World exclusive! Stray Wayward and Sirius from Spiral Tribe back partying on British soil
Words : Dan Prince
In the early 90s, members of SP23 were all working with the Spiral Tribe Sound System. A creative collective that openly aligned itself with the free party and free festival movements. At the core of the free music scene were values of sharing, openness and inclusion. Values that should have a place in society, but in a country ruled by the ideologies of Thatcherite privatisation, they were not to be tolerated. After a year of organising events in remote locations, the Spiral Tribe Sound System learnt this the hard way. As opposition from the authorities grew to the free festival and free party movement, members of Spiral Tribe began thinking of leaving the country. Though key figures within the group had been arrested and bailed (for allegedly organising the famous Castlemorton Common free festival) the sound system (and a mobile recording studio) managed to escape to Europe in a convoy of matt black military vehicles. In Europe the sound system was welcomed as an innovator of cultural events and the underground network spread worldwide. Nine of the original Spirals, now work independently as successful producers, artists and/or performers. But they still work together – under the name SP23. 23 years ago SP23 began a nomadic journey with the Spiral Tribe Sound System, operating strictly underground. Today, as an international creative collective and pioneers of live electronic dance music, SP23 play regularly to packed venues across Europe. This April, the full SP23 crew will be returning to the UK for one London date….
Welcome to DMCWORLD guys. A fascinating 23 years of music, partying and scandal behind you…like it or not you changed the face of UK clubbing, which we will come to later. April 19th sees you return to British shores for a legal and licensed event at Village Underground in London since that “bit of bother” back in the early 90s. So, why now?
Mark: “Hi Dan. Well in Europe we have been acknowledged as artists and musicians making a valued contribution to dance culture. All our crew now work as professional producers and successful performers in their own right. But we all share a deep creative connection and have roots in British sound system culture. When we all work together as SP23, there’s a very special energy. Our music has evolved and is very much at the innovative edge of dance music. Our gigs still have the warehouse party vibe but our sound is now better than ever before. Having gigged all around the world we thought now was a good time to revisit those roots.”
Sirius: “From the moment we started the concept of SP23, which united the core creative elements and the headspace of Spiral Tribe, coming back to England as a unit was something we were all very excited about. The anniversaries flying about in the background – 23 years of Spiral Tribe – 20 years since Castlemorton were almost incidental – it was just organically the right moment to do the UK now that we had built SP23. It felt right, it seemed right and it happened almost of its own volition. That’s the way we’ve always done things and that’s how we knew it was time.”
Tell us about the line up down at Village Underground…
Sirius: “The line up at the Village Underground will be Crystal Distortion, 69DB, Ixindamix, Jeff23, Meltdown Mickey, the Bad Girlz and Sirius. Kicking off on a rolling tech house groove, moving into some party tunes before disappearing down the rabbit hole of live improvised techno. At that point – the night will dictate where the music goes – and that’s what we’re passionate about – letting the feel of the crowd define the spirit of the music.”
“So let’s go back to where it all began. Mark, rumour has it you coined the name Sprial Tribe whilst at work staring at a poster of the “interconnecting spiralism of an ammonite shell”. Another rumour though is that your working career only lasted five minutes down at the Gillette shaving company. So what is the truth behind the name?
