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Rewind 2021: Critics’ Reflections

I found myself reading a lot this past year, picking up books old and new. Juliane Fürst’s Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations in Soviet Hippieland provided an insight into hippy subcultures of the Soviet Union; Public House: A Cultural and Social History of the London Pub explored the pub as a social, political and architectural space; while Kenneth Womack’s Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of The Beatles gave me an excuse to revisit familiar songs and put Peter Jackson’s documentary series into context.

The most influential book I read this year, however, was Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. This is a comprehensive but accessible text on how significant fungi are to life on this planet. Suddenly mushrooms were everywhere, not least in the brilliantly illustrated children’s book Humongous Fungus. In October, my family and I participated in an urban foraging walk and workshop, led by Czech filmmaker Alice Dušová, in East London’s Lea Valley. Both the book and walk changed my outlook on nature, particularly its interrelationship with urban spaces, and helped to shake off my post-lockdown malaise. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, December 2021

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Misantrop Interviewed: Reproaching the Absurd

Text and interview by Ilia Rogatchevski.
Photos by George Nebieridze.

Ilia Rogatchevski speaks with Berlin-based producer Misantrop about their new album Reproaching the Absurd, which is out now on Opal TapesThe artist discusses their writing process and talks about how night life, collaborations and musicology inform their work.

Misantrop is the nom de plume of Nicolai Vesterkær Krog, a Danish sound artist based in Berlin. Krog has a background in the music industry as a DJ and events organiser. As well as producing their own music and spearheading the Foul-Up label, Krog has also collaborated with Lasse Björck Volkmann as Glass Knot and with Tobias Rye Adomat aka Splash Pattern. Krog is currently undertaking a master’s degree in sound studies. 

Misantrop’s debut album, Reproaching the Absurd, was produced over the last four years. Its seven tracks explore the thought processes of a reveler’s mind at a club, observing their different mental stages throughout the night and the following day. The record is also a sonic portrait of Berlin. It attempts to channel the city’s energy by tapping into its electromagnetic patterns, as expressed in the track Homebound, via Christina Kubisch’s induction headphones.

Reproaching the Absurd is an engaging intersection of club culture and sound art. In the press release, Krog describes their approach to making the album as “resolutely queer […] draw[ing] influence from the hardcore continuum, techno-dancehall, no wave, harsh noise, musique concrète, pop, ASMR, and beyond.” Misantrop’s collaborators include the saxophonist Jeremy Coubrough, the ambient musician Angelo Harmsworth and Tobias Rye Adomat, who mixed the album. 

Let’s start with your background. Where are you from and what got you interested in experimental music?

I’m from the south of Denmark, from a little island called Falster. I moved to Copenhagen when I was 18 and came to Berlin eight years ago. 

I got into experimental music quite early. I was 13 when I was making noise in the microsound genre. My technical background is all pretty much self-taught. I’ve done a few courses here and there, but nothing special.

When I moved to Copenhagen, I started DJing at parties. Later, I learned piano, because I really wanted to study musicology. Then I moved to Berlin. I was working behind the scenes in the music business and decided to start my label Foul-Up. A few years later, I drifted away from making art and music. That’s when I was like: “Maybe I should go back to university.” Which is why I’m in art school now. 

What are your takeaways from the course?

I’m getting a lot out of it. I needed to restructure my life completely. I needed somebody to provide that structure for me. That’s what going back to school did. It made me completely refocus my life. It provided me with a lot of time to work on my ideas and develop them. Before, earning money came first, and art and music making was reserved for the little free time I had. Now I’m putting artistry first. 

Reproaching the Absurd is a significant departure from the Limerence EP you put out a few years ago. The EP was more dance orientated and beat driven. The new album is reducing those club sounds to something more experimental, violent even. In another interview you mentioned that there are elements of disco, R&B and Eurodance as well as harmonies and chord progressions in the initial stages of the project. What made you strip those elements away?

It took quite a while to get the first EP ready. By the time I was done with it, I was in a different place already. I wanted to do something different. It was me doing club sounds and then injecting something experimental into it. It was very subtle, in a way. But then I was like: “Maybe I should flip the script to make it more clear what it is that I’m actually trying to do”. 

I really like to work a lot with references. I think like a musicologist. I enjoy most kinds of music. Stylistically, there is nothing that I am opposed to, but aesthetically I’m very specific. I was open to everything and just trying out different things. I think I have a tendency to choose references that have the most extreme departures from what I know how to do. With most of the stylistic references, I never actually intended to get there. It was more like setting a destination, even though the goal was actually a detour. For instance, the disco and Eurodance thing, I realised, in the process, that it wasn’t where I was meant to be going. 

