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Escape Velocity

Screaming Hedges: An Interview With Snapped Ankles
Eoin Murray , June 15th, 2017 08:57

Ahead of their set as part of a stellar Supersonic line-up this weekend, we catch up with East London's finest woodfolk to talk Star Trek, frightening people, and being 'hung like the election'

Photo by Kasia Wozniak

It is the morning after general election night, and the Labour Party has warded off the dreaded landslide Tory victory. In the queasy, sleepless Friday morning light there is at the very least a vague sense of hope across London. Spirits, then, are more or less high in the Snapped Ankles camp of Hackney.

"I'm hanging like the parliament," grumbles the unnamed frontman of the band, whose members' identities are kept unknown not for any hifalutin reason, but more as an embellishment to their increasingly bizarre and jumbled mythology. "I'm good though."

We'll just call him the Snapped Ankle then shall we?

Snapped Ankles were formed in 2011 out of one of east London's warehouse communities, but the members of this ramshackle post-punk unit are not quite the feral men of the forest their onstage get-up might suggest. Rather, they're a bunch of artists and film geeks who are determined to cram some old-school fright into the city slickers.

They're flinging us back into nature! Well no, not quite - into your uncle's back garden full of scrap metal and overgrown weeds, perhaps. They're dressing up as trees but not being dicks about it; they're making synths out of logs but are just as ready to make synths out of estate agent signs. They are writing songs inspired by directors' cuts of Soviet and Italian films (Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia) and the bygone heyday of DVD shops - ‘Shout Out To Close Up In Brick Lane’ - and they are simultaneously running almost tribal synth-drum circles with their log-oscillators and drawing influence from Old Norse texts.

In short, Snapped Ankles are a band defying convention at every turn and toying with their own mythology as they see fit (why the hell shouldn't they)? They are so self-aware and tongue-in-cheek that onlookers are encouraged to just take their facade at face value and roll with it. Perhaps it is clearer this morning, more than other mornings in recent memory, that we need bands like this around to fuck with our perceptions and show what the drive, playfulness and verve of these little artistic communities can produce. There is rebellion in the daftness and obscurity, and Snapped Ankles are but a celebration of the necessity of the weird.

With their The Best Light Is The Last Light EP set for release via The Leaf Label on 30 June and with their set and synth-drum circles among our highlights for Supersonic festival this weekend, the Quietus sought to get into their mindset.

Morning! How about you start by telling us about the band's origins.

Snapped Ankle: It started the same way as it always does, as an idea between a couple of mates. A lot of us used to all share a space in Silwex house in Brick Lane. It was the sort of warehouse where you couldn't have big parties - no mega-raves or anything - but we could set up performances and little soirées with noise up until a certain point. So we started playing in-between people's performances and at parties and just sort of developing a set from that. It took a while to take shape but it formed fairly organically … organically, from a dirty little corner.

I suppose being surrounded by a sort of artist's environment rather than a ravey one lent to your being a little more experimental with what you were doing?

SA: When we started we were trying to write Christmas hits: ‘20 Attempts At A Christmas No 1’ was our first manifesto. But then we started making our own instruments and doing the band thing the hard way, trying to make the worst sounds possible. Have you seen the log-synths we've got?

They've come up. What's the deal?

SA: It started off as an installation we did that was meant to be like a forest. As you went through the "forest" it was like the trees were infected with electronics, sort of like the Borg from Star Trek or something. Some of the performance elements that we still carry now came from that.

How are those log-synths actually made, in layman's terms?

SA: Basically you can get these vintage analogue percussion synths fairly cheap. You just buy the circuits for them and put them together. They're quite robust little boxes - single oscillators - so we just strap them to logs. At its most simple … hit log, make noise. Put big log through dirty pedals, make big noise. We're doing a log workshop at Supersonic festival, so I've been making a lot more of them. Adding to the log family so we can have up to about 10 people in a circle hitting logs, like African bell ringing. It'll all be like a human sequencer.

What made you want to explore something like that?

SA: I think it's just that, say, now that my nephew can make orchestral techno on his iPhone or whatever and a guitar isn't a "dangerous" instrument anymore we were just trying to explore how we can make our own sounds and what could be our weapons to make things more interesting.

Visually too, your performances are pretty out there. What's with the ghillie suits?

SA: We became interested in these monsters described in Old Norse texts and things like pagan seers and Christmas monsters. There was a correlation between all that and what we aspire to in a gig, which is like a controlled danger, a temporary but actually sort of polite threat.

Has all of this mythology building around the band become more significant than you anticipated?

