Swans and why a continent has sunk into musical myopia.
An education professor with decades of experience of academia in both the United States and Britain once explained to me what he thought was the greatest difference between the two nations. Americans, he said, dislike confrontation and will always attempt to seek a point of reconciliation, no matter if it means giving up their own ideas or ideals. The result, he felt, was a rather bland compromise. English educational institutions, on the other hand, were far more enervating: two sides would by and large refuse to budge, but listen open minded to the opposition, and take pleasure in the intellectual joust. The debate would end with both parties still somewhere near their starting point, or occasionally entirely converted. But all would agree that they had learned through the confrontation, however bruising it might have been.
We are living in a cloud cuckoo land, and we are listening to its songs, streaming eternally and interminably from the new transistors that are our tinny laptop speakers. We exist in a time where the cultural palette has become limited and discourse tamed just as the internet was supposed to usher forth a new age of enlightenment and democracy. Just as the mainstream – be it in the form of exploitative television talent pop shows, the great, tone-deaf leveller of Autotune or a vulgar celebrity culture – has become ever harsher there has been a corresponding backslide by what used to be an alternative culture into a banal comfort zone. The generation that became conscious adults at the internet’s birth (and many older) all-too-often refuses to engage with the reality of our troubled present, and the prospect of darkness ahead: economic downturn, long-term Western decline, the erosion of democracy, widening class divisions, a world continuously in a brutal, one-sided war with an enemy who cannot reach us, the prospect of environmental catastrophe via global warming. The high security entrance lobby of your desirable East River waterfront condominium isn’t that far above sea level, you know. It has raised the white flag of irony in surrender to the mainstream, and refuses to attack its new ruler in fear of being accused of snobbery.
This is an educated generation who you’d previously have expected to be engaged, politicized, always on the look out for where progression in art and music grated against the status quo, causing sparks to fly. Instead, educated white American youth sinks into a cosy wash of nostalgia. Meanwhile, as one of the most privileged generations that the world has ever seen, it accrues the signifiers of fashionable belonging as badges to attract affirmation from its peers. This shame is then hidden behind a digital figleaf.
You don’t have to click far to see the signifiers for this shift away from an underground that defined itself in opposition to the mainstream. Take the Hipstamatic iPhone app, from which thousands and thousands of images filtered to appear as if they have been taken by an vintage camera pour forth across Tumblr and Facebook in a cascade of megalolz. All this posting and reposting, done away from the real world in the privacy of one’s expensive and small but ideally located apartment, is done to a stolen soundtrack. A bewildering array of music, none of which is paid for, fills a variety of electronic devices, generally those designed by the late Steve Jobs and mass produced in Chinese sweat shops (how many $5 a pop coffee shops aren’t lit by the Apple glow?).
Just as sales of music by independent labels are a mere 20 to 50% of what they were before file sharing really began to bite, the internet has merely unleashed rampant neophilia. Thousands of blogs have sprung up in the wake of the collapse of the mainstream print media, and they scrabble to be the first to post a track. It’s a culture of want want want with no reward for the actual creator. There’s no time for deep engagement. The digital surfer merely wishes to bounce along the tops of the waves. This superficiality of engagement has happened simultaneously with a lightness in music that is a perfect aesthetic fit with Hipstamatic and tumblr’s transient, nostalgic goo.
The fog coming across the Atlantic to Britain takes many forms. There’s chillwave, that music that takes the melody and synthetic aesthetic of 80s pops, adds layers and layers of wash and muffled vocals, as if you’re listening to it at the bottom of a swimming pool. It seems cruel to blame Animal Collective, who have had their moments of brilliance over the years, but its certainly in their wake that this paradigm shift has occurred, and artists such as Washed Out and Toro Y Moi risen to prominence. This music is content to exist only in the digital realm where its creators can proclaim themselves kings. If Warhol pointed to a future where anyone could be famous for 15 minutes, you can now be famous to 15 bloggers with 15 megabytes of your indifferent, tossed-off music. Then there’s the retrogressive garage rock or grunge revival groups such as Wavves, Kurt Vile, or Vivian Girls, who proclaim that life is about chilling out with a beer, the rush of good time guitar, songs about a girl/boy, like um yeah whatever. Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Brooklyn’s insufferable cutesy merchants, are perhaps most guilty of this as, in their track ‘My Terrible Friends’, they sum up the imaginative limit of this smug culture: “Everyone is pretty and fun / Everyone is lovely and young”.