I guess that’s the problem with having studied musicology. I’ve learned a lot of rules about music and it’s difficult to unlearn them again. I put a lot of effort into the harmonies and melodies, but it wasn’t working for me: creating a mood that I wasn’t into, a mood that was too emotional for the lyrics. 

Your voice is hidden under the wall of sound. It’s disembodied, almost robotic. What initially interested me about the project was the idea that you go on this journey to a club and experience everything from ecstasy to depression. Were the lyrics an attempt to understand something about yourself from a distance, psychologically speaking?

Yes, definitely. The lyrics were the first things that I did. Reading them back now, it’s all straightforward to me, but I remember that they were very difficult to write. Putting into words what I had been experiencing helped me to actually understand it. 

It is difficult to remember why I wanted to do it, but I’ve been thinking about it lately, and I think there are two reasons. One is that I was in this environment a lot. I was working in the scene. It’s pretty hedonistic. Partying is an expression of joy, right? I felt like I needed to be talking about how there were other experiences within that environment that weren’t very much fun.

The other thing is that I’ve been dealing with depression for a long time, since I was a child. I felt like I was surrounded by this empty empathy that wasn’t doing anything helpful for me. I wanted to expose myself. I didn’t want to be seen as somebody to empathise with. It was a harmony through conflict approach.

Let’s talk about your collaborators. There is a bit of saxophone from Jeremy

Coubrough on The Latent Image and Lingering Transgression, and a bit of guitar from Angelo Harmsworth on Trail of Stasis. How did you meet them and what did they contribute to the record?

I met Jeremy on the dancefloor in Berlin. I thought he looked familiar. I walked over and said “Hi”, before I realised that I didn’t know who he was. We started talking and it turned out that a friend of mine had introduced me to his music that same week. 


Yes, it’s impossible to pronounce. 

You played at the KW Institute together?

That was Haku Sungho, but Jeremy and I did play together, yes. It was this place called Villa Kuriosum (Sonic Curiosities, Jan 2020). That was an improvised set. 

Me and Jeremy had known each other for a while. I guess we were just hanging out and then he mentioned that he got his saxophone back. I said I had been contemplating getting someone to play saxophone on The Latent Image

So we went into the studio and ended up having these jam sessions where he played the saxophone and I would be doing voice and some electronic stuff. It was actually really helpful for doing the album, for getting more comfortable working with my voice. You mentioned that my vocals are pretty buried. That’s mostly a reflection of me being shy. 

On the album there is also Angelo Harmsworth, who I’ve known for a few years. We were good friends before Covid, but there are some people who, for some reason, you got a lot closer with during Covid. At least that happened with me and Angelo. Suddenly, we were talking every day. 

We were meeting up once a week and playing what we’ve been working on for each other. I finished six tracks for the album and felt like there was a guitar missing. It turned out that he played the guitar. It already felt like he was a part of the album, because he was giving me a lot of feedback.

The person who really helped, because he did the final mix of the album, was Tobias Rye Adomat. 

You worked together on another EP, Idée Fixe, as Splash Pattern.

Splash Pattern is Tobias’ project. We released the EP as Splash Pattern & Misantrop. That project we were working on for a really long time. We’ve known each other for ten years and, at some point, we became closer. He was coming to Berlin, every once in a while, to hang out. He was actually the first person to whom I’d ever read the lyrics to. One night, we came back from the club and I forced him to read all the lyrics in my kitchen, which was not the most perfect end to an evening. 

I’m also interested to hear about Christina Kubisch’s electromagnetic headphones. 

I did a workshop with her. I got to borrow them for a day, which was a lot of fun.

How did you find the experience?

You’re not walking around with a thing [receiver] in your hand. You’re just wearing headphones and it’s the headphones that are producing the sound as well. It’s very interesting watching people listening to LED panels, lights and electric doors. Getting in the way of other people. It was fun. 

Reproaching the Absurd is out now via Opal Tapes

Originally published by Iklectik Off-Site, August 2021

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Echo Chamber

Echo Chamber is a multichannel sound installation that explores the notions of routine and domesticity in times of pandemic. Composed from field recordings created during lockdown walkabouts and the performance of humdrum activities, the work interrogates the role that repetition plays in our everyday lives.

The sound pieces are accompanied by a series of drawings. These works were created in parallel to the recordings and act as a visual anchor to the sound installation. Made with basic materials such as children’s crayons, the drawings depict, in part, portraits of the couple’s daughter, and aim to evoke a sense of the familial by employing everyday pictorial language.

Echo Chamber is the first exhibition in the Intro : spect series under Project DivFuse, where selected artists are invited to showcase their media-based work on site as a checkpoint of their long term artistic development.

