Functions Of The Now VIII: SPF666

After revisiting Berlin to talk to M.E.S.H. in our last edition we move to Portland to meet another producer at the centre of an exciting party collective: SPF666. Together with friends Commune and Massacooramaan, Zak SPF666 runs Club Chemtrail, a party dedicated to the hybridised, angular dance music styles we’ve been following throughout this series. Previous guests at the night are a venerable who’s-who of the US underground with Kingdom, Vjuan Allure & Dubbel Dutch all making appearances in the year it’s been running, but as the party expands into a label it’s the residents who are stoking the most interest. In particular SPF666, who inaugurated Club Chemtrail Records last month with his incredible debut release Scorpion Cache, generously available as a pay-what-you-want download.

Stream: SPF666 – Scorpion Cache EP [Club Chemtrail Records]

Those with their ear to the ground will have heard a number of the tracks on the EP in radio sets over the last year but their arrival now couldn’t be more appropriate for the current club landscape. Across “Scorpion Cache”, “Tsundere” and “Don’t Laugh Bxtch” SPF666 expertly weaves between grime and ballroom house signifiers to create wholly original hybrids that are as effective as they are unusual, with a unique rhythmic science propelled by deft dembow percussion. What’s more the release comes complete with an exceptional package of remixes, including his Chemtrail compatriots and men of the moment Neana & Mike G. We’re not exaggerating when we say this is one of our favourite club releases in a long time and we wasted no time in getting Zak involved in the series.

Before we talk to SPF666 we have a few recommendations from the past month, and as has become a habit they begin with more essential free compilations. You’ll find FOTN alumni Murlo, Sudanim & Strict Face  across Boxed Vol 2 and Madam X’s Kaizen Movements Vol 1 but we would recommend you pay attention to strong showings from Nammy Wams, JLSXND7RS and Dark0. Elsewhere we have an old Truants favourite Samename releasing his debut EP. It’s strange to think it was almost two years ago we gave away the exceptional Okishima Island, and on Yume he exceeds the promise shown there: our tip is Nuriko, an epic marriage of bombastic horns and vintage Maniac. Ghost Kwini is another friend of ours with a debut release this month, the enigmatic Dark Address EP for Sonic Router. Kwini’s starting point is the video game bleeps of late 00s Zomby but he goes further with the weirdness, deconstructing grime tropes and augmenting them with steely Drexciyan electro – we’ve been privy to a treasure trove of unreleased dubs and excitingly Dark Address is just the tip of the iceberg. Abstracting further from the club space, two of our favourite releases of the year so far arrived with little fanfare – Sentinel’s Hybrid and DYNOOO’s free Dat Piff drop These Flaws Are Mine To War With. Both inhabit a similar sonic world, with a starkness and sound palette that puts them in good company with the FOTN aesthetic, though they only touch down on the dance floor in rare moments. Instead both releases demonstrate a kind of abstract futurism that joins the dots between Oneohtrix Point Never, Total Freedom and the vaporwave set, fitting nicely into an aesthetic Adam Harper identified in his first column for The Fader.

TT: Hey Zak, how’re things over in Portland? “Good! It’s really nice out right now, I was just on the East Coast for a sec and feel like I came back to a full blown West Coast summer.”

Though with Scorpion Cache blowing up at the moment this is likely to change soon, at the moment I think you’re most widely known for throwing the Club Chemtrail parties. Could you tell us a little bit about the club landscape over there? “It’s mixed. People have been putting in work here for a long time: there was a strong rave/DnB/jungle scene and then later a strong dubstep thing, both of which still peripherally exist. When I moved here, it was at the height of the ‘future bass’ amalgam. As that slowly split into more specific sub-genres, so did the parties here. Currently we have this amazing scene of support and cooperation.

So many parties and artists and promoters get along, which has led to having some incredible talent here. I’m really excited by Portland right now. Everything is mostly in the club context right now, the state of Oregon has a real strong arm approach when it comes to less-than-legal event spaces, and honestly, they’re even beginning to impinge a bit on the above-ground nightlife scene. Club Chemtrail really shouldn’t happen in a club, to be honest. We’re definitely much more of a “lownt warehouse in the meatpacking district” vibe, but our hands are tied.”

Hah, but you guys have a regular spot, right? “Yeah, this club called Holocene. It’s weird, we probably couldn’t even do an illegal party. I think it’s a mixed blessing that dance music has approached a more mainstream position, but one of the serious downsides is the absence of that deviance that always made it appealing. It’s weird to think that dance music wasn’t sexy, let alone acceptable by most standards like a decade and a half ago. The bar is really low now and the club is a heavily placating environment.”

