Drugging in music investigation

We need to talk about drugging
Non-consensual drugging is a common factor in sexual assault, particularly within the music industry. To denormalize abusive behavior, it’s time we faced up to that.

Published: The FADER, December 12, 2017
Illustration by: Sharon Gong

This story contains reported descriptions of sexual assault.

One morning in December 2014, Esta, a 35-year-old artist manager with over a decade of experience in the music industry, woke up naked in her hotel room bed. Another manager, a man she had met once before, was lying next to her. She had no memory of what happened or how they got there. As she hazily came to, he left without saying a word. The room began to swim into view. “There was blood everywhere, all over the sheets,” she told me in a phone interview. “There was a glass by the bed and a glass in the bathroom.” When Esta grabbed her phone to see what time it was, she saw a message to her best friend that she didn’t remember sending. “Are you having a good time?” her friend had asked. Esta had replied, “I’m not sure anymore.”

The day before, Esta and one of the artists she managed had landed at the first stop on a major, multi-headliner tour. (Unless otherwise noted, the names of all women who gave their stories for this piece have been changed to protect their identities.) At the show, she did her usual trick of ordering sparkling water with a slice of lime — it looks like a vodka tonic — to dissuade others from buying her drinks; Esta never drinks while she’s working. After the show, a small group of people who worked on the tour headed back to the hotel to celebrate, where Esta had her first drink of the night. “I was pretty measured,” she said. “I was aware of what level I was at.”

So what happened? Why did she black out? Had she been drugged? Those questions were raised by her mom and a close friend, and, after speaking to them, Esta worked up the courage to call the manager to ask him what happened the night before. “You were pretty out of it,” he told her. “You did ask what was going on a couple of times.”

Two days later, still in shock, Esta went to the hospital to get checked out. The staff asked her if she had taken anything: “I couldn’t answer — I didn’t know.” She broke down and was taken to see a counselor who she talked with for several hours. “They really pushed me to make a complaint against him,” she said. “But as a woman in music who has a good career and a good reputation, I don’t want to be the person who sued a guy for sexual assault. I want to be defined by what I do professionally, not something that happened to me.”

In 2011, a 33-year-old woman named Kimmi met an artist at a music festival in L.A., where they both lived. She had approached him to say she was a fan of his music. They struck up a friendship over text. After talking for several weeks, he messaged her one night to say he was in her neighborhood and wanted to see her. They hadn’t hung out before, but given the friendliness of their conversations, she felt comfortable inviting him over to watch a movie.

Kimmi had poured herself a glass of wine earlier that night, but only ended up drinking half of it. In conversation with the producer, she mentioned that she had hurt her neck.

“I’ve got something that can help with that,” he told her, pulling out a bag full of white pills of various shapes and sizes. “Do you want some painkillers that can help with your pain?”

Kimmi told him she didn’t like taking opiates because they’re too strong and bad for your liver. She also remarked on the number of pills he had on him. “Is this something you do often when you go to girls’ houses?” she asked him. “You just bust out a bag of pills?”

“Oh no, it’s fine,” he told her. “I personally like to take pills. I do them all the time. It’s not a big deal.”

Feeling pressured, she agreed to take half of a painkiller. Any more would upset her stomach, she told him.

The next thing she remembers is coming to and feeling his body on top of hers, raping her. “Stop, stop, please stop,” she said. The room was dark, save for Christmas lights around her bed. He got up and she watched him put on trousers and leave. She passed back out, and didn’t wake up until the next morning, when she struggled to piece together the night before. Her pants had been removed, she noted, but the upper part of her outfit was still on.

“I remember us on the bed watching a movie, and then the next thing I know I woke up and he’s inside of me,” she told me over the phone. “That’s all I remember. There was no point in the evening when I was conscious that I remember kissing him or him making a move on me. There was nothing that led up to that that I initiated, or that I consented to.”

“I’ve taken painkillers before,” she continued. “That’s why I knew there was something weird going on because even off one half of a pill, I was so out of it. I was like, What did he give me?

Like Esta, she reached out to ask him what happened. He told her, “We hooked up, you know that.” She told him that, no, she only remembered bits and pieces and that she felt violated, adding, “So you just fucking come over to people’s houses and take advantage of them when they are passed out?”

“‘No, you’re tripping, what are trying to imply?’” she recalls him saying. He said he thought she took pills all the time, and that it seemed like she was into it.

Kimmi repeated that she felt violated. After some stressful back and forth, she said he gaslighted her with a half-assed apology: “I respect my mother, I respect my sisters, I was raised to respect women, I would never do that intentionally to anyone.”

Hollywood is not the only industry with nasty secrets. From the top of the charts to the most underground of DIY scenes, across genres and borders, stories are emerging about abusers in music: artists, PR reps, journalists, and more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for the entertainment industries share the same power dynamics and, therefore, the same opportunities for abuse of those powers. But there’s another similarity between the reported cases of sexual abuse at both a mainstream level and within niche communities: the recurrence of drugging.

In the news, there’s Bill Cosby and Dr. Luke. The former admitted under oath that he bought Quaaludes in bulk to use on women he wanted to have sex with. In her lawsuit against Dr. Luke, Kesha said the producer gave her what he called “sober pills,” which turned out to be GHB, a drug associated with date rape.

Meanwhile, on social media, there are more stories. In October this year, a woman called Chelsea said in a Twitter post that the L.A. producer, Gaslamp Killer, had drugged and raped her and her best friend in 2013. (He denies the claims and is suing her for defamation.) That same year, a woman said CeeLo Green drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2012. Months later, Green said in a series of swiftly deleted tweets that “if someone is passed out they’re not even WITH you consciously, so WITH implies consent,” and “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!” (Prosecutors said they didn’t charge him with rape because of insufficient evidence, but he was later sentenced to three years probation for a drug felony.)

According to Dr. Suzanne Swan, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina, there’s a philosophical thread running through all incidents of drugging: bodily integrity. “Consent is an underlying theme here,” she said. “Just as someone who does unwanted sexual things to another person does not recognize that person’s right to consent to what happens to their own body, a similar violation of consent is at play in drugging.” There’s a level of understanding, if not compliance, when it comes to not touching someone else’s body unless they want you to. By that same standard, you shouldn’t be deciding what substances they ingest, either.

Not only is drugging someone without their knowledge a form of violence, it’s also illegal in some states — although each one has a different understanding of it. In New York, for example, administering a drug that can intentionally cause unconsciousness or other physical impairment, without someone’s consent, is classified as assault in the second degree, and punishable by time in prison. In California, “furnishing or administering” drugs is not seen as assault, but as a drug offense with penalties depending on the type of drug.

“Using the word ‘drugging’ can be helpful,” says New York psychotherapist Asher Pandjiris, “but maybe it is one of the mechanisms by which a lot of this sexual abuse and rape actually ends up happening.” If that is the case, then we need to be committed to investigating drugging in as much depth as we have the sexual abuse discussions that have opened up in recent months. So why aren’t we talking about it?

“A lot of it is down to feeling embarrassed or feeling like you can’t speak out,” Kate, a 27-year-old London DJ, told me in a phone call. She was drugged in a club in 2012 — she believes the substance was in a bottle of champagne that a stranger topped up her drink with — and, as soon as she realized something was very wrong, she tried to get a taxi home. A man posing as a taxi driver kidnapped her; a number of other men also got into the car, and she was mugged but managed to escape before being raped. The trauma of the experience turned her life upside down.

