Lone Taxidermist and Wrangler at the Servant Jazz Quarters

The Servant Jazz Quarters has been the scene of many a wonky night out for some years now.

It started off as a beastly squat, then became an underground garden centre and eventually coughed into its current life as a progressive speakeasy-style bar and venue for the post-hip, slightly older denizens of Dalston, east London.

Tonight sees pop auteurs Lone Taxidermist and performance noisers Wrangler sprawling a glorious mess of sonics and Dadaism across this collapsing basement.

First up are Lone Taxidermist, fronted by singer Natalie Sharp (pictured), who delivers wry and “slutty” songs about staggering pissed across London and ketamine landscapes viewed through a kaleidoscope of funk, electro and glitch.

A mutating Chocolate Factory of deep bass and occasional Kate Bush vocals, Lone Taxidermist could be described as mash-up of 21st-century CAN and Jefferson Airplane, with an infectious and witty verve which sets them apart.

The deep, moody tunes seem at odds with Taxidermist’s personal affability — they don’t take themselves seriously but it’s clear that their music is everything to them.

Heading up the night are Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder’s new project Wrangler. Mallinder’s vocals are mangled through space by Phil Winter of electro folk pioneers Tunng and the ambient Benge, last seen quite inexplicably supporting the blistering Venetian Snares some years ago.

As one might expect from a coupling of such button-pushers as Winter and Mallinder, the set is provocative, occasionally deliberately artless and oppressively loud — the hallmarks of “true” punk.

While Phil Winter’s live vocal treatments for Lone Taxidermist are carefully held back to accommodate the over-arching tone, they go well and truly bat-shit by the time Wrangler get involved — this may not be everyone’s idea of a winter night in.


First published in the Morning Star

Polar Bear – Xoyo

I, like most reasonable people, abhor the saxophone. Seeing two saxophonists on stage with anything other than a big band (also bad) will make me about turn and shelter myself at the bar. But for Polar Bear, it’s ok.

Coupled with the humanity of Tom Herbert’s double bass and the Magellan of Max/MSP, Leafcutter John, there’s enough ambition and invention to forgive even a pair of these honking brass crimes, played stunningly by Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart.

Band leader Seb Rochford nestles anonymously behind his kit, adding colour to the almost sinister palette his band are cooking up. In this world, playing the kit as a kit seems alien and intrusive.

As the evening mutates, Herbert and Rochford lock in to straight-ish, crowd-pleasing grooves, then let them dissipate into space before unpredictably pushing into harder areas, like a demo of live cartography.

What issues forth is less a representation of an album or group, but more of a set of parameters and ideas which can be taken away and reassembled by the listener post hoc. You get what the band allow through the leaking cracks of their unusual machine.

Live, improvised electronic music is very dangerous as often only the highly skilled – that is, not just someone with a MacBook – can even come close to designing, intimately understanding and controlling a workable, original system, let alone having the fluidity to make it musical. So, if you want someone to do all this within the loose framework of a jazz band, then you go to Leafcutter John.

Leafcutter deals less in audio than data flow, through carefully measured gates, algorithms and filters, generating a kind of purity of clatter reminiscent of Autechre.

And in the middle, obscured by sound, sits savant Sebastian Rochford, calm but powerful reminder that there may well be some cosmic force drawing music and art from our baffled frames.

Tim Key at the Arcola Tent, 12 March 2014

Autosexual pioneer Tim Key makes no secret of the fact that he is an arsehole. As such, he is familiar, occasionally irritating and disappointingly necessary.

His strangled route to his extended, sold-out metropolitan residencies gives some indicator of his peculiar and wide appeal – Russian student, writer, open-mike mosquito, sketch comic and now film star.

His current show, Single White Slut is a development of his slowly evolving theme of an effortlessly powerful, off-beat meta-poet whose sexual prowess is so compelling that it’s practically a nuisance to him while an unparalleled thrill to all woman.

With a blend of artfully dreadful poetry, personal horn-blowing and borderline sexual harrassment, this horrid man manages to select the worst traits of the character he has cultivated for himself and warps it into a Lynchian bubble complete with owl fancying and reckless priapism.

Always somehow one step ahead, Key heckles his own audience in order to keep them in check, to experiment with form and challenge them to give him something harder. All of this combines to fully engage the consistently packed Arcola Tent night after night with a thoroughly expert performance.

