FEATURE: Novyi Lef – My Inspiration | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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On Friday 24th August 2018 Win Big Records are putting out Ethic or Aesthetic, an EP by local faves NOVYI LEF on cassette and download. There’s a launch night on the night at Little Buildings, which I Love My Brick are promoting, with NOVYI LEF, Faithful Johannes, Video Spring and Moon Prince on the bill. Before that though, Novyi Lef talks inspiration…

From the outset with NOVYI LEF, I wanted us to take on a much more consciously “arty” direction, more in line with the art and architecture I study on my Fine Art Masters, rather than the sample-oriented approach that Tom and I took with our previous project Topaz Gang. As such, it became very much about wearing our inspirations on our sleeves, trying to tie together my own artistic practice, an interest in post-war art, architecture and design, and using all of this to articulate a contemporary political point of view.

One of the greatest inspirations for us, in terms of being so honest about your inspirations, has been LCD Soundsystem. Not only was hearing LCD Soundsystem what sparked my real interest in electronic music, but the way James Murphy uses his own inspirations as touchstones that he uses to construct something completely new was a major guiding light for how we could do something similar – albeit replace Losing My Edge’s litany of “cool bands” with a list of Modernist architects and you’re a tad closer to our take.

T Dan Smith was Newcastle City Council leader from 1960 until 1965. He’s a hugely controversial figure who ended up jailed for an architectural corruption scandal, but was also a local, working class figure who wanted to imbue Newcastle with his self-described Trotskyist brand of socialism, rebuilding the city as a “Brasilia of the North” and ultimately establishing some form of regional governance. He’s possibly best thought of as an Icarus figure – someone who flew too close to the sun, cut dodgy deals in the name of “doing the right thing” and fell, hard. His vision of Newcastle never really came to pass – however, what was built (and what of it still remains) has been a huge inspiration to us. The beautiful soaring Civic Centre, the truncated remains of the pedestrian walkway system, the sweeping curves and thrusting verticals of the Central Motorway and Manors Multistorey Car Park. If you know where to look, you can convince yourself that we do actually live in T Dan Smith’s Brasilia Of The North – and you can see how he wanted his politics to manifest into real, concrete spaces (pun definitely intended).

This is where the title for the EP comes from – architectural critic Rayner Banham wrote a treatise on a then new form of modernist architecture, named The New Brutalism: Ethic Or Aesthetic? The central question is, why does this look like it does? It is purely for aesthetic purposes, or do the morals of the architects involved dictate a look which reinforces their views? In a time where, simultaneously, the remains of the welfare state are being sold off and dismantled, yet we’re increasingly fetishising the mid-century aesthetics that defined it, it’s more important than ever to refuse to separate the politics from the product. Owen Hatherley wrote about this in his fantastic book Militant Modernism – an attempt to “reclaim a revolutionary modernism against its absorption into the heritage industry and the aesthetics of the luxury flat.” – and this has proved a guiding principle for NOVYI LEF. Although we consciously use fairly retro aesthetics – and electronic music is indelibly tied to a sense of retro-futurism – it’s all about taking the look of these buildings, sculptures, paintings, and reuniting them with the underlying politics that gave birth to their creation. We hope that by doing that, it gives us a new way of talking about the present political situation, and not only the things we love from 50 years ago or more.

Musically, other than the aforementioned LCD Soundsystem, Le Tigre were always one of the bands I had in mind for how I envisioned us sounding. The idea that Le Tigre, and Kathleen Hanna’s solo record beforehand, Julie Ruin, always seemed to embody for me is that anybody can do this. Synthesisers and electronic music don’t have to be an impenetrable club of knob-twiddlers but can take the energy and DIY-nature of punk and aim it somewhere less macho and cock-rock, with fewer guitars and – possibly, hopefully – a bit more space for nuance. This was embodied twenty or so years earlier than Le Tigre in The Normal’s incredible 7” single Warm Leatherette – and jump to the present and Australian band Nun (who I stumbled on by accident in Piccadilly Records in Manchester, where a sticker on their album compared the singer to a Dalek and I knew then I had to buy it), whose dark, aggressive but danceable sound helped us decide what direction we wanted to take things in. Synth punk duos such as DAF and Suicide have also provided a template for the kind of energy that we want to bring. Latterly, while rewriting and recording our EP, New Order have proved a huge inspiration – we wanted to take apart these dark tunes and make them dancier, longer and more detailed. The layers you hear in New Order songs are just unparalleled, and while we come nowhere close to that, instead keeping things a little more manageable for just two of us, it helped push us in the right direction to improve our songs.

Beyond just the music, we’ve been very keen to explore different performance possibilities. We’re currently collaborating with artist Jenny Alderson to make some abstract fabric hangings for our upcoming EP release show, and it’s something we’d love to take further in future.

As to whether our music lives up to all of these things – that’s for you to decide. But the intention to produce something political, intellectual and listenable is there.

NOVYI LEF play Little Buildings, Newcastle on Friday 24th August.

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