Sunshine Supermen: Kode9 and The Spaceape ponder the apocalypse, graphic novels, and a Ballardian world of black suns.
- Photo: Optigram
After a busy year of releases on his genre-defining Hyperdub label, and a critically acclaimed book entitled Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, dubstep's godfather, Kode9 (a.k.a. Steve Goodman), is about to release his second full-length with longtime collaborator The Spaceape (a.k.a. Stephen Gordon), entitled Black Sun.
We spoke with Goodman on a recent stop in San Francisco, and Gordon from London, about their joint history, The Beatles, turning a book into a sound installation, and what the duo has taken away from the LA beat scene. Ken Taylor and Shawn Reynaldo
XLR8R: You've said that with this album, you had really wanted to try to set aside time to go deeper on production, and instead of spending two hours at a time in the studio, maybe spend days at a time. Did that actually happen?
Kode9: It did—not as much as I wanted, never as much as I wanted. But from August last year onwards, it was great actually: I wasn't DJing, I wasn't doing a book, I was just getting up and working on music. Fucking bliss, 'cause it doesn't happen often enough. The second half of last year is when it was like, this isn't going to get finished unless I probably enter that zone.
Did you take a break from teaching at University of East London?
I had a sabbatical. I'm toying with the idea of taking a more permanent break, I enjoyed working in the studio so much last year.
I've seen you take issue with the notion that music, when it's examined academically—a lot of people say that when you examine it that way it loses something, the energy and the fun, which you don't agree with. How do you go about keeping it energetic and interesting and not losing its essence or vibe when you're doing your lectures?
I suppose for me, the difference there is that I distinguish between academic and conceptual. Like most people, I find academic writing pretty boring. That's not what I'm trying to defend; I'm trying to defend people that write conceptually.
How much music is actually involved in your lectures, or is it discussion?
Mostly the classes I've been teaching the last few years are film sound. We just watch a huge amount of film clips, and there's a kind of vocabulary of film sound—and, less film music, but film sound—concepts. And if you have a grasp of these concepts, it makes it easier to understand how soundtracks are constructed and therefore how to make them for yourself. We watch films and go through all these concepts, things to do with disembodied voices, on-screen/off-screen diegetic sound, notions of counterpoint to do with sound and image as opposed to just musical elements.
Does it ever at any point turn into Dr. Kode9 talking about dubstep in these classes?
No, I'd probably kill myself [laughs]. I don't talk about music that I'm involved in.
Are you working on a second part to the book right now?
Yeah, it's a sequel [laughs]. It's basically an attempt to flesh out, in a slightly more accessible way, to log the ideas of the book via interviews. It's all going to be made up of interviews with scientists, sound artists, musicians, people working in the sound of advertising and branding, hopefully some military people—although they are really hard to get a hold of—and some cultural theorists. It's really just coloring in the book with detail and personal experience.
You've been publicly talking about the book with a PowerPoint-style presentation. Is that informing how the new book is going to come together?
I have been doing a lot of presentations, but the thing that I suppose pushed me towards it is these series of sound-art installations I've been doing. I did one in Berlin a couple of years ago, one in Sheffield last year, and I'll do one in New York from May until July this year. Which, again, is an attempt to change the book and put it in another media, another format, like build the book into a room. The initial idea was a dark room with lots of big sub-bass woofers and ultrasound speakers—directional ultrasound. The idea was to create a really quiet room, a silent room, but a room that had deep infra-sound vibrations and little pockets of sound that you would only hear as you walked around the room because of the directional audio. So there'd be little bubbles of sound that you'd have to discover by walking around in the dark. It was that, and wanting to develop more content for sound installations. The one in New York is going to have a one-hour fictional-audio documentary.
What sort of venue is it in?
It's in a gallery called Art In General. And I'm like, "Oh, if I'm going to go around interviewing people to generate content for the installation, I may as well collect them together in a book." Also, reading some of the reviews of the first the book, it's clear that—and I knew this would be the case—people were slightly hostile to some of the theory in it, which I kind of expected.