Of course, this is not simply an American phenomenon. We have our own troubles with tedious bedroom musicians and plaid shirt scruffs. Dalston, an area of London well photographed by the Hipstamatic, is awash with bands who dream that an American passport might one day be theirs. Groups like Yuck, Male Bonding, Mazes and The History Of Apple Pie form a scene that seems, at times, to be a celebration of its own social life of bad beer and pictures of parties that don’t even look as if they were fun for those who were there. From their hip postcode, they look only to America for aesthetic inspiration. Elsewhere in the UK, there are signs that a new reality is emerging; evidence that finally, we have an alternative.
On Wednesday, September 28th, 2011 the three-piece powerhouse known as Factory Floor took the stage in Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory. It’s hard to gauge what reverberations have made it across the Atlantic to shape expectations of exactly what Factory Floor might be, or do. The US online media now has such a lockdown that it seems if you are not granted text or an MP3 post, your Stateside “career” is denied permission to lift off. Even in this time of rampant neophilia and border breakdown, only approved messages are heard.
This is in part entirely understandable. For years, and especially following the Britpop bubble, the UK sent to America a tiresome and beige parade of idiotic indie bands, skinny of trouser and even more slender in song, preening, idiotic buffoons who’d been hyped to the heavens in our music press (it still gasps, just about). These herberts, who shame every Briton, would spend weeks holed up in a rehearsal room, rented by the hour in a warren of similar no-hopers, sorting out their eight songs to be as tight as their trousers, all the better to be performed before the record industry people who would go and see them in the major US cities. They arrogantly believed they would descend a la Beatles from their flight into JFK to kiss American soil, American lips. It never worked – they’d inevitably and always implode in the face of long roads by day, and nights in the face of Middle American indifference and hostility. You must be thankful these times are over. We in Britain certainly are, and we apologise for inflicting them on you. But let’s move on. It’s unfair that we are constantly beaten with that stick. It’s Factory Floor’s turn to hit you back.
Factory Floor have been beating me for, what, three and a half years now, since I first saw them in London on a hot Saturday afternoon when everyone else was outdoors. They were startling even then, a group making strange new shapes out of a scientist’s blueprints, discovered in a dark bunker. At the time in London there were a lot of serious groups evoking the elements of post punk that found themselves at home on the likes of Mute in the early 80s, but Factory Floor, along with These New Puritans, stood out from the rest of what has subsequently been mockingly termed Shoreditch Darkwave. This was largely their own doing: Factory Floor evolved fast in front of our eyes, and distanced themselves from the self-consciously callow youths with their buttoned-to-the-top shirts and copies of Artaud Made Easy. It was when they first unleashed the clanking, caustic beast that is ‘Lying’ that Factory Floor started to evolve from a group you enjoyed going to see to a group you had to go to see, at whatever opportunity presented itself. Anyone who you took to see them would themselves become evangelical, as would the likes of Paul Smith, who ran the infamous Blast First label, and released Factory Floor’s debut single, or the Optimo label from Glasgow. Then musicians who felt that Factory Floor were picking up the gauntlet they had laid down decades ago: Stephen Morris of New Order and Joy Division, Chris Carter of Throbbing Gristle and Carter Tutti, who said that “the energy in their performance and live sound was the closest thing to TG we’d ever seen.”
