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Newcastle is one of those surprising places, which no matter how isolated it may seem from the rest of the musical underworld, still manages to nurture an impressive roster of innovative and alternative musical activity. The city is known in the "post-industrial" music scene for three groups: The Hafler Trio, Nocturnal Emissions, and Soviet France, all of whom currently reside here. The Hafler Trio was for a time a collaboration between Chris Watson, previously of Cabaret Voltaire, and Andrew McKenzie, although it's now the latter's solo project. Like the other two groups, the Trio have experimented extensively with sound collage, with the creation of otherworldly soundscapes.
All the group share an interest in sounds evocative of spiritual, subconscious responses. Both Nocturnal Emissions and Soviet France have their origins at the end of the seventies, with the dawn of the "industrial" music scene and the chaos of punk still a prominent musical fireball in the background. Both have survived the decade by going deeper into their original interests and exploring new ones, and they are among the few survivors from the early eighties to have built up a large reputation. They also appear to have a long future ahead of them ...
Nocturnal Emissions has always been mainly the project of Nigel Ayers, with collaborative help from various others throughout its history. Formed at the end of the seventies, at a time when numerous experimental groups were appearing, NE combined found sounds with a variety of instrumental ideas to create a noisy, chaotic, messy sound. It drew on the "sounds" of mass media technology, and distorted what it found to create the feeling of apocalyptic collapse lurking not far beneath the surface.
I tracked NE down in a pub in Newcastle ...
Nigel Ayers: "I came from quite an arty background. I was an art student studying sculpture before I started doing anything musical, and I found great difficulty in organising exhibitions, or any sort of outlet for the work I was doing. I was always interested in media-based work, like conceptual art ... the idea of putting out multiple packages of an idea, or a concept, as an artwork, rather than a one off museum piece to be wondered at. That's what I was interested in and that naturally led me into working in music at the tail end of punk rock. At a time when the means of distribution was actually quite easy for somebody who could raise the money to put out a record. The context existed to do that, so that you didn't just do it and have a hundred copies sitting on your shelf."
The ideas for NE differed a bit from the punk activity that inspired Nigel to start making music, however.
"I think it was something that I had to do, really. I just felt the need to do it, because although there was this 'new wave' explosion of music, I don't think that anybody was thoroughly using or exploiting the medium. There were very few records which I found that I could relate to entirely. There might be a bit of an idea here or there, but I just felt there was a real vacuum.
"Plus, technological advances were happening at the time, and I think musicians were still doing the same three-chord thrash. Why were they doing all this nonsense when this cheap electronic technology exists, which there seemed to be so much potential for? Obviously, what has occurred in the ten to twelve years since them, is this whole classicism of electronic-based dance music using one or two very simple sounds over and over again. It's like a rehash of a pattern book.
"I thought it was the best thing to do, because I was approaching what I was doing completely fresh. I really didn't want to learn to play chords and scales. I thought, a new technology exists, I've got ideas and ways of doing it, I think it's best for me to move into a medium where I've got a completely clean slate, I can actually learn to work out my own way of doing it."
Although he felt less and less interested in the art world, he felt that there was insufficient interest in the type of music he wanted to do to enable him, initially, to follow the live performance route of most bands.
"I couldn't be bothered organising any art exhibitions, because I basically didn't like the people I had to deal with. Just the ideas and the assumptions that were circulating around art of any sort, I found completely alien to my method of working and the way I conceived ideas. I just found it so easy to move into doing music, especially recorded music, because absolutely no facility existed for doing live performances, and there was absolutely zero interest. I don't think there ever has been any real interest in avant-garde music in Britain. I think it's a wasteland, and that's from ten to fifteen years of being interested or directly involved in it. That's been my experience all along."
Most of NE's releases were released on their own Sterile Records label, from 1981 to 1985, with others appearing on Illuminated and Flowmotion during this period. Before creating Sterile, and before NE's first record release, Tissue of Lies, on Emiss Records (recently revised and rereleased on CD), Nigel Ayers released "about half a dozen cassettes, selling about ten or twenty copies each. We used to send them to people, and send them out as finished products rather than as demos. I've never had any interest whatsoever in demos."
Running Sterile Records "always took up loads of time ... I always used to spend every day answering letters and making phone calls." Meanwhile Nigel Ayers also survived on temping jobs, office work, cleaning and the like. "Just part time jobs that I didn't need to commit too much time too."
From the beginning, Nocturnal Emissions had little in the way of ambition. "I just felt this need to do it, and did it. I never saw it as a career, I never saw it really lasting this long. In fact it's not a career, it's like I've been beating my head against a brick wall for most of the time. It's an anti-career really. Over the years it's cost me a great degree of material discomfort, and it's been a great deal of hard work ... I think I'm still doing it because I'm still finding that there's things that I need to do."
