Music Interview: Kode9
Kode9 Speaks on the release of “Black Sun”
It’s been 5 years since South London based duo Kode9 & the Spaceape’s debut album. On this new disc, named after Kode9’s influential 2009 single Black Sun, the intensity and themes of their debut Memories of the future remain, but the delivery is clearer and more rapid, the beats more jagged and restless. Starting as a dense onslaught, Black Sun proceeds to expand and contract its galaxy, sucking you into its orbit, and daring you to come and bathe in the warmth of its toxic glow.
Kode9 and the Spaceape explore an accelerated sonic fiction with this album. Spaceape verbally conjures up world under a Black Sun; his lyrics intimate an unknown time, that resonates strongly with the present, after an unclassified radioactive event has transformed the planet, much of which is now on fire. Spaceape sends radio transmissions from this irradiated, scorched zone. His demeanor has changed. Kode9 has tuned into him on a different frequency.
Through the noise of crackling fires, rise the ominous drums of Black Smoke, an incantation exorcising demons hungover from their first album. Reciting angular fictions of bodily breakdown and mutation (derived from his own experiences during the making of this record), confrontations with death, illicit, destructive love, crashing economies, hypocritical politics, failed revolts, underachieving gods and coded references to cartoon characters from the 1970s, Spaceape balances narrative and abstraction in his densely layered lyrics. On three of the songs, the duo are joined by the yearning backing vocals of Shanghai based singer Cha Cha. She first worked with them on the 2009 single Time Patrol.
Musically, Kode9 uses the album to develop his own innovations and strategies. His neon noir synths sidestep fashionable 8bit novelty and avoid the forced euphoria of many of his contemporaries. The mostly drumless pounding of Promises and Bullet Against Bone are turbo-charged upgrades of the duo’s Bass Fiction micro genre initiated in 2004 by their iconoclastic debut, the Prince cover, Sine of the Dub.
The broken, drone house tracks Green Sun, Love is the Drug and the remake of title track, Black Sun, plus the analog synth work on Otherman inherit in mutated form the melancholy DNA of Memories of the Future and build on the unsettling dancefloor dynamics of the original Black Sun single. Even the astral ambience and dread poetics of Neon Red Sign, glides along on bustling hi-hats and leaning, 2step syncopations despite the gravity of it’s deep bass drops and wobbling sub. Providing moments of breathing space in this torched environment, are 2 beatless instrumentals. Out of the chittering, insectoid rustling and squelches, wavers the electric keys of Hole in the Sky. And the album’s finale is Kryon, Kode9’s collaboration with Flying Lotus, started around 4 years ago. If you have heard Kode9 & Spaceape play live in the last few years you will recognize this epic wall of analog synth. But perhaps the fractured clarity of the album shines through strongest in the spiky funk, skattered snares and intertwined vocal call and response in The Cure or the crunked out rapidfire paradoxes of Am I. The energy is involving and enveloping. The changes in speed and pressure create an exciting ride around the Black Sun.
MundoVibe: I’ve been constantly listening to “Black Sun” and it’s really heavy music. It reflects a lot internally, would you say it’s coming from a deep place, a mental place even though it‘s bass?
Kode9: A lot of the music I make is conceptual somehow, there’s an idea in it. That’s what we try and do, you know we’re always trying to balance stuff that you’d want to listen to with headphones and you’d want to move to. I think more than our first album this does have a bit more dynamic and energy in it. But I’m never so interested in stuff that’s just one function, just for that sake. So, that’s what we’re trying to do.
MundoVibe: You are quoted as calling your music “uneasy listening”, I though that was interesting.
Kode9: Well, it’s not easy listening, I suppose people keep telling me it’s challenging and I don’t know if that’s like a veiled insult or it’s challenging. I enjoy listening to stuff that’s got slightly anomalous elements in it, like a little blotch in a landscape or a hair on the photographic lense. I think our stuff whether it be the kind of synths we use or the melodies, have a curdled sound. I like this idea of the curdled melodies. My mom used to always say “don’t drink fruit juice after you’ve just drunk milk, because it’ll curdle. And actually the idea of pouring pineapple juice into a glass of milk is one kind of accurate way I see my music. It’s like, “these two things really shouldn’t be here. But if you ignore the rule that they shouldn’t be together it actually tastes kind of nice.