Factory Floor are not a band, in your usual sense of a group of guys and or girls who get together, hang out, play tunes, do some gigs, exorcise the itch of that failed relationship in yet another weary rolling out of the tedious lyrical paradigm of post war rock & roll. Over the past three years they’ve become to feel like a shape, an organism, indestructible as it evolves and grows and develops. One night they played a set that built into an air-sucking noise that had the XL A&R scouts there to see them run from the venue with their fingers in their ears. The very next day they were beautiful, melodic, riding a futuristic, Germanic sound that pointed towards their evolution into a group who could combine a live drummer and noise with electronic music and celebrate the best of all worlds. Detach members and it works just as well: For two gigs this past summer, Chris Carter replaced Dominic Butler. Both surrendered ego to the greater cause. The songs were different, more acid-tinged, maybe, but even Carter, that pioneer of electronic music, paid service to Factory Floor as an entity bigger than its members.
Then in May this year, at Mute’s Short Circuit Festival at the London Roundhouse (a converted engine shed), Nik Cold Void joined Carter Tutti for a part-improvised performance: “I think that’s what got us about Factory Floor, the approach is very similar to ours,” Cosey Fanni Tutti told me at the time. “The motivation is central to what they do. I think people underestimate the determination you have with your work, or the integrity, just because you have a looseness about your approach to it, or you have a sense of humour. But that is secondary to the motivation and the reason why you’re doing it, which is a solid foundation. And I think that’s what comes through with them. Some people you make a connection with, and it’s there from the beginning, and some people I never want to see again.”
Like Throbbing Gristle, Factory Floor have been mistaken as dour, inhumane, angry, unwelcoming, goth, arrogant, nihilistic. Like Throbbing Gristle, and Carter Tutti, their music is actually joyous, moving, sensual, escapist, intellectual, thought-provoking, hedonistic, ritual. Part of this miscomprehension is surely in the sheer power of what they do, and how in the Age Of Fuzz And Wash we are detuned from potent sonics, especially electronics. The Song Of America has always been played on the guitar. In the Age Of Nostalgia, we crave the familiar, which perhaps does not sit well with the unsuspecting who are confronted by Factory Floor, who every night unconsciously allow their allotted hour to progress and evolve in an entirely new way. This is experimentation with focus, the bravery to challenge themselves and demand that those in front of them make the choice too.
“I can tell there must be British people here, people are dancing,” an American shouts into my ear at the Knitting Factory as Factory Floor’s new single, imminently to be released via DFA, starts its one-two rumble around the room. “Two different ways… to let you back in…” intones Nik Colk Void, and electrics zip around our head. People start to jerk, to contort. Others look decidedly confused. Gabriel Gurnsey, drummer, sits hunched forward. Ratatata ratatata tatatata. A couple walk out looking perplexed, making the incorrect decision. This has only just begun. For a long time the power in Factory Floor’s music seemed to come from the tension between the three members – all ultimately indestructible shapes have to be tested within seconds or millimetres of their breaking points. Factory Floor, who live, work and record in a vast warehouse next to a clothes sweatshop in a part of London away from the kidult playpen of fashionable Dalston, are isolationists. For a long time it felt as if something so pure and honestly delivered couldn’t possibly last, that we’d never hear another recorded note of sound, that as the arpeggiator plunged into the deep well of static, it might be for the last time.
There’s less fear of that now, but that’s not to say that Factory Floor are in any way diminished. At exactly 11 pm, the same time on the next night, September 29th, 2011, they’re on the far side of the Hudson River in Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge. As threatened, as predicted but never expected or taken for granted, Factory Floor again push forward against their own envelope. A new track takes life tonight for the first time, sounding like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s brain signals captured and turned into a power weapon in a future 1957. It’s hard to fathom why our neophiliac generation will devote so much effort trawling the virtual sphere for little whiffs of artificial freshness when they could experience this, twice within the space of 24 hours. Why does everyone seem so afraid?
