Sounds : 9 July 1983
BACK TO THE DARK AGES
Dave Henderson commits culturecide with SPK
It was all too easy. Write something about SPK, throw in a few
references to some obscure foreign film and maybe even a bit of
text from JG Ballard's Crash, no problem.
Trouble is, there's a lot more to SPK than meets the eye. I mean, they've got some kind of cult following that's spread around the country by word of mouth. For years they've hidden behind a screen of gossip, rumours and playful essays which have appeared in numerous publications as a result of their reluctance to be interviewed. They've got an intriguing and colourful history, but no one's really delved deeper than their matt vinyl surface. People have either accepted or dismissed them on face value alone.
From a nucleus of two (they can be occasionally three or four) SPK are currently gaining a lot of interest from record labels, publishers, promotors and punters alike. I met Graham and Sinan about four months ago and during that brief period I've learnt a lot about their ways of thinking.
Graham is a lanky New Zealander who knows what SPK are all about. He's the only remaining original member whose sometimes humorous, always honest, personality acts as a foil for his often intense and intelligent observations.
"I really want to do a proper interview, Dave, it's time we let people know a little bit more about what we're trying to do instead of wrapping it up in some kind of imaginary story."
Sinan, by contrast, looks tiny next to Graham. She's from the People's Republic of China, a photographer by trade, sharing the same ideals and humorous overtones as Graham, and is happy to let him do most of the talking.
SPK are about change, about being one step ahead of their contemporaries. In their five year existence they have constantly changed their names - and that of the group - in a chameleon-like metamorphosis.
"At the end of the 70s we'd seen how punk was moving from anti-star to new star in England, and we decided there and then that we wanted to remain anonymous. But constantly changing our name, in a sense, cut our own throat. To sell records in any kind of large quantities you've got to have some kind of identifiable persona."
The stark initials remained but each release and communication was treated to a selection of alternatives. Socialists Patients Kollektive, Surgikal Penis Klinik, Systems Planning Korporation and latterly SepPuKu were all used tools to confuse both press and public, and allow the group to retain their anonymity.
In the Autumn of 1978 in Sydney, Australia, with punk beginning to make some impression on our antipodean brothers, Graham saw an opportunity to express his ideas in a musical format. A growing audience in search of something 'different' couldn't quite have expected the synth and rhythm machine onslaught that SPK were to present.
"We had to play with Australian punk bands and we were constantly pelted with beer cans. The strange thing was people said they really liked it afterwards and wanted us to do encores. We couldn't decide if they really did or if they just wanted more target practice, so we usually left while we were ahead."
The group had begun when Graham, who was working as a psychiatric nurse, got together with one of his psychiatric patients.
"Originally in German, SPK stood for Socialists Patients Kollektive which was a group of patients in Hidelberg who were making an extremely important linkage between sickness and capitalism. They were saying that it was society that was making them sick and it was a social problem.
"That's why we started using medical deviant imagery but we went the opposite way from Throbbing Gristle. They were taking the Mansons of this world and glorifying them, which I thought was a mistake. It was just what the Sunday newspapers were doing, making stars out of those people.
"What we were trying to say was that deviance wasn't some marginal thing, it was in fact central to the whole society."
It would have been fallacy for SPK to have performed their
theories over the blistering three minute krang which was so
fashionable at the time. They were attempting to provide
something that was different and their music had to
reflect that. The only group at the time, apart from TG, who were
working on an aggressive drum machine powered synthesis were
Metal Urbain in France.
"My interests, I suppose, were people like Can and Neu. I used to sit at home totally isolated and listen to all this wonderful German music, but I don't think any of that actually came out in what we were doing. The main thing I got was a feeling of isolation because no one else liked that kind of music. That was good insofar as it helped me dis-associate myself from things much easier."
But there was only so much that SPK could achieve in Australia. With two EPs under their collective belts it was decided to move to Europe.
"There was a lot of French stuff I wanted to read, like the philosophy of Baudrillard and things like that, so I ended up going to Paris, and waiting for the rest of SPK to turn up."
The wait was somewhat fruitless when other members didn't materialise, but as Graham's thoughts turned to education, his time was well spent learning French in a most unorthodox manner.
"There were lots of things that I wanted to read that were only in French so I sat down and read one book for three months, until by the end I could understand it."
With almost a year wasted, Graham was very keen to accept Throbbing Gristle's offer to release a single by SPK on their own Industrial Records label. Graham crossed the channel to London. With only a pittance to work with, the first SPK LP was set in motion.
"By that time I'd run out of money, but somehow we managed to record the LP on about five pounds. We did it in our squat with a pretty dodgy PA amplifier to mix it and I think it really shows. It would have been so much better if we could have done in properly."
