Bass mutator


By Robin Howells

Imagine a world where radioactive catastrophe isn’t just a threat again, but a pervasive event that changes everything under an inverted sun. Bodies, desires, love and religion are turned upside down, within the prism of a mutagenic atmosphere. This is what Kode 9 and The Spaceape have done on their second album “Black Sun”. It’s a striking example of what the former calls “sonic fiction”, and yet another illustration of the ambitions that set the pair apart; it’s hard to imagine anything similar being tried by others from the fallout zone that now borders the slow implosion of dubstep.

Otherwise known as Steve Goodman, Kode 9 intrigues on a number of levels. Often it’s to do with an ability (perhaps through bloody-mindedness) to do things two ways. His label Hyperdub began with a gesture of deviance, the release of beatless tone poem “Sine Of The Dub”, a cut barely present on the wax but for a smothered throb of bass and Spaceape’s treacly, moribund croak. It has continued along the much same path, trawling outside of safe waters to bring in a loosely woven (but oddly familial) diaspora of artists. Somehow at the same time, Goodman remains a reluctant figurehead for dubstep’s global fans. Perhaps it’s because he dirtied his hands under the bonnet of the genre early on, lending his services to Rinse FM, the FWD night and the seminal “Dubstep Allstars” mix series. No doubt it matters too that Hyperdub curates the recorded output of Burial, still dubstep’s furthest-reaching crossover phenomenon.

On top of all this there’s the unusual dichotomy that couples Goodman’s music with his career in academia. As well as teaching at a London university, last year he published the book, “Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear”, and is presently working on its follow-up.

Appropriately for such a shifting entity and sometime inhabitant of sonic nether regions, this Friday 8th April he appears at the Bass Mutations event in New York with Lone, Appleblim, Spatial and KiNK. The night forms part of the city’s second Unsound Festival, a spin-off from its established yearly predecessor in Poland. Ahead of the show we made contact to discuss audio viruses, low-end terminology and the ritual burning of tabloid newspapers (which may not be a joke).

According to The Spaceape, your new album together depicts a world under an inverted “black sun”. Presumably the idea developed from the title of your 2009 single. Was it mostly his work or did you devise the concept together? Imagination aside, does the album respond to some of the perversities of life under our own sun?

The concept of “Black Sun” came from me doing ritual burnings of copies of The Sun newspaper, back in 2008 in my kitchen sink, when that tabloid ran a campaign to unveil Burial during his nomination for the Mercury Prize. It then became the name of my 2009 single and evolved into a sonic fiction from there. It’s a fiction based in our real experiences, that has some coincidental and accidental resonances with the real world. After we finished the album and its artwork, I came across a mention of the phrase “black sun” in the short story “Day Of Forever” by JG Ballard, which was totally on point with our usage as well.

How will the artwork and so on to flesh out the story?

The cover artwork by Manny Optigram depicts the scorched earth of our story, and Spaceape's lyrics and graphic illustrations inside by Raz Mesinai tell the story.

The idea of a “sonic fiction” is something author and critic Kodwo Eshun elaborates on in his book “More Brilliant Than The Sun”. Perhaps part of the point is that he sets up a game of interference and feedback between writing and listening. Do you ever find ideas from your own writing or others’ crossing over into music-making itself?

Sure. It can be a phrase or an image from fiction. I used to be musically inspired by Kodwo’s work when he did write about music. Really, I don’t see much music journalism as inspiring in that way these days.

You’ve described certain releases on your label (for instance by Samiyam and Quarta 300) in terms of a particular sonic pleasure, produced by raw, unfiltered synthesiser tones. This is something you’ve adopted yourself on “Black Sun”. How do you achieve these shiver-inducing sounds? Do you find hardware gives better results than software plug-ins?

Yes, there are loads of hardware synths on this album, but also some processed soft-synths injected with some life to make them sound less sterile. You can do a lot with soft-synths, but I treated this album as an excuse to give some love and attention to my neglected analog synths.

On the album, “The Cure” sounds as if it makes obvious use of sampling. Elsewhere though it’s not so much in evidence. Given your background in music where sampling is a basic technique – and also an important symbol of pirate ethics – how did you end up making something closer to pure synthesiser music?