Another British group also play New York on September 28th and 29th 2011. Radiohead first took America by storm with ‘Creep’, a song that articulated the clichéd self-loathing of grunge via a catchy guitar crunch, singalong chorus and Thom Yorke’s then ludicrous blond hair. Tonight, they’re to be found at the New York Roseland Ballroom, $80 entry, contact your friendly Ticketmaster agent. Just as back in the early-90s they knew how to package skuzzy rock angst for American reception so today they know exactly how to deliver their take on what being an experimental rock band is: U2 without the sense of humour, but a canny appreciation for contemporary polite electronic music. Radiohead is experimental music for those who cannot bear to leave the trusted format of the rock group. This marketing trip to America is impressive: the band that once sang the nihilistic Talk Show Host “I want to be someone else or I’ll explode / You want me, well fucking well come and find me / I’ll be waiting with a gun and a pack of sandwiches” took time to appear on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
The trouble with Radiohead is not to do with an outdated notion of selling out – hell, if the iPod generation aren’t going to pay for records you’ve got to make a living somehow – but their status as a cultural signifier. Radiohead peddle a similar myth to Apple, who manage to be seen as the individualistic underdog despite being the most profitable company on earth. In Radiohead’s case, it’s that they proclaim a stick it to the Evil Music Biz Suits attitude via their supposedly novel means of distributing their music. This conveniently ignores the time and money invested by their former label EMI over many, many years, and skips over the many and documented problems encountered by those who have tried to purchase their physical records once they left the official distribution system. I imagine their gig at the Roseland Ballroom was proficient, awash with strange sounds and interest. Nobody can deny that Radiohead are a very, very clever group, in marketing as much as music. As Factory Floor continued to work towards a definition of a new future, did Radiohead just do what they’ve done for more the past ten years now: make a few squiggles and pass it off as revolution? I’d bet any money that in the backs of the minds of those present was a nagging doubt circling again and again, that what they really wanted to hear and sing along to was something else: “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo…” Aren’t we all different, all of us together? Fitter, happier, more productive.
Which is strange, because for the first time since I started visiting America regularly 15 years ago, it feels like a negative space. “That’s the last good thing about this country, cheap vinyl” a man in a record store says with a sigh of resignation. Ten years ago, the UK was the nation of music fans who never moved at concerts, who were weary, cynical, lost in nostalgia, disengaged. Back then you gave us At The Drive In, Erase Errata, Numbers, Ex Models, Black Dice, Wolf Eyes, Liars, brilliant debuts by Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Interpol, the early rumblings of doom metal. Since then, it feels as if we might just have developed our own underground, which American indie rock has long seemed to sniff at us for lacking. We had no choice: the ten year period that began with what the NME laughably termed The New Rock Revolution saw a boom in guitar groups who would be treated seriously by the mainstream press despite being nothing more than their haircuts or expensive school upbringing.
This has meant that, beneath it, a genuine and diverse UK underground has sprung up. Creativity in Britain moved online, or into the fringes. There are fewer boundaries. Different networks began to develop. The British lightened up, rediscovered a dark sense of humour, especially now that we’ve an out-of-touch, right wing government of budget slashing aristocrats. We’ve done what the British always do best, not hide away, but utter a belly laugh in the face of adversity, and have a good time while doing it.
There’s a key aesthetic difference too. In the US 1980s, as a reaction to a saccharine mainstream, hardcore and punk culture in the US – probably rightly – developed an almost deliberate anti-image. This, though, evolved into grunge and the slacker aesthetic, which then sank into the late capitalist co-option of the once-alternative cultures by our privileged friends in the tumblring cities. Scruffy attire, scruffy minds, scruffy music. That’s what we’re getting, by and large but of course with exceptions, from America. We in Britain have never forgotten that David Bowie, Adam Ant, and Gary Numan were our heroes, all artists who were pioneers in both the outré, the decadent, and the progressive, which is why our two best groups with a nicely turned shoe in both the leftfield and mainstream are The Horrors and Wild Beasts. And when it comes to the even darker fringes, we’ve a different take: as a learned colleague of mine, the writer John Doran has written, “the avant garde is only good if you can drink to it, fuck to it and dance to it.”
The chief conduit between Britain and America for drinking, fucking, dancing music from the leftfield over the past decade has been the always-righteous and usually debauched All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. In many ways it’s strange that ATP has become seen by many as being an importer of American indie rock to British shores, as it was at that festival that I first saw the likes of Aphex Twin, Throbbing Gristle, Merzbow, Sunn O))). For a festival supposedly full of shrinking violets it’s notoriously hedonist, too: at the December 2008 edition, every venue smelled so strongly of the hugely popular synthetic MDMA and cocaine hybrid known as meow meow or plant food that artists mentioned it from the stage.
