Inner Visions For A Whole New World: Soccer96 Interviewed

Ahead of their appearance at Sea Change festival and the release of their new album Danijela Bočev talks to Danalogue and Betamax in an attempt to bridge the inner and outer worlds of Soccer96. Photographs by Fabrice Bourgelle

During an out of body experience, Danalogue – one half of Soccer96 duo and one third of The Comet Is Coming – had an unusual vision. Danalogue – Dan Leavers when not on stage – explains what he saw: “There was a giant castle guarded by hooded gatekeepers holding massive staffs of light. Their particular task was ushering huge caravans of people into the safety of the afterlife, where they would meet their ancestors and everyone they’d met during their life. I felt an archetypal battle constantly at play between light and darkness, and a renewed appreciation and respect for those who carry the light with their actions and words, and what a careful responsibility that is."

This was the inspirational context for the song ‘Gatekeepers (ft. Rozi Plain & Simbad)’, a distant thematic chilled cousin to Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’, which appears on Soccer96’s new album Inner Worlds.

Who to better carry the responsibility of finding the cracks in the fabric of our reality than such gatekeepers of sonic mysticism – a pair mediating the light into our increasingly darkening world, through the primal power of sound. Therefore, Betamax (it says Max Hallett on his passport), the drum-playing other half of Soccer96, describes their sound as a "spiritual combat music. [We’re] fully embracing the shamanistic role and existential need to centre inwards, growing with the external challenges influencing the internal structure of the experience."

"We’re using music to guide us into the future," he adds, and indeed it is true, the music builds future facing vibrational portals which register the first impulses of what is yet to come, mapping patterns yet unformed and preparing us for transport with them. Relics from ancient futures are only uncovered for the psychonauts willing to dive deep dive into this uncertain open space. On ‘Underwater Cities’, an album interlude, Danalogue’s perception shines: "A recurring vision I have is of the planet thousands of years in the future, when the sea has risen to a point where whole cities are underwater, and future divers are swimming around skyscrapers in awe of these now-ancient megastructures from the past."

Soccer96 are impossible to classify but play a highly danceable form of psychedelic music which references funk, post punk, elektronische, cosmic jazz and acid house, but is too unruly to comply with any one style. They released an eponymous debut album in 2012 while early fixtures at North London’s Total Refreshment Centre. Their second album, As Above So Below, came out in 2016 on Slowfoot and they have since moved to Moshi Moshi.

The sun shines in through windows for all three of us synchronously, lighting up the backgrounds of our Zoom chat: Soccer96 in London, me in Vinkovci, Croatia. They sit in front of a colourful clutter of hanging patch cables, books and a brightly painted wall.

"I find it vital," Danalogue says, "in the same way the birds are out there tweeting away now, in the same way it’s spring and the sun is blazing its nuclear inferno up in the sky – that the life force energy is happening. It means one of the things I have to do is to make music."

Betamax continues to expand on the fundamental nature of their music-making and intuitive creative process; how they directly engage with unpredictable life forces, mirroring universal laws: "We’re not making music in order to express anything else, we’re expressing the creative process itself, which is a really interesting experience collectively or individually. That is the thing that drives us to keep doing it, how it feels to do it and how important that feeling is.

"We’re engaging with the energy source of the whole universe, we think of it like that. We’re playing with a force that is [coming] all the way back from the beginning of life and we feel how profound that is. When we start engaging with creativity and with an understanding of what creativity is, it is like the universe experiencing the act of engaging with itself, as if the experience is suddenly looping back on itself in a way that is very mysterious. That’s when it is possible to understand that this is how the whole universe started."

Danalogue adds: "Any process of creativity helps link you back to the source – you become part of the feedback loop." Universally, the mechanisms of artistic endeavour feed into a dialectic relationship between inner and outer worlds as a quintessential process. Transcending of dualities plays a big role in Soccer96’s output. Their 2016 album As Above So Below culminated in this inner/outer dualism with music as a mediator, creating a bridge in-between.

Sonically, they have come full circle and their latest album Inner Worlds is a perfect distillation of their many phases, while also their most cohesive statement in terms of displaying their strengths.

