A couple of weeks ago Berlin resident James Shaw, better known by his alias Sigha, dropped by the EB office.
His latest album Living With Ghosts, released through Scuba’s Hotflush imprint, had caught our attention with its pulsating, granite-cold rumination on techno purism with tracks like “Puritan” “Dressing for Pleasure and “Scene Couple” capturing a particularly British sternness: this is music made for massive spaces, for bodies slick in chemical sweat, for six feet-thick concrete walls and Monday mornings that could be Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons. There has been, of course, a recent appetite for techno of a more pummeling stripe, with the continued influence of Regis’ bruised limbed industrialism (and, of course, the return of British Murder Boys) and Blawan’s subterranean schlock gaining traction. Living With Ghosts, despite its citations of techno past, feels, in its mood, distinctly contemporary. We wanted to find out more, so when we invited James to come by to do an interview we decided to add a twist: ever-inspired by visual art he suggested he would bring some pictures of his favorite pieces with him. The only brief we set was that they must have some resonance for him and his own art. The hope was that by appealing to a more personal narrative we might trigger discussion on subjects that you never expected to broach and in turn gain greater insight than a usual Q&A session might usually allow. We hope you agree that it was a successful experiment.
You’re from south London originally. Right now there seems to have been this swing towards south, in terms of a party scene.
99 percent of my friends when I left were living in North London and were all, “Yeah, I don’t wanna go south of the river” and now everyone’s relocating to Peckham. It’s the new East London.
What brought you to Berlin?
The thing that first brought me here was definitely music; I was coming out to play and to hear techno, but the more time I spent here the more I started to realize how cheap it is compared to London. There you’re struggling if you’re an artist, but here it’s possible to really live. Since then I’ve started to fall in love with the city. Since I’ve moved here, I’ve also thought of living in different cities as well for short periods of time—taking the opportunity to soak up different atmospheres that you might not normally see when you just come to a place, play a show and leave. Berlin is the first city I’ve lived in abroad, and it’s opened my eyes to that massively.
Last night someone asked me what was going on in the Berlin scene, a question that I actually found quite difficult to answer. Is there a Berlin sound anymore?
Everyone’s going to have a different idea of what a certain place sounds like. Maybe my idea of it is ignorant; I’ve only been here a year, but it seems to me that if you’re looking at the broader electronic landscape in Berlin, techno and house still have a massive stranglehold on the city. I can only compare it to London, where people are so obsessed (consciously or unconsciously) with newness, freshness. That has positives and negatives, of course. It means that some scenes never get a change to grow or develop in a way that would allow them to reach their potential. Suddenly, all the followers disappear because the sound or scene isn’t hip anymore, and it collapses. On the other hand, it’s so inspiring creatively. You get something like dubstep, which has completely changed the musical landscape.
You started out making dubstep, but you’ve moved into the realms of almost purist techno with your new album Ghosts. How do you feel about dubstep, about what happened to it?
For me, the early wave of dubstep, the sounds that were just emerging out of the collapsing garage scene, the sort of sparse halfstep sound was what drew me in. In a way that’s also what attracted me to techno. Producers were doing so much with so few elements. Every week I’d be down at Plastic People and, for me, that time was so exciting. It was this amalgamation of sounds I loved: huge amounts of bass, sparseness, it was hypnotic… it was like a drug, you’d get drawn into this deep sound in a black room, losing yourself to it. But quite quickly, and I suppose this was when the genre was still developing and people were finding their feet, it grew in popularity and started to follow certain rules and patterns. Unfortunately this kind of energy that had drawn me to it started to disappear.
Maybe this is just me, but I feel like people started to lose interest in that halfstep sound when the smoking ban hit. I’ve always wondered how much of an impact not being able to smoke weed in clubs anymore had on people not wanting to listen to slow, spacious music. Suddenly, the energy changed, the whole wobble thing picked up and the mid-range vibe came in.
And what about your own development?
It was a natural progression, really. Even around the first time Scuba hit me up, and I sent him the first load of tracks that resulted in the first EP, I was more interested in playing and writing techno than I was dubstep. At times it’s been frustrating because for a long time I’ve played what I would call purist techno, but people I guess have had this perception of me as something different. Even after the first few Hotflush releases, there were a couple of EPs like Rawww, which was dubby kind of house, and then Shake. Those two EPs I actually made after a trip to Berlin to see Cassie play in Panorama Bar and losing my shit at ten in the morning.
