INTERVIEW: Sly & The Family Drone | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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A Sly & The Famiy Drone gig is a very, very special thing indeed. Generally, it’s about seeing them perform in the middle of the venue surrounded by speakers and ending with the drum kits being dismantled and handed out to the audience. A kind of carefully structured chaos, jubilant but disorientating, hypnotic rhythms and churning loops combining to massage your synapses and punch you in the face. All this plus an egalitarian yet confrontational approach to what you might loosely call “stagecraft” (not that they often use stages, mind) that feels unique and vital.

Ahead of their gig at the venerable Northumberland Arms I spoke to Matt Cargill – tape wrangler, speaker scrambler, ale connoisseur – and we kicked off by discussing how the whole Sly & The Family Drone adventure started.

It all started off as a solo thing, when I was doing my sound design stuff in London. I used to collect a lot of cassette tapes, I used to do a lot of collage stuff, processing them and messing about with them. The first tape came out just under my name; it was supposed to be the final piece for my sound design degree, and then I dropped out in my third year. When I was collecting tapes a lot of the interesting ones were the ones you see lying about in the street; they’d been discarded or people had thrown them out of their car windows because they’d been chewed up or whatever, you couldn’t necessarily tell what was on it because it’s a blank case or it’s just a length of tape, so I used to respool it and see what was on it. It’s a chance thing. You don’t know what state it’s in, so I was exploiting the physical properties of it – if it’s scratched or there’s dropouts or something – and when it passed over the tape heads it makes a really interesting sound. So I was exploiting that, and then trying to make it even more decayed and I started adapting it in different ways, using magnets or scratching them or messing with the physical tape to exploit its properties. I was finding that it depended what area it was in; it almost had a psychogeographical quality to it. It depends what people were listening to in that area. So I’d find Bollywood soundtracks or bhangra, and then there’d be reggae or hard dub next to shitty pop hits. Making a collage out of that, that exploration was really interesting… and that’s what I was going to be looking at for my final piece but I sacked it off and dropped out.

sly and the family drone 2

“I’d find Bollywood soundtracks or bhangra, and then there’d be reggae or hard dub next to shitty pop hits”

Had you discovered William Basinski’s beautiful, epochal Disintegration Loops at this point?

Not really, although it was around then, that sort of time. That was a really big find for me, I love those pieces of music, when you have a tape loop – or a loop of anything – it can send you into such a weird fucking trance, it can change your mood and be really fucking emotional, and something like disintegration loops are fucking incredible.

So how did you move from the tape collage projects to the version of Sly & The Family Drone we have now?

I did a few performances like that, under the Sly name, and I played a tiny little festival out near Winchester and I got a mate to join me, I’d started making these cassette loops – proper little 3/8” cassette loops with weird rhythms and bass sounds – so I got a drummer to join me. And we wanted some mates to get in for free so we said they were our other drummers and then it stuck from there really. It’s obviously morphed over time, other people have come and gone, but that’s how it started. We now have Dan and Ed – who do a thing called Guncleaner as well, who are absolutely incredible, they played up at the Golden Cabinet a while back – and Kaz the drummer. We tried multiple drummer things for a while but it makes sense for us to stick with this format for now.

Can you tell me something about the live set-up – when you’re in the centre of the crowd it can be hard to see what’s actually happening.

I have a table full of my gear, using various cassette tapes and vocals as my sound source, going through various pedals and noiseboxes and I manipulate that, taking little phrases and swapping them in and out to make rhythms, and we all have some effects. Kaz has electronics on his drums, and pickups, so he can make sounds from those. I like having a sound where you can’t actually tell where it’s coming from. It’s not so obvious, it doesn’t necessarily sound like a drum hit when you hear it. It’s not obvious where the sound source is. It fits our mantra of NO GUITARS. We’ve all been in straight up guitar bands before and wanted to make sounds in non-direct ways, not necessarily using a particular chord or note structure, just see what we can create without using those obvious instrumentations.

And how do you structure the performances, do you just instinctively know that it’s around the 45 minute mark and it’s not going to get any more ecstatic and it’s just time to stop?

