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Hex & The City: Eccentronic Research Council & Maxine Peake Live
Christophe Riesco , August 24th, 2012 06:05

Christophe Riesco watches the Eccentronic Research Council and Maxine Peake perform 1612 Underture and finds relaxation in short supply. If you want a flavour of the ERC, watch their short film below

There is a certain atmosphere downstairs in 2200 Dale Street even before the acts come on. A disco ball and a skull. A video projection, a photomontage traveling though night trees. A nun becomes an owl to the sound of strange electric organ tremolos. Animated 17th Century woodcuts of witches and familiars, their matter of fact depictions of a provincial Black Mass.

Jane Weaver's live performance of Eiichi Yamamoto's 'Belladonna' brings the audience to listen. This is not relaxing music.

Suddenly a scream and, fading in and out, voices of condemnation.

The audience is diverse, a cross-section of Manchester people. Perhaps then this kind of darkness is not the dark that people have to put effort into acting out but the darkness that appears everywhere in the city, which takes everyone in and which everyone just knows. Perhaps the North is a place where there is no point hiding from this kind of darkness.

The Eccentronic Research Council take to the stage: "Who's talking? 400 years ago you were still talking."

'Autobahn 666' begins, a punching Kraftwerk bass and snare overlaid with an outspoken, squealing synth. Maxine Peake is a haunting presence even before the words start. "The A666: some call it the devil's highway, and some call it the road to hell ..." The spoken word interweaves with the rhythm, and ideas of the North and of witches interweave with each other.

The words and the music draw from diverse sources. Lancashire is "Blakean in its green and pleasant, demoralised by its dark and satanic". A tribal rattle and more disjointed bass accompany the Anne Sexton poem 'Her Kind', which then acquires a disco beat and becomes music for dancing, or for standing in one place but moving, as this audience seems compelled to do.

The spoken vocals allow the effect of the performance to be discursive, to move from idea to idea. As the show progresses, it begins to suggest that the Hanging Judge is the real Devil, and the trial the real Black Mass.

Abstract noises are one thing on record, but they become another thing live and amplified. A noise-wave has a physical presence as affecting as any melody-wave. The singer appears with a noose around her neck for a swan-song on the gallows. This is not relaxing music. This is Pop in the sense that it plays with free sounds, exploring tonalities and not restricted to the set forms (and set signifiers) of conventional music. It also makes use of one vocal sound in particular: Maxine Peake unleashes the classic witch's cackle, which cuts into the ears and spines of the audience.

The bass-line returns to propel a wonderful series of vocal 'curses', the victims including Jeremy Kyle (making clear the line of descent between Kyle and the Witch Trials) and the disappearance of TOTP as an ancient democratic music source. The band exit the stage, leaving their devices rumbling and hissing with feedback.

1612 Underture - The Short Film

This short is of the ERC's entire album condensed and was filmed by Mancunian film makers Kluncklick

Interview With Adrian Flanagan, Dean Honer and Maxine Peake of ERC

How serious are you about hauntology, and how serious should hauntology be? Re: the Fall song 'Psykick Dancehall', can hauntological music be danceable?

Adrian Flanagan: I'm not entirely versed in the philosophy or musical genre of Hauntology but it's a word that's been thrown at me by musicologists over the past few weeks, but I'll take a guess... I think all music haunts itself and has the ghost of something else within the heart of it, it's unavoidable, memory does that to you... I think until you're free of memory anything that triggers anything in your brain is a haunting of sorts and that applies as much to people who make Pop music or if you choose to smack banjo strings with a bull's ball bag through a space echo [laughs], even though neither are ground breakingly original they are both probably informed by something you remember as being a great moment or magical but at the same time convincing your self it's an original idea [laughs].

Dean Honer: My musical partner (in the ERC) and I create all our music and sounds from scratch,even when sourcing our field recordings and samples we get off our arse and physically find or physically make loops from our own creation... we do not simply reach for the rare record in our collection and get a loop going in Ableton... I use my own memory of the past and can only use my imagination to conjure up a distant past... I try not to get too tied up in history books either, history when re-edited and re-translated throughout the ages has the knack of becoming akin to tittle tattle and gossip, a half truth, an agenda... I actually believe that creating something fictional around an age old factual story can get you closer to the real truth...

As a cack handed word writer I'm only interested in bringing spirits and ghosts back to life within music, I like my ghosts to live a little, to be driving the train if you like. I'm not so interested in lazy spectres who only appear in one part of the house throwing stuff about like spoilt kids, in fact any ghost that did that in my house would get a bloody great punch on the nose. It's not really fair to ask me about the danceability of hauntological music as I have an uncontrollable big toe, it's constantly tapping even when there's no sound, but sometimes when I'm tending to the flower beds yes, I may do a light waltz to M.E.S.'s Esp medium discord.

Add N To X used to say old analogue equipment was far more free and creative than digital. Do you use vintage synths? Do you need to?

AF: I've know Ann from Add N to X for a good few years, she's lovely and bonkers. I've been on a few of her Electronic Bible compilation albums... I used to do a solo project called Kings Have Long Arms and have released a good few limited edition 7" singles over the years (2003-2008). Some of these records even featured the voice of the odd legend (Phil Oakey for instance). Kings Have Long Arms were a kind of wonky but tough "Northern electro" thing (mostly produced by a then young Sheffield producer finding his feet called Ross Orton). It was the antithesis to that Electroclash crap that was about at the time which was either performed by sour faced poseurs or laptop yawners. I certainly felt at the time electronic music could be more inclusive, fun even...