Mark: “Yeah, it’s all true – and more besides. Back in the 80s I’d trained as a graphic designer and photographer but I took what work I could get. I’d work building sites, as an office temp at computer companies – Vodaphone, Hewlett Packard, ICL – and then there was mopping the floor at the Gillette shaving foam factory. In ’85 I moved up to Manchester where I ran my own market stall – selling twentieth century design classics – stylish 60s furniture, streamline vintage radios, 1950s portable record players – the Ghettoblasters of their era. The retro look was in – and I supplied the authentic stuff – mainly to collectors and museums. Wheeling and dealing in these icons of style gave me an insight into the early history and development of technology – a subject that still fascinates me. I lived in Hulme: a huge decaying dystopian housing project that had become – in equal measure – a hive of crime and creativity. The legendary Hacienda was literally five minutes from my front door and I think I can say that I spent more time there than I did at home. What made the Hac unique was that it had been styled on a New York warehouse club but it was run more like a community cultural centre. It was cheap to get in – open to everyone – and new ideas. When Acid House and Ecstasy showed up (one Wendsday night that I’ll never forget) it became the womb that would nurture a creative revolution. Having lived out most of 1987-88 on the Hacienda dance floor – when I moved down to London in 89, I probably had a House beat pumping my heart and pure Acid for blood. I soon got a job on Ladbroke Grove at a printers – training with the new digital technology. This meant I had access to state of the art laser machines. We take digital technology for granted now – but then we were just getting tantalising glimpses of what was around the corner. And strangely enough, it was the arts – filtered and twisted through the new micro circuitry – that was heralding in the new era. It was as if fiddling with the electronics had opened a portal into a further dimension. A portal that let in massive basslines, electronic kicks and liquid frequencies the like of which had never been heard on Earth before. This sense of open access (combined with a sense of community on the dance floor) fired everybody up with an energetic optimism for the future. It wasn’t just music that the new electronics were facilitating. Around that time the dazzling imagery of computer generated fractals also hit the streets. Holding up the technological mirror showed us all, new and inspiring patterns in nature. Patterns that already existed – but that no one had noticed. With all this in mind, while working late one night at the printers, I started to experiment with the spiralled image of a fossil ammonite shell. It was that moment when the idea of Spiral Tribe came to me.”
What was it about the whole free party movement that attracted you?
Mark: “I grew up going to free festivals. Stonehenge and Avebury. Something magical occurs when you escape the confines and routines of the locked-down mainstream. It’s a combination of things: the community bonds that you feel while dancing together across the night – under the stars; the connection with nature; and a sense that you’ve stepped outside of a bubble and into the wider world… It’s an escape – not away from reality but into reality.”
A famous Spiral Tribe quote…”We keep everything illegal because it’s only outside the law that there is any real life to be heard”. Do you still stick to that statement ?
Mark: “At that time various powerful lobby groups which represented the (dubious) interests of the commercial leisure industry and breweries where pressuring the government to criminalise the free party and free festival movement. Instead of falling under the fist of authoritarian control we played with their spin. We reclaimed the word ‘illegal’. If being ‘free’ was illegal then we celebrated ‘the outlaw’. It’s worth remembering that after a two year police investigation and a four month court case, Spiral Tribe were found not guilty of any criminal activity. The government then went on to change the law so as to actually try and criminalise a certain style of music… the Spiral style!”
Let’s take you back to some of the early parties and in particular Acton Lane. You were warned that the men in black would come for you one day, but surely nothing could have prepared you for Easter Monday in west London. Just how bad was the violence at that party?
Mark: “It was shocking. It was designed to terrorise people. Youngsters were indiscriminately beaten and bludgeoned with reports of serious injuries – broken arms and legs and even a pregnant woman kicked on the ground. What was strange was after the attack (which lasted a long two and a half hours) the police didn’t charge us with anything – they just disappeared leaving us bruised, our equipment smashed and the warehouse in ruins.”
What is the party pre Castlemoreton that you still talk about, Lechlade, Cable Street, Devils Punchbowl, Bodmin Moor – the ingenious British Rail light socket trick at The Roundhouse I still giggle at…
Mark: “For me the party that I still remember is what we call ‘The Secret Summer of Spiral Tribe’. This started with our ‘tour launch’ at Cable Street on the 15th of June 1991 and went on in various locations across Britain right through the summer of 91.”
Bursting out into the English countryside at first no one came out to party, then slowly people began coming out of the woodwork and the trees to party. What was it about Spiral Tribe back then that caught people’s people’s attention?
Mark: “I think it was that we were one of the few groups who were up for it – 24/7. Not only were we playing the new dance music (for free) but we were also unaware that in the previous few years there had been a brutal police crackdown on such events. We were filled with naïve enthusiasm. So we showed up and were often the only crew there. As soon as we turned on people arrived – in their hundreds, and soon enough, thousands. We were holding a rare space – a free space – and that was important to a lot of people.”
