Friday, 29 October 2010

From the archives: ATP Nightmare Before Christmas 2009

Five postcards from Butlins

#1 In the main pavilion, Warren Ellis jerks his stiltskin leg out at right angles, ducking and swooping with violin tucked under chin. Dirty Three deliver a roar of sound and feeling that seems to pull the wind out of all of us listening. Almost as if he’s embarrassed to be playing music of such force and intimacy, he fills his stage banter with apocryphal anti-explanations: “This is a song about trying to get crisps out of a vending machine… but finding you have no pound coins.”

#2 A sullen, grey afternoon. We find Josh T. Pearson (later to be crowned King of Butlins by Warren Ellis) holding court on Minehead’s barren strand, his beard twitching in the salty breeze. Earlier he’d delivered his desert sermons in a gust of fire, brimstone and spittle, pleading with the angels from under his cowboy hat while spinning a sandstorm of crackled guitar.

#3 In the drizzle we spy two Horrors in capes and impractical shoes, consulting a map of the chalets. Later onstage, the monochrome ones seem to win over a typically aloof ATP audience with a set drawn solely from the kraut-gaze gloompop album of 2009, Primary Colours. Though unwilling to offer any more solid approval than a collective raised eyebrow, the crowd swells to one of the biggest of the whole weekend.

#4 Very, very late on Sunday night, Lightning Bolt are making My Bloody Valentine sound like the Shangri-Las’ kid sisters. A rumbling monstrosity fronted by some horrific, mutilated head – through the dry ice we make out a bandaged ogre, beating the terrified shit out the drums like an organ-grinder’s monkey possessed. Aural itching powder for the tired and emotional, LB stir up the only genuine thrashpit situation of the festival.

#5 And then there’s My Bloody Valentine, doing all three nights on the smaller stage because they are clearly too loud to be let out to play in the main pavilion – louder than stupid, louder than hell, Kevin Shields’ curls just a frazzled halo above his unmoving body, shrouded in smoke, the band blasting out sonic weaponry that cleaves straight through the laughable standard-issue earplugs. We give up and pull them out, and sink under the weight of pure volume.

"It's not that we want to be garish": An interview with Everything Everything

[written for London Student, October '10]

“We slide in from the epoch of Anglo American wire
And a Saxon spire, glint in the glare far above me
Put pressure on it!
She collapse me! Man alive, her every ache a baton to me!
Age of ending! Where’s the worth in proving I was here?”
- ‘Qwerty Finger’

These are the words of Everything Everything, a band who like to situate themselves outside of genre and convention, albeit with a generous nod to the catch-all of POP.

And poppy it is, if you disregard any kinship to ‘popularity’ and turn to the pop of artists Peter Blake and Eduardo Paolozzi: British eccentrics of the highest order with a taste for eclecticism, unpredictable juxtaposition and bric-a-brac display of non-sequiturs, naughty jokes and stripy jumpers. If you can take that mental image and reconfigure it as a three-minute audio experience, you are some way towards imagining Everything Everything on record, in case you’ve missed the hype and airplay the band have earned since January.

Receiving substantial support from BBC 6Music after featuring on the Beeb’s hype machine Sound of 2010 poll, the four-piece have actually spent much of this year familiarising themselves with Britain’s glorious roadside service stations. The never-ending tour is passing through London’s Scala tonight, but bassist Jeremy says he still has the stamina for splitter van life.

“Going back on the road is a bit like going back to school,” he tells me in the red gloom of the Scala bar. “Not in a bad way, but just that we know what’s gonna happen day to day, which we haven’t had for a while. It’s kind of comforting, actually.” He reels off a list of his favourite EE shows, from Reading and Leeds to their first gig abroad at a festival in Holland, but every band has one performance they’d rather forget

“Our worst gig ever remains one in a pub in Liverpool called Kelly’s Dispensary. In those days we used to just take any gig – it was very early days when we were all living in a house and rehearsing in a basement. We turned up and there was no PA and just one mic between the three of us. We were just shouting, and the bar staff kept coming over and turning our amps down! And nobody there wanted to listen to us. We were a much punkier proposition in those days,” he says.

Having polished off those rough edges, EE now find themselves on the threshold of the strange and fickle world of pop. Not that the music fans of 2010 would acknowledge a concept as retrograde as ‘genre’, flitting as we do from artist to related artist; scrobbling, blipping and sharing without a thought to the past or future. The marriage of music with the internet has given us an infinite real-time feed of single tracks from any year, label, city or genre.

But for all their name might suggest, EE aren’t necessarily a band cut of postmodern cloth. Jeremy is ambivalent about newfangled listening habits. “The great thing about it is that the music press has less influence than it used to in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when you’d open a magazine every week because you always read it, saying ‘Here’s what’s cool, here’s what to wear.’ And now younger people aren’t led by styles and genre. If you like the song, nobody’s completely loyal.”