So I got a live group together made up of the biggest show offs I could find in local nightclubs who had no real musical ability but had a penchant for dressing up as Mexican wrestlers, woodland animals and fictional characters from books. I'd teach them one note synth and allow their natural need to show off to take over on stage, they'd constantly try and outdo each other, often it would end in an audience member receiving a naked band member's testicle in the eye [laughs]. It was part euphoric rave, part wedding disco in Salford [laughs].

I think this surreal, subversive HAPPY side of insanity, electro pop appealed to a post Add N To X Ann Shenton. She'd come and hang out with us and would end up on stage playing a weird hand made analogue machine she'd bring with her called a "Gestaposizer", it sounded a bit like 5000 mosquitoes flying in to the engine of a jumbo jet. It was like hell built in to a 10 inch square wooden box...

Quite a significant fact to your Add N To X based question is that Dean from the ERC (and I Monster/All Seeing I) co-produced a large part of Add N To X's back catalogue. Dean's in their sound,on their records, they probably used some of his synths,they've got Sheffield dust and air all over 'em.

The ERC love analog equipment and do prefer its more hands on, sexy warm tones, big knobs and lovingly crafted metal and wood exteriors to that of the more "music by mouse & maths" approach of the digital musician. The only soft synths we use are made by our pals at GFORCE Software,they've made an incredibly faithful virtual Mellotron called the M-Tron which we use quite a bit. Saying that, neither techniques particularly offend us, digital editing gives your analog sounds infinite possibilities and can be done much quicker than trying to do such on an old analog tape machine... I can't believe I said that... it's a bit Sound On Sound magazine.

Witches had special chants and songs. Do you see a ritual quality to The ERC's music?

AF: Are you mental? [laughs] I can't take that question seriously. Rituals are for sheep and hippies with no clothes on.

How important is the Internet for the band, in terms of transmitting but also salvaging music and ideas?

AF: When I approached Andy Votel about releasing this record I was only really interested in two things: one, that it came out on a Lancashire based female only record label (Bird) and two, that you could only buy it from Witches Galore in Pendle. It's not a record that really suits the average internet consumer's way of listening to music, we still believe in the two sided vinyl format and that it should really be listened too as a whole so you get the fuller context, the journey, the full 12 inches.

The internet for all its magic of instant gratification and discovery also complicates things, it makes shy people brave, it makes egos of insects, it starves and strangles great musicians, it makes musicians, it's like a universe of small talkers calling up a telephone exchange all at the same time and every now and then someone is let through to operator and their sad little voice is finally heard. The Internet is a fractious, visual, audio headache.

Imagine what it will be like when all the libraries, the record shops, the cinemas, the pubs, the clubs, the concert halls and theatres have all shut down and all your books, music, films etc are then transferred to digital and uploaded to the Internet and the physical objects pulped and destroyed.

What will you do when someone creates a virus that wipes the Internet of all it's data, it will happen one day,everything will be lost? People will be walking around like empty photo albums. Where will they go? What will they know without relying on Wikipedia and what will they own? Would they consider going to see and listen to some ghoulish knaves play an electronic mandolin in a crumbling theatre now they have lost their 3000 followers on twitter?

There seems to be an addiction to speed. What's the hurry, why must you have everything now, why must you have everything for free? Why must you know my whereabouts and the secrets behind the magic, why do you need to tell people what you are eating?

Do you think there's a link between music like yours and music in other genres? Do you have any cross-genre affinities with, for example, things like Burial?

AF: I'm not massively clued up on the work of Burial, the couple of things I've heard sounded to me like a minimal late 90s Bristol trip hop and jungle... music made by pot heads with concrete feet [laughs]. I'm probably being unfair... maybe they also need to be listened to in context.

I think the only label where what we do as The ERC reluctantly fits in with anything else is I guess, the Ghost Box label or Warp... I do love the Advisory Circle, Belbury Poly and the Focus Group and of course Broadcast, who have been the only group to be a constant ear companion for the last 16 years. It was such a shock and loss to learn of the premature passing of Trish Keenan, her voice and words have such a power to take me to far off places, it's like she's putting a finger in my heart and stirring it like a cauldron.

What has it been like working within a band as opposed to working in television or in theatre?

Maxine Peake: Oddly I've found it a complete departure in many respects. Rehearsing in Adrian's front room being the main difference, although his selection of break time refreshments have been far superior than any Theatre Company I've been involved with.

I'm not a singer so felt a bit of a charlatan at first. Performing onstage with other actors is one thing as you are engulfed in the world of the play but to be stood on the battle line facing the audience face on is pretty terrifying but as with the best plays I've Adrian's genius to hide behind.

Are the characters in Shameless in the same tradition as the Pendle witches - fringe people who threaten and are threatened by the norm?

MP: It's not just the characters in Shameless that are in threat. There's more of us on their list than we would care to imagine. The Pendle ladies, like the inhabitants of Chatsworth, were trying to scrape an existence the only way they knew.

I think the characters in Shameless are alot more establishment savvy. The Pendle ladies had no hope from the off. Thatcher and her senseless ego driven destruction of the Miners and the Unions is a good comparison.

The ERC make a very rare live headline appearance on a secret stage deep within a Tangled Wood in the vast grounds of Portmeirion (as part of Festival Number 6) on Saturday September 15