Key joins the likes of George Carlin as some of the few comedians can pull off working in the round without resorting to clumsily acknowledging the space. Indeed he extends the format with playful abandon, interfering with the stage and generally indulging himself in an hour and a half of well executed peacocking.

On stage Tim Key needs no recommendation, and off it he’s no arsehole. Clear your diary if you manage to get hold of tickets.

Field Day 2012

Tweaky big beat pumps from an ad hoc sound system, beautiful people mosey around under post-modern sunglasses — permanently affixed to face regardless of weather — and clumps of hay spring from the spaces in between.

When I walk past three hours later, the music’s louder and it appears there’s a permanent cloud of dried grass hovering above the revellers.

This is Field Day, and it’s now six years old. It seems difficult to imagine the very first Eat Your Own Ears/Adventures in the Beetroot Field/Bugged Out all-dayer in 2007 — a well-intentioned event sorely plagued by planning and audio issues — sharing a lineage with the hipster calendar cornerstone that it is today.

To descend upon Hackney’s recently refurbished Victoria Park and see one of the best small festivals in Britain is a charming encouragement. This isn’t even a small festival any more.

Shrewdly spaced over most of the park, the layout perfectly isolates stage sound as well as giving each corner its own identity beyond the typical “main stage, alt stage, dance tent” setup.

First ear-grabbing act of the day was Andrew Bird, a US multi-instrumentalist whose latest album Break It Yourself is lush cut of quasi-classical modern folk whimsy fused with a country lilt, all backboned by Bird’s stunning drummer.

Rarely seen is such vocal crowd enthusiasm for a violinist — with band or otherwise — and I couldn’t help wondering if there was some link between the joyful, yielding abandon of the audience, their ever-mobile jaws and bared teeth and the highly sexed full-body dancing which I found myself an unwilling participant in. Perhaps I’m just getting old and that’s how kids dance these days.

Arguably the highlight of the weekend for many was space-funk dance outfit Metronomy, who made full use of the thankfully well-appointed sound system with staccato, intricate Prince-style synth lines and deep, macabre pop bass.

There’s a sinister magic surrounding this Devon four-piece.
Broody, wonky keys, catchy hooks and a sense of humour combine perfectly with songwriter Joe Mount’s personal maturity.

After coming off stage he seemed like he’d just had a bath rather than whipping up a crowd of thousands into a gurning orgy of music.

In what could easily be called a misjudgement in programming, following Metronomy’s devastatingly dancable set was Beirut, every self-respecting scenester’s favourite US post-gypsy mariachi chanson group.

While Beirut rarely disappoint with their sleazy ballads, one couldn’t help feeling that the jawgrinders in attendance would have been able to prolong their buzz a little longer had these bands swapped positions.

Closing proceedings were Franz Ferdinand, a band who I mistakenly presumed had long retired from public performance.

Despite being ignorant of running orders for the whole day — the mark of true, bleeding-edge hipness — I was queasily surprised to find such an anodyne group putting the festival to bed.

While clearly capable of writing the odd radio-saturating hit single, Franz’s musical and instrumental simplicity offers a prim reminder that their brash, angular pop is actually rather flimsy.

But where else can you find a 10-hour, no-questions-asked straw fight on a Saturday in east London?

Camille at the Barbican

Having seen Parisian singer Camille in the golden oven of the Hackney Empire last year I was prepared for this Barbican installment to be an intimate and classy show, most likely a two-set set encompassing a run-through of her latest album Ilo Veyou and her “plus grands succès.”

But I wasn’t prepared for the absolutely stunningly inventive, world-class minimalism of the staging and music. Nor could I have been adequately briefed on the flawless charm of Camille herself.

Self-effacing, pitch perfect and frankly beautiful, she commands the sparse set for nearly two hours while a single incandescent light bulb suspended from the roof acts as a delicate and powerful foil to the music, effortlessly embodying an embryo, a child, a lover, a star, a universe.

Using this most simple of theatrical devices, she distills the audience into the palm of her hand, their stunned attention saluting her originality and the auditorium swelling with the silent, spectral clatter of mouths falling open en masse.

Camille’s typically wry, play on words songwriting and demeanour was exercised to its full in everything from her patter, audience manipulation and good-humoured piss-taking of the French stereotype, subtly underscored by a tasteful push of a backlit tricolore and a comic vignette from a melodramatic, Anglophobic dance-instructing character.

