Monday Musing: A Noise In The East

Posted on April 29, 2013


The critic thumps.

The critic thumps.

As I write this I’m looking forward to an upcoming Damo Suzuki gig in Colchester. Suzuki spent around three years as vocalist with Can and was recorded with them on four legendary albums. Since 1973 he has been doing his own thing, much of it also involving making music, and much of it very interesting and creative by all accounts, but none of it quite as influential as the work he did with the Krautrock trailblazers. It’s hard to overstate the importance of those four albums, in terms of how great an influence they had on such a wide range of musicians, all over the world; although Suzuki’s global fame and star status can be gauged from the fact that he will be playing a mid-sized music pub when he comes to Colchester, in terms of his participation in an epoch-making moment of musical creation, it’s a bit like having David Bowie or Ozzie Osbourne come to visit.

When Damo Suzuki takes the stage at The Twist he will be accompanied by local musicians. This has been his modus operandi for many years now; the ensemble that performs will be part of what is known as Damo Suzuki’s Network, a grouping that includes all the local musicians he has played with all over the world; not only does this make touring a lot cheaper for him, it also constitutes a global community of players, a worldwide underground of sorts. The band will improvise under Suzuki’s direction, or instigation, or whatever the appropriate term might be.

Damo Suzuki is clearly an underground musician. As such he’s part of a ‘scene’, which is to say a network of interested listeners, musicians, venues and writers; this ‘scene’ (and I would hesitate to put a name to it) is a global one, united by common interests but not by acquaintance (other than to Suzuki himself). Networks like this are voluntary, more or less spontaneous associations, based on a commonality of interest; that commonality may be founded on musical style, geography, personal acquaintance, convenience (Krautrock was a scene in name only, invented by John Peel to account for there being several interesting German bands on his radar), a common association with a particular venue, label or magazine, or other factors. For the most part, it’s the first three that are most crucial, however. The more recherché the style in question, the more geographically widespread the community is likely to be; for example, I am unlikely to find many fans of industrial ambient music in my village. Very popular styles facilitate scene-making: there are indie-pop bands in every small town, and mainstream metal bands, and acoustic singer-songwriters. But although more underground music tends to coagulate over broader territories, there are always moments in which particular styles, or groups of styles, coalesce around a particular time and place. Particular cities become known for the specific music that’s made in them, and they become Meccas for fans and artists alike. Some such moments of synergy are enormously influential, and generate multiple big-selling acts as the music industry converges on the upwelling of talent; others come and go without being much noticed, although they often turn out to have been more influential than anyone realised at the time.

It’s too early to call on which category their scene will fall into, but several of the musicians who will be accompanying (or did accompany, depending on when you read this) Suzuki at The Twist are members of a particular ‘scene’, one which can be defined by both style and geography. Let’s call it ‘the North Essex and South Suffolk heavy music scene’. A snappier name wouldn’t hurt, and I’ll be looking at why I can’t think of one below. This scene has several interesting characteristics; clearly it’s interesting to me, because it involves music I like and it’s local to me, but I believe it’s actually a pretty unusual and exciting moment, well worthy of broader exposure. The things that make this an interesting scene, in my view, are as follows:

  • The bands involved are playing fringe music, and it’s always on the fringes that the interesting and influential shit goes down (look at the Edinburgh Festival for an example). It’s punk and metal, but it’s not mainstream punk and metal of the sort that can be found anywhere: these musicians are on their own creative missions; they are pushing at stylistic boundaries, striving to find the right means for their own self-expression rather than just going for the easy catharsis of making a loud noise in a popular idiom.
  • It’s a DIY scene. Of course most scenes are DIY; the music industry is not in the habit of going around looking for local musical ecologies to support. They just plunder the ones that look promising, usually destroying them in the process, by removing their most vital creative elements. 1990s Seattle is a good example of this. But most scenes are DIY simply by default: the bands involved are promoting their own gigs, commissioning their own merch, recording their own albums in the hopes of attracting industry attention and moving into the ‘big time’; any bands that do get some major funding behind them schlepp off to London (or wherever) with nary a backward glance. This scene’s DIY ethic is more fundamental, and is part and parcel of its creative independence; its participants have set out to create their own musical community, beholden to no external patronage; they’ve realised that they don’t need anyone else, and they are loyal to a fault.
  • It’s rural. I don’t mean that it’s taking place in barns and fields, but it is taking place in small towns spread across a swathe of the East of England. As such its sensibilities are not particularly urban, since even if its participants spend all their lives in towns, they have at least to travel between them, and they are thus inoculated against the blinkered insularity that often goes with an exclusively urban outlook. There is no single centre, no one town that can lay claim to the scene, or attach its name to it (the sole drawback of which is that it makes it hard to name), and consequently there is no sense that certain bands are key and others peripheral simply by virtue of geography. There are geographically peripheral bands involved, to be sure, but they’re from other counties, not just less trendy towns. Colchester, Braintree, Sudbury and Ipswich are the main centres of activity, but stuff happens wherever there’s a sympathetic venue. As far as I’m aware, it’s unusual for a cohesive scene to exist in such a geographically distributed way; I think this a good example of the the kind of community building facilitated by the social aspects of the internet.

