Interview: Kode9

April 11, 2011

Kode9 & The Spaceape's sublime second album Black Sun comes out April 19th on Hyperdub, the seminal electronic label behind Burial, Joker and Zomby that Kode9—born Steve Goodman—founded in 2004. In addition to recording, DJing and managing the label, Goodman, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a published author, lecturer, and member of the sound art Audint research collective. Any one of these areas should merit its own interview. We caught up with Kode9 on the weirdness of the present world, reading Dubstep Forum and what it's like being a high-functioning role model to nerds like us.

Maybe it’s the increasingly tumultuous world of international politics, but listening to Black Sun is making me think a lot about foreignness.
We deliberately tried to make Spaceape sound like I’ve tuned in to him on some kind of frequency from another place, like he’s transmitting from another location. That location is this fictional world we tried to create, a world after an unknown, unclassified radioactive event. The album takes place in the repercussions of this event and what it’s done to the atmosphere. The album is really about populations dealing with the ecological consequences of this radioactive event. Now, that’s not an attempt to reflect what’s going on in the world. It’s distant in the sense that it’s a fictional world, that we don’t know where it is and we don’t know when it is. The music evoked a world that we didn’t expect and now we’re just trying to work out what that world is.

Why is it important to not be too literal? Why does a post-apocalyptic world have to be a fictional world?
There’s a series of catastrophic events that have already happened, whichever way you want to think about, whether it be the Industrial Revolution or the Second World War, Vietnam or an ecological event. We’re just taking as a basic premise that we live in a post-apocalyptic world. That’s real, that’s not fiction. The direction that world is going in is subject to speculation, so when we create a fictional world we’re just participating in speculating about which way things are going, resonating things that are real but doing that in an open-ended way that leaves some room for the listener to fill in the gaps. That’s why it’s not preaching or dictating to the listener what is what and how you should feel in this post-apocalyptic world.

But some moments and events that Spaceape talks about seem very personal.
There are certain lyrical moments that are certainly autobiographical for Spaceape, but neither of us are particularly interested in our music being a personal expression or about what we’ve experienced, what we’ve undergone. That’s been covered. They come from things that are going on and they come from personal experiences, but we don’t want them to be reducible to, oh that’s what it’s about. In “Neon Red Sign” there’s a great line Spaceape’s got that there’s a prophet on every corner that’s underachieved, which is such a great way of thinking about the current state of religion in the world: underachieving gods. Underachieving kids at school, they’re not doing the work properly and they’re failing. That’s how we see the dominant religions in the world and it resonates strongly with the current state of affairs. [In Black Sun] populations are affected differently to these radioactive events. Some people look for salvation to retain their humanity under these atmospheric conditions in which people are undergoing bodily mutations, and there are some people we have more of an affinity to that are not fighting those mutations but are going with them, seeing where that’s going as opposed to resisting it and seeking some kind of monotheistic Babylon or utopia or afterlife to save them. That resonates a lot with what’s going on in the world religiously. Ultimately, we’re kind of doing this like its an invisible film. You don’t get to see the moving images, but it’s like we’re trying to create an invisible film for ourselves. We don’t know what we’re doing, essentially, so we’re just speculating and exploring and searching around for a rationale for what we made. We made the music very stop-start over a period of years without knowing what we’re aiming for. When we finished it we were like, shit, what the fuck do we do. Let’s work out what we did and what kind of world is unintentionally being evoked from the lyrics and music and trying to make it cohere in a world of its own, a little bubble. It’s probably because we’re both frustrated filmmakers who’ve never done films.

The album is a lot brighter than Memories of the Future. One side is very bleak and very dark, but there’s a second side that’s very hopeful.
We both listened back to that first album and don’t quite understand how we made it. It’s so catatonic and it sounds like sleepwalking. It’s somnambulistic. That’s partly to do with how I manipulated Spaceape’s voice, it’s depth. Rhythmically, it’s really downbeat. What’s common is that both have drones, whether it’s droning voice or droning synths. That’s not intentionally but seems to be a continuous thread in music I make, to find a frequency and just hold it. We definitely wanted it to have more color, and color is a big theme in this album. The radioactive event made everything into weird colors. The cover artwork the sun is refracted through the clouds in a weird turquoise, jade-green color I’ve never seen in real life. It’s not that there’s a radioactive event that destroyed the world and it’s all a dark wasteland, it’s more like everything has a weird glow and things are in the wrong place. It’s more surreal than it is wasteland. Partly because we’re self-conscious of being pigeonholed into being dark and bleak. We really didn’t feel like that’s what we’re doing in this album. People could say, “Oh, it’s just another of their paranoid dystopias,” but we don’t see it as that.

