Kirill Serebrennikov (Director), Hype Film/Kinovista, 126 mins Image: Aleksander Kuznetsov as The Skeptik in Leto (Summer)
“The Soviet rock musician must find the light inside of mankind. He must have an active role in society.” So says the director of the Leningrad Rock Club, Anna Aleksandrovna (Yuliya Aug), as she examines the lyrics of Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo). The Rock Club is a bastion of liberty in an otherwise monochromatic world and Anna is its gatekeeper. Tsoi’s lyrics engage with the poetic aspects of working class life, but in order to appease the censor, his songs are masked as critiques of unsavoury behaviour: sexual promiscuity, teenage alcoholism and parasitism.
Tsoi, who died in a car accident in 1990, is a heroic figure in the eyes of many Russian speakers. His legacy, and that of his post punk band Kino, stretches far beyond its original Soviet context. It still resonates. So strongly, in fact, that Tsoi is the subject of three separate movies produced this year. Leto (Summer) was the first to be released, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Soundtrack Award), and is, perhaps, the most controversial.
Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, Leto is an endearing, if somewhat fictional, portrait of the 1980s Soviet rock era. Set in Leningrad, the film follows the early working relationship of Tsoi and Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), songwriter and frontman of the blues rock band Zoopark. Thescreenplay is based on the recollections of Naumenko’s widow, Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum) and ensnares the three main protagonists in a love triangle. Those who knew them consider this an ill-conceived plot device. Boris Grebenshchikov, a Russian rock legend in his own right, went as far as to call the screenplay “Lies, from start to finish.” at a televised press conference.
Grebenshchikov may be right, but Leto is fiction, after all. The viewer is frequently reminded of this by Sceptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), a peripheral character who has a habit of dramatically breaking the fourth wall. In one scene, he starts a near-riot at the Rock Club by encouraging the sedentary audience to get up and dance, before reminding us that none of this actually happened.
Such moments are there to articulate the complex dynamics of Soviet life: rock is allowed, but dancing to it is not. To experience a taste of freedom, the audience must look inward. In the ARU TV video blog, the Russian music journalist Artemy Troitsky, who also worked as a consultant on the film, refers to this phenomenon as “total internal emigration”. According to Troitsky, this was a crucial tactic, used by artists and audience alike, to survive in a totalitarian state, which was closed off from the rest of the world. (Serebrennikov might have been forced to employ this tactic to finish the film. He’s been under house arrest since August 2017, for the alleged embezzlement of government grants.)
Leto finds itself following in the tradition of many western biopics that bend the facts for the benefit of artistic effect: The Doors (1991), 24 Hour Party People (2002), Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010). It must be remembered, however, that rock thrives on myth. If a film accurately manages to reflect the energy felt by the listener when he or she hears those songs, then it should be treated as a success. These emotions are, of course, intimately subjective, but Serebrennikov’s Leto gets close to illuminating them.
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, November 2018
Tonight’s showcase is organised by Chinabot, Eastern Margins and Yeti Out, collectives who specialise in curating contemporary art and music from Asia. Hailing from Taiwan, Sabiwa’s laptop-based audiovisual performance makes use of dislocated vocals, field recordings and acidic synths to create an ethereal take on techno. The beats are erratic, disappearing as quickly as they surface. Judging from the corresponding projections of parrots, bees and jellyfish, themes of nature and transformation, link Sabiwa’s compositions.
The vibe gets darker when the Cambodian musician Lafidki aka Saphy Vong takes to the stage. Hunched over a laptop and two sequencers, Vong’s minimalist dance music fuses industrial house beats with a saturated high end. Coupled with glitchy visuals, Lafidki’s psychedelic interjections create a web of unsettling visions.
Vong is the founder of Chinabot, which has put out eight releases since its inception in 2017. Later clarifying, over email, the reason for initiating the project, Vong states that: “There is an erasure of Asian people’s narratives from electronic music. I want to find a way to rewrite these voices into history.”