“Afterwards you feel horrendous both physically and emotionally, and you can’t always remember what’s happened. Then you realize that everything you thought was part of a bad dream had actually happened to you,” she said. “I was also shell-shocked because you can’t believe what you’ve been through, so a lot of the time, you don’t want to share it — some of my closest mates didn’t even know it had happened. It’s a really hard thing to talk about, you feel violated.”

Katie reported her attack to the police, who told her they had heard about similar cases, but the perpetrators were never caught.

After the attack, Kate didn’t drink or have sex for a year. She also became vegetarian. “I realized I’ve been through a lot on my own emotionally,” she said. “It properly changed my world because I was shocked at how I was still alive.”

Read the rest of my drugging investigation at TheFADER.com

Discwoman profile

We Need Discwoman
Club culture is plagued by sexism and white supremacy. These three women won’t stand for it.

The FADER Summer Music Issue 2017
Photo by: Mary Kang

If you’re a raver, you see your city’s streets in every kind of light. The brooding shadows of the midnight shift. The soft focus of pre-dawn. And the rude, hi-def splendor that greets eyes emerging from an all-nighter. In the intimate hours between days, certain streets outside underground clubs, bars, and warehouses are transformed. Soaked in the warmth of shared confidences and cigarettes, a scuffed up bit of pavement can become a nook — somewhere to huddle with friends and speak dreams into the breeze, before breathing deep and diving back into the dance. In the afternoon sun of the following day, the same spot will look ordinary, but you’ll know different.

On the Sunday night of a hot mid-May weekend, the street corner outside Bushwick’s Bossa Nova Civic Club plays host to such a scene. People borrow lighters and trade names, drawn to one another like moths to a flame. While most of the city sleeps, one hundred or so bright young things have come together to party into the early hours of Monday. It’s a birthday party for Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson — the visionary 30-year-old co-founder of Discwoman, a collective and DJ booking agency that exclusively represents cis women, trans women, and genderqueer artists — and her friend Gregory, who is a loyal regular of the supportive scene Hutchinson has helped build.

Inside, Frankie’s Discwoman partners are behind the decks: Emma Burgess-Olson, 28, who makes spare yet dynamic techno as UMFANG, and Christine McCharen-Tran, 29, an event producer who is the business brain behind the operation. Dressed respectively in a voluminous white jumpsuit and a baggy black shorts and tee combo, the pair make a point of playing Rihanna’s “Sex With Me” for Frankie, who hot-foots it to the front in a cheetah-print crop top and patterned pants. Discwoman is often associated with techno, but tonight anything goes: reggaeton, Afropop, rap. The lights rotate through vivid blues, greens, and pinks, while the fog machine exhales deep, creating an ever-shifting space in which guards lower and spirits rocket sky-high. The crowd is mostly N.Y.C. club kids, including GHE20G0TH1K artist LSDXOXO, Tygapaw of the queer collective Fake Accent, and local rapper Quay Dash, whose last record was packed with anti-transphobia anthems. Later, ascendant stars Kelela and Moses Sumney roll up to let off steam after a gig. But nobody’s dancing harder than Yulan Grant, a.k.a. SHYBOI, one of the eight artists signed to Discwoman’s agency. In a corner with her baby sister, she twists and leaps, channeling the music with her body.

“Being a part of Discwoman has been a game changer,” SHYBOI tells me later. “They’ve been so great at constantly outlining and reifying their ethos that it’s inspired me to be even more upfront with what I want from a nightlife space and those who organize those spaces.”

Club culture is nowhere near immune to the systems that enforce the status quo. “It’s without a doubt that queer women/gender-nonconforming/trans artists, especially those of color, are treated differently than their white male counterparts [in the music industry],” SHYBOI continues. “Having the backing of these incredibly talented people has pushed me to test myself more, tweak a boundary here and there in a different direction. No one on this roster takes any bullshit.”

As SHYBOI hints at, creating a space that is truly supportive is not a one-off job, it’s an ongoing process. One that requires patient negotiation and tireless listening skills. For Frankie, Emma, and Christine, launching Discwoman has been more work than they’d ever imagined — and a test of their friendship.

Until she turned 8, Frankie lived with her parents and older brother on a council estate in London’s Hackney borough. Her father was an alcoholic, and was physically abusive to her mother. “One day, my mum came and took me and my brother out of school and said, ‘We’re leaving your dad right in this moment — your dad knows and he’s coming for us.’” Her mum hid them in a doorway around the corner from the school as they watched their father pass by on foot. “That was one of the last times she’d see him for a really long time,” Frankie says. “Same for us, actually.”

We are perched on a sofa in the cozy Bed-Stuy apartment she moved into just a week ago. It’s the first time she’s had a proper base in months of sleeping on friends’ couches, and she’s relishing the sense of security. While we talk, her new roommate, Stephen, quietly dishes out wine and weed before retreating to his room to give us space.

Frankie’s mum found a place in a women’s refuge in north-west London, where the three of them ended up staying for two years. “We shared one room, literally pissing in a bucket. It was really intense.” Between the stress of their living situation and lack of money, Frankie’s mum was miserable — but she took pains to empower her young daughter. “From as young as I can remember, she would just be like, ‘Kick men in the nuts,’” Frankie says, laughing. “She tried to drill some sense of self-worth into me, which now feels even more powerful than ever.”

In 2005, Frankie moved to Sussex for a degree in Film Studies and American Studies. (Her mother had remarried an American and moved to New York, which granted Frankie a green card as a minor; the city was in her sights.) “As soon as I got there I knew I didn’t fit in,” she says of university. “Finding out that a bunch of people’s parents paid their rent for them, I was like, What is going on here? Alarm bells were going off.”

There wasn’t just a massive wealth disparity on campus; racism was also rife. “I was living in a house with eight or ten people, and I got really close with this girl,” remembers Frankie, declining to name her. “Meanwhile, I had developed friendships with some black friends — Kuchenga, Patrick, and Xavier — and they were becoming really significant relationships to me.” When it came to sorting out a place to live for the following year, Frankie suggested to her housemate that they all live together. “She said, ‘Frankie, can I talk to you?’ She was squirming a little bit. She said, ‘I just really don’t feel comfortable living with all black people.’ It was a fucking kick to the stomach.”

“I said, ‘I’m the only black person in this house, what do you think my experience is?’ I got up and ran to my room. This white girl who lived upstairs came down and I heard her say, ‘Did you do it?’”

It was Kuchenga who saved Frankie in that desperate moment, and who she went on to live with. “She validated what I went through, she understood it,” says Frankie, explaining that Kuchenga, a darker-skinned black trans woman, has experienced discrimination “on another level.” “I’ve been friends with her ever since.” It was a different story with her white friends, however. “The amount of white people who would not engage with what happened — and I told so many people about it — was insane. It was just so painful.”

Looking for a distraction, she threw herself into partying. She took her first ecstasy pill at a rave called Raindance in London (she found it “so therapeutic”) and attended all-nighters in a field behind her campus where she danced to house, techno, and, notably, “Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin.

