Some of the most successful and influential underground acts of the last 30 years performed over the two day programme at Short Circuit Presents Mute, curated by the innovative independent record label started by Daniel Miller in 1978 to originally release his single ‘Warm Leatherette’ / ‘TVOD’ under the moniker of THE NORMAL.
But added to that was a unique and possibly equally exciting lecture series featuring production luminaries including Gareth Jones and Flood. The weekend drew fans literally world-wide to Camden, and the event became not only a rare opportunity to see the stars of the Mute stable past and present on stage – and the collaborative possibilities that presented – but also a meet up for social groups mainly cultivated on the internet, people recognising their tribal brothers and sisters by way of band-logo emblazoned T-shirts and tattoos.
Unsurprisingly, DEPECHE MODE fans seemed to win in the easiest to spot category, but also probably the most common. The presence of two current members and two ex-members of the synthpop overlords had led to barely measurable levels of anticipation of a possible mega-Mode reunion.
Arriving at the beginning of RECOIL’s performance at the early hour of 7.30pm Friday evening, the festival was already very healthily attended, and it would be fair to say that DEPECHE MODE fans made up at least two thirds of the audience in the main room. Cameras were held aloft constantly aimed not only at Alan Wilder and co. on stage but also at the VIP balcony, where Mode celebrity Martin Gore could be seen relaxing with friends.
RECOIL’s show was engaging and slick, surprisingly beefed up from the sound of his recent albums. His recent association with support act and sometime collaborator Daniel Myer (aka ARCHITECT, HAUJOBB and COVENANT drum programmer) seems to have steered Wilder back in a direction closer to his early work ‘Unsound Methods’ and even to shades of the ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion’ era Mode. As could be expected, the crowd ignited when RECOIL performed a DM mega-remix section, with elements of ‘Never Let Me Down Again’, ‘Behind The Wheel’ and ‘Walking In My Shoes’. At the end of the segment the crowd – who had dutifully engaged in the Cornfield Wave already – cheered rowdily, leading Alan to dryly observe “you like a bit of the Mode, don’t you?”
Shortly afterwards we were treated to our first but by no means last example of the Mute Family guest spots, with Wilder bringing out NITZER EBB’s frontman Douglas McCarthy for a spirited rendition of early RECOIL track ‘Faith Healer’ But if that wasn’t enough to slake the greedy thirst of Mode fans, after an equinanimous rendering of NITZER EBB’s ‘Family Man’ – a track that Wilder had produced – they climaxed the entire affair with a teaser of what could possibly be in store for DM fans – Douglas McCarthy singing ‘Personal Jesus’. Even for non-DM fans, it was an extraordinary moment, reminding us all of the vast possibilities an event such as this one holds, and just how packed with talent Mute has consistently been.
Why this is so, and why this even is so exciting, subsequently, does come down in many ways to the foresight of just one man – Daniel Miller. And so much did and does Miller believe in his acts and associates that many call him their mentor and friend, influence and support. In return, Miller’s genuine passion for his acts is evident, as he could frequently be spotted in the crowd, nodding or dancing to the act on stage.
After RECOIL left the stage to loud adulating applause, the stage was set up for NITZER EBB. McCarthy may not have had far to stroll to get back on stage, but he was kind enough to perform a costume change between appearances, coming out in his trademark Terminator-esque shades and slick narrow cut suit, accompanied by Bon Harris in a designer version of a miner’s outfit (braces and flatcap) and current drummer Jason Payne also sharply besuited.
I challenge you, dear reader, to find any frontman more charismatic than Douglas McCarthy, and the NITZER EBB show was a dynamic and stylish yet powerful affair, taking their back catalogue bests for a prowl to a very enthusiastic crowd who lapped up McCarthy’s posing and pacing.
‘Hearts And Minds’, ‘Control I’m Here’, ‘Getting Closer’, ‘Let Your Body Learn’ and many more NE back catalogue highlights, entertained the familiar and the uninitiated alike, with much impressed clapping and shouting – not to mention gesticular dancing – peppering the whole set.
Having seen the crowd growing steadily, and particularly having spied bottlenecks to enter the Studio space where the night’s industrial luminaries were about to take over for a handful of hours, one had to accept that until cloning is viable we can’t be in two great rooms at once and leave before the Nitzer encore to ensure a place at the CHRIS & COSEY (from THROBBING GRISTLE) show.
Whilst TG’s output was always experimental and confronting, CHRIS & COSEY specialised in a more club-friendly sound, making strange dancefloor hypnotic anthems. With the Optimo label’s recent rerelease of early album The Space Between showing the groove that infuses much of CHRIS & COSEY’s more danceable work, it was no surprise to fans who packed themselves tighter than industrial sardines into the small Studio space that the Carter Tutti meets Nik Void (from FACTORY FLOOR) show was at its heart a techno influenced affair.
With a U-shaped stage absolutely covered in gear including effects pedals, synths and laptops, Chris Carter steered the groove with pulsing spacey beats, whilst Cosey Fanni Tutti added guitar, bass and reverb-soaked vocals, Nik Void punctuating the affair with guitar played with a violin bow. It was awesome, brilliant and a little strange. Just a good amount of strange, leaving many first-timers more converted than freaked out.
As to the issue of freaking out the crowd, that was the accepted raison d’etre of following act NON. After CHRIS & COSEY, those who wanted to see NON had the smarts to remain in place through the intermission, as lines streamed up the ramp outside.
Reports gave the average waiting time to get into the Studio from the beginning of the CHRIS & COSEY show until after NON at at least an hour, some seeing none of these acts at all, which understandably resulted in massive disappointment. These acts should have played a larger room, however the limitations of space in the Roundhouse gave no larger space to allocate.
