DATE: 02/13/2018

VENUE: SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium

TICKET PRICE: ₩120 000 (I only ended up paying 60 000 though)

 

The focus of this blog is primarily on the underground electronic music scene here in Seoul, and I don’t really intend to write about much else on here. However, I had the chance to see a live performance by The xx the other night and I figured I’d scribble down some of my thoughts on the gig, both to add a little variety to the content and to give myself the opportunity to practice writing about something a little different.

 

When one of my colleagues managed to track down a couple of half-price tickets to The xx’s show in Seoul and asked me if I wanted to go, I said yes pretty much instantly. The xx is one of those bands that holds a lot of emotional resonance for me, even though my tastes have mutated pretty dramatically since I first fell in love with their sound and they’re no longer a group I can claim to actively listen to. When I first discovered the group around 2009 I was 18 years old and just finishing high school, and The xx’s idiosyncratic r&b-influenced indie pop debut album, xx, served to soundtrack a large part of that difficult transitional period between childhood and something closer to, but still not quite yet, adulthood.

 

Nearly a decade after its release on Young Turks, xx sounds more iconic than ever. It’s a sparse, delicate record, overflowing with a downcast but heartbreakingly direct kind of sincerity. On its release I genuinely don’t think anyone had heard anything quite like it; the combination of breathy, sultry vocal duets, understated yet infectious guitar hooks, and forward-thinking drumming and beat programming that together created something that felt so nuanced, so personal, so intimate. “Intimate” is the word that comes to mind most often whenever I try and put The xx into words; music that sounds like it was made in and for south London bedrooms in the quietest hours of the night. One of the most curious things about the album to me that something so incredibly personal and inward-looking could have such a wide-ranging global impact, lauded by everyone from the nerds over at Pitchfork to Shakira . Then again, maybe that’s not surprising at all; the core themes at the heart of xx – love, loss, longing, desire, loneliness, sex – are common to all of us.

 

 

After being showered with critical acclaim and commercial success, The xx (minus keyboardist and backup guitarist Baria Qureshi, who was asked to leave the band in late 2009 under circumstances that still remain mysterious, shrouded in rumour and salacious internet gossip) followed xx with sophomore album Coexist in 2012 and I See You in 2017. Coexist trod similar ground to their debut, though with perhaps a slightly heavier emphasis on groove and sensuality, while on I See You the band branched out a little, experimenting with a wider range of styles and approaches and producing something that was decidedly more upbeat than either of the two previous records. Both were strong albums loaded with memorable songs, for all that they languish a little in their predecessor’s shadow. In the meanwhile, the band’s drummer and beat-maker Jamie xx began to become recognized in his own right as a DJ and producer within the context of the post-dubstep boom period of British dance music, producing a handful of high-profile singles and remixes, a remix album of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here entitled We’re New Here, and a debut solo album, In Colour, which was loved by some and loathed by others.

 

I should probably pause for a second here and let it be known that I fall firmly into the latter category. I love The xx, but I don’t really care for Jamie as a solo artist. To my ears his production oscillates between being twee, bombastic and flat-out boring, and while I enjoy one or two of his tracks and really liked We’re New Here I would never go out of my way to listen to his material or catch a Jamie xx set – an opinion that was to an extent confirmed by the performance, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

 

The gig took place on Valentine’s Day eve in the SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium, located in Olympic Park in Songpa-gu in the south-east of the city and originally built for the 1988 summer Olympics. It’s a squat, circular building that according to it’s Wikipedia entry can seat 5, 0003 people, though I would guess that a little over 2 000 turned up for the show. Our tickets were, unfortunately, for seats rather than standing tickets, so I saw the performance from a fair distance away and seated the entire time – not my ideal way of attending any kind of concert – but after all they were half-price so it seems a little churlish to complain. The performance was supposed to start at 8 pm, but the band kept us waiting for about half an hour before they finally walked onto the stage – which I had been expecting (what band worth their salt ever starts on time?), but which my colleague was very annoyed by; according to her Korean artists would never leave their fans waiting like that. While we waited for The xx to show face I amused myself by scoping out the crowd; majority Korean, but with a higher-than-average number of waygookin, almost all of which seemed to be women, scattered among the audience.

