My thoughts on brutalist architecture, and JG Ballard, unedited :
What is your favourite novel of Ballard's and why does it resonate with you?
Absolutely impossible to choose one…. really… But I guess the “Urban Disaster” triptych of Crash/High Rise/Concrete Island. They literally, scarred me for life, and they were the first novels I read by him…But no less inspired, and periodically disturbing is his autobiographical masterpiece ‘Kindness of Women’, which I was really smitten by too…Likewise his transformative novels like The Drowned World are incredible too..And don’t even get me started on his short stories….hahaha…
If you had put a gun to my head twenty years ago, I would probably have said ‘Crash’ for the sheer what the fuck factor of the book..It scrambled my head totally, because it’s sexy, horrific, fetishistic, man-machine collision seemed way out and beyond all the previously read literature I had consumed. Anti-boredom, ultrashocking, yet deeply sensual, it made most books seem very pedestrian in comparison..
But now, in hindsight, I would probably actually say ‘Kindness of Women’, for its amplification of the sheer weirdness of suburban existence in Britain, and the fragile nature of reality in ‘normal’ life...It's a book which masterfully contrasts primal carnal desires, with the deepest emotional traumas and the surreal social constructions of everyday "civilisation" in the highly controlled, rigidity of UK middle class life (lessness)...Also, as a recent parent, I guess I now empathise with his observations of the surreal strangeness of guiding children through our beautiful, odd and periodically frightening world.
How and when did you first come across his work?
If I remember rightly it was through reading the Re-Search ‘JG BALLARD handbook’, which I had purchased due to my fascination with Industrial Music’s first wave, as I followed the paths opened up by Throbbing Gristle, 23 Skidoo, SPK etc,…I would try and investigate all their cultural influences/references..and I guess I discovered Ballard’s work at the same time I craved the info onslaught created by exploring the socially censored material, that industrial culture gleefully exposed.
If you had to save just one Ballard novel from a burning tower block, what would it be and why?
Other than the two novels I mentioned above, it would probably be ‘The Crystal World’, which is a work of unforgettable beauty, which literally feels like a psychological dose of lysergic acid. The more the story/environment evolves the more I would find my mindset feeling more spun out, and literally tripping.
The kaleidoscopic transitions outlined in the novel, never cease to bewitch me. Again, it's Ballard as a cartographer of the barely concealed chaos that surrounds us, and which we all struggle to come to terms with...Yet there is always great beauty in his apocalyptic visions.
My favourite novels, tend to impact my brain like a skullfuck, mashing up all my previous perceptions, in the same way as the most extreme drug experiences can…The best art release chemical reactions in the brain that detonate brand new thought storms and literally trigger a different ways of seeing the world.
Why do you think his stories have influenced so many generations of uncompromising musicians?
He was an intrepid explorer of inner space. He was a dream worshipper, a submariner of the subconscious, as are all the best artists,
His non-aligned originality, makes his writing all the more attractive to anyone interested in confronting the outer limits of the inner mind.
And who else writes with such a love of transformation, and excels at his trademark jump cut evolutions..?
I feel the best musicians are those that channel the extremes of the subconscious into their music, and happily flourish outside genres or compartments..ie freaks… He was such an outsider, a master of surprise, and a master of brain jarring surrealism..His observations and prophecies on the impact of the intracranial meltdown caused by the man-machine fusion, still resonate deeply with me indeed. And also he was funny as hell…when doing so
Ballard himself self-described his “Imaginative fiction” as an “extreme fiction, made out of extreme metaphors, and I think only people with that taste for extreme solutions are going to be drawn to my imaginative fiction.” So voila, a musical generation full of sonic space cadets are the perfect audience for his implosive writing.
His work oscillates between horror and beauty, obsession and dread, like all the best art forms do…His protagonists dream of achieving their flights of fancy, whatever the consequence or however “out” their targets may be, so naturally creative thinkers are always going to be attracted to his alternate aesthetic.
JG Ballard’s turns of phrase and cerebral shifts are sublime, and effortless, often leaving me speechless. Whereas many of his contemporaries, or those inspired by him, always seem to be trying too hard..I mean you can sense how much Will Self’s ass cheeks tense, composing his empty attempts to say something profound. In contrast James Ballard dropped pearls of wisdom nonchalantly.
