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In Extremis

A Darkness In The West: Hacker Farm Interviewed
Ben Graham , February 6th, 2013 03:48

Hacker Farm repurpose old farming equipment, shortwave radios and busted electronics to transmit decrepit electronica for a country crumbling under ConDem rule. They speak to Ben Graham about self-sufficiency, the joys of circuit-bending and guerilla gigs outside cattle markets

Photo by Pieter Last

There is a darkness in the west. Hacker Farm's just released second album, U/H/F, on Exotic Pylon Records, is a slouching, rough beast of dank, clanking electronica; the sinister pulse of feral farm machinery, human voices traced in static on the wind over the Severn Estuary, Cold War codes and grinding industrial basslines. Many might be surprised that this visceral, experimental work is the creation of three middle-aged men from the quiet Somerset town of Yeovil. But they insist that their locality (once a hotbed of the Black Death and home to military helicopter contractors AgustaWestland, incidentally) very much influences their work.

"It's weird, because if you say you love Yeovil to people who live here, they just look at you like you're crazy," says Kek-W, who along with Farmer Glitch is the public face of Hacker Farm (third member Bren prefers to remain in the background). "But when you're rooted somewhere and you know your surroundings, you know the streets, everything's loaded with memories. It's great. It's a kind of magical world, even though it's just a generic market town. I love it."

The three first bonded as teenagers when punk hit in the late 70s, playing in a succession of bands and remaining active on the local scene as other participants came and went. Kek attended university in Bristol before returning to Yeovil for good, while Farmer Glitch moved to Hong Kong in the late nineties, co-founding DJ/electronic music collective Digital Cutup Lounge, who in addition to their own recordings and performances - in Hong Kong, China and other parts of Asia - created remixes for Nelly Furtado, Asha Bhosle and Barry White. Kek meanwhile ended up in psychedelic noise band Ice Bird Spiral, whose improvised shamanic theatrics took them as far as the Kraak Festival in Belgium.

With Glitch returning to the UK in 2003 and continuing to make electronic music, Hacker Farm were formed in a Yeovil pub in 2009, on the night that Michael Jackson died. "I just remember the TV being on and we were having a drink and Farmer Glitch said, you know, maybe we should do something, and as we were talking about it there were ambulances outside Jacko's house." An intersection between Kek's passion for freeform noise and Farmer Glitch's interest in circuit bending, plus his desire to get away from laptop music-making and sample-based sounds, Hacker Farm were from the start as much about building and recycling their own noise-making equipment as being a band. Music, films, packaging and promotion combine art, subversive intentions and a wry sense of humour that to my mind recalls a less commercially-focused KLF, utilising electronic music as part of a broader artistic statement that can be read on any number of levels. They even make their own cider, emblazoned with the slogan "home brewing is killing music."

The Quietus caught up with Kek-W to discuss the initial motivation behind Hacker Farm's M.O. of making their own electronic instruments, and how this fitted in with their wider aesthetic. "Farmer Glitch was well ahead of the curve on that," he explains. "He was starting to circuit bend a couple of things, but I've got no background in electrical stuff at all. Over the years I'd gone through the analogue thing, then I'd got into digital synthesisers, but I really like the idea of using stuff that's a lot more random. It seemed to be where I was going in my life at the time, and certainly where Farmer Glitch was going. We liked the idea of being curious and exploring stuff, and this whole idea of taking things apart, rewiring them, circuit bending - there's loads of people in the UK doing it, we're by no means even slightly unique - but it just felt to me like that was a really nice way to go.

"It was hands on, it was DIY, and as you get older you're not supposed to be doing those kinds of things. You drift into middle age and people become set in their ways; you have default modes of behaviour, so I quite like the idea of us being a little bit older and still being curious. Still wanting to take the lid off things, have a look at what's under the bonnet and play around with it, which is the original definition of what hacking is, before all the stuff about mail accounts and computers came in: to change things around and re-purpose them. We also like the idea of using redundant things; just because it's however many years old, why not re-use it? Why not play around with it, it doesn't mean it's at the end of its life cycle. And using these things brings more randomness and unpredictability into what you're doing."

