The past is a strange place, and happily there are some people within our scene that can remember – but also helped to create those memories.
Lee Chaos is one of those people. In recent years he’s been better known for running the insanely open-minded club night JUDDER! (disclosure: a night I’ve DJed at six times in the past decade), and most recently the intriguingly improvisational electronic act temp0rary, but well before that he had a record label (Wasp Factory) and a band (The Chaos Engine).
In addition, he’s been an ever-present on the UK industrial scene, well known to many and occasionally DJing elsewhere. So, with JUDDER! coming to an end this year, we resolved to talk about his past and present.
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Your long-time club night Judder is coming to an end this year – you’ve done this for well over a decade, what’s changed in clubbing within “our scene” in your eyes? Actually, never mind clubbing, “our scene” has changed enormously since we’ve both been involved in it. What’s been good – and bad – about that?
Lee Chaos: Judder will have been running for more than 14 years by the time we draw it to a close, which is a pretty epic time span for a regular club night. During that period, the nature of clubbing has changed fundamentally – this came up recently in a session I was delivering on DJing at a local arts centre. A lot of the reasons that people went out to a club – to discover new music, to find like-minded people, to hook up with someone, and so on – these have all been changed dramatically through the ubiquity of the Internet and social media. So at this stage, a lot of the raison d’etre for clubs in general has vanished. Add into this increasing prices, stricter door and licence policies, the smoking ban and so on, and I think it’s easy to see why people have replaced going out with staying in.
So the question came up – in 2017, why DJ? What’s the point of it? I asked this question to those in attendance partly because it’s something I’m struggling to answer myself. I personally always loved those moments in clubs when you heard something amazing that made you want to dance immediately, and certainly with Judder, it was a bit of a mission to hunt down those tracks and drop them into a set. But nowadays it feels more like I’m chasing the tail of some nebulous scattered zeitgeist rather than being at the forefront of something. I think part of that’s my age – I wasn’t young when I started to DJ and I’m 15 years older now – but I also think it’s to do with how music is discovered and consumed these days, which I’ll talk about later.
However, I think Judder has, more by evolution than intelligent design, done two other things that have helped to keep us going – firstly, it’s pushed the boundaries of what can and can’t be played in clubs a bit. We are the broadest of broad churches in that respect, and although Judder is ostensibly an alternative club, I’ve never been shy of cherry picking music from all genres and trying to get people to dance to unlikely tracks through mashups and car-crash juxtapositions. I think clubbing should be fun, and there’s little better than seeing a dance floor full of people losing their shit and smiling as they realise what they’re dancing to isn’t quite what they’d normally hit the dancefloor for. Of course it doesn’t always work – I remember DJing at WGW and being abused by a man dressed as a pirate for not taking my job seriously enough…
Which brings me onto the second part – Judder’s themes and dressing up. First, it’s worth saying that this was an evolution that came from the Judder regulars themselves – we were asked to do fancy dress for our first anniversary, and afterwards folks asked what the theme was for the next month, so we just rolled with it. When we changed venue to our decade-long home, the 2 Pigs in Cheltenham, we decided to make it a more prominent part of the night.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t start out a fan of dressing up, but what I noticed was that people had a lot more fun when they did – later, I did some research on situationism and temporary autonomous zones, where usual rules are suspended and people can be someone else for a while, and I think this is what we had drunkenly stumbled into with Judder. You could see it in the goth clubs too: “by day, I am Gary, IT support, by night I am Obsidian Lightfoot Nightshade, necromancer and dandy” and so on – and we just kind of took that and made it less… Poe-faced, I guess [Ed: Nice pun]. We’ve also had a much more DIY approach to things and although there have been some world class cosplay outfits at Judder, my favourites have always been the homemade efforts. I think the rest of the world has caught up with this somewhat – you can see it in events like Secret Cinema and the current popularity of cosplaying at Comic Cons and the like. Broadly speaking, I’m in favour of it as long as people don’t get too competitive.
To return to the second part of your question, I think that this is where Judder has perhaps differed from some other clubs – we’ve always been an inclusive club, whereas some places who enforce a dress code are more exclusive. Whilst I can understand that to some extent, it does foster an “us and them” outlook right from the moment you arrive. Some in the scene might like that, and I can see its appeal, but I’d rather do it the other way round and invite people to participate in the madness in the hope that it fosters a wider sense of community – it’s really the only way that you can grow. Alternative music has drifted in and out of fashion probably three or four times since I first became acquainted with it in the late 80’s, and each time it happens, there’s a little vanguard of purists who are up in arms about their ‘scene’ being assimilated by the mainstream. Personally, I’ve always thought that was the wrong approach, and I think the currently rather weak attendance at regular alternative nights is as a result of not swelling the ranks by being open-minded and being more inviting to newcomers when the chance arose. We were all awkward kids once.