He went on to say that there is an overall “fetishization of social troubles” by western creatives who appropriate Asian culture and aesthetics, but ignore their own role in the “colonization of ideas”. The information exchange works the other way, too. According to Vong, the Cambodian electronic scene is dominated by expat DJs who spin only commercial tracks. Chinabot attempts to challenge the globalised nature of electronic music by providing Asian artists with a platform to experiment; a place where they can “be proud of their culture and background”.
That being said, it is difficult to uncover any distinctive aesthetics in Sabiwa and Lafidki’s sets. Their music explores tropes that are transnational, borderless. This assertion, however, may be down to latent references that are unrecognised by western ears.
The most affecting set of the evening comes from the Thai artist Pisitakun. His latest release, SOSLEEP, was created in response to the death of the artist’s father. Traditional instruments like the pi mon and the khean are pitted against drum machines and synthesisers. The beat is led by field recordings of a heart rate monitor and fortified with metallic kick drums and crashing waves of harsh noise. The resulting atmosphere is that of an oddly groovy catharsis.
In our post-concert Facebook chat, Pisitakun explains: “I was in an ER and woke up to the chaotic noise happening in the room. Some stranger in the next bed passed away. Death [is] like sleep. People could just go in a second. The name ‘So Sleep’ was my SOS for when there’s no help, emotionally”.
By the time Taipei’s Sonia Calico steps up to the decks, the crowd is ready to be coaxed out of the darkness. Calico’s DJ set is diverse. It’s peppered with Korean grime, reggae bangers and pop remixes, as well as a few of Calico’s own productions. The music elicits conversations about language, emigration and integration from some of the more loquacious dancers. Their conversation brings to mind Vong’s other reason for organising this event: “Noise shows used to be a lot less diverse, but more people are finding diversity in these spaces. I like the idea [of going] to a noise show and then dancing in a club, but [at] the same event.”
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, November 2018
Photo: Teo Yoo as Viktor Tsoi and Roma Zver as Mike Naumenko in Leto (Summer)
Russian underground chronicler Artemy Troitsky talks to Ilia Rogatchevski about Leto, Kirill Serebrennikov’s new film documenting the 1980s Soviet rock scene.
Artemy Troitsky is a Russian music journalist, cultural critic and video blogger. He is the author of books such as Back In The USSR: The True Story Of Rock In Russia (1987), Tusovka: Who’s Who In The New Soviet Rock Culture (1990) and Subkultura: Stories Of Youth And Resistance In Russia (2017). Troitsky began his career in the early 1980s and is closely associated with the rising wave of Soviet rock musicians, who came to prominence during this time. Two key artists from this period were Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko, chief songwriters and frontmen of the bands Kino and Zoopark, respectively. The two men had a close working relationship and both died young, in tragic, but unrelated circumstances, at the beginning of the 1990s.
Kino are a true phenomenon. Rock was an illicit artform in the Soviet Union before the 1980s and the band shot to popularity in Mikhael Gorbachev’s Perestroika era begun in 1985. Fusing elements of new wave, post punk and pop, with lyrics that articulated the defiance of the Russian soul, Kino’s music captured the ambiguous divide between totalitarianism and an uncertain future. Naumenko’s Zoopark also reflected the disaffection of Soviet youth, but whereas Kino’s legacy extends far beyond its original context, Zoopark’s music struggles to resonate with young Russians today due to Naumenko’s frosty intellectual detachment.
Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, Leto (Summer, 2018), is based on the recollections of Naumenko’s widow Natasha. Set in the summer of 1982, around the time when Kino recorded their debut album 45, the plot focuses on Tsoi and Naumenko’s working relationship. There is, however, an additional dimension to the story: a love triangle between Tsoi, Naumenko and Natasha. Even before its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the movie managed to generate waves of controversy from people who knew the protagonists personally. Musicians such as Boris Grebenshchikov, of the band Akvarium, and Aleksei Rybin, who co-founded Kino with Tsoi in 1981, criticised the screenplay for being unfaithful to true events.
