I’ve been returning to Europe for the last 4 years in order to DJ and perform live, whilst Sydney descends into its wintry solitude. In contrast to my previously strict Germanic monogamy (though Berlin surely has many shadowy lovers), I’ve settled in the heart of Scotland for 6 months for 2008. Locked (to paraphrase Cohen) in my own strange “tower of song” on the third level of an old newspaper printing factory. I’m safe, warm, connected, grateful, strangely reflective about the place I‘m currently ‘not‘. Gazing out ancient plate-glass windows I can still see the sun at 11:30pm, reappearing at 4am to welcome the haze of an eerily transcendent morning silence. The mouse-pad of this old laptop is worn through like old-leather. Plastic stained with bad-ass, over-priced Scottish coffee.
Scattered across a makeshift desk are yoga print-outs, a commentary on classic Zen texts, a new treatise by Steven Pinker on the nature/nurture debate, Badhu’s latest effort, Luke Vibert, Tikiman, Lou Reed’s “Revolver” and a newly arrived mix CD sent by Ben Korbel. Oh, and more promo CDs than I can count – cluttering valuable desk real-estate previously reserved for 4 atrophying synths I’ve somehow crushed into hand-luggage.
And so it goes. The last few months being filled with weekend shows here in the UK and in Germany, and week-day production work – remixes, remixes…for New Order, Perfecto, Solead, for Sydney stalwarts Biz and Mark Dynamix, for wonderful new Berlin techno-label, Perplexed, and for Manchester’s finest – Breakout Audio. Twitchy micro-haus to deep techno and attempted reworks of more bollixy commercial material. I try to call things as they see them in the production world. Some days it’s like wringing blood from a stone, but you do what you can. You still cannot polish a turd, even an all-singing, all dancing one. Still to come this year is a fresh 12” on Jamie “Infusion” Stevens ace new label, Dieb Audio – bouncy left-field, back-room throw downs. High grade vinyl gymnastics.
As most of Europe rebounds with a vengeance from all things ‘mnml’, the tenuous shoots of a neo-Germanic house sound emerge. A craving in the air for a return to the organic. An acceptance of the expanding Berlin middle-class; the jaded ravers grown up. A reaction to British electro-aloof. An absorption of Berlin’s expatriate Canadians, Americans, Greeks, Serbs (whom very few seem to embrace as warmly as they deserve – why?) and, finally, the swing-quantize function in Logic. It feels like taking a slow, deep, breath out again.
“I’ve seen something in the way of things. You’ve seen it too, you just can’t call it’s name” – The Roots
Then, on the flip, what remains only whispered, is the emergence of “Berlin ™” – the fresh, un-spoken marketing tag sell alcho-pops and iPods to the rest of the world, endorsed by us. This new, squeaky clean, efficient sloganeering requires an appropriate sound-track. Emotive but not too dirty. Pleasant to the touch. Easy on the ear. Free from addictions. Free from the scars of the past. Free from unemployment. Autonomously free-market. Cross-cultural sampling. Environmentally aware, available at Ikea. Pre-loaded into hybrid-car sound-systems. A new order of forward-looking, uber-people. I can’t help but feel like we’re re-branding Berlin with a frighteningly new sort of eugenic cultural overlay. I see it in the countless SUV advertisements on British TV, I hear it on radio, I read it on the blogs and forums.
Fuck that. No, really. I’ve seen an emerging friction between Berlin’s “nu-east” and west factions, and it demands engagement. I’ve felt its brunt and uncertainty directly, whilst sitting outside a café in Mitte – verbal mud sprayed at me by old guard from Kreuzberg. What do I say to him? There’s an unresolved history here that remains an aching ‘work in process’ – as foreigners, to avoid engagement in this is a great injustice. Do we seek to engage? Let us not fear the act of listening.
There’s so much commentary which could be made here, and perhaps my biggest sadness in Sydney is the lack of interest in actively participating in this – in our own electronically-mediated context, let alone further abroad. Why is this? To me, music is politics is people is community – to divorce it from a grander narrative is to assume that culture exists in some hermetically-sealed bubble, free from the sweat and sex and struggle and joy of the dance floor. To reduce it to mere product or aesthetics is to subscribe to the “X-Factor” bullshit which somehow divorces narrative from delivery. This is a strange state of affairs. I’ll have no part of it. There’s just so much to learn, so much to contribute.
The fact remains, that the very act of dancing is riddled with taboo, and still smells of revolution and grace to me. Or, at least, it could. It should. Been and long-gone is the so-called second summer of love, and I fear (in my darker moments) much of the optimism that its unaffected hedonism afforded us. To me, though, it’s this optimism – this unapologetic futurism ‘in the now‘- which has been the lifeblood of electronic music. From “Berlin TM” to infinity. There was a driving impetus across this revolution – a search for place, making the ‘inhuman’ moan and rumble and flicker with life and breath once more.
Even Mad Mike’s dark and clandestine Underground Resistance spoke to me about wringing the darkness from the industrial suffocation that was 80’s Detroit. Reclaiming forgotten space, democratizing Japanese technology for the Afro-American. Berlin’s Chain Reaction/Basic Channel was an antidote to cold-war sterility – dub-bass the heartbeat for a new imagining. Disco was gay music long before becoming the ironic nu-disco coffee-table fodder of today, jazz was,. And still appears to be….jazz. Whatever that may be. All these began with a frank confession of how things were – the deep seed of context, of struggle, of incessant wonder.
Let me propose something slightly more concrete…
The questions which occupy me at the moment are less to do with the forms of dance music, and their proliferation into the populist bit-stream by the educated white middle-class (like myself). My questions (I think) relate more to the gaping chasm of silence that has opened as a result of the ’lifestylification’ of electronic music – both so-called ’underground’ and further across the spectrum of popular forms. We’ve become used to dealing in ‘product‘, staying mute about exploration, weakness, the uncharted. It’s an insidious slide toward cultural entropy. Perhaps, Australia’s larger cities are just immune from these concerns – dance-music remains either the sound-track to meat-marketry, or the weekend domain of the under 25s. When it rains we stay in, when the sun shines we go to the beach. Laconicism and trend-fetish triumph in an indifferent Australian market. I wonder what we might here, if we listen more intently, for just a small moment?
I think, we may hear voices that are more vital, and perhaps more fragile than we first imagined – voices like those of my encounter outside a Mitte Café. Voices which plead for an investment in cultural exchange which extends far beyond the vagaries of aesthetics of any musical form/trend.
Enough histrionics, already. To engage, or to passively observe, that is the question. A one-night stand, or a life-long love-affair…