Tell us a little more about that. Are other academics critical of it?
No, not really. I don't feel I've had much response from academia, because it takes much longer to get an academic response. Just the thing that I knew was going to happen: people that know my music are like, "Cool, he's done a book, I'll read it," and then, like, "Fucking hell," after a couple of pages [laughs]. Which I knew was going to happen. There's a series of disclaimers in the introduction about that kind of thing, but I didn't want to water the book down. That's the last thing I wanted to do, to dumb it down so anyone could read it because of the kind of book it was.
You have so many different hats you wear, so to speak, with DJing, the label, production, academic work. Do you find yourself gravitating towards certain roles more as you get older, or is it always in flux?
I'm trying to delegate things that I don't want to continue doing [laughs]. I'm not running the label on my own anymore; I've got someone who is the label manager, who's helping massively, particularly with the press side of things... I didn't get into running a label to run a label, and that's what it's become. Last year, so much stuff happened without me even noticing—I'm like, "Fucking hell." Then you find yourself with this huge pile of paperwork for mechanical royalties. I could be selling drawing pins—it's all bureaucracy. You might as well be selling tires or socks.
It was a busy year, though, for Hyperdub last year.
Yeah, we had almost 20 singles and three albums. I'd be happy to just make music and write and be paid and play live. Everything else is a distraction, like teaching. I'm not sure how long I can... you know, as you get older you can't keep doing everything.
What do you see the role of the label playing these days? Could those artists have the same successes on their own without having this label force behind it?
I love that artists have their own labels, like Ikonika, Cooly G... Terror Danjah just set up a label again. I think that's great, 'cause right from the beginning, even before I give someone feedback on their music, I say, "Just set up your own label. Stop relying on other people to like your music." Obviously, that can work and it can not work for people. I think it's great that the artists on the label are doing their own thing. The label is music I feel passionately about and like a lot. Hopefully, it's a kind of example of how erratic you can be with an A&R policy and everything will be okay. "Erratic" is not the right word—I don't find it erratic. But people seem to find it erratic. People seem to be surprised that I've got this and then this and then this. That kind of confuses me a little bit to the point where, last year, I actually started to believe that thing that people were saying, and I just actually lost the plot altogether and I stopped being able to tell whether I liked something or not. Stopped being able to tell if something was right for the label or not.
How do you know?
Well, you don't know. That's the point. It just feels right or it doesn't feel right. I think I've described it before as, if you get a battery and you put it on your tongue and you get a little bit of an electric shock, that's how you know.
Sonically, the label definitely explores a lot of different sounds. Do you think that parallels the increasing fragmentation of the UK scene?
In a way, maybe it's helped that fragmentation, but from my point of view, I see it more as a bridge, a connect, a patch bay for connecting together all that fragmentation. I don't think fragmentation itself is necessarily that interesting—it's the UK, everything is falling apart, and...? Okay, there is actually no one thing that is amazing enough to hold it all together. That's not so great, really. Fifteen years ago it was jungle and that was holding everything together, or it was UK garage, or.... My sets, I play dubstep, grime, funky, other stuff, and maybe a bit of jungle and so on. Same with the label. It's a kind of hub holding these diverging strands together with some kind of direction. I don't think it's so erratic, the stuff that's on the label. It seems like it has some sort of consistency.
Do you think genre descriptors are important anymore?
I think so. I'm not against genre. I just think it's important that people in genres constantly question the genre and slag it off because ultimately, it's words and at a certain point the usefulness of that word... a genre name is there to help you clarify, communicate with people about what is what, and what works, or to pigeonhole stuff. At a certain point, the reality and the word don't resonate together very accurately... What happened with me and dubstep—at a certain point that word and some of what I was doing didn't connect. That's why sometimes I've come across as, like, I won't say the word. When I've said to people that Hyperdub is not a dubstep label, it's not because I'm against dubstep—it's because some of the stuff we release on Hyperdub isn't dubstep [laughs]. Like the Darkstar album is not dubstep; it's got nothing to do with it.