Although Nigel Ayers would never pretend that Nocturnal Emissions was the result of his effort alone, he acknowledges that, as his baby, he has come to dominate it more and more as time has passed.
"In the early days it was very much a collaborative thing, in terms of how the product was produced. In the last two or three years I've become a lot more bloody-minded and I tend to give people orders as to what they're going to do now. They have to fit within my scheme of things! (laughs)"
"I think things become a lot more open to interpretation, and a lot more confused along the way. I think a greater degree of ambiguity can come out of collaborations. My first and last aim was to produce a product or a show which satisfied a few criteria that I had for it. I'll always use input from whoever I'm working with, but I tend to take editorial control, to a greater extent than I used to. I take personal responsibility for everything now."
Despite his earlier dislike for the logic of the art world, Nigel Ayers current way of working shares many of that world's assumptions. The records, tapes, CDs and videos produced by Nocturnal Emissions are all consumer products. All are attempts to sell creativity, in the same way an art exhibition does, and like those exhibitions, sell it only to the elite few who have access to it. Nigel's dislike of the art world belies a lack of awareness of what he is still involved in ...
"Approaching the world of music, you can see that there is a very, very definite commercial mainstream. In the world of art there's a very, very definite mainstream there, but the commercial element seems to be tied up with the avant-garde as well. So, the avant garde to a large extent serves the interests of, say, a privileged elite, which also happens to be, let us say, the 'captains of industry'. I felt like moving into music rather than into straightforward visual art, I felt this was getting round that ... The punters, who are the 'patrons' of this work, I think they come from a wider cross-section and 'class' background than the people for whom 90% of avant-garde visual art is produced."
Nocturnal Emissions, like many others involved in the experimental scene, has acquired a liking for producing expensive, limited edition releases, aimed at the collector's market, and clearly inaccessible to many who would like to hear the music. Their 1990 album, Beyond Logic, Beyond Belief, came in an edition of 250 copies, at 26 pounds each, and the most recent record, Mouth of Babes, based on recordings of babies' voices, sells for the same price. There seems to be little desire to make their work as widely available as possible, or to ensure that all their current audience has access to it.
"To be fair to the pricing policy, we do actually put out fairly cheap CDs, and we've always put out cheap vinyl. Recently a collectors' market has developed surrounding lots of groups that were active in the early eighties. A few groups that were active then, ourselves included, records that we put out for say a pound or two pounds are now changing hands for fifty, sixty, two hundred pounds. I'm thinking, well, if this collector's market exists, it should be encouraged to support ongoing projects, rather than things that to me don't have any relevance now, that old stuff and what it was dealing with ... the idea is to serve the project ultimately."
NE's music of the early eighties jumbled up a variety of cultural influences, producing a loud, chaotic and sometimes unpleasant listening experience. The seeds of future work were also present, with an interest in the rhythms and instrumentation of other cultures in evidence on some tracks.
Nigel Ayers: "I was trying to throw open what could happen within music. The western tradition is very narrow, it's based on a seven note scale, which is more or less arbitrary in how it has been chosen. There are a huge number of possible scales which any possible music could be based on. I just wanted to draw in elements from a cross-section of other traditions, as well as use the electronic technology, which is precisely the same as Paul Simon's doing now."
Paul Simon's latest album, Rhythm of the Saints, has been playing in the background for a few minutes. It blends western production techniques and melodic elements with mostly African rhythms and instrumentation, producing atmospheric, instrumental music for the coffee-table set. Like Nocturnal Emissions for the mass-market perhaps ...
"The Paul Simon approach is more like a colonisation, whereas I think our approach is more of a bastardisation and a mixing of blood.
"We used to use quite a lot of film projections and slide projections, so that there'd be a barrage of imagery going on at the same time as a barrage of sound. It was very much a sensory overload. At the moment, the tactic is more like sensory deprivation."
From 1987 onwards the music turned in a new direction. In 1987, they recreated their identity with a new label, Earthly Delights, and launched a series of albums (see discography below) exploring a more organic, less immediately noisy sound.
"I think the time had come to close down Sterile Records because of the associations that were tied up with it. The involvement with the early 1980s post-industrialism. I think the label had acquired an image which I wanted to break with as radically as I could. I thought a better way to do that was to just start a new label, or just change the name and start the catalogue numbers from one! ... The music was going in a new direction anyway, and this helped make it clear that there was a clear change in emphasis ... I think our work gets evaluated in different terms now. I don't think we're seen purely as a noise-making group."
Incorporating found sounds, environmental recordings and atmospheric instrumental music, this change signified a desire to make music drawing on positive, personal feelings, as opposed to the negative, reactive sound that characterised earlier releases. Nigel admits: "I think I'm still pretty stroppy, it just might not be reflected in the music so much!"