I’ve not focussed on this scene’s employment of information technology and social media, because that’s a given nowadays. Every band and artist is making use of those facilities, be they unknown or global stars; but it is worth noting how much easier the current technological climate makes it for a scene like this one to arise. While certain bands did successfully go the DIY route before (most notably American punk bands like Black Flack and Dead Kennedys, but Cardiacs are a good British example, as are the early years of Ozric Tentacles), it’s very hard to imagine anything like a ‘scene’ arising on that basis, anywhere outside major metropolitan areas (where cultural economies of scale bring a critical mass of fans for more or less anything into relative proximity). The specific circumstances that make this scene possible seem quite radical at the moment, but they may (and I hope they do) come to seem quite commonplace. When I was in my late teens and early twenties there were plenty of fans of underground music around, but it was a lot harder for us to find each other; now we’re all connected in new ways, and relatively diffuse geographic communities like this may become the norm.

My personal knowledge of this scene comes from attending far fewer gigs than I would like, and reviewing most of the recordings it has produced. I say ‘reviewing’ rather than ‘hearing’ partly because the need to write about them forces me to think about them rather more carefully than otherwise, but mainly because it brings me into contact with the musicians involved. Personal acquaintance is enormously important: performers and audience members (who may well be interchangeable, and certainly overlap considerably) are known to each other by face and name at least, but usually better than that, and the community is most fundamentally a social network. In some ways the music could be seen as a pretext for the social community, although it’s not necessarily possible to separate the two: in his book This Is Your Brain On Music Daniel Levitin offers the remarkable observation that it is the parts of the brain associated with social, rather than linguistic behaviours that are activated while performing or hearing music.

Of course a characterisation like ‘the North Essex and South Suffolk heavy music scene’ sounds like a done deal; but while there clearly is such a thing, it is entirely harder to identify, define and circumscribe than that glib summation suggests. As I’ve already pointed out, bands from elsewhere come here to play; bands from this locality go elsewhere to perform; there are national and international scenes around the styles involved, which interpenetrate with local scenes; there are multiple genres of music involved, which over a broader geography might appear to be completely separate scenes; there is necessarily overlap at the geographic and stylistic borders of the scene. Music scenes are as complex as any social grouping; like friendship groups, they do not exist in sealed adjacent territories, but overlap and connect in multiple, complex ways. I would regard it as a fruitless exercise to attempt to categorically define this or any scene, so I’ll just mention a sampling of some of the bands that are or have been involved.

This list is intended to be neither definitive nor comprehensive. I wouldn’t necessarily expect anyone involved in the scene to draw up the same list, and I’ve included these bands simply because I’ve seen them play, reviewed their recordings and/or met their members. It’s also worth noting that as far as my limited knowledge goes, Telepathy is the only band on the list whose membership doesn’t overlap with any of the others. I should also hasten to point out that there are plenty of bands in the same geographic area whose music would fit stylistically into my working definition, who don’t appear on the list, and don’t have particularly much to do with the bands that do; this is part of what is meant by a ‘scene’, although this one is a particularly open and welcoming example of the type.

Also deserving of a mention are the labels Kibou Records (as far as I know exclusively used as an imprint of releases by The Domestics) and Runny Bum Records (previously known as Dusty Curtain Face Records). This latter doesn’t really function as a record label per se, but the name appears on some of the releases recorded by Paul Rhodes, member of The Domestics and Hobopope, and one of the players lucky enough to be improvising with Damo Suzuki. Rhodes has recorded a huge number of acts in the locality, using the most basic equipment, and with limited technical knowledge, but with such a sensitive pair of producer’s ears that he unfailingly captures the characteristic sound and vibe of each band. Both these labels appear as promoters on posters for gigs in the locality, as does the name Pint Of Bin Productions, an artefact of the very active Chris Moore, another Suzuki cohort, and member of Meadows, Jøtnarr and Hobopope. I guess I should mention myself as well, since as far as I know I’m the only music writer that has made it a specific aim to cover this scene in detail; other commitments prevent me from getting to many of the gigs, but I’ve reviewed almost every recording released by the bands on the list above. It has been extremely gratifying to be told by some of the active musical participants that they regard me as a part of the milieu.