As part of her degree, Frankie spent the 2007-08 school year abroad, at the University of California in Santa Cruz. On a social level, the local nightlife didn’t hold a candle to back home, but, intellectually, studying in America opened another door.

“I discovered all these amazing writers who talked in ways I didn’t even think was possible: James Baldwin, Angela Davis, bell hooks, the usual ones,” she says. “I had a breakthrough in my understanding of myself — from being a young black girl wearing towels on my head ‘cause I wanted straight hair, to understanding that you have just been trying to obtain whiteness your entire adolescence. That was such an emotional point for me. I hated myself a lot and thought I was so ugly and horrible. You realize why — because you’ve been bombarded with all this bullshit. It’s such abuse.”

Frankie moved to New York two weeks after graduating. She worked a string of part-time jobs in her first couple of years in the city — from doing community outreach for the African Diaspora Film Festival to serving hot dogs at Brooklyn’s Trophy Bar, which is where she met the people who would go on to launch Bossa Nova Civic Club. It was, in fact, at Bossa in late 2013 that she first met Emma, who had a monthly residency there. Frankie gave her props for mixing in a “fucking dope” Call Super song, and by the following May, they were hanging out every week.

Read the rest of my Discwoman profile on TheFADER.com



Sampha cover story

Sampha’s Search For Magic
The Londoner lent others his voice and made their good songs great. Now, it’s his own story that needs telling.

The FADER Summer Music Issue 2016
Photo by: Francesco Nazardo

There’s a lump in Sampha’s throat and it won’t go away.

When he first went to have it checked out in early 2012, the doctor sent him home without a proper examination. “They were like, ‘It’s nothing. You’re too young,’” the 27-year-old remembers. “I had to go back a couple of times and be really stern.” We’re sitting in an East London studio, a windowless space that’s right next door to the office of his record label, Young Turks. He tells me he wishes there was a technology that could identify pain and convey it. Like: look, that’s how I feel. He was eventually given an endoscopy, so that the doctor could see what was going on. They found nothing.

In person, Sampha can be a little shy. But when he sings, his voice gives everything away. It cracks mid-range and frays into a whisper when he reaches for his falsetto. It’s almost like his emotions are so close to the surface that they’re bruising his vocal cords. On “Plastic 100ºC,” a delicate ballad from his long-awaited and still-untitled debut album, Sampha candidly details this recent brush with his own mortality: Usually I’d run home/ And tuck the issue under/ Oh, sleeping with my worries, yeah/ I didn’t really know what that lump was.

The lump had appeared in 2011, a couple of months after Sampha had joined a tour with his frequent collaborator, SBTRKT, real name Aaron Jermone. One morning, Sampha woke up with a cold, a fever, and a strange, painful feeling in his throat. He got better, but the lump remained. It bothered him, but he had too much going on. He put it to the back of his mind. He didn’t want any more bad news.

In 2010, his mother, Binty Sisay, had been diagnosed with cancer. Since Sampha was the only member of his family still living at home — his father died from lung cancer in 1998 — he’d become her primary caregiver. At the time, he’d been working hard to get somewhere in music because, much to his mother’s dismay, he’d dropped out of university a couple of years before. (He’d been studying music production but wasn’t really connecting with the course.) So when the chance to tour with SBTRKT arose, Sampha’s brother Ernest — who had moved home shortly after their mum’s diagnosis — and his cousins Maggie and May stepped in to help look after Binty.

Her cancer went into remission in late 2012. In the relief-fueled year that followed, Sampha’s career blossomed. He flew to Toronto to work with Drake on Nothing Was the Same tracks “The Motion” and “Too Much,” then to Ghana to work with Solange on music for a forthcoming project. A few months later, he traveled to both Los Angeles and Italy to work on early sessions for Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, resulting in the vulnerable-sounding “Saint Pablo,” which Kanye added to the album four months after its release.

By the end of 2013, Sampha had moved out of the family home and was living by himself in East London. The plan was simple: hit pause on collaborations and start focusing on his debut solo album. But plans often go awry. His mum’s health was up and down, and in late 2014, her cancer returned. Sampha moved home to be with her in the South London suburb of Morden. Some weeks, she was in and out of the hospital every couple of days. This past September, she lost her life to the debilitating disease. Understandably, Sampha is still reeling from the loss. “There’s not ‘the grieving process,’” he says quietly. “It’s like a dream you never…” He pauses for a second. “It’s never gonna feel real.”

Sampha is the youngest of five brothers by over a decade. His older siblings — Junior, John, Sanie, and Ernest — spent their formative years in his parents’ hometown of Kenema, Sierra Leone. But in 1982, his dad, a diamond evaluator named Joe, got a new job and moved the family to London, where Sampha was born a few years later. They settled in a semi-detached house in Morden on the edge of the countryside. The move was a chance to provide more opportunities for his sons, and to escape the corruption in the diamond trade that was wreaking havoc in his home country. A few years later, a decade-long civil war would break out in Sierra Leone, killing over 50,000 people and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees.

Sampha was 9 years old when his father died. “I wonder what kind of things I get from him,” he tells me in a gentle tone. “I always find it weird that you have [inherited] things about you that are not just physical: the things you think, the things you feel — the epigenetics or whatever.”

His mother and older brothers did their best to shelter Sampha from the trauma of his dad’s death, but nevertheless it left a void. In the years that followed, Sampha’s emotional world became entwined with music. His dad had bought a piano from their elderly neighbor when Sampha was 3. It was supposed to provide a “productive alternative to watching TV,” his brother Sanie tells me later, over the phone. And it worked; Sampha was always playing it. Later, he discovered music production as a young teen, after Sanie, who’s 16 years older, built himself a makeshift home studio in his house around the corner. But his real introduction to the music industry came second-hand via a London producer named Kwes, who he’d met on Myspace in 2007.

Back then, Sampha jokes, he thought “people in the music industry could far enough be aliens with huge blue hair and red eyes.” Kwes helped put things in perspective, though, and went on to introduce Sampha to Young Turks, which, at the time, was an offshoot of XL Recordings. But it was Kwes’s actual music — scratchy, bubbly tunes that defied conventional structure — that Sampha says changed his life. “It made me feel more okay with the songs I was writing,” he says. Through Kwes, Sampha met a community of like-minded artists, including Ghostpoet, DELS, and Micachu, whose music strived to make new, irregular shapes at a time when seamless, glossy pop like Girls Aloud and Sam Sparro was dominating the U.K. charts. Sampha would upload tracks to Myspace, and he says the response he got from his peers was liberating. He felt understood.

That moment of understanding — of pure sonic communication — became something he actively sought out; it eventually resulted in Sundanza, his debut EP of intricate instrumentals released on CD-R by Young Turks in 2009. It was an exciting time at the label: The xx was enjoying debut album success, and expectations for Sampha were high.

He tells me about the “very unspoken connection” he had with SBTRKT while working on the London producer’s 2011 debut, for which Sampha wrote, produced, and sang. Later, when Drake received a .zip file of Sampha’s music from Young Turks in 2012, the first thing he showed interest in was a mid-tempo beat. Drake didn’t end up using it, but the choice was still mind-blowing for Sampha: one of the world’s biggest rappers recognized his skills as a producer. Rick Rubin also spotted something in Sampha’s music, and invited him out to L.A. to work with Kanye. The place where they met looked like a bungalow in the side of a hill, Sampha tells me, but opened into an underground mansion. He got nervous when Kanye was “really responsive” to the embryonic album tracks he played. “I listened to College Dropout religiously,” he says, still in awe even now.