MundoVibe: I like that analogy with the cottage cheese (sic).
Kode9: Cottage cheese? That’s an interesting label.
MundoVibe: Anything but dubstep right (laughter).
Kode9: Yeah, curdling.
MundoVibe: For some reason I associate dub music more with the UK than Jamaica, although the connection is obvious. I see you music as a continuum of going back to, say, On-U Sound and Adrian Sherwood. What is your continuum?
Kode9: I think that’s a stronger reference point with our first album, more so than this album because I don’t think there’s a strong presence of dub, even in an upgraded fashion, with this album. You know, we were trying out some different things. I suppose the musical lineage that I put myself in as a DJ come from jungle in particular and right through what I do now which is house, dubstep, grime, etc. As a music listener my interests go back to ‘70s funk, jazz and through hip hop so I think some of those elements have come through in this album. Like we used some of the analogue synths that were used in ‘70s funk and so on.
MundoVibe: To set the tone perhaps?
Kode9: Yeah, those kind of sounds, those kind of frequencies and those kind of raw analogue synthesizer sounds are something I’ve always loved and are deeply psychedelic to me. That’s one of the things that we wanted to do on this album which is very different from the first album.
MundoVibe: So you clearly wanted to take a new direction with this new album.
Kode9: Yeah, I suppose it’s just upgrading, like you upgrade your operating system. We wanted to upgrade our operating system a bit and explore some other avenues that maybe didn’t come quite so easy to us or so naturally. And just keep challenging ourselves.
MundoVibe: I’ve detected a theme throughout it, to me it’s very reflective of the state of the world. There’s a lot of references to faith, religion, politics.
Kode9: You’re right although for us the album takes place in a fictional world which is featured in the artwork. And that fictional world is after some unclassified radioactive event which fucks up the atmosphere and hence your ‘black suns’, ‘green suns’, suns filtered through this toxic atmosphere. And there’s series of social implications of this event with lots of social upheaval, revolutions, sexual relationships have been banned so all intimate relationships take place illicitly. And there’s a lot of themes of bodily mutation and health type themes. All of the population is undergoing these unpredictable bodily mutations because of the radiation. Some groups of the population are trying to resist these mutations, trying to hang onto the humanity as opposed to becoming something other and turn into a monotheistic religion for redemption and salvation. Whereas other groups the mutations are taking them in another direction and they’re not going to resist it, they’re going with it. And how the story ends up is certain groups take this synthetic compound to keep them alive but they don’t try and resist the mutations that are taking place and are disoriented and as we put it, “they remain to bathe under the black sun”. They stay in this fucked up environment instead of trying to escape to some promised land.
So, that’s the kind of narrative and clearly elements of that that resonate with a lot of what’s going on in the world. Particularly there’s one line of Spaceape’s that particularly great that says: “There’s a prophet on every corner who has under achieved.” That really sums up how fucked up most religion, monotheistic religions of the world are.
MundoVibe: So, I guess I did pick up on some of the messages there.
So you see it as an allegory of what’s going on?
Kode9: It’s a work of fiction and like all works of fiction there is going to be some resonance with what’s going on in the world. But the way we do it it’s quite a loose resonance. In other words we try to keep it open to the listener to superimpose their own political ideology. The lyrics are spoken from a number of different perspectives, it’s not just coming from Spaceape. He’s assuming the voices of, and telling the stories of, different characters. We prefer to leave things just a little bit more open ended.
MundoVibe: I was just thinking about this, the sound in and of itself, without lyrics is very conveying of politics or messages without even being literal.
Kode9: I’m interested if you find that.
MundoVibe: I haven’t read your book “Sonic Warfare” but I remember when it came out and was reading more about it. And you’re someone who’s investigating how sound can effect people. What’s the driving thought there?
Kode9: I suppose it’s just exploring that idea. With music we assume that it’s there to give us pleasure, to help us escape or to sooth us. I came across all of these examples of where music is used to torture or specific frequencies or sound used in crowd control or used to make people irritated, make them feel uneasy and so on. And I’m not trying to do that in my music but I certainly have an interest in things like this and this idea of curdling. Curdled sound, and that ambiguity of something it’s not noise but something’s not right about the melody or something’s off tune. It’s two sounds set together uneasily and I’m interested in how that can jar with people and that can make people recoil or it can produce enjoyment. That ambiguity of sound is always fascinating.
