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Brighton Experimental Music Exhibition
Ben Graham , January 16th, 2017 11:29

Exhibition in Worthing collates photos documenting the alternative music scene in Brighton

For the past three to four years, Agata Urbaniak has been a regular and welcome fixture at almost all of the more interesting shows in the Brighton area. From concerts by bigger touring acts like Swans, Laibach or Acid Mothers Temple, to micro-gigs by Plurals, Noiseferatu or Four Manatees, she can be found down the front, camera to eye, tirelessly documenting the mayhem on stage (if the venue has one).

Poetry, jazz, classical and unclassifiable sound-art happenings are just as likely to be immortalised in her photos, which are gradually adding up to a valuable archive of the diverse and experimental Brighton cultural underground of the present decade, most of which occurs resolutely below the radar of journalists and media.

There is now a chance to reflect on these captured moments as Agata exhibits a selection of her work at Worthing's Train Of Thought Emporium and Art Gallery. The venue, run by Brighton ex-pat, gig promoter and occasional musician Kev Hough, is also at the centre of a resurgent Worthing scene which is proving an exciting counterpoint to the one in Brighton, rather than an adjunct.

tQ caught up with Agata Urbaniak to ask a few questions about her vocation as smudger-in-chief to the south coast's sonic renaissance.

How long have you been photographing live music events and what made you want to start?

Agata Urbaniak: I’d say the first gig I photographed, and not just snapped pics at, happened about eight years ago in Portugal. I lived in Spain at the time but I never managed to discover the local scene. My then partner, let’s call him N, was Portuguese and so every once in a while we’d travel to his hometown to visit the family. He was from this little Portuguese town, Leiria, not even half the size of Brighton, about two hours from Lisbon. The town had tons of cafes with amazing Portuguese pastries and coffee. It had a medieval castle overlooking the centre, and it had Carlos- one of N’s best friends.

Carlos started off running a record store, the only record store in town where you could get decent music. He had long hair and many piercings, and the awkward teenage N found him intimidating. Carlos approached him one day as he was browsing through the records, asking if he was looking for anything in particular. N mustered all his courage and asked him what the weirdest record he’d got in stock was. The choice boiled down to an album performed with human bones and a recording of stones and glass being thrown against a metal roof. N chose the latter, as he hoped it would have a richer sound, and they became friends. Or so I was told!

Anyway, Carlos went on to host a radio show and eventually started organising events. In the space of 20 years or so he managed to raise an entire generation of goths and industrial types and put his hometown on the map by bringing such names as Michael Gira, Laibach and Diamanda Galás, all the while remaining faithful to his town and the local scene he helped build. And the record store, as far as I know, is still open. The first time I showed up to one of his events, the first time I gave gig photography a proper try, it was Thee Silver Mt Zion at the local theatre. A sit-down gig. No support. Full house. The band step onto the stage; everyone goes completely quiet. Efrim Menuck approaches the mic, clearly taken aback. Starts talking about their gig in Lisbon the night before in a noisy club where people seemed more interested in talking and drinking than the performance. Well, this is Leiria and at a Carlos gig nobody takes live music lightly.

Since then, he’s added an annual goth festival Entremuralhas at the castle to his portfolio and the first two editions I attended really allowed me to spread my wings as a budding gig photographer. I also got to know my favourite band ever but if I start talking about them now, this interview will never end. Last year he was officially made an honorary citizen of Leiria. One day he will have a street named after him, or so N predicts. So yeah, that’s how I started. I couldn’t really consider it to be my local scene as it was eight hours away by coach, but I did feel connected to it, even if it was a long-distance relationship.

While you do photograph some bigger bands, you’ve increasingly concentrated on documenting the Brighton experimental DIY scene. What was the reason for this?

AU: It’s difficult to explain, without getting into some very personal details, how that happened exactly or the circumstances surrounding it but I found that at DIY events the edge of the stage was no longer the fourth wall I always felt it was and somehow it pulled me in. It was a two-way communication and with time I began feeling like part of the scene, not an outside observer looking in. It happened when I really needed it and it helped me through some difficult times. I’m going to leave it at that!

You photograph poetry readings, modern classical recitals and contemporary jazz alongside noise, psych, improv and the odd indie band. Does this just reflect your personal taste or is it also reflective of the nature and cross pollination of the Brighton underground scene?

AU: The simple answer to this is my favourite music genre is live. An even simpler answer is I go to as many as five gigs per week; I need the rotation. I used to do more types of photography; birds used to be a big one for me. Now that it’s all about gigs, I still need to mix it up. I’ve started filming a little bit too, which helps introduce further variety to what I do.