NON’s show was brief and far less confronting than his reputation may suggest. Beginning with iconic track ‘Total War’, the first 20 minutes saw NON man Boyd Rice running through extended versions of a handful of NON pieces, accompanied by hypnotic visuals. His final piece was facilitated by an audience member just happening to have a drill key handy – what are the chances? After fixing his clearly ailing drill Rice treated the audience to a short burst of noise, as he used said drill to play his bass guitar. And then, suddenly and too soon, it was over.
Following this was a very different flavour of electronic sound, Mute producer and electronic artist POLE played an hour of excellent dub techno and house to an oddly mixed crowd, unsure whether to watch or dance. Eventually the dancing won out – as it should have, given the infectious nature of POLE’s grooves. Daniel Miller himself was spotted grooving in the corner, affably speaking with members of the crowd when they were brave enough to approach him.
At this point it seemed prudent to leave some energy for the extremely early showing required for Gareth Jones’ 11am lecture, and T RAUMSCHMIERE was abandoned as a good but unachievable luxury. Sadly, the best laid plans of mice and music-nerds were significantly scuppered by a swarm of takers for the Jones talk, again heavily skewed with DEPECHE MODE fans. After long sighs and cowed shoulders at the words “I’m sorry, this talk is now full”, it was time to wander inside and tinker with the open-to-public modular set up in the floyer.
A Tardis-like construction of modular modules, with several panels wired to speakers so one could share the variably wonderful and execrable bleeps and arpeggios of one’s construction with anyone in hearing vicinity. Nearby were enthusiasts armed with soldering irons, resistors and PCBs, building their own Mute Synths. Converging on the lecture space a couple of hours later to catch POLE – aka Stefan Betke, talking about mastering.
A talk for the more nerdy of the crowd, it did not suffer from the same crowding issues as the earlier Jones talk, and much of the information and question subjects were from and for musicians and home-producers. A criminally under-rated studio producer who has worked with a number of Mute artists in the past, Betke was charming and informative for those who chose to listen. In fact, listening was his best advice for home-production: “learn. how. to. listen”
A quick dash back to the bar gave 45 minutes to wait for what would reveal itself as arguably a weekend highlight, the talk given by Flood about his role in the development of what have become classic albums like NICK CAVE’s ‘Mercy Seat’ and DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Violator’. Flood proved to be an entertaining and cheeky speaker, taking affectionate digs at the whims of artists. His impersonation of Martin Gore’s first reaction to the disco-ed up studio version of ‘Enjoy The Silence’ with a slighty nerdy “…it ain’t my kind of disco” drew huge roars of laughter. There are plenty of YouTube clips of his talk, and you should indeed look them up.
Whether or not they are your favourites, great bands play daily in the UK. But hearing a producer and all-round nice guy like Flood give insights into the making of iconic albums we know and love – was quite an emotional experience and difficult indeed to top for best weekend experience. Not for the first or last time, listeners at this talk felt a sense of commonality – of mutually felt joy and not a little awe at what we all realised was almost a unique opportunity to see Flood in the flesh.
Human needs for sustenance and liquid fortitude took precedence, next, as we waited out the pre-ERASURE hours eating, drinking, bumping into a multitude of familiar faces and finding ourselves unable to manage more than five minutes of THE RESIDENTS.
Like many Mute acts, they were confrontingly strange, odd and unique – but not a cup of tea I found particularly drinkable. And I joined a massive crowd- easily the largest of the weekend – who had gathered to hear ERASURE, expecting and hoping to hear the unexpected.
Rumours had gathered pace as to what may happen on stage, especially when DEPECHE MODE’s Fletch got into the DJ booth beforehand. And whilst it may not have been exactly what was wished for, the ERASURE showcase certainly did not disappoint.
After the hysteria caused by ERASURE’s stage show, LAIBACH were always going to confuse and potentially scare the more commercially oriented part of the crowd. And – they did. Obviously the main influence for RAMMSTEIN, the LAIBACH approach is equal parts martial bombasticness and tongue-in-cheek pomp, best understood when listening to any of their impressively silly covers.
Tonight, after treating the crowd to chart-anthem ‘Live Is Life,’ they chose to cover QUEEN’s ‘One Vision’, repositioning it as a propagandist anthem. ERASURE fans leave in droves quickly, but whilst the audience may have thinned there were no shortage of LAIBACH devotees in the crowd, singing, shouting, air-punching and generally loving what was definitely an enjoyably visual and expansively imperial performance. Ending their set with a refreshing take on one of the most fitting – and most covered – electronic dance tracks from Mute’s back catalogue ‘Warm Leatherette’, LAIBACH put a tougher more menacing spin on the track, after RECOIL’s more groove oriented rendition the previous evening. Another weekend highlight, this was a worthy tribute to the amazing Mr Miller and his Mute legacy.
Closing the weekend’s proceedings was a late running DJ set by DEPECHE MODE’s Martin Gore. Many remained in The Roundhouse, hoping for a Mode tune or two but Gore stuck to his guns with a well thought out set of rugged techno for his kind of disco! Those who were lucky to get invitations to the aftershow party DJ-ed by REX THE DOG carried on partying while many others hung around the outskirts of The Roundhouse to chat.
The influence on popular culture of Daniel Miller’s vision and the Mute back catalogue cannot be under estimated. Its acts have helped shaped genres as diverse as RAMMSTEIN’s industrial metal, house music from the likes of DERRICK MAY and even all singing-all dancing girl pop such as THE SATURDAYS!
A fabulous weekend all round; if this review had a five word limit, I would choose the meeting of like minds to summarise the unique musical, social and creative experience that was the Mute Festival.
Text by Nix Lowrey
Live photos by Mike Cooper
5th June 2011