So having talked somewhat about how this scene is constituted, and what I think its distinctive characteristics are, I should say something about what actually happens; what do its participants do, when they are acting as its members? Well, obviously they attend gigs, and perform at them; and equally obviously, most of the bands make recordings. One of the things I like about this network is what it does with the recordings once it’s made them. As I write, I’m looking at a couple of cassette releases I pulled (more or less) at random from the shelf. One is a Meadows/ Chestburster split release, on a bright green cassette in a traditional cassette case: the inlay folds out into a nearly A4 sheet, one side of which has all the expected details (credits, tracklisting, lyrics), while on the other is a disturbing poster-sized rendition of the cover art; when I tell you that Meadows contribute five tracks and Chestburster eight, but that the total running time is under four minutes, you’ll understand that the physical merchandise aspect of the release is at least as important as the musical content. The other cassette is a Dusty Curtain Face Records sampler, that does contain a great deal of music, in a great diversity of styles, but which also places a premium on the packaging, with the hand-stitched plaid cloth bag it comes in, and its beautiful, intricately hand-folded info card. I could also mention the lovely hand made card case the debut Meadows release came in, or the gorgeously designed cover of the Three Thrones digipak EP, or indeed the fabulous artwork on Meadows’ vinyl LP split with Slabdragger. My favourite t-shirt at the moment is an Earthmass one, but the Meadows, Three Thrones and Domestics ones I wear all the time as well. Physical merch is a central aspect of the scene’s cultural output.

This is important for several reasons. The audience likes it, for one thing. People are (usually) in love with the tangible; I don’t necessarily mean to say that people are materialistic or acquisitive, but that physicality is important to peoples’ relationship with the art that they find meaningful. If you ‘kind of like’ a tune you might download it, but if you really love an album, the chances are that you’d like to buy it in some kind of physical format; flyers, t-shirts and physical media give people a sense of connection to the author of the music they’re enjoying that is much less pronounced with regard to some digital files on their hard disc.

This connection becomes more profound when the merchandise in question has been hand-made by a member of the band; widespread notions of authenticity hinge on the question of touch, and a personal connection between musician and listener that may be contingent and theoretical across the internet becomes undeniable in the face of such material tokens. This is of course connected to the fact that the audience for a scene like our ‘North Essex and South Suffolk heavy music scene’ has the opportunity for personal acquaintance with the artists, and in most cases knows them pretty well. It’s also the case that fans of underground styles tend to be pretty committed enthusiasts, and as such they are likely to be keen collectors of memorabilia beyond the three types I mentioned above; physical releases, particularly on formats like cassette and LP, are crucial to collector-fans.

There’s also an issue of control. Non-tangible goods are always subject to someone else’s control. Even when we have our music collection securely backed up to multiple locations, all of it DRM free, it is still subject to influences beyond our control and detailed understanding; many more layers of technically coded mediation are implicated in the process of turning it into sound than when we put a vinyl disc on the turntable and drop the needle in the groove. When we buy music digitally, even through a relatively ethical intermediary like Bandcamp, it necessarily involves far more layers than the simple formula of artist, pressing plant, printer, listener. The drive to independence, the DIY agenda to which many underground acts very consciously subscribe, is served far better by physical than non-tangible merchandise; it may not yet be clear to them how to go about it, but if the large corporations that control our online communication channels, internet access and electricity figure out a way to grab a slice of that action (beyond the fees we already pay for access), they will jump at the chance. It’s hard to see how they can get in the middle of the transaction when I’m buying a manually duplicated tape directly from the artist. It’s not really this long term risk that’s the issue though; the fact is that with all this DIY material floating around, we are reminded continually that this is our scene, we are making it ourselves, we have all the good things traditionally associated with an interest in music, and we have absolutely no need whatsoever for the music industry and its exploitative practices. For us, in this specific context, big business is redundant, and the scene’s material culture is the token of its independence.

