Kode9 on Escapology and Astro-Darien

The soundtrack to a sonic fiction film exploring the breakup of the UK through the lens of a video game, Hyperdub label boss Kode9’s latest releases are his most ambitious yet

Feature by Michael Lawson | 17 Nov 2022
  • Kode9

It’s no exaggeration to describe Steve Goodman as one of 21st century dance music’s most important figures. Operating as Kode9, Goodman is the founder and driving force behind the era-defining Hyperdub label, a former member of The Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (an experimental cultural theorist collective he describes as “bringing together philosophy and rave in quite a unique way”), and a visionary electronic artist in his own right. A typically adventurous affair, his latest album Escapology provides the soundtrack to Astro-Darien, a sonic fiction film critiquing Scottish independence amongst other things. We catch up with him to find out more.

You grew up on the west coast of Scotland. What are your early musical memories?
As a kid, I can vaguely remember seeing stuff like The Associates or early Simple Minds on Tops of the Pops, but albums like Sulk have stuck with me since then. As a teenager in Glasgow, I went through a steep learning curve listening to my dad’s jazz tapes, and was also influenced by late 60s rock as it collided with acid house into the indie dance scene of the late 80s. I left Glasgow when I was 16 to study in Edinburgh, which is where I started raving and DJing in the early 90s. I wasn’t really that aware of the less popular, homegrown, synth-led post-punk music in my teens, but around five years ago, I came across an amazing retrospective vinyl box set called the Official Guide to Scottish Minimal Synth 1979-83, featuring groups such as The Klingons, Final Program, The DC3, Dick Tracy’s Wrist Radio, 100% Manmade Fibre and Al Robertson. I had no idea this stuff existed at the time. I made a little mix last year that a friend of mine tagged ‘Dreichwave’ which connected the stuff I was aware of with this new haul of old material from the early 80s.

What was your gateway into electronic music and club culture? Any formative moments that stand out? 
Probably taking ecstasy for the first time at a psychedelic jazz and funk club called Chocolate City at The Venue in Edinburgh around 1992. They played everything from Parliament to James Brown instrumentals to Herbie Hancock and loads of rare groove stuff I’d never heard before. It kind of blew my mind. I went out and bought decks the next day. I also used to go to a more hardcore techno club called Pure – also at The Venue – around that period.

You’ve previously expressed your love for London pirate radio and mentioned that you used to be sent jungle tapes in the post. What was it about the sounds emerging from the UK capital that struck a chord more than the house and techno of Chicago and Detroit, which I imagine were far more prominent in Glasgow at the time?
I was too young to get into house and techno clubs in Glasgow so only got switched on when I left to go to Edinburgh and started raving. At that time, dance music was all over the charts as well. I vividly remember hearing SL2’s On a Ragga Tip. It was also in Edinburgh where I bought my first jungle mixtape, from DJ Hype around 1993. I don’t know. The more breakbeaty hardcore seemed to resonate with me more than any of the house or techno I heard from Chicago or Detroit at the time. I’m not sure why, but I kind of attribute that to having my first ecstasy experience listening to the kind of music (rare groove and 70s jazz drumming) from which the breakbeats of hardcore and jungle were sampled. 

You’re best known as the founder and label head of Hyperdub. What came before that? 
Well I ran clubs for a bit in Edinburgh between 1992 and 1994, and then spent a summer in London and got addicted to jungle and early drum’n’bass and bought a sampler and started, in a totally unfocused way, messing around with production. I moved to the midlands near Coventry around 1996 to study with the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, who I’d read about as bringing together philosophy and rave in quite a unique way. I arrived there at the same time as Mark Fisher among others, both of us who’d come to do PhDs. By the time I finished that in 1999, I felt like I’d had enough of academia and Hyperdub kind of emerged initially as a web magazine which channelled some of the ideas we’d been developing alongside writers such as Kodwo Eshun.

