencies.I’ve got a brilliant recording of John Peel playing Sine of the Dub at the wrong speed. Did you hear it?
It was a seminal night. I was driving home in Glasgow from being out somewhere. I turned the radio on and there it was. It was really surreal. I was torn between ‘What?’ and ‘Yesss!!!’I’ve never actually heard that track at the right speed. I’ve only got the pitched up version.
It’s on the album. [plays Sine of the Dub]That’s a bit slow isn’t it? So is this the proto-bass poetry exercise?
Yeah well that’s the bass poetry vibe. I’d hate that to be everything we’re doing, but it’s going to be tailored toward a non-dance environment, although I have seen people dance to Sine. We’ll use visuals as well. Have you seen our video? That came about because the guy from Touch, Jon Wozencraft. He bought one of our 10”s and played it to his class at art college. And two of his students came to see me doing a gig with Roll Deep. Then we did a gig in his class, and then 2 of his students made the video. Jon keeps giving me Chris Watson field recordings. They’re sick.They’re amazing…
I’m sure we’ll use some of that for the bass poetry. That’s where one strain of our music will go. The whole thing is to keep it varied, to do stuff for the dancefloor and other environments. It’s just a speed. Because Sine is at D speed, just without the beats. I’m anal about the speed. You need some kind of discipline or some kind of guide, some field mapped out. To just have an open blank canvas is not going to work for me. I don’t think so anyway.I’ve started getting interested in sound and word together, that’s why the bass poetry idea really excites me. But also sound and word in a comedy sense.
Have you heard the London Under London stuff? It’s readings from Ballard and John Fox, with backing music consisting of weird Chinese sounding grime, John Fox and Harold Budd and Eno, I think. All kinds of ambient stuff, with readings from Ballard and their own readings. But you’re right, it’s a massive area where not much has been done. On the edge of radio documentary and fiction, maybe with comedy in there as well. But that’s stuff we’ve been doing for years. The stuff we were doing with CCRU, it was theory, on top of jungle. It was always a spoken word thing that we were interested in.I guess it needs to be a bit more accessible to penetrate a popular medium like radio.
Yeah, it needs to have some fiction. But with theory embedded in the fiction. Instead of talking about the theory, the theory becomes embedded. Have you listened to much Gregory Whitehead? He’s a sound and radio artist. He’s done one thing that’s particularly related to my book on sonic warfare, called Project Jericho. It’s semi fictional about some Israeli general. [plays Gregory Whitehead] It’s based around this biblical story about the horns bringing down the walls of Jericho interspersed with this recent story of the Israeli military using sonic weaponry to disperse crowds, in Jericho.So what’s your book about?
It’s about uses and abuses of sound-systems. It’s called Sonic Warfare. The avant-garde is a military concept... the vanguard. It’s a revolutionary militarised concept. One key beginning of the avant-garde in modernism is futurism. It’s the starting point. The idea of The Art of Noise came from futurism but they were all obsessed with the First World War. They were all fascinated by the sounds of shrapnel and explosions, sirens, so part of what the book does is look at what is left of futurism after it has been critiqued for its fascism and misogyny. For Futurism and Dada etc – the social upheaval of the First World War was the key event. A lot of the early futurist stuff was still just conceptual. Russolo made these noise machines but they weren’t that interesting. But then all the way up to Cage it’s was all just tweaking what the futurists had layed out in The Art of Noise, exploding the remit of bourgeois classical music to take in any sounds whatever.I always thought that music was a little bit behind in developing modernist ideas?
I don’t know about that. Modernism in visual art in a way comes from it becoming more acoustic in its sensibility. From not being tied to this renaissance notion of perspective, in a linear fashion. Cubism, for example, is a much more acoustic sensibility, because you’ve got a perspective on a visual object that’s coming at you from all directions, like how you perceive sound, not how you perceive light. You see in front of you not behind you. You hear behind you. Modernism in visual arts draws from an acoustic sensibility and draws from a non-Western sensibility. And electricity is a crucial thing. Like the invention of radio has a massive effect on literature. And recording, the phonograph, and the gramophone. Being able to record the spoken word, chopped up, is kind of what you’ve got in Joyce. Where would music modernism start for you?I always thought it was much later, post-Second World War, that these big advances happened in sound, with Stockhausen and Cage, but maybe that’s post-modernism.
Yeah, I think it was kind of latent. The futurist manifesto, The Art of Noise, was written in 1913, which lays out a lot of what Cage goes on to do later with noise. It’s the beginning of the machine music ethos that goes into Musique Concrete, the pure electronic German thing and later the more hip hop sample based stuff. And it’s all about the impact of these guys, Marinetti and Russolo going to the First World War to fight in the trenches. That’s why Marinetti’s poetry was an onomatopoeic attempt to capture machines and explosions, gunfire. Modernist music might only have come to fruition much later, but the origins of the musical avant-garde go back to futurism. It’s all interesting twisted stuff. Marinetti was a fascist. He was in Mussolini’s Italy and their politics became more and more fascist, as Italian fascism grew. They were into stuff like provoking riots through poetry readings. If you read it, it’s deeply misogynistic and kind of racist in places as well.How has sound been used to control people?
Well the book goes through the militarist origins of the avant-garde, right through muzak, military research into non-lethal crowd control devices of the last 50 years, and then goes on to ultrasound and infrasound, very high and very low frequency, and then the experiments of a lot of industrial musicians. And I’ve been researching the sound mirrors at Dungeoness and all along the South coast. Anyway, that’s all in the Introduction.We went there recently. It’s a jaw-dropping place.