The xx poster

As it turned out, the show was the very last one on The xx’s I See You tour, which began on February 8th last year. There was something special about being able to join them at the end of the tour – the end of one particular chapter in the story of the band, so to speak – but it was a double-edged sword; all three members – Guitarist and vocalist Romy Madley-Croft, bassist and vocalist Oliver Sim and drummer and electronics guy Jamie xx – were visibly exhausted, understandably so after having been on the road for over a year. The beginning of the show was especially choppy, with the band running through songs at what felt like a very rapid pace, barrelling into the tunes with little to no sense of build-up or introduction. “Islands”, arguably one of the most well-known standout tracks from xx, was the second or third song they played and while the crowd responded with screams of delight at the first few bars of the familiar melody I couldn’t help but wonder if it shouldn’t have been saved for a little later on in the evening. I began feeling a familiar, horrible sensation in my stomach – what if, in fact, this band that I had appreciated for so long actually… sucked? What if it turned out to be a bad show? I’m pretty sure a lot of the people reading this (if anyone is actually reading this, that is) know the feeling I mean: it’s kind of traumatic to finally get to see an artist you love live and find out that their stage show is kind of bad. Not that the initial few songs were actually all that bad, necessarily, the performance just felt a little… phoned in.

 

Ironically, the vibe of the show began to take a turn for the better around about the same time that Romy momentarily forgot how to play her instrument. In what was definitely one of the most endearing moments of the evening, she struggled to pull off the opening bars of ‘A Violent Noise’, starting and stopping again and again as the right notes continued to elude her, even going so far as to swap out guitars at one point. My heart went out to her; I can’t imagine how stressful and embarrassing it must be to run into a hiccup like that in the middle of a performance, in front of thousands of people. But she handled it like an absolute champion, refusing Oliver Sim’s gentle suggestion that they move on to the next song and trying the riff again and again until she eventually got it right. When she finally managed it, the entire atmosphere of the gig changed; the crowd burst into a roar of congratulations, Madley-Croft’s face lit up in triumph, Sim strode over to plant a kiss on her head before throwing himself into the bassline. It took a while to get there, but the rendition of ‘A Violent Noise’ that they eventually pulled off catapulted the song right to the top of my personal ranking of xx tunes. And man, was it worth the wait… it seemed like after getting over the grinding awkwardness that plagued the start of the song the whole band seemed to loosen up and enjoy themselves more, and a strong sense of almost familial warmth and intimacy (there’s that word again!) began to show, between the members on stage as well as between The xx and their audience. Especially palpable was the sense of on-stage chemistry between Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim. The two complimented each other perfectly, gazing into each other’s eyes as they strummed their guitars, their voices alternating in smoky, poetic duets suffused with the sense of yearning and heartache familiar from The xx’s studio albums. But where their voices on the albums were mostly murmur, their vocals on stage were suffused with confidence and presence, lending the duo a kind of command largely absent from their recorded work. It’s easy to see why for a long time fans of the band were convinced the two were secretly dating – rumours that were finally put to rest with Romy Madley-Croft’s engagement and the revelation that she bats for the other team. When Madley-Croft took centre-stage for a powerful solo performance of “Performance”, however, she showed that she was more than capable of commanding the rapt attention of the crowd without Oliver or Jamie’s support; her vulnerable croon sent honest-to-god chills through my entire body.

The xx 1

If Romy Madley-Croft dominated the beginning of The xx’s set, then Oliver Sim was the star of the middle. After pausing to throw out a few polite concert clichés at the crowd – “we love you Seoul”, “so happy to be here”, etc. etc., the usual stuff, harmless but a little cheesy – he descended off stage and down into the crowd, hi-fiving people as he strode towards a smaller stage set up towards the end of the standing area. From down there he launched into ‘Fiction’ a brooding, bass-driven number from Coexist written by Sim himself, whose lyrics seem, like a lot of The xx’s tracks, to be about a painful breakup  (or were they ever together at all?). There was a certain irony to be had in playing the song the day before Valentine’s, as Sim wryly acknowledged.