In March, a film of his novel High Rise is being released. In it, social warfare breaks out with the upper classes in the penthouses waging war against the middle and lower classes for control of the building. To me it seems very prescient, with gentrification spreading through UK’s inner cities and poor communities being forced out due to rising living costs.
– As artistic and musical communities become displaced, are our inner cities in danger of losing their cultural identity? What do you think needs to be done to redress the balance?
Fundamentally I accept and relish change. I have maximum distrust for tradition, and have never felt truly grounded anywhere. Always hated britishness, and never wanted to be part of it...So bring on the sea of change and the mess of the present..Lets see where it leads us.
London, Manhattan, Paris etc are empty vessels culturally right now, compared to their illustrious pasts..C’est la vie...Move on...I look forward to observing where the next artistic explosions emerge from..And in which mediums..Naturally I have some nostalgia for the London I knew, but you can’t turn the clocks back.
So asides from the obvious answer - physical revolution, which is unlikely to happen in the unrevolutionary UK, you can only hope that the chattering classes develop a trend for egoless self analysis, decide to drop their bullshit, jettison their lifestyle accessories and burn their overpriced trinkets...then fuck off their superficial friends…(No, not very likely..lol)
I believe western urban conditions are truly becoming feudal in a very medieval manner. All the financial beasts, and rich parasites are on a feeding frenzy in the city centres, whilst the vast majority of dispossessed workers, and unemployed outsiders are therefore shifted away from the glamorous walls of the beauty palaces. The curse of the luxury apartment infestation is steadily strangling inner cities all across Europe and America right now..
But its not all doom and gloom. The net, access to independent infrastructures and decentralised dispersion of artists can lead to new exciting enclaves in random locations, lone sanity assassins and fresh territorial inspiration…
Out of tyranny comes great art…But f-ck it's sometimes hard to find a clear spot.
Many council flats in tower blocks are being sold for millions. Do you think landlords and real estate moguls are indifferent to whether a class warfare kicks off in their buildings and surrounding streets?
I think modern middle class money grabbers obsessively gorge on the present, as the future is too terrifying and unpredictable to even begin to consider. Modern capitalism maybe fixated on short term gain instead of long term legacies, but its the same structurally reinforced, bloodline protected, usual suspects, who are still on top of the heap…And what's most surprising about the mess of the present social morass is how little its changed for centuries.
I think there is a total indifference to the suffering of the poor and a shocking selective blindness re-their plight. There is a rapidly increasing disparity between the haves and mostly have nots, whilst the vast majority of city dwellers are now knee deep in credit. Yet the Lords live in protected areas and are increasingly banishing the peasants to other cities or the suburbs.
What role can music play in the solution?
Opening minds and the inner eye should be the goal of any musician or artist...no ? Opening ears to alien sounds, opening minds to new perspectives. Fresh angles on fresh options. The best music rings alarms, and raises hairs on the back of the hand and neck. Wake up calls or consciousness igniters, that's what I always wanna locate...Or basically writing a bad ass beat that fires people up. Stimulating those folks that would normally feel rejected, neglected or abandoned, to give them energy or inspiration through a song.
I personally like hearing rhythmic noise as a nervous system shocker, but I also love dronal drifts to zone too when travelling...Music is all to me, cause it gave me hope, and a reason to live in a fucked up world...I can only hope to pass that feeling on to others, and continue to plug myself into the parallel music constellation.
London Zoo was the soundtrack to a darker side of London – something that Ballard explores a lot in his work. Can you describe why you find the underbelly of vertical cities so creatively inspiring?
Its the urban yin and yang…I thrived on the opposites and contradictions a city like London throws up…I loved the fictitious collisions of cultures, attitudes and architecture jostling my thoughts from one unexpected area to another. The relentless energy levels caused by instability were always totally inspiring to me, and i fed off its nasty inequalities and hyper-speed existence therein.
The eat or be eaten ritual of everyday life in LDN seems even more apparent to me now that I have bailed out from the city. As now I am merely a voyeur when I return to London, because I have lived in Berlin’s open sprawl for the past couple of years.
