Here, we talk to regular Kode9 collaborator and vocal foil Spaceape (Stephen Gordon) about their new album together, 'Black Sun'...
How did you first meet Kode9? How did you decide to work together?
"I met Kode9 through a friend over 10 years ago. He used to DJ locally in South London, as well as run the online journal that was Hyperdub back then. I used to go to some of the nights and hang out. It wasn’t until we shared a flat together around 2002 that we began working together. It took quite a while before we actually recorded anything. Kode would always say, 'I gotta get you on the mic and record something one day', but we were both busy doing our own things at the time. I remember one evening we were listening to music, chatting about tunes we liked, playing each other vinyl we had in our collections. Kode again suggested we record something. "Back then I was writing short stories that were lyrical in their flow, but primarily I was a video artist running my own project called Uncoded. So, being a Prince fan - up to and not much beyond 'LoveSexy' [laughs!] - I picked up the 'Sign Of the Times' album and read the lyrics to 'Sign Of the Times' over a low bass pulse. That one-take recording became 'Sine Of the Dub' or 'Sine' and we’ve been working together ever since."
Where does the name Spaceape come from?
"You know, it surprises me when people ask me this that they’ve never made the obvious connection. It comes from Lee Perry & the Upsetters’ album 'Super Ape'."
To these ears, the closest comparisons to you vocally are dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka, and possibly the early work of Tricky and/or Massive Attack. Were these artists an influence? Where does your style of delivery come from?
"My style has definitely been informed by these artists as much as it has many others like Chuck D, The Last Poets, or Prince Far-I to name a few. Lyrically, though, I was always taken by artists like Matt Johnson of The The, particularly on his 'Infected' album or Dr Octagon for the pure surrealness of his ideas, a real wide range of stuff really. But when I started recording with Kode9, the best way to express myself and to abstract the track, 'Sign Of the Dub/Sine' from its original version, was to speak the lyrics. On the early tracks we recorded together we were really just experimenting, although filtering and pitching down my vocals was as much to do with being uncomfortable with my own voice as it was about getting the sound and feel we wanted."
Musically ‘Black Sun’ has an oppressive dystopian edge, which seems to be reflected in your poetry. How did you write the lyrics for the album?
"Well, it may sound dystopian, but the reality is that it was born out of our experiences during the last two years. I wouldn’t say oppressive, either, as I feel there is a lot of light and shade throughout. The truth is, I didn’t know what I wanted to explore when I started writing for this album. But I knew I didn’t want to cover things I’d written about on ‘Memories Of the Future’. I began writing about things that either touched me or hurt me in some way, and as I was writing and the stories moved further and further away from me, it became clear they inhabited the same world. A place that breathed a different atmosphere; had different rules; politics; desires; religions; even a different light to our own. Many things, although recognisable, are shaped in a different way, where elements of what we know still exist, but are now either warped or fragmented. That sense of a distorted reality comes directly from our own recent experiences. Many of the tracks I wrote, like 'Neon Red Sign', about a man struggling with a spiritual dilemma or 'Black Smoke', which is basically an exorcism or 'Promises', a love song about an illicit, destructive love, are all realities that might seem impossible, but exist and makes sense under the 'Black Sun' world we created for it."
Do you consider yourself more of a vocalist or a poet? Is the music integral to what you do, or does your poetry exist as a separate entity?
"I’d say somewhere in between. Music is essential for what I do as a live and recording artist, but as I’ve always written, either for film, when I was working as a video artist, or performing solo, I know my work can translate in more than one area. I’m currently working on a book that will feature many of my published and unpublished lyrics and short stories with illustrated interpretations from an artist friend of mine."
There’s a complexity and political bite to your lyrics on ‘Black Sun’. What kind of subjects did you want to address on the album?
"I’d say there is only one overtly political track on the album, 'Bullet Against Bone'. Unlike 'Memories Of the Future', the ideas came from somewhere more personal. But as with much of my writing, I will always filter away the personal edge to reveal something more open-ended or oblique. I wanted to create characters that I could use to channel some of the more personal subjects. Once I had written maybe four or five tracks, I could see a pattern developing in the writing and I knew they could exist in the same space, the same world if we created a world for them. So, rather than disappearing up our own arses onto some other planet in outer space, we talked about what it would be like if the source of our energy changed, became something other, but still enabled life, what would that be like?"
Do you share the same fascination with sci-fi and dystopian futures that Kode9 has?
"We share a lot in common and I guess that’s why when we work together, it comes out sounding like it does. The concept of the future is something we have thought about on both our albums and in our separate projects, but I would say that there is a present reality in much of what we do. Many of the ideas on 'Black Sun' are borne out of realities that exist right now."
[Album track] ‘Am I’ seems to concern questions of perception, how people can see the same thing in an entirely different way, and how it’s impossible to define and categorise people or things in a reductive way. Is this right? Where did the idea for this come from?
"It comes from reading articles that start with the line 'dread poet The Spaceape...' I just felt that was so easy and I never identified with that at all. So yes, I wanted to open it up and say things are not always what they seem."
What is ‘The Cure’ about?
"'The Cure' is my interpretation of Solaris. It’s about knowing there is another part of you in existence that you can’t quite reach but you can feel. Sometimes it can emerge in times of stress or trauma, and I’m saying, what’s the cure for this? In some ways, this split is reflected in many of our desires to become whole and at one with ourselves."
Will you be performing the album live with Kode9?
"We’ve actually been performing tracks from the album for about two years now. We did a Maida Vale session for Gilles Peterson’s show back in 2008, which featured versions of 'Black Smoke' and 'Bullet'. They’ve taken on many different forms since, but now we have quite a solid batch of tracks. We want to develop a really fluid set so we can rock a dance or play festivals, but also adapt it to play smaller venues or gallery spaces. We also want to incorporate visuals into our set, but we feel this really needs to be done carefully because it’s all too easy to have a large screen with visuals. We need to work on something that is intrinsic to the sounds we are producing so everything feels like a unit. People are often surprised by the energy we bring to our live performances, but we’ve always wanted to get people to move, be it in a catatonic kind of way or with something more upbeat."
What’s next for Spaceape?
"Live shows with Kode9 showcasing 'Black Sun'. As mentioned, a book with my lyrics and writings. A new website. I’ve just done something for Martyn’s new album and a track with Kode9 for the King Midas Sound remix album. I have some unfinished business with Kevin ‘Bug’ Martin and Brendon ‘Beat Pharmacy’ Moeller. There will also be a solo project of some kind in the near future."