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What Is New Weird Britain? A Guide To The UK Underground In 2018
Luke Turner , May 31st, 2018 09:36

As we get ready for this year's Supersonic Festival, Noel Gardner, John Doran and Luke Turner present their takes on what the underground we're calling New Weird Britain constitutes, from anti-corporate defiance, performance art, and a bold new exploration of landscape and place

Over the past year or so you might have noticed a new term cropping up on The Quietus: New Weird Britain. What is this, you might well ask? Here is an answer, of sorts. In truth, as John Doran says in his short essay below, the term is a slippery one. It was originally coined as the title for Noel Gardner's Noel's Foul House column back in 2017 but then, with apologies to Noel, John and I have run with the term to apply it to other aspects of what we consider to be the gloriously fertile underground scene in the UK.

We don't need to tell you that in the decade since we launched The Quietus the way we discover and consume music has been changed beyond all recognition. If you look at how our editorial has changed since 2008 we've certainly headed in more esoteric directions as what was once the independent music that lurked on the edges of the mainstream became unsustainable. It was replaced by a new form of MOR characterised by the millennial whoop and soundtracking the sorrowful aftermath of chlamydia acquisition trips to Croatian beach festivals. In that dull climate an counter underground has emerged to create music against the odds and in defiance of the modern notion that art is only valid if it produces financial return, or has 'synergy' with some mundane brand. These three essays then are an attempt to capture what New Weird Britain is to Noel, John and I, focussing on artists playing this year's Supersonic Festival (they're also being published in the festival programme). Supersonic is without doubt one of the key incubators for so many of the artists of New Weird Britain, and a vital node of communication, sharing of ideas, and mutual support. The Quietus salutes the work of Lisa Meyer and her team at Capsule.

When I was enthusing about New Weird Britain on the Bigmouth culture podcast yesterday, saying that I don't believe any of this music is too difficult or complex for anyone to get into, Miranda Sawyer asked why it needs to break out to wider audiences. A very good question, one which to which I would say that I personally find parochialism frustrating, but more significantly it's an issue of finances. I don't think there's a single artist of New Weird Britain who is able to make a sustainable living from what they do. I'd urge you, then, as you explore these rich sonic pastures in 2018, to do what you can to support the people cultivating them - buy their music direct from Bandcamp or small labels, wear their t-shirts, pay to see five artists live rather than bunging a fortune on some knackered nostalgia act, go to festivals like Supersonic. If you felt able to donate the price of a pint to The Quietus to help us continue bringing you this, some of the greatest music being made right now, that would be appreciated too.

New Weird Britain: A Guide To The UK Underground In 2018
By Noel Gardner

Supersonic are not so much who I’m writing this piece for as a reason I’m writing it. That is to say: the festival’s approach to choosing lineups is a prototype of how I prefer to envisage music’s underground. A space of interactivity rather than cramped, glowering sects, where sufficient imagination can cook up a conceptual link between any two given acts.

In 2018, music fans are way less rigid in their tastes than they used to be. The reasons for this are complex, although not so complex that I can’t say ‘mainly because of the internet’, but on a micro level, many identifiable entities have helped to get listeners to swerve across multiple lanes. Supersonic is, I feel, one of them.

When they debuted in 2003, the accepted method of booking nearly any festival bill was ‘find a subculture and get them to give you money’. The inaugural Supersonic, meanwhile, had Coil and LCD Soundsystem vying for top billing. I know because I was there. It was a blast! So how do you make avant-magick custodians of Old Weird Britain work with sarky Brooklyn disco-punk newjacks? By mixing them both up with The Bug and Pram and V/vm and something called the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and more vitally obstinate oddities that were square pegs nearly everywhere but here, where it coalesced into perfect sense.

That’s why they did it again the following year, and the one after, and so forth. Outside of those weekends, something more was happening – slowly, almost imperceptibly – in British independent music. It wasn’t necessarily self-defeating madness to combine thunderclap techno with punchdrunk sludge metal, or quicksharp punk rock with atonal clatter-noise. People made a greater virtue of promoting such lineups across the country, and festivals launched which were unquestionably ‘post-Supersonic’ in their worldview. And if you’re reading this thinking, “What’s the big deal? I’ve been listening to music this way since forever,” kudos! The world has caught up with you.

Since the start of 2017 my Quietus column, Noel’s Foul House, has attempted – fruitlessly, in the best way – to nail down the jelly of the contemporary UK underground, aka New Weird Britain. ‘Course, you know there’s reams of radness out there when you embark on something like this (why would you be bothering otherwise?) but focusing your listening habits on it brings it into, well, focus.

Supersonic 2018’s programme is studded with names I’ve either lauded in Foul House and/or are its essence via their general comings and goings and scenely intertwinings. Gnod, who I first saw at Supersonic 2012, and Terminal Cheesecake are two of the best psychedelic groups ever to sprout from this landmass. Housewives top the global table, in this reporter’s opinion, for trance-inducing no wave that legit rocks. While Mésange (kosmiche prog meets chamber violin) and Vanishing Twin (analogue pop exotica blasted into space) deliver truth and beauty through sounds that defy definition.

Those are only five of several more acts I could have picked, to say nothing of the other globally-sourced belters on the bill. New Weird Britain is not, thank god, a vessel for patriotism or competition – more an effort to share the love for something happening under our collective nose.