ATP in Asbury Park feels very different, not least because the Saturday and Sunday sees Portishead curating a British invasion with the likes of Anika, The Pop Group, Thought Forms, Mogwai and Factory Floor. ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror is in an incredible setting, in buildings next to the famous boardwalk along the Atlantic coast. The place stinks of all-American musical history – you can barely move without being told that Bruce Springsteen came here to sing and scratch his arse. Johnny Cash had a suite of rooms in the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel for years. It’s where ATP have their production office for the duration of the weekend.
Before Swans, who play in the famous Paramount Theatre, I’m looking over the shoulder of the man seated in front of me scrolling through pictures on his phone (a girl holding a dog, an amusingly-named confectionary brand) and reading his BBMs: “the layout is awesome, the bands are great. Jeff Magnum nearly made me cry,” he writes. Fuck knows what Swans will make him do.
“Just because you have seats here doesn’t mean you can’t stand up, you lard-ass Americans. Stand the fuck up and get some exercise. Come forward. This is a rock show. I am not your polite act.” – M Gira, Paramount Theatre Asbury Park New Jersey, October 1st 2011
It’s entirely apt that M Gira’s astonishing group (they never broke up, they never reformed, but slumbered) play in a theatre that looks as if it has been stopped just in time from reaching a state of Detroit-style dereliction. The paint is cracking and the seats move strangely. The ticket attendant mutters anxiously that we must move forward as “there are no more tickets, no more, all sold out tonight”. Swans music is post-industrial music, technically, in terms of where they came from. But it’s also post-everything music, like Factory Floor never nihilist but strong and human in an incantation, a spell, a prayer, a chant for two drums, bells, bass and slide guitar. In the hands of Swans, the romance is what you take by your surrender to them, and M Gira’s gob and spit, the intensity of this sound. Where Factory Floor are the triangle that cannot be moved, Swans compress everything into a brutal beauty. Their first track is as intense a 25 minutes as you’ll hear in modern music. The set, at nearly two hours, is exhausting. Many cannot stomach it, and leave. If Factory Floor is an emerging entity that could go in so many ways, Swans lurch from the past and prove themselves to bepossibly the greatest and most subversive rock and roll band on the planet right now. They genuinely destroy its orthodoxies, BBQ the sacred cows. I find myself thinking, in this room where Johnny Cash played on July 27th 1990, that if Swans played a harmonica it’d still sound like beyond the end of the world. And as if by magic, M Gira whips one out, and of course it does.
America has, in these times, become incapable of taking to heart anything except “your polite acts”. There are exceptions, of course. The greatest American group from the past ten years (and worthy heirs to American greats such as Swans, Suicide, Butthole Surfers, Shellac) is Liars, who combine intellect, sensuality, experimentation, primitive instincts. Yet they seem largely to be ignored at home, finding their aesthetic niche in Europe and the United Kingdom. I am often accused of being naïve to believe as I do that an appreciation of envelope-pushing artists like Factory Floor or Swans or Liars or The Body or Einstürzende Neubauten or My Disco or New War or Cold Cave or Alva Noto or Byetone or Prurient or Death Grips is not difficult to develop. I am often accused of enjoying the soundtrack to my own private (very loud) cloud cuckoo land. But to deny the universal potential of practioners of intense musical art is to also deny – snobbishly – the ability of the populace to comprehend. It is only the mass market and the mass media that has blunted our receptors and forced us into a docile state. That this has now happened, through the co-option and marketing machinations of voracious late capitalism, to what was once an alternative, is a disaster that must be fought. With Factory Floor, we have a weapon against complacency. M Gira knows this, and was spotted during their final set at ATP close up against the speakers, absorbing. Follow his example. Listen. Open your ears. Do what the man says: “Stand the fuck up and get some exercise.” In your bodies, and most of all in your mind.
Luke Turner is the Associate Editor at The Quietus.
This article was originally published at RIOT OF PERFUME magazine number one.