There's also a political element in this reaction against consumerism, both in using older items and in creating your own items, rather than just buying them. All this technology is available, and you can press a button and use a preset, but you're making something rather than just consuming it.

Kek-W: On a basic level you're recycling; I think we all agree there's too much stuff around, so that's a good thing. You're engaging with something, so rather than just being a passive consumer you're breaking that consumption cycle. You're controlling the means of production, in Marxist terms, because you're actually making not only your own music but your own musical instruments. You're sourcing stuff cheap - we're in the middle of a triple-dip recession, austerity, all that stuff, we're being told to tighten up our belts, the state's being withdrawn, the safety net's being withdrawn. We're all agreed it's bad stuff, but what we're doing here - more unintentionally than deliberately - we're taking Cameron's words on self-sufficiency and all that, and throwing it back in their faces. But maybe the things we're going to produce aren't necessarily the sort of messages that they want to hear back.

It's punk, it's DIY. It's empowering to do something, rather than to buy something and play it or whatever. There's a satisfaction in engaging with something that you feel you've changed in some way, you've changed an object or created something. Because of our age we lived through the punk era and the post-punk era, and unlike a lot of people of my generation I've got no interest in reliving former glories, but it does feel like a subtle continuation of the ethics that we picked up on.

You do still seem inspired by the philosophical ideas of punk, even if the music is very different. On your website there's a statement that refers to the Situationist idea of fighting against the Spectacle. A lot of people would now maybe dismiss such ideas as youthful idealism, or never really bought into them in the first place, but that still inspires you.

K-W: It very much does. I come from a very working-class background; I was lucky for my era to make it to university, which was very unusual for somebody from my background. So yes, I'm reasonably well-educated, but I'm certainly not educated in terms of politics, philosophy, history or anything like that. That's self-taught, and to be honest when I was younger I had very little interest in it. But as I've gone along it's kind of rolled up into what I've done and I've started trying to analyse why I like certain things more than other things, and you have little eureka moments and you start reading bits of philosophy and this and that and you think, crikey, that's what I think. And the more I read, the more I get inspired by it.

Situationism just endlessly fascinates me. I wouldn't pretend to be an expert on it, but the whole idea of The Culture of the Spectacle, that it diverts people, it's a distraction - hey, I like going to see a blockbuster movie as much as anybody else, but my life doesn't revolve around these things, and I can see things on TV for what they are. I can't speak for the other guys, you'd have to talk to them about their philosophies or politics or what motivates them. The three of us are all different, but we intersect at the point of Hacker Farm, that's where the Venn diagrams overlap.

The other thing with your homemade equipment is that they're works of art as well as just functional objects. You've got the bass speakers in milk churns, the Atari Punk Bucket…

K-W: Part of that has just come out of that idea of well, what's in our locality, what's lying in the hedgerows, what's in our back yard, what have we got that we can re-purpose? Milk churns, buckets, etc. It's really just us scavenging from our environment and finding something to house something in. We like playing around with the idea of, let's change the shell on something, so you hold something else within an unlikely shell. I like the aesthetics of that, but it's also DIY - how can we do something with minimum cost?

Do you bring all of these objects out for your live shows?

K-W: Not all of them. One of the things we have a problem with is every time we go into a cycle of gigs we go through a series of choices. If we took everything with us we'd have to have an artic trailer, you know. When we're at the studio playing or jamming or whatever, we'll be like, hmm, at the moment I feel like using these five things, and you can pack all those into a box or into a bag or something like that, and travel reasonably lightly.

So we'll have to come up to Yeovil really, to have a chance to see the full Hacker Farm sound system in action.

K-W: Sometimes we do gigs and they've got a nice in-house PA, and that's no problem, we just roll up with the gear. Other times, if we do a spontaneous gig or an action or something like that, we have to go self-powered. Like the other year we played outside the local cattle market, that's been shut down. We just found this spot of land and went, that's not privately owned, that's not public, there's a little zone where we think we can't get arrested for playing there. So we just rolled up and assembled a PA. The churns came out, we've got this old 60s cocktail cabinet with speakers in it, it's beautiful sounding, really nice bass on it, we use that for a bit of bottom end. Bren's got some subs recently, he's been making his own power supply for them. So yeah, when we do a little local gig and there's no proper PA, we just roll up with stuff. And that's our own PA, and it looks nice as well.