How many people were in the collective back then and who were the real characters back then?
Mark: “When we started we had a core of four people but that rapidly spiralled into untold numbers. People came and joined in – dropped in and out. I really wouldn’t want to name people for fear of missing anyone out – too many to count! We really were a chaos collective…”
After Acton Lane you fled to a forest in Wales. Is this when the first idea to flee to Europe were hatched?
Mark: “Yeah, I remember sitting around the camp fire discussing what limited options we had. One of the favourites (apart from Europe) was to go horse drawn.”
It was the Bedlam Sound System who contacted you that fateful week inviting you down to Castlemoreton to come down at relax at someone else’s party. It all started so well though with even the police relaxed playing rounders in their shirt sleeves. When did you suspect though that things were getting serious…
Mark: “There was something not quite right as soon as we arrived at Castlemorton. Normally we chose our venues carefully – away from residential areas – hidden in the industrial wastelands or out in the wilds. At Castlemorton the police were directing us on to the site – smiling and waving…a very unusual sight. We should have realised it was a trap.”
There were news helicopters flying overhead relaying the party all around the world. The numbers in attendance were obviously inflated by the media, how many do you think were at the event?
Mark: “The numbers were massively increased by the fact that the mainstream media were reporting the event as headline news all across prime time TV. The event was swollen to 50,000 plus because of those reports. Normally the networks have a strict policy of starving free festivals of publicity, but for some reason the media had had these restrictions lifted and were more or less advertising Castlemorton. Some people think that this was an intentional strategy to swell the numbers and so help justify the witch hunt against free party crews that followed.”
The court case against the 13 defendants took 2 years to get to Crown Court and you spent 4 months in court…all with a media blackout. What did the judge tell you to expect sentence wise and what did you actually think, deep down, would happen to you?
Mark: “The Judge said that if we were found guilty he’d give us minimum sentences of two years and a maximum of four. We were exhausted by the trial – four months in court! But we knew we had done nothing wrong – nothing criminal. We knew we had done a lot of good for society – opened a lot of closed doors for people. The whole prosecution demonstrated this – we were being locked into cells – threatened with imprisonment – because we had run around opening too many doors.”
How often is the Criminal Justice Bill used today?
Mark: “I don’t have any official statistics but I’m in touch with free party crews and time after time there are reports of parties being brutally stopped and equipment destroyed. But then many more parties go undetected and the vibe is still very much alive.”
Am I correct in remembering that this was the first attempt to criminalise a type of music since Hitler tried to outlaw jazz?
Mark: “Yeah, absolutely. Weird that though many youth cultures in British history have been demonised for anti-social behaviour and violence it was the loved-up ravers that got outlawed.”
You squirrelled off to Europe after you won the case. Rumour has it you settled somewhere in France where you were welcomed with open arms to begin with…?
Mark: “After Castlemorton we headed out to Europe. UK PLC didn’t want a free party crew denting their profit margins or giving people funny ideas about sharing and celebrating community. Remember, back then there was no internet – if you wanted to hear the best, and most up to date, dance music, the only place you were going to find it was by tuning in to a pirate radio station; tracking down the vinyl in an independent record shop; in an obscure club, or – better still – at a free (read ‘illegal’) rave. The big institutions such as the music industry and mainstream broadcasters were slow-moving monolithic bureaucracies – no way could they keep up with the creative pace of the underground. The UK government of the time was blind to the benefits of the cultural phenomenon that was blossoming right under its nose. They were in bed with the worst of the old-style businesses – businesses which operated along outdated principals of authoritarian imperialism. If they couldn’t control our creative force and meter our output, then they wanted to destroy us. Of course – we had other plans. Our response was two pronged. The unprecedented media coverage of Castlemorton and the government’s attempts to demonise us drew the attention of Youth from Killing Joke. He was running his own label, Dragon Fly, and was very interested in what we were up to. Lol Hammond, a mutual friend, set up a meeting, and Seb (69db) and I went along. Seb and I knew that doing any deal with ‘the industry’ was sailing close to the wind, but Youth seemed like a genuine bloke and we needed to fund a little project we had up our collective sleeve. While Seb and I locked into some heavyweight negotiations, the sound system slipped out of the country and began touring: Spain, France and Holland. Our plan was this. To get a small record deal that would generate enough cash to convert a showman’s circus trailer into a mobile recording studio. If we could make our own records and teach others the skills, we could create a whole new independent network of underground labels. The deal with Youth was done. Our showman’s trailer was converted and the SP23 recording studio was born. We took the studio over to join the rest of the Spiral convoy in France. As we travelled from place to place, so our following grew. So enthusiastic were people to make music with us and to get their own sound systems together, that we got the reputation as ‘the mother of all sound systems’. As people either joined our multinational crew, or built there own rigs, so the Teknival movement came into being. In fact Debbie (Feenix 13) coined the term Teknival – and it spread like wild fire.”