Recently a musician friend of mine, following poor treatment she received from one of the bigger gig promoters, decided to share on Facebook each and every local independent promoter and collective she could think of, urging people to support their local scene. Many chipped in with suggestions and in the end the list was something like two to three dozen names. It’s impossible to be familiar with each and every one and even though it may look like I attend such a wide range of events, I normally stay faithful to a handful of promoters. There are those who stick to their niche and do it extremely well. Daniel Spicer is the only person I know down here who’s familiar with the free jazz scene of my hometown and I’m from Poland. His annual Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival deserves an audience as international as the artists he brings in. On the other end of the spectrum there’s Tobi Blackman/Dictionary Pudding. He puts on a wide variety of acts but they all come with a Tobi seal of approval, and if Tobi says a show is a can’t miss, it is a can’t miss. From Brötzmann to The Raincoats to The Rebel to Group A to The Fall to Jozef van Wissem, always with a strong local support. He’s also the only person who could possibly bring Datblygu to Brighton (fingers tightly crossed).

Then there is the experimental crowd - Lost Property, Club Zygotic, Spirit of Gravity, DisConcert, Safehouse. That’s where most of the intermingling happens because experimental is such a wide term. The staple event being the bi-monthly Splitting The Atom, now approaching its 34th edition. It features noise, electronic, psych, free improv, spoken word, and the occasional masked men in onesies burning incense and giving away radishes. It doesn’t hurt that the Green Door Store’s soundman, Tim, knows how to handle noise gigs like no one else. I think that Puckridge performance from a few STAs back is still ringing in my ears, it was brutal.

It was the first edition of Lost Property’s sound art and experimental music festival Fort Process in Newhaven that I remember particularly fondly. It made me realise I’m definitely, undeniably part of the scene now, despite not playing any instruments. And it also did wonders to my personal life, which is a whole other story!

Do you have any favourite artists to photograph, or particular favourite shots in the exhibition?

AU: I already have an entire stack of my favourite shots printed and I can only put a small portion in frames so who knows what ends up on the wall. It’s a really difficult task to pick a particular favourite, whether a photo or a person (and each would be a very different selection). While shuffling through the stack at first I attempted to choose favourite shots but in the end I feel I have to go with artists. There’s not a single photo I printed in preparation for the exhibition where I went "Ugh, like the photo but I really hate this guy!" The whole show could just as well be called "My favourite people."

Most people familiar with the scene, even if they haven’t heard the expression yet, will totally know what you mean when you say somebody went "Full Strachan." Al Strachan is tireless and gets involved in pretty much every project and belongs to every subset of the scene but he’s extremely modest and rarely takes centre stage so I was glad to finally properly nail him.

One person who certainly went Full Strachan to the max this year was Kev Nickells [photographed above], known as Hákarl when he’s playing solo and "Boy, he’s going to be sore tomorrow" when he’s playing electric guitar in one of his many bands. If you think my musical tastes are varied, he’s in a whole other league. The photo also features Ecka Mordecai, who has moved up north and is sorely missed!

And finally this pair I have photographed loads. Verity and Karl (Binnsclagg) in a photo that always makes me smile. I especially love the confused audience in the background.

The exhibition is in Worthing, which has started to develop an exciting counter-culture of its own lately. Is this suggestive of the more interesting events migrating to outlying places like Worthing and Newhaven more in the future, as high rents and lack of suitable venues make life more difficult for Brighton artists and left-field promoters, or do you think Brighton will continue to thrive as a home for experimental music etc.?

AU: You’re painting a bleak picture! I can’t really predict what the future holds. I’d like to say I’m sure Brighton will remain as vibrant, creative, and carefree as it is right now. Just the other day I read that the Caroline of Brunswick is in danger of closing. I’ve seen several great gigs in there just this year. It’s sad but I think/hope it takes a lot more to put a dent in the Brighton scene. It’s not like new venues aren’t opening, this year’s notable example being the Rose Hill. Besides, there have been gigs under the viaduct, in people’s flats, at the cemetery, under the pier. It’s bigger than venues and promoters.

Why hold the exhibition in Worthing? Several reasons. Because I was asked. I’m not sure whether I’d ever decide to have an exhibition entirely on my own. Because the reason for being asked was I photographed quite a few Worthing gigs and the Worthing scene considered me one of their own. Finally, because I was asked by Kev Hough. I root for the Worthing scene, it has its own personality and a dedicated following. It’s so much more than just an extension of the Brighton scene. I’m glad there’s an exchange going on, even if Southern Rail makes it difficult.

Urbaniak: BN- Images Of Sounds And Words runs from 13-29 January at the Train Of Thought Emporium, 7/8 Haverscroft Buildings, North Street, Worthing. Facebook event here. For more photos, visit Agata's Flikr account.

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