On the other hand, I’ve already spoken about the empowering effect of digital connectedness on the scene; this is not a black and white issue. There are layers of mediation at work, and layers of interposition in all of the market transactions between artist and fan, other than those that take place at gigs; but that’s the world we live in, and even the most rapacious of middlemen can be turned to positive ends. I’m thinking in particular of the way Facebook events have become one of the principal means for underground musicians to publicise their gigs; this has something to do with scale, in that they are connected to enough of their audience, and are playing in small enough venues, that they don’t need to go outside of that social ecology. Facebook is far from ideal in all sorts of ways however, with its constant efforts to harvest value from its users in ways of which they are generally unaware, but which significantly distort the flow of information it provides to them. There are other online services that facilitate artists’ relationships with their audiences in more direct and open ways.

Big Cartel charges an up-front monthly fee (with better, larger scale service available to those who pay more) to provide bands with a webstore specifically tailored to their needs. It’s basically just a way of listing physical merchandise and processing purchases, without any social functions, but it’s a service that has proven enormously useful to many independent musicians. Services like this are useful within a local scene, but they also give bands a global reach. Soundcloud provides a similar facility with regard to the music itself, but the site that has really made waves in underground, independent and DIY music communities over the past few years has been Bandcamp. This is a site which combines the merchandise distribution services of Big Cartel with the music streaming of Soundcloud and the paid download facilities of online music stores like iTunes, Amazon, Beatport, eMusic etc. Bandcamp take a cut; they tell you what it is (and it’s a lot less than Apple will cream off), and they don’t dictate to you what you should charge for your music; they allow you to charge nothing if you want (within certain limits), and they offer the facility to let the purchaser choose the price.

I don’t want to turn this into a promotional spiel for Bandcamp, and ultimately I think it would be better if they were a co-operative rather than a commercial outfit, but they’d still need to take a cut for expenses, and what they take now is not extortionate. What is interesting is that in the few years I’ve been reviewing music Bandcamp has gone from a small player to being the streaming/ webstore service of choice for virtually every independent band I come across. They offer a service, and it’s good value, which is basically a sound capitalist position, but every aspect of the service, from the clean front-end, to the ease of set-up, to the flexible approach to sales and streaming, to the straightforward integration with any other website (or indeed the dreaded Facebook) is optimised to the convenience of DIY musicians. Labels use the site, but they’re in a distinct minority. The value of this site to micro-scenes like our ‘North Essex and South Suffolk heavy music scene’ is inestimable; obviously there are alternatives, but to a large extent Bandcamp provides the online context around which a scene develops and establishes itself. All of the bands listed above (except Jøtnarr) have their music on the site.

So let’s add all this together: a shared interest in certain musical styles; geographic proximity; supportive and loyal social behaviours; an independent minded approach to music, the making of it, and the business of getting it out there; technologically enabled social networks; physical merchandise; and a web service that facilitates exposure and distribution of tangible and non-tangible merchandise (or free gifts) on an equitable basis. It may be that this will be the standard pattern for years to come, but right at the moment it’s very new and exciting. This moment in time and space resembles the ‘Goldilocks zone’ of solar orbits, the precise point of balance at which the conditions are ideal for life; a diverse and abundant cultural ecology is beginning to flourish in this very fertile soil.

I find this particularly exciting because it represents a decisive break with the dependence that has historically characterised all levels of ‘popular’ music. Gone is the dependence on a commercial distribution network to deliver physical releases to the shops in your town; gone is the dependence on a dysfunctional artist and repertoire system to determine which music is and isn’t made available to you; gone is the dependence of artists on the vagaries of that A&R system to put their recordings in the right place (or even to give them the opportunity to record if you go a little further back). No more do fans of independent and underground music need to rely on its passing commercial muster before they get the chance to hear it. No longer does anyone have to let anybody else dictate to them what music is or isn’t worth hearing. The lies that the industry has peddled all these years, that they are gatekeepers of quality, that the production and distribution of worthwhile music requires rarified professional expertise to which only they have access (and large capital expenditures), that we all like the same shit, have never looked more ridiculous.

In North Essex and South Suffolk we are making our own music; we are distributing it ourselves; we are promoting our own gigs; we are sharing and discovering it through our own networks; we are making and buying our own physical merchandise; we are following and developing our own aesthetic and creative concerns. There is no hierarchy; nobody is exploited by anybody else; no economic value is being creamed off and spirited away, and any money that anyone manages to make is predominantly being pumped back into making more music and merch. The entire scene is autonomous, spontaneous and co-operative. If people started to apply these principles to all aspects of their lives on a widespread basis, the appropriate term to describe it would be ‘revolution’. Local writer Colin Ward wrote a very well-regarded book called Anarchy In Action, in which he examined the various non-hierarchical examples of mutual aid and co-operative enterprise that have managed to survive on the fringes of society in spite of the huge coercive forces ranged against them; the music scene I’ve been describing here would have fit right in.