A week on, I just wanted to give credit to a wonderful Saturday night in Exeter. All Saturday nights down there seem to be so for me, thanks to the tribe of friends who keep inviting me to join in their multifarious creative endeavours and escapades. And also thanks to the pretty pocket city itself, which always seems to lay on the best weather every single time I pop down, making me sad to scoot off again all too soon. Naughty Georgian flirt.
The excuse to join everyone this time was blatantly musical – SynthWest. The second mighty installment of a periodic electronic music night, planted, pioneered and piloted orginally by Martin Woodgates and the boys from Phonic FM’s Two Knobs & An Oscillator, Simon Brett and Paul Griffin.
If you like your electronic music very broadly orbiting a classic “synthpop” sound and you haven’t yet heard, the scene is currently quietly massive. I speechmark the word there in case you are uncomfortable with it. And if you are, perhaps you’ve still not fully come out yet.
But it’s gotten me thinking about what it might be like to be part of a ‘scene’, and how people think of them.
Only a languidly long false eyelash outside the limelight skirt of contemporary electronic music – which these days has come to mean music of the club in all its forms – lovers of the now iconic Synth Britannia bands whose roots are predominately in the early 80s, like OMD or Soft Cell or Depeche Mode, are collaborating and sharing and gathering and pooling around their own explorations of music inspired by fizzy synth hooks and arpeggiated grooves and dark edgy rather English vocals. In fact, it may just be a shadowy blessing for the art that the pop fashion lamp did swivel away from the sound so far for a time but hasn’t quite swung all the way back to where it was, despite the love of all things 80s over the last ten years – its bubbling underground energies are almost recapturing those of the dark alternative club dancefloors of three decades past that helped foment Germany and France’s avant garde post political sonic experimentations into an even more socio-pop English taste. Write that down.
Except, I would venture to add, the creative attitude everywhere today is perhaps more crafted than the godfathers of the scene could dream of at the time.
Every artist might at some point bridle a little at being too ‘lumped in’ with a label – it’s one thing to start from the furtive fun of celebrating your inspirations or even daring to try a recreation of a record you love – it’s where virtually every person jack of us begins, in front of the mirror with a cardboard keytar or a hairbrush… Sure, deny all you like. But any consistent creative impulse will take you on a path somewhere new. Somewhere, in some measure, inevitably your own. And all the bands I’ve been getting to know through 2KO are confidently making their own noises. It’s just that, helpfully for them, they are doing so somewhere within the large envelope of a widely shared fandom for a synthpop attitude. And so they are finding fans.
SynthWest One happened last year and I hear overcame all manner of random glitches in its production run-up – not one of them to do with a characterful analogue synth, we should note – to be a triumph for ears hungry for the sound. A band I have a soulful pop soft spot for, Low Tide Theory after sharing a stage with Paul and the boys at Phonicon in ’13, bolstered the atmospheric line-up with the dreamy flow of KirA and the epic mellodama of Sinestar – and essentially, thanks to real tenacity for the scene and the sounds by Martin and Simon and Paul, set expectations for a future audience in the South West. Something I think they had all not dared hope too much for.
It meant that by the time SynthWest II was announced, back in the blessed Phoneix arts and the ol’ Voodoo Lounge, there was a fair bit of chatter looking forward to it. In the intervening months, 2KO had become a noted outlet for music of this broad character and, while Mr B and Mr G hadn’t and still don’t essentially intend to push their show firmly in one direction (apart from firmly away from One Direction) the scene found them. And people have been tuning in every other Friday night to hear more examples of new synthesiser musical creativity with a whiff of heritage because, yes, it turns out it is happening.
When I bounded in through the big front doors of the Phoenix to enjoy a night with some certifiably wacky and brilliant creative chums, I had heard a few pieces of work by each of the bands in the lineup for that night, thanks to the show. Which meant it turned out I could actually sing along cheerfully in one or two places – which I know from my own times at the front is a very heartening thing to catch your audience doing. I try to remember it might be the one safe place they feel able to be seen doing so.
