Rave Confessions: An interview with Simon Reynolds

Following the new publication, with new material, of his renowned book on rave culture Energy Flash, Angus Finlayson catches up with the internationally recognized music critic and author.

Energy Flash may not be the only book written on ’90s British rave culture, but it’s probably the most inspiring. Its author, Simon Reynolds, was already an established music critic when he caught the rave bug in the early ’90s, having written about the outer fringes of underground rock in Melody Maker and elsewhere. But in the ecstasy-fueled, mutant form of house that would come to be known as UK hardcore, he found the perfect subject for his highly distinctive brand of music writing, equal parts pulpy evangelism and para-academic theorizing. The original edition of Energy Flash, published in 1998, charted the growth of UK hardcore and its spawn, from jungle and drum’n’bass to UK garage, and influenced a generation of music journalists, theorists and enthusiasts in the process.

The new edition of the book (the third, following a 2008 update) features an additional bumper chapter covering the last five years of development in dance music, including the explosion of EDM in the US, dubstep’s rise to global ubiquity and the steady migration of dance music culture from “analogue” to “digital” media. In many respects, Reynolds has continued the project set out in the original book, and UK-centric sounds such as UK funky and post-dubstep are covered in reasonable detail. But his chief fascination seems to be with the EDM fever currently sweeping the US, reflecting his continuing commitment to electronic music’s brashest, most critically maligned children. Electronic Beats caught up with Reynolds—a long-term resident of the US—during a recent trip to London, to get a more personal perspective on the past five years in dance music, from kicking the record-buying habit to having second thoughts about drug culture.

 

This edition of Energy Flash comes five years after the last one, and you’ve written another book, Retromania, in that time.

My editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone, had this idea which I’d never considered before. He saw the three main books I’m known for—[post-punk history] Rip It Up, Retromania and Energy Flash—as a trilogy. Because they’re all thinly disguised or sublimated autobiography. And they’re about two eras of forward motion and then Retromania asks, “What happened?” Also the kind of person who was formed by the post-punk era, and then saw the instantiation of that spirit in some weird way in the rave era, would be the kind of person who is very confused by this retro culture, asking, “What’s happened to our sense of time?”

So with those three books, do you think that at each stage you were writing for your peers? Are you writing for a readership that’s aging with you?

Well, part of the reason behind doing an update was obviously in the hope that younger people who missed the first edition might buy it. I never really feel like I’m writing for anyone—I can only write what I think is true, and that’s then going to reflect my own experiences, where I am in my life. I think it would be a dishonest book if I tried to second guess some opinion that would be more appealing to a younger generation. I’m expressing my own view. I suppose that inherently would resonate more with people [of my generation]. But I think I’m inclined to find positive things where I can—I’m not in the game of trying to bum people out.

I think one of the inevitable things with music is that the period of its emergence—that period when something emerges and everyone is on the same vibe together—tends to make for a more compelling story. That’s why you have so many books about the ’60s in rock, and then as each decade goes by, there are fewer momentous books, more specialist biographies. I’m surprised nobody’s done a book about dubstep. That seems like an obvious marketing move, from a publisher’s perspective, now that it’s massive. Although, you could say dubstep was a kind of emergence, but for me, for a long time it was within something that already existed. With acid house and the early days of rave, something completely new came into being. A whole subcultural architecture was built. And then subsequent [styles] were extensions to the house.

You were never really a fan of dubstep in its early stages, were you?

I didn’t love it. I liked it as album music. One problem for me—I don’t know if it got more wild at the London events, but the ones in New York were very kind of mellow. And it was just a bit slow for me. I think I liked it more as it got nastier-sounding.

You were one of the few people who defended its crasser elements as wobbly basslines became a central feature.

Yeah. To be honest I don’t spend a lot of time listening to wobble. But the times I’ve heard it in situ, it is pretty exciting. At home I would probably listen more to your Martyns and 2562s, or the Hessle Audio compilation, something like that. But on a dancefloor, the jump-up stuff… I like to see people reacting. Partly because I’m an introvert myself, so I like to be in an environment where I can do that because everyone else is doing it. But also it’s material to read. If there’s actual behavior—dance moves, people wearing interesting clothes—it’s all grist to the mill of writing, for me.

You’ve said before that grime was your last obsession, in dance music terms.

I wouldn’t say it was the last obsession, but it was the last one where I felt like I had to own the music on vinyl. And it was getting really hard and really expensive. I’d mail order these things, or I’d buy them on my trips back to England. And they were expensive, ugly, the sound was bad. Grime was the last one—I did buy a few bassline things on vinyl but they were even shitter sounding, it just seemed pointless. I’m still, I wouldn’t say obsessed, but very interested in following what’s going on. But I don’t have that desire to have it, in the way I did with 2step. The other thing is that everything went on the internet. Take [music writer] Tim Finney in Australia—he’s a fanatic for funky and now jackin house. And he can be as on top of it as anyone—except for people actually living in the north of England— through the internet. Because there’s enough sets online. So the whole way of being a fan of music has changed.

