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Escape Velocity

No Other Approach: HYPERSTITION DUO Interviewed
Bernie Brooks , August 7th, 2019 06:48

Regrouped in London, ex-members of Blood Sport Sam Parkin and Alex Keegan talk to Bernie Brooks about the ecstatic, anti-capitalist rhythms of their new project, HYPERSTITION DUO, the dissolution of their former band, and their new label POLYPHONIC ASSEMBLAGE

Band portrait by Eleanor Hardwick

What do you think when, against all odds, you hear something that sounds fresh, maybe even new? My first thought, upon hearing the futuristic, instrumental tumult of HYPERSTITION DUO's VIROTECHNICS - their debut EP and the inaugural release of their POLYPHONIC ASSEMBLAGE label - for the first time was, "This sounds like music Mark Fisher might've heard in his head." Given the duo behind the group - drummer Sam Parkin and guitarist Alex Keegan, both late of Blood Sport - the relentlessly forward-thinking noise that emerged from my speakers wasn't exactly shocking. If anyone could do it, it'd be them.

"We first encountered each other back in 2009, in the early days of university in Sheffield," recounts Parkin. Both had come from families of music lovers. Parkin's parents - 90s ravers who'd organised gigs in London and DJed aboard ships in the Merchant Navy - encouraged her drumming. "Growing up surrounded by the sounds of 90s dance music led me to start obsessing over drum programming and increasingly harder sounds," she says, "trying desperately to replicate those insane rhythms and sounds [of tracks like Autechre's 'Gantz Graf' and Squarepusher's 'Greenways Trajectory'] on a drum kit - with pretty confused results."

For his part, Keegan recalls driving around the countryside with his "classic rock aficionado" father, listening to a live recording of Deep Purple's 'Highway Star': "It was just revelatory in a way I couldn't articulate at the time, but I was mesmerised by the musicianship of Jon Lord and Richie Blackmore. I had a guitar lying around that my dad had enthusiastically bought me a year before and started playing from there."

They'd arrived in Sheffield at the start of Warp Records's 20th birthday celebration and soon found themselves ensconced within a "vivid DIY scene that was in rapid gestation," recalls Keegan. "It was an amazing discovery as we had located a community of artists unified by an appreciation of interdependent process, in which we could all share spaces and resources together, whilst pursuing our own creative impulses." The result of those impulses was Blood Sport and the group's inimitable "aggrobeat" - a deft, experimental blend of Afrobeat, post-punk, industrial, and dance music influences that would occupy the pair, along with vocalist Nick Potter on baritone guitar, for the better part of a decade before they called it quits in 2017.

When Parkin and Keegan, now relocated to London, began making music together again, they'd found themselves increasingly energised by the emergent New Left. Politically minded and well-read on Marx since their teenage years, the pair had long been "deeply critical of capitalism, its colonial past and neocolonial present, and the vomit-inducing neoliberal incarnation we're living with today," says Parkin. "Writers like Fisher and Stuart Hall have highlighted some of the ways in which the cultural landscape is inherently politicised," she continues, "and we feel strongly about the value of foregrounding the vital creative entanglement of critical dialogue with artistic expression." They were determined to use their next project, HYPERSTITION DUO, as a vehicle for these ideas and intersections.

It's hard to say how a piece of instrumental music becomes protest music, how it becomes infused with the political. Some mysterious alchemy having to do with the thought and work put into it, probably. But listening to VIROTECHNICS - the percussive whirlwind of 'K-TACTICS', or the endlessly shifting Octatrack experimentation of 'NONZERO PLANE', or the irrational time of 'TEMPLEXING' - one gets the sense that these could be anthems for something yet to come, something that might one day trample our disastrous status quo into the dirt.

So, Blood Sport is firing on all cylinders and then - poof! - you announce your last show. I remember Alex sent me a nice message after this. In it, he mentioned that your pending moves to London had made the project untenable. Was that all there was to it? What inspired your moves to London?

Alex Keegan: Just over two years ago, both Sam and I were at junctures in our lives where we were experiencing a lot of personal upheaval linked to various aspects of our identities and how these related to some of our relationships with those close to us. This radically transformed our perspectives concerning where we saw our lives heading. Sheffield as a city was so embroiled with those former aspects of ourselves that we both felt a move to another city could welcome in new chapters of our lives in an invigorating way. For us, Blood Sport was always a Sheffield band. We tried to embody the defiant and resilient spirit of the place and its community, which acted as a bedrock for our development as humans. We truly felt embedded in the musical community there, and the porous nature between different musical communities was something we’ve rarely seen elsewhere and is to be truly cherished.

Nick [Potter] was understandably settled in Sheffield, so we tried entertaining the idea of sustaining the band - practising back and forth between London and Sheffield - but it felt disingenuous, as if we were betraying a large aspect of what Blood Sport represented by keeping it going after we had left the city which had completely shaped the band's identity. Creative practices are so enmeshed in personal identity and practical considerations that it can often feel hard for people to contemplate why we would choose to end a band so abruptly that was showing so many signs of flourishing. However, given what we were personally going through at the time, to continue acting in our creative lives as if nothing was different in our personal lives didn't feel right. So, we decided to go out on a high, and wrap things up as we had always tried to conduct ourselves musically - by defying people’s expectations.