I think this is one of the troubling aspects of ‘club culture’ nowadays, it’s hard to find places with the kind of ethos that creates a safe space for the kinds of communities that built everything in the first place. A lot of clubs dress themselves up as subversive spaces so they can sell themselves as being in that counter-cultural tradition but actively resist inclusivity or people on the fringe socially. “Absolutely. I mean, dance music has always had a strong relationship with opposition and deviance, from the identities of the people that made it (house and some techno by black gay lower class men for example) to the ways it was staged (illegal raves). That level of opposition is much weaker right now. In part, it’s because some of those things are just less subversive by their merit- the racial/sexual identities of the house producers for example- but the rest is just rife for co-optation. The spectacularization of those subversive cultural elements by ‘hipsters’ (for lack of a more concise term) is definitely at the forefront of that kind of recuperation. That was honestly the most infuriating thing about trap – and I don’t really hate any genre based entirely on its sound, there’s something interesting in every sonic palette – but the fact its marketability came in tandem with the removal of any ‘brown/black danger’. I honestly think it’s a responsibility of any white DJ or producer to think/talk about these issues. As an art form, dance music is by and large the least introspective medium.”

I think people have this weird attitude towards dance music nowadays where they misinterpret the fact that it has functionality at its core – they  think that makes it apolitical somehow. It doesn’t help that the most prominent ‘academic’ readings of the culture come from dudebros who don’t even go to clubs and think dance music is long dead. “Dance music, as art, as a cultural expression and gesture, is inherently political. Not acknowledging that doesn’t apoliticize it, it just makes you an asshole. I was talking about this with a friend of mine, about the absence of decent discourse re: modern dance music. All the texts I’ve read with excellent frameworks aren’t written by authors with the best conception of modern day dance music and the kids who know what’s up on Soundcloud who try to write about it have really lacklustre critiques. Wayne Marshall is a good exception, Terre Thaemlitz is another. I mean, there are definitely a lot of artists and DJs who recognize the critical implications of writing about dance music/enthomusicography, they just rarely have very public forums.”

Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about how Club Chemtrail came together? “Ty Commune and I used to throw a party in a little college town in Washington state, Olympia, called MKVLTRA in like 2009/2010. I moved here like shortly after that and met Dave Quam [Massacooramaan] at a Kingdom show. We played some shows together, then Ty moved down here, and we decided there was a gap in the scene here for what we wanted to see in terms of parties. When I met Dave we got into an argument about footwork actually.” Naturally! “I was totally wrong, cos fuck, it was Dave Quam.” Yeah I learnt most of what I originally knew about footwork from his forum posts and blog. “I actually never read it! Surprisingly. I was a huge goon for Alex Bok Bok’s Lower End Spasm.”

Yeah Lower End Spasm was great, it was one of the few places where I would see people talking about things like Black Dice and grime in the same context. It’s a real shame it was all taken down. On a related note, it’s been pretty interesting hearing how the non-UK producers in this series found their way into grime, what was the story for you? “I made noise music for a little while and always had an affinity for really percussive/noisy/dissonant sounds. I remember first hearing Danny Weed and Wiley on some tape and just being so taken by the logic behind production: a flat linear space with a strong negative presence that this wide palette of samples were arranged in. It was similar to what endeared me to early/deep dubstep stuff, from a listening angle. And the semiotic nature of those samples is so interesting! I just love the power of recontextualization through that différance, like the powerdrill being on the quarter note makes it a kick drum or obviously the nod to a genre through the inclusion of a really iconic sound- the semiotic nature of those samples is so interesting! Though that’s also a problematic feature of Soundcloud-era dance music.”

It was the same thing for me, I couldn’t get over how stark everything was, really asymmetric and alien. It’s interesting you bring up that sampling methodology because I think that’s something you do really well on the EP. There are definitely tracks going around now which are essentially.. Wiley snare… bleeps from What… Maniac drums.. OK – but I really like the way you deploy those genre signifiers, it never feels forced. “Thanks, I really appreciate that. I didn’t really expect this much of a response RE: Scorpion Cache.Two of the tunes (Tsundere and Don’t Laugh) are from mid 2012, Scorpion Cache is from early 2013. I’m like just now starting to really consider myself a producer. It’s a common-ish thing now, but I was definitely part of that DJ-who-sort-of-makes-edits-toying-with-Ableton set for a bit.” Yeah actually the first thing I heard by you was that jungle edit of DJ Oddz you did about a year ago. I was really impressed, especially since the original is so unfuckwithable. “Oddz is such a badmannnn!”