A lot of these naming conventions are obviously driven by journalists' need to label things. Do you think those kind of cultural filters are important anymore?
I think they're more important now than ever, because we're more snowed under with random bullshit, too much information, shit music. You need filters. So I think more than ever you need good filters with good taste and a sense of the future, and a sense of the direction things are moving in. That's as important for other writers and readers as it is for labels and producers and artists. Okay, so some artists don't read anything and just sit in their studios, but I've always been interested in reading music writing. Because, here's the thing: Good conceptual music writing gives me musical ideas. The one thing you can do faster in writing than you can do in music is splice together ideas. You don't have to splice together two sounds. It's quicker to splice together the ideas and experiment with an idea before you even experiment with a combination of sounds, or make connections between things you wouldn't normally make connections with.
You seem to have an affinity for mystery, whether it's not having your picture shown or overloading your music with subtext with where it's coming from. Is that a response to the too-much-information culture?
Maybe it's just like I don't want to ram myself down people's throats. I think a bit of secrecy and a bit of... making information scarce again—I clearly see some value in that.
In that respect of seeing things go back underground...
I like the idea that it's getting slightly harder for people to [find information], because it's so easy for people to get things.
But there are still unique regional experiences, and I think that despite how much someone might know about London's club scene or whatever, if you don't visit it you don't have an experiential understanding of it. Where are those pockets for you in London that you tap into, whether or not it's finding new people for the label or just for your own enjoyment?
I mean, I probably get most music from a network of friends. I used to be on Rinse every week for about four or five years, and for a while after that I kept listening, but I hardly listen to Rinse anymore because I'm podcast-overloaded. I almost prefer to not know what's going on on Rinse, and just be in my own little world and not try and be pursuing the biggest tracks as fast, because I did that for quite a while and I'm happy to do my own thing and not watch everything. You know, Plastic People is still an amazing place for me, and it's not so much FWD >> anymore, but there are other nights that I just randomly go to. And occasionally I do these all-night things from 10 to 6 where I just play whatever I feel like. Plastic People is still a key place for me, where I can hear music and the way it sounds is completely inspirational. And it's kind of misleading, actually, because you end up making music to play on that system and it will sound shit everywhere else.
When we interviewed Four Tet, he sorta had the same thing to say. Specific to Plastic People, he made tracks for that club, informed by those experiences. Which is a really unique thing. I don't get the sense that people are doing that in, like, New York.
I mean, obviously dubstep had its infatuation with sound, physical sound, and obviously a lot of that came from Plastic People, but, you know, it kind of inherited it and took it elsewhere. And one of the positive things about dubstep is that it reminded people about the importance of the sound being loud enough but not painful. Maybe, the most important legacy of dubstep has been reminding people of that. There is something very powerful about that.
When you talk about dubstep's legacy... I'm really curious what you think about dubstep in the US and how it's mutated in different ways?
I mean, I don't really know. It's really off my radar, to be honest. I hear the odd horror story about friends of mine who had to play on certain line-ups, but to be honest, it's kind of off my radar. Obviously, I've heard of brostep [laughs].
Even Rusko was sort of denouncing the brostep thing that he accidentally kickstarted. I know you can't necessarily take responsibility for where it went, but...
No, I mean, once you give birth to something, you don't have control over it. There are certain moments in the last 10 years, like when Loefah did "Horrorshow" and opened up this whole thing about really minimal half-step, and when Coki did "Haunted" or Skream did "Blipstream" and opened up the world of the wobble. I can even hear it with the first version of my track "Black Sun," and I'm constantly hearing that same droning, pitch-bent synth everywhere, and now with some, like, pitched-up helium vocals. And I don't dislike it necessarily, but it has nothing to do with me—it's just what happens. It's funny, you know, formulas aren't necessarily bad things, but it's interesting how they come out of certain tracks and spread about. And if you're not careful, you can consume too much and then you're not interested in it anymore.