So far I’ve spent a lot of words gushing about how much I enjoyed Romy and Oliver’s performances, but I haven’t said that much about Jamie xx, frankly because I don’t have that many nice things to say. To my mind, he’s the weak link of the group, and there were several times where I felt as if his booming electronic percussion felt overbearing and forced, working at odds with the gentle, soulful atmosphere being carefully put together by his bandmates. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy any of his contributions, though. One of his high points towards the end of the show was a stunning live remix version of Shelter, with Romy and Oliver singing over a sparkling swirl of synth notes and machine kicks that turned the angsty, wistful number into a total bop. This was followed by a live rendition of one of Jamie xx’s own solo pieces, “Loud Places”, which I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed overmuch in studio form but which was really powerful and impactful on stage, especially in conjunction with the excellent lighting work from The xx’s stage crew. What good will I’d begun to feel for him off the back of those two songs, however, was lost when he launched into a long, filter-heavy jacking house track, utterly jarring and completely out of step with the atmosphere built up throughout the show. Romy and Oliver managed to salvage the end of the show, however, closing with a beautiful rendition of “Intro” and then dusting off “Angel” as an encore number, prompting the entire audience to sing along to the final refrain of “love, love, love” – a fitting end given the date, and the key themes that have dominated The xx’s music for the last nine years.

Overall, I’d say I’m glad I took the chance to see The xx perform. Musically, the show fell a bit flat for me more than once, and I’m not sure if I would ever make much of an effort to see the a second time. Nevertheless, it was really something special seeing the band interact with each other on stage, and witnessing the warmth, familiarity, friendship and love that they clearly share for each other. The impression I was left with was that the band plays together because they really, really love playing together, and they really, really, love each other; and that’s the kind of artistic vision I can definitely get behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DATE: 27/01/2018

VENUE: Cakeshop, Itaewon

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

I missed my first chance to see an Actress set in 2013. I was still living in my home country of South Africa then, and thanks to a series of events jointly curated by Live Magazine and the British Council aimed at bringing British electronic musicians to South Africa, Actress was scheduled to play two sets, one in Cape Town, one in Johannesburg. Myself and my small group of techno-head friends were beyond excited. International underground acts rarely make it so far down south – there’s not really a thriving enough scene there to make the journey worthwhile – so to have someone like the legendary Darren J Cunningham in the country was something special. Unfortunately, at the last minute I was forced to stay home; I simply couldn’t afford it, both in time (to get from our sleepy Eastern Cape town to Johannesburg for the gig required a solid 10 hours of driving) and money (I was absolutely skint). The friends of mine who went came home raving about the experience, and I was understandably seething with jealousy, but one thing that they said stood out to me. When I asked about the crowd – how many people were there? Was there a good vibe? – they hesitated a little, then shook their heads and said “a lot of them didn’t get it, hey”.

Honestly, I wasn’t at all surprised. As a producer, a DJ and – judging by his interviews – as a personality, Actress is straight-up weird, albeit in the best possible way. His production completely defies categorisation: emerging out of that busy, fertile period of London dance music in the immediate wake of dubstep in the late 00’s and early ‘10s, Actress’s tracks clearly draw from a bewildering array of influences – Detroit techno, Chicago house, grime, jungle, r&b, hip-hop, even classical music – yet manage to sound nothing like any of them. Instead, he’s one of comparatively few producers whose sonic palette sounds entirely unique – nothing and no one sounds quite like Actress. The closest comparison that comes to mind – not in terms of musical similarity, but rather in their relationship to their particular scenes – is that of Flying Lotus. In a similar way to how FlyLo takes on the influences and structures and sounds of hip hop and jazz and by some technical wizardry twists them into musical forms that are entirely his own, Actress has crafted something previously unimaginable out of random bits and pieces of the UK hardcore continuum. And though it hasn’t garnered quite the same level of praise and influence that Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label has, Actress’ own Werkdiscs has earned its own place amid the legion of electronic labels out there, providing a home for such diverse and excellent artists as Moiré, Lukid, and Helena Hauff.  What makes Actress even more remarkable, as both a producer and a DJ, is how he’s somehow managed to make such abstract, difficult sounds that often bear only the barest tangential relationship to the dancefloor have such wide appeal – a trait especially apparent on his latest album, AZD, which is probably his most accessible and floor-friendly work since debut album Hazyville.