Prior to the completion of filming, on 22 August 2017 Serebrennikov was arrested by the Russian authorities on charges of fraud. His theatre company Sedmaya Studiya (Studio Seven) is accused of embezzling 133 million rubles (£1.5 million) of government grants. It has been suggested that the arrest was a repressive reaction to Serebrennikov’s previous film The Student (2016), which is heavily critical of the Orthodox church and the Russian education system. The above charges are unrelated to Leto, but the scandal has helped to generate hype around the film. Serebrennikov was forced to complete it under house arrest and remains incarcerated while awaiting trial to this day.
Meanwhile, Leto has been praised by critics at home and abroad. Its soundtrack, which was produced by the contemporary Russian rock band Zveri (the band’s frontman Roman Bilyk plays the lead role of Naumenko in the film) won a prize at Cannes. It features covers of classic compositions by not only Tsoi and Naumenko, but also Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Talking Heads. A spin-off documentary by Serebrennikov about the making of the film called Posle Leta (After Summer) was released in Russian cinemas on the 6 September 2018. Artemy Troitsky worked both as a consultant on Leto and was interviewed for Posle Leta.
Ilia Rogatchevski spoke to him about the cultural fallout of Serebrennikov’s project.
Ilia Rogatchevski: You worked as a consultant on the film Leto. When did Serebrennikov ask you to work with him and what did this role involve?
Artemy Troitsky: Kirill Serebrennikov, whom I have known for at least 15 years, called me around January or February 2017. He told me about the film, asked to check the script and give permission to ‘use my character’ in the movie. He also suggested that I take part in the shoot, because initially he wanted to mix the actors with the real 1980s people.
Can you share any details about the shoot?
I was present at the shoots in Saint Petersburg (September 2017, Rock Club) and winter 2017/18 in Moscow for the kvartirnik [scene, an unauthorised concert in a private apartment – Ed]. In both cases, I’ve done big on-camera interviews with Sceptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), which later were used in the documentary Posle Leta. The atmosphere and the vibe at the shootings were great, very enthusiastic, but rather unlike ‘the real thing’.
What was ‘the real thing’ like?
Quite impossible or too long to explain.
Was there always an idea to make a concurrent documentary, or do you think Serebrennikov suspected there may be dislike angled towards Leto from the old guard and he wanted to answer it preemptively?
Posle Leta was an improvisation. Initially, the idea was to make one film, as usual, and mix the actors and comments from the vosmidesyatniki [the generation of artists and intellectuals living and working in the 1980s – Ed]. Later it appeared that there is way too much material. Leto is over two hours long. Serebrennikov decided to put together a separate documentary for the same budget.
What were your initial thoughts on the screenplay? Did they match those of Boris Grebenshchikov and Aleksei Rybin?
The ‘affair’ between Natasha Naumenko (Irina Starshenbaum) and Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) was, as we all think, Natasha’s fantasy. No one among the closest friends – Aleksei Rybin included – knew about it.
Why do you think they responded so negatively to it?
Building the whole plot around a love triangle that did not exist was, well, dodgy. Hence the reaction.
In one of your video blogs you said that ‘out of every screenplay, even the worst kind, you can make a good movie’. Do you feel this is the case with Leto?
Yes, this is what I think now too. This is the reason why: despite obvious questions about the script – I told Serebrennikov straight away that there was no love story – I agreed to work with them. Serebrennikov is an extraordinary director and I believed he would produce something worthwhile.
Were you at all surprised by Serebrennikov’s arrest? How did this affect the production of the film?
Indeed, everyone was shocked about the arrest! It was absolutely unexpected. But soon they learned how to cope with it. All the footage was immediately sent to Serebrennikov and he made commands by phone or internet. It was really complicated but they managed.
As somebody who has lived through the Soviet period, how do you think the repressions of that time compare to Russia today?
The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, there was total control. The Russian Federation is a hybrid totalitarian state. The authorities choose what to control and who to punish. And it’s not always predictable, like in the Serebrennikov case – he was never an outspoken oppositional activist.
Do you feel that Serebrennikov’s film interpretation gets across the atmosphere of the time?