But in the end it must be said that any scant knowledge of everyone’s work I did or didn’t bring with me that night didn’t really matter – because all three bands made an effortlessly flowing rolling evening of big electronic tunes that had us instinctively voguing and playing about appreciatively, or standing studiously still absorbingly.
Lou Lathan vs Dubb Clown, or LLDC, opened proceedings with a suitably fringe-clubby energy, Lou and Martin punching through their set with a confident kind of electronic pop vibe that’s been lightly plant-squiffered with industrial techno, setting a good tone and expectations for the night. As Simon later said, Lou is a charmingly cheery stage character that puts everyone at their ease from the front. And I’ve come to think the band’s track Vampyre truly is an iconic bit of work for the genre; a dub-synth anthem for memories of this summer. A beautiful confident angular thing that’s helped in it’s Good Times memory role for me especially by Simon Brett’s own beautiful reimagining of it. Nag him to put it out on a collection please.
Then. Well, then I got to see what the fuss was about. The fuss about the mid evening’s act, Shelter. Mark and Rob are a classic synth duo, you might say, with one steering the ship and the other steering the show – a silver trousered, feather headdressed theatre act of poster colour euro-pop fun. There’s the dreaded word. Sharp production with a big showbiz heart that infectiously brings the actual ruddy party, so long as you’re not still in your shoegazer mood. I know what you’re like on a Tuesday afternoon – but thankfully, Shelter are a Saturday night band.
Their track Fierce is the stand-out for me and, my, but how I would like to Bond the bleep out of it with an expensive Momo remix. I have to admit that some of us rather had shameless fun in our exuberant corner of the room, as Rob negotiated his Edwardian bootrix heels and Mark stalked around with mobile keys. You couldn’t help yourself. And if you are clinging to some lofty-feeling dismissal of bands that could get the entire Eurovision audience on its feet flapping banners, I would say you simply need to be placed within discoball’s throw of this efficiently infectious electrotunes outfit’s live show and be full-fronted by their precise tragi-sweet plastic pop theatre vamp. And perhaps then be not altogether surprised to be told that they have supported Erasure on a few European dates and worked with Andy and Vince and indeed many others in the actual studio.
If you’re tempted to say that their classily-crafted lightbulb popping LP Emerge doesn’t need to be quite so generous in its playlist, for a slightly more efficient burst of colour, I couldn’t name you one of those tracks we didn’t love live. And the CD still isn’t out of our car. Lord knows I know better than anyone, not everything you write is for everyone. And only God is perfect, baby.
And then so to our final act that night. After we had all had a nice little sit down and swapped our heels for comfy flats. A duo that Simon has championed much – as much for their live methods as their music. For Vile Electrodes create their shows without a laptop, letting those synths sing from their throats fully in a Brain of Morpheus kind of live set up that’s easily as much part of the art as Neon Jane’s striking pop-clastic style, or Martin The Swan’s flawless sequence of sounds or the group’s hand-crafted graphic branding. I have to say it is a fairly stunning live sound, resounding with presence in the oscillators and the chest cavity. It’s a poised kind of art-drama synth sound that rewards proper attention back on the hifi – I found myself loving some of the riffs and details of their debut LP The Future Through A Lens when I sat with it back in the studio working on other things the following day. In particular for my ear buds, Empire Of Wolves is a gorgeous riff worthy of Orbital at their best, and my fave upon repeated listening. A developing but fully present class act, getting recognition elsewhere in Europe, as well as an impending Gift Shop live session for BBC Intro South, something I’ve had fun with myself, you may recall. Though the Doctor Who lifesize cut-outs will no doubt be different in there now. They will garner much more response from the Introducing public than Momo would ever so broadly do, I think.
And that was our night. It’s true that you attend the party you bring, in a way, but when you’re exploring live electronic music, you never know just what sort of party you are really being invited to, and the event’s three musical teams and fab sound had us all right where they wanted us, whatever our plans might have been. In one respect only was it exactly what I’d expected – for it was far away from a night out with an average guitar band, sacred as such a thing is for so many entering music for the blessed first time. SynthWest shows just why a night out with a bunch of synth nerds is way more interesting and way more fun. Almost as much fun as arguments over music styles when you’re in your forties.