Opening :
20 August 5pm – 8pm

Exhibition :
21 & 22 August 2pm – 6pm
27 August 3pm – 7pm
28 & 29 August 2pm – 6pm

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On Air: Radio Activity

Abelian Global

Abelian collects round the clock streams of the very low frequency (VLF) radio band. These sounds of ‘natural radio’ are characterised by a series of whistles, crackles and pops, generated by thunderstorms and lightning flashes bouncing off the Earth’s ionosphere. Currently, the site hosts streams from locations in the US, Italy, UK and Germany.

Kindred UK

Based at a record store in Clerkenwell, Central London, Kindred operates as a radio station every Tuesday. Hosting an average of six DJs a day, it specialises in house, techno and garage. Sessions are archived online, but it’s best to visit the shop for the live sets, if you can.

Priyom Global

Not a broadcaster but the site of an international organisation of amateur radio enthusiasts who research number stations. These notorious stations transmit encrypted messages on shortwave frequencies, most likely directed towards intelligence agents across the world. There is a comprehensive directory of current and former stations along with short samples of transmissions, a station schedule and links to live digital streams.

Radio IDA Estonia/Finland

IDA is a community station broadcasting two parallel streams from Helsinki and Tallinn. Typically online in weekday daytimes, there is a wide range of programmes including DJ mixes and talk shows. The archive is tagged by genre, so it’s easy to make new connections and interesting discoveries.

WORM Radio Netherlands

Located in Rotterdam, WORM is a multidisciplinary art space focusing on alternative new media practices, experimental performance and the development of non-academic knowledge. The radio station broadcasts from the basement and predominantly showcases avant-garde music. Live from around noon onwards every weekday, the full schedule is published on the radio.worm Instagram page.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, July 2021

Image above taken from the Mr Redley & Kristy Harper session at Kindred Radio, June 2021.

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Black Merlin – Scape One

For his first release with Artificial Dance, Black Merlin aka George Thompson takes a departure from the hard-wearing techno and intricate field recording work that he has come to be known for. Scape One is a fifteen-minute psychedelic diversion recorded in one continuous live session. While the track’s sonic characteristics may echo dance music from the turn of the millennium, its pulsating rhythm is more suggestive of the slowly evolving landscapes seen outside of a train window as opposed to raves from the late ‘90s. 

Appearing on the B-side is Gordon Pohl’s remix of Scape One. Like its source material, this track is long and subtle in the way it develops over time, but Pohl dissects the most salient elements of the original to construct a new rhythmic urgency. The high frequency accent that guides the remix does so at a speed that recalls the rotations of Brion Gysin’s stroboscopic Dream Machine, which taps into your brain’s alpha waves, aiding drug-free hallucinations. 

Pohl and Thompson are frequent collaborators and release music together as Karamika. While Scape One is not a collaboration in the strict sense, there is plenty of crossover in the working methodology of the two musicians, especially when it comes to constructing uncomplicated arrangements. 

The repetitive nature of their respective tracks locks the listener into a contradictory sensation of travelling whilst staying seemingly motionless. This sensation is not altogether uncommon, but in this instance it’s not quotidian either. The result is a record that unravels slowly, leaving space for the listener to home in on all the available information and, in the process, discover elements that can be just as unnerving as they are satisfying. 

Records purchased from the Artificial Dance Bandcamp page come with a further two remixes by Pohl as digital-only bonus tracks. Artwork by Steele Bonus. Mastering by Gordon Pohl. Text by Ilia Rogatchevski.

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Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland

Photo: Hippies at their summer camp in Vitrupe, Latvia, 1978 (Photo courtesy Archive G Zaitsev, The Wende Museum, Los Angeles)

Ilia Rogatchevski speaks with historian Juliane Fürst about her new history of Soviet hippies and the counterculture of the former USSR.

Juliane Fürst is a historian specialising in Soviet subcultures. She is head of the Communism and Society department at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam. Fürst’s interest in Soviet countercultures can be traced back to her first book, Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth And The Emergence Of Mature Socialism (2010), which explored anti-Stalinist youth organisations, as well as subcultures like the stilyagi, that emerged after the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War.

For over ten years, Fürst has been researching Soviet hippies and conducted over 130 interviews with former members of the movement. Inspired by the music, fashion and lifestyle of their Western counterparts, the hippies of the USSR challenged the norms of their socialist environment and, despite state repression, survived as an underground community until the early 1990s. The project also spawned a film Soviet Hippies (Terje Toomistu, 2017), on which Fürst served as a historical consultant, and an exhibition at the Wende Museum in Los Angeles/Culver City in California called Socialist Flower Power: Soviet Hippie Culture in the summer of 2018. Her latest monograph Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland is the first comprehensive study of the phenomenon in the Soviet Union. It is published by Oxford University Press.