To go back to what you said about “reading” behavior. You’ve described your reporting style as that of a “participant-observer”, and in that spirit you went to an EDM festival in LA in the process of writing the new Energy Flash chapter. How has your method changed over the years since writing the original book?

Well, I wasn’t on drugs.

And obviously you’re a bit more distant from the core demographic…

Older! [laughs] Well there’s a funny story about that which I didn’t put in the book. [At that time] we had our niece staying with us, she’s 17. We have an almost paternal, maternal relationship with her. She gets wind that I’m going to a rave, and she’s like, “I’m coming.”— she’s very pushy. I knew she’d really enjoy it, that’s the kind of music she’s into. So very reluctantly I took her. She’s under-age, so first I have to blag her through. We go to the security, I say, “She left her ID in her other bag, is it alright…?”—and I sort of do this gesture at myself, as if to say, “I am a solid, trustworthy, middle-aged man.” [laughs] Then as soon as we get in she says, “So you’re gonna be here, it’s alright if I go off and dance?” and to my horror I find myself saying, “Now, wait a minute young lady, you’ve got another thing coming…!” All this parental stuff.

So it was a somewhat frustrating evening for me. Luckily [the festival] was two nights, so one night I went on my own, and I did have a really good time. I got all the notes I needed, all the sense impressions. But it was weird, I was a parent with a surrogate daughter at this rave, for some of it. And I also did think—I’ve been effectively celebrating drug culture. Do I now think it’s a good idea for someone like my niece or, in a few years’ time, my children? I’m not so sure. I was suddenly seeing it from a different perspective, as a parent.

When you’re gathering “sense impressions”, as you put it, can you slide back into the mentality of a younger you, someone without these responsibilities?

Sort of. Obviously I’m more of an observer than a participant. But then this rave was not the full-on rave experience in itself. It was a very controlled event. I guess the festivals and big commercial raves in [the UK] had got to be like that as well by the late ’90s—big policed, organized events. But this was a step beyond that. A bit like an arena rock show.

You’re careful to be quite neutral, quite objective about EDM in the chapter. Do you think there is aesthetic merit to it, or is your curiosity strictly intellectual?

It’s not something I listen to very much. I like Skrillex. I don’t like Zedd, people like that. I don’t know, it could just be shit music with no merit. But I like to think that something that can mobilize that amount of excitement and energy, there must be something going on there. Also it does interest me that there’s this music that there’s no critical discourse around. There’s no defenders. Resident Advisor would never review a Zedd album. I have a reflex to think, whenever something is ignored and shunned, there might be something going on there. And historically there are many cases of that, where the critics are wrong. Black Sabbath is the biggest example of that. They were almost universally derided—no one saw it was the birth of a whole new kind of music.

One of the big themes you outline in the chapter is the shift from “analogue” to “digital” in music. You talk about EDM as being the archetype of digital music—in that it’s shiny, super-compressed, all-surface. Are you implying that EDM is the logical endpoint of the technological conditions that we live in?

I don’t know. I suppose I just felt it was the sound for a sort of ADD—I was going to say generation, but I’m the same. My attention span is shot, my ability to sustain long focused anything has been damaged through using computers. [EDM] can never let up being at eleven on the dial. There’s no relenting, there’s no space—it’s just a blast of energy. And the way it’s compressed and tweaked, and that digital sheen, all seems to be part of this. Emotionally it’s got a certain depthlessness. I think it reflects… we’re all getting depthless. After a day of being on the computer I feel like a depthless being.

When, in five years’ time, you come to write the next revision of Energy Flash, what do you think will be in there?

I don’t know if I will—you can’t really keep adding things to the book indefinitely. But you’re asking me for my wishlist? I think it would be interesting if something came out of EDM that was more musically interesting. If it went dark or something. It seems to be so bright and glaring, and even when it gestures at heaviness or craziness theres’s something insanely euphoric about it. It’s hard to imagine it going dark and twisted and abstract, but you never know—especially when loads of people are taking drugs. But I never really have any specific expectations or hopes for dance music, just that it will keep on being surprising. I suppose what I’d really like is some kind of twist that is big enough that it introduces some whole set of new behaviors, ways of dancing or dressing or something. Partly because I like to see those things happen in popular culture anyway. But also because those are things that my particular critical tools can do their work with. I like to have the full subcultural text to read, as it were.~

The revised version of Energy Flash is out now via Faber. You can read Simon Reynolds’ Depeche Moment here

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Audioccult Vol. 46: Papal Games

Light a candle. Draw the required sigils. Now, raise your arms above your head and slowly, gently, exhale your soul. You won’t need it here. This is Audioccult, and it’s time to get low. Illustration: SHALTMIRA  

 

Startling results in Xcommunication Games
The Associated Press – 2 days ago

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Faces upturned, the crowd gathered below the Vatican watch with anticipation. The first three cardinals to compete have been absolutely smoked in the freestyle motocross by the mysterious Masked Cardinal, leaving behind nothing but steaming puddles of Riptide Rush and no doubt as to the winner. Still, one burning question remains on the crowd’s collective mind: who is this handsome, incredibly toned challenger?