Despite all of its shortcomings, 'Information Overload Unit' - which is soon to be released through Rough Trade - was a bit of a classic. Through the murky mix of sounds you can still pick out the fusion of semi-industrial noise, taped conversations, documentary material and the earliest rumblings of acoustic metal percussion.
The financial difficulties surrounding the recording forced Graham to return to Australia to replenish his money supply. Just prior to their departure they treated London audiences to one of their rare UK appearances on the 'Psychic Youth Rally At Heaven' bill along with TG and A Certain Ratio.
After two appearances in Australia (one at a deserted brickworks which was filmed for the Twin Vision video 'Despair') SPK made several European appearances and two visits to America before returning to Britain. With good response in Europe and eventually appearances Stateside, they were approached by California's Thermidor Records to record an LP.
The resultant product was the much acclaimed 'Leichenschrei' which fully put into perspective SPK's primal rhythmic drive mixed with their technological synth sounds. Recently repackaged and released through Rough Trade, the LP is a classic statement of evolution, throwing standard elements into a musical mixing pot and unleashing a mutant sound, half prehistoric, half futuristic.
The 18 months it has taken for the record to officially appear in England hasn't aged it at all. If anything, 'Leichenschrei' is more relevant in today's Britain than it was when first released. The intermittant period saw the group playing abroad, and on a triumphant return to the States they even managed to set fire to one member of the audience during a rather enthusiastic piece of flame throwing.
Their return to Britain should have been triumphant.
"When we got back to England everyone had forgotten we'd existed and we got off to a really slow start. England's always been a problem for us, it's difficult to say it intelligently, but it's so caught up with categorisation, style and fashion. If you want to be involved it's a hell of an uphill struggle."
With the roost currently ruled by the teeny weeklies and the
more upmarket Face, that's definitely true, but there is
an undoubted style to SPK. I can see both of them dressed up in
some post-industrial chic splashed across the Face but
that would be a superficial reading of their style. They
have an aura about them that sets them apart from other groups.
Their integrity is firmly intact and their belief in what they
are doing is an inspiring attribute.
"SPK has always tried to avoid fashions by changing its name and style so often and intentionally, until now, trying to stay out of the public eye. You can't create a fashion unless people know what you look like. It's always been our deliberate intention to avoid that.
"We've got alot of widespread support around England, we get a lot of letters which is great, but on a selling records basis it's pretty hopeless and getting gigs is impossible."
The live SPK is yet another different aspect of the group. When I saw them recentlmy at the Ace in Brixton they didn't use any visual backdrop, merely a dimly lit stage of gothic simplicity. Their earlier live shows have built up a reputation though for using a selection of shock graphics.
"We were using unacceptable images, but we kept getting misunderstood all the way along the line. People just tended to latch onto the obvious interpretation and that stopped us getting gigs. It would filter back through the industry that we were showing sensationalist things just for shock value and people would say 'You can't do that'.
"We're trying to tone it down to a certain extent, to make a point which is subtle but still powerfull. We always tried to put it into context but now it's getting more and more difficult."
SPK are in a constant state of transition. Their next stage is already well mapped out, and the rhythmic mayhem of their live jaunts earlier in the year seems to be formularising into a new, alternative dance beat.
"I wouldn't call it funk, but we'll definitely be trying for something more danceable. It's just a question of trying to show people that you don't have to stand out in front and act like a zombie and think all the time when you're watching SPK.
"Some of the bands I like just do really good dance music, for instance Liaisons Dangeureuses. That doesn't mean to say that SPK will be doing anything like that, we might have some kind of dance beat and a bit of bass, but we'll still be doing interesting things with sound as well.
"The whole of last year we were doing totally manic, sreaming oddball type of material, at the beginning of this year we did something that I thought was quite qyµuiet and pretty in a certain way but for the next phase we want to get the energy back into it."
SPK claim to have the next two LPs already worked out. All they need is someone to pay them vast sums of money to do them, they reveal with a wry smile. They work in an organised, progressive way which, although allowing for chance happenings, leads them down a direct and intentional path.
"There's always been a definite strategy right from the beginning, if there wasn't we wouldn't be doing it. Everything is worked out a long way in advance but it does depend on trying to avoid what other people are doing. I did have a really clear idea of what I wanted to do but when you're involving other people you can't be too adamant about things, especially with record companies."
SPK are gradually moving into a wider sphere of acceptance.
It's not only their style which is becoming slightly more
accessible, but record companies too are starting to look out for
something more exciting than the dearth of happy, happy pop boys
and girls that are brainwashing the nation at present.
SPK are a cure to the embarressing tweeness that has gripped the country, the apathy which prevails. If you've got to make a choice between a summer of melodic waffle and whatever SPK have in store for you, it would be treason to choose the former.
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