Ilia Rogatchevski: What drew you into researching Soviet hippies?

Juliane Fürst: I’m interested in what makes people do radical things. Of course, radicalism is relative. You are radical depending on how harsh your restrictions are. In a more liberal society you have to go to greater lengths to be radical than in a society where you are very restricted, where it’s enough to grow your hair long and dress in a particular way.

In the West, the hippy phenomenon largely died out by the early 1970s, but in the Soviet Union hippies survived until the collapse of the USSR. Why do you think the subculture was so resilient there?

That resilience, even in the face of persecution and difficult life circumstances, is really the merit of the so-called sistema, which was a loose network of hippies. It’s down to the fact that people like Iura Burakov aka Solntse, in Moscow, and later hippy authorities such as Gena Zaitsev, in Leningrad, Sergei Moskalev, in Moscow, and Misha Bombin, in Riga, grasped what needed to happen to make this movement more resilient against dispersion, repression and just petering out. They did that by maintaining an elaborate contact system through address books, travelling, summer camps, writing their own history, creating rituals. They really started to challenge the state monopoly of memory and culture. They basically made sure that their own people knew they were not alone. They survived because they created a community.

Freedom was a key part of hippiedom. How did Soviet hippies define freedom?

In the Soviet Union freedom meant first and foremost freedom from state interferenceIn the West, freedom was very much connected to anti-materialism. There was a rejection of the materialism of the postwar generation, who had fled into domesticity. In the Soviet Union, it was rarely economic privilege the youngsters railed against. Of course, there were economic differences in Soviet families, but these differences were usually the result of political or social privilege, which was bestowed on you by the state rather than economic prowess. The rebellion actually happened against this privilege, because it had to be paid for by loyalty.

It’s striking that a lot of youngsters who came from very privileged households decided to make that rejection. Some of them suffered, some assimilated back into the world of Soviet privilege. Some of them broke, because the repercussions could be quite severe, especially if drugs were involved. Almost all male hippies spent time in psychiatry, partly voluntarily, because they wanted to get out of the army service, partly enforced, because they were deemed not fit for normal society.

That experience of incarceration, imprisonment, forced medication created an even larger desire for individual freedom. If one looks at the manifestos that are written around the concept of freedom, especially by the Soviet hippy Iura Diversant from Moscow, they are often centred around the freedom from physical interference. This, of course, refers to arrests, having your hair cut [by force], but also to the experience of being stripped of your physical rights in psychiatric institutions.

How important a role did ideology play in Soviet hippy culture?

It would be wrong to understand the hippies as an ideological phenomenon. Only part of their self-identification went via ideology. I have one chapter on ideology and it is followed by a chapter on kaif [Russian: high, buzz, pleasure] and, in many ways, the feel was more important for the hippies as a self-identifier. They felt being hippies, they did not think being hippies. But then, of course, the two are not entirely separate from each other.

There were ideas floating around to which they subscribed. The interesting thing is that it was perfectly possible to subscribe to contradictory ideas. Soviet hippies liked an American idea, which was, however, anti-American. Hippies in America defined themselves as being against the Vietnam War, against materialism and, to a certain extent, against America as an imperial power. But [Soviet hippies] actually quite liked the West. They thought that American music was cool. They thought that American hippies were cool. So what did they do with this anti-American element? They kind of just ignored it.

Most of your research stems from first-hand interviews with former hippies. Could you trust the validity of their statements?

That’s the big question. How much can we trust oral history? I can only say that after ten years of interviewing more than 130 people, my impression is that most people want to say the truth as they remember it. You then have to work with their subjective views rather than against them.

Did you speak with any former KGB agents to balance out the story?

It turns out that KGB agents are much harder to find than hippies. The written sources about hippies by the state are mostly uninteresting, even the ones from the KGB, which I could access in the Ukraine [through the Ukrainian SBU Archive]. They repeat the same tropes over and over again.

In the end, I decided that I was more interested in what the hippies thought about the state, in the self-organisation and creation of culture that happened in this community. The KGB work is the most interesting when we come to the 80s and we get this phenomenon of the curator; where the KGB starts to get a more serious engagement with the music scene, because the music scene was the bridge between the more radical hippy movement and a much larger part of youth. They started to pluck people out of that cultural midst and say: “OK, we don’t want you to betray or give away information, we want you to give us an estimation about the scene. You tell us whom we should tolerate and whom we should not.” Gena Zaitsev became one of the organisers of the Leningrad Rock Club. Or there is Sergei Zharikov who went on record (in a different interview, not with myself) saying that he was one of those curators and largely responsible for the punk music scene in Siberia, which was very radical.