This occasionally touring show is not a pop concert but an overwhelming piece of art, and absolutely without a doubt, Camille is a rare and vital creative force. Never lose sight of her.

Kit Downes & Seb Rochford – The Vortex

In the loft of Dalston’s Vortex jazz club, pianist Kit Downes has teamed up with arch drummer Seb Rochford — of Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland pedigree — to expose their box-fresh collaboration to the public for the first time. 

The duo exude a shy playfulness in both their banter and music, throwing in bizarre asides about tubs of powdered insomnia drugs, available at the bar in lieu of the usual CDs and records.

This typifies their off kilter approach to music — and indeed behaviour — with Downes unselfconsciously sat with his back to the audience and Rochford weighed down by a sentient art installation of hair.

Rochford is a saboteur of the ungroove, parrying Downes’ atrial collapse at the keys with deceptive and delicate origami rhythm.

Downes’ expresses an easy command of his instrument which is casual and deeply serious.

It wraps around the kinks of the rhythm section, densely folds itself into a Tetris-like staccato density and elegantly retreats, a perfect foil to Rochford’s marble slab and glass miniature brushwork.

Rochford’s level of improvisation is arresting, both technically and conceptually, as his flourishes appear to take even him by surprise, as a suspended stick returns to hover above his snare, leaving a riveted cymbal unmolested for a few more meditative bars.

Much as Rochford’s lauded insmonia powder, once tasted their music becomes essential and difficult to rest without.

Katzenjammer – The Water Rats, King’s Cross

Norwegian all-female four-piece Katzenjammer are a refreshing anomaly in an arid landscape of zero-effort poseur punk.

They formed as so many truly original groups have — and unfortunately as so few still do these days — on a spontaneous ethic of relishing music for its own reward and an unconceited regard for the childish joys of performance. And cartoons.

And they can really wail.

Having just smashed an armful of British festivals to pieces they find themselves in this surprisingly unimpressive hole in the fabric of King’s Cross, playing to an audience of deep-voiced lads who manage to grunt and gurgle through a set that may be remembered as fondly as any of the early Sex Pistols, apparently under the impression that the girls are here to provide wallpaper with tits.

But it is they who are the fools. The girls’ razor-sharp, dry wits and stunning instrumental familiarity form a diamond-tipped point which laser-guides their incredible Abba-tinged gypsy-punk — last Scandanavian cliche, I promise — even deeper into the gaping mouth of a whooping audience.

Jumping between instruments — the standard accordian, semitone-transposed piano, giant cat-faced contrabass balalaika and glock set up — with a bewildering fury, they offer well over an hour of indefinable fusion ranging from crushed folkbilly and faeryland devil-sweetened hymns to queer, heavenly four-part vocal harmony.

Captivating, confidently camp and utterly thrilling. Do not ever miss a chance to see Katzenjammer.

Watcha Clan – Rich Mix, London E2,

While I was initially apprehensive of such a broadly inclusive one-world-at-peace position, Watcha Clan fast dispelled any fears of right-on, ultra-left posturing through their brutal live energy and musicianship.

Drawing influences from a dizzingly diverse range of styles including Arabic modes, seventh-laden chanson, wailing blues rock and perhaps most prominently, extra-hard drum’n’bass, this nebulous and organic group manage to make each cultural alloy their very own.

Led by the dubiously named and relentlessly energetic Sista K through megaphone and percussion and fiercely reinforced by a horrendously able keyboard/sampler/accordion/vocal operator, the rest of the band keeps pushing faster and harder with rapid double bass, virtuoso clarinet and Back To The Future samples.

Particularly enjoyable is the sight of guitarist and gumbri player Nassim.

He’s sartorially plucked from Lawrence Of Arabia and beautifully incongruous with the Stratocaster upon which he plays hot, bent and crunchy solos that rank up there with the likes of Prince and Page.

The Rich Mix has always been a strange venue, apparently uncomfortable in itself and unsure of its identity.

But this evening in its half-empty quadrangle it’s clear that this is about one thing – people coming together and enjoying music with complete abandon, irrespective of their background.

The crossover between electronic music and the “classical” idiom is one of the most difficult to tastefully achieve without either inelegantly sleighting the latter, overdoing the former or – even worse – maligning both.

Watcha Clan are fortunate that their technical skill and deep cultural awareness allow them to effortlessly bridge this gap, improvise around any theme which pops up and still ensure that it coheres without pretence.