On a sunny afternoon in early May, I meet Sampha outside the Willesden Green tube station in northwest London, a mostly residential area that has the fingerprints of gentrification all over it. He’s lived around here with Jojo, his girlfriend of three years, since his mother passed away. There’s hardly a cloud in the sky, and locals are sitting on metal chairs outside a nearby cafe. Sampha pulls up on a bicycle that, with a tug of a few levers, deftly folds down into a manageable carry-on size. We catch the tube from Willesden to Waterloo, then change to the Northern Line to travel down south to Morden, which is right at the end of the line. Grubby issues of the free morning paper are scattered around the traincar, their front pages emblazoned with a headline that gives away the tabloid’s bias for the right-wing Conservative candidate in the local elections. Two days later, though, the win goes to the Labour Party’s Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim politician to be elected mayor of London.

From Morden station, it’s a short bus ride and a stroll to Sampha’s brother Sanie’s house. On the walk, petals fall like snow from blossoming trees. We bump into a middle-aged family friend on the way; he’d spotted Sampha out the window and wanted to come give his well-wishes.

Sanie’s house is the hangout spot around here; friends and family drop by, listen to music, and swap stories. Today, Sanie’s at the Southbank Centre seeing a play, so we’re greeted by his other brother Ernest. He’s a tall, broad-framed man who, save for his shaven head and the silver in his stubble, is Sampha’s spitting image; they even have a similar laugh. Sampha’s best friend Hassan, a visual artist with a beard and blue suede boots who lives nearby, is here too. Sampha and Hassan slip inside to catch up while Ernest and I sit outside for a moment, soaking up the sun. As we chat, a tiny red-breasted robin, its beak stuffed with flies, makes multiple trips to a nest tucked away on a shelf above Ernest’s head.

Ernest tells me that Sampha was like a meerkat when he was little; his head would pop up whenever he heard one of his brothers playing music. As he got older, Sampha soaked up his family’s wide-ranging musical interests like a sponge: Stevie Wonder, U.K. garage, rare groove, and sounds from Sierra Leone. It was an education in the breadth, depth, and wide-ranging influence of black music. “We used to get irritated after a while: ‘You ask too many questions,’” remembers Ernest, laughing. “I used to explain how we have certain sounds because of the way they’d been produced. So Sampha’s going on and on, experimenting with deep stuff, then he went off and found himself. I think he’s done well. He’s found his sound.”

Like he always has, Sampha’s been bringing around the tracks he’s been working on for his album and playing them for his brothers and friends. “Sampha’s quite open,” Sanie tells me later. “He’ll come in and play his stuff and be prepared to listen to anyone. That’s the only way you can really develop.”

Read the rest of my Sampha cover story at TheFADER.com

Metahaven feature

Metahaven Is Breaking The Propaganda Machine
The politically minded Dutch design collective explore truth and lies in the internet era in new installation project, The Sprawl.

Published: The FADER, May 6, 2016

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a missile on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. It crashed in eastern Ukraine, in a region fraught with conflict: pro-Russian, anti-government groups had been engaged in armed battle with Ukrainian forces since the spring. The plane’s 15 crew members and 283 passengers, mostly Dutch and Malaysian vacationers, all died. The Russian government blamed Ukraine. Ukraine said Russia was behind the attack. A criminal investigation, led by the Dutch, is ongoing.

Seven days after the crash, on July 24, 2014, WikiLeaks tweeted a link to a YouTube video, along with a description reading, “Rebels complained back in June that #Ukraine was using passenger jets as human shields.” In the video, a woman identified as “Elena,” standing in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, alleged that Ukrainian forces were provoking pro-Russia separatists to shoot at airliners. Or so I am told by Daniel van der Velden of politically minded Dutch design collective Metahaven, as the YouTube account that was hosting the video has been deleted. (A copy can be found here.)

The WikiLeaks tweet fascinated van der Velden and Metahaven co-founder Vinca Kruk, who together have written a string of books that explore the politics of graphic design—including 2015’s Black Transparency—and worked on projects with the aforementioned WikiLeaks (a 2011 series of designed merch to help them fund their operations) and L.A.-based artists Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst (ideas and visual materials for Herndon’s album Platform), amongst others.

Van der Velden believes WikiLeaks posted the tweet as a means through which to support alternative explanations about who downed Flight 17, and why. “At the far end of transparency, you enter into a kind of medieval trapdoor theory where everything can be questioned,” he tells me over an intermittently fuzzy Skype call from the pair’s Amsterdam office.

The Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 thread was one of many such examples that Kruk and van der Velden pulled in the germination stage of The Sprawl, a new video-based project that’s akin to a digital diorama of propaganda on the internet today. With both wit and unease, it explores the proliferation of internet-based propaganda today and its impact on both individual lives and the wider geopolitical landscape.

As its name suggests, The Sprawl’s form does not submit to easy categorization. In late January, a feature-length version of it premiered at Rotterdam International Film Festival, and will be on view at Polish film festival Docs Against Gravity later this month. But The Sprawl also exists as a five-channel video installation that is on display at San Francisco’s YBCA and Warsaw’s MoMA; this weekend, it opens for a three-week run at the U.K.’s Brighton Festival. A third version of The Sprawl launches today as a YouTube channel and a website, which features, amongst other works, short videos that Metahaven calls “shards”—some of which are premiering today on The FADER.

These are a few of the things that exist in The Sprawl: an audio recording made by the Ukrainian Security Service that was supplied to the Dutch police investigating the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash; talking-head scenes with journalist Peter Pomerantsev, artist and theorist Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, and academic Benjamin H. Bratton; grainy “citizen journalism” videos from the Bahraini uprising of 2011, which Gharavi uses to dissent how the uprising’s narrative was effectively “erased” in mainstream media; studio shot clips of actors gazing at screens amidst plumes of smoke; and passages from Russian literature, including a poem by Anna Akhmatova and an extract from Leo Tolstoy’s 1897 book What Is Art?, both read by a Russian narrator.

This non-linear and often context-free combination of cinematic, documentary, and internet-y devices makes for a mind-prodding watch, the kind that kicks off late-night scrolling that lands you down a thousand rabbit holes. Each scene is mediated by either an ambiguously emotive score by U.K. producer Kuedo, who tells me that Metahaven allowed the music the rare opportunity to help inform the video edit, or graphic overlays of shapeshifting colored blocks that by turn obscure and reveal the on-screen action, or sometimes both. Yet for all its vivid yet disorientating storytelling, the responsibility of the narrative arc ultimately lies outside the frame—at the fingertips of the viewer. The Sprawl is less concerned with what “the truth” is, and more interested in the impact that the internet’s avalanche of conflicting truths has on the reality we experience, both individually and collectively.

The Sprawl’s tagline is “propaganda about propaganda,” and its third manifestation—dropped like breadcrumbs across YouTube—is the one that feels closest to the spirit of the project; its fragmentation is a reflection of the way we half-see, half-read, half-understand the world in these hyper-distracted times. But what does propaganda even mean today?