Sam Parkin: In addition to everything Alex has mentioned, I feel it would be remiss of me to not explain my own personal transformation over the last two years. They've seen me dive deep into things I’ve silently struggled to reconcile within myself for a long time, which are my sexuality, and more recently, my gender. It’s been a knotty, confusing experience which has taken me to the outer-limits of my mind and back, but ultimately, I’m proud to now know myself as a pansexual trans woman. Realising and exploring this new selfhood has radically reoriented so many aspects of my life and charged me with fresh energy and clarity about who I want to be, and how I want to express that. As Alex mentioned, our prior identities and musical existence was so intimately rooted in Sheffield through Blood Sport, and it therefore felt inescapably necessary to throw myself into a new social and cultural landscape, where I could experiment and play with all the new possibilities that suddenly felt so tangible. I think we both feel that some of this vitality comes through in the sounds of HYPERSTITION DUO.

So, how long was the gestation period between Blood Sport and HYPERSTITION DUO? In that same note, Alex suggested that you already knew you'd continue to work together.

AK: Well, I think we always knew we'd do something together at some point - we have always been extremely aligned in terms of our cultural interests. The intuitive musical understanding we'd developed together over the years was a strong manifestation of our closeness as friends. However, this remained unacknowledged throughout the end of Blood Sport and upon our tentative first steps in a new city, given all that life throws at you during such a transition. We moved in together and were both practising our instruments daily, individually working on ideas that had yet to find a coherent formation - whether that was going to be solo projects or something else. We would show each other musical ideas and then go away and continue to badger away in our respective worlds. In parallel, we were increasingly becoming enthused by utopian ideas on the New Left, delving further into Fisher's work - rest in power - and Laboria Cuboniks, James Butler, Nick Srnicek, and Ash Sarkar. We were talking a lot about ways in which the spirit of such emancipatory thinking could be realised musically. With a unifying belief system and our musical history together, it suddenly felt so obvious that we should try to realise something that grasped the determined spirit of future-oriented liberatory politics and tried to mould that into exhilirating sonic forms.

What's the HYPERSTITION DUO methodology like? One of the great things about your sound is how it transforms the guitar and drums into something that feels new and, for lack of a better word, alien.

SP: After zoning in on the hybridised dance format of late Blood Sport for so many years, we decided to reimagine the possibilities of any new project from first principles. We knew we wanted to go beyond the methods and metrics of the dancefloor, but also that any new sound would be energised by our shared polyrhythmic intuition and live intensity. We wanted to be able to channel and navigate between more of our musical influences, as well as question our musical decision making through the prisms of the political ontologies that inspire us, situating our music in contexts which push us into new creative terrain, and challenging us to go further conceptually and sonically. Our background in club culture still has a mutated presence in these compositions and improvisations, but these DJ tools are now refracted through a maximalist framework seeking to subvert the rhythms, cadences, and linearity of a lot of club music. And instead of simply locking into a groove, we instead encourage each other to splinter and shapeshift in a multitude of directions within and without tracks, over multiple temporalities. Our single constraint tends to be what we can physically create as a live duo, so to explode the parameters of what is possible on both of our primary instruments - guitar and drums - we’ve adopted altered set-ups which have opened up new possibilities. One of these changes is my integration of a Nord Drum 2 synthesiser, through which I’m now sending sub frequencies, delays, and dense harmonic modulation cascading off the skins of my drums when I play.

AK: Also, on the "instruments as alien" point - this is something I've long been interested in with the guitar. Especially as it is undeniably the most clichéd instrument available. The prospect of untethering the instrument's sounds from the expectations that it evokes is a process I've been preoccupied with for years now. It relates to Pierre Schaeffer's concept of acousmatic sound - phenomena where the source of a sound can't be placed. There's something joyfully perplexing about trying to undo an instrument's traditional relationship to its sound environment. Kind of like what Rashad Becker, who mastered VIROTECHNICS, does with his solo work - creating folk recordings of undiscovered alien life forms - our music tries to delight in the untethering of context from the listening experience.

Why set up your own label? Any plans for POLYPHONIC ASSEMBLAGE besides your own releases?

AK: The idea of forming our own label was motivated by our desire to wholly formulate a conception of ourselves as a distinct entity, rather than being on another label, with all of the connotations that are generated as a result of that label's previous discography. We have felt such a clear and determined vision in what we are doing that it seemed a shame to dilute that, when we could just as easily carry out all of the necessary activities that a label would otherwise do. The name POLYPHONIC ASSEMBLAGE is derived from a term in contemporary ecological thinking describing the often messy and entangled relationships lifeforms have with one another in the natural world, away from the manipulative and homogenising forces of the Capitalocene. We liked the idea of creating a platform in which forms of ourselves can co-exist, interact, and benefit from mutual symbiosis, with ideas from different projects - whether that's as solo performers, a duo collaborating with others, etc. - ricocheting among one another, all benefitting symbiotically from sharing a platform in which they can collectively be presented as their own intertwined world.

What's next for HYPERSTITION DUO?

SP: We're currently recording our second EP, which will come out on POLYPHONIC ASSEMBLAGE later this year. And we're in the early stages of conceptualising our debut album, which we hope to release next year. The next EP will comprise tracks we’ve been playing live, alongside a new composition we’ve been working on recently. We’re both feverishly excited about the possibilities that we see in an album-length offering. With these projects, it feels like we’re channelling the sense of urgent crisis that is so tangible and extreme across our living and non-living systems right now. This has led us to respond by radically accelerating our praxis and forging new imaginaries of what’s possible to express, proliferate, and interrogate through our music. At this point, there is no time for any other approach.