If a sense of the momentum of synthpop scene comes from anything else, it might surely be from the announcement that Simon and Paul have helped to put a quiet icon of it back on the map – Electronically Yours. A website long ago started by Rob ‘Orac’ Windle which was long championed to me by a Human League fan at least as obsessive as Rob himself, my dear old film school chum, the wanton pop art sellout Jamie Lee. Thing is, Rob closed the site a few years back for various reasons and imagined the phenomenon of it was over, until he got chatting to Simon in a Blake’s 7 forum… It is now back, championing the likes of other lovely electronic acts such as Battery Operated Orchestra, purveyors of irony-free synth pop who have a similarly splendidly Art approach to their brand as Vile Electrodes.
This weekend, however, there was also a sort of second installment to SynthWest in London’s Hoxton. Put together by the man behind the lairy new (sine)wave sound of Johnny Normal, Electro London was a line-up of some seven contemporary electronic bands, including the classically post-Kraut Tiny Magnetic Pets, the epic Cloak and the smooth EMT. And the characteristic I have observed in this scene is like the one I’ve seen surrounding my Phonic pals – a happiness to share. As Tony from EMT said to me: “there are too many cliques in music, we don’t do that”.
Of course, all this said and enjoyed, I don’t neatly fit into all this. Momo isn’t a Synthpop band in the style sense and doesn’t easily appeal to everyone looking for a particular kind of electronic hit. But from my usual place of the congenial fringes, I occasionally get invited in and am certainly happy to cheer on people creating an alternative sonic universe to ordinary contemporary pop. It’s infectious, and of course still part of my own musical outlook, much as my own tastes are nearer the different worlds of the club and the sonic new wave of the 90s. Ironic as it might sound to the (actually very enthusiastic) reviewer who said Thespionage includes “a whole lotta 80s sh**”.
It’s all in the mix for all of us who trace our musical inspiration back to Music Conrete, Minimalism, Krautrock and a pioneering desire to make new worlds of sound to express the human spirit. Whether the beats are brazen or the singer more so, or the sounds are gossamer-delicate with no human voice to be heard, we all of us respond to the siren song of the synthesiser. Those of us with those ears. There were so very many times during Vile Electrodes’ set when a new riff would sing around the room and we would all look at each other and pull faces of rude appreciation.
But, you could ask.
In a sober moment.
..What are the inspirations for the scene’s artists beyond the love of the sounds, the heritage, the memories, the comforts of an age we think golden for the synthesiser? ..Is it all glorified karaoke? Is this why it isn’t in the limelight, because it is chasing history, not writing it?
..Well, you can ask, but you’d be rather sucking the fun out of it if you did, let me say. Even though you’re me.
If you did ask, you might imagine it’s a technology thing; that because it’s all ‘so much easier’ to make music these days, it’s all so much less distinctive and therefore meaningful. Well now you’re just being daft and you can’t be me.
Y’see, it’s the sort of question a snobby or lazy music journo might quip in just the same sort of way they always preface anything whatsoever about Bournemouth with something about “blue rinses”, as if it isn’t the young people who have blue hair in the 21st century. As the scene gains attention, someone might pose the question though, I suspect.
Well, here is my response to this fear. Firstly, I think it’s really just being funny about something as daftly broad as a ‘scene’. It’s the bands individually to take notice of ultimately – genres and scenes are basically there to enhance the fun. There’s always danger in summing up a collection of artists, because it can be a writing off. Secondly anyway, what the hell does it matter? Only the very few greatest artists appear to arrive fully formed and entirely original in any genre – and of course even they never do or are, you silly pup. We are all, as people, as much products of culture and exploration as clever inspiration. We make music, many of us, to enjoy the act of living. And we should remember that the very few who end up looking like actual legends of pop culture among us never get a weekend to themselves during the years where they’re any good. Personally, I cherish that lie in.