You started out with your band The Chaos Engine, and also the Wasp Factory label. How did the band – and then the label – come about in the first place, and was there a modus operandi from the start?
Lee Chaos: Well, it was really an extension of that gang mentality mentioned above – more so in many ways. Chaos Engine were very briefly signed to a record label who reissued our first album then had their funding pulled. I learned a lot from the process and it seemed like a lot of our peers were in a bit of a rut. I enjoyed gigging and hanging out with a lot of the industrial tinged bands at that time, and really just offered an opportunity to work together as a workers collective to enjoy a few economies of scale – it allowed us to run ads in bigger publications since we were splitting the costs between half a dozen artists. Booking agents could fill spaces in their lineups with one call, and so on. It was all a lot of fun until some of the bands had what I shall politely call ‘expectation management issues’.
Chaos Engine started as a direct result of reading a very early interview with Trent Reznor advocating a non-democratic view of music making. I’d been in bands and always found the experience creatively frustrating – sooner or later, someone would want to add a guitar solo and I’d lose my temper. I was also a big fan of J G Thirlwell (Foetus) and Matt Johnson (The The) and decided that the ‘studio hermit + collaborators’ may be a better working model, so I set up Chaos Engine (originally called Wasp Factory – a name I had to abandon as very briefly Eddie Izzard was managing a band of the same name) as my vehicle for that.
My working model was always based on lots of sequencing and sampling and an absence of virtuoso playing out of sheer necessity, and I always tried to create music with a decent hook or melody despite the noise, which is why I favoured the description ‘industrial pop’ in press releases, which probably did us very few favours but which I still regard as an accurate description. Pop is seen as an insult but writing a decent melody is extremely challenging and I always found it saddening that so many bands were happy to replace this with incoherent noises barked through a distortion pedal.
Wasp Factory was an awesome part of my life, and in a different time and space it might have been sustainable but it burned very bright for a short period of time, and I’m really glad that it has passed into folklore now.
What were your formative influences in music – both playing and listening?
Lee Chaos: This is going to sound contrived, but my earliest childhood memory is being off school with the flu, inside a sleeping bag, and singing along to the sound of my mum doing the Hoovering, realising you could sing pitches that could create harmonies with the droning. I used to love music at school, but I got bullied out of performing, and then struggled to play an instrument because I had no immediate aptitude for it and our family didn’t have the money for lessons. when I was doing my O-Levels (yep, I’m that old…), we got a new music teacher who used to give me the keys to the room with the synthesisers in, and I spend all my free periods learning how to use the sequencer, multi trick recorder and drum machines.
Aorund this time I formed my first band as a direct reaction to how much I hated Guns & Roses at the time, and had an embargo on any guitar driven music. Around this time I was scouring the late night music TV stations – there were some incredible shows at the time, like Max Headroom, Snub TV, The Tube, Network 7 and so on, and that’s where I found out about Cabaret Voltaire, Pop Will Eat Itself, New Order and dozens of others. I was working a part-time job to afford as many records and cheap bits of electronic music making equipment as possible, reading Melody Maker and following the breadcrumb trails of sleeve notes, reviews and recommendations from friends. I have to say, it was a much more exciting way of consuming music, and resulted in some fantastic chance discoveries. Algorithms and computer generated playlists are never going to come close to that.
Then I went off to art college and lived just outside London in St Albans, a stone’s throw from the station that was a direct link to Kentish Town & Camden, and spent too much time and money going off to see bands in the brugeoning grebo and industrial scene of London. I could wax lyrical about all the bands I was lucky enough to catch at the top of their game, but that would be a whole article / evening on the Guinness in itself.
Whilst at college I tried being a player in other people’s bands, but it just felt awkward and I didn’t have the musical confidence to make that work, and my musical tastes gravitated towards projects that always had one strong songwriter, so I adopted that model for writing and recording, which I’ve stuck with ever since. Live has always been a more flexible environment, and I’ve enjoyed adding people to the lineup to see how the recorded material can go on an extra journey in front of an audience.