SA: We're really working it out as we go. I mean, look, we don't want to end up being the Blue Man Group. All we want to do is develop it and look for ways to upset the normal path, to look for ways to celebrate the worst. Anyone can go get a ghillie suit. We just want to make it a bit unique, I suppose. Although, a future dream might be a bit like Kiss, where we'd have a whole audience in ghillie suits. That'd be fun.

Maybe you're a bit like a tongue-in-cheek version of Goat or something?

SA: I think we're more like Morris men. Probably not as dedicated to the act as Goat. They really go for it, don't they? But we have different costumes as well. We're just trying to think up new ways of frightening people. Another one we do is where we dress up as estate agents and attach the homemade synthesisers to estate agent signs instead of logs. That might even be more frightening, come to think of it. It all just helps us perform and helps us do an interesting show. It's a point from which we can start off and cause a bit of upset in our given 30 minutes. It gets the party going.

There are quite a few film references in your lyrics, and something a bit cinematic about your whole shtick. How does all of that factor in?

SA: We used do this thing called "Drum Cinema" - we'd put midi-triggers on a bunch of drum kits and each one triggers a selection of different film clips. We did one with clips from Misery, Blue Velvet and Peeping Tom, and so we'd hit the pads and you'd get bits of the soundtrack and the film along with the drums. You'd sort of end up making a new soundtrack. I guess that's when things around our favourite old films and cinematic things started coming into our music, too.

You've mentioned about how Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend filtered into the concept behind 'Jonny Guitar Calling Gosta Berlin'. Could you elaborate on that?

SA: Weekend is really Godard's punky rant against the bourgeois and the middle classes who were running amok. You've got these iconic scenes of the cars and the hippies in the forest. I've always thought 'Jonny Guitar' was like my love letter to Godard. It's a road trip song with that motorik groove - a road trip to Armageddon.

There's maybe something in that rant against the bourgeoisie to be seen in your whole ethos, in your wild, handmade, feral self-presentation. Is there a statement of intent in all of that?

SA: Today, with the sort of half-win of the many not the few, we're feeling a bit happier about things. We've always been the underdogs. We're forgotten, we're hidden. That's the base point from where we start everything and from where we create. We just tell the stories about what we see around us in London. Our warehouses are being knocked down by unseen financial conglomerates, the arts are being cut. It's a struggle that we all have going on around us at all times. We could dress up like Joy Division and reflect it that way but that's been done to death. So let's be hedges instead.

I guess there's something overtly statement-like in always making the most out of what you have to hand. Utilising spaces to the best of their capacity, playing homemade instruments …

SA: Sure, on our forthcoming album we've got a bunch poppy, post-punk groove tracks, but then we've got some songs that are made just using the single oscillator log-synths. They're sort of non-songs. When you've got an instrument that can only make one note, long or short, and barely make a tune at all, it feels like a political statement about going back to these situations where we had to be based in places that barely had locks on the doors and where we were using PAs and drums kids made out of bits that we cobbled together. That's what I like to see in a band. I want to see bands that have thrown it together, rather than having all the new gear from Denmark Street [London's traditional Tin Pan Alley]. Aspects of the hardcore scene - bands like Lightning Bolt - they're the ones that have always had a real impact on me. Everything is broken and handmade but still super strong. So we want to do that, but still make pop.

Tell me about 'Fukushima Failure' from the new EP

SA: 'Fukashima' came out of listening to a lot of Fela Kuti. He sung protest songs built on really simple, singular concepts that spoke to something much wider. So in this case, the Japanese were so hell bent on having independent power and not being dependent on anyone that they took a risk, despite all these advisers, and built this network of power stations on the edge of a fault line. They grossly underestimated the chances of these earthquakes. They insisted for years that it would be alright, and then of course it wasn't. It's just the stupidity of man isn't it? How idiotic can we be? I guess it's like Fela in how you take the stupidity of systems and make people aware of that through a really upbeat, joyous song. It's pretty cinematic, too, with this sort of Godzilla-type disaster scenario.

So where to from here? Does the weird mythology building around Snapped Ankles continue to grow?

I don't know. Once you start riffing on all the forest devil stuff and how we sort of make our music out of chaos and randomness it gets quite fun, doesn't it? Trying to keep it charming but still dangerous and scary and unpredictable. We'll see where it takes us. It's an ongoing project. We just want to develop it and make it unique. We're just looking forward to keeping it going. We've this EP at the end of the month and an album being announced soon. As for the ghillie suits, we're not ready for our eyeliner phase yet so they'll stay, but never say never.

Pre-order The Best Light Is The Last Light from Snapped Ankles' Bandcamp here