"I think it's just a change of emphasis! ... I think, before there was a large element of reaction, and indeed anger at the mainstream, whereas now I believe that the reaction and anger has served its purpose, and indeed that the reaction and anger in itself has become so ritualised that I think it just loses any meaning."
Nigel Ayers speaks of Nocturnal Emissions's work as a conscious attempt to create a new form of music, appropriate and functional. Although he doesn't admit to feeling a part of any musical tradition, he acknowledges a variety of influences.
"Obviously I'm aware of the other music that's going on, but to create something new you have to put down your own ground rules, and work out your own way of doing it. So if there is any strong influence, then I think you're duty bound to break away from that, and to pursue your own course. Obviously there's a recent tradition of so-called minimal music, which was to a large extent an appropriation of a variety of traditional musics, ritual and trance music. Myself, I can see great value in lots of so-called spiritual music, or music that has been used in a religious context, such as buddhist chants, Gregorian chants, ritual music from Tibet, voodoo music, traditional aboriginal music. There's a richness and there's a strong tradition there that seems to work within a framework of a certain set of beliefs, which to me are outmoded and disproven in an age of science.
"I'm sceptical of most claims of the power of music. With, say, music therapy, or a lot of New Age music, there's a body of opinion and marketing which goes with it which says that this music brings about a relaxing effect which is necessarily good for you, and it's been worked out in such and such a way by Professor Stephen Halpern. I think it's just a way of dressing up third rate music which I find unnecessarily twiddly and decorative."
To many people, Nocturnal Emissions' current atmospheric music might not sound too different from the New Age he criticises. It's instrumental music designed to trigger moods and associations in the listener without necessarily dictating what those moods are to be.
"I do believe that music has a psychological impact on you, and that to a large extent comes from its meaning for you, and the associations tied up with it. Any piece of music that I've ever produced is brought about by a background of personal associations, most of which I probably share in common with most of the people living in todays global village. It's not a distraction - it can be a background music or it can be something that you're involved in."
I asked Nigel how he finds inspiration for new projects, what starts off a new album. He finds it hard to explain:
"It's usually to do with whatever's going on in my life, the largest influences that are going on at the time. For example, the Mouth of Babes record came about because several people that I knew were all having babies around the same time. This meant I was hearing a lot of babies' voices all of a sudden. Thinking, (a) this would be a good idea for a record, and (b) looking into the ideas of what exactly is music, and what makes a musician. Do you have to be six or seven years old like Mozart was, before you can make relevant music?
"Every product that we've done has got a conceptual basis. That one was probably one of the simplest and easiest ideas to get across, so I refer back to that. For example, Beyond Logic, Beyond Belief, there's greater subtleties in the idea itself. Which I probably couldn't be bothered explaining ..."
I can only quote his explanation from Earthly Delights' Network News #1, "What's important in this culture we're now cultivating is we can gain an understanding of the world which speaks to us directly without the filters of belief, which go within a spirit system without the filters of logic that go with a science system."
The basic methods of creating the music are perhaps easier to describe:
"I go out and about with recording equipment. Over the years I've built up a library of source material, location recordings, wildlife recordings. Plus quite a large library of music made with a diversity of instruments, different types of sounds. That's something which I'm constantly adding to and drawing from."
What did they do for their recent performances in the United States?
"Playing keyboards. I didn't do anything particularly visual at all. We did some shows with Poppo and the Go-Go Boys, which was primarily a dance performance, which we played live for about half of, and the other half was taped. The other shows were pretty straightforward. Visually there wasn't a lot to look at, which was completely and utterly intentional. We've always had the intention that people don't look at us, they listen to what we're doing. What usually happens is that half the audience just sits down and closes their eyes.
"There's always an element of improvisation there. What we do, is we have a very tightly structured and timed format that we've got worked out, and we rehearse a lot. Then when you reach a particular venue, each place has different acoustical properties. The atmosphere at each place is usually very different. The type of crowd is different, the expectations of the crowd are very different, so the music we produce on any one given night is completely different. Although we have that framework, the way it's set up in a live performance, to put it in an esoteric way, it's an energy exchange between the performers and the public and the venue and the situation. We take all those factors into account when we're playing. This influences the actual level of volume, for example. Sometimes we deliberately play really quiet so that people have to really hush up or they don't hear us, and a large element of the performance actually becomes the background chit-chat. Sometimes we also play at really high volume levels, at the pain level."
The decision to play the series of concerts in the U.S. was part of a general desire to become more accessible and better known, ambitions for Nocturnal Emissions beginning to stir ...
