Energy Flash - In Conversation with Simon Reynolds: Highlights (FoH 2016)
Every single interview that's been conducted so far has offered an slightly different perspective on the material. The range of ideas that participants have expressed is fascinating, and there is definite disagreement about how strong these ideas of religiosity and spiritualism are in house music. In these highlights from my interview with Simon Reynolds we certainly "get into it". Reynolds and myself definitely align in terms of perspective, and he doesn't shy away from drawing lines of continuity from the original Black civil rights movement all the way through to house music via disco and gay liberation. We talk about electronic music as a product of the modern city, and the "divinisation of house music" by it's listeners.
Don't forget to check out the specially created playlist to go along with this interview. Enjoy!
FoH: In that 80s period, a lot of house music contains loads of different variations on a theme, and they all tend to be about togetherness, and freedom, and emancipation, and this utopian struggle for a better day, I'm just wondering where that comes from? And secondly, why that's in there?
SR: I think its sort of like a residual survival of the civil rights movement in a way. I think it comes out of Black music traditions, gospel, and—what’s the famous Sam Cooke song?
FoH: “A Change Is Gonna Come”?
SR: Yeah it's the same kind of sentiment as that. Calling a club in New York "Better Days" or having a track called "Promised Land", that relates to the way Martin Luther King used all this biblical language from the Black church tradition in America. He used that as the discourse of the civil rights movement, because that's what would motivate people, or touch them, or give them hope. It's not surprising that the leader of the civil rights movement would be a reverend. I think it comes from that, and it filters into the discourse of Black music. And gay people in America modelled their own struggles on the Black struggles didn't they? I think it filters into house music through that, from Black music. I suppose the Philadelphia sound had a lot of sentiments like that, like the OJay's "Love Train”. It comes out of Black music, the more uplifting Black music which has all these encoded religious and political sentiments of hope and resilience and patience. A change will come, there is a better day.
I suppose what's interesting is when that discourse, which comes from Black people and gay people, becomes the sound of straight White Britain, doesn't it, house music in the 90s? Whether any of that element still carries true, or whether its just the sound of people having a good time.
FoH: In Energy Flash you've got my favourite quote that I've just hammered to death for this entire project. "House offered a sense of communion and community to those whose sexuality might have alienated them from organised religion". If religion is going to ostracise those people, why are people still engaging in something that’s semi/quasi religious like house music?
SR: Well I think, especially in a city, people need to have some kind of feeling of community and togetherness. That's a deep seated feeling people like. It's been part of human civilisation for thousands of years, these sort of ritualised, collective experiences. When I moved to L.A I was really surprised—I'd never noticed on previous visits—just how many churches, temples, temples of scientology there are in this town. And it's because it's such a scattered, centre-less city; things like that provide a location where you can gather and be amongst a group of people. It's very important. And I think in a city like New York, although it's less scattered than L.A, you can get lost in a city. So to find people that are your kind then it's therapeutic I think. Humans are social animals. House music can be enjoyable to listen to at home but the experience of listening to it with loads and loads of people, responding in synchrony to the embedded triggers for behaviour in it; you know that hands-in-the-air bit, the dynamics within it, all the breakdowns, and the peaks. When those are experienced in synchrony with lots of other people it is... I hesitate to say a primordial thing, but I think it connects to a basic social need that is analogous to what church, religious gatherings provided; which is “you're not alone” you know? And so that's what the city came up with in a way.
I think when discotheques in the 60s were first invented, they were much more like the 60s movie cliché. You've got some people frugging, they're looking cool, and it's the happening place, and maybe in the corner one of The Who is hanging out or something like that. But by the time they became more of a total environment, and the sound was the thing, and the lights were overwhelming and the sound was overwhelming, it did take on this thing were experiences were so physically intense that they also became somehow spiritual. And then it became a source of identity, a sort of tribal identity. People who gather every weekend. It goes on in every kind of dance music, that element. Jungle had that element, where you were a tribe that was scattered through the city but you all cohered at these particular privileged sites, or you virtually cohered in the sense of all tuning into the pirate stations. But to physically be in the same space there’s this great sensation of being part of something I think. People have a need to feel like they're part of something. I think that's why we do tend to think of these things as like congregations, and sometimes they also have the aura of a political rally. It depends on the music. Like gabba! A gabba rave is not like a church, it's more like a political rally or a football match or something like that. Jungle is somewhere in between religion and politics in it's vibe you know? Like a controlled riot or something. And then house music is the feeling, although it's physically intense and immersive, it's a bit more gospel-y, so we tend to think of it as church. I think it's this primary need to be part of something larger than oneself.
People feel atomized, they feel cut off, they feel like they're not part of... they're just on their own you know? A lot of people feel like "I'm on my own, there's no one" apart from a few friends and family members perhaps if you're lucky, you're basically on your own in this society and if you can have a feeling, a sort of surrogate feeling of actually being in a safe space–oh I hate that I used that word "safe space", I hate that word—but you know what I mean, like a sanctuary. And that’s why so many of these clubs have names like Sanctuary, or a lot of the early post disco proto-house clubs had these religious sounding names Better Days, The Saint, Paradise Garage. They often have these names that are suggestive of religion or utopia or some kind of sanctuary.
FoH: Hillegonda Rietveld, who was in Quando Quango on Factory back in the day, is one of the few people who's written anything on house music in academics at all. And one of the things she writes about is; she suggests that in house music the focus of this thing that is worship-like isn't towards any kind of deity or any kind of supernatural being, but it's actually aimed at the community. I suppose the question that springs up is whether house music is an attempt to replace or subvert God?
SR: Yeah it's probably trying to provide—I don't know if it's trying to subvert god—it's providing some of the functions of that god and religion used to provide. Uncoupling it from the moralistic side of god, and keeping just the "have faith" "things will be better" "things will be taken care of" side of god. The consoling and comforting and optimistic and trusting-in-the-future sides of religion, as opposed to any of the "thou shalt not" side of religion.
FoH: All the kind of dogmatic stuff?
SR: Yeah. And the prohibitions on behaviour, that's obviously not part of house culture! (laughs)
There's hardly any prohibitions at all on sex or drugs or any mode of pleasure really. So it's the good bits of religion without any of the puritanism I suppose. And I think also, in a sense, music becomes the god in a way. Because music's this thing that feels transcendent, feels like a mystical thing, this power we don't quite understand, but it has this tremendous power to open us up and release us. And so music perhaps takes the position of god or the divine or something like that. In some ways it's very in-line with sentiments like... Nietzsche said something like “if it wasn't for music life would be a mistake”. There's a whole bunch of philosophers that who've said things. There's this post-Nietzchean philosopher Emil Cioran who's very bleak and depressive and almost the Morrissey of philosophers. He says that music is the only thing that comes near. I can't believe in god. Music's the only thing that would make me believe in god. It's quite a familiar sentiment among certain kinds of philosophers that music is the great unknown, the great irrational power—not irrational but trans or non-rational power that we can't really explain—as much as we understand the mechanics of music, the actual power music has over humans is a mystery. So the whole of house culture and dance culture is divinising music and making it this—because of sound systems and everything—making it this overwhelming force. There's this dub reggae phrase "shocks of mighty" which I love, which is a very biblical phrase. Shock of mighty. That's to describe the effect of the bass or something. This might, this power that is overwhelming yet gentle and kind. That's music. And that takes the place of god in this secular religion of house music. Maybe.
But there's also the community, there's also the people, there's also this temporary unity. Not even temporary. It's temporary but also regular because the crowd comes week after week, and so it is a community. A community without the bad side of a community of people spying on each other, and policing each other behaviour.