The role of hippy-as-curator that you mention seems to be a direct result of ‘the concert that didn’t happen’ in Leningrad. Can you talk about that and the path to the semi-legalisation of rock in the USSR?

I don’t know why, but someone in the Leningrad film industry got this idea that they needed to make a film, which would be a cooperation between East and West and feature a large concert scene where Soviet youngsters would dance to Soviet and Western music. They put an announcement into Leningradskaya Pravda, the Leningrad daily newspaper, saying that on 4 July 1978 this concert would happen on Palace Square – right in the revolutionary heart of Leningrad, where the Bolsheviks had stormed the Winter Palace – and would feature The Beach Boys, Joan Baez, Santana, Alla Pugacheva and a couple of other acts. A little snippet of the newspaper was sent around the whole country along the hippy information highway. In the meantime, the film was cancelled, but nobody announced it to the public.

On the day, thousands of people assembled waiting for the concert. People waited for about two hours patiently. The square started to fill and they started to chant: “Where’s our music? We want Santana! We want Alla Pugacheva!” The sheer amount of people demonstrated to the authorities that hippies were not an isolated group in society. There were a lot of hippies on the square, but there were a lot of people who just liked rock music. It really transcended all sectors of society. People got very impatient and then the chants started getting more political until they reached: “Down with the Soviet Union! We want our rock music!” People went down Nevsky Prospekt, the main thoroughfare in Leningrad, and it came to violent encounters with the police.

The actual riots got crushed within a few hours, but it left quite a shock. For the first time in the Soviet heartlands, the authorities saw how music can mobilise young people and how it was capable of creating such strong emotions, which very quickly could turn against the system. That’s definitely an impetus as to why they started to act. Two most famous examples are the Leningrad Rock Club and the Moscow Rock Laboratory where bands were allowed to play outside the official canon, but under clandestine KGB supervision. That provided a valve. The club was perceived as a space for youth by youth and [the curators] were very good at keeping the KGB presence in the background (they were hiding as trade union representatives).

As you mention, music is an integral part of hippy self-identification and Western bands, particularly The Beatles, played an important role in defining the Soviet hippy lifestyle and fashion sense. In the book you suggest that hippiedom paved the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Not quite, but I would certainly agree that it was one of the factors that facilitated the disappearance of the Soviet system. That The Beatles brought down the Kremlin is of course the Leslie Woodhead theory, which he advances in a BBC documentary [How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin, 2010] and subsequent book. The Beatles appeared at the same time as technological innovations such as the magnetophone, which allowed people to record, and increased traffic of goods between East and West. The most important previous influence of Western music had been jazz, but jazz was difficult music, especially as it moved away from swing.

Over the last 30 years of Soviet rule people had been very successful in building up an alternative sphere in which the regime was only necessary as a boogeyman. The really interesting question is hence not why the Soviet Union collapsed – there are many factors starting from economics to party politics and personalities like Gorbachev. What’s really interesting is how in January 1992 people woke up without the Soviet Union and just went on and did their thing. The reason for this was that there were already many structures in place, so when the Soviet superstructure imploded initially not much was felt to have changed. Subcultures served like lighthouses in this kind of society. The hippies might have been small in numbers, but their ideas, their fashion, their music was just a concentration of things that spread in less radical form to the entirety of Soviet youth.

Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland by Juliane Fürst is published by Oxford University Press. Subscribers to The Wire can read Ilia Rogatchevski’s review of Kirill Serebrennikov’s Soviet rock film Leto (Summer) in The Wire 417 via our online archive.

Originally published by Wire, March 2021.

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William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops

When I was ten years old, I purchased a little transistor radio. It was cheap and small enough to fit into my pocket. Although I was slightly embarrassed by its pink plastic casing, this thing kept me company on my thirty-minute walk to and from school. I remember taking the radio out with me to the playground one day and turning it on in. Each station, it seemed, was preoccupied with transmitting the same news. I didn’t know what the World Trade Centre was at that point, but the magnitude of what had just happened dawned on me very quickly.

In the 1970s, William Basinski sat in his Brooklyn loft making tape loops. His radio antenna was powerful enough to capture transmissions from the Empire State Building. These broadcasts relayed muzak cover versions of American popular standards. Basinski recorded them, capturing ethereal snippets on magnetic tape. This was sampling before such a concept really existed. Knowing that these recordings were good, but not yet having the confidence to use them in their own right, the classically trained composer boxed them up.

In the early 2000s, when Basinski finally came around to digitising the loops, he discovered that the tape had degraded to such an extent that bits of it would flake off every time it passed the tape head. This meant that the recordings would slowly disintegrate as they were being played and soon became ghostly versions of their former selves.