Plus, I don't think I have ever been interested in mere "darkness", I am far more interested in intensity and its kinetic bombardment fall out. I think humanity is potentially the most dangerous creation of all, whereas romantic notions of darkness seem too close to religious ideals of light and dark for my liking.
'London Zoo' was the soundtrack to my struggle to keep afloat in London. It was the score to me trying to stay sane in difficult times in difficult circumstances. It's an album that confronts the ruff and smooth simultaneously...There's is a duality and complexity to all our lives that we all battle with, and that interests me far more than some gothy celebration of darkness...I like to track the animal impulses that exist in our fast forward civilization.
I guess I am drawn to finding some realness in the unreality of a city. I suppose I love the fact a city is made from dreams as well as concrete. And the more people are fleeing from the joblessness of rural environments to find their fortune in gotham like epicentres, the more intense the shared experiences of desperate people living on top of each other are going to become...
Steel canyons dominate every capital in the world. How do you think the psychology of living in tower blocks differs to horizontal living? Does living on top of people breed more violence and class division?
Before deciding to leave London, the last place me and my partner lived was on the 18th floor of the ‘Balfron tower block’ in the hellhole of Poplar. Poplar is an east end ghetto where every cultural minority lives in disharmony with each other, whilst being simultaneously, cynically literally overlooked by the rich men and women's superstructures in Canary Wharf…with its wealth flaunting skyscrapers blocking out the lights of hope for the residents of Poplar.
For sure the view from our flat was incredible…haha, and it had a balcony, lol…But as many of the residents were care in the community casualties, social misfits or depressed minorities, the atmosphere generally felt like a siege mentality, where problem neighbours surrounded us on all sides...I remember one guy on top of us or next to us (impossible to tell), who screamed in absolute agony several times per week, and at very regular times, like a terror alarm, but his howling was truly horrific, as his shrieks resembled the pain of a burns victim. Likewise perennially excruciatingly loud music from neighbours with questionable taste was always par for the course all around us..(Maybe revenge for the sonic pain I inflict on my audiences….hahaha).. Also being chased by gangs or having to meet my partner every night at a bus stop to walk 200 metres home, cause it was unsafe, were all signs that life in that particular borough was very difficult, and human noise surrounded us permanently. I realized I was no longer living in London I was just struggling to live in London. There would always be an inward sigh of relief when we got into our locked flat, and bolted the door, like we had managed to survive another day in hell….hahaha..But I guess, at least there was the unstable energy of human interaction to be inspired by, unlike the hide in your vehicle isolation of L.A. and its inconveniently spread out inhabitants..
Living in that tower block felt like incarceration. It felt claustrophobic and largely defeated. Paranoia, fear and dirt may have been good for my musical inspiration, but I was happy as hell to get out of that environment…Living in those circumstances, subconsciously pollutes your mind with the realisation that your choices are low, your finances are lower and the urge to escape remained high.
Your music has been described as tense – do you think people in inner cities need angry music to quash any real physically violent instincts?
I guess my music also thrives on friction and collision aesthetically and philosophically...But my music is also systematically forced underground...So the chances of large numbers of people being alerted to my sound are small in the grand scheme of things. This is definitely not by my choice, this is my constant battle.
I think the most ‘popular’ musics in the inner city will always really be escapist….Just as drugs were pumped into American inner cities in the 60’s via the CIA, bland music broadcast to pacify potential unrest is blasted across the airwaves by the conservative media mafias as a means of pacifying the proles. Major radio stations grow fat and bloated on their endless sugar coated playlists…Choice is limited, alternatives are generally frowned upon.
But resistance is not futile, these rigged conditions should just harden the defiance of an artist to refuse to roll over and die, or worst still make bland fuckin house music.hahaha. From the Sex Pistols to Public Enemy, to Atari Teenage Riot, there are many instances of urban music burnin down barricades, but for me, the truth of the matter is, it can be more subversive to avoid the obvious riot calls and aim for the jugular from the leftfield. The element of surprise is most deadly of all.