In recent years, Hyperdub has released a lot of music of South African origin. Do the likes of gqom and amapiano fit into your understanding of the hardcore continuum?
Hyperdub started as a kind of umbrella term to talk about the electronic music of the Black Atlantic that had converged into the 90s musical singularity of jungle. In a counter-parallel to how English had been the lingua franca of the modern world, the lingua franca of electronic dance music is the music of the Black Atlantic.

That network, spanning the Americas, Europe and Africa, is composed of lots of different continua. The hardcore continuum (hardcore, jungle, garage, grime, dubstep, UK funky, UK drill etc) is one UK lineage, and other important musical hubs on that network have their own, such as Chicago (house, ghetto house, juke, footwork etc), Detroit (Motown, electro, techno, ghettotech etc), New York (disco, garage, hip-hop etc), Jamaica (ska, reggae, dub, dancehall etc) or South Africa, which has its own lineage that goes from Kwaito and evolves more recently through gqom and amapiano and so on.

There are loads of these local scenes which innovate their own new traditions. The internet and social media has led to a viral, cross-contamination between a lot of these musics. What’s been interesting in recent years is that the traditional sources of influence of British dance music are no longer just America and the Caribbean, but also from the African continent. And that reflects in the influences on many artists we’ve been working with on the label for the last 15 to 20 years. All those localised continua have become even more tangled up with each other.

In your opinion, what is the most interesting and forward-thinking type of club music at the moment? Which genres, scenes or artists have resonated with you of late?
I’m not 100% sure what that means anymore. "Forward-thinking" implies things are moving in a linear direction and all I know is that things evolve in much more complex ways, at different speeds simultaneously, and all criss-crossed and influenced by new technologies. Outside what we release on the label, which covers loads of bases, all I can say for sure is that, at least in terms of dance music, for the last ten or so years, especially since crossing paths with the late DJ Rashad, I still most enjoy DJing music influenced by Chicago juke and footwork and occasionally colliding it with jungle. I like its speed, but also that it occupies different tempos at the same time, and zig-zags in and out of old and new.

What would you say to people who view dance music as little more than an escapist pastime?
I would say "fine, use it as that if you want." But that's also like saying that a car is a group of seats under a roof. But a car can also transport you from one place to another. I suppose dance music, right from the beginning, plugged into cultures that needed to fabricate and imagine escape capsules to live in, offered a potential to envisage alternate realities. Getting off your face is like level one of a game. What you then do with that determines whether you stay at level one, or progress any further. In my current projects related to Astro-Darien, none of which are really about dance music, I do however make an opposition between escapism and escapology. Escapism doesn’t get you out of the prison. It’s like a weekend on leave. Escapology instead is about engineering the tools to break out of the trap. 

Astro-Darien is far from the average music release. How would you describe the concept behind it to someone unfamiliar with your music?
Well, to avoid any confusion, it’s got literally nothing to do with dance music at all. An instrumental, more rhythmic version was released as the Escapology album in the summer. But Astro-Darien is a 26-minute sonic fiction, a science fiction audio essay or a documentary fiction in sound narrated by Scottish AI voices. It revolves around a video game simulating the breakup of the UK, developed by a games company called Trancestar North.

Its loose story spans a historical period ranging from the disastrous Darien Scheme in the late 17th century when Scotland attempted to colonise an area of present day Panama, which nearly bankrupted the country and contributed to the union of Scotland and England, through Scotland’s subsequent involvement in colonialism, imperialism and slavery right up to the contemporary movement for independence. This is all told through a somewhat wild extrapolation of the actual space race going on in the Highlands and Islands to build vertical launch spaceports, which becomes, in the game, the exit portal to a quasi-utopian orbital space habitat called Astro-Darien. That it's not really set in the future, but is rather an alternate version of what's going on right now, is the sense in which I call it a documentary fiction.