How did you first get into electronic music?
My first electronic epiphany came when I was wandering into a warehouse squat party and just hearing techno blasting in this massive room. I was 16 at the time and had never heard club music in a club environment. I’d played in bands and was studying guitar, and that was what I was into then: more traditional music, however abstract you want to consider it. I’d listened to some Warp records and such, but I had a bit of a low opinion on club music. I remember hearing the cool crew on the bus playing their garage mixtapes and thinking, “I just wanna hear some Nirvana.”
But when I stumbled into this party—I had just come to pick a friend up—it just blew my mind. I’d never heard that music in the right environment. It totally changed the way I thought about electronic music. I started hanging out with more producers than guitarists, and I was picking up bits and bobs from different people. My knowledge of electronic music was next to nothing, and suddenly this whole vast sea of unknown sounds was opened up to me. When I started making sounds it was honestly the result of taking too many drugs and the result of that was some very strange music.
In what way?
I wanted to make music not for parties, but for after-parties—things that would mess with people’s heads, basically. That was my logic.
Art is an important influence within your work and the first picture you’ve chosen is a very familiar one.
Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia
This, obviously, is Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais which is one of my favorite pictures ever. Maybe it’s a bit weird because it’s not the sort of image you’d ascribe to techno, but I just think it’s so lovely. I’m a massive fan of pre-Raphaelite art, and this is the painting that started that. The story of her singing while she’s drowning, and her expression while it happens has such a melancholic beauty to it.
Do you have a tendency toward melancholic impulses in your work?
Massively. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or what it says about my psyche, but I tend to dwell on things a lot. I’m a solitary person and I spend a lot of time thinking heavily on things. I guess my way of getting it out is in music and writing. There’s something i just find incredibly attractive and appealing about this beautiful sadness.
This is a picture of a sculpture by Cornelia Parker called Mass (Colder Darker Matter)and it was nominated for the Turner Prize. I remember going to see the Turner Awards with my mom in 1997, and she was always really into art and galleries—that’s where I get my obsession. This piece has resonated and stuck with me. A church in Texas was struck by lightning, and Parker collected the charred wood and suspended the pieces in a way that looked like an exploding cube. It took up this whole room in the Tate, and the negative space between the charred wood… the impact was incredible.
Next, this a still from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. Anyone following me on Twitter will recognize it as my default pic. I’m just a big fan, basically, and I think this photo is such an incredible capture of male strength and beauty. So I hijacked it for my Twitter profile.
I’ve always been intrigued by that version of masculinity fetishized in leather boy culture.
I think when you’re not involved with a way of life that’s sufficiently different from your own, it makes the fascination toward it even stronger.
This is perhaps the most striking, unsettling image.
This is by David Noonan, a multimedia artist who works with prints and embroidery. I stumbled across him last year at the Great British Art Show last year. There were a couple huge, grayscale and sepia embroideries hanging there and they were incredible. I think he sources images from all over, film, photography, anywhere he can find and just makes this surreal pieces. I find them very evocative.
The final picture I’ve chosen is Kohei Yoshiyuki’s Untitled, Plate 18 by Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki, who in 1980 released this book called Dokyumento: Kōen (Document: Park). There was this park in central Tokyo that people would go to at night and just hook up, and he documented this scene. And it wouldn’t be just couples; there’d be three or four people sometimes, or people actively standing there and getting off on watching others, and basically he just immersed himself in this culture. I’m fascinated by how people can just let go, not worry about the judgments of others. I’m also interested in the work of Miroslav Tichý, who was a Czech photographer and a real voyeur—if he was taking the portraits he did today, I reckon he’d be locked up. He basically went around with a homemade camera and took pictures of women when they didn’t know he was looking. He’s now become an incredibly influential photographer. I love the voyeuristic attitude of the pictures but also the composition, the untouched rawness of the shots due to the nature of them and the rough equipment he was using as well as intentional processing mistakes meant to dirty it up further. He once said, “If you want to be famous, you must do something worse than anybody in the entire world.” And it worked for him.
Your last choice is a video.