Music has always been my therapy and medication..Anger is holy, fire is essential. Angry music can take the form of Marvin Gaye or Crass, and needn’t be one dimensional in sound nor appearance. It's certainly my aim to keep my music fluid and uncompromising. That is all any musician can hope to achieve if they are really representing some real difference. Protest is best when illuminating alternate routes to freedom…Freedom may be a myth, but it's one worth aiming for. London is a pacified police state, and zombies are not undead, they just don’t resist…Music should make the blood boil with passion, anger or lust...or the opposite it should knock you out like an opiate. Most of all it's the middle mass of middleground music that I find abhorantly conformist and numbing, that is the audio enemy...
Your last album was called Angels & Devils – why do you think electronic musicians and writers are consistently drawn to the shadows of human psychology?
Because psychology is the science of the subconscious and the gateway to the imagination, so therefore electronic practitioners are going to find the oasis of the mind a fertile feeding ground for exploration.
I know for me, when I began making music I felt it was all about reflecting the harsh intensity of reality, but as time has flown, I now realise my music statements are more like independent transmissions from my internal, parallel universe, which can act as a warnings from the buried psyche of the world we fight with on a daily basis, or as an SOS from my deepest soul when feeling most alienated.
When JG Ballard said he is interested in exploring ‘The only alien planet, earth”, I totally understand where he’s coming from, as all the best artists seem compelled to try and find answers and truths that exist beyond the superficial mundanity of controlled social interaction..
Music at its best, particularly in the live arena, shatters behavioural control mechanisms and encourages the listener to lose their shit, or better still, get lost in a frequency avalanche..I want my sound to resonate deeply with anyone who is in my path. And now that gentrification is increasingly shutting down or shutting out the loud volume of energized music venues, it becomes even more important to fight against the oncoming near silence of living death that is threatening to envelope inner cities in tasteful shells, by blasting down these yuppie constructed walls of Jericho...
I think writers and musicians are often non-conformists who are trying to find singular paths thru the chaos of everyday wreckage. I guess I see artists as illuminators of danger signs and investigators of the unknown or challengers of the censored…
Most of the finest musicians/artists are pretty dysfunctional in conventional terms...And likewise, music was my exorcism too, a way to navigate the insanity of the world by constructing my own internal micro-universes..
Even your moniker The Bug has dystopian connotations to it, as if a rampant virus is about to invade your ear canal. What are the pros and cons of being labelled a dystopian artist?
The future is scary cause its unknown, and likewise I have little idea what i will record next year, so it's that uncertainty that makes the process of songwriting so compelling.
A huge challenge is always to find approaches/concepts that will ensure my music stays somehow relevant, and to and to thereby avoid staleness, whilst evading the attempts to slap a sell by date on my sound by this cynical industry Iwork within.
Genre labels are a form of confinement, and I will always seek to fly from being caged in a specific genre or field.
The con is being portrayed as a one dimensional, miserable bastard, the pro is people know my mentality is hardcore, but my aims are genuine in an attempt to stay fresh. I believe it was William Burroughs who said Paranoia is seeing the world as it actually is, and viewing the dystopian acceleration of the world and soundtracking the wars outside our eyes,windows and walls seems to make me happy...haha...
Also for years a large problem was the infestation of dudes dressed in black at my shows, seeking company in their misery…hahaha..
But the more clubs and festivals I have played in the last decade the more I have seen all cultures and both sexes express themselves madly to my sound. A good thing indeed.
You, Burial and Kode9 all worked with SpaceApe and have been classed as Ballardian in your approach. Why do you think your generation of producers latched onto this outlook?
I can’t talk for others...
As a child of moon landings, and the space race, outer space was always an attractive proposition. As an only child, an insular existence was my reality, so therefore Ballard's juggling of inner and outer space and dreams of upside down worlds were always gonna appeal, no matter how twisted or potentially evil the powers that propel such a population might be...
Due to my mum, I was a sci-fi tv addict in a small town, trapped in a detached lounge, who dreamt of other realities in far off locations…And now, as a producer happy to be lost in the infinite labyrinths of my studio, I feel the technological-animal fusion has been integral to my past, present and future…And I feel it's the need to continue to immerse myself in our forever turbulent society that provides me with plenty of ammo for live battles and studio dispatches.
Apart from your own work, what artists have created perfect Ballardian soundscapes?
