People Power: The Black Dog on Neither/Neither
Martin and Richard Dust discuss the themes and working process behind The Black Dog's latest album, Neither/Neither
"We were talking about the fact that there’s no difference between Labour and the Tories anymore, and the fact that you have three generations of people that have been taking empathy-inducing drugs, and now that just seems to turn into YouTube comments of spite and hate."
The problem of how to address issues of political ambiguity, negativity and internet-fuelled paranoia through the medium of electronic music is a tricky one. Yet being a project so intrinsically linked to the 90s rave scene, helping to soundtrack an era when partygoers defiantly eschewed the Conservative government of the time's Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, The Black Dog are perhaps fitting candidates to draw comparisons between the climate then and now. Despite both eras being clearly defined by a gloomy political landscape, the group’s new album reflects a peculiar uncertainty that seems particular to contemporary society. "I’d be hard pushed to tell you what Labour or the Tories stand for anymore," says the trio’s Martin Dust, "whereas 25 years ago, that would have been clearly defined. They’re taking advantage of that and that’s the standpoint we came from with the album."
It is from a context of bewildering world events and the proliferation of ever more spurious wisdom that Martin, alongside his brother Richard and founding member Ken Downie, unleash Neither/Neither on the world. Speaking from their hometown of Sheffield, Martin elaborates further on the record’s themes, while Richard tends to his home brew at the other end of their studio-cum-microbrewery. "The more you go into it – political systems, propaganda and social media and how these things work – the more ridiculous it is."
"I’d be hard pushed to tell you what Labour or the Tories stand for anymore" – Martin Dust
The Black Dog’s latest release is partly a result of their interest in the work of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, whose accounts of disinformation and media manipulation attempt to explain the apparent stasis in modern society, where no one seems able to act with any real certainty. Having started dabbling in these themes, the group then developed a fascination with the ramblings of some of the more fringe conspiratorial figures vying for space online. "It’s kind of like there’s a new religion where fear is faith," Martin continues. That air of paranoia among devotees of "snake oil salesmen" such as Alex Jones and the befuddled world view of those "truthers" who pray at the altar of David Icke are themes reflected in both the titles of these new tracks and in the dark ambience which courses through the album.
"I wouldn’t say it was darker than our last album. I’d say it was more intense," argues Martin. This intensity is achieved in part by the use of beatless ambient interludes, at times containing garbled voice recordings which serve to buttress the notion that we are wading in a mire of conflicting ideas. A short sample from Adam Curtis himself – speaking about political control – can only just be picked out in one such break, though much of what is heard has been warped beyond recognition. The trio’s interest in the ideas of William S. Burroughs partly informed this approach to audio manipulation. But outwith these short and rather encrypted clues, the album’s commitment to its theme is reflected more in the emotional resonance apparent throughout – reflective and sobering musical arrangements at the outset give way to pounding techno in the latter part of the record.
Of course, electronic music – particularly techno – has always had a quality to it which seems to suit a marriage with political ideas and countercultural movements. You need only look at the likes of Underground Resistance in Detroit to find this at its most overt. "There’s two qualities to it," says Martin. "One, for me, is still that idea of the ‘angry young man’." Techno has always had that association for some and this has perhaps lent a certain revolutionary angst to much of the music. On top of that, you have the influence of Northern Soul – "the emotion of strings and basslines and everything else – some of it is escapism," he adds.
"I guess a classic example from Sheffield would be ABC. They started off as Vice Versa – an angry punk band – and then went completely to the opposite end of the spectrum with ABC. To us here in Sheffield, that made perfect sense. It wasn’t an opposite; it was exactly the same thing on a different scale. You would go to punk gigs and you would go to Northern Soul gigs because that’s what people did."
Their South Yorkshire hometown has always been a key reference point for The Black Dog – the explosion of punk and the later emergence of acts like Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Heaven 17 and Clock DVA brought an electronic edge to the city’s scene. "The amazing thing was that you went to the same nightclub as them – because there only was one nightclub," Martin recalls. "So you could be in there and Cab Voltaire would walk in with Kraftwerk. It was fucking amazing.
"The other big thing for me was that you could go up, buy them a drink, and talk to somebody that had made a record. I guess that’s not such a big thing these days. But getting in a studio and making a record was a massive thing for me. I guess Sheffield people are really grounded – kind of like Glasgow. There’s no airs and graces about it. It’s a working class night; it’s a party and people get it on different levels."