Influences are as wide ranging. Danalogue mentions Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame as well as Death Grips, Sun O))), Terry Riley and the Brainfeeder label. Betamax cites Jaki Liebezeit – he’s been reading about him recently and is inspired by a set of detailed methods, a system of rhythm, of stick ergonomics and harmony, and how it all fits together mathematically.

The drum-and-synths duo combine intense free improvised sessions with Eno’s studio-as-instrument philosophy, resulting in a sound that feels like the untwitching of a psychic nerve, an outpouring of fluid aural associations, yet steadily imprinted in the muscle memory, tracking the fine mechanics and pneumatics of the psychedelic swirl with a deep twist of time-warp experiments. It is a kaleidoscope of liquid trances, a multiverse of majestic impulses, full of refreshing retrofuturist pop twists, the masterfully refined intensity of atmospherics, packing much gravity into a weightless form. Their cosmic soul-soup aesthetics translate a range of non-musical cues from hermetic philosophy and whimsical sci-fi fantasy of Moebius illustrations into their own uniquely vital language of aural astral landscapism. Fluidly intersecting faraway realities, the pair, however, are equally rooted in the mundane, adventurous drive of video games as they are in the vitality of football.

Computer games left a formative sonic imprint with colourful sounds of basic electronic music with a shallow bit depth. Even though they switched from playing games to making music, a gamified view remained to influence their crafting of elaborate virtual dreamscapes, a perception of tracks as levels with distinct environments, world building essentially.

Unexpectedly, mid-Zoom, Betamax amazes us by pulling the original Japanese edition Soccer96 video game box from under his desk, a relic his mum has dug out of the loft for him.

Looking for an atypical band name and both being football fans – Betamax is Tottenham and Danalogue Arsenal – led them to ponder: ‘Could we call a band Soccer96, is that, like, allowed?’

The story of the band name goes all the way back to pre-Internet days of old brick phones which used a text service called AQA – Any Question Answered. You could text it literally any question, sensible or goofy and they had to text you back an answer, Danalogue tells me. He sent them a couple of band names Betamax had texted him previously and asked the service to choose one. The answer came promptly: ‘Definitely call your band Soccer96!’

“I like the idea that there’s someone out there in the world who is responsible for the fact that we’re Soccer96. It was like rolling the dice. AQA was like our digital oracle. It was like a game of chance,” Danalogue says.

Being a duo proved a more sustainable option than being members of their previous group, the six-piece post rock group, A Scandal In Bohemia, a wild collective of young people finding their voices. For one of their former bandmates, Elizabeth Bernholz, the experience of being in the band sparked a transformation of practice, from writing neoclassical pieces for orchestras to radically reinventing herself as Gazelle Twin.

To begin with Soccer96 kept their line up fluid, operating a revolving door policy for personnel and guest-collaborators, who were often friends. Throughout the past decade of their existence, many featured guests pushed the band’s metamorphoses, some teasing new directions and subtle identity makeovers (like Alabaster DePlume, Nuha Ruby Ra, the addition of the bassist Tom Herbert), but only one has transitioned into a whole new mega-project.

The story is well known by some but worth repeating for the uninitiated. One night at a Soccer96 gig, legendary saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings felt inspired to jump on stage mid-concert and started playing along, to an explosive effect. The rest is history: they went on to form the Mercury Prize-nominated live sensation The Comet Is Coming, which soon took over their lives.

We often discuss side-projects in terms of the shadow cast by the main band and fight to shed some deserved light on them, but here the case is reversed. Danalogue adds, “Many still don’t know this, but The Comet Is Coming was originally slated to be our new Soccer96 record featuring Shabaka Hutchings, a very different name! I really felt strongly that we should pick a new name for the group, which I’m glad we did as it led to a whole new imagining of the sound, and made us more unified as a collective."

Alongside Danalogue The Conqueror and Betamax Killer, King Shabaka – as his internal title of honour goes – found a perfect cosmic backdrop in the duo’s tight, colourful blend of bold drum and synth dreamscapes for his restless, urgent, stratospheric freakouts, pushing the trio to raise the intense energy up a notch, and then some, and then some more – which is the drill when there’s a celestial object approaching.