When I first heard of the concept behind Astro-Darien, I immediately thought of Lawrence Lek’s Sinofuturism video essay. Was Sinofuturism a source of inspiration for the project? And how big an influence has Lek’s work had on you more generally?
I wrote a short, somewhat deranged essay on Sinofuturism in the late 90s which revolved around an orbital satellite that was suspended outside of history. When I met Lawrence around 2015, it was clear we had a lot of ideas in common. He was building quite eerie, depopulated simulations of real world locations. We worked together on my last album Nothing, to devise a virtual, fully-automated luxury hotel called the Notel using video game world design software, which in our live sets he would navigate around using a games controller while I performed the music.

Through his sinofuturist trilogy of films, which also included Geomancer and Aidol, I really liked the way he used game environments in a cinematic way and this has definitely fed into me using the framing device of a video game to think through aspects of the Astro-Darien universe. Lawrence also did a couple of animations to help visualise aspects of this universe. We share an interest in what happens when you start a process of world building with sound as opposed to image. Recently, I worked with him on the score to his most recent project Death Drive.

The Darien Scheme is a chapter of history that many Scots are unaware of, or at least choose to ignore. Do you think it’s important for Scotland to come to terms with the more unsavoury parts of our history as a means of combatting nationalistic exceptionalism, particularly if independence becomes a reality?  
Exactly – there is no point being romantic about the past. If people are serious about independence, they need to reckon with the dark side of the country’s colonial history, and keep a tight check on anything that foregrounds national purity or hostility to the outside and the alien, i.e. the pitfalls of many nationalist movements.

The emergence of Scottish space ports in recent years is an unlikely, somewhat dystopian development. In the Astro-Darien realm, has this been reimagined as a way for Scotland to try and make amends for the Darien Scheme?
I don’t think it’s necessarily dystopian at all. It might in fact be a response to a number of dystopian trends – if it wasn’t for orbital satellites there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much concrete data regarding climate change. It also injects a bit of economic life in areas undergoing massive depopulation. The proposed spaceport around Sutherland is supported by much of the local community but has received resistance from, among others, a Danish billionaire who owns vast chunks of the Highlands. But of course, the space industry often intersects with the defence industry and also idiotic schemes of the rich to leave behind a blighted planet like in the 2013 science fiction film Elysium by Neill Blomkamp. So I see Astro-Darien, if it has some kind of utopian dimension, as some kind of inverse Elysium.

So I think the idea of a Scottish space program is complicated. In my story, the space program is definitely an escape route from an island that is undergoing some kind of unnamed but seriously catastrophic situation, which is the backdrop to the Astro-Darien video game. Its programmer, who is of Panamanian descent, is designing the game baring in mind the real history of the Darien Scheme, trying to exorcise those ghosts and the ghosts of Scotland's joint colonial exploits with England in the 18th and 19th century. She is building game levels with an almost utopian outcome, given the dire terrestrial reality, but programming it so it's literally impossible to repeat the mistakes of the past.

What are your own feelings on Scottish independence? How did they inform the project?
Well, I don’t live in Scotland, and therefore can’t vote, but I’m 100% sure that independence should be a decision for people living in the country, and not a bunch of incompetent muppets in London, of any political persuasion. If I was in Scotland, I would vote for independence, but the devil is in the detail: whether it's used progressively, whether regressive nationalism can be warded off, what's going to happen to the currency, its relation to neoliberalism etc. Aside from the positive potential of not being ruled by Westminster, I think being in London during the first independence referendum and watching all mainstream British media and politics be so pro-unionist was such a massive turn off. 

Similarly, Brexit massively turned me off the idea of the UK, and so this Astro-Darien project is really channelling those two frustrations. On the one hand the sheer reactionary inertia in the British establishment that would have to be overcome to make it happen, and secondly the idea of turning Brexit against itself (or its supporters) so it becomes the final nail in the coffin of the British Empire and forces England to confront itself in a way it currently can’t do while it thinks it's still an imperial nation of global significance. So Astro-Darien is an escape pod, which even if independence doesn’t happen for a while, can happen virtually, and gather momentum in this alternate reality.

Escapology is out now via Hyperdub; Astro-Darien is out now via Flatlines