Thirdly, the innovation and care and imagination and tenacity and sheer enthusiasm for sound that goes into your average synth band of any kind displays more intelligence and heart than an honest but deathly ordinary sounding rattle around some noisy guitar chords. It just does, doesn’t it? It really is – hoo-ruddy-ray – the music of a nerdish attitude. Those people who are becoming our overlords? Our heroes? Those guys. This is their music. It is studied music. It is considered atmosphere that so often creates some expression of true theatre, a place for drama and comedy and tragedy and clever fable to unfold.
And fourthly. Those early days were never golden. They were greyly political. Even the glitterballs of disco, emerging from the new possible sound generations of the 70s, was a frontline of anti racism and anti homophobia. Electronic music may seem studiously academic and European, but Europe is a continent bulldozed and razored and torn to bloody shreds by wars of identity and meaning, and it filtered into archly conceptual ideas of trancedence and new ways of seeing our own humanity. And whether it was Berlin in the late 60s, or Paris in the 70s or London in the 80s, all the electronic music artists of their day pulled in the language of their culture as they wrestled with times of profound change and struggle on the streets around them and within themselves. Even as they were, just as are artists today, captivated in a pure way by the sonic joy of the synthesiser – a new way of seeing the song of humanity if ever there was one. And they too were accused of killing music, of reducing it and, basically, over democratising it.
Today’s times are a little political again. Don’t you think? Appearing so more on the surface than they have since Generation Y first watched property magazine telly and imagined everything would be forever affordably affluent. If you want to find artistic voices that are likely to explore a very interesting take on the pains of Now, you would find them in the electronic music scene. The Pains Of Now are probably a band already.
I think one or two prophets may even emerge from behind their reconned Prophet Vs. After all, it has been a lifetime’s calling for most of them.
I may not be a core part of this musical movement, or sound much like it in my own work, but for me electronic music is more an attitude than a style, and I do see it in the work of the artists I’ve begun to discover, enjoying the growth of recognition that their love and dedication deserves. That instinct to explore. All three bands on that sweaty Saturday night have gone places I hope to follow in some way one day, and meeting them all was a privilege – one I would love to repeats on stage some time. I’d be lucky to, or to gain the enthusiasm for their skill and sound they have all garnered. Any great artist must surely certainly be not simply a practiser of pastiche, but be a pursuer of their own truth. Whatever kit you like the sound of, or can afford, it is ultimately your ideas, your own voice, that will stand the test of any time. Because it will be true. And they’re getting on with it. ..Can I get a witness?
It must be said alongside the cod philosophy I have allowed to leak out of me here, that on an emotional level, so many folk have become part of the family for me surrounding Phonic FM, and their work has become part of our home here. From Simon and Paul’s blossoming work with 2KO to Dan, David and Lee’s wonderful curation of Sound & Vision, which I also can’t recommend enough, or just about everyone’s involvement on The Phonic Screwdriver with which Simon and Lee kind of started everything, introducing Alan’s brilliance and so many other talented, enthusiastic people making, sharing and inspiring things. Can this group imagine life before Andy’s beautiful Seasons Of War film existed? Or its promotional namesake, the beautiful anthology of brilliant ideas that Declan curated? Or the other colourful publishings like The Twelve Doctors Of Christmas or Theatre Diabolique or all the podcasting and Mixclouding and bright bouncing multi-leveled events that all… what? Catalysed talent – and pulled people together.
More of whom I was delighted to meet at SynthWest II. They are all of them multi-talents – musicians, writers, broadcasters, illustrators, instigators, curators filmmakers and fans. Every time one of them shares something, it seems to be good. Thoughtful, considered, loved. They’re an inspiration, and so show that whatever different parts of the creative spectrum we explore, it is invaluable to have friends to share the findings with.
Despite the theatre of it all, if you are looking for true Divas to prove a scene artistically worthy, you might miss the world of new synthpop. It just doesn’t seem to work like that. Which means we can all get on with simply enjoying – simply sharing – some great work, and meaningful music, and good times.
See you at SynthWest III. x