St John at Hackney, London
5 December 2015
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas: illuminations strung across the lampposts of the capital, sparkling every night like twinkling stars; the inky darkness of the night already setting in by mid afternoon; overflowing trays of “luxury” mince pies everywhere you look. And – really – what says “Christmas” more than a Faust gig?
Sitting on the corner sofa of Biddle Brothers, just above my head the TV is blowing through the action from the Premiership’s late kick-off between Bournemouth and Chelsea. From my perspective, though, it’s more than slightly unnerving, as it looks rather like everyone in the entire place is staring intently at me. Savouring a crafty pre-concert brandy, I try and angle myself round so that my back is to the throng of onlookers. Well, tonight really has to be considered the event of the season, and right now, I’m starting to get properly excited about it.It’s scarcely credible really. After all, there is no quote more mythic than Julian Cope’s about Faust, and here they are tonight, in Hackney. What next, Manuel Göttsching doing a quiet Sunday night E2-E4 set at Jan’s Bar (Conviviale)? Guru Guru going acoustic at The Pembury Tavern? It is, though, perhaps one of the most visible signs betokening the subtle shift of London’s musical tectonic plates in recent years, away from many of the more traditional centres in the N and W postcodes, due eastwards. I’ll have an E please, Bob.
No doubt many will be grievously displeased by this, in truth there is no tube in this neck of the woods, but having spent decades schlepping across the metropolis, to Hammersmith and Brixton, Ladbroke Grove (ah, The Subterranea) and Shepherds Bush, surely Hackney can’t be begrudged a little turn in the musical sun?i
In the past, Faust have usually dispensed their favours equitably across the boroughs of the capital. I was lucky enough to see them three times in the Nineties; from the “comeback show” at The Marquee in 1992 (for me a rather fractured and disjointed affair as I was suffering from concussion at the time after a man had dropped a small desk on my head), to the Outside the Dream Syndicate Alive concert at the South Bank Centre with Tony Conrad (when, bizarrely, a fierce scuffle broke out over seating, only broken up by the elderly ladies who were the ushers in those days and whose “endearing granny” demeanours shamed any unruly punter into line*), to the infamous leaf blowers gig at The Garage in 1996 (when I was convinced that I was under attack from one of HR Giger’s facehuggers, only to find that it was actually a large, damp and rather gritty horse chestnut leaf). Every one a winner baby, that’s no lie. But what will they serve up tonight? I’m finding it rather hard to even get my head around the prospect.
Annette and I finish our small aperitifs, and amble down to the beautiful and imposing St John-at-Hackney, its handsome late eighteenth century classical façade rising up into the night like a beacon. It’s a blustery night, the departing coattails of Storm Desmond whipping around our ears, but the queue is extremely modest, and the collective spirit high. It reminds me rather of the Chrome show at Electrowerkz some eighteen months ago, an outing for the old school London weirdos, an alternative Hallowe’en to celebrate the pagan musical spirits. And they are all there, emblazoned across the T-shirts and leather jackets in the line, from the Cardiacs to Alien Sex Fiend. Alien Sex Fiend! (Note to self: Watch “E.S.T. (Trip to the Moon)” online tomorrow).
After the obligatory bag inspection, where, weirdly, the security man seems less interested in weaponry or illicit recording equipment and more intent on finding anything that might be considered “food” (a blade seeming to be less of a threat to their licensing than a cheese sandwich), we are inside. Equipped with light refreshment from the bar, we join the milling punters and wait to be seen by the Nurse.
And lo, do they arrive. Grey now around his signature-facial-hair muzzle, the great Stephen Stapleton positions himself at stage left as the band line up alongside him in a row. Are you standing comfortably? Then they’ll begin.
They launch foursquare into a great swirling, billowing sheet of sound, a single near hour-long soundscape that evolves from gentle washes of synth to nasty grating passages that scratch at the inside of your ears like a piece of old sandpaper. It’s an immersive experience, the only thing to do is to give yourself up to it and let it wash over you like a warm (acid) bath. Although it’s so dark onstage that practically all one can really see is the feint outline of Herr Stapleton’s grey moustache, we are treated to a gigantic backing projection.
