The Sandwell District duo of Karl o’Connor and Dave Sumner were in mid flow with a few thousand people around the world looking on via the Dommune webcam, when Dave Sumner looked hopefully off camera and cupped his hands over his ears. A pair of headphones appeared a few minutes later. After a brief fumble Dave Sumner shook his head and turned off camera again, then waved the headphone jack urgently at somebody – Thanks for the headphones, now can I have the right adapter so I can plug them in? Karl o’Connor caught the exchange with a sideways look and laughed – A classic, behind-the-scenes mini-drama that any dj might face at some time in their career, played out for the entire world to see.
The Dommune video channel is broadcast live on UStream from a small club in Tokyo, and over the last few months I’ve been lucky enough to catch live performances by Surgeon, Jeff Mills, and Claude Young amongst their superb techno lineup. Being able to watch live gigs via streaming video channels from half way around the world is a triumph of our internet age – Not just that it is possible, but also how easy and accessible it is. Dommune epitomises this digital revolution, as music scenes have evolved from the local to the global.
Even though sign language and music are universal forms of communication, there seemed to be a lot lost in translation when Sandwell District played on Dommune in January. They created a superb synthesis of old and new music, but didn’t build up much momentum along the way or sustain a mood – It was a bit of a mish-mash. However, both the successes and failures of Sandwell District epitomise another kind of digital revolution – the way digital and software tools have changed djing, the music djs have to play with, and even the way a dj set is perceived. The classical idea of the dj “taking the listener on a journey” has been abandoned, and new ways of djing have emerged.
Sandwell District is a record label and production team that emerged in 2002, with Dave Sumner (Function), Juan Mendez (Silent Servant), Peter Sutton (Female) and Karl O’Connor (Regis) amongst the collective. With such a line-up it’s obvious there are strong links to the mighty Downwards record label that redefined British techno in the 1990s. To me it sounds as if the Sandwell District label takes the Birmingham techno sound which characterised Downwards and frees it from 1990s Birmingham – letting it loose on the streets of 21st century Berlin instead. The pace is slower, the production is more refined, the rhythms march and step rather than roll. Instead of creating great “slabs of sound” (or massification) the minimalism of Sandwell District is more about opening up space.
What they have in common is that the same murky unconscious is at play, directing both music and artwork towards an edgy, industrial aesthetic, and making sure the same subliminal incantations are being transmitted. Machines that prowled and hunted amid the ruins of post-industrial Birmingham, as portrayed on Downwards releases like “A Disintegration Of Our Faith” are still on the loose, scraping their metal fingers across the skin of a new city as on the Silent Servant track “Discipline”. In the words of Karl O’Connor: “Sandwell District is the last burning ember of the industrial revolution”.
The Sandwell District live act consists of Dave Sumner and Karl O’Connor playing off unsynched laptops – the digital equivalent of a “two djs, four decks” performance. Their set on Dommune began with epic soundscapes: “Falling the same way” from their new album featured early and set a portenteous, anxious tone. They took their time allowing the beats to assume any prominence, through a very controlled build-up which lasted about half an hour.
It became clear that the Sandwell District live act is a very different beast to the label. Having not listened to any of their live sets before, my (rather high) expectations were of something moody and artistic, evocative and visionary. And although the label is known for its distinctive, experimental edge, it turned out that the live act is far less challenging. There was little intensity, not much to stir the imagination, and not a lot to get the arse moving. Edits of their own tracks and other people’s music drifted in and out of focus in a meandering, dream-like flow. However there were some beautiful, stand-out moments – The Function track from “Untitled 1”, James Ruskin’s “Work”, Matthew Jonson’s “Marionette”, along with tracks from the likes of Mike Dehnert, Peter Van Hoesen and Jerome Sydenham. A generous helping of classic tracks such as “LFO”, “Minus”, and “Losing Control” added to the tapestry, their set taking the form of one long edit.
Despite the many layers they wove together I got the feeling they were drifting, not building up any momentum, and the result was more like listening to electronica than techno – A feat in itself, but not exactly the sound of a techno act “right at the top of their game”.
This could have been the result of playing at a smaller venue, or perhaps they were having an off night after playing at Unit on the Saturday. I listened to their set at Plex in London last year and it had a bit more bite, but to my ears there was the same lack of momentum and direction. The things that shone at Plex were essentially the same as those that worked at Dommune: Music from their own label and a liberal infusion of classics. Instead of having my mind blown, I was left wondering “what happened?”.
On many levels the answer has to do with the digital setup they’ve chosen. Digital dj setups provide so many degrees of freedom that it is easy to get lost amongst the possibilities – Tunes, basslines, sound effects, vocal snippets and loops are nudged into orbit around a pulsating kickdrum, like an ever evolving solar system of rhythm and sound, then nudged out of orbit again and sent drifting away into space. The potential may be enormous but finding interesting combinations is even harder when anything is possible, especially when it relies on the interplay of two djs. Set-pieces aside, most time will be spent in the middle ground: A bit bland, with ideas cancelling each other out, and the discovery of yet another inhospitable planetary system.