“It’s a myth that you need to sleep, stay awake and you discover the real edges to reality”. Mark, is that still a quote close to your heart in 2013?
Mark: “Ah – the energy of youth! Still close to my heart – but now I like my sleep too!”
Members of Spiral Tribe have been releasing tunes on labels such as labworks over the last two decades. What are the next release plans…
Sirius: “Individual artists like Crystal Distortion and Ixindamix regularly release on a number of different labels, like Ixindamix’s own Audiotrix, and Expressillion has always been a serious bedrock for us. There are plans for a new SP23 release though – we just have so many events coming up over the spring that it probably won’t be until the summer. But in all honesty – we’ve always primarily seen ourselves as live performers rather than track makers, and we are fortunate to have enough of a following that we don’t necessarily need to play the game of getting a release out in order to get gigs, so it will all happen spontaneously – probably recorded altogether in the studio over a lost weekend.”
What are the plans event wise after Village Underground?
Sirius: “We have a pretty hectic schedule in Europe. We want to keep SP23 events relatively rare and special, but luckily we have pretty good bases throughout Europe – so doing the same city once a year would probably be about right. In the UK, we’d be interested in doing something in Bristol – possibly in the autumn, and we are looking at putting together a series of 24 hour outdoor parties next summer in France.”
What are your thoughts on the whole EDM explosion that has captured America’s teen hearts and made it the music of choice in the States? Is it a good thing?
Sirius: “That’s a really tricky one. That acronym has in many ways come to represent the commercialisation of dance music and the erosion of soul in favour of image. The triumph of style over substance. Many old school figures from UK and European backgrounds wince at the very term, seeing EDM as a specific kind of commercial electronic music rather than how the Americans see it – a simple way to describe all electronic dance music. But being underground for underground’s own sake is also pretty dogmatic and misses the point. Popularity is no reason to dislike something and in theory, having something that was previously a niche cultural force exposed to a wider audience can only be a good thing. I think the problem we have with it is that it’s not worked out quite like that. Lowest common denominator elements and cringeworthy lyrical attempts to be sexy have worked their way in to the more Guetta, SHM side of things that is not really dance music at all – it’s pop music using synthesisers and a 4 /4 beat. As for the more Skrillex, Deadmaus end– musically it’s not really our thing and the cultural phenomenon surrounding it doesn’t resonate much with where we’re coming from – but good luck to them. And then people like Richie Hawtin and Carl Cox have managed to ride it while remaining true to themselves and remaining as creative in the mix as ever. The one thing that is sad is the demise of live, in the moment, feedback loops between crowd and performer in so many corners of the spectrum. Watching the live broadcast of Miami Ultra – it was shocking how much fake playing with EQ knobs was going on behind the decks. The counter argument is that all the sets are synchronised to epic light shows that justify high ticket prices and a sense of stadium spectacle – but it’s just such an alien concept. Apart from how the performers deal with going all Milli Vanilli, do the crowds know that the guy on the pedestal has just pressed play in so many cases? And it’s not a technology debate either. Dance music has always been about technology and evolving with it – just if you’re going to use a sync button to mix – make sure you’re using the flexibility that gives you to be working other live dynamics. Don’t just stop there and wave your arms about. It was always about the performers and the crowds going on a journey (a terribly overused word I know) that was both unpredictable and guided by an intangible magic – that subliminal communication that pushes the vibe, the atmosphere and the experience higher and makes for the truly transcendental dancefloor experiences. We’d love to see the kids in the States get a chance to live some of that – maybe they are in their own way already – but that’s our take on it.”