Read the rest of my Metahaven feature at TheFADER.com

Anohni profile

Anohni At Boiling Point
As Antony and the Johnsons, Anohni wrote sad piano songs. During a day at the zoo, she talks about using dance music to confront the world’s problems, and why she doesn’t have solutions.

Published: The FADER, April 19, 2016
Photo by: Alex Thebez

On an otherwise freezing February morning, the sun is beating down fiercely on Central Park Zoo, and the animals are making the most of it, snatching a moment of dignity in the sunshine’s warm embrace—even the notoriously elusive snow leopards. “They’re being so generous today,” says Anohni in a hushed tone as two silvery big cats elegantly pick their way up a small patch of craggy rock. Behind them, the light softens a row of impossibly constructed skyscrapers. “Can you believe there are snow leopards in Central Park?” Anohni continues, sounding half-thrilled and half-appalled. “Before humans invented weapons, they would have been a serious threat. But once we made a spear, we got pretty good at killing.”

Bloodlust is one of the key concerns of Hopelessness, Anohni’s debut solo album without her band Antony and the Johnsons, and her first made using the name her friends and family have been calling her in private for some time. We’re at the zoo for this interview at her suggestion; now 45 and based in New York, where she’s lived for the past two decades, she’s made a habit of visiting animals whenever possible. (Recently, the Bronx Zoo, showed its solidarity with Anohni’s decision not to attend the Oscars by sending her a photo of two tiger cubs, along with a handwritten note from the staff.)

Anohni has long looked to Mother Nature’s joyful chaos as a model for making sense of the world, more so than any religious or political belief—systems she perceives as stern and prescriptive. One of her earliest memories, she says, is a field of bluebell flowers she saw as her father carried her on his shoulders through the South Downs, a stretch of rolling hills that runs along England’s southeast coast. She smiles at the recollection, midnight-black hair falling in soft waves around her pale, open face. “The thing I like more than anything else is laughing,” she tells me. “In my old life, I used to live from cigarette to cigarette. Now I live from laugh to laugh.”

In England, Anonhi was raised Catholic, but realized at a young age that she didn’t subscribe to the church’s views. “I was sort of pushed out of the nest by the time I was 7 or 8,” she says. “It was obvious I was transgender, and as such there wasn’t much of a seat for me at the table.” In her voice, there’s not one lick of bitterness as she speaks about those formative years: “I’ve always been so grateful for my identity because it forced me to look at my life in a different way that I otherwise would have.”

Her father, an engineer, moved the family to America in 1981, when Anonhi was 10. They settled in San Jose, California, and she watched English singer-songwriters from afar, preferring those with big voices and bigger ideas. She was especially fond of the U.K. group Yazoo, comprised of singer Alison Moyet and producer Vince Clarke, of Depeche Mode. “I didn’t understand how music could make me have so much feeling,” she says. “It [made me feel] like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hurt. I’m only 11, why do I feel like this?’ I wasn’t used to crying because I didn’t come from a family that used to express feeling. I’d listen to that record and be like, ‘Oh my god, I feel sick.’”

Hopelessness is a big departure from the seductively bereft, piano-led songs that have characterized Anohni’s sound since 2005’s breakthrough Antony and the Johnsons album, I Am a Bird Now, which won the U.K.’s Mercury Prize. The new album is a dance record, and Anohni turned to two electronic producers, Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, to help co-produce it. (She’d previously tasted disco-fueled success guest-starring on Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind,” in 2008.) The results are inspired: the soul and gravity of Anohni’s voice anchors audacious beats and pretty melodies that might otherwise come off as frivolous. The upbeat pace suits her, and pushes her to flex a wider range in both her singing and lyrics. On the album’s 11 songs, she sheds poetic metaphor in favor of some of the most direct statements she’s ever recorded.

HudMo, a.k.a. Ross Birchard, says he had been a fan of Anohni since an emotional first listen to I Am a Bird Now at an afterparty, “at like, 8 in the morning.” Over the phone from his home in London, he tells me that he reached out to her during the making of his 2015 album, Lantern. He sent over tracks and asked if she’d like to sing on one. She ended up singing on six, gave him one, and asked to keep the rest for her album. “He was like, ‘What?’ And that was the beginning of it,” Anohni says. “Ross’s tracks kind of set me free.”

“I’d describe all three of us as benevolent introverts, so there’s that sweet-and-sour at work,” Oneohtrix Point Never’s Dan Lopatin offers from London, where he’s deep into a month-long studio stretch. For each collaborator, he says, mixing uplifting music with heavy subjects is “something that comes natural.”

Lopatin and Anohni had been friends before they first worked together in 2010, on a version of OPN’s song “Returnal.” Later, plans for a bigger collaboration started to germinate: “Hopelessness began years ago with this idea that she had for an album based on her childhood love of the Queen Millenia soundtrack by Kitaro,” Lopatin says. “It transformed over the years following, and really started taking shape once Hudson became involved.”

Making the record was an “almost therapeutic process,” HudMo says in a soft Glaswegian burr, and involved “a lot of music-making but also a lot of sitting there and talking—and not just purely talking about music.”

Songs developed as they were tweaked by all three collaborators, remotely as well as in sessions at HudMo’s London studio. Everyone chipped in with whatever was needed to make her “soar,” says Lopatin. Anohni wrote the album’s barbed lyrics in “three minutes,” she gently exaggerates; the backed-up emotion poured out of her like water.

Hopelessness is certainly awash with feeling; it’s a big album that runs head-on towards urgent issues. Brassy and exuberant “4 Degrees” highlights the global temperature increase, in celsius, and subsequent devastation that the Earth will see by 2100 if we don’t cut carbon emissions immediately. On lead single “Drone Bomb Me,” she pulls the U.S. government’s chilling drone policy into a personal context, addressing a drone as if it were a sentient being, asking it to choose me tonight and explode my crystal guts. She takes a shot at the president on “Obama”: sparse and industrial, it’s the album’s most confrontational listen, blasting him for punishing whistleblowers and executing without trial.

With repeat listens, the record’s satellite issues start to take on the form of a solar system of subjugation: patriarchy, white supremacy, late stage capitalism, climate change denial, drone bombing, capital punishment, and public surveillance. For Anohni, all these interconnected dots seem to have come to a head in contemporary America. China, Thailand, India, and Great Britain/ Australia, Borneo, Nigeria/ We are, we are all Americans now, she sings on exquisite closing track “Marrow.” “The challenge we’re being faced with, which is unprecedented in the history of our species,” says Anohni, “is how to inhale it all at once.”

The power of Hopelessness lies in its ability to place bitter pills within danceable confection. By talking about painful realities over music for dancing, Anohni is attempting to at once inform and motivate—to kick us into action. “Beyoncé and Kanye have established the contemporary vocabulary for how to communicate,” she explains. “I use some of the tools that are currently employed in pop music and I’ve embedded them with a much more hardcore message.”

When we’re inside the zoo’s tropical room, Anohni tells me about a conversation she had with an elderly scientist a couple years back, at a TED conference in Long Beach where she performed. The scientist complimented her on “Another World,” a song that dreams of a world where things aren’t on the edge of extinction. But, he told her, there was nothing to be done about the fact that half of the world’s species will be extinct by the end of the century, so why be upset? Anonhi answered: “Because I want it to be my job to hold space for the emotional and spiritual reality of what you just said. Because you’re not doing it.”