The same goes for producing dance music – the technology available today is powerful and easy to come by and the possibilities are almost limitless. As a result, “the problem with techno is that somewhere along the way, forward thinking musicians were replaced by computer nerds on ecstacy” (quote on Twitter). Almost all of the mid-paced, European techno which is prevalent now is completely lacking in dynamism, feeling or imagination. So an enormous mire surrounds Sandwell District, and they have to drag their feet through it.
However, I still think there is a lot of expressive and dynamic new music out there – Labels like Rodz Konez, Labrynth, Mathematics, Subsequent, and Rush Hour are some of my picks, consistently releasing brilliant, evocative music. Instead of despair, there is still inspiration. Techno is not entirely stuck in the mud.
And Sandwell District did manage to pull themselves clear of the bog. One thing they did very successfully was integrate lots of old tracks and forgotten gems into the mix, sticking two fingers up at the “electronic police” and disrupting the fixation with exclusivity and newness which is all too common in dance music. More back catalogue music is available than ever before, through digital distribution, but marketing and hype always focuses attention on what’s new – expensive promos, white labels, exclusives – creating the delusion that techno is a fashion that has to be followed. Sandwell District disrupt this.
In fact some of the tracks they played date back nearly 20 years – “Internal Empire” was released in 1994, “LFO” came out in 1990 – but instead of producing familiar moments of nostalgia, in the hands of Sandwell District they have a different effect. In a digital mix these old tracks are lifted out of the past. Seamlessly edited and blended with modern techno, the distinction between old and new is collapsed. Instead of transporting the listener into the past, music is brought forward into the present.
I don’t think a traditional, non-digital dj set could achieve the same thing – hearing a classic dropped into a non-digital set produces a moment of nostalgia, a dislocation, a shift in time, but not a feeling of synthesis. Using digital means, Sandwell District put across the feeling that techno is a huge framework of interconnected sounds and ideas that can be reconnected in any number of ways – There is more to it than just the latest outcroppings on the surface, and a legacy of classics which are frozen in the past.
My favourite moment during their Dommune set was hearing them play “Acid Eiffel”, a beautiful and emotional techno track which I first came across on the ground-breaking “Laboratoire Mix” by Laurent Garnier. The “Laboratoire Mix” was released in 1996 and set new standards for how seamless, broad-ranging, and artful a dj mix could be. In terms of styles it takes in all sorts from Detroit techno to house music and ambient, with a few classics thrown in too (which in 1996 meant going back to the early days of house music, such as Jungle Wonz “The Jungle”, released in 1986!) – showing an appreciation for the breadth and history of dance music.
A Sandwell District dj set is like a “Laboratoire Mix” for the 21st century, but instead of turntables we have Ableton, and instead of beat-mixing we have editing. The difference between Laurent Garnier and Sandwell District is that the classical idea of the dj “taking the listener on a journey” has been abandoned. In a traditional mix the stepping stones of one song after another create a feeling of motion, progress and direction. But a dj set which takes the form of one long edit doesn’t have this natural sense of progression, there are no stepping stones. It’s more like standing still, always being in the same moment, while the dj controls the world around the listener with evocative sounds and rhythms – In the words of Dune, “Travelling without moving”. When a set takes this form the dj creates a vivid world for the listener to experience, and can build up momentum to make it feel like the world is changing.
I think this is the fundamental reason why Sandwell District seemed to be drifting – There was no natural momentum to the mix, and neither did they sustain a mood. Their set was not a journey or a story. It had the potential to take a new form, but they didn’t quite manage it. Playing a great digital set is a different skill to playing a great set on two turntables – I think there’s a lot of experimenting and exploration to be done.
Dead Baby In A Plastic Bag
“Dead Baby In A Plastic Bag is a Live Edit project run by the Krauts Unclean and Pripad. It merges both, traditional analogue and modern digital DJ techniques, trying to break down those outdated musical boundaries. DBIAPB is rather an unhealthy mixture of Industrial Breaks, Power Electronics and Rhythmic Noise Techno, speak, not the typical “4/4 Techno Manner”. In fact their sound focuses on political situations, accoustic confrontation, manipulation & sonic challenge embedded in total darkness.”
Traversable Wormhole – RA Mix 245
“I had wanted to have a go at creating a multi-song layered mix for quite a while now—something where throughout the majority of the mix you would have at least two records riding over one another at any given time. When I perform live at events I use Ableton and controllers. For my DJ gigs I prefer to keep the setups separated. I still also love DJing on Technic 1200s. I feel more in tune with the audience using two decks, a mixer and the pitch controls. However, I do feel there are more possibilities with using Abelton and a controller. You can really get into multi-layering tracks in a way that can’t be done on turntables. So I wanted to make a mix in a different way than I could using turntables.”
Ursula Frequency – Industrial Psalms
“The Industrial Psalms are a series of devotional mixes which distill aspects of machine spirituality into sonic form”
YouTube clip of Sandwell District playing on Dommune
Download links on the Resident Advisor Forum for Sandwell District on Dommune
In depth interview with Karl o’Connor in FACT magazine
Review of the Sandwell District album “Feed Forward”
Culture Dox 5 – Video interview with Function and Regis at Culture Dox