Simon, cautiously unconvinced by Wooden Wand & Co.
Once again, the hoary old chestnut of authenticity (cultural or otherwise) threatens to rear its head, but SR pulls a Get-Outta-Jail Card as he compares n contrasts 'Free Folk' w/ Grime, describing 'em both as (I like this one) "performative enactments of the authentic"...w/ the free-folkers cast as shamanistic/prophetic/visionary types, part of a gilded lineage that cannily side-steps the Hey-Nonny-Nonny Brigade and stretches back down thru The Beats to, I dunno...Blake and beyond, I guess.
Lack of an overt/legit. manifesto, or a convincing one, at least, seems to be Simon’s main problem, rather than the music itself...but let's flip this one over and cook the other side for a moment: let’s ask instead whether Grime actually has any sort of coherent in-built philosophical game-plan beyond convincing the listener that it’s more rooted in 'realness'…harder than any other muthafucker out there, and therefore more deserving of cash, cars, wimmin…and of life itself...?
Hell, if this was Hip-Hop it would be Survival of the Phattest…a burning existence-hunger which Iggy Pop so eloquently summed-up w/ the phrase “I Want More”.
(See, Music obeys Darwinian Principles, innit. Like plants and animals, complex socio-musical systems are also subject to selective processes; they mutate & continuously evolve new survival strategies to insure their base-characteristics remain in the gene-pool…unlike a falling tree in a forest, music withers and dies when there’s no one listening…).
Grime's own inner-momentum, its unconscious psychic/pelvic thrust, seems primarily directed towards increasing its own physical presence. It has occupied/colonised Local Space-Time thru the sheer force of its own Will, seemingly fulfilling no other purpose except, possibly, to increase its own mass and density and, through this, its stranglehold on Reality.
Grime is constantly forcing itself to be more real.
Therefore, is it not remotely possible that Free-Folk’s unspoken inner mandate (= its survival strategy) is to make itself less real?
In evolutionary terms, maybe what we’re witnessing with the Free-Folk ‘boom’ is, in effect, Psychedelia’s equivalent of the Punk and Post-Punk eras…a period of collapse/implosion/dissipation in which old forms & structures are broken down and stripped of needless ornamentation and frippery…except, in this instance, the drums are the first to go as the music becomes increasingly vague and amorphous, stret-t-t-t-tching itself out to the point of near-evaporation as it gradually retreats from the physical world…slowly, it begins to erase itself, but stops short of Pure Drone or Formal Minimalism…weariness w/ the brutal constraints of physicality manifests itself as a series of dreamy, trance-like fugue-states…
This initial reductive process is then followed by an explosion of cross-fertilisation and hybridisation…older, half-forgotten (but hardy) musical-forms and recording processes are strip-mined for any useful characteristics…new, recombinant musical forms soon start to appear…instances of parallel evolution (cf w/ Bats’ wings and birds’ wings: superficially similar structures serving similar functions but arising thru different etiological processes) are catalogued simultaneously in the US and Finland…there are sightings of half-forgotten ancestral forms (Vashti Bunyan) which, like the coelacanth, were thought to be extinct…zoomusicologists scrabble to catalogue/name these new sound-forms, but ultimately they fail miserably…because (a) this stuff is still in the act of becoming, and…
(b) dammit, even most of the people actually playing this stuff can’t agree on a common term…I mean, how can you even come up with a consistent description of, say, WWVV when none of their LPs sound the same…I talked to Wand and Satya Sai sometime last year when the Free Folk/Acid Folk/Wyrd Folk/Nu Psych/Weird Noo America tags were getting kicked around, and they said:
“We like to think of ourselves simply as a folk rock group or a psychedelic rock band. We don't really keep up with a lot of the genre-tags and whatnot… Our discography/sound is always evolving. And we don't relate to the plink and plonk of the "Improv scene" that some of us have only just recently became aware of. We just love rock and roll…”
“We just love Rock and Roll”… fuck it, how cool is that?
And when I spoke to John Maloney from Sunburned Hand of The Man a year or two back, he was a similarly unpretentious straight-up non-shaman kinda guy, who, was also (quite rightly) equally suspicious of getting tagged when the F-Word came up in conversation:
“I was never one for labels, but I guess labels make the world go round. I don't know what Free Folk is or Acid Folk. I honestly don't think a term for what we has been invented yet. I wouldn't call ourselves a Free Folk band, we're too heavy. There is a great community of like-minded folks out there doing what we do and I see us as a healthy part of it. But I wouldn't say we're at the heart of it. Sunburned is just a great group of friends whose greatest love and source of inspiration is ourselves. Come to one of our parties and you'll see what I'm talking about… I always find it hard to describe our philosophy and place in the world. We never talk about this stuff around the loft, so it always feels a bit contrived to talk about it in interviews. We just like to keep it simple….”
“Keepin’ it Simple” seems to be a recurring theme here, a kind of manifesto/mantra, almost like “Keepin’ it Real” has become for Hip-Hop (and Grime) headz.
If there is any sort of in-built musical philosophy, then the idea that all you do is just turn up with your extended-family of friends and play whatever comes to hand with no preconceived notion would appear to be an invitingly obvious and integral part of it: there’s a kind of purist Dogme-95 “Let’s do the show right here!” vibe on the loose here that goes far beyond the Revisionist Rock U-turns attempted by Punk or C-86. And just because something is improvised don’t make it Improv.