Most objections regarding Leto deal with factual details not the general feeling. I think it’s simply impossible to ideally recreate the atmosphere of 35 years ago, but it was a good try.
Why do you think Tsoi’s legacy still resonates with young people today, but Naumenko has largely been forgotten?
Tsoi and Kino were a great pop band, with remarkable melodic hooks and a straight, positive romantic image. They were like the Beatles. Mike Naumenko was like Lou Reed: an intellectual songwriter, way too ironic, subversive and negativistic for a general audience.
In a previous interview you noted that ‘total internal emigration’ was an important tool for Soviet musicians to experience freedom. Do you think this is still true for underground musicians working today?
Inner emigration is still fine, but I feel that the new generation is in a less escapist mood. Those who want to emigrate, do emigrate. It’s easy now. But those who remain – at least many of them are ready to fight.
What did you think about Leto‘s soundtrack?
The soundtrack sounds too good to my ears. I would rather stick to the original bad quality tapes. But again it’s a respectable try. It isn’t khaltura (a hack job), and could have been much worse.
Do you think that the addition of bands such as Glintshake and Shortparis in the soundtrack was an attempt to draw parallels between underground music in the 1980s and now?
Well, I noticed Shortparis at the acid party scene at the end of the film but I don’t recall Glintshake. [Glintshake do not appear on screen, but their cover of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” soundtracks the film’s riotous train scene – Ed] Both bands are good, totally unlike the 1980s Soviet groups, and do not look completely out of place in the movie. Probably the purists hate it, but I think it is a funny trick. It kind of symbolises the connection of two gloomy periods in Russian history and the young rebels’ reaction to it.
Bastard Assignments is a collective of composer-performers that includes Timothy Cape, Edward Henderson, Caitlin Rowley and Josh Spear. Consisting of six performances that interrogate the remix and its role on the stage, the evening begins simply and ends in a riot of colour, playfulness and complexity.
Cape’s Untitled opens the show. Looking as if they were coerced into judicial combat armed with only midi controllers and a drum pad, Spear and Henderson fire off pop music samples at each other. These sounds are interlaced with guttural vocalisations from the two players. The result is a piece that is somewhere between noise and language and recalls the flatulent logic of Neil Luck’s 2015 LCMF commission Via Gut.
Composed by Henderson, Good utilises a six-piece band and appropriates the final cadence of James Brown’s I Got You (I Feel Good). Inspired by a live recording where Brown’s band jams on the last chord ad infinitum, Henderson’s arrangement uses silence, repetition and dissonant deviation to unsettle the ear. In a post-concert email interview, Henderson described the composition as a “mysterious gesture”, going on to say that “imbuing each section of the piece with a non-causal, non-narrative sense of something that could go on forever”was instrumental to abstracting the original work and divorcing it from the climactic power of funk.
This notion of abstraction is also evident in Crying, a piece by Eleanor Perry and Tim Spooner. The foundations of the work are composed from samples of crying women. Taken from movies such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and The Philadelphia Story, these heavily edited bursts of counterfeit emotion readily lend themselves to mimesis. Wearing a stark combination of colours Perry and Spooner imitate passages of dialogue, as well as loops of diegetic sound, with a variety of materials that include inflatables, rubber and transparent plastic. Although surreal and playful on the surface, Perry’s emphasis on breath underpins Crying with a disconcerting feeling of hyperventilation that is difficult to shake off for days after the performance.
Birthday, choreographed by Thick & Tight (Eleanor Perry and Daniel Hay-Gordon) and performed by Bastard Assignments, is stylistically similar to Crying, but takes Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party as its material. Again, the performers mime to edited dialogue. Black gloves, semi-darkness and a haunting execution of Blind Man’s Buff take Pinter’s ‘comedy of menace’ further into maniacal farce by adding new layers of dark and ambiguous symbolism.
Broadcast across four CRT screens (with a fifth acting as a score for the live soundtrack), In the Paracinematic Cuteness appropriates early computer animation, television static and vaporwave imagery to suggest, as the composer Josh Spear told me later, “a viewing, way in the future, by aliens or AI, that had been constructed from today’s entertainments”.