And it’s a truly delightful confection, woozy and ever-shifting, starting as a tapestry of symbolic imagery (coral snakes, a baby, Stapleton in a fetching coiled snake hat looking rather like some unholy amalgam of Henry VIII and George Galloway, red tongues, green tongues, a cheeky appearance by what looks like the profile of Girolamo Savonarola), moving to some early album covers (Chance Meeting’s fetish-suited Madam, her ample breasts squeezing through the peek-a-boo slits of her leather jerkin, and the disjointed baby parts of 150 Murderous Passions tumbling gaily through a vaginal orifice)ii, a lovely graphic logo for the band, and lastly something akin to an MRI brain scan in profile. This is your brain. This your brain on drugs. This is your brain on drugs at a Nurse With Wound gig.
It’s already all rather trippy, and so I decide to pretend that I’ve dropped a tab.iii Coming up a minute later, I stand swaying on the spot, given over to the warm blanket of sound enfolding me, and squinting at the enormous brain scan slowly morphing away in front of me. There, that’s the proper Nurse With Wound experience. They depart the stage, with Stapleton giving a cheery wave, and the audience bursting into rapturous applause. Amazingly, many of the audience haven’t even arrived yet, and so miss this utterly amazing spectacle completely.
With a changeover so speedy that it would bring credit to the McLaren F1 pit team, William Bennett takes the stage as Cut Hands. Alone in front of his Apple Powerbook, it’s slightly disconcerting to see Bennett not aggressively prowling the stage and screaming at us about how his cock is on fire, but concentrating intently, mixing the groove on the fly and bopping away to it like Fatboy Slim. Christ, this is a weird world sometimes. Bennett’s ideas for mixing acoustic drums with electronic noise go a long way back, as far as his pre-Whitehouse project Come, but it’s only now that he feels that the technology is available to realise them properly. With the radical disjuncture in the sound of the two bands, and so little time to make the transition, it takes me a few minutes to return from the amniotic inner space of Nurse With Wound, and re-tune my antennae to the tribal drum rhythms that are now Bennett’s milieu.It’s a good thing when an artist (successfully) refines their territory so completely, and I’m all behind Cut Hands. Though it will probably get me lynched on a quiet corner of Whitworth Street next time I’m back in Manchester, one of the things that always disappointed me about the city’s acid and house heyday was how, well, feeble a lot of it actually sounded. The textures sounded thin, the beats seemed weak, and for me it just never hit the rhythm centres in the right way. What Bennett is doing now is just how I wanted it to be back then: powerful, rhythmic, organic, orgasmic, irresistible. This is Vaudou drum ritual, digitised in the box and blasted back at us at volume. I drop some imaginary MDMA, and begin twitching away as the polyrhythms eddy and flow around me. Bennett has oft maintained that music can, and should, be judged on the physical response it stimulates, and looking around tonight, the juddering, shuddered movements of the audience seem like complete vindication of his Cut Hands design.
Like Stapleton before him, Bennett departs looking cheerful and appreciative of the warmth that the audience display at the end of the set. As with Swans, Bennett has managed the not-inconsiderable feat of moving a long way away from the material and sounds that defined his early years, yet remaining completely true to the spirit that animated them, a desire to produce an overwhelming and liberating (physical) experience in which the individual could transcend their quotidian realities.
The rearrangement of the stage takes slightly longer for the final act, for there are sheets of metal to be installed, oil drums to position and gas canisters to bring out. This, remember, is the band that were disappointed to learn that when Pink Floyd blew up a wall onstage, it was not a real wall. Blowing up walls is second nature to Faust.
Annette whispers to me that this whole evening feels like a “happening”. And she’s right, it does. Like Faust’s infamous début concert at the Hamburg Sportshalle, it may be jerry-rigged (pun intended) and slightly disorganised, but it feels perhaps as though we have, for a brief moment, escaped the vice-like squeeze of the corporate hand and pitched up in the kind of spontaneous, anarchic fun that used to go on down the Zodiac Free Arts Lab once upon a time. That may indeed be an illusion, but for now it’s a lovely one to have.