Your latest project is Temp0rary – an audio-visual project with Adrian Giddings – having seen a recent show, is the randomness and spontaneity a deliberate switch from the Chaos Engine days?
Lee Chaos: Absolutely – I’m not saying that there wasn’t spontaneity in Chaos Engine, but to some extent it had to be pre-programmed. From a technical point of view, as soon as it was financially possible, I was adding live samples and fx processing, but we were, like the majority of acts at the time, still playing to a backing track for logistical reasons.
The fact that bands are still using backing tracks today blows my mind a bit – I can’t think of any reason why you would, given that there are so many options for taking your material on a journey when you play it live. I’ve never gone to gigs to see bands play perfect renditions of their hits, if I wanted that I would stay home and play their albums. I want to see a live performance, with all the risk and jeopardy that entails.
So for temp0rary, we work hard to create unique site specific performances even if they are just in standard gig environments. We’ve got working methods that allow us to part synchronise lights and visuals whilst allowing every element to be malleable and optional. But not all of our shows are gigs – we’ve collaborated to create pieces that are more performance art, theatre, immersive cinema or interactive installations in the past, and to be honest these are much more interesting for me to work on, even though the connection with the audience isn’t quite so immediate.
Do you think there will always be a place for both recorded music and live performance, or were The Future Sound of London onto something with ISDN all those years ago? There was an interesting conversation on your Facebook over a while back that had me questioning this myself, with some people’s attitudes…
Lee Chaos: I think there will always be a place for recorded music but I do not necessarily think there will be a market for it. Technology has radically changed music in all forms, but the music industry is still based on a corrupted model that is half based on copyright models from the Caxton printing press and half exploiting recordings of anthropological oddities. All of it is dependent on the means of production and distribution being prohibitively expensive, which simply isn’t the case any more. Recorded music, according to economic models, now has no financial value since infinite copies can be made for nothing and distributed close to free.
But much like photography, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got value beyond its economic price – people still want to own it, often as an aide memoire, because it has connections to other things. And like photography, we now have a lot of it that means very little to anyone except the subjects, and a decreasing number of professionals paid to capture what is considered more valuable.
Wasp Factory and Chaos Engine both existed on the breaking wave of this democratisation; we grabbed the tech as it became affordable and exploited it until it became ubiquitous. I have no idea how labels are existing in this day and age, the maths don’t add up. But people *do* want to support the artists they like, it’s just we haven’t really figured out a better way to do that than buying shiny boxes for an obsolete data carrier.
So when I launched temp0rary, the central premise was, can there be such a thing as a non-profit band who never sell or release their music? Who never charge for gigs? Who never market themselves? Who don’t try to own the music they make? Well, of course you can, but it makes you very easy to ignore. And then I realised that this is fine too. I don’t make music as an act of self aggrandisement. We don’t ask to play anywhere, we take the gigs we are offered, maybe we miss some shows by not being in people’s faces but I don’t have any game plan, any hypothetical career ladder to climb. I just focus on the show, the project at hand, and make that as good as it can be for whoever is there.
I loved the idea of FSOL’s ISDN project and I still think they were years ahead of their time – we did something similar for our Bunker Sessions where we broadcast from a restored nuclear bunker in Dundee, but it’s odd because you get no sensation of your work being received, only transmitted. For the Bunker Sessions, that fitted our aesthetic of throwing sounds out into the ether not knowing who was listening (or, in character, alive after a nuclear strike).
But for most gigs, I do like an audience – it changes the way I perform, the shape of the songs, the pace and dynamic. I’m aware that I am playing for other people and respond to the ‘vibe’ in the room – I’m not a fan of that term, but it really is a feeling since I tend not to look at who is watching during a set at all, but I can tell if a room is busy or quiet, and if the audience are receptive, and it shapes the songs.
I’m wary of giving the audience exactly what they want, however – we’ve done performances that have directly addressed this (a long-form performance called ‘Suggestion Box’ had audience members giving us feedback during the show for response) but in general I prefer to feel like I’m playing the song’s best version for that particular point in time. I’m pleased with the shows we are doing at the moment, at least from a technical point of view.
So having said all that, it kind of bugs me that people should want me to pipe a low bandwidth version of that directly into their homes every time we do a gig. The shows are for the people in the room, the ones who bothered to show up. You wouldn’t tell an art gallery to send you pictures of all of their exhibits, or ask a theatre production to email you a video of their show for free.