azd cover

the cover image for Actress’ latest LP, AZD

With all that in mind, when I saw that Actress was due to play a set in Seoul I was both extremely hyped – and grateful that I’d been given a second chance to hear him play – and extremely curious: would he draw a particularly large crowd here? What kind of stuff would he be laying down, and how would the floor respond?

He was hosted, of course, by Cakeshop. Located on the main strip of Seoul’s “foreign quarter”, Itaewon, within spitting distance of the Yongsan Military Base, Cakeshop – which has been in business for five years now – is to my mind a serious contender for the title of “best club in Seoul”. It’s literally underground, occupying the basement level of the building, and the interior is constantly bathed in soft red light. The lighting never fails to make me think of Twin Peaks, as if the club was something out of the set of a K-drama as directed by David Lynch. Musically, Cakeshop walks a fine line between accessible, crowd-friendly grooves and bangers, usually in a hip hop, trap and bass music vein, and more adventurous sonic fare (over the past year they’ve featured artists like Elysia Crampton, Kode9, Gaika and Machinedrum). It’s this balancing act – the way that Cakeshop is able to provide a space both for dedicated beat-heads and casual clubbers just out for a good night- that seems to be the recipe for the venue’s success. If anything, sometimes the place can be a little too successful; on busy nights it’s heaving with bodies to the point where hacking out a space in the crowd to dance can be an exhausting task.

Cakeshop itself is the main attraction, but next door is home to Cakeshop’s affiliate club/secondary floor, Contra; paying door fee at one club secures you entrance to the other. Where Cakeshop specialises in bombastic bass, boisterous crowds and bone-shaking rhythms, Contra, by contrast, is a little more refined; the colour palette is blue to Cakeshop’s red and the sounds on display lean more towards house, disco and techno than bass, dubstep and hip-hop. The fact that you can easily wander between the floors if one gets a bit too monotonous or crowded is a big plus in Cakeshop/Contra’s favour.

The Actress gig took place on Saturday, January 27th, with Contra hosting the first anniversary of its innovative techno night, Exlinear (the brainchild of German transplant Tobias Kalleder, aka KLLDR) at the same time. When I arrived, around half midnight, Cakeshop was still three-quarters empty, with a handful of people clinging to the walls and talking over rather than bobbing to the bass and hip-hop being spun by the opening acts. Upstairs, at Contra, the Exlinear night was a little more interesting. Despite the relatively early hour the music was full of energy, the DJs churning out a barrage of booming, chunky techno and tech-house cuts. I told myself I was only there to mark time until Actress stepped up to the decks downstairs, but in all honesty I found myself zoning out so hard to the Exlinear crew’s muscular brand of techno that I completely lost track of time, and it was around 2:30 am – half an hour after Actress was due to begin – that I glanced at my phone to check the time. Cursing, I made my way back down into the ‘Shop, which Actress had already thoroughly taken over.

If there’s one word I would use to describe the bulk of Actress’ set, it would be “minimal”. Not in the shiny, sterile sense, the clicking and popping of the mid 00s Berlin “mnml” movement. Rather, the sounds issuing from the speakers had a deep and cavernous quality, edged with oodles of negative space and characterised by a crisp sonic severity. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much groove and feeling wrung out of such sparse elements: a shuriken-sharp hi-hat here, a leaden slab of bass there, squeals and sizzles of synth, the occasional grainy ambient wave crashing down around it all. It was a masterclass in simplicity, making everything else I’d heard that night sound overwrought in comparison. Something that I was always keenly aware of was his use of bass. Now, bass is the cornerstone of pretty much all electronic dance music (and, for that matter, most popular music). It’s the bit that actually gets people moving. But in Actress’s set, the bass really felt like the star of the show, at various times coarse and well-defined, rough around the edges and skull-squeezingly deep, thick and sinuous and undeniably present at all times.