Neither/Neither is an album which should certainly appeal to different sensibilities, as the trio deliberately opted to keep its form varied and fluid throughout. "There are two definite strands going on," explains Richard, having now finished the washing up to join Martin on the line. "There was a much slower, more musical side – definitely not club rhythms. Then we were also doing the club sound. There was a bit of tension as to whether we should mix everything to go club – or should we remix everything away from it? We did the Sound of Sheffield series of singles last year which were all very much aimed at the club, so we didn’t really want to set any rules.
"What we ultimately ended up doing was just following what the tracks seemed to demand from us. We tried to be faithful to the track itself, rather than trying to force it into a style that wasn’t going to work, or was going to deviate from what we were trying to achieve."
This reluctance to try and mould their music beyond their personal preference at any given time has been a constant of The Black Dog’s approach, resulting in a back catalogue of remarkable variety and depth. This commitment must be particularly difficult given the enduring praise heaped on Downie’s earliest work with the project – both Bytes and Spanners were released through Warp in the mid 90s before Richard and Martin came on board. “It’s really hard in that, every time you get written about, people will reference Warp and they will reference Plaid," admits Martin, referring to the duo formed by Downie's co-founders Ed Handley and Andy Turner. "You think, ‘Fucking hell, [Plaid] left 20 years ago.' My kids have grown up and are at university and people are still referencing this stuff. How long do I have to be in this fucking band?
"As open-minded as electronic music fans like to pretend they are... fucking hell, they don’t like change. They’re just as bad, if not worse, than rock fans. 'That’s not Black Sabbath, it’s not got the original drummer!' We played around with the rockisms by sending different people to gigs and saying, ‘You don’t need to look at us.' We’re not playing any old music. We will never, ever do a greatest hits album or a tour – that kind of thing. For us, that’s not what electronic music is about. It’s supposed to be forward-thinking and challenging."
Such a desire to remain focussed on their own path, avoiding the trap of releasing substandard music for commercial gain, is a quality which keeps The Black Dog’s output as refreshing as ever. For Martin, there’s certainly no value in trying to shape up to match the kind of dance music which tops the lists of online sales. "Sometimes we occasionally go off and have a listen to Beatport’s chart and just wonder, ‘Who the fuck is buying that music?’ We wonder who is playing it, because we never hear it in any of the clubs that we’re visiting. It’s kind of like a weird little universe. A lot of artists worry about the wrong things, about getting the right kind of coverage, and I guess that’s never appealed to us."
Another resilient aspect of their approach – alluded to in past interviews with Downie – is the importance they place on the album format and the effort they put in to ensure that there is coherence to their releases. Many electronic albums appear to be loosely assembled collections of individual tracks, whereas Neither/Neither is best engaged with from start to finish. For one, the trio spent countless hours arranging the track order to create a unified work. In a sense, this could be considered a musical response to the problems of an increasingly non-linear and disjointed world. "We’re not against jarring the listener," says Martin, "but it’s really got to work."
On this occasion The Black Dog have certainly succeeded in delivering an album which operates in its own distinct realm. Whether delivering delicate mood music, or penetrating club tracks, the record is underpinned by an atmosphere which is uniformly sombre throughout. In this way they have tackled those themes of repression and control, fear and anger, as skilfully as can be possible without recourse to the kind of unequivocal lyrical diatribes found in other forms.
But what prospect is there for hope amid the gloom? Martin is quick to point out that, for all their reservations about the world at large, they very much take the view that "the glass is half full." Just as techno, even in its most uncompromising forms, has those shards of light which peak through to guide a path to enlightenment, there is also room for progress and an escape from the world of Neither/Neither. For Martin and the group, coming from a traditional socialist standpoint, the answer lies with people. He talks of a need for decisions to be made at a local level and for power to be taken back by communities. Speaking within a week of hearing Scottish politician Mhairi Black’s opening speech to Parliament, his suggestion that things aren’t quite set in stone seems to hold true. "It just speaks of English politics where they’re not prepared to rock the boat," he complains. "Then you have that young politician at 20 speaking out and you’re just thinking ‘fucking hell’... You just need lots more people like that to engage."