Spear’s pessimistic view of late capitalism and its alien voyeurs is contrasted by Lady Vendredi’s utopian afrofuturist piece Neon Dream. Mixing aspects of Haitian Vodou and contemporary composition Lady Vendredi aka Nwando Ebiziepresents the audience with a parallel dimension attained through sacrificial offerings (prosecco, crisps) and the transformative power of the four elements (psychedelic fires, sea of balloons, a giant egg, inflatable clothes). Collaborating with pianist Yung Yee Chen and director Jonathan Grieve, Ebizie combines colourful postmodern pop with theatrics rooted in the shamanic rites of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and the Loa spirit world.
At times challenging, and often bordering on the absurd, the evening’s cross-disciplinary approach serves to show that works, which seamlessly blend aspects of stage, screen and sound, project a vision of the future where art escapes identification and subversive humour plays a key role in our survival.
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, September 2018
Dronica is a small-scale experimental music festival that produces around three editions annually. Now in its third year, the festival hosts workshops, installations and live performances in a modest Elizabethan church. Chosen for its intimate size and unique acoustics, Stoke Newington’s Old Church has served as Dronica’s home since the festival’s inception and the event series feels inextricably linked to this location.
Architecture plays a vital role in any gig and many of the artists who performed over the course of this three-day event knew how to make the space work for them. Pascal Savy compared it to the art of boiling frogs. “You start with cold water,” he told me in the overgrown courtyard just prior to his set, “and slowly raise the temperature. This space is like a resonant box and I’m slowly filling it with water”.
Partly inspired by rave music, Savy’s electroacoustic performance consisted of the French composer layering effects and “opening a bass filter for twenty minutes”. Coupled with the frog analogy, it made for vivid listening and even forced one of the PA speakers to disconnect itself.
Other highlights included Gareth Davis’s ambient explorations on the bass clarinet, Luxul’s cathartic viola-induced harsh noise and experimental cellist Jasmine Pender aka Rotten Bliss. Pender began her performance by descending the wooden pulpit, singing a capella and unamplified, before taking hold of her electric cello and delivering a string of coarse and beautifully heavy songs. Processed through pedals, triggers and various Max patches, Pender’s tracks betrayed hallmarks of folk, metal and classical without subscribing to any particular tribe.
Charles Hayward’s thirty-minute snare solo was probably the best example of the space itself being played. Around five years ago, Hayward was approached by the Otolith Group who wished to film his drum rolls. The intention was to use the drumsticks both as source material and a surface onto which the footage could be projected. Hayward became interested in the endurance aspect of the drum roll, as well as the sonic possibilities that an extended piece could offer.
In the context of the church’s multifaceted walls and ceilings, Hayward took on the role of a water diviner, sourcing new sonic streams from the bricks, wood and limestone. The snare’s reflections bounced back in waves of varying intensity. New phantom sounds could be heard, such as bells and chanting. According to Hayward, “each room has its own beat, [but] you can’t play faster than the beat of the room”. Attempting to do so will result in confusion, syncopation and dissonance.
Perhaps in anticipation of this argument, Disinformation’s ‘Ammonite’ video installation aimed to find harmony within visual noise. The silent film’s undulating white spiral echoed the trend of camp late ‘60s spy serials, such as the Avengers and the Prisoner, by recording visual feedback of a laser beam pointing at a television screen. The harmonious golden section created by this installation is not designed to brainwash paranoid spies, however. Instead, Disinformation says, the intention is to encourage “lifeforms [to] emerge out of chaos”.
In ‘Experimentations: John Cage in Music, Art, and Architecture’, the book’s author Branden Joseph suggests that music and composition have an intimate relationship with architecture. Cage, a fan of modernist architects like Mies van der Rohe, considered that glass buildings, which can both reflect their environment and disappear within it, were analogous to the transparent qualities of his music. If the building materials dictate the nature of the sounds, then, in contrast with Cage’s preferences, the music programmed by Dronica is as opaque and heavy as the limestone that supports the church walls, roof and steeple.
