Step inside Kode9’s “sonically wild” Astro-Darien project - Features - Mixmag

Spaceports and Scottish imperialism: Step inside Kode9’s “sonically wild” Astro-Darien project

The Hyperdub head tells us about his immersive sonic fiction project, based around the looming post-Brexit disintegration of the UK, and his latest album, ‘Escapology’

  • Gemma Ross
  • 12 August 2022

In another dimension near parallel to our own, one where the efforts of the UK’s colonial activity had failed, what would the nation look like? Had Scotland’s notorious Darien Scheme, which attempted to colonise what we now know as Panama, gone through successfully in the 17th century, the inner workings of the country would surely look a lot different. For Scotland's sake, the once independent nation might remain that way some four centuries later. “You would have Scottish imperialism, either on its own, or part of the UK so in that sense, I’m not sure either is preferable,” Kode9 contemplates. “But I do wonder how things would have panned out if London was only the capital of England and not the whole of the UK, as that model seems increasingly unsustainable.”

Glasgow’s Kode9, the moniker of Hyperdub head honcho Steve Goodman, is considering what Scotland would look like had that scheme gone to plan. The mission sought to bring wealth and power to the country through the colonisation of the Gulf of Darién and establishing of New Caledonia, but it failed after several expeditions and deaths in the low thousands. Its failure came down to several things, ranging across tropical diseases, English opposition and violent Spanish retaliation.

The doomed plan brought Scotland to financial ruin at the turn of the new century due to a large part of its backing coming straight from the pocket of the nation through public subscription funding. This forced a broke Scotland towards unionising with England as it sought new avenues for prosperity. The Darien Scheme, as it’s been named, has now become the centrepiece of Kode9’s current work in progress - a comprehensive project that ticks off multiple artistic boxes and sees the making of his first full-length record in seven years.

Read this next: High times in the Highlands: Exploring the outer reaches of Scotland's music scene

“Astro-Darien is about a video game set against the backdrop of the break-up of the UK,” explains Kode9. “The Darien catastrophe contributed to the foundation of the UK as it almost bankrupted Scotland, so I wanted to rethink and invert that story when thinking about how the union might disintegrate and what lessons could be learnt from the Scheme, and the British Empire’s many crimes and mistakes. So, the time span of the game, integration and disintegration, is kind of bracketed by the Darien Scheme in the past, and Astro-Darien in the future.”

Astro-Darien is a self-dubbed ‘sonic fiction’ project that merges the multi-disciplinary works of visual installations, audio essays, and the resulting album, ‘Escapology’, allowing Goodman to break the mould and put all of his creative eggs into one basket. It imagines a futuristic vision involving spaceports and science fiction, originally created as an audio project for the ears of pre-pandemic Paris through the Acousmonium, a 50-speaker soundsystem built in 1974. “What I was planning was pretty wild sonically,” Goodman tells us. “This got postponed by the pandemic which gave me time to go much deeper into the research process. Once I’d finished it, produced it as an installation at Corsica Studios, and sent it in for mastering, I thought, ‘this is pretty weird, let me just do another version’."

What came next was the making of his first album in more than half a decade, ‘Escapology’, the counterpart to the Astro-Darien project which he's already spent three years developing. The record lends itself to the wider body of work as a soundtrack, which Goodman says “crystallised around me finding out that there were plans to build Spaceports in the north of Scotland”. When he visited those sites between lockdowns in 2020, it triggered the artist to imagine a “full exodus” out of those spaceports, envisioning a new intergalactic edge to the project.

“[Escapology] is a more upbeat, rhythmic version that people might recognise more as a Kode9 release and as a kind of introduction to the world, a gateway drug into this wider universe,” he says. The 15-track record builds upon his club-rooted influences and reimagines them in a conceptual framework. “The first tracks I ever produced when I was learning to make music were jungle tracks in the mid-'90s. Some jungle influences had crept back in, via footwork, into my recent remixes such as the one I did for Chinese artist Hyph11E that came out on SVBKVLT a few years ago. So, this thread reappears on ‘Uncoil’ and ‘Lagrange Point’,” he says, referencing two new footwork-led tracks on the record.

Read this next: Constant innovation: Why Hyperdub is in a realm of its own

“In the last few years, I’ve been playing and making tracks that have accelerated UKG drums, the kind of beats I was into pre-dubstep in the early years but sped up to 160 - you can hear a bit of that in ‘The Break Up’. Also, I’ve got a soft spot for drone-y dance music and the track ‘Cross the Gap’ picks up from where I left off on ‘Love is the Drug’ from my second album, 'Black Sun’,” he says. The record itself flaunts a videogame-style cover, representing its thematic link to the currently fictional game. At the underbelly of its dynamic and experimental soundscapes, it still drums down to club-centric rhythms.

Elsewhere, there’s the installation which was showcased at London’s Corsica Studios earlier last year, one of the first visual counterparts aiding the project where viewers had the chance to see behind the eyes of fictional character Guna Yala, the head programmer on the mission. Guna Yala is also the current day name of the indigenous province where the Darien scheme failed on the northeast coast of Panama, which is now an autonomous indigenous territory helmed by matriarchal leaders. The immersive project was backed by the animation of visual artist and filmmaker Lawrence Lek who helped to bring the project to life at Corsica, the seminal club where Kode9 and Shannen SP once hosted Ø, a regular midweek event series which took place pre-pandemic. “They’ve always been so supportive,” he says of the club. “We had a lot of experience mutating that [club room] in so many different ways.”

While the project was still in its fledgling days and had only developed into an audio essay, the crew behind Corsica asked Goodman if he wanted to showcase any non-club-focused works. “I pulled together some footage I had from the sites of proposed Spaceports on the North Coast of Scotland that I had filmed on a road trip in October 2020 with some new animation from Lawrence Lek,” he recalls. “The installation was open for a couple of weeks, and was a gentle yet surreal way of returning to reality after the strangeness of the peak pandemic period.”

That audio essay, which was due to be showcased in Paris in March 2020, will now receive its full release later this year via the Hyperdub sublabel Flatlines — and maybe even a book to go alongside it. “Astro-Darien is a 26-minute audio piece narrated by Scottish robots. It will come out on Flatlines later this year, and I will develop this project further in more installations, perhaps subsequent records and eventually maybe a book. Really, it's just a weird documentary of what’s going on so as reality unfolds, subsequent instalments may emerge,” he says. Later in the year, fans can even expect a new live A/V show from the producer and artist — just another addition to the endless pool of creativity.

Read this next: Hyperdub has launched a publishing company, Flatlines Press

Combining fact and fiction, history and future uncertainty, the cross-disciplinary universe that Kode9 has created is particularly telling of the times, and more so now than ever, stays relevant to the political landscape of the UK. “I’m not particularly patriotic and, as someone whose family seems to have moved country every couple of generations, I have always been a bit hostile of nationalism,” he asserts. “This is the first time [using Scotland as a backdrop], and is born out of the frustration and nausea generated by unionism during the first independence referendum, Brexit and the default position of almost all British media and politics.”

Find out more about Kode9’s Astro-Darien project here, and listen to ‘Escapology’, out now on Hyperdub.

Gemma Ross is Mixmag's Editorial Assistant, follow her on Twitter

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