In terms of atavistic, id-like, contradictory provocative madness, maybe Prurient or Death Grips, in terms of mesmeric, crystalline transformation perhaps William Basinski or Tim Hecker, and in terms of surreal juxtaposition perhaps maybe Arca or Roly Porter...
To me, bass and brutalism go hand in hand. Both get straight to the point, yet are endlessly complex beneath their concrete exteriors. How has urban, brutalist architecture affected the way you see and react with the world?
We lived in a truly brutalist tower block in Poplar. The ‘Balfron Tower’ was a sister block to West London’s better known ’Trellick Tower’.
It gave me mixed feelings, as does brutalist architecture in general…Cool that ‘ugly’ buildings makes us re-assess our own thoughts on what is actually beautiful. Cool that the buildings are extremely memorable, and are literally designed to stick out…Great, that the shapes and fantastical structures are intrinsically linked to imaginative impulses..,BUT, the dilettante architects that design these buildings probably never lived in them for any lengths of time…For me, I fell in love with the variety of architecture in London, and the varied spice of life the city had to offer…No one style of architecture grabbed me, I just wanted to submit to the vastness of it all…
Many people find brutalist architecture intimidating. Why do you think this is the case? And why should they think differently about it?
I like to feel intimidated by scale, dwarfed by buildings and overwhelmed by environments…Other people may have problems with brutalist architecture, for those very reasons…hahaha
Do you feel the most creatively inspired amongst industrial landscapes – if so, why?
Yeah, for sure I love industrial landscapes, with their ominous size/scale, ghosts of full watt explosions, derelict corrosion, inferred power, cold metallic surfaces and intense psychological resonance, but as I said earlier, no-more inspired by industrial settings than I am by a suburban detached or the gothic beauty of St Pancreas Station’s exterior for instance…I'm too greedy for everything in life, to ever just be able to choose one strain of anything…Limitless existence, and total choice should be cherished..No ? haha
At the height of the brutalist movement, many creatives were appalled by these large wedges of concrete. Is our fascination with brutalism simply nostalgia for a past that has no future?
I grew up surrounded by grass, sand and sea in Weymouth, and sought refuge in concrete in LDN. Like all cliched Gemini’s I guess the thirst for extremity has fuelled everything I’ve ever done. So I was naturally drawn to alien structures and the shock of the new.
Yet just as brutalist buildings which once seemed like the shape of the future, quickly seem dated and basically dull, so, my perceptions of those types of buildings have changed…I like their brute exteriors, in terms of the thuggish simplicity in design, but I always want the contrast of seeing the south bank centre next to the Thames opposite St Paul's cathedral…I needed and need those insanely ill fitting conjunctions...I am besotted by the idea of time travelling through a city...Best of all in London was when I would cycle in the early hours from one side of the city to the other feeling enveloped by random time shifts and atmosphere via the randomly located, often entirely disparate architecture. The disorientation of disparity is a great thing and I celebrate diversity and worship difference.
What is the most beautiful brutalist building in the UK to you?
It wasn’t the most beautiful, but Centrepoint always had a special place in my heart and mind as it represented the only centre I could sense or magnetise myself towards in Slumdon..
It felt like it could have been the shape of things to come, particularly when it was first built, but had been significantly outmoded by its higher, brighter competition spreading so rapidly across the city. I guess it was a nostalgic yearning for me, wanting to feel like I was part of some skyscraper culture, and I wanted to feel like I was stepping into the future, having come from a low key seaside town.
But once I travelled to other metropolitan destinations across the globe, I suppose I realised Centrepoint was a fairly ugly, plain, unimaginative design. Yet it always still seemed comforting for me, cause the centre of London held so much concealed magic that I had always wanted from a city…
If I’m honest, the real beauty of a city and architecture in general, is the hunger and necessity for change, variation and contradiction…A sense of the ever evolving cycles of life.
And finally, in High Rise the protagonist is forced to eat his own dog to survive. If you had to choose between eating a dog, your neighbour, or your own arm to survive, what would you choose?
Definitely my own arm...I'm a masochistic vegetarian...LOL Via + Kode9: On Ballard, Alienation and Abstraction
From the fevered imagination of