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, July 2018
Atsuko Kamura aka Kamura Obscura opens her solo set with pizzicato vocalisations and wind-like sighing. These sounds are quickly looped and layered, becoming rhythmic tracks that guide her compositions. Kamura’s various voices combine to create an indeterminate libretto in which bird song, ocean waves and white noise stand tall.
The music is structured, though it may appear improvised at first. Stealing a look at Kamura’s score reveals a list of phrases such as “Frog Beat” and “Space Head”. This list refers to samples, presets and moods that she wishes to trigger or evoke in a certain order.
Synthesised melodies shift the atmosphere from B movie horror, past New Age ambient, and onto playful children’s song. Her second to last composition is a Macedonian lullaby, the melody of which was fused with lyrics from a Japanese cradle song. As if to emphasise the playful music, Toni, the Iklectik house cat, wanders into the venue and walks around the stage as Kamura performs.
Kamura’s previous work includes the Japanese punk band Mizutama Shobodan, Frank Chickens and a stint co-presenting Kazuko’s Karaoke Klub on British television in the late 1980s. Geoff Leigh and Makoto Kawabata, too, have colourful backgrounds and vast discographies behind them. Leigh has played with Henry Cow, Faust and The Artaud Beats, whilst Kawabata is the founding member of the Japanese psychedelic rock band Acid Mothers Temple.
The first time that Leigh and Kawabata played together was in 2014 at the Urbanguild in Kyoto, Japan. The recording of that performance was released by the Acid Mothers Temple label two years later as ‘Spatial Roots’. This document of their first encounter as an improvising duo is markedly different from tonight’s performance. ‘Spatial Roots’ develops slowly and the players sounded much more uncertain of each other, with the guitar often fading in the mix. Having worked together on many occasions since then, tonight’s performance sees Leigh and Kawabata both confident and loud.
The players start without hesitation. Leigh samples his flute, processing the arabesque notes through a laptop. Kawabata mirrors Leigh‘s fluttering notes with nimble dashes across the fretboard of his black headless guitar, approaching the instrument like a sculptor might approach clay. An experienced sarangi player, Kawabata then draws his curved bow across the strings to produce textures that are malleable and forever shifting. He tells me later that the size and shape of the sarangi bow allows him to easily alternate the tension of the bow hairs, which provides more control over the sound.
There is virtually no low end, but both players work hard to fill up empty spaces. Leigh’s close miked flute puts an accent on each suck of air, giving the impression that a vacuum is forming inside the venue. Because his set up is coming through the PA, but Kawabata’s guitar is not, an interesting spatialism occurs. The flutes bounce around the venue in stereo, while Kawabata’s controlled use of overdrive force the sound waves into different corners of the room, meaning that the reflections arrive with a slight delay into each ear.
In the second half of the composition Leigh and Kawabata move onto soprano saxophone and electronics respectively. Kawabata’s Pocket Piano and effects chain bring additional nuance, whilst Leigh’s looped microphone taps and mouth clicks impart a syncopated rhythm track. The sound remains at a constant intensity throughout the concert. It would have been preferable to experience a greater dynamic shift between the two players – Leigh’s singing bowls and cowbells could barely be heard – but being hit by a wall of sound can be just as satisfying.
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, May 2018
The dark and cavernous Corsica Studios is a worthwhile setting for a night themed on violence. Hailing from Oslo, the no wave stoner rock trio MoE opens the concert with bursts of angular guitar, irregular war-like rhythms and a low end so brutal it hijacks the body.
Guro Skumsnes Moe, the bass-playing lead singer, sports an incredibly controlled vocal range that oscillates between energetic guttural retching and piercing high frequencies. Songs like ‘Wild Horses’ exponentially build in volume and intensity, recalling the insufferable cruelty of early Swans. Lyrics are hard to pick out from the noise, but Moe’s theatrics (she beats her chest, traps wire wool in her hair and uses a silk scarf as a blindfold) bring to mind the ancient Greek prophet Tiresias and blind Lady Justice.
