In her monthly report, Lucia Udvardyova tracks the movements in and from the best of the Central and Eastern European sonic underground, distilling the best of her Easterndaze blog. Read previous editions of the column here.
Our 2013 Balkan journey commences in Novi Sad, the capital of the Vojvodina municipality, a former Austro-Hungarian territory. From the eerie train station we head straight to CK13 to catch Ubuweb‘s Kenneth Goldsmith perform his “uncreativity” manifesto.
The next day we head towards the Serb-Bosnian border, incredibly picturesque, its hilly topography cloaked in late afternoon summer sunshine. We cross the border twice, accidentally, and after a downhill drive arrive into the valley of Sarajevo. The city seems fragile, surrounded by mountains; an easy target. I expect ominous atmospheres and wounded environs—a sort of post-cataclysmic voyeurism. Instead, it’s bustling with people roaming the streets, it’s Ramadan and the mosques are lit. Our frantic search for underground local musicians proves futile: everyone had escaped the city heat before we arrived, the harsh noise band and owners of the Zvukovina label, who I mentioned in the previous column, are holidaying in Croatia. The owners of the dance label Adriatiko only return after our departure.
The morning light reveals the omnipresent holes in the wall from the shrapnel and bomb particles but otherwise the city has been more or less been “rebuilt” from scratch. We pass the city market where dozens of civilians were killed two decades ago and head to the History Museum, where a permanent collection titled Sarajevo Siege displays mementos of the atrocities that this scenic city underwent in the ’90s. The makeshift DIY objects—a homemade lamp or a flask—catch my attention amid photos of the dead, injured, the guns and the war criminals. Even at the worst of times, the necessities of everyday life turn people into ad hoc bricoleurs. The unbearable heat mixed with the images I see makes me feel nauseous. Later, we meet Dženana Aganspahic, a musicology student and a musician who was born at the beginning of the war in 1992. We go to Baščaršija, the tourist-infested old town with an old bazaar built in the 15th century. Dženana performed at the AvantAvantGarde festival in Cologne earlier this year with her rotating pan, an archaic and traditional Bosnian technique practised by women in the villages who appropriated this cooking instrument as an impromptu sonic machine. How is life in Bosnia nowadays, twenty years later, we wonder (and realize that the war inevitably creeps into every conversation we have and how tiring it must be for the locals)? “I don’t know why but we are really happy. We enjoy life. It doesn’t matter if we have money or not. We have two marks, we drink a beer with two marks. People have a sense of humour and love other people, even the tourists who are visiting us. We are really open people, to others, but in our minds we don’t like anything, just what we need to. It’s like brainwashing.”
The following day we spontaneously decide to visit a musician from Banja Luka after he responds to our email. The description on his Soundcloud account states: “Audio-visual artist from the ass of the world with no money, no job and an old computer”—sounds promising. Banja Luka is the capital of the Republika Srpska region, one of the two main autonomous areas of Bosnia in the north of the country, the land that spawned Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić. Though its only about 140 km from Sarajevo, the coach ride takes about six hours. The landscape, once again, is beautiful. Hit by stifling heat, we stumble out of the coach and take the cab to the retirement home where the musician works as a waiter for 200 euros a month. We enter the luxury hotel-like premises, with several curious octogenarians shuffling about. Della La, his musical nom de plume, has just finished his lunch shift and we sit down and talk about music, making art in a void, messed up politics, the past and the present. A sense of hopelessness pervades the air, mixed with a peculiar opti/pessimism and resilience, which we’ve encountered many times before during our travels in this region. The post-communist malaise, perhaps. After an hour we leave and embark on another six hour bus journey back to Sarajevo and have a beer at the Caffe Tito decorated with various objects of Yugoslav nostalgia.