I know you have the one collaboration with Flying Lotus on the new album. Do you follow that sort of LA-centric so-called "beat scene" at all?
A little bit. I love Flying Lotus' stuff. I loved his last album. I know most of the guys, and the people that are involved in it—all really cool people. It's not something that's big on my radar. I mean, I love the general vibe—it's growing and growing and has a lot of its own internal intricacy, but it has a sound, and you can kind of pinpoint that sound just like you can pinpoint certain styles of dubstep, so I don't follow every single release. The stuff that I always loved, coming out of LA, was the stuff with vocals. For me, that was more singular than the instrumental beats. Stuff like Sa-Ra, which was more in that tradition of fucked-up psychedelic R&B. Flying Lotus is slightly separate for me, especially his last album, which went so many different places and is compressed with so many ideas... You know, the idea of instrumental hip-hop, a bit like dubstep or instrumental grime, only appeals to me to a certain extent, but I don't think his album is instrumental hip-hop. Brainfeeder is most interesting to me the more it deviates and spreads out from instrumental hip-hop.
Did you ever have any interest in straight-up techno or house?
Kind of, but not massively. I kind of worked this out in an interview the other day, because I've never been a huge house and techno fan, even though I've played quite a lot. And I've never been a huge hip-hop fan, even though I love a lot of hip-hop. Just thinking about the kind of DJing I've been doing for the past 20 years, it's always been suspended between house and hip-hop—house and techno on the one hand, and hip-hop [on the other]. Jungle and maybe 2-step and UK garage was like this perfect poised fusion between hip-hop and that broken or breakbeat culture on the one hand and house and techno on the other. So, grime, dubstep, UK funky, UK garage, jungle, hardcore... they've all been on this diagonal in between hip-hop culture on one hand, and house and techno on the other. And they've always been quite antagonistic cultures, whether it's because hip-hop is such a misogynist culture that thinks house and techno is gay, or whether house and techno has got its own—it doesn't want to listen to people's experiences and voices—it's got its own discriminations against hip-hop culture. Yeah, so I've never been so into either side, but this thing in the middle seems to be what I've been following musically.
Since you hold such a respected position in the music scene, do you feel any extra pressure when you're releasing something? Do you feel like everything needs to be a definitive statement, or do you feel limited in your ability to just try things out because it has to come from the Kode9?
No, not at all. I mean, the only limit is last year I think I started to lose the plot of it, where I didn't trust—I stopped trusting my own ability to say, "Fuck you, I'm putting this out because I like it." It's not that I stopped doing it, but I just started to question some of the stuff too much. But generally, if I like something enough, it's a bit of a fuck-you attitude. It's like, "I think this is great. I don't give a shit if you don't like it, because if you don't now, you will learn to like it."… The fact that there is no pressure is because we are in a nice position where people are quite open-minded about the label. But last year I did lose it.
Do you feel like you've got it back, especially with your new album coming out?
I'm really happy with the first few releases we're doing. The Morgan Zarate release I think is fantastic, and the Funkystepz release I think is really fantastic. And they are two new artists on the label who've come with something completely different from everything on the label, and I'm DJing with them, which I don't always do—with releases. I think last year was a lot of experimenting with how wide we could spread out. I have a feeling that this year is a bit more—I don't know what the word is—classic. Classic Hyperdub, as opposed to stretching out and seeing how wide we could go last year. I don't think we'll release as many singles this year; I think we'll try and keep it more focused.
Thematically with your music, it seems like a lot of it touches on paranoia, existential dread, and a real sense of foreboding. Do you think those are still important themes for you to work with?