"I'd like to see Nocturnal Emissions become more of a big name and to actually start having a bit more influence through what we're doing, without having to get over a didactic idea, or a stance, like 'where do we stand as regards the poll tax' or animal rights or anything like that. But in terms of a whole attitude, in terms of not just creating music. Working in the context that we do, you also have to create a lifestyle around your music, which goes hand in hand with running a record label. The mail-order business is run completely and utterly as a crusade, it's not run like a record shop, where I would ever choose something because it was requested by a customer or out of market research. The mail-order company is completely and utterly a statement of what we have on offer. It's a statement of an attitude, which people can either take or leave, but it's something which exists ... I think we need to put ourselves out a lot more, just to become more physically accessible. So it means going out and doing live performances, anywhere and everywhere."
As the explanation of Beyond Logic, Beyond Belief given above might indicate, Nocturnal Emissions have never been afraid to face accusations of being pretentious or pseudo-intellectual (accusations often flung at fellow-Newcastle resident Andrew McKenzie of the Hafler Trio). From the cassette release of Drowning in a Sea of Bliss, on Touch, comes the following inlay card:
"Our video-clipped wings are sprouting new feathers, rising up against your film-propped-up phoney baloney corpse in choking mouth smoked out existence. We roar like thunder. We chuckle as you peer through your lace-curtained tracking TV circuit's action replay cameras. You can't monitor us - we have nothing that fits your schedule. Liars to your ratings, we are here in this mess you made, shedding like a virus. Your germ-war against us has produced mutants you can't control, and like chestnut buds we learnt from our mistakes and won't be repeating them. Strengthening we steal back now, reclaiming our ancestral memories, for their fossils fuel our 'molotovs'. Here's a little cocktail we've brewed up."
Depending on your point of view you could take this either as deliciously self-parodying poetry, or just as plain pretentious. Why is the information Nocturnal Emissions put out phrased in such an obscure and esoteric way?
"It seemed the most appropriate way of describing the product. We could use, plain English to describe the product, but I think you're probably missing an opportunity. Another way of using the media. We're just using that opportunity to produce scripts which are to do with the ideas which are in the products, and probably convey some of the effects."
Their more recent material, according to Nigel, is intended to form a lasting body of work, although this was not the case with their earlier releases. I have my doubts about this - if Nocturnal Emissions really feel their work deserves to be heard again in twenty years time then they would be doing more to release it in a suitable form, rather than in one-off limited editions, for a start. Nigel is also ambivalent about reissuing old material.
"We've had some offers to reissue just about all our back catalogue on CD, and we've turned them all down. The new version of Tissue of Lies, that sets out to make the CD possibly inferior to the original, in certain ways. We did it, in a way, just to point out the contradictions that were going on ... I think if we came up with a relevant way of presenting it, then we'd do it. But having said that, we've turned down four or five offers to reissue our back catalogue on CD."
Part of Nocturnal Emissions' enthusiasm for improving the accessibility of their music is a desire to encourage networking. To this end, Network News came into being in 1990 as a regular magazine devoted to their work, and to the work of others they are interested in.
"I think that for an individual to develop and to acquire confidence in themselves, they need to get in contact with some sort of context to develop their potential. A context of, say a university, is quite an elitist and quite a difficult way of doing that. An alternative exists in information networks, like computer networks or postal networks, for actually exchanging ideas, and just encouraging personal growth. It's a hackneyed term, really. But I don't mean personal growth in people who are brainwashed, always smiling, fucking moonies or whatever.
"The systems don't exist to actually discuss the material we're doing intelligently anyway. I can't see any sort of context developing within any mainstream publication. You have to do it for yourself. You can't do it on a local level, because the level of interest locally isn't that much."
As ever, the real communities are those tied together by shared interests rather than geographical proximity. Networking is the only way of getting a community of interest in contact with itself, and providing opportunities for information exchange which don't involve any hierarchy. Network News grew out of a more pragmatic and less idealistic need however: "The reason I started it was that individual replies to requests for information were taking too long to do. It's a way of presenting the information, giving some personal details about what's going on, presenting some of the background, and putting what we're doing into some sort of a context which people can pick up. Just get deeper into, I suppose."
Nocturnal Emissions have a back catalogue of several videos, all rarely seen by their audience. "We have been talking to a film company in Newcastle, about getting something on TV. I don't have the time or the energy to put into video production."
Also in the pipeline are more live events. Following the American tour, with Jonathan Whitfield and Anthea Milne making up the Nocturnal Emissions numbers, they played a series of five dates in the Netherlands. Mouth of Babes is coming out in CD, a totally different remix to the LP package, with additional material. Future live events are likely both with Nocturnal Emissions, and in collaboration with dance performer Poppo. A live LP due out soon, Energy Exchange, documents recent performances, including a collaboration with Zoviet France. Finally, the next album, due this summer, will be Cathedral.
Copyright Brian Duguid 1995