Still, if swapping grief for rage’s quick-footed action has produced Anohni’s most adventurous album to date, it has also worried the hell out of her.

Read the rest of my Anohni profile at TheFADER.com

FlucT profile

The Future Is FlucT
Performance art duo Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren use their bodies to investigate the systems controlling us—and invite us to join in.

Published: The FADER, January 29, 2016
Photo by: Alex Thebez

The two women who make up the performance art collective FlucT were the only non-music act on the line-up at techno summer camp Sustain-Release last September, yet they stole the show. Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren were given an unexpected peak-time slot to debut Agape, their current dance piece: 3 a.m. in the purple-lit, wood-floored main room, just after a synth-heavy set from East Village Radio co-founder Veronica Vasicka. While Lauren and Mirabile are no strangers to the underground music scene—they’ve performed live with Brooklyn-based electronic artist Pictureplane and synth-pop star MNDR—it seemed the majority of the 300 or so people gathered to watch them at the low-key festival in upstate New York didn’t quite know what to expect. Myself included.

We were motioned to form a circle around them, but it came out more like an oval; an egg ready to hatch. To a brooding backing track, FlucT made the most of the enclosed space. One moment, they were manically simulating sex—Lauren thrusting her hips against a bent over Mirabile—while furiously batting their eyelids and wearing doll-like grins; the next, they were on the floor shaking their whole bodies as if they were experiencing an exorcism. Lauren is taller and stronger than Mirabile and so she did most of the lifting, picking her partner up and helping maneuver their two bodies into unusual configurations with a matter-of-fact familiarity. At points, their hair—Lauren’s white-blonde bangs and Mirabile’s black-brown mane—tangled like their limbs. On all fours, they bounced with vigor, pushing their knee pads to the limit. Whatever they pushed their bodies to do, they held the awkward poses for longer than friends like to hold eye contact.

Captured in freeze-frame on smartphones, it’s easy to admire the poetry of their movements, the lines of their bodies tracing thrilling shapes. But in motion, inches from my own passive body in the audience, it struck like lightning. Their confrontational performance of femininity drags the viewer through a hall of mirrors—one moment parodying “pretty,” the next being crudely suggestive. The content might be PG-13 but it shocks because their exaggerated movements reveal an uncomfortable truth about modern desire and how it has been almost entirely permeated by the patriarchy. Interestingly, the more traditionally “shocking” elements of their performance—the twitching and flailing, the way they slam their bodies against the floor—provide relief. In letting go, they exert control. What’s so invigorating about watching FlucT is witnessing them meet the male gaze then violently poke it in the eye.

A few months later, we’re sitting in Otion Front, their white cube of a studio in Bushwick, reflecting on the late arrival of winter and last summer’s impactful Sustain-Release performance. “There were men who had similar [intrigued] reactions to what you had,” says Mirabile, “and there were some men who were like, ‘Can I have your phone number?’”

Mirabile grew up in the beachside town of Clearwater, Florida, and Lauren a thousand miles up the coast in the arts-minded city of Baltimore. It was in the latter that the two first met in 2010, while Mirabile was studying interdisciplinary sculpture at art school. Lauren had graduated a couple of years earlier—she attended college in Virginia on an athletics scholarship—and returned to Baltimore after a spell traveling in Australia. The pair met when they wound up as roommates in a 12-person live-work warehouse, where they bonded over a desire to “move freely,” and over their parallel childhood experiences.

Those shared formative memories make up the emotional basis for their work as FlucT. Both had “intense familial relationships,” Mirabile tells me. “I didn’t have a lot of parental control,” she continues. “I didn’t ever have a curfew, I had no rules, they weren’t around watching me all the time. I learned how to cook when I was like four years old, you know? I cooked hamburgers on a stove.”

“We were both super loved but people are complicated,” says Lauren. “I think the focus wasn’t always necessarily on the child. It kind of allowed us to become observers.”

Read the rest of my FlucT profile at TheFADER.com

Talking in pictures essay

We Talk In Pictures Now, But What Does It Mean?

The FADER, April/May 2015 Issue
Illustration by: Hisashi Okawa

There are 3,459 miles between London and New York, and five disorienting hours of time difference. When I was in a long-distance relationship while living in the UK, the separation felt the roughest first thing in the morning and last thing at night. We would Skype and send emails across the Atlantic, but most of all, we would text. On one particularly crappy day, when I was feeling those miles more than ever, the text that made it all better didn’t contain words at all.

Even now, looking at those two characters, my cheeks burn with that ticklish pain that you get when you’ve been laughing for a long time. The tiny dancing woman and the tiny running man said, I miss you, and I’m coming, and hang in there, and a dozen other things. The emojis were silly, and they stopped me from being silly. Everything was going to be okay.

It’s hardly a novel realization, but everyone talks in images now. We tell stories about ourselves through the pictures we post online. We show we’re paying attention by making memes that riff on current events. And yes, we send strings of emojis to loved ones to feel closer. In order to find out how image-based communication is changing the way we relate to one another, I spoke with four experts in the worlds of art and language: New York artists Andrew Kuo and Kari Altmann, who work across multiple media and have an interest in the platforms Instagram and Tumblr, respectively; Daniel van der Velden, co-founder of Dutch design agency Metahaven and author of a book about the power of memes, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?; and Montreal linguist and writer Gretchen McCulloch.

According to McCulloch, as social life migrates online, visual forms of communication become increasingly attractive because they replicate some of the physical experience we’ve lost. “Emojis, emoticons, and even Snapchat add back a sense of gesture, body language, and tone of voice,” she told me. Just think how many times a day—an hour?—your fingers find your phone, on the hunt for the refresh button that will deliver a fresh crop of pictures from friends and family members into the palm of your hand.

By day, good news emails are paired with a GIF of Drake popping a bottle in the club. At night, countless semi-nude selfies fly through cyberspace, a digital rendering of the come-hither glance. Just as we crave physical affection, we are now addicted to consuming and producing images. We share them, we like them, and we reblog them, but we are never satisfied for long. The feed always needs feeding—and there’s plenty to fill it with, according to Metahaven’s van der Velden. “There is an incredible avalanche of little fragments that make up our communication environment,” he tells me on a Skype call from Amsterdam, “and they are addictive because you can consume them so easily.”

Admittedly, our reliance upon images is nothing new. The first documented piece of communication was an image: whereas humans have only been writing for around 2,500 years, the oldest cave paintings date back to around 35,000 BC. “Before mass literacy, images were how you told historical stories and stories of the lives of saints,” McCulloch says, referring to illuminated manuscripts, Medieval stained glass windows, and the doodles that decorated early personal letter writing. And while computer and cellphone technology has enabled a renewed focus on image-orientated communication in the past century, McCulloch points out that it was technology that did away with it in the first place: the birth of the printing press squeezed the image out of the page. Elsewhere in the world, words and pictures haven’t always been separate to begin with. “Chinese characters are based loosely on things they look like,” says Kuo, who, in addition to creating large-scale abstract chart paintings in his professional practice, runs the cult Instagram account @earlboykins, aggregating the internet’s goofiest photos to highlight the joy of being alive right now. “‘Water’ looks like drips of water. The word for ‘man’ kind of looks like a man with legs and arms. It’s mutated through thousands of years, but they all have origins in pictograms.”