What is the one song that will always remind you of Spiral Tribe?
Mark: “‘Never Too Much’.”
We all heard about the party aboard the Soviet ship Stubniz in 2012, but what were you up to in the interim years – what were some of the stand alone events?
Sirius: “Well we spent the 90’s working our way through new countries and new frontiers, building a vibrant network of subcultures and founding the Teknival movement that is still thriving to this day. From huge parties in Berlin with the Mutoid Waste Company and Mig fighter planes in the middle of the dancefloor to huge free festivals across France, Italy, Austria, Czech, Portugal and Holland, we were on a dedicated nomadic mission. We did major New Years Eve events in European capitals and played a significant part in introducing the rave scene to new territories. We would always start small and watch a wave grow in a new country and by the time we moved on, there was a dynamic scene and local crews had begun doing their own parties. It was always about skill sharing too. As 2000 approached and the actual Spiral Tribe Sound System as a physical entity began to fade away, the musicians and the creative minds within the crew began to operate under their own names and began carving their own niches. For the next few years, all the musicians played out solidly every weekend and built up their own bases across Europe. One trend that we all started to notice and felt uncomfortable about was when promoters would book in all the individual artists for say a big 5000 person outdoor event in France, and then call the event ‘Spiral’ something or other. For everyone involved, the one thing no-one wanted to do was rinse the Spiral name – something that had such meaning, depth and resonance. With all the musicians now successful in their own right, we felt more and more that promoters slapping some Spiral artwork on something and booking in the musicians was something that had to be addressed and something that had to be stopped. We had always wanted to work together and play together as a crew in between the usual gigging schedule of the individual musicians. The sticking point always came back to the name and how to define the new project. When we finally had the eureka moment with SP23, part of what we did was to withdraw all permissions for Spiral artwork or the name Spiral Tribe from any other promoters and strictly define the parameters of Spiral Tribe – the illegal free sound system – and SP23 – which is who we are today. Since we launched SP23 in early 2012, it has developed its own rapid momentum. The reception has been hugely heartening and it’s allowed us to play licensed venues on our own creative terms and define the musical flows of the night and the visual feel of the space. We have already started to branch out into community based projects, art exhibitions, workshops and a range of roots projects that are as much a part of who we are as the big parties.”
Tell us about the Stubniz party…
Mark: “Our relationship with the Ship MS Stubnitz goes back to those early years in Europe. In Berlin, in 1993, we’d hooked up with Joe Rush and a splinter group from the Mutoid Wate Co. They called themselves The Lost Tribe of Mig. For good reason too – in pride of place in their park-up they had two Mig 21 fighter jets. Though the Berlin Wall had come down a few years before, the Soviets were still decommissioning a lot of their bases – AK47s were being sold on the black market along with all sorts of military kit. The two Migs had been abandoned in a forest – though not for long… Round about the same time in former Eastern Germany, Soviet ships were also being weighed in. Captain Blo (a saxophonist and sound engineer by trade) managed to save a 2,500 ton factory ship from being scrapped and converted it into a concert venue. Members of Spiral would go and play at those first Stubnitz events. So, with all these ex-Soviet ships, fighter jets and us with our ever-growing convoy of military trucks – we were all ‘aving-it-large! Last year (2012), when we heard that the Stubnitz was in London we got back in touch with Captain Blo and arranged to hold our 23rd Birthday party on board. It was the perfect venue – all that Soviet steel, shared history of underground music and a great opportunity for us to invite along many of the people who’d been involved in the early days of Spiral. It was a reunion – a reconnection – a celebration of 23 years of the renegade groove..”
All information on one of the best parties of the year is all here…http://sp23.org/