There’s been times when we’ve played for far longer, you just go with whatever feels good at the time. I’m very wary of that though, I don’t want people – or us! – to be bored, but we’ve played long enough together now to know where we are. There is – believe it or not – structure to it. There are different movements in a set, and we can work around those, follow the ebb and flow, depending on the atmosphere of the gig and where it’s going, there’s certainly a different movement and we can improvise around that and let it go where it needs to go.

Have you ever been confronted by an audience that just doesn’t get it, that stares at you in slackjawed incomprehension? And where nobody takes up the parts of the drum kit offered?

[Laughing] Yeh. That’s happened, probably still does. Not necessarily on our part but yeh, it could fall apart pretty easily. I think we can feel it and know things to do to either antagonise people or bring them round. Complete indifference would be pretty tough for us I think. The drum thing only happens when it feels right, the drums wouldn’t go out at all if not; we could just be pure electronics, and we can be quite abrasive with that. If other people don’t have any control over it then we can do whatever we want… I’d be quite happy to keep it quite insular and abrasive, and I always used to say you’re either involved or you’re not, you can leave the room, but if you’re there you’re so close to the speakers, there’s that physicality there, that you’re involved anyway.

I’ve wondered, watching you the various times that I have, whether the things you often do live – undressing, climbing the speakers and the like – would ever feel like a chore or an expectation, in the same way that I imagine Iggy Pop feels compelled to pull his cock out every night?

All that is just a thing that happens, it never really used to. Then it just did! But I don’t what that to be the thing that people always comment on. It cheapens the performance maybe, it’s not done for the sake of doing it. There’s that Iggy pop quote “when I’m in the grips of it, I don’t feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain.” It’s just part of the performance… and it gets really hot, Lee!

Image: Lee Fisher, Supersonic Festival, 2014

Image: Lee Fisher, Supersonic Festival, 2014

“Complete indifference would be pretty tough for us I think”

Something I’ve noticed about Sly & The Family Drone gigs is that compared with a lot of the noise scene – and I appreciate that’s a fairly meaningless term – they’re so much less aggressive or macho or elitist. You’re celebratory and egalitarian. In short, there’s a lot more women at your gigs than there are at Merzbow’s.

I think that’s true. Although it’s not really something that has been commented on as such. I’ve had conversations before about this, how I’d really like to see more women at gigs generally, but then you can’t tell people what to go to or what they should like. What can you do to encourage more people to come?

I don’t think you need to do more than you already are, which is to create events that provide an environment where people feel welcome.

We meet so many people from touring about anyway, and we find so many scenes going on we didn’t even now were happening. I don’t necessarily seek it out, but I like to encourage people to feel involved, it’s why we like playing in the middle of the room; there will always be a shy person at the back of the room clutching their pint and I want them to feel they can be involved and that it’s not an exclusive thing at all. And that comes from a punk thing anyway, growing up putting on shows, it’s an atmosphere you create. Not just our band, I want to see it at all gigs.

The kind of underground community you mentioned there seems in particularly rude health at the moment. Is that something you’re conscious of?

I think it’s always been there and it will always be there, but you have to know where to find it I guess. Certainly in underground music, it’s always there. In the last few years, Supernormal Festival has been a bit of a revelation for people. They’re doing it on a larger scale – even though it’s still a very small festival – and it creates an incredible atmosphere, so many people comment on it, how friendly everyone is, you can just wander about and discover incredible music or art happenings, and that creates a really inspiring atmosphere and community, and hopefully people will take that feeling away and create something themselves.

The next S&TFD release is coming out on Steve Strode’s Cruel Nature label, based up in Northumberland. How did that come about and did that lead to the gig next week?

Steve got in touch and asked if we wanted to do a tape and we said yes. I didn’t particularly know the label’s stuff but I knew they’d put out Torturing Nurse and some pretty abrasive noise stuff, really varied as well! And we don’t really know anyone in Newcastle apart from you so we’re pretty hyped; there seems to be a good scene of people who’ve been in touch with us before so we thought we’d come up and check it out! The tape/VHS is called A Fiesta of Skin & Tears and should be out in time for the Newcastle show as well.

And given that it’s a long way from Basingstoke to Newcastle, you owe it to Sly & The Family Drone – and to yourself – to check it out too.

Sly & The Family Drone play Northumberland Arms, Newcastle on Friday 19th June.

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