 

 

Interference in mixing competition 
The Associated Press – 10 hours ago

VATICAN CITY (AP) —  On the decks, the line of cardinals were in top form, spinning a soul-gratifying mix of EDM favorites as Vatican MC Guido Marini presided on the soundboard. Birettas bobbing, each seemed wholly engaged in the ancient ceremony of keeping the dancefloor filled while Marini shined the crowd on with airhorn blasts and extra omnes. Disaster struck, however, when Diplo gave a rather unorthodox “guest” appearance. Scuttling down the walls of the cathedral, he then proceeded to leap into the booth and vomit forth a clot of 2 Chainz homunculi. As the gibbering miniature rappers scuttled across the stage, ripping out wires and shrieking their name in high-pitched voices, Diplo himself was seen wrapping up Cardinal Vinko Puljić in a gossamer embrace before ascending with his prize back into the rafters. An attempt to stop him resulted in several temporary losses of vision, as the homunculi began spitting lizard venom just as the beat dropped.

A new Pope has been chosen 
The Associated Press – 1 hour ago

VATICAN CITY (AP) —  Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics billow forth from the Sistine Chapel as newly selected Pope Francis I bursts onto the balcony, grinding the railings in an impulsive Shredmas celebration. The watching crowd below was suitably freaked out, though the watching cardinal conclave behind him less so. “His absolutely phenomenal vertical skills may have won him the papal authority, but he faces a long road ahead of him,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. “There’s more to being the Pope than just showing off your sick calves and air supremacy. Who knows what challenges he’ll have to face next…?”

MACKAY, Idaho (AP) —  In a downtown studio apartment, 20-year-old Adam Carpenter pauses his X-Box game and turns to his friends. “Hey, guys,” he says excitedly, “What if the Pope smoked weed, you guys?”

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Steph Kretowicz recommends Lace Curtain’s <i> Lace Curtain</i> EP

 

Lace Curtain has a sonic effect as amorphous as its influences. Consisting of three members spliced from Australia’s hardcore and garage rock underground, the outfit—born of the touring circuit and executed across borders—is the inevitable punk mutation of EDM, perpetuated by the infinite coil of technological progress. Presenting a contextually ignorant exchange with its krautrock, heavy disco, and new wave muses, Lace Curtain produces a sound reminiscent of, but ultimately divorced from any conceivable dance music heritage.

Scattered across the northern suburbs of Melbourne and the Mission district of San Francisco in the US, James Vinciguerra, Mikey Young, and David West exhibit the peripatetic tendencies of people raised in an isolated culture—like Australia. That sense of alienation and fragmentation is one strongly felt, not only by the nomadic nature of their lifestyles (most notably as touring members of eminent synth-punk band Total Control) but also in the dispassionate lyrical themes and exquisitely lifeless tone of their sound.

Couched in DIY experimentalism, Lace Curtain inhabits a space with no past or present. It’s a statelessness that is perhaps best expressed in “Good Intentions”, where West’s monotone vocal bulldozes asynchronous rhythms with unsettling social observations as he coldly mutters, “There are people that cannot learn from the past, including me and you, and you, and you” before dropping into the monstrous distortion of a final, “and especially YOU.” This insistent nihilism holds true for most of the four-track EP, where words and sounds interact to induce a feeling of detached irony. The very title of “In This House” communicates the band’s unique interpretation of the 4/4 kicks and clap samples of a kind of house that is less uptempo music to dance to and more meditative instrumentals to ponder. EP closer “Gimme Space” not only references the kosmische muzik in its stylistic thrust but implicitly critiques the limitations of strictly adhering to any one musical form: “gimme space to move/give me time to reconsider.”

As a project whose roots you could trace back to an anomalous Italo-disco experiment in Total Control 7″ release “Paranoid Video”, there’s an element of discomfort to Lace Curtain. That’s not only a reflection of their ambivalent approach to electronic music production but also its members’ transitory ways of life, which in turn affects the collaborative process. Mostly constructed bottom-up from the rudimentary rhythms of Vinciguerra’s TR-707 and TR-727 drum machines, ideas are absorbed, filtered and distorted remotely through each individual’s unique palate. Thus Lace Curtain is placed in a culturally ambiguous context, founded on uncertainty, trading on unfamiliarity and creating something effortlessly fresh in the process.~

 

Lace Curtain’s self-titled EP is out now on DFA Records

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