As a duo, their arcane sci-fi obsessions and spaced-out vibes hint at an existential sub-theme of cosmic displacement and the resulting psychological drama. But it all came fully into focus with Hutchings, who played a significant but unstated role in their shared sonic mythopoetics. The cosmic fixation of the socially displaced is especially poignant in the Black experience but can extend to all others who embrace the archetype. As stated in Sun Ra’s key motto "Space is the place", or perhaps to better define it, space is the home of the cosmic orphan (a possible archetype of that universal other). Anyone not fitting in or identifying with the society’s consensus doesn’t fully exist in its eyes. You either drop out or get erased from the social matrix and need to link up with universal and natural systems instead. As if by virtue of the cosmic orphanage you get instant access to the larger mystical worldview, an unplanned advantage. If you are not inside the matrix, you get beyond it, pushed by the force of disintegration of your failed collective identity on a quest for the alternative mythology. Being an existential outsider, you must seek to anchor in the inner world. Which is the natural reaction to any kind of large shift in society. It only makes sense that Inner Worlds is the title of Soccer96’s new record.

As much as The Comet Is Coming approach the fundamental mystery of the creative act from its endpoint, Soccer96 zeroes in on the initial spark at the beginning, with a counternostalgic message of hope encoded in the sound of the eternal restart.

"When touring stopped suddenly, we thought it would be a great chance to see what kind of album we could make as Soccer96 after all these years." Accepting the lockdown as a creative challenge and a time for really growing in the studio, a chance to experiment with the recording process, they have levelled up as producers, mixers and musicians. Though the pair regard the studio as the birthplace of the music, the wild ride of ‘Adrenaline’ comes from the maximum intensity experience of a live show closer distilled into five minutes; it’s a post-lockdown stomper finding them exploding with joy to be playing to crowds once more. With the external lockdown behind them, the idea of the internal still lingered on and amplified the duo’s core energy into something resembling a treehouse project, an introspective respite, a reflective pause to recollect and grow intrapersonal resilience against external crises.

In the early days of Soccer96, they would play at metal nights, and sometimes electronic, indie or drum&bass afterparties. Not fitting in seems to have fitted them the best. Contrary to the advice many so-called indie experts gave them to change their name, they kept it, while keeping their integrity, while honouring their rebellious streak and deeper purpose for music-making. Their advice to young musicians in a capitalist world of linear, outwardness, instead of internal progression, is to be in it for the right reasons. According to Danalogue: “There’s nothing more exciting than being on your own path where you’re seeking development and you’re seeking the newest sound you can make or the sickest snare drum sound ever produced in the studio!”

Betamax continues: “If you play something you’re proud of and express something that means something to you, and you can just keep going and feel fine, whether there are three people or one person feeling it, that is enough to feel connected. A lot of strength comes from having your sense of integrity which means you can keep going. Otherwise, you’re gonna get worn out, maybe you’re not going to get what you’re looking for. You’ve got to at least have that and then it will drive you forward.”

As one of the first live-in residents of Total Refreshment Centre, Betamax recalls: “I was the first musician to go there, when it was just a warehouse with no music studios, just parties and people living there.“ He was given a blunt invitation: they needed a musician there, ‘cos there was no music. “We paid our dues, we’ve done a lot of gigs in front of not very many people in this band, and other bands, and we slept on floors,” he tells me now, speaking from his home studio a decade into their band history.

But the rebellious streak and the fierce independence of the early days would seem a little quaint now without the further evolution they have been through. Both the old uncompromising do-it-yourself attitude (or any other kind of culturally elitist gatekeeping) just won’t cut it if they are to weather the tough transition towards the whole new world to come. Signalling with the addition of collaborators from the progressive community around the TRC and worldwide, they are growing in the right direction towards one of the most important changes needed now in the independent culture’s mentality to not only survive but thrive – a radical shift from those conditioned to resist as independents to an interdependent mindset, finally putting the unity in the community.

A torch-bearing track for this new sentiment gets unusually explicit for them (their songs are mainly instrumental) – ‘Speak More Of Love’ with The Colours That Rise – truly nothing else in existence has any actual change-producing power and no self-respecting radical’s vocabulary should shy away from it – as in word, so in action. More than ever, we need the inner vision to get us through, but the only value of the inner world is if it brings about change in the outer world.

Soccer96 play live at Sea Change festival Totnes, 27 – 29 May

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