MundoVibe: I was thinking about genres of music and how we’ve gotten to micro-genres. Going back to Jamaica, you know the dancehall thing for a while was being pushed as the next big thing but never quite got there. Now it’s gone into its own world. And I wonder if some degree that’s what you have to do with your music to avoid it just being co-opted and turned into drum’n’bass and commercials and all of that crap. How do you feel about that?
Kode9: I suppose my opinion on that is I’m not hostile to commercialization in itself. It just so happens that when it happens the music gets worse. I don’t know if you know the Burial music, that for me was a really heartening example of how music can become popular and cross over and become mainstream almost. But not compromise musically and not compromise in terms of PR, not front up the music by being a face. And I thought that was really inspiring that something can become popular without getting rammed down people’s throats. So that’s how I feel about it — as long as you stay strong about the music and stay true to what you like then everything else is peripheral.
MundoVibe: Do you see your music as being specific to place and time and culture.
Kode9: It’s an unusual sound for London but it’s still a London-based sound that we have. It’s not typical of dubstep, it’s not typical of the kind of house that comes out of London but for me anyway I think there’s something very British about our sound. And that’s important to me because most of music I’ve DJ’d with is mostly from London. It’s always dominated the music I DJ with.
MundoVibe: So, you probably grew up in that culture with the music. Was going out to underground venues and, say, pirate radio an influence?
Kode9: I didn’t grow up with it, I moved into that because I grew up in Scotland in Glasgow and moved to London 10 years ago. I’d spent some time there before but the last 10 years I’ve been immersed in that world. And that just coincides with when I’ve been releasing music and I started DJing not just as a hobby but seriously because I’ve been Djing for twenty-some years. So, yeah, moving to London and pirate radio culture, that whole culture is very strong.
MV: Did you start Hyperdub before anything else?
Kode9: Hyperdub started as a web magazine in 2001 and we ran it for two or three years. It was really in-depth interviews with London-based artists. I did that pretty much on my own for a few years and ran out of momentum and drive to keep it going. So, a friend of mine suggested I release some of my music and suddenly the magazine became a record label. Initially to release my own stuff and then I discovered Burial’s stuff and it started to spread.
MV: It’s the beauty technology today is that it’s virus-like how something can just spread.
Kode9: And from nothing.
MV: Are you astounded when you’re half way around the globe and people are embracing your music?
Kode9: It always amazes me the places to which our music has reached. I’ve played in China a few times but last year I played in the Philippines and that was genuinely surreal. It was really amazing and heartening to connect with them.
MV: I can imagine. As cliched as it is it’s the universality of music.
MV: Do you handle your distribution?
Kode9: We have a distributor who handles all of our stuff. I’m not a big fan of the business side of running a label, the more we can outsource stuff the better. There’s cheaper ways of doing it but as long as it’s not a stress for me than that’s how we do it.
MV: I just want to get back into the process of how you make your music. You explained the theme of “Black Sun” and, of course, you have Spaceape. Do you sit down and sort of brain storm ideas or…
Kode9: Yeah, I’ll make some instrumental tracks to him, he’ll come to me with lyrics. We’ll try the lyrics on one track, live with that for a few weeks. Then usually what happens is that I’ll put his lyrics on another track that I’ve got and everything tends to shift around for a while. I always change my mind about drum patterns where I change them and just get rid of the drums. There’s a lot of that with this album, the drum pattern’s constantly shifting on the tracks, the bassline’s constantly shifting. It only crystallized in the second half of last year, that’s when the album started to properly take shape.
MV: You have so much at your disposal but you have to put it all together. It’s got to be challenging.
Kode9: We’ve got too much choice. Really, the hardest thing sometimes is trying to remember what you like, trying to get back to a very basic feeling. And obviously what you’re constantly trying to do is iron out things that don’t make you feel good. That’s the uneasy listening thing. When you’re making an album you’re listening to the same music over and over again and occasionally some of the elements will just make you feel uneasy.