This is a collaboration between Gareth Pugh and Nick Knight. It was also used for the imagery for a feature that Dazed & Confused did on Pugh—who I absolutely love. In a kind of similar way to art, fashion is influential to me. Not all of it, but someone like Pugh… The clothes he makes and the ways in which he showcases them are amazing. He has this vision of a universe, and he creates it. ~
Hotflush Recordings released Sigha’s Living With Ghosts on November 19th, 2012.
Mark Stewart is a formidable thinker. He talks quickly but his brain is almost definitely moving even faster. To engage him in conversation is to become entangled in a dense web of references, names and concepts, the conversational topics ricocheting from one to the other at an intimidating velocity. That’s OK though, we’ve come to expect that of the man that helped bring us Bristol post punk politicos The Pop Group. With their agitprop approach and DIY sensibilities they helped vocalise the anger and apathy that defined 80s Britain hobbled by a Thatcher government. While few would have predicted that they would ever reform, this year saw the band working on an album of new material.
There’s more to Mark Stewart than The Pop Group, however. A fervent online activist and solo artist, his recent album The Politics of Envy (released via Future Noise) affirmed his influence as he drew upon his friends and peers for collaborations – Kenneth Anger, Primal Scream, Richard Hell and Lee “Scratch” Perry all signed up. Still, for all his old guard status, he still resonates with a whole new generation and today sees the release of his collaboration with Nik Void of austere industrialists Factory Floor for new single ‘Stereotype’.
A good a time as any, then, for Electronic Beats editor-in-chief Max Dax to pick the his brains. Hold tight.
Max Dax: I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the role of protest in music, going back to the 1960s when it was a very real entity. I assume that you don’t consider what you are doing as protest music, but there is this very conscious aspect to the music you make – how would you relate to that term?
Mark Stewart: Personally I don’t separate politics from reality. I think every move you make is political – when you pick up the cup and the cup is made from tin from a death belt in Africa, or your trainers are made with slave labour in China. Everything is political. People say my music is political, so is everyone else in the world blind when they look at the obscene inequalities in the way the corporations are raping the world’s resources?
You are referring to this Joseph Beuys idea, that everything you do, everything you say, has a political component?
Yeah, they have a saying in Bali: “We have no art, we do everything well”. The Greek root of the word politics is just “gathering” or “people”. How come that since the Medieval times a small amount of people have convinced the rest that they are not in control of their actions, that it’s up to kings or queens or politicians. That’s rubbish. Why should pensioners in Greece or Spain be blamed for a banking scandal in America when millionaire bankers ripped off each other? It’s all a big confidence trick. I see capitalism as a mirror that is beginning to crack. I mean, Guy Debord, one of the founders of the Situationist International, wrote this book called “Society of the Spectacle” and I think we’ve been under the spell of the spectacle, we’ve been zombie workers for too long. Even in Tunisia with Tunileaks, in different parts of Africa people are realising that what they’ve been told is complete bullshit. The media is owned by the slavemasters.
Do you consider your music and your role as an artist as an opportunity to spread ideas, concepts and doubts?
Doubt is a very important word for me. The concepts of doubt and the fire of nihilism has been driving me since the beginning of punk days. With my last record “The Politics of Envy” I was collaborating with people like The Raincoats, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Keith Levene from Public Image Limited, Killing Joke and the Slits and it really reminded me of the D.I.Y. messthetics – as Simon Reynolds called it – from back in the day with Rough Trade. When we tried to control our means of production and we were just constantly doing protests rallies. I think at the moment all you can share is a sense of community across the world. Friends of mine are fighting on the front line of Burma, and yet other friends are fighting against loggers in South America. Music is like an umbrella which can give you a little solace and make you feel like you’re not the only lunatic or the only outsider in the world. We thought from punk that everybody was equal, the people on the stage were no more important than the people in the audience. I see my role only as important as someone making a carpet or fixing an engine or putting a shoe on a horse, it’s part of the continuous process.
You just mentioned the importance of friendship, of exchanging and formulating thoughts. One of the irritating facets of the 21st century is how the term friends seems like it’s owned by Facebook. How do you see this shift in how we talk about issues like friends and gatherings?