Simon points out in his piece that "Isn't the spiritual path actually hard work, though, a discipline?" Ah, well, one thing worth considering about the live jamming thing is the decade’s worth of practice that you’ll need to put in with yr mates before you reach a Zennish Can-like level of musical telepathy w/ any fellow astral-jammers. It takes a lorra, lorra hard work to look & sound that loose…these bands didn’t just appear from nowhere; Sunburned Hand have been going in one form or another since 1998-ish, and WWVV rose from the quicksand burial-plot of semi-improvisational psychsters The Golden Calves.
Anyway, back to The Rev. Moloney, who expands on the collective/extended-family riff:
“I made it a point in the past to say some awful things about Hippies to distance the band from that image. I caught a lot of flak from people and rightly so, but I think I proved my point. Sunburned isn't a Hippy band in any respect. We don't look down on folks who make certain lifestyle choices, we just look down on the ones who make it a point to be assholes about their own choices… A lot of us come from heavy Rap and Hardcore backgrounds, but I wouldn't know exactly what the (band’s common) attitude would be. Sunburned is a just group of music lovers who play music. We all have different attitudes and ideas about this band, but there is definitely a common thread which binds us all together in our never-ending search for a good time through creativity and friendship. We also like to wrestle, but that’s another story. We've never wrestled anyone who didn't deserve it. It’s good to roll around a bit.”
Or as WWVV’s guitarist Steven the Harvester says: “It’s like…all we got is us, man.”
I know from speaking to John that Sunburned don’t see themselves constrained by the narrow bandwidth of a central ‘scene’, as such…but, instead are part of a wider (possibly global) network whose nodes include fellow travelers such as Jackie-O Motherfucker and Leeds’ own Vibracathedral Orchestra…if there is a scene then it’s a Non-Scene in the same way as the Defenders were a super-hero Non-Team, an unlikely alliance that comes together when necessary for the greater good. Things are kept nicely vague and loose (just like the music); musicians play in open-ended, ever-changing permutations that mean they’re not tied to a specific sound or a rigid musical doctrine. From an evolutionary stand-point this means the music is perpetually shifting from performance to performance, or from CD-r to CD-r, mutating and morphing, as local circumstances dictate; this gives the music flexibility and elbow-room to breathe and learn and grow. As a survival strategy, it’s an excellent one.
(Simon mentions Comus as a possible sonic ancestor, but it was interesting that Satya Sai wheeled out v. early Deep Purple (along w/ Brit Blues Boom Era Fleetwood Mac) as an inspiration on WWVV, while Maloney name-checked Led Zep as a possible reference point…maybe we’ve all been looking up at the sky when we should’ve checking out the point at which the UK Blues Scene somehow intersected w/ or shapeshifted itself into Brummy Heavy Rock. Dang it: I’m just waiting for Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood to name-drop Uriah Heep, but I won't hold my breath…)
SHOTM are mainly centre’d round Charlestown, Massachusetts (part of the Greater Boston Sprawl) and there are sometimes as many as 16 of these maniacs in the same place at the same time. Ditto: WWVV, who have an expanded cast of auxiliary members that orbit the core group and are based as far afield as Michigan, Germany and the UK…Which leads us into another unlikely point of comparison to Grime, with these extended Post-Psych family-units occupying the same socio-sonic space as a Pirate Radio/Sound-System Cru.
The Grime-World is so local/compact/interknitted that it's almost claustrophobic (tho the virus is spreading...). By comparison, 'Free-Folk' consists of local micro-scenes, small cellular clusters that dot the atlas...let's join some of those dots: okay, the Charlestown crowd have close connections w/ Brattleboro, Vermont which is also home, I believe, to Dredd Foole, and Matt Valentine & Erika Elder...Dredd F has played w/ Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, who once (accidentally) picked up WWVV when they were out hitch-hiking...MMVV auxiliary Tovah plays w/ John Olsen of Wolf Eyes in Dead Machines, in fact, I think they might be married, and...woooooah! hang on a minute: Wolf Eyes? How did they get in here? They ain't Free-Folk, man...ah, well, yeah, maybe they are, sorta...I mean, aren't they just doing the same kind of thing, but using home-made electronics (instead of detuned guitars, hand percussion and flutes) to create an improvised, murky, fucked-up, psychedelic morass of sound...? And isn't Ben Chasney of abrasive West Coast Acid Rockers Comets on Fire also in Six Organs of Admittance ...I mean, how can this guy play scuzzed-up Psych-Noize w/ one hand and also play something wh/ he describes as a cross between "Ghost, Van Morrison and This Heat" w/ the other. But he's also just made a record w/ some of the Sunburned boys despite coming from the other side of A-mer-ica... Nah, this ain't a scene in the conventional 'local' sense; it's a complex series of overlapping, multi-colour'd Venn Diagrams and it's giving me a headache just thinking about it. So I won't any more.
Finally, one last comparison w/ Grime:
Interestingly, the sleeve-notes to the recent “Our Sound” comp. on Destructive Recordings featuring Vex'd, Skream, Slaughter Mob, etc provide an interesting after-echo to the Free-Folk/Freak-Folk/etc what-the-fuck-izit-called debate. It reads: “There are many different angles to ‘our sound’…whatever you want to call it: Dubstep, Breaks, Grime, all have their place here, but neither definition explains this music in its entirety…this is a genre nobody can pin down and no one can pigeon-hole…”