All these Ballard-esque concrete structures that were pre-radar, early warning air defence, acoustic defence. They were built between 1920–1940 just when they were discovering radar.What did people think they were going to do?
Just providing earlier warning of planes coming across the English Channel. So then, there’s stuff in the book about soundsystem culture in mashed up parts of the planet, that have this mobilising function of making people move, building collectivities and building grass roots market economies around the soundsystem, that mobilises otherwise very depressed situations, whether it’s Kingston, Rio... Soundsystems have an interesting role in bootstrapping depressed areas. The book is not about D. People keep asking me that and it’s kind of annoying! There’s overlaps because the theory that I’m developing is called bass materialism, and obviously D is my lab, and I’ve been doing research over the last few years. There’s a chapter about afro-futurist fictions of sonic warfare, of using sound as some kind of weapon or about dub viruses.I can’t help try and reconcile it with Croydon all the while.
I think that’s a mistake! There’s something of that going on but in a completely different context. It’s the Detroit, Coventry, Croydon thing we talked about. Shit-holes always have a silver lining. You’re so bored to the point of suicide that you have to re-engineer your environment to make it bearable. That’s a general point for any kind of artist. It’s an impetus to change your situation. But if you’re just bored, it’s not about survival.So could a sonic weapon be used as a weapon of mass destruction? Could you fire a bass rapier and wipe out an entire continent?
Well, people use sonic booms as psychological weapons, like Israel in the West Bank, just to instill fear. It’s more about the way sound is used to produce fear, not to kill people. The US military in Iraq have got long-range acoustic devices that are high frequency and very directional, so you have these things called sonic lasers. They’re crowd control devices, like a water cannon. You don’t want to stand in the way of it ‘cos it’s annoying. They’re marketed at arms fairs as non-lethal weaponry, which is the fashion in an age of urban insurgency. Have you heard the Mosquito stuff? It’s based on this premise that as you get older you lose the high frequencies in your hearing, so it’s aimed at young people who’ve still got their hearing. These are the marketing photos. But these frequencies are to test where the upper range of your hearing is. [plays different frequencies until both can hear them]It’s like a pure headache straight away.
So that’s the theory of the Mosquito anyway. You can get them in hardware shops for rats and mice. These marketing shots are all aimed at hoodies. It’s like a sound war on ASBO kids. So there’s a narrative in my book that’s all about pirate radio versus Mosquito. A network culture of grass-roots music, versus these localised Mosquitoes deployments. Mosquitoes have now been reappropriated by young people and used as ring tones! Probably to find the frequency that pisses off old people. So the book’s about that. I’m trying to take a bass bomb and drop it on the history of Western philosophy. Like how philosophy deals with music, if you go back to Plato. Everything he wrote was completely in fear. Music, and particularly rhythm, was a dangerous thing that would come and disturb his rational republic of democratic reasoning; men coming together to aspire towards truth, beauty and the good, and music is a threat to that, because it’s not reasonable; it plays to your emotions. So right through the history of philosophy it’s seen as a threat ‘cos it’s not rational, it’s structured to affect. So when philosophers deal with music they’ve traditionally talked about classical music, as a cerebral experience or the modern avant garde. The minute you put the body and dance at the heart of a philosophy then you have to turn Western philosophy upside down ‘cos it’s dominated by truth and rationality, the mind over the body. The body is a danger. Western philosophy is like series of glass jars with brains in them. The minute you introduce bass, which is so physical but also intangible, then it does put a spanner in the works. But the secret is not just to celebrate the body instead of the mind, but to get past that distinction in the first place.Do you think that people think you are avant-garde…?
Who cares. I think we’ve got a more interesting relationship with pop music, rather than being self-consciously experimental. And hopefully we’re not painful to listen to. I’m not anti-experimentation, but the old distinctions between high culture and low culture, art and street music are just a hinderance.Maybe that’s how electronica circumnavigated the whole issue.
Yeah, electronica did scramble the distinction between high art and low art, because they’re not coming from a school of electronic music, they’re coming from their bedrooms. I tend to find popular avant-garde musics more interesting. If I’m a futurist, it’s only in the sense that jungle was futurist music, for example. Some people call it ‘Roots and Future’. It’s always got some kind of cyclical relationship with the past. It’s more recombinant than it is professing to wipe everything else away and start from scratch. D is Roots and Future. But it’s probably just part of the echo, or after effect of jungle. Maybe I’m just too close to it.Well, you’ve been part of its evolution. For me it’s different, sitting outside of it and ducking my head in every now and again. The first DMZ I went to was a real epiphany, along with your mixtape. It was music that was completely different but had that familiarity of the past. That was a real spark of recognition.
Part of my agenda is to see what post-rave music does to the history of philosophy, and forcing that confrontation. Jungle was like an epiphany, but you don’t know how many musical epiphanies you can have that are that intense, where you listen to the same kind of music 24 hours a day for five years. I’ve been pretty immersed in D for six years, but I’m also more aware of the pitfalls of that kind of addiction. So the Hyperdub thing I think is less genre specific, and more about a particular evolution of music. Sometimes, you realise that whatever music you consume, whatever you think is the most exciting music in the world right now will loose its effect on you in a few years. And if you’ve been through that musical experience, that cycle of addiction a few times, it does make you a bit more cagey about some of the exaggerations and hype.Gary Weasel is a semi-fictional media prick.