While my friends head to the Pyramids of Bosnia, “the most active pyramid site in the world dating the pyramid complex back 25,000 years”, apparently, I take a coach to Dubrovnik in Croatia. The latest EU member proves a different universe after Bosnia. I pay nine euros for a three minute cab ride and two euros for a bread roll at a local bakery. Turbo-capitalism at its best. Welcome to Europe. ~
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. ~
Ghosts on Tape is the alias of San Francisco-based Ryan Merry. He first came to our attention back in 2009, when Mary Anne Hobbs got him to do a mix for her (now, much missed) late night BBC radio show around about the time the Glasgow’s Wireblock dropped his Predator Mode EP. What caught our ears was his lo-fi approach to production, using an Yamaha sampler bought new in the nineties when he was still a teen.
Since then he’s clocked up remixes on labels as diverse as Planet Mu, True Panther and Friends of Friends, but we’ve been waiting three years for another release proper. Thankfully, the wait is nearly over as Nature’s Law/Logo drops on his very own Icee Hot label next week. That just about gives you enough time refresh your memory and to help you, we asked the straight-talking acolyte of rave ten all-important questions. In the words of the man himself: “Fuck that shit, LET’S RAVE.
1. Is any aspect of fame important?
Maybe not fame, but recognition for your hard work is certainly very nice. I’m not making the music that I make to get famous, I’m simply doing what I love to do, and it is an awesome feeling if other people love it too. I was definitely influenced by the generation of artists before me, and if I can have any impact on the next generation coming up, then I will be happy in knowing that I’ve fulfilled a crucial part of my job. We are all laying bricks on the foundation, and if we continue on a true, honest path of creativity, then what we are all building just becomes that much stronger in the future.
2. What goes in your coffee?
Sugar, cream, and sometimes shots of espresso. I require large amounts of caffeine just to function. I know I have a problem (admitting that is the first step, right?).
3. What does underground and mainstream mean to you?
To me, these words just signify an intention. If you are making music that is real to you, like what you honestly feel, that’s underground. If you are watering down your music just to gain mass appeal or trying to strike a chord with the lowest common denominator just to get famous, that’s mainstream. Degrees of popularity don’t really matter very much anymore in this day and age.
4. Should music be free?
For the most part, no. I understand that that’s the way things are these days, and it’s kinda futile to try to change it, but as a producer and now as a label owner, I know the hard work, dedication, and money that goes into putting out a record. It’s not just an MP3 to be rapidly devoured and discarded, it’s an actual labor of love that should have some value for generations to come, hopefully. I still buy lots of music. I may swap tracks with my close homies, but I still buy music pretty much every week. I also get promos and tracks from friends, which is different. I believe that everyone has to pay for quality products sometimes. If no one wants to pay for quality, then everything’s gonna go to shit. It’s a business just like anything else, and people that think that they are just entitled to free music without giving something in return are fucking spoiled brats. It’s like people that sneak into my club night. Yes, I can kinda understand that you don’t wanna pay, but the DJs that we bring out are not free. If you are going to illegally download, then you should make up for it by buying something too. Like for every 5 tracks you steal, pay for one. It’s better than nothing. I would imagine that almost every respectable DJ out there still pays for music sometimes. I’m not planning on getting rich off running a label and throwing parties, but I’m certainly not trying to lose money either. So if you like what I do, then help me not lose money to do it. This shit is not a charity and grown-ups understand that.
5. What defines your music-making process?
I construct my tracks mostly on my hardware sampler and drum machines. All the beats and rhythms and melodies come from me physically banging on the buttons. I like to put in work, re-arrange tracks, and re-do parts until it sounds right to me. There’s also a fair amount of improvisation and happy accidents that make their way into my tracks. I’ve been making music more or less the same way for many years now, and it’s been a process of figuring out what I can get out of working within some of the limitations that my gear has. That’s what I like: physically working, involving organic spontaneity, and having to work within limitations. I envy people that can just do all their music within their laptop and come up with something unique and soulful. It’s not my style at all; I really don’t understand it, so I think it’s impressive. If you just put me in front of a screen with infinite options, I’ll be lost. I’m like a caveman.