I feel that across the world people are beginning to see through the lies. There’s a generation of people who’ve been fed by music and radical ideas, from the Occupy movement to Tibet to people on the streets in Thailand. Everywhere I travel people are really beginning to question what we’re being told. Whether they use Twitter to organise a demonstration, whether they organise Occupy protests or hacktivist symposiums, I think the speed of the hypermedia helps. My community now lives online. Back in the day you could say I’m a punk, I’m a goth, I’m into reggae and you’d gather at certain concerts but now there are people like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups and there’s a space where people with shared interests can gather – online. It seems that there are punk secret agents from our generation throughout different levels of our society like The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, to the head of a big Japanese media conglomerate. I’ve got a lyric on the new album: “bankrupt ideologies litter the dealing room floors” – I think we’ve really got to keep open minds and keep our antennaes open and not moan and not judge things by the past and use the new tools to build something new. It’s a time of hyperchange and we can’t keep judging it by morals and ideals from the 1950s.
Another ideal, not from the 50s but the 80s, a result of punk, was the foundation of Rough Trade Records. They considered themselves independent from the market and from the media. Then Rough Trade went bankrupt and now when you talk about indie rock, it seems to have become a genre of music but it’s not filled with political context any more. How do you feel about this word Independency being stolen?
It would be a ten page conversation about so-called independent record stores or record labels. My only feeling is when we were kids we built up the tendrils that stretched across the world from Japan, to Survival Research Laboratories in the States, to Rough Trade America to cool protest groups in South America, bands in Japan. What I’ve found in the last couple of years with my friends, my comrades, they’re Chinese artists, people behind Tunileaks, they’re aboriginal people, it’s a much wider thing than just music. I call these people sympatico, maybe we argue over the specifics and maybe somebody’s got the wrong concept of economics … But music is one small corner of this group. There’s a global underground and I’m finding that people on the electronic frontiers have the most imagination at the moment. The discussions we’re having is reminiscent of the old salons in Vienna where mystics, alchemists, scientists and politicians did gather. People at the bleeding edge of new technologies, new political concepts and experiments in art and music are all gathering together. That’s how I found Kreuzberg in Berlin, with people like Bruce La Bruce. It’s possible for bright minded people to meet like they did in the Cabaret de Voltaire and create new things. My father was a great scientist – so I grew up with mad people coming to the house anyway!
Do you see your new record as a manifesto for this?
A personal manifesto. All I’m doing is that I’m going through notes of what I’m interested in, notes of what I think is wrong and what I think is right, interesting things I see in the world, be they political, mystical, artistic, sexual or politics. And often it’s just questions. For me my new album is like a personal letter from my front line. If I have to be a poet in this situation I should be allowed to deal with any subject in the world. Why should we be censored in music to just sing about cars and girls?
You say it’s a personal letter, but normally you write a letter to a certain person you have in mind – and not an anonymous mass of people.
It’s a jumble of my mind. I remember talking to Allen Ginsberg once about how he wrote, and it’s just the way my mind thinks and it’s the way my mind’s been thinking since I was 14. I’m not saying anything is right or wrong but these are the things I find interesting. Other people obviously find it interesting to sing about bottoms or breasts or Ferraris. But I don’t, sorry.
How have you felt about The Pop Group’s comeback so far?
The strangest thing happened when Matt Groening curated ATP and he asked Iggy to reform the Stooges and me to reform The Pop Group. I thought it was a stupid idea. I thought it would be like necrophilia. Then, suddenly, with my art projects I’ve been flown to Vancouver and been told to collaborate with a fat Korean artist who works with lard and some shadow puppet maker from Thailand. I keep trying to decondition and question why I’m making certain judgements: One side of my brain said why are you negating this thing, why can’t you just treat the reformation as a new commission. So I thought OK I’d walk into this with new eyes and I just said to the other members “let’s see if we can make something new”. Immediately when me and Gareth Sager started working something really bizarre happened. There’s these alchemical beasts called golem, and golem appeared in the room. It’s nothing like anything from The Pop Group, it’s nothing like anything me or the other guys have ever made, they’re like these huge French chansons with string arrangements and these things are running off with a life of their own. I’m shocked. We’ve just control of our back catalogue so next year there’s going to be a classic box set and we’re going to produce a brand new Pop Group album called The Alternate. The thing’s got a life of its own. It’s interesting for me, I can stand back and watch, it’s like a firework. I don’t understand how these things work but from hanging around with Kenneth Anger last year in Portugal I learned that if magic happens you just have to stand back and watch. You don’t try and control it.
But somehow you control it by having different outlets, you have the Pop Group, you have The Maffia [his band which releases material on On-U Records] your internet activity, how do you know what’s going to come next?