New Weird Britain at Supersonic (according to Noel Gardner):

Housewives
GNOD
Mesange
Terminal Cheesecake
Vanishing Twin

New Weird Britain: This Is Not A Genre
By John Doran

2017 was the most financially healthy year for the music industry to date - although if you have any skin at all in the DIY game or are just the sort of person who loves to attend Supersonic you could be forgiven for not being particularly jubilant, as an ever more massive slice of this money simply gets hoovered up by tech companies, streaming service providers, superannuated rock bands, world bestriding pop stars and arena filling EDM DJs, leaving the rest of us at the margins scrabbling in the dust.

Anyone expecting a corresponding narrowing of horizons in the underground brought about by shrinking budgets however, will be disappointed as exactly the opposite seems to have happened. Currently, necessity and financial impoverishment are the mother of invention. All across Britain musicians are throwing uncompromising, unprecedented and unrepeatable events in independent, often non-standard, venues - and in doing so they are rejecting the idea that there is nothing new to be experienced in music. As art funding dries up, as rents and house prices soar in major city centres, as the digital economy slashes away at the revenue streams once available to them, as critics say it’s all been heard before... fewer musicians are clinging to outmoded career paths or losing heart but instead are being emboldened in less standard creative enclaves.

Expanding way beyond the blueprint of the traditional independent musician, empowered by the information (and ‘grey area’ software) available on the internet, they use performance art, film projections, contemporary dance, dazzling homemade costumes and eye boggling light shows while others create psychedelic and immersive shows that don’t stand a chance of turning a profit but can’t be forgotten once experienced. This can either be read as a militant rage against the late capitalist machine or the last expulsion of energy being shot out by a dying scene going supernova (I’m confident it’s the former, not the latter) but either way it’s thrilling to experience first hand.

All of these events happening right now in warehouses, converted Victorian mills, local art galleries, the backrooms of pubs, church halls, community centres and independent gig venues are a proud, ‘Fuck you’ to lazy golden-ageism. I started referring to such pigeonhole-resistant acts and events as New Weird Britain, simply for the sake of my own sanity and poor organisational skills. It’s definitely not a genre in the sense that it has a sound or a uniform or an easily described set of codified values or rules (but then again, neither did post punk or post rock really). It was simply a name dreamt up to reflect the feeling that everything that we love about music is still left to play for. (The limits of the term’s usefulness in describing music can be demonstrated quite clearly by the fact that I’ve so far only really discussed it with two other writers - Noel Gardner and Luke Turner - and they already have completely different ideas about what the nomenclature means.) Of course mould-breaking, description-defying, multi-disciplinarian DIY musicians are nothing new (you’ll know this for sure if you have been a regular at Supersonic festival over the years) but in 2018 they are beginning to feel less like completely isolated outliers who tend to be shuffled off to their own ‘outsider’ enclosure and more like revolutionary heralds of the possible.

New Weird Britain at Supersonic (according to John Doran) UKAEA
Gazelle Twin
Trikilatops
Vanishing Twin
Mesange

New Weird Britain: Radical Noises Beyond The City Lights By Luke Turner

A dark smear on the road ahead, cars swerving to avoid the dismembered remains of a deer. Quiet car parks where solitary men emerge from white vans, furtively following one another into the bushes. Seasons topsy turvy from climate change. The Diggers, the Ranters, the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Archive documents that bluntly report tragedy, a dead baby wrapped in newspaper and dumped in a forest clearing. The crumbling concrete of obsolete fortifications, a reminder that the English landscape has always had within it the promise of violence. 
These are aesthetic and historical touchpoints for a gathering of the artists of New Weird Britain who are re-examining our relationship to the non-urban. Nature-inspired art can often have a sentimentality that's a hair's breadth from the reactionary, as Tom Nairn wrote in an analysis of Enoch Powell's pastoral poetry, we might find "babbling brooks feeding rivers of blood". New Weird Britain can help dam these malevolent streams as, with DIY artists forced out of our increasingly homogenized cities, it's in the grubby hinterlands of the non-urban that we might increasingly seek insurrection.

On Saturday night, Gazelle Twin presents the debut of Pastoral. This record, made in the deep England of her Midlands home, has at its heart a brutalism and a politic that attacks the conservatism of the (frequently rural-dwelling) Baby Boomers who brought us Brexit. It ploughs up the increasingly outdated view that art related to the natural world and rural has to be soft and twee. Pastoral declares that the non-urban landscape is if anything more violent and defined by sex and death than the city.

This might still be expressed in traditional forms. In Laura Cannell's fiddle and recorder, the lark of Vaughan Williams is caught in the talons of JA Baker's Peregrine, swooping over the flat lands of the east. There's a common misconception that the world of folk music is inherently conservative, but the reemergence of Shirley Collins as a contemporary artist subverts simplistic notion. Her recent memoir All In The Downs is as much a polemic about the power of the old songs as it is a telling of her own life.

I find it significant that these artists are female, subverting the paradigm of the poet of nature being the lone male, conquering territory. At the heart of our thinking around New Weird Britain as a navigation of place must be a focus on diverse and oft-unheard voices. In my spoken word piece for Modern Ritual (taking place at Supersonic on Sunday), I discuss a queering a landscape, arguing that a re-sexualising of the pastoral (a different take on the current vogue for re-wilding nature) might bring us a more sensual engagement with the land. In this fecund exploration of place we might begin to cleanse it of the polluting forces of nostalgia and nationalism; reclaiming England through sound.

New Weird Britain at Supersonic, according to Luke Turner

Gazelle Twin
Shirley Collins
Laura Cannell
Hoofus
Nik Void

Supersonic Festival takes place in Birmingham this June. For line-up, tickets and further information, please visit the Supersonic website

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