6. Do you believe in the paranormal?
You would think since my name has the word “ghosts” in it, I would be more into this stuff. The truth is that I just don’t know. I really don’t believe ghosts like in movies and TV shows and shit like that. But there are probably some kind of spirits around us, I’m sure that we just can’t see or feel or even comprehend them. So maybe?
7. Are you interested in politics?
I used to be, but I’m not too interested anymore. I still try to stay up on what’s happening, but politics in America are such a sad fucking joke that it’s just a waste of time and energy. It’s all “he said this,” “she said that,” hot air, bullshit, smoke and mirrors, manufactured outrage, and media manipulation to keep us divided and distracted. I’ve found that if you tune a lot of it out, and focus on what’s important to your life, what’s relevant to your actual reality, you will be a much happier and more productive person. Not saying that ignorance is bliss, because ignorance is just ignorance, but you can only pay attention to so much. These dickhead politicians don’t give a shit about us and never will. None of them. If one ever did, then they either get bought out or discredited real quick. It’s all a big game, and the only ones that get to play are the ones with lots and lots of money. The rest of us are just pawns. So fuck that shit, LET’S RAVE.
8. Raging or chilling out?
Both! I would say I do more chilling than raging, because if I didn’t, I think I would be dead. I do enjoy my downtime, and having alone time is very important to me. Sometimes I like to go out and stay up until 10 the next morning, because we are only alive once, so why not have some sketchy fun?
9. One thing you can’t live without?
God, this is the most cheesy and generic answer, but it would have to be music. I really can’t imagine my life without it. I have no idea what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing this. It’s given my life a purpose and function and I would probably be miserable without it. So yeah, either that or Netflix.
10. Together, or alone?
You cannot go it alone. With the right group of people you can accomplish so much more than you would be able to by yourself. That being said, having alone time is critical to figuring out what you want, who you are, and what you believe. Alone time equals introspection, which equals new ideas. You have to filter out other people’s opinions sometimes and find out what’s important to you.
Baba Brinkman performs what has become known as lit-hop. Currently on stage with The Rap Guide to Evolution at the Soho Playhouse in New York, Brinkman has been pulling in the crowds since his well-reviewed adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at the Edinburgh Fringe. Electronic Beats caught up with the Canadian troubadour to talk inspiration, evolution and group selection.
Was your primary aim with the Rap Canterbury Tales / The Rap Guide to Evolution to teach? Or was it something that was borne out of fun?
I’d say my primary aim is to entertain, delight, and surprise, and my secondary aim is to teach, probably because that’s what I’d prefer to experience from a performance or recording. It’s also a Chaucerian aesthetic, since Chaucer understood very well the need to hold an audience’s attention first with entertainment value before you can expect them to absorb any information from you. One of my favorite lines of his is: “Where thou mayst have noon [no] audience, enforce thee nat to speak”.
You studied literature, so I understand your reasoning behind the Rap Canterbury Tales – but why Darwin?
I studied the Canterbury Tales partially because I was passionate about rap music and I saw Chaucer as one of the closest analogues to a modern rapper, at least for his time. He was a rhyming storyteller, an oral poet, and an interpreter of his social world through character and metaphor, which is exactly what a rapper does. So I studied Chaucer and the history of oral traditions as a way to put hip-hop music in a wider context. I guess I’m attracted to Darwin for the same reason. When the opportunity came up to work with a scientist on developing some evolution-themed raps, I thought it would be a way of zooming out even further, putting rap in the context of human instincts and the story of our species’ evolution. The evolutionary perspective makes it clear that stylized oral storytelling competitions, including rap and Chaucer and many other cultural traditions, are actually a universal inheritance of the species, our version of the peacock’s tail, although with less sexual dimorphism.
In the song ‘Group Selection’ you explore the possible origins of altruism and human goodness, as well our competitive “survival of the fittest” nature. Are people really capable of complete altruism, or is everything we do really just to benefit and develop ourselves?