Moe dedicates a song to Valerie Solanas, the American feminist notorious for shooting Andy Warhol and authoring the ‘SCUM Manifesto’. Turning 51 this year, the manifesto calls for the extermination of men everywhere, arguing that they are responsible for all of the world’s problems. Although Solanas’s treatise shouldn’t be taken at face value, it’s an important work in the canon of western feminism and clearly informs tonight’s events.
Much like Solanas, Lydia Lunch sees the world as parasitic. However, Lunch does not mark her antagonist as any particular person, group or sex. Reading from pages of free-association verse, her words dive in and out of irony, self-deprecation and accusations. The target of her discord is ambiguous and, it could be said, that she’s at once finding fault in herself as well as the listener.
Lunch’s verses are punctuated with drums and electronics played by Weasel Walter, best known as the founder of The Flying Luttenbachers. The two musicians push and pull, often challenging each other for dominance. It’s an interesting dynamic to observe. Walter gets so involved with the beat that he appears to forget Lunch altogether. Lunch then corrects him by sternly hitting the rim of his kick drum with her palm, bringing Walter out of his rhythmically induced trance.
Lunch and Walter have been collaborating together since at least 2012, when Lunch formed Retrovirus. This band, also consisting of Tim Dahl (Child Abuse) and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth/Pussy Galore), has a retrospective outlook, spanning Lunch’s entire career. It performs songs by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, 8 Eyed Spy, 1313 and her solo material.
In September 2016, Lunch and Walter released ‘Brutal Measures’ on Lunch’s own Widowspeak Productions label. Recorded in one live session, with no editing or overdubs, this single twenty-minute composition reflects much of what is going on this evening, with elements of jazz, abstract electronic noise and intense spoken word all being present. As players, Lunch and Walter are more generous to each other on the recording, probably due to their control over the studio environment. By contrast, tonight’s performance is in front of an audience, tension is evident and, inevitably, technical difficulties occur.
Lunch’s monologue covers topics such as murder, madness and suicide. She invites us to enter her dark and violent world, at one point admitting that: “All of my songs are literary autopsies”. In spite of this invitation, you get the feeling that Lunch would prefer to keep us at a distance. Furthermore, she offers no solutions to the problems she lists (WWII, Hiroshima et al). We’re left to face our own apparent nihilism and contempt for each other. As if to emphasise this point, Lunch concedes that: “the moment that becomes unbearable is where I belong”. But if art makes you feel uncomfortable, then it’s probably doing something interesting.
Ilia Rogatchevski Originally published by Wire, April 2018
Swedish duo Neutral dig repetition with their reel-to-reel version of blasted psychedelia. Photograph by Erik Gustafsson.
In 1843, Søren Kierkegaard published Repetition, an essay on experimental psychology that argued for the importance of recurrent actions and events. The essay opens with the Danish philosopher stating that “repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions”, but that, unlike recollection, which is symbolised by an ill-fitting garment from your youth, repetition is reality itself. Repetition is an imperishable garment: not too tight, nor too loose; serious and life-affirming. He who masters repetition, suggests Kierkegaard, is not only courageous and “matured in seriousness”, but also en route to pure happiness.
Neutral, the Swedish noise duo composed of Sofie Herner and Dan Johansson, occupy the no man’s land between Kierkegaard’s existentialist polarities of repetition and recollection. Their work employs a reel-to-reel tape machine as the principal recording medium. The sonic characteristics of tape, for better or worse, are closely associated with notions of nostalgia, longing and domesticity. The sounds that Neutral commits to this tape, however, are layered and repetitive, sometimes looping until the tape disintegrates. They pull the listener into a constructive psychological space that avoids navel-gazing, but doesn’t dispense with existentialism altogether.
This idea is most evident on Neutral’s eponymous second LP, which has themes of repetition and return running throughout. Released in 2016 by Omlott, the Gothenburg-based free jazz and improvised music label, Neutral contrasts repetitive bursts of guitar noise, organ and industrial rhythms – what Johansson refers to as “deep listening difficult music“ – with esoteric field recordings and Herner’s hushed confessional vocals.