Download: SPF666 – Strung Out ’94

Did you hear what happened with him though? “I don’t think so.” Basically he converted to Islam in the mid 00s and threw out all his music stuff- all the masters, all the unreleased tracks. “I feel like every producer kind of toys with that, that death drive to just trash all your shit and move on or at least start making something new.” Yeah, there’s a lot of similar stories in the early grime scene. Not often so intentional, but lots of music lost to dead hard drives or trapped on old computers in secondary school music classrooms. “That happened to me, to a degree, mid 2012. I was squatting and we had our house raided surrounding some alleged… uh let me prudent here one sec.. raided for political reasons. My laptop/hard drives etc were all taken, but i borrowed a friends laptop and that’s when I made Don’t Laugh Bitch and Tsundere. It was devastating as a DJ – as a producer it would be awful now, but I still lost a lot of sketches.”

I can imagine, the extrajudicial powers police can deploy to derail your life are really distressing. “Oh absolutely, I mean, I can’t even begin to consider it comparable with all of the privileges I have living in the US, being (mostly) white, but like footwork, vogue, nola bounce, rap & hip hop in general has been dealing with shit like this for years. I remember a story Rashad told me when all his shit got copped from a party – Spinn’s too, i think – cos someone got shot down the street the police shut everything down and took it for evidence. Obviously these are slightly different, that action exists in a larger fabric of general racist repression of black/brown music and culture.”

Yeah, grime’s had to struggle against similar repression in London, most overtly through Form 696 which gave the Metropolitan Police the power to racially profile events in the city and shut down those with majority PoC audiences or involving MCs. You can even trace the impact through the direction of the music that came out of the scene towards the late 00s with grime moving from a dubplate culture to artist mixtapes- there just weren’t raves to spit bars over weird beats anymore. “Ugh god, yeah, I’ve heard a little bit about that through interviews and assorted articles from the mid 2000s. How grime (or elements of it) died so quickly, in part because of the conditions you discussed, but also through a wide variety of cultural/musical factors was such a tragedy. I mean, the “second wave” genre is a really interesting thing to consider. Like up until the mid 2000s, the boundaries of grime were not entirely known: someone could still innovate, change, subvert within the initial gesture of the thing. Now we have these definite discursive boundaries that we can choose to abide by fully, in part, or not at all – but it is wholly known, you know? Even all of us exploring its unrealized potentialities is really just fucking with the dreams of a corpse, without being too poetic. But it does make it interesting, because we all do take very different things from grime.”

Where do you see Chemtrail in relation to these new strands of grime-ish club music? “It is funny, people assume that all we’re doing is Club Constructions-y stuff, just because of the larger context that my tracks have been received in and having Dave and Neana on the release. And I really don’t want to hear another track that sounds like it didn’t make the cut for Classical Curves, I’m not trying to be too shady but fuck! It’s been really difficult because I love the essence of club constructions: mid-range percussive grime/vogue nods, all things that I love and 90% of what I work in. There’s definitely a line though. There’s a strong emulation of specific sounds, and with good reason – Classical Curves was a masterpiece. Jersey club and simplified CC techno provide an accessible framework to explore more challenging and dissonant ends though: it’s one of the more sonically exciting trends in music and I hope we all collectively explore its potentialities to the fullest.”

So what’s next for Chemtrail? Do you see the label side evolving symbiotically with the night or might you expand further? “Well, abstract aesthetic boundaries guide a lot of what we do with Chemtrail. We’re not a “genre” label or anything so having a physical corollary like the people that make up our parties community is so necessary. We’re definitely looking to expand though. It’s odd, this really just started as a medium for us to be able to contextualize our music on our aesthetic terms, then it sort of dawned on us, as demos came in, that we did actually have a label. We’re gonna do Commune’s debut next and another pack of ringtones before that. Dave doesn’t do the label, just the party, but he is gonna do an EP with us. And we’re going to be moving more legit (selling some releases) after Commune.”

What can you tell us about the mix? “It’s hard for me to curate a mix as an object in itself. It’s a difficult task to abstract DJing away from the party environment, so this is a close approximation of a live set from me. I tried to task myself to show off more of my edits and unreleased stuff, filling the gaps with all that is percussive and wild. The intro is sampled from this performance based on the works of Kathy Acker. Reading her stuff puts me in this headspace that’s really conducive aggressive and raw output. Guyotat’s ‘eden eden eden’ is good for this too.”

And before we wrap up, any shout outs? “I guess shouts to Lou Harrison (RIP), everyone in Portland’s dance music scene, @moscaddie’s tweets. Her Recs/Gang Fatale, Sugar Shane, Mike G, Supraman, Lotic, Track Meet, Fade/Slugs, fresh vegetables and cheap drugs. And of course Chemtrail family, Commune and Massa.”

Functions Of The Now VIII: SPF666 by TRUANTS


SPF666 – GOJIRA 2014 [DUB]

Artwork: Joe Jackson

Simon Docherty