When the myth that is Faust finally appear on stage, we see their modern, predominantly French incarnation. With the doomed genius of Rudolph Sonsa long since departed, and Hans-Joachim Irmler leading a schismatic church of his own,iv it is down to Jean-Hervé Péron and the estimable Werner “Zappi” Diermaier to conjure the spirit of Krautrock’s Trickster God for the evening. For Faust were always the most mercurial and Puck-like of the New German Musicians, a Hanseatic Anansi the Spider amongst the more serious Westphalians and Bavarians. Their shape-shifting music and refusal to take the serious seriously may have lead to their untimely demise in a musical ditch at the end of the 1970s, but it left some of the most thrilling music of the decade, a body of work so totally unique that it could be imitated by no-one else. Their every recording was a high-wire act in which one slight slip could mean a precipitous fall to certain doom in a yawning chasm below. That they could reanimate in the 1990s, undergo some weird cell mitosis into two Fausts, and then continue to prosper is testament to how far ahead of their time they were, and how they continue to defy utterly the logic, the categorisation and pigeon-holing so prevalent in the modern music industry.
Péron bounds on, grinning like a loon from ear to ear, and with his French ancestry close to the surface, gives us a little preamble in which he tells us that at this time, more than ever, the world needs our optimism and our energy. Without mentioning anything more, the implications of his speech are apparent to everyone. Coming from any modern politician it would stick in the throat unpleasantly, but coming from Faust, a band formed in a time of hope for a better, more peaceful world, it sounds like a simple truth hard fought for.
They begin, appropriately, with “Paris”, and Zappi’s massive, massive drum sound and sheet metal panel beating. Clad in this trademark floppy hat, he fair pounds out the rhythm, and straight away we are plunged into the chaotic, inspired, beautiful, disjointed world of Faust. Two young ladies are on needles at the front, stage right, creating some lovely knitwear throughout the show. Faust at full tilt is like an unstable and highly combustible chemical reaction that manages somehow not to shatter the test tube that it is taking place in – full of sound and fury, colourful reagents fizzing and popping all over the place, the threat of shattering glass ever-present, yet somehow completing itself without exploding its contents all over the lab bench.
At one point all that is blasting out is a cacophonous mixture of hurdy gurdy and shehnai, drones so ghastly and distorted that they threaten to pierce the eardrums. There is throat singing too. “Cendre” from 1997’s You Know FaUSt has me weeping years of joy. “Lass Mich” from their 2007 collaboration with Nurse With Wound is absolutely gorgeous, a glorious, distended ramble, all Heath Robinson angles and precarious rope bridge wobbling as Zappi pounds out the metallic rhythm. ‘allo? “Harlequin” makes my brow fevered.
The set concludes, fittingly, with an epic rendition of “Krautrock”.v This shit is forty years old, but it sounds as though it might have been written yesterday (and been considered clever, ground-breaking and innovative with it).
Touched by their presence (dear), the night remains for life, for drinking in the lively afterhours establishments of the area, perhaps even for a late night fishcake or two from the warm, greasy womb of the Mermaid Fish Bar up the road.
How to apply the spirit of Faust to the every day, how to infuse that mischievous, radical, creative energy into the things around us? Now there’s a question to ponder this Christmas over the mulled wine and the Brussels sprouts…
-Words: David Solomons-
-Pictures: David Solomons and Michael Rodham-Heaps –
i And mercy me, even those original eyeball kids The Residents will be doing their thing in the ‘hood, February next at the Hackney Empire.
ii Fortunately the post of rector at St John-at-Hackney is currently vacant, so contrary to my fears (s)he isn’t here tonight in order to see the walls displaying such, ahem, heathen imagery: “Reverend, Reverend, come quickly, the west wall of the nave is covered by a 20-foot high bare-breasted fetish nurse.”
iii Dropping a tab in reality would probably hospitalise me these days.
iv As Péron told David Stubbs in Future Days, “Irmler is extremely important [in the Faust story], but on a human level we don’t seem to be able to cope with each other. I’m very happy that we’re doing it this way – respecting each other, splendidly ignoring each other, which is good.”
v Regarding any pejorative overtones of the word “Krautrock”, Jaki Liebezeit’s “Joke of The Summer” deserves a timely re-telling: “Krautrock? It hardly matters now. These days it’s all about the kraut-sourcing.”
* Or it might possibly have been this gig in 2001 — ed.