I don't think they're that important in this album. To be honest, I think we exorcised the dread thing in the first track; we kind of deal with the first album on the first track of the new album. We deal with it with a lot more energy than we had on the first album. I don't think the album is particularly dreadful or paranoid or claustrophobic. I mean, it's certainly still set in a post-apocalyptic world, and it has a whole fiction surrounding it that you'll get when you see the artwork (there is a little graphic-novel kind of comic strip in the artwork that we're still working on). Me and Spaceape, we look back on that first album and we're like, "Fucking hell!" When I was talking to someone the other day, I was trying to look up the words for sleepwalking, like somnambulistic or something, and for us anyways it feels so catatonic. I pitched Spaceape's voice right down, and the rhythms are very linear, and I listen back on it, and think, "Wow." I don't how we got into that headspace to make music with that much weight on top of it. So we just didn't want to do something like that on the second album; we wanted it to have a bit more energy, and, I mean, it's not a carefree album by a longshot [laughs]—it's not jokey or frivolous or whatever. It still takes place in this post-apocalyptic world, but it's more surreal than it is dread. We wanted it to have more energy, feel more awake or more alert, and [have] more color. I didn't really use analog synths on the first album, and there are a lot of them on this album.
What sort of outside factors inspired it? What kind of things were you looking to, or was there anything conscious?
Going back to the Brainfeeder thing, when I met Flying Lotus, I was inspired by his music and Samiyam's, the way they use synths—totally. And that changed something in my ears, because dubstep was very grey at that point. That's the influence that that stuff has had on me—sidechained synths, breathing, really colorful synth melodies—particularly Samiyam and FlyLo. Not so much the beat thing, but their synths. But actually, nothing inspired the album, really. It's just like years of sweat and blood and interruption. I mean, you can ask Spaceape what inspired his lyrics, because he can tell you a lot about that. What inspired it musically is really just... you know, it's partly the fictional thing: We're trying to create a fictional world, and so you're like painting with sounds or trying to color in this imaginary world, so each track is like a different scene. Doing this graphic-novel thing with an artist friend of mine in New York, this guy Raz Mesinai, the musician Badawi. So he's doing the mini-graphic novel for the album, and just working with him on that, it's almost like we're doing a storyboard to an invisible film that never gets past the storyboard phase. Just trying to put images to this stuff—that is a really interesting, and new process for us.
What's the packaging going to look like?
The packaging is done by our usual artist Manuel [Sepulveda, who designed this issue's cover].
He runs Citinite.
Yeah, which is an amazing label as well—really inspirational label. So the packaging looks like a Japanese woodblock; it's like a desert landscape with a huge, really vivid orange sun kind of refracted through these clouds so it comes out green through the clouds. This fictional world that the album takes place in is a world after an unclassified radioactive event, so it's not that the world is destroyed and dark like a wasteland—it's just that everything is a bit weird and glows in a strange way. And the atmosphere is a bit polluted and toxic, therefore the sun comes through in these weird colors—green sun, black sun. And the characters in this world react to this event in different ways, because the radioactivity makes people's bodies mutate, but there is a lot of people in the story who react badly to that and seek salvation in monotheistic religions, and we call them the Othermen. And then the other people in this story, I think we have more affinity with, take this synthetic substance called The Cure, which allows them to survive in this polluted atmosphere. So instead of seeking salvation in some Babylon-type place, the last line of the story is "they stay and remain to bathe under the black sun." The story came after the tracks; we wrote all the tracks and then were like, "What the fuck have we just done?" And then we were like, "That lyric resonates with that, and that with that," and then we built the whole story after in order to have a visualization of the art.
And the idea of futurism, or exploring the future, it seems like the idea of your album is some sort of future...
It's more implicit in this album and it was more explicit in the last album.
Do you think the idea of futurism is still really worth pursuing? At what point has the future arrived?