“Images are our native tongue in a way,” says Altmann, whose Tumblr-based work explores trends in image circulation. “We see and express the world through imaging, and we think in imaging.” While some may turn their nose up at emojis for “dumbing down” our language, visual forms of communication can add richness and subtlety to daily exchanges. “We’re adding another wrinkle into the way we talk to each other,” says Kuo. “I don’t think kids are becoming zombies. If I have a kid, I’ll just throw a smart phone in his or her hand. Remember when they thought video games were going to create this elite intellectual and emotionally stunted class? Now these video kids have grown up, myself included, and I feel pretty normal. I cry during movies, and I can balance my checkbook.”

Back in the 1950s, publishers and film studios exerted control over the flow of images to the public—the iconic and seemingly candid photo of Marilyn Monroe in a windblown white dress, for example, was actually orchestrated by 20th Century Fox as promo for The Seven Year Itch. Then the rise of the internet and the development of the smartphone turned everything upside down, effectively putting image production—and therefore image-based communication—in the hands of the people. Today, anyone with a phone camera and a cute smile can snap their way to stardom. “It used to take a certain kind of effort to make an image,” says Altmann. “Now you don’t have to have a ton of resources or talent to make them.” She points out that in the era of Google Images, you don’t even need a camera: simply search and download what you want and customize away.

For an image to survive and succeed on today’s web, it must reach as many eyes and platforms as possible—something the net-native generation knows instinctively. Youth culture has always rallied around images—from punks to seapunks—but now that kids have the platform to make and share images themselves, minor celebrities and micro-cultures spring up like mushrooms. “The human drive just loves that shit,” laughs Altmann. “We love to be spreading our seed all the time.” Just as the gene is programmed to reproduce, memes are only memes if they go viral and plant themselves into the collective consciousness.

Grimes cover story

Vancouver, where Claire Boucher grew up, is a ten-hour flight from London. Despite the kind of schedule that would make even a workaholic wince, Claire had agreed to have me tag along with her for the weekend for Dazed’s April 2012 cover story on Grimes. On the plane over, the sun went down and rose again as I traveled through time zones. As I drew closer, the ground below began to resemble Claire’s artwork for Grimes: black and white repeating patterns peeping through the clouds.

We did the first part of the interview in a funny little secret garden in the middle of my hotel, wrapped up against the cold. It got dark while we talked and a guy wearing a tuxedo made us laugh. He couldn’t see us through the window and was using it as a mirror, preening himself.

Later that night we went to a local venue to see her friend Mike, aka Blood Diamonds, play. One of the bouncers got shirty with Claire because Mike had given her an artist sticker. “She’s singing with me,” he lied to the bouncer. “Oh yeah?” says the bouncer. And so she did, just like that.

The whole weekend flowed like that, not least because Claire is just so exhilarating to be around: warm, open and forever running off on tangents. “Have you read The Foundation Trilogy?” she asked me at one point. “In it the human race is so worried about being destroyed so they’re building this library. There is this planet of people and everyone is working to collect all the knowledge that humans have ever come up and write it down in this encyclopaedia. And that’s what the internet is. We’ll be destroyed and die and someone will probably stumble across it in 20 million years and be like, What the fuck? Time is not an issue for the universe; it’s just an issue for us.”

Read my 2012 cover story on Grimes here.

The xx essay

I wrote this essay on the success and relevance of The xx for Dummy in September 2010. My editor Charlie and I holed up in the tiny Dummy office one night in Hackney, waiting for the results of the Mercury Prize so we could tailor the intro accordingly. The photo above was taken by Mikael Gregorsky to go with my 2009 interview with The xx

What have The xx ever done for us?

It’s been just over a year since The xx released ‘xx’, a year that’s seen them graduate from night time crafting in a West London studio to packing out venues on a seemingly endless global tour. They’re an intensely private band who’ve quietly stacked up 650,000 album sales worldwide. They were nominated for tonight’s Mercury Music Prize, and won it. This is why we believe it was deserved.

Crystallised the sound of 21st century London

Places are not fixed. An x might mark a spot but that location is not fixed, static. It is molded, shaped and shifted by the lives swirling around and within it. The London of the 50s was a distinctly different place to the London of the 70s, just as the landscape of 1989 – the year in which all three of The xx were born – is very different to our London now.

In the 21 years since the latter half of the second summer of love, the UK has been in a state of ever-quickening to-and-fro flux that’s been at its most concentrated in our capital: economically from boom to bust twice over; politically from right to left to centre-left to a new, muddied hyper-right; and socially from a relatively buoyant public consciousness to one of increasing paranoia, born from events both tragically real and media constructed. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack to those two decades also took an undulating back-and-forth course between guitar-based and electronic music, between past dreams and imagined futures.

The xx grew up amidst this flux. Born to the rave generation, their South London school years saw grunge, Britpop, US R&B, UK garage, Eurodance, commercial pop and grime each take their star turn on Top Of The Pops: a richly textured set of influences to later draw on. Then as The xx came of age in the mid 2000s, so did pop: recast as an elastic notion with room for all those different forms, sounds and ideologies and more. Yet this new idea of pop still largely existed in waking hours, in the public spaces of daytime radio and after-dinner telly. It took the more recent blurring of the lines between public and private spaces to set the stage for The xx. Previously private spaces – our homes, the night – are now places where we conduct our public life and where new pop stars are born thanks to the internet. Previously public spaces – our streets, the day – can now be private by listening to music on our headphones.

The xx exist in and draw strength from this tension. Their music found its voice at night and brings that darkness and pace into the day. What’s more, their emotional timbre is ambiguity: nothing is fixed or has to be. Their strength lies in giving validity to that uncertainty, in allowing those suspended moments. They present a vision of London that offers refuge and breathing space from the suffocating march of daytime realities.

A couple of weeks ago Skream tweeted that The xx are “like Burial but with a face”. There are many truths in that: like Burial, The xx have mapped midnight landscapes awash with the many overlapping emotions that slip and slide into our consciousness at night; both have painted a picture of that London we all recognise, one bathed in twin desires to belong and to escape; and both talk to the level of clarity that day hides and night reveals.

While Burial chose to remain in darkness, The xx have brought their night time into the day. Through their re-imagining, the London that they’ve dreamt up is taking root: a group of artists including but not limited to Mount Kimbie,Darkstar, Kwes, Sampha and Pariah (download his remix of Basic Space above) are all helping to build it. All know the importance of silence, of confident uncertainty, of creating landscapes with room to breathe. Through their eyes, our eyes can adjust to the dark of this new night/day too.

Given voice to a new youth

When the BBC wanted to paint a picture of the confused mood of Britain during the 2009 general election, they chose The xx to do it for them. A clip of Intro, the opener to ‘xx’, soundtracked the BBC’s election coverage advert in which urban scenes were rendered stagnant by a heavy mist. The music was muffled until a giant fan cleared the mist, and Romy and Oliver were freed to sing. But they had no words – instead it was their ‘ahhh’s that signified movement and a reawakened clarity of thought.