On the morning of 9/11, Basinski rushed up to the roof of his building and watched the second plane hit the South Tower. As the smoke billowed, he turned on The Disintegration Loops and listened. Beautiful, haunting melodies swelled up around him, mapping their own decomposition. They were at once both hopelessly melancholic and surprisingly resilient. 

Unlike the moment with the pink radio, I don’t know where I was when I first heard William Basinski’s music. Most likely, it was a YouTube recommendation; a full-album stream of Watermusic II. My appreciation of his work had been gradual, much like his music is gradual. Things that at first appear static soon reveal themselves to be filled with dynamism. There is a wealth of possibilities in chance, simplicity and repetition. Basinski’s work showed me that you don’t necessarily need to ‘go anywhere’ with a piece of music. It can stay in much the same place and your mind can wander. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Thames Submarine, January 2021

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Sebastian Melmoth – Imaginary Futures

Above L-R: Laura Michelle Smith, Peter Jordan, Ilia Rogatchevski, Tomoko Matsumoto.
Photo: Artem Barkhin

Sebastian Melmoth has seen various stages of activity since I established the project back in 2006. Intended to operate as a conceptual antithesis to popular music, to begin with, the group existed in name only. At the time, I was mildly obsessed with the life and work of Oscar Wilde and, upon discovering that Wilde took up the pseudonym of Sebastian Melmoth during his self-imposed exile in France (1897-1900), decided to call my imaginary band in his honour. 

The name is referential. It is a combination of Saint Sebastian and Melmoth the Wanderer. The former was an icon for the underground gay community in Victorian England and the latter, a Gothic novel by Wilde’s great-uncle Charles Robert Maturin, first published in 1820. Due to his own castigation by polite society, it is likely that Wilde greatly empathised with both Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom and Maturin’s central antagonist (a man who takes to wandering the Earth after selling his soul to the Devil in return for immortality). 

The literary nature of Sebastian Melmoth was the project’s founding principle. The first few years were littered with attempts at writing sincere songs that pointed towards literary hallmarks. Sunshine Blues, for example, namedrops Rodion Raskolnikov, the anguished protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment (1866), while Manskinner references a peripheral character from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1994). 

This way of working was typical for us. Books were read in parallel to the creation of the music, lyrics and visual artwork. Each activity informed the other, creating a fluid symbiotic network of overlapping information. Like is often said of Sonic Youth, I wanted Sebastian Melmoth to operate as an obscure gateway drug to other works of literature, pop culture and art with each release having a tight conceptual idea supporting it.  

Sebastian Melmoth began life in earnest as a high school four-piece, with myself on rhythm guitar and vocals, Miranda Collett on lead guitar, Joe Dibb on keys and Elias Razak on drums. Peter Jacobs replaced Elias after a while, but before long the group downsized to an acoustic anti-folk duo in the vein of the Moldy Peaches. The underlying theme of our debut album, Insanity’s Insanity(self-released, 2010), was the absurd nature of everyday reality. This is evidenced by the title, which was lifted out of Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros.

While looking for a job on Gumtree, I came across a psychedelic indie outfit called Clinker (at that time a quartet, but now a duo consisting of Peter Jordan and Tomoko Matsumoto). They were advertising for extras to cast in their new music video So We Say (Dir. Ambrose Yalley, 2009). We became friends and eventually started making music together. They produced Insanity’s Insanity and even remixed a few of the tracks from that album, but our collaboration didn’t realise its full potential until a little later.

Sebastian Melmoth – Sunshine Blues (DTT Mix)

Our next releases, In der Tiefe (self-released, 2011) and The Nausea of Being(self-released, 2012), were at the same time more ambitious and conceptual than our first long player. Pointing their fingers at the works of Carl Jung and Jean-Paul Sartre respectively, these companion albums broadly concerned themselves with existentialism. In der Tiefe (German, in the depths) took drug psychosis as its principal theme. Not unlike Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009) the central protagonist uses psychedelic drugs to delve deep into the rabbit hole of his psyche in an attempt to capture and control his ‘shadow self’. The German title was appropriated from Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi classic Metropolis (1927) and, in its original context, referred to the bottom level of the titular tiered city: the domicile of the working classes.

The Nausea of Being expanded on these ideas, rising, as it were, from the depths and surfacing on a desolate landscape of social destitution, political corruption, alcoholism, murder and religious dogma. Sartre, Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett all greatly influenced me around this time. I remember reading Sarte’s 1938 novel Nausea, where the narrator experienced crippling anxiety in the face of everyday interactions, and thinking that his experiences were not far from my own. Tracks such as Waiting for Godot, Paintstripper Blues and Godemiché echoed the work of the authors above and attempted to illustrate what I saw, at the time, as the core elements of the human condition: alienation, despair, lust, self-destruction. 