The first half of the album is much more sample based – “Black Smoke”, “Promises”, “Neon” and “The Cure” all grew out of core samples. Part of the narrative is that after the rise of the black sun, everything is different, and you can kind of hear that in the ordering of tracks on the album. Making music is always a learning experience for me – on this album I wanted to learn more about my synthesizers and what I could do with them. But the way I use them is just like sampling. I'll mess around for hours while recording, and then sample the earworms that grab me. It’s still sampling, but this time I'm sampling from myself.

Apart from The Spaceape, you’ve also worked with a singer called Cha Cha. Your treatment of her vocals is also a kind of sampling, disembodying and dismembering them in the way 2-step producers used to sample R&B singers. Why did you decide to butcher her (so to speak) rather than having her perform on her own?

I don't think I butchered her at all. I really just used her great vocals to complement the finished tracks we had. She is a very talented vocalist who writes full songs, but her voice on this album was a crucial but very specific ingredient in the whole recipe, so it had to be chopped and layered to work.

You’ve talked about musical “viruses” spreading like contagions. What are some of the pathogenic organisms people might be able to spot on the album?

For the last few years I’ve been infected by the funky worm virus stemming from the Ohio Players track of the same name. I've been more interested in how those squiggly synths spread across genres than the genres themselves. It is the funky worm virus that dictated the change of music direction of Hyperdub a few years ago, and even though it appeared a tiny bit on “Memories Of The Future” on “Portal”, it was telling me much more strongly what to do on this album. My synths don't sound so much like other strains of funky worm, but I'm definitely its puppet.

Have some of the viruses infecting your first album “Memories Of The Future” died out naturally in your music? I'm thinking particularly of ones that are now obvious signifiers for dubstep, like the half-step beat. Or is it that they've been deliberately eradicated?

Their potency faded a bit and others took over me.

Before you've talked about how eccentric or off-centre rhythm can get before it becomes alienating, and about how, at the edge, people are forced to learn to dance in new ways. What has occupied this zone since dubstep and where are you looking in order to find rhythmic danger?

UK funky has had the most interesting rhythms to me over the last few years, specifically those scattered, rolling, martial snares. Terror Danjah’s old stuff and some of his new stuff still has that spark for me that is light years ahead.

As part of the Unsound festival in New York, you're performing at an event called Bass Mutations. Why do you think the notion of bass has become so significant to people of late, not least in terminology such as “bass music”?

Well, to its credit, and for better or worse, dubstep really raised the profile of the low end. As usual, for some people it turned into a fetish, and for others came to mean something that had little to do with sub-bass at all. But I think “bass” has become a kind of placemarker to describe lots of different forms of electronic dance music. Factually, its a pretty stupid tag, but that fact it is one word, and describes often the only thing shared by these sonic forms has something going for it. It kind of unifies a very fragmented and directionless musical landscape. I still prefer “bubble’n’squeak” however – that’s what I call what I do, half-jokingly and half seriously, because if you look into what that means as a British food (frying up all the leftovers from the kitchen, and its not particularly good for you either) then that kind of sums of UK bass culture to me quite well.

Is there anything at the festival you're looking forward to seeing yourself?

I'm on tour so I'm going to miss practically everything, but I'm particularly gutted to be missing the “Music For Solaris” event. Unsound’s curation is amazing. Kode9 and the Spaceape - Otherman (Benji B radio rip) {youtube width="100%" height="25"}tfZWUJZXmXA{/youtube} PlayGround is a media partner of Unsound Kode9 is back with a new album, five years after “Memories Of The Future”: another apocalyptic fantasy called “Black Sun” that finds new dark areas for bass music to develop. Or should we call it bubble’n’squeak? The man himself tells us all.

" The concept of “Black Sun” came from me doing ritual burnings of copies of The Sun newspaper, back in 2008 in my kitchen sink, when that tabloid ran a campaign to unveil Burial during his nomination for the Mercury Prize."

" But I think “bass” has become a kind of placemarker to describe lots of different forms of electronic dance music."

Unsound Festival New York takes place from 1 to 10 April, at various locations in New York. Tickets are on sale here. Unsound Festival New York is presented by Fundacja Tone, the Polish Cultural Institute in New York and the Goethe-Institut New York, in Cooperation With The Trust For Mutual Understanding, The Adam Mickiewicz Institute, City of Krakow, Krakow Festival Office and others.

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