Taking into consideration the staunchy Sterling Morrison-like guitar weaving its way through Andas, the album’s first track, you could be forgiven for thinking that Neutral were attempting to resurrect the heady days of late-’60s psychedelia.
“It’s interesting that you hear it that way,” Herner tells me over Skype. “When I record more song-like stuff, sometimes it sounds like something I like. It just happens that way, but it’s not intentional.” Neutral’s influences are a combination of no wave, post-punk, Harry Pussy-style noise rock and Swedish electroacoustic music by composers such as Rune Lindblad, but elements of Kluster, Harmonia and Throbbing Gristle can also be said to exist in the mix.
Herner and Johansson met in Gothenburg in 2007. Together with a mutual friend, Matthias Andersson, they formed Källarbarnen, before releasing an untitled cassette on the Gothenburg Blood Cult label two years later. The thirty minute composition is duplicated on both sides of the tape, an early experiment in which the repetition of form mirrors the repetitive nature of the music. Although Källarbarnen produced only one release as a trio, the band’s members would continue to collaborate on various projects, including Enhet För Fri Musik, Heinz Hopf, Leda and Sewer Election.
In 2008, Johansson and Andersson founded Utmarken: a hybrid venue, rehearsal space and record shop housed in a former car repair garage. Utmarken served as the bedrock in which ideas for Neutral took root, being Herner and Johansson’s main hangout, but it wasn’t until late 2013 that the band made its first recordings. The result was the Neutral’s debut, Grå Våg Gamlestaden, a noise music ode to an area of Gothenburg where both Herner and Johansson lived at the time.
“When we record, we can do anything,” says Herner. “We have a very instinctive way of working. We don’t discuss concepts in too much depth. I have very clear conceptual ideas for all of our recordings, but since I don’t explain my ideas to Dan, he will work with the sounds and voice from his perspective. It’s a good way of making sure that we use what is good, instead of stuff that fits the concept, but doesn’t sound very good.”
Unlike traditional bands, Neutral do not use drums (save for a single track, A-B-C, which appears on their untitled 7” single, released by I Dischi Del Barone in 2017), rehearse or record their material in the same room. Even prior to Herner’s relocation to Malmö, in the autumn of 2014, the duo recorded independently. Ideas would be sketched out onto reel-to-reel tape, or audio cassette, added to, looped and amended before being mixed down digitally. “I only have basic computer skills, when it comes to music,” admits Johansson during our interview. “And we’ve been working with the analogue format for so long. [Tape] catches the atmosphere of the aesthetics that we aim for. We are not really interested in going into a studio.”
The sense of intimacy that seems essential to Herner and Johansson’s working relationship is apparent on all of Neutral’s recordings, but really comes to the foreground on their latest 12”, När. Released by Omlott last October, songs on this 8-track mini album, were crafted in Herner and Johansson’s home studios, in between one-off shows in the US, Belgium and a micro tour with Lydia Lunch.
Neutral prepared foundation recordings before taking the songs on the road. “We used to bring a reel-to-reel to our gigs, but we stopped out of convenience.” says Johansson. “The foundation [recordings] are put on another device that doesn’t weigh a ton.” Neutral then developed the compositions by layering improvised guitar feedback over the recordings, a technique that allows for deviation, but keeps the music firmly grounded.
Herner and Johansson have also collaborated in the guise of their respective solo projects, Leda and Sewer Election, most notably for the Maar LP. Commissioned by the Belgian B.A.A.D.M. label, and released in 2015, the record attempts to soundtrack a still photograph with two twenty-minute compositions. The image, which also adorns the record sleeve, shows a writhing dog fossilised in Vesuvian ash. The dog’s eternal pose, and apparent discomfort in the face of the inevitable, brings to mind the ouroboros: an ancient symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail. By way of its repetitive nature, Neutral’s music echoes this emblem of destruction and creation. It also suggests that, unlike the brittle and unfortunate canine, Neutral’s reality is solid and imperishable.