Peter programmed the drums, played bass and, along with Tomoko, pretty much moulded our sound on these two albums, but the next couple of years saw a period of transition, both in terms of lineup and musical direction. Laura Michelle Smith joined us on drums, adding much needed rhythmic power to the live band dynamic, while Miranda left a short time after that to pursue other interests. Her parting contributions can be heard onEmetophobia(self-released, 2013). This eight-track EP was recorded entirely on GarageBand using drum presets and the inbuilt laptop mic for live instrumentation. Stylistically drawing from Atlas Sound’s Bedroom Databankseries and the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s more lo-fi output, Emetophobia is still one of my favourite Sebastian Melmoth albums. The lyrics may be a touch naive and the sound imperfect, but these elements contribute to the album’s overall charm. 

Being now in the business of making difficult music we found a couple of labels sympathetic to our way of thinking. After listening to an unsolicited copy of The Nausea of Being, Thomas Martin Ekelund commissioned us to compose thirty minutes of new music for his tape label. The result wasIn Ruins (Beläten, 2014), which is probably our best and most consistent work. It was described in one review as sounding “like a Britpop version of the Velvet Underground filtered through everything rock saw during the 70s, 80s and 90s”. 

Sebastian Melmoth – Miet Mitzvah

While on the surface In Ruins may appear to be a breakup album, at its core, it is actually a complex study of fanaticism, personality cults and terrorism. Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s account of the Manson Family murders, Helter Skelter (1974), and Stefan Aust’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex (1985) both fed into the album’s sense of isolation. The latter book, which recounted the history of the Red Army Faction – a far-left West German militant organisation – was particularly influential. 

After becoming increasingly fascinated with their story, I rechristened each of us after the main Baader-Meinhof members: Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin & Jan-Carl Raspe. At concerts we wore all black, save for a red armband adorned with an inverted white triangle, and performed theatrical psychedelic noise rock to the general bewilderment of all. While playing Wrong Side of the Sun, for example, I would typically invade the crowd and strangle myself with the microphone cable. This performance had roots in Viennese Actionism, but also functioned as an extension of Guy Debord’s push for the Construction of Situations. What we were trying to say was that all forms of fanaticism are dangerous, irrespective of their ideological origins, but I’m not certain whether this came across particularly well. 

By this time we were regularly rehearsing in a garage underneath the A104 in east London. It was a cold, dark and unforgiving place. Apparently, the space had been an illicit marijuana farm before it became a rehearsal room. With notable latency, this knowledge trickled down to the local gangsters and the garage was broken into on a few occasions. Finding nothing but piles of cheap guitars, broken amplifiers and no marijuana our new friends left the place alone, but not before holding our besieged landlord up at knifepoint. Tensions in the band were also on the rise. Laura and myself were becoming more interested in musique concrète, graphic scores and improvisation, while Peter didn’t like this new direction at all, feeling that our strengths lay in songwriting and the traditional band dynamic. 

It was against this background that our last two full length albums were recorded: Felix Culpa (OKVLT, 2015) and Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta(Must Die Records, 2016). We worked on these projects in parallel in an attempt to appease our diverging interests. 

Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta is a garage rock record that nodded to our punk rock influences while also including elements of surf, psych and noise. The record title is a reference to a council of Senior Aboriginal Women from the town of Coober Pedy, South Australia who protested against the Australian government dumping radioactive waste on their land. Coober Pedy, which translates from the local Aboriginal language as “white man’s hole”, is not only famous for its opal, but also the fact that many of its residents live underground to escape the scorching daytime heat. Having spent our fair share of time writing music underground, we felt companionship with these people. Peter wanted an accurate reflection of the band as a live unit and, I suppose, the album manages to achieve that (some of the drum tracks were actually multitrack recordings from our concerts). The production is far from perfect, but the energy is there, which, in the context of a garage rock album, is probably more important than fidelity. 

Sebastian Melmoth – Rooftop Surfing

Felix Culpa (Latin, happy fall) took on a slightly different approach. The majority of these songs were created during intense and heated sessions. Improvisation played a key role in its construction, but so did William Burroughs style cut-ups, digital manipulations and field recordings. At its heart, Felix Culpa explored the nature of the Fall: a condition of living in a permanent state of exposure; of opening oneself up to the Other. According to Slavoj Žižek, “the ultimate Event is the Fall itself, the loss of some primordial unity and harmony which never existed, which is just a retroactive illusion” (Event, 2014). Just like Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, this project also served to reflect what the band was at that particular moment in time: fractured, vulnerable and on the brink of disbanding. The album cover shows Gerhard Halbritter’s photograph of Andreas Baader’s death mask, which hints to the viewer that the creative drive behind Sebastian Melmoth had largely ceased to operate. 