Do you want people to approach the album with darkness in mind?
If you listen to stuff in the dark, it’s easier for your imagination to conjure up these fictional worlds. If you out to flashing lights and lasers dictating you what something looks like, for me it restricts the sound. It almost superimposes a rigid frame on top of the music, whereas if it’s dark it makes the music a bit more interactive. In the inner artwork we evoke this fictional world. The main thing for me is I just enjoy this experience of performing in darkness. I feel the music differently. I feel the music much more intensely than if I can see the equipment. You could be flying a spaceship, you could be doing anything. It just hides the reality in front of you, just turns it into this abstract sequence of glowing lights. It’s a more fun environment to play in and it also makes people a little bit edgy and a little bit paranoid. It’s fun. I find the intimacy really seductive, the bonds you have with the people in the dark. Without sounding like a hippie, it’s about vibes. You can’t put your finger on it but you know what it is when you walk into a room. In a way that’s what my whole book is about, it’s about vibes, vibrations, bad vibrations and good vibrations, the way sound can just catalyze that.

Do you think of your music as being intellectual or conceptual?
It’s definitely conceptual. I don’t have any hangups about saying it’s conceptual, that’s what I mean by creating this fictional world. Instead of being an exploration of an academic concept, trying to illustrate something technical, the way we do it is to create a fiction which makes concepts into characters, makes concepts into environments. You don’t have to do shit-loads of reading or even understand the concept for it to leak in by osmosis. In a way it’s just a different delivery system. Literature or film or music or academic texts are just different delivery systems for concepts. But you don’t need to engage on that level to get music. Music is what it is. If you’re interested in zoning off into this other dimension, it’s there for you. There’s another of portals into that world, that labyrinth you can get lost in.

I read something on Dubstep Forum, I think, where this guy was saying you can’t really get Kode9 until you’ve read Deleuze.
In my point of view that is bollocks. It’s not how Spaceape writes his lyrics, it’s not what I’m thinking when I’m making music. I like that philosopher, but that doesn’t inform my music in a top-down way. It’s not like, I like this concept and I’m going to make music that illustrates that. I don’t think we make difficult, abstract, austere music. I’m not sure how successful it is, but at the same time it’s not particularly unfriendly in terms of accessibility. You don’t need to have read stuff to access it. You might get a number of different layers that you may otherwise not get, some of which would be intentional, but that’s the power of theory. It allows you to crack open hidden dimensions of things that just engaging with the thing itself wouldn’t give you. But you don’t need it.

You don’t need to make your music academic because you already have an academic life.
My music has its own autonomy. Most of the people listening to my music wouldn’t care about what I do as a writer. They don’t need to talk to each other, the music and the writing. They resonate with each other in ways I subconsciously didn’t intend. I’m into things that appear in everything I do. They’re just different things that I do.

How do you approach Hyperdub? Do you feel like you’re curating something?
If you can imagine a kind of religious sect, Hyperdub is some kind of demon thing which you get signs from and you have to decipher the signs. It tells me what to do. When artists send me music and I’m working out whether it’s right for the label, that involves communicating with this entity that seems to have its own needs. I often feel that it’s telling me how it wants to evolve and what it needs to evolve. It’s not a religion obviously, but I do see it as some kind of intangible entity that has its own desires and I’m a vessel for actualizing those desires through me. I understand it as this thing called the Hyperdub virus, and I’m like a carrier of this virus and being infected by this virus tells me how to run the label. I’m possessed—and this is the religious thing—by this entity. I’m a puppet, something is pulling my strings that has taken on a life of its own.

How do you manage having different spheres of you life?
It’s a fucking nightmare. I always think that nothing is getting done in enough depth or well enough because I only have this much time to spend on music. I don’t have any time to make films. That’s just out of the question. I don’t have enough time to write or to read or to make music or to DJ. You’re constantly juggling and everything feels like you’re just skimming the surface. I’ve found it deeply frustrating and it drives me absolutely crazy. I think the key is collaboration, clearly that’s the answer. By working collectively you always get more done. I’m always just at the limit of how much I can do because of time. That’s the moral of the story. Working conceptually, concepts can manifest themselves in different mediums, and if you’re a conceptual person then you will inevitably end up in this position where you want to produce in different media. You just have to deal with the frustration of being spread across things, being trans-disciplinary. Somehow I’m always trying to find a way to take that positively.

Interview: Kode9