But there are downsides for EE, whose skewed poppiness is surely made for the full-length long-player format. “It is a track-led culture, not an album-led culture. Maybe the majority of people who listen to this record aren’t going to listen to it all,” says Jeremy of their debut Man Alive. “But you can’t let that change your working processes, you don’t want to have a collection of songs that don’t have anything to do with each other, you want it to have shape. All the albums that we grew up on have that kind of feel to them,” he adds, citing classic British art-rock from OK Computer to The Holy Bible.

So will the energetic complexity of singles like the forthcoming ‘Photoshop Handsome’ be able to cut through the endless choice of tracks and more tracks, or will bands like EE lose out as listeners spend less time with full albums? “It’s kind of the industry’s fault and it’s kind of not anybody’s fault, it just happened and we have to face it,” says Jeremy, adding that their intricate music is “purely natural – it’s not that we want to be garish.”

Singer Jonathan’s lyrics often address the problems of postmodern fandom. “A lot of what he writes about is to do with information overload. Jon’s lyrics are quite hard to understand rhythmically and the way he writes is very dense. The meaning will be quite vague and then you’ll get this shaft of light, and it becomes clear.” The lyrics are opaque without a doubt, but they have a surreal beauty and depth to them that’s deeply satisfying when so many new bands are singing about smoking weed and going to the beach. It takes a certain boldness to sing lines like, “Chest pumped elegantly elephantine, southern hemisphere by Calvin Klein/ Watch your dorsal fin collapse, I know nothing about my history,” a couplet supposedly about “the limits of science, breast enhancement and corporate branding”.

But for every off-kilter line there’s a glorious pop hook, while wry politicking is balanced by eccentric joie de vivre and dirty misheard lyrics, like the now nearly infamous are-they-aren’t-they line in ‘Suffragette Suffragette’: “Whose gonna sit on your face when I’m gone? Whose gonna sit on your face when I’m not there?”

They promise they’re saying “fence”, but nothing is quite as pop as it seems in the technicolour universe of Everything Everything.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Monday, 18 October 2010

"D/R/U/G/S are good, they're from Manchester"

Tomorrow D/R/U/G/S are playing at The Nest in Dalston, formerly Barden's Boudoir. They are very much my cup of tea, at least on paper, so I'm expecting good things from the show, partly because the venue is the new project from the guy who used to run Fabric.

I'm not sure how I feel about a band called D/R/U/G/S. Initially it seems repellently Hoxtonite; later it's annoying to type; after a while you become immune to it and start saying things like this post's title when explaining the band to friends. Band name as infinitely variable gag machine. Not the first time, I s'pose, but it's a teensy bit Nathan Barley you'd have to admit (and saying that sounds hopelessly dated in itself).

At least they've updated it with the oh-so-2010 use of slashy symbols. The Guardian has noted this trend so it must have reached tipping point in certain London postcodes.

I'm going to stick my neck out a little and say that D/R/U/G/S have come up with a sound that is "original yet danceable" (my quote for the sleeve, if you will). A tricky marriage: clubbers (or 'people who go to clubs', if that makes you feel less sicky) tend to confine their appetite for experimentation to chemical and biological interactions, choosing their BPM and bass tastes long before leaving the house, home-strength Dark 'n' Stormy in hand. The aim of rave (in its earlier incarnations, especially) is to provide a steadily evolving fabric of pattern and texture that affects your brain and body in almost unconsciously felt ways, so that The Drop is that neuro-physiological pay-off used sparsely for optimum effect.

Not that I'm trying to reduce dance music to mere physical stimulant, but dance plugs directly into the spinal cord in a way the majority of popular music doesn't, which is partly the result of the bizarre circumstances we choose to experience it in (darkness, strobes, intoxication; a sanitised weekend bacchanal with only marginally less gory results).

Meanwhile, the constantly mutating strain of rave for the bedroom, for headphones, for gloomy moments staring out your bedroom window at a pavement strewn with mulchy autumn leaves, is inherently erratic, complex, less danceable. The slow builds and subtle shifts of dancefloor rave aren't necessary when you're soberly sipping tea, wearing your boyfriend's hoodie late on a Tuesday night.

And to combine those two rival aspects of danceability and intricacy is always a challenge. I think it very rarely works, but when it does it is Truly Great. Like so much of my favourite music of the past few years (Caribou, Four Tet, Luke Abbott and others whom I've written more than enough about in this blog), D/R/U/G/S appear to not only embrace complexity, variety, maximalism, bricolage, etc., they also seem to have one ear on the dancefloor, keeping the tempo up and referencing more traditional dancey sounds (like the housey vocal snippets on 'Rad Pitt').

If I elaborate anymore I might end up postulating a feeble cod-sociological explanation for the rise (or revival) of Intelligent(Intricate) Dance(floor) Music based on: the increasing costs of clubbing, alcohol, cab fares and city living; the weakening potency of 'dance drugs'; the relative affordability of home music production software; and the rise of both bedroom DJs and blogosphere tastemakers (who might typically be found in their bedrooms on Saturday nights listening to music on headphones, only prodded into dancing/blogging about dance music when that music is suitably 'headphones-y' and beard-strokey and intricate).

But it would basically be bullshit.