I don’t. It’s random procedures that we learnt from oblique strategies and from the beatniks: You can do these strategies of refusal where you deny your past and break a habit. A lot of it is chance procedures, but those chance procedures create sparks. Over the years when I’ve taken a chance and clashed different genres people have said that I invented industrial or trip hop or whatever but that’s because I deliberately negated a normal procedure and something strange happened and I let it happen and I was man enough to stand back and not say no that’s wrong. Some of the best things in science are when people think in a lateral way and in juxtapositions. I think Kenneth Anger’s juxtaposition in Scorpio Rising, of that homoerotic biker footage and that religious imagery he got through his letter box by chance. I would go that far to say that these random juxtapositions are the most important things of our generation. Then there is a chance for something new without our conditioning. Basically we’re all the constructs of our condition.
How far does it go back? You said it was the beatniks were the first to use this random, anti-cyclic process of putting things together – also called cut-up.
I didn’t say they were the first, I’ve got some old Arabic grimoires and I think it goes back to the beginning of time. As a human being you’ve got to realise, Tricky had this project called Product of the Environment. Basically we’ve got to realise that since we’re born, it’s like the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, if we were raised in the forest we’d have different ideas to those we have. Part of my thing is to always keep on questioning why I’m doing something. ~
Prague’s Míra Valeš is a scene activist, creative proselytizer and promoter of the queer club night Pioneer. We recently talked to him about the city’s fledgling queer music scene and the events (over and underground) that contribute to the reinvigoration of the capital’s club scene. Enjoy the interview while listening to Pioneer residents Electronic Bitches’ exclusive high-octane mix, best devoured on a sizzling sun-soaked day.
Electronic Beats: What drove you to start Pioneer?
Míra Valeš: I started the party with a friend of mine in 2009 because we lacked a “low-key” event that would be gay-friendly, with decent dance music where electro, pop and house music could freely merge. We had both experienced similar parties in Berlin and London, while Prague didn’t have such a night. We also started to miss the vibe of the second half of the ’90s, when dance music was less rigid.
What kind of music do you play at your events? What’s the philosophy behind the nights?
Each party has its own theme that is then applied onto the visuals and video, specifically created for the party by Jan Wolf, the theme spans from Kenneth Anger films, sports and wrestling to our love for kitsch. The last party we did was focused on pop and its ’90s guise. The June party will revolve around the mix of high art, porn and circus. Personally I have an eclectic taste, with a penchant for electro, old-school house, hip-hop, and the occasional pop tune, so I love to hear all these genres together in one club.
You’re trying to create an alternative to the local mainstream gay scene. Is there such a thing as an alternative queer scene in Prague?
I think things are changing here. Our friends at Queer Noises are going strong. Both Pioneer and Queer Noises take place at the Final Cub in Prague. In contrast to Queer Noises, Pioneer is more mainstream, I guess; we’re focused on dance music, whilst their crowd tends to be avant-garde. I love going to their gigs, they champion a punk ethos. Sometimes the Urxin Sisters play in town – they make gay-friendly disco, which I’m also fond of. In comparison to the mainstream gay scene, there are still only a few events around, though. I think there’s no point talking about an underground queer scene, not because it wouldn’t exist but because I believe in the merging of the high with the low, the commercial with the alternative. Sometimes you might feel like going to Final or Café v Lese, then you feel like having a cocktail at the Periscope, a fun fashion party which also started recently.
Is Prague getting more open and tolerant towards subcultures and various minorities?
I don’t think the Prague scene has ever really been intolerant. The people in Prague are, in my opinion, generally some of the most relaxed and tolerant. So the diversity has been always there; not too much in terms of gay/queer culture, but this was probably due to the lack of active and passionate promoters rather than lack of tolerance. There has been a lot of diversity in terms of the different scenes – there is strong community around the biker/skate scene, as well as big emo and metal communities. In terms of queer and gay, the community has been growing steadily but up until very recently, in terms of night life, the offerings used to be pretty weak. Most of the parties were quite commercial, done in big outdated clubs. This has changed recently with some of the aforementioned events, so the scene is improving and getting more and more exciting!
The next installment of the anything-goes (at least musically) night Pioneer will take place on June 29th at the Final Club in Prague’s Žižkov, featuring Electronic Bitches and DJ Felix. More information is here.