You also extend this aesthetic to ways of distributing music, like the set of old Rubik's Cubes onto which you pasted QR codes, so the hopeful listener had to solve the puzzle and then scan the resulting image to get a download of the music.

K-W: We liked the idea of, how can we have a digital product that's a download, but make it interesting, and make people engage with it, so that a physical object unlocks digital content. And I think that was quite a nice little elegant solution, really. It had a nostalgic side, of course, but I like the idea of having an object, and you do something to it, and then you get your content out the other side, rather than just pressing a button.

With your previous album, Poundland, you re-used salvaged CD cases in the packaging, and on your website stated that people ordering copies could request cases with "a higher level of pre-defined stress." Did you get many requests for really badly damaged CD cases?

K-W: I didn't see any! I was really hoping somebody would take me up on that. We were salvaging them from all over the place, and some of them were alright and some of them were absolutely mashed. But I was looking at the ones that were mashed, and I thought okay, I know I'm probably a bit weird, but I really like the scratches and the bits of old glue on them, and the patterns, and they feel lived in, if you know what I mean. They're scuffed, they're distressed, they've got a little story to tell. And I know how silly that sounds, but I liked it. But I thought, if we send those out to people, people will go what the hell is this, I've sent you five pounds and you've sent me a piece of wrecked crap! People have got expectations about commodities and so forth. But I thought I'll at least put that up and see if we get any takers. It's a shame to throw out those old jewel cases just because they're scratched, but on the other hand I wouldn't want to foist them on anyone. But yeah, it is part of our aesthetic. It sounds bizarre I know, but I quite like things that are a bit wrecked and tatty, they've got character.

How is U/H/F being presented to the world?

K-W: Well, after saying all that, we've done something quite conventional. It's an album in a jewel case, and my god we've done a little fold-out package, and it's a bit like anybody else's CD almost! But Jonny at Exotic Pylon, bless him, he was pretty much open to anything. And in the end we just said, can we just do a CD? I know it sounds a bit dull, but actually you could lose your jacket over this, and maybe it's not fair for us to act out our bloody obscurantist fantasies when you're trying to not lose money. And so he didn't nudge us in any direction, we just ended up moving towards that. It was a very long, protracted gestation. We then got presented with the idea of did we want to master it, you know. Hmm, crikey, could we? And then it became yeah, maybe we should, because that's the unexpected thing, rather than something really grimy, perhaps we should present it in a semi-professional manner. But I must admit that after saying all that, the artwork's very DIY, it looks like a teenager's done it whose Photoshop skills aren't particularly fantastic.

We should talk about the music on U/H/F; there seems to be a real influence of artists like Coil and Throbbing Gristle, as well as some of the contemporary fringe electronic music like Demdike Stare or Mordant Music. It's very dark and visceral.

K-W: Farmer Glitch and I grew up on Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and the point where punk met industrial in the late 70s, early 80s - Bren not really. I did love all that stuff, but it feels very much "then", you know. A lot of that stuff I haven't listened to in years, but it left a big impression on me at the time. But I'd say the music is more a product of the stuff we made it on, rather than us sitting there and saying 'What are we going to do'. One thing that did shape that album is that it was made during our shortwave radio period. Farmer Glitch and I went on shortwave radio and we just started spending time on there, listening to people on there. And we started sampling bits of it, recording bits, we started trying to broadcast and stuff, and I'd forgotten how great all that stuff is, because it's just so anti-internet. It's real time, it's vocal, it's audio, it's going up through the atmosphere… Most of the people on it tend to be older guys, ham radio enthusiasts and so forth. You pick up snatches of conversation and a lot of them are ex-British Army and they're catching up with their mates that they did service in Cyprus or Malta with in the 60s. So you've got all these guys in their seventies - end of National Service era, they were out with the British Forces - all talking to each other in real time, and you hear it through all this static, and it's people's lives and memories, and I find that quite… wow, you know.