Each of our studio releases aimed to depart from the last. Not repeating ourselves was another key principle of the band. Towards the end, however, I began to feel that we were doing just that. I also felt that my songwriting had become contrived and breaking out of that mould was not an option supported by everyone. Additionally, I became uncomfortable with some of the characters in my lyrics. Songs such as Prosopagnosia or Foedi Oculi employ elements of sexism, sadism, oppression and violence in order to highlight the abhorrence of such actions. Even though I saw the explorations of these themes as a contemporary take on Maturin’s gothic horror, as time went on, it became increasingly difficult for me to justify them. 

Our last show was at a tiny Clapton bar called Biddle Bros, in the summer of 2017. In my opinion, the show went better than expected. At that point we hadn’t rehearsed much or played live in a while. Peter disagreed. He felt that we lost something crucial along the way. Where once we had been theatrical, now we were just plodding along. I wasn’t convinced. Theatre is an open-ended format that can allow for modest gestures as well as flamboyant ones. We were coming from different directions and refusing to meet each other halfway. Peter was citing David Bowie and I was referencing Fluxus and Bertolt Brecht. At its core, this argument – not our first or last, but certainly our most public one – was saturated by our personal and professional expectations of one another. These expectations weren’t always met and neither of us were open to what the other person wanted. Whatever odd bits we had recorded around this time were self-released as an outtakes compilation called Devotional Songs for the Digital Age, in late 2018.

Not long after all of this, Olf van Elden aka Interstellar Funk reached out with a proposal to compile our more electronic cuts together on vinyl. We christened this new albumThe Dynamics of Vanity(Artificial Dance, 2019). The title is both a comment on culture’s obsession with rehashing the past – the subject matter of Simon Reynolds’s book Retromania (2010) – and our own personal navel-gazing. The title references a collage I had made as an art student that mocked the fashion industry’s depiction of male underwear models. To my mind, they resembled intricate amphorae paintings and Hellenistic bronzes of Greek antiquity.

Sebastian Melmoth – Icarus

Although The Dynamics of Vanity is not a studio album, we approached its production with the same attention to detail as we would any other record. For the cover, we wanted to get across the stark, archaic beauty of the human body in motion. Stripped, Rammstein’s appropriation of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) was the main reference point, but so too were Andy Stott’s album covers, namely Luxury Problems and Too Many Voices. After some initial back and forth, the Amsterdam-based Australian designer Steele Bonus rendered these ideas in a post-punk fashion suited to our sound and aesthetic.    

As we dug through our hard drives compiling the album, we unearthed a few unreleased remixes made by Peter and Tomoko. We decided to weave these rediscovered tracks into a new project, Imaginary Futures (MFZ Records, 2020), a record that reimagined our back catalogue as a suite of rave-ready dancefloor fillers.  

While the album title, which alludes to the lost potential of disparate creative outcomes, was borrowed from Richard Barbrook’s 2007 book charting the emergence of the internet, it was the production, remix and DJ work of Andrew Weatherall that was the key inspiration for the our approach. The album’s flow and concept loosely mirrors Weatherall’s treatment of Primal Scream’s source material for Screamadelica, which itself resulted in their pivotal marriage of rock and acid house. The idea for the album was set before Weatherall’s passing, but his departure helped to calcify the direction of the mix. 

Musically, our last two albums are pretty cohesive, despite the fact that they are both compilations and the material on them isn’t strictly new. They are collections of snapshots, taken over our decade-long recording history, that are bridged together by new contexts. The Dynamics of Vanity was curated by Olf and the bulk of Imaginary Futures was remixed by Peter and Tomoko, and my personal contributions to these projects was limited to administrative tasks, design and artwork consultation. That being said, they are fair representations of who we were: not ‘Best Ofs’ or ‘Worst Ofs’, but ‘Sort Ofs’. 

Sebastian Melmoth – Accidentally Grotesque (DTT Mix)

Much like the albums described above, this essay is merely a rendering of our story and far from the whole picture. The text is not intended to be canonical. Many events, people and releases have been omitted for the benefit of readability. What I hope the text does is provide some background of our origins, processes and motivations.  

As mentioned before, we haven’t played live or recorded anything new since 2017 and I doubt that we will do either of those things again. After fourteen years of nurturing the same idea, it has come to a point where I have said everything there is to say in this particular format. I have enjoyed developing this band with my many friends, and seeing it change over the years, but it’s finally time for us all to move on to other projects and for Sebastian Melmoth to cease his aimless wandering. 

The Dynamics of Vanity is out now on Artificial Dance. Imaginary Futures is available via MFZ Records. Follow Sebastian Melmoth on Facebook and Instagram.

Ilia Rogatchevski