Judder long since moved away from pigeonholing itself within one genre or another. What does “industrial” mean to you nowadays, and do you still listen to any of it? Either way, what went wrong or right over the years?
Lee Chaos: I have no idea, really, and I’m not sure I ever did. I personally equate it with bands using mechanical or found sounds, machine like rhythms, guitars distorted to the point of not sounding like themselves and junk percussion.
I listen to older industrial bands, but go to InFest as a voyage of discovery and try to catch a bit of every band on the bill to keep a bit more up to date – I’ve seen stuff I like but haven’t seen a band I loved since Stromkern. I’m not a big fan of the current wave of “bands who sound like Ministry Circa 1992”, but I suspect that’s because I got a chance to see Ministry at their best, circa 1992. I don’t resent the bands doing that, it’s just surplus to requirements for me personally. I feel that about a lot of bands at the moment, industrial or otherwise.
I’m not sure it counts as something going ‘wrong’, but at some point the equipment used to make electronic music got better, and I think a lot of the signature sound of industrial music – or at least the bits I like – is the sound of these machines being *mis*used – cheap machines run through cheap distortion pedals into sub-standard recording equipment. As the apparatus to make music got better, the rough edges of industrial started to get smoothed off, and I think that can be graphed against the growth of EBM, which I’ve never found as interesting – it seems more self-referential and less interested in pushing the boundaries of what music can be.
You teach music, what do you feel is important about teaching the next generation. Is it about finding your own niche, your own style, or is it about learning the technical details and the basics?
Lee Chaos: I’m just wrapping up my final academic year teaching music in a formal setting, and I’m now making a living from running music sessions on a freelance basis. For the last few years I was feeling increasingly ham-strung by having to deliver a music curriculum that was increasingly obsolete to students who were decreasingly motivated. For instance, units on the music industry might as well have been history lessons, we were still expected to discuss tape editing, and there was very little about modern production techniques or marketing.
As mentioned elsewhere, we are at an interesting time in the history of music where there’s been almost complete democratisation of the means of production. Music software is getting smarter all the time and what used to be artistry on older gear can now be emulated with the presets of some cracked software to very similar ends.
The result – and I think you can hear this all over commercial music right now – is that everything is polished and produced without anyone ever questioning why. The uniformity of sound when there is so much unrealised possibility within this equipment is really saddening to me. Any original ideas seem to be buried under a uniform production sheen and everything sounds so similar. Even artists who were a bit more raw to start with end up polished and assimilated – Sheeranised, if you will. And people seem to love it! The more bland something is, the more it is celebrated. In a world capable of so much beauty and wonder, the idea that Coldplay fill stadiums is totally fucking baffling to me.
So I still meet students who ask me (of all people) how to ‘make it’ in the music industry, and I try really hard not to throw their dreams on the floor and set them on fire whilst shouting obscenities. I think if aspiring musicians want to catch the dying embers of a music business that probably has another 10 years at best in it, they should write simple songs that drunk people will chant at 3am, preferably without any words at all. That sort of ‘Whey-o’ chorus is great for getting on festival bills and adverts, and that’s where the last vestiges of money at the bottom of the mostly dry well are.
For any artist with any edge whatsoever, my advice is different. As the music industry flops around looking for another Yeezus, on-demand TV and computer games are commanding enormous budgets and specifically looking for weird edgy music. The recent rediscovery of John Carpenter, the success of the Stranger Things and the music that was an integral part of it, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Oscar win & nomination. All of these things suggest to me that there’s an appetite for angular left field music, and I’d rather advise any aspiring electronic musician to be pointing more in that direction than trying to make a living selling their work to fans and playing gigs.
You’ve been vocal about politics on your Social Media accounts over the past year or two – in light of what has happened, what are your thoughts on the future?
Lee Chaos: I don’t know if I’ll love to see it but I think we are starting to see the beginning of the end of capitalism. However, one thing I remember from the banking crisis in 2008 is that my absolute joy of hearing about the collapse of financial institutions was swiftly replaced by horror when I realised how much governments were prepared to sacrifice to maintain the current systems. My feeling is that we are on the verge of another collapse but this time there aren’t the resources to prop things up again.
I may personally be excited by that prospect, but the truth is that a lot of vulnerable people suffer at the fringes of these failing systems, and part of my job is working with those who are being left behind by recent governments and the seemingly more selfish choices of the voting public.
Judder continues for the rest of 2017 on the first Friday of the month. temp0rary announce future shows and installations via their Facebook page