Now! [laughs] For me, of course it is, because all that means is being shocked by hearing something new, and that's the core of it—the shock of the new. I can't imagine not wanting to be shocked or surprised by new music. It's not like I listen to new music all the time; I often find myself looping around old albums that are my favorite. But you get into a holding pattern with your listening habits just because you're not hearing stuff that's taking you somewhere else. And obviously sometimes you get that shock from hearing something old that you've never heard before, but for me it's just about there being some change, and everything's not standing still. Because that's when you have to call in the straight jacket—when nothing is changing. There's this J.G. Ballard story called "The Day That Lasts Forever" in which the earth stops spinning and there is no night or day, the clock stops, everything stays the same. There's no night, so people find it hard to sleep and they stop dreaming and their awake life becomes a dream life, and becomes hallucinogenic. Anyway, that's all cool, but then I found this line that was great: the night never comes, but there is this character and she's like, "I feel the night coming in like a black sun on my face," which is great because it's the feeling of some kind of change.
A Few Words With Spaceape:
XLR8R: Tell me about your first meeting with Kode9... when and where did it take place?
The Spaceape: I met Kode through a friend over 10 years ago. He used to DJ in South London as well as run the online journal that was Hyperdub back then. I used to go to some of the nights and hang out. It wasn't until we shared a flat together around 2002 that we began working together. It took quite a while before we actually recorded anything. Kode would always say, "I gotta get you on the mic and record something one day," but we were both busy doing our own things at the time. I remember one evening we were listening to music, chatting about tunes we liked, playing each other vinyl we had in our collections. Kode again suggested we record something. Back then I was writing short stories that were lyrical in their flow, but primarily I was a video artist running my own project called Uncoded. So, being a massive Prince fan—up to and not much beyond Lovesexy [laughs]—I picked up the Sign "O" the Times album and read the lyrics to "Sign o' the Times" in Jamaican patois over a low bass pulse. That one-take recording became "Sine of the Dub" (or "Sine"), and we've been working together ever since.
Do you write all the lyrics for your collaborations with Kode9?
With the exception of our first two releases, "Sine of the Dub" and "Spit," which were covers, I write all the lyrics for our collaborations. Initially, Kode used to give me a rhythm and I'd write something to it. However, now it's moved on. With this album, I'd write something and maybe record a vocal for Kode to make a beat for. Sometimes it would be the other way 'round. We also spent much more time in the studio together on this album, and I'd be on my laptop writing stuff whilst Kode was busy trying to get a drum sound or something.
What sort of themes did you aim to explore with Black Sun?
Well, I didn't know what I wanted to explore when I started writing for this album. But I knew I didn't want to cover things I'd written about on Memories of the Future. I began writing about things that either touched me or hurt me in some way, and as I was writing, and the stories moved further and further away from me, it became clear these stories inhabited the same world. A place that breathed a different atmosphere; had different rules; politics; desires; religions; even a different light to our own. We wanted to create an accelerated sonic fiction where elements of what we know still exist but are now either warped or fragmented. I wrote a "love song," "Promises"—it's about an illicit, destructive love that seems impossible but exists in the world created for it.
Can you run through the genesis of a couple more of the tracks?
One of things I tried to do was create characters, and through them we can navigate the new landscape. This is evident on tracks like "Neon Red Sign" and "Promises." In "Neon," I had the line "He saw a neon red sign today" in my head, which actually came from listening to The Beatles' "A Day in the Life," with the great opening line, "I read the news today/Oh, boy!" I write about a man on the run from prophets warning him about his future. "Otherman" started out as a short story about the uneasy relation between two tribes who love and loathe each other in equal measure. They are one and the same but can't see through the hatred and envy. It is one of the tracks on the album that has no chorus or obvious vocal hook. I rearranged it slightly, but it is still essentially how I originally wrote the story.
How much of the lyric-writing process and song formation is informed by your live performances with Kode9?
A lot of this album was born out of our live set. Our live set is very free and fast moving. There are no breaks in tracks—just one hour of continuous sounds. We curdle a lot of sounds together that can sound literally sick, but work for us. And lyrically, it's similar in that I freestyle more on stage and certain things that I think work, I bring to the studio and record. For example, towards the end of the opening track "Black Smoke," I repeat the refrain "I wonder seeing heavy black smoke ahead" over and over again. This came because I was doing it live and it added an intensity and a climax the track needed.
Black Sun is out now on Hyperdub.
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