This kind of skill often comes with a price of po-faced studiousness, but not here.

While fusing a world of tonality and rhythm the Clan still manage to surrender themselves to an infectious joy which is impossible to ignore.

This isn’t just music but the essence of life itself.

Rum Do IX

Football on the wall, soaks supporting the bar and two hungover spindlers are whipping cables around the pub, lost and hungry.

Two hours later and The Train Chronicles are alarming the Saturday afternoon habitual drinkers with classical-flavoured weirdness under a maudlin Tom Waitsy throatism. Rum Do Festival Part Deux has always been a collapsible DIY affair and the landmark all-dayers are scaled-up, shambolic and ad-hoc replicas of the monthly counterpart, never slick and overdone.

Early sets from Jack Joseph and Mickey P couldn’t be more disparate, from precocious alt-folk – peaking at the incredible On The Beach – to a self-deprecating 20 minutes of pilled-up guitar rap hardism.

A mound of pubic hair is all that’s left of the fugacious performance artist Jack Catling before taut jazz outfit Rubinger start the second half which rattles through the night like a drunk train.

Taking something of a departure from prior Rum Do incarnations, this Christmas knees-up has taken a distinctly elegant turn into an evening of finely tuned lounge and soul.

Natalie McCool punctuates this perfectly with her surprisingly effective guitar and bass duo performing her voice-flexing standards, ending on a witty and charming seasonal cover. The only clues that this wasn’t Christmas Eve were in the absence of mulled wine and an amyl nitrate-soaked orange.

As the floor became more slippery and the bar increasingly dry the levels and intensity notched themselves up by degrees until the Castle tavern was heaving with raucous abandon. A hotly anticipated golden capital punch came from Rum Do veterans Suffer Like G Did, twisting steel fibres through wormholes in unknown time signatures in their extended set.

Le Vieile Homme made his seasonal return to DJ-ing duties, exhibiting his idiosyncratic mixing style – 30 seconds of silence followed by a white noise-lashed Michael Jackson snippet – mashing up Mingus, Beck, Toilet Fish and the Auld Corpse.

Rum Do has carved itself a hole in the wall of Whitechapel’s so-called music scene while carefully sidestepping all of the self-aggrandising posturing for which it’s famous. No tight trousers, no £100-pound haircuts and only a tightly wound knot of inflated egos were to be found.

This night continues to prove that a deliberate perversion of the rules can pull itself off. Free, wantonly genreless, candidly amateur and ramshackle to the point of collapse, there is no event like a Rum Do party.

The Shit – The Servant’s Jazz Quarters, Dalston, London N1

“There are many people in this room… In this particular room, there are many, many people. This is one of those people,” observes Erik Hovland, poet, philosopher, performance artist and creative director of one of the most original bands to never release a  single piece of music, Cat Drop. In keeping with this unusual property Erik has decided to leave his fellow artists at home, instead choosing to point out the markedly obvious to a tiny cluster of people in a converted basement in Hackney. 

The Servant’s  Jazz Quarters used to be home to a feminist publishing commune but now plays host to a sporadic club night fast becoming known for its crisp selection of dadaist European imports.  Groaning through the system this evening, among others, is elucidator extraordinaire Phil Kay acknowledging International Women’s Day with a story about his wife and new child, a solemn meditation on the human centipede of life. 

Following Kay, the charming Gwyneth Herbert practically exhausts her repertoire at the rabid demand of the audience, a task she tackles with aplomb, her beautiful voice filling the room with minute tears resting in the corners of eyes. 

The increasingly young Leonard Cohen troubler Jack Joseph provides downbeat perfection to warm the evening and soften the faces of anyone who, for whatever reason, forgot to get stoned beforehand. Joseph is a startling talent, refreshingly sober and bright, without a trace of the smiling melancholy which permeates his music.

In an unsettling strategy, the skilful and scatalogically appropriate DJ for the evening, one Cackjar, has redefined the space by mixing between track after track of recordings of silent rooms, delicately chopping up barely audible snippets into an extended vacuum of sound.

Strangely absent from performing this evening is the impresario who brought this together, Frankie Poullain, a gentleman who cuts an unusual figure in his mock-leather trousers, cape and upside down beard. When pressed about the space on the bill where his name might typically be, his answer is as bewildering as his neckwear: “It’s the Shit… Makes sense, yeah?” I know exactly what he means.

Originally printed in the Morning Star.