In the aftermath of the Artists Lottery Syndicate launch, having retired to a back-garden in Ealing, I find myself discussing, with two of my fellow syndicate members, a kind of ‘provincial’ experience shared by artists like ourselves, having decided to base our arts practices outside of London (in Nottingham, Glasgow and Plymouth respectively).
On the train home a few days later, I’m thinking of what happens outside of the capital, under the radar, on some kind of fringe, outside of the mainstream and my love of this stuff. It has got to do with the necessity of building your own scene rather than keeping up with one that exists – a willfully resourceful, DIY aesthetic that is often dogged by the same people being involved all the time. I like taking a chance on things, never quite knowing what to expect. I like experiencing things without too much history, build-up or pretense. I don’t like to watch the trailers or read the reviews of films that I want to see. I’m skeptical when people say, “I think you’d really like this band/film/book/whatever”. And probably most shamefully of all, I continuously break Dan le Sac vs Scroobious Pip’s commandment “Thou shall not stop liking a band just because they become popular”. This is not out of a desire to be ahead of the pack or to appear cutting edge – I simply get a bit sick of things when they become ubiquitous.
Anyone involved in music in a provincial city probably understands the cultural/historical role played by small indie record labels, friends doing mix tapes for each other, informal local distribution and, in a national and international context, broadcasters who take this kind of ‘mix tape’ approach to selecting and playing music on radio (famously, John Peel or more recently a number of presenters on BBC 6 Music). More recently these have been joined by other routes to seeking out (and listening to) something more ‘off piste’ like MySpace, YouTube, Last.fm and Spotify.
Back on the train, with my headphones on, I drift off to sleep listening to Mark Greenwood’s strangely hypnotic White Mice, All Colours (a collection of spoken word, performance poetry and text pieces, released by the independent record label onec a few weeks ago). Somewhere between Exeter and Dawlish, I wake up to the sounds of Gas Mask, which is lent a particular eeriness by my view out over the sea at dusk from the train carriage. The sound of this piece is reminiscent of a ghost story or a horror film, or something else that should be scarier than it really is. It reminds me of the first time I met Mark, at onec’s aptly named One.c goes to The Cavern event at which we were both performing. That was back in the days when onec had punctuation, operated out of a flat above a butcher’s shop and did live events that looked a bit like ‘art’. Backstage (and often ‘on stage’) it was a beautifully homespun affair – we shared homecooked food, drank cans of Stella and met Dirty Protest and The Freaks Union who a few hours later screech their way through a pair of frantic, sweaty twenty minute sets. They were lovely chaps. At the event, Mark was wearing a gasmask and white y-fronts, and sank slowly into a deflating air bed – an aesthetic that seemed slightly menacing (rough, clumsy, or perhaps clichéd) at the outset but soon became quite beautiful, tinged with the kind of acute sadness or melancholy that I am very drawn to. The same thing happens with this album – abrasive or menacing tracks (and subject matter) are skilfully counterpointed by melodic samples, swells of electronic sounds and vocal delivery, without being fully neutralised.
Since that night at the Cavern, I have stumbled across Greenwood’s work in a number of situations – finding him involved in durational/ritual gambling, durational solitaire playing (with packs of porn playing cards, Iraq’s most wanted and a great set from a northern Jobcentre), and most recently playing birdsong while wearing an adapted traffic cone over his face. All of these elements (from his performance art practice) make a welcome appearance on White Mice, All Colours. These all suggest a ritualising or magick-ing of the mundane which is also evident in the track Cocktail Party – wonderfully reminiscent of Juan Munoz and Gavin Bryars’ collaborative radio series Man In A Room Gambling, that replaced the shipping forecast on Radio 4 for a week in 1992.
Throughout the album, this kind of working man’s club conjuring is coupled with a keen eye for anthropomorphic imagery and is maybe best exemplified in the heartbreakingly beautiful The New Piano, where the line that begins “She had chosen this piano because she wanted children…” gets me every time. Greenwood’s investment and long-term engagement with performance art comes to the fore in Killskill and USSR, both of which seem to balance a clear love of the sound of words themselves with a lo-fi recording aesthetic (tracks are listed as being recorded in a cold shed and a hot house) and an experimental electro-acoustic compositional/soundscape sensibility (contributed by Nicholas Grew and Andy Prior) that Plymouth is becoming renowned for.
I can’t help thinking that this work is born out of a ‘need’ rather than simply a desire ‘to make’. In some way, it is easier for Greenwood to unleash this stuff, to battle with it and to make it into something than it would be to try to ignore those impulses. This double CD offers us a slightly misshapen but recognisable ‘recording’ of everyday experience, of a land that has never quite existed or a parallel place (or time) that is distant but at the same time very, very close. Amongst the inhabitants of this place, there are unexpected cameos by Michael Noonan, Albert Reynolds (two Irish politicians) and Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary (Cards) and an intense description of a boxing match that spirals off into a strange world of distorted anatomical detail and apologies (The Chek Hook). I recognise some of the actions assembled in Reaped from a series of performance events Greenwood programmed at Plymouth Arts Centre’s Proximity Effect (under the moniker RED APE) in 2008/09 – a place and time where men were men (whatever that means) and Hannah and I shared a room downstairs in the same building studying MacGyver in minute detail, trying to work out how two people like us could escape the bad guys, disarm nuclear warheads, roll under closing garage doors and save the day.
White Mice, All Colours is definitely not a kind of art-pop that is going to be picked up by a major label but it is also not the kind of obscure, impenetrable, unlistenable stuff that could all too often be the results of a sustained art education. This release also serves to further confound notions of onec’s label fitting a particular genre, as previous releases like Neil Rose’s sumptuously produced vinyl LP Wilbur Whatley / Psychompomps attested. It seems that onec’s aesthetic may be better described as an attitude. They have established a knack for taking well calculated risks on people who they think have something good to share, who know what they are doing, and know what they are on about. The results are a range of experimental outputs, each capable of successfully inhabiting a recorded space with a conceptual integrity while keeping their feet securely on the ground. They are unlikely to be swept up in fads or fashions, pretentiousness or self-importance, preferring instead to curate the best of what they find on their doorstep. Their situation ‘in the provinces’ might have given birth to, fostered, encouraged or necessitated this but I have a feeling that unsophisticatedness and unfashionableness are important qualities many of us who base ourselves outside of chic metropolitan centres might deliberately seek out. We’ve come here and stayed here. We were, still are, and might always be, looking for something.
A provincial poetic, perhaps?
[originally posted at http://thingsthatdontquitefit.wordpress.com in June 2010]