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Not dead: How punk inspires dance music's innovators

Modern punks of electronic music are changing the game

  • Jemima Skala
  • 27 August 2019

When punk exploded into existence in the 1970s, it was like a Catherine wheel - shocking, entrancing, with an enticing air of danger about it. As quickly as it came into existence, though, punk seemed to implode, barely outliving the 70s. Though the initial movement was short-lived, its cultural impact has been seismic, including influencing electronic music.

Many decades have now passed since the punk era, but its ethos of rebelliousness and experimentation has trickled down through the ages and survives in a surprising number of electronic artists and DJs today. The modern punks of electronic music don’t quite form an active, conscious movement in the same way that the original punks did, but they share a similar mindset. It is one that has permeated into some of the more surprising aspects of the industry. It is in LAPS’ sleazy incantations over sparse instrumentation that speak to a particularly female experience, the boldness of which is reminiscent of The Slits or X-Ray Spex. It is in Ziúr’s daring taste, shamelessly mixing Cardi B into Laurel Halo in her Mixmag Impact mix. It is in the brazen productions of tastemakers at records labels like Timedance and RAAR.

It is most definitely in the primal energy of Bristolians Giant Swan, whose live sets fill the room with a pulsing, palpably devil-may-care attitude. Watching them, it’s clear that the duo don’t care about the conventional. In a recent interview with Mixmag, Harry Wright commented, “We’re about what techno used to be about: losing yourself, not worrying about the snobby elements of dance music.” Creating an enclave where you could be yourself in a world that you felt disconnected from was a driving force of punk, and no one in techno is doing this better than Giant Swan. Their visceral performances are lively and sweaty; their audience is visibly loose, and Robin Stewart occasionally shouts down a microphone, not at them, but for them.

A fan of Giant Swan’s is DEBONAIR aka Debi Ghose, a selector who uses her sets and NTS shows to explore diverse genres and show new ways in which they tie together. She only has positive things to say about Giant Swan: “They probably have fucked up the game to quite a large amount recently. They’re sitting in all of these bigger club slots and doing an amazing job of pursuing electronic music but very much being a live noise act. I think that’s pretty important.”

In her sets, Ghose frequently mixes in post-punk to techno and out again. “Punk is pretty much what I like in electronic music, full stop,” she says, whether that be the production of a track or the ethos it puts forward. From working in local record shops in her hometown of Leamington Spa to being one of the most exciting DJs to come out of London, it was mixtapes from the likes of 2manydjs and Ladytron that switched her on to electronic music from her indie beginnings.

When playing such seemingly unconnected tracks in her DJ sets and radio shows, Ghose uses these as opportunities to educate her audience. “I do think my skill as a DJ is very much playing with an audience and maybe taking them to a level where they’re interested and challenged to a degree.” This is punk in and of itself; and while bookending more intense tracks with something “more demure” to draw her audience in, a DEBONAIR set will never tread old ground. Looking to put her audience outside of their comfort zone, Ghose’s DJ sets are a punk rebellion-esque breath of fresh air in an industry where genre becomes a marketing technique.

One artist who embodies this in her everyday practice is Glaswegian Vickie McDonald, who makes bass-inspired, noisy techno as KLEFT, and simultaneously plays in a two-piece punk band Cartilage. When talking about her involvement in the two scenes, she says, “it used to be two separate things, but ... probably since the internet, you get a lot of crossover.” She laughs as she observes, “genre is kind of bullshit really!”

For Vickie, the sonics of techno are where the remaining influences of punk are to be found. “Once you realise what you actually like outside of genres,” she notes, the connections between the two become easier to spot. “For me, I realised that I like certain sounds: distorted sounds, loud sounds, heavy sounds, beats. You get them both in metal, noise and electronic stuff.” This comes across in the violent, arresting sonics of both of her musical projects, and is emblematic of the dramatic rule-breaking mentality that punk engendered. “It doesn’t really change with making punk music or whether I’m making electronic music ‘cos I see them as an extension of my creativity, just in a slightly different direction.”

However, Vickie suggests that it could be the subsistence of punk’s DIY mentality that is what is keeping smaller DJs and producers from achieving wide-spread success in what has become a slick, commercialised industry. “People in electronic music scenes, that tends to be their job. They’re able to make a living off that,” she notes. “Something that I’m noticing, playing in electronic scenes [is an attitude of]: I do everything myself, I don’t have a booker, I don’t have an agent … Having to do everything yourself, turning up to a show where people haven’t had to do everything themselves, is a bit of a difference.”

In contrast, a label that makes this work for them is Newcastle-based Opal Tapes. It has allowed founder Stephen Bishop to closely curate its releases, creating a label with a refined image that has garnered respect in the industrial music scene. With artists as diverse as Karen Gwyer and Huerco S releasing on Opal Tapes, the label as it stands today is a testament to what can be achieved with a good ear and the right DIY attitude.

On a similar wavelength is DEBONAIR, who, when asked what the most punk thing is that she could do as a DJ, simply replies, “sticking to your guns.” In an industry that is quick to define a DJ or producer by their genre, this is the most meaningful way that punk survives in electronic music. Defining yourself by your own standards, not someone else’s, is the key to longevity and authenticity in music.

Jemima Skala is a freelance journalist, follow her on Twitter

Read this next!

Get to know Giant Swan, the duo with riotous live sets and release that match
Get to know Catnapp, the Berlin-based producer blurring the lines between rave and punk
Impact: DEBONAIR
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