Many people assume humans are naturally competitive and self-serving, but in fact evolution predicts otherwise, as long as we are sensitive to context.
If by “complete altruism” you mean selfless acts that are completely disentangled either from our psychological reward systems (the feel-good factor) or from the hope of social rewards through the increase in status and mate-value that comes from rampant generosity towards non-kin, then I’m skeptical. Why should we worry about whether our altruism is complete rather than partially self-serving, as long as it clearly promotes the welfare of others as well? To me that’s as senseless as worrying about whether “free will” is ever “completely free” of physical causes at the molecular level (of course it isn’t).
If altruism increases your attractiveness, sexual selection is probably involved. If it increases the degree to which others want to help you and promote your interests, then reciprocity is probably the driver, and if neither (i.e. anonymous donations to charity) then one possible though widely-misunderstood origin of the behavior could be group selection or the differential survival of groups, which would be aided by the presence of unselfish individuals who get a “feel-good” hit purely from helping other people with no hope of personal reward. One of the things I like about group selection or multi-level selection theory is that it redeems the concept of truly unselfish “for the good of others” behavior without departing from the Darwinian paradigm; that’s what the song is really about. I think that’s a pleasing result for most people intuitively, and especially for people of a more optimistic or liberal persuasion (hence the hippy vibe of the song).
What feedback have you had from school students about your work?
Very positive feedback, and there are quotable examples.
As well as getting people interested in science, are you also getting scientists interested in rap?
Definitely, I have a double-agenda. I love it when young people say about evolution: “I never thought about it that way” and I love it when older people say about rap: “I never thought about it that way”. I performed for David Attenborough and Dan Dennett in Cambridge.
Your most recent album, The Rap Guide to Evolution: Revised, contains many re-written lyrics. What sort of things did you change and why?
I changed things that I thought were unclear or things that people told me they didn’t relate to or understand. I also tried to sex up the record a bit, added some stronger language since the original version was a bit too kid-friendly, and basically just tried to increase the swagger and be myself more and not hold back. I think the new version is a much better hip-hop record, so I’m thinking of renaming the original album: The Rap Guide to Evolution: Educational Version.
You worked with Dr. Mark Pallen from The University of Birmingham to check the scientific facts of your work. How did the collaboration work?
I sent Mark all of the lyrics to fact-check, and some of the feedback he gave me I agreed with and made some changes, while other parts of his feedback I decided to let slide under a claim of “poetic license”. What was great about working with him is he gave me a very clear sense of what kinds of scientific (or pseudo-scientific, or emotionally reactive) objections might be raised in response to my show, which helped me to prepare for the inevitable responses, defenses, and clarifications.
People have walked out of your shows before, which can’t be easy to deal with – have you been able to engage in debate with those who believe in creationism? What is the general response from those who don’t believe in evolution?
The response from creationists has been predictably mixed, but so far I haven’t encountered any outright hostility, partially because I think people appreciate the sincerity and the amount of work that has gone into creating the show. I also make clear that I am merely attempting to summarize and popularize the current mainstream thinking in the scientific community, so if they want to come after me I can take a Chaucerian defense and say “don’t shoot the messenger!” I have had some creationists say “I disagree with your views, but I really enjoyed the show” which is fine by me. I don’t have any delusions about converting every audience I encounter. What I want to do is get the conversation going and also spread the message that the evidence all points to the fact that Darwin was right, that the entire scientific community agrees that Darwin was right, and that it isn’t necessarily such a bad thing that Darwin was right. So if you actually believe Darwin was wrong, you have to find a way to square your beliefs with the findings of science to the contrary. It leaves you with either a massive conspiracy theory, or a strenuous effort not to think about it too much, and those are not safe rocks to hide under.
You’re clearly a very talented lyricist, what’s next in the pipeline?
Business, economics, climate change, politics and religion – not necessarily in that order.