ACTRESS_PAINT 3

my phone camera is terrible. That dark pixellated shape is Actress. 

Cunningham’s transitions were also remarkable. In all truthfulness his mixing was a million light years away from seamless. New tracks were abruptly, jarringly introduced into the mix, meshing into each other in a chaotic, car-crash fashion that nevertheless never once felt clumsy or out of control. Rather, after each initially shocking mix the new tracks settled into the set almost subliminally, so that in one moment I found myself stopping and marvelling at how weird and unexpected a particular shift was, yet only a few seconds later I found myself once again caught up in the groove and could barely recall what the set had sounded like the minute before. The flow of the set was never actually disrupted, the energy never lagged, despite how many curveballs Actress threw at the crowd- and there were plenty of curveballs. At one point, he ratcheted the tempo up to a punishing, nearly unbearable pace, beats pummelling the crowd in a way that would almost have been gabber-like had the rhythms not remained so slinky and off-kilter, only to drop right back down again a few tracks later into sludgy, shuffling slo-house. As for what, exactly, he was playing, I would be hard-pressed to give an answer; it’s difficult to guess at what genre(s) I was listening to, let alone which artists. The best I can come up with is: everything he played sounded like it had been ripped off of Soundcloud, but in the best possible way.

The crowd, for the most part, seemed to love it. It’s been said that, at an earlier point in his DJ career, Actress had a habit of clearing (or should that be cleansing?) dancefloors, but I found that the faces and bodies around me remained pretty consistent throughout the night: people were there for him from beginning to end. The club was, it must be said, less crowded than I had expected it to be. It was still full, don’t get me wrong, but nowhere near the overwhelming crush of humans I’m used to experiencing on busy Cakeshop nights. This may indicate that Actress is perhaps not as well-known or appreciated in the Korean capital as he ought to be; however, I think it’s more likely that the weather kept more than a few people home (Seoul in January is bitterly cold, and that weekend the city was in the grip of a nasty cold snap). The crowd was also, I was surprised to see, predominantly Korean, with very few waygookin in attendance. This was, I would say, pretty unusual, as typically acts like this draw quite a sizeable number of the city’s expatriate techno cognoscenti out of the woodwork. Another unusual (especially for Cakeshop) feature of the makeup of the audience was the fact that it was predominantly male. At some points, especially towards the DJ booth, it felt like I was seeing three or four men for every woman. This speaks, perhaps, to a sad truth about the demographic appeal of this kind of music – that fans of the sort of abstract techno that Actress has made his career off of are very much a “boy’s club”.

At some point after 4 am, following a few brief ambient interludes and a final run of rough-shod instrumental grime, Actress’s set drew to a close and he withdrew, almost unnoticed, into the shadows. I decided to head back upstairs and see how the Exlinear anniversary party was progressing, which turned out to be a good decision. KLLDR had taken to the decks, bewitching dancers with a weirder, more psychedelic techno sound than had been playing before. At this point it was clear that everyone was tired – more and more people began to peel away from the dancefloor and venture outside – but it was a happy kind of tired; all around me people were smiling, laughing and dancing in the special way that people do after they’ve had a particularly good night out. By the time everyone was hustled out and both venues shut their doors the subway had already started running again and the winter sun was just beginning to lighten the skyline.

As I strolled out into the dawn, I remembered another thing that my friends had told me about that time they all went up to Johannesburg to see Actress play; how when they’d been leaving the gig they were held up at gunpoint and nearly robbed of all their possessions, only to be rescued by a passing taxi driver with a can of mace (Johannesburg is a dangerous city). Making my way through the orderly streets of Seoul – even Itaewon at its rowdiest feels pretty controlled after a lifetime in South Africa – I turned the story over in my mind, and marvelled at how far away I was from home, how deeply different the context around me was from the one I’d come from – and how despite their differences, both environments could be momentarily connected by something as arbitrary and tenuous as throwing a party with Actress. And that feeling – strangeness and familiarity rolled up into one weirdly comforting sensation – seems like as good a metaphor as any other for the night.