It’s an entirely new idea of youth that The xx represent – one that is more serious, questioning, introverted and undeniably quieter than previous generations. Since the birth of the teenager in the 50s (as BBC4 music documentaries often like to remind us), our idea of teenage-ness has barely shifted. From rockers to hippies, punks to ravers, lads/ladettes to hoodies, each odiously labelled incarnation might have appeared alien to its predecessor but their voices all took the same shape – deliberate, disruptive and loud.

The impact of this two-dimensional concept of youth can be felt in every attempt to communicate to a teenage audience: brash, neon television programming; cartoon-like radio personalities; movies that reduce genre to parody; lazy social media strategies; and hilariously off-point brand campaigns. Every action, every message is communicated in cap locks, in text speak – desperate attempts to score points.

We’re young, not deaf – Casely-Hayford know it, Press Free Press know it, Jayne Helliwell knew it, and The xx know it. They are part of a generation that understands the strength of silence and the power of whispering – that if you say something quietly, people have to lean in closer. Their music has become shorthand on TV shows, idents and events for a very specific kind of brooding, worried youth. When you consider the twists and turns of our recent history, it’s no wonder – a cacophony of irresponsible decisions, destructive actions and ‘lapses of judgment’ have forced a collective unease that’s had a profound affect on our country’s psyche. The music of The xx provides a counterbalance to the insanity. Theirs is a very serious music. That’s not to say it’s joyless, quite the opposite. What I mean is that they convey every shade of emotion – there’s honesty there, a truthful 3D portrayal of human experience. Dressed in their trademark black, they provide a sobering opportunity to digest, to reflect, to wonder. While previous youth cultures have proclaimed to have the answers, the generation that The xx hint at are taking their time with the questions.

Capitalising on the critical and public acclaim of ‘xx’, their label Young Turks/XL ran a shrewdly simple, ‘guerrilla’ ad campaign at the beginning of 2010. A stark black background with nothing but a single, white, sans-serif, block bold, lower case ‘x’. It made for a thoroughly distracting poster campaign on the tube (how many phones store photos of those ads I wonder?) but it was even more striking on the telly. That ‘x’ was beamed into UK living rooms for 10 silent seconds during a Skins ad break on E4 in February: quite literally cutting through the noise of the increasingly schizophrenic (by turns patronising and parodying) yoof programming. In a wonderful coincidence (perhaps?), it was preceded by an advert for Biffy Clyro’s new album, a classic piece of old guard music advertising: cue Radio 1 personality voiceover (in this case Edith Bowman) and heavyweight press quotes over brooding music video clip.

For fans, this bold approach served as a message of inclusiveness: we understand, we are part of this. For those yet to discover the band, it was the ultimate dangling carrot: a clue in the landscape waiting to be cracked. Certainly, The xx are not the first band to harness the power of logo but what makes theirs so powerful is its inherent rich symbolism. Instead of attempting to assimilate a new symbol-logo into an already overcrowded public consciousness (Prince could share a few tips on that), they appropriated one already rich in meaning. And it worked: people started spotting ‘x’s everywhere and ‘seeing’ The xx in their surroundings. Who needs adverts? The ‘x’ acts as a tag – both a signature and a shortcut to an identity, to a message. By creating an emotional attachment to that tag, the fans do the work – any naturally occurring ‘x’ in the world provides a mental shortcut to, and reminder of, The xx.

And who’s steering the helm of this ship? Sure, the label and management had their hand in the channels of communication but the idea is straight and direct from the band. “We chose the name purely aesthetically. It’s just really strong and bold. There’s so much you can do with it, pattern-wise,” said Oliver when I spoke to them back in early summer 2009. All too aware of the possible multiple meanings in their album title, Romy said: “It’s silly really. I realised that xx meant 20 and when it comes out we’ll all be 20.” Plus: “they’re like kisses”, which has to be my favourite reading of their ‘x’s. A new sound, a new voice and a new way of doing things, sealed with an x.

Created a new language of British music

The xx have garage in their blood. You don’t need to second-guess their record collections (you can grab any of Jamie’s superlative mixes for that) – it’s there, in the sumptuous loneliness of VCR, the coiled epic space of Intro, the grinding delicacy ofIslands. They’re the most important British band of our times, because they understand instinctively to the codes, expressions and sonic spaces of urban Britain and spontaneously create a new language. Their heritage is the anonymous broadcasts of pirate radio and unsigned whites, but they don’t just react – they move it on, they take it out, take it deep.

Take gender as an example. In the ‘hardcore continuum’, Simon Reynolds’ theory of British electronic music since 1989 (that year again), he talks of a series of repeated threads that bind the lineage together: there’s the respective soul and style of imported Chicago house and New York hip hop that kick(drum)-started it all; there’s the texture and irreverence of the multicultural British identity; and there’s an underlying “feminine pressure” that runs all the way throughout.

Reynolds goes on to talk of the female voice as holding a “privileged representation of bliss” and yet it’s a position that is very much man-made. Female vocals are processed, chopped and resequenced so as to become simply another texture in the sound, in the journey. But The xx’s representations of gender are neither fixed nor static. Romy’s femininity is not an effect that can be controlled; it is active, not passive. Oliver and Jamie both digress from the ‘natural’ masculine roles within the continuum: Oliver is not an MC, he sings, he emotes; Jamie’s production creates a third emotive ‘voice’ and he rejects a faceless position. In fact, Skream was half right: The xx present not one but three faces, each as visible as each other. There is no front person, no larger than life leader, no sun around which the others orbit. Instead the three young Londoners stand at three corners of an equilateral triangle, as in Saam Farahmand’s 3D video sculpture exhibited in January this year, each with their crucial role to play.

Jamie is the enabler; he creates the space in which Romy and Oliver can tell their separate stories. “What she sings she’s written and what I’ve written I sing,” said Oliver last year in my interview with them, and Romy has remarked in a Youtube interview that neither of them has questioned the other one on their lyrics. Traditional pop structure has it that a male and female presence in the same space equals call-and-response, means a duet or a conversation. But as Romy pointed out (again, in last year’s interview): “We’re best friends so it’s not like love songs to one another, it’s too an outside subject.” Male and female are neither wooing one another or in competition in The xx’s world, instead they exist without conflict, without question – each letting the other one simply be. There’s much hope in that.


This ridiculously Getty-ish image is the real-life view that greeted me at 6.30am yesterday morning. That’s Batak Lake in the Rhodope Mountains, to the south of Bulgaria. It’s just as pretty in person.

By this lake I finished Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, a wonderfully witty, insightful and moving dissection of Celine Dion’s divisive superstardom and how privilege, prejudice and our own personal stories lurk beneath ideas of taste. Many of Wilson’s lines thrilled me but this one near finished me off: “Just as churches say God saves every miserable sinner, the secular lesson is that time doesn’t leave anybody out either: no matter how stuck you feel, you still get to go to the future.” [Thanks, Caspar.]

I ran from Wilson’s arms right into Janet Frame’s. The third volume of her autobiography, in fact; a going away gift from Zillakiller. Frame strips bare to the bones in the telling of her story, inviting us into a world strung together with taut red ligaments. So much stung but especially this serendipitous line: “a life supervised, blessed and made lonely by the sky”.