January 26, 2004

Interview: 23 Skidoo

The early Eighties were a fertile time for music. Bands were pushing the limits of modern music; sometimes they'd produce really excellent music....other times, they produced crap. Regardless of genre and, more impressive, regardless of whether or not the results were crap, it didn't matter if the music was noise, dance, punk, heavy metal, rap or pop--a lot of people were indeed messing around with the forumla, and sometimes the results were fascinating. One such group was 23 Skidoo. While their role in the industrial/techno/dance world has been well documented, what has been ignored has been their extremely edgy, challenging side. It's really rather easy now to look back on those years with a bit of sympathy for the artist, but at the time, such innovations were often met with blank looks, indifference, and sometimes outright hatred. Stepping out from behind their then-developing reputation in the newly-formed industrial world, 23 Skidoo released a most challenging record, The Culling is Coming. One side of the record was a beautiful collection of improvisational recordings made on gamelan instruments, entitled "A Winter Ritual." The other side of the record was a lo-fi recording of an extremely harsh live session recorded on a Sunday morning at the WOMAD festival, when the band took to the stage with sheets of metal and tape loops. (On the CD version of The Culling Is Coming--recently reissued by Boutique--a third, even harsher live session is included, entitled "An Autumn Journey.") To call this record confounding is putting it mildly. 23 Skidoo mastermind Alex Turnbull sat down for a few minutes to discuss what Skidoo were up to back in 1982.

"A Winter Ritual" sounds like it was the result of a fun weekend. How did this session come about? What is your fondest memory of that weekend?

It was actually quite bleak. Wintertime in Devon. We hooked up with the mobile 8 track that recorded us at WOMAD and went to Dartington Music college where we were allowed free range to the Gamelan Instruements. We made a lot of the stuff up as we went. The last two pieces are multi layered loops which we created with Ken Thomas who engineered the mix down at Jacobs studios. He also engineered Seven Songs.

"A Summer Rite" is certainly an eye-opening set. Was the harshness of your performance a reaction to going onstage at such a sublime hour?

We wanted to try something different. People were expecting us to come with some happy conga-funk shit and we instead flipped the script using the performance as a ritual but disgarding traditional instruements and replacing them with scrap metal and tape loops. It was sort of a live exorcism the band having gone through some personnel changes.

With the nature of WOMAD, was your set intentionally planned to be a reaction towards the more organic aspects of the WOMAD idealogy? It seems like the mixture of tribal sounds in conjunction with more electronic elements of your set would stand in conflict with the multicultural elements of the weekend.

What?!? That¹s the point

Both of these tracks indicate something that not a lot of people really seem to get--the fun factor. It seems like you were having a great time on stage and playing with exotic instruments. I mean, it seems as if people don't really seem to understand that it would be really fun to have a weekend with a bunch of Balinese instruments at your disposal.

Absolutely. The WoMAD gig was better. However we were stern fuckers in those days.

How did people react to such live appearances? Did you clear out the halls? At the time, did you have people come up to you and say "what a bunch of shite?"

Both pieces are definitely a one off never to be repeated. We never performed the gamelan stuff only our own Urban Gamelan. As for the live set, when we started one third of the bleary eyed crowd fled in panic and consternation. Those that stayed seemed to really enjoy it. I can say with my hand on my heart that it certainly was not like anything else before or since.

Do you think that, at the end of the day, the music world now is more accepting of such music experiments, or is 2003 just as dire and drastic as 1982/1983?

Early eighties was far more progressive. Much more open minded, hungry, anti commercial. Nowadays everybody wants to sound like someone else. All the avant garde stuff is a bit anal for me. I guess it gets harder to push the envelope when one is this bombarded with non stop information. The Culling came just as the tide of commercialism that has resided for the last 20 years was arriving.

Looking back on your career, how do you consider your experiments on The Culling is Coming? How do they fit into the overall picture? Did the things you did on this record have a direct impact on your future recordings?

Youthful naivity. It really screwed us up! People wrongly assumed that this was how all our performances and music would be instead of seeing it for what it was- a couple of experiments. People would run from us for years.We had to set up our own record company. We recently reissued the rest of the back catalogue and it seems people are still feeling it.


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