It's kind of private yet public, and it's almost become a kind of secret world, a forgotten world. One thing that amazed me when I was listening was, I was just going up and down the dial, and I picked up a numbers station. Do you know about the numbers stations? They were predominantly during the Cold War, certainly post World War II; they're people who read out streams of numbers and they were for spies out in the field. So you'd have Soviet ones, you'd have Chinese ones, you'd have English ones. And they'd have a call sign, a little piece of music at the beginning, so you'd get a snatch of music and then you'd get this voice reading out strings of numbers. And then somewhere a spy is writing this down on a one-day pad, and he's giving them their orders for the day, which is go to a certain place, or do something, or kill someone. I remember hearing some of this stuff as a kid - you'd go between the channels and on the hour sometimes, you're trying to pick up Radio Luxembourg or something in 1965, and you'd hear this little burst of noise and you'd think 'What the hell is that?' And then you'd hear this voice going 6, 8, 9…

Now in the internet age you wouldn't expect that goes on any more, because there's sub-internet and there are black ops sites and things, you can do 64-bit encryption and all that kind of stuff. So I was shocked to go down the dial and hear someone intoning 169. Now, 169 is a really famous numbers station. I thought it had stopped functioning in the 80s. So this is curious to me, I started recording it and we used it on a track. And one of two things is going on. Either it's still going on, and someone, somewhere, has gone back to shortwave because it's like a double bluff almost, to go back to shortwave rather than use the internet. Or just as likely it might be somebody who's actually got classic recordings of old numbers stations and is broadcasting out into the dark, and I picked up somebody re-enacting it. I'm not sure, but all the hairs went up on the back of my neck when I heard it. This is incredible to me that it should still be active.

Even if someone were just playing an old recording or a re-enactment, there might be some spy out there in the field who'll pick up on it and act on it; some sleeper agent, resulting in aseries of seemingly random assassinations.

K-W: Yeah, absolutely, like some Japanese soldier who didn't give up, you've got some Cold War spy still waiting for his orders…! I've no idea and actually I don't care. It was just weird; all the hairs went up and of course I recorded it, and we used that on one of the tracks. So that's some of the things that fed into the recording. Voices out there in the dark, but also the idea of some form of resistance… I know the album is mostly instrumental, but I'm hoping people will get a vibe off of it, or just get on and do something. It doesn't matter what it is, but just get on and make something, draw something, write something, record something. Fight back on some small individual level. I think that's what the core of the album's about.

One last question; I understand that you also write science fiction, and in particular that you've written for 2000AD. Do your interests cross over much between your music and your fiction writing? You had a mini-series called 1947 in 2000AD which seemed to resonate with some of the redundant technology ideas of Hacker Farm.

K-W: Yeah, everything seeds into everything else. I've noticed that as I've got more and more into things in recent years, maybe I've picked up on the politics of what I was doing whereas before I wasn't interested. Okay, it's a parallel universe kind of thing, but there were deliberate attempts [in 1947] to make parallels between that and what's happening now. There were Olympics in 1948, so little things like there's a poster on something that the artist kindly put in there, '1948 Olympics! Let's keep winning!' That idea that we might be a bit crap but, hey, we've got a big sports contest, and that idea of the feel-good staged spectacle, that comes up in 1947, and it's something that fascinates me, these spectacles and simulations. And as soon as you talk about simulations, it's not just structural philosophy - you're into the realms of Philip K. Dick and things like that, so it feeds back into science fiction.

And in a way you're hacking history, you're hacking fiction…

K-W: Yeah, absolutely! Bending fiction… if you think about it, every day, every time you read a paper, every time you watch TV, we're being sold certain stories, a view of the world. It's really nice to just reclaim that and say well, here's our view.

Feed it back on itself.

K-W: Yeah, absolutely.

U/H/F is out now on Exotic Pylon Records. For more information, pictures, assorted items of interest and to buy the album, head across to the Hacker Farm website.