Photo by Laura Bemrose

Welcome to the Naked, Paint-Dripping World of New Weird Britain

John Doran

There's a new wave of underground musicians, sound artists, producers and bands creating immersive worlds for their audiences to participate in.

Photo by Laura Bemrose

This story appears in VICE magazine and Noisey's 2017 Music Issue. Click HERE to subscribe to VICE magazine.

It is evening when we arrive at a barn situated in the wooded recesses of the Oxfordshire countryside by way of a curious invitation. The bright red, double-sided business card bears the inscription: “United Kult of Animist Endgame Apostles” on one side and, on the other: “Ceremony commences 7PM, Sunday, The Vortex. Become one of us.”

United Kult of Animist Endgame Apostles is the latest incarnation of the mysterious, acronym-only act UKAEA, initials which in the wider world usually stand for the UK Atomic Energy Authority. UKAEA – the electronic act not the nuclear regulatory body – has been the studio-based techno project of an industrious Welshman called Dan Jones since 2016, but tonight, inside the barn, it has expanded to become a disparate group of characters. They’re mixed in gender, nationality and race but united by the fact that they’re all naked and dripping in white paint smudged with streaks of vermilion. Each person is either hunched, howling and gibbering, over pedal boards, laptops, sequencers, modular synths, percussion, a violin and a djembe, or prowling the stage in occult-looking headdresses conducting some kind of ritual.

A self-styled priestess is chanting into a microphone in a language I don’t recognise. Another woman with a vertical daub of crimson bifurcating her face is radiant, crowned in a headdress of corn dollies and antlers. She looks like a sadhu, the ascetic Hindu mendicants who decorate their faces with paint, sandalwood ash and even mortuary remains and gather for cleansing rituals on the muddy shores of the Ganges. Behind them is a large screen. It cuts between various giant faces, mouthless with eyes like pools of oil. Momentarily it flickers to static, as if a rogue transmission from some other place entirely is being received, revealing a glimpse of a huge room containing a semicircle of black onyx standing stones, in front of which three glowing white figures writhe.

Lone Taxidermist performing at the Bargehouse, on London’s Southbank as part of the Open City Documentary Festival’s “The Day Is My Enemy” series in September. Photo by Samantha Hayley

The rhythm and intensity of the soundtrack pick up pace. There are more naked, paint-dripping celebrants surrounding a girl on her knees. Her head is being forced forward and I have a pang of fear that I’m about to witness a beheading. Hands bear down until her head is quickly immersed in a large vat of creamy, coloured liquid. Bells are rung and she is helped to her feet and pushed gently back into the crowd where she bursts into movement. Everyone is anointed. There are no casual bystanders. So now it is my turn.

I kneel in the mud. A burst of strobes from the roof rip the moment apart into ragged slivers. Hands on my face. Granular clay solution dripping into my mouth. Arms smeared in mud and crimson powder are lifting me to my feet. The beats and the bass stop and a huge reverberant drone throbs in the barn before everything kicks in again with the speed and intensity of jungle, eventually moving up through hardcore bpms into pure gabba as more and more clay-faced ravers start losing their shit. I’m leaping up and down now. People all around me are screaming and punching the air furiously, heads evaporating in explosions of threshed hair.

Afterwards, outside, it’s still light. It’s the kind of burnished summer evening glow by which you remember the best days of your childhood. It’s quiet. I can hear crickets. Then I hear someone muttering to themselves: “What the actual fuck?”

The UKAEA animist rave is just one example of a large number of sui generis shows that have been cropping up all over the UK during the last 12 months, but they have no intention of repeating it. The Vortex rave was a one-off show designed specifically for the bill of the Supernormal festival, which takes place every August in the grounds of a careworn Grade II-listed country house called Braziers Park. Even if Dan Jones wanted to restage the event elsewhere, he couldn’t afford to; and even if he could, you get the impression he still wouldn’t be interested. It’s done now. Gone. You simply had to be there. He’s already planning the next big UKAEA event for this winter. What’s going to happen? He’s not telling me. He’s not telling you. He’s not telling anyone who’s not directly involved. You want to know? Well, you’d better turn up on the night then.

Jones is one figure in a loosely affiliated underground scene for musicians, sound artists, producers, DJs and bands creating immersive worlds for their audiences to step inside and become participants in rather than passive observers of. These shows, which draw on a diverse range of disciplines, tend to be DIY and multimedia and often utilise self-made film, inventive lighting, costume, dance, art installation and audience participation. They are usually powered along by overwhelming and non-standard musical forms, covering everything from footwork-influenced pop to industrial techno via power-electronics and operatic drone-metal. While they are produced on a shoestring budget, they still draw inspiration from the likes of Sunn O))), The Knife, Dean Blunt, Leigh Bowery and Psychic TV.

We’re often told that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but during these shows – with their raw, upsetting, unmediated, completely uncommodifiable, unrepeatable and psychedelic sense of what-the-fuckness – the mind roams free. Participants get the sweetest glimpses of a time and space both before and after late capitalism.

That these shows exist isn’t wishful thinking. Hundreds of them are happening right now in most British towns and cities. They’re taking place in warehouse spaces, arts venues and rooms above pubs, and happen at independent festivals such as Supersonic in Birmingham, Tusk in Newcastle, Raw Power in London, Fat Out in Salford, Festival 23 in Brighton, Woodland Gathering in the Lake District, and Supernormal. A selection of the artists who take part in these shows includes Lone Taxidermist, Gazelle Twin, Aja Ireland, The Seer, Snapped Ankles, the Errant Monks, Lonelady, the Bonnacons of Doom, New Noveta, Trikilatops, Phantom Chips, Horacio Pollard, Isn’tses and Grumbling Fur.

Over the last few months I’ve come to refer to these shows as New Weird Britain just for the sake of my own sanity and reference. Nothing links them musically per se (apart from their sheer impractical outsiderism, cost ineffectiveness and a continuity-rupturing psychedelia), but they do provoke an overwhelming sense of liberation from the hyper-rigid overground stasis, and provide blessed dislocation from the social and political stresses of 2017. They are shows often, but not solely, put on by and largely attended by women. They are shows that many single-minded rock, pop and hip-hop dullards will refer to as pretentious. They are shows that defy a lack of money and other resources by drawing upon deep wells of creative ingenuity – events that are so cost ineffective, so confounding and so resistant to sane description and promotion that they are impervious to all attempts at commodification.

They are shows that cause the participant to stumble back through the permeable membrane wall into reality afterwards, muttering to themselves: “What the actual fuck?”

Aja Ireland on stage at London’s Red Gallery, where she performed at the launch event for Lone Taxidermist’s album Trifle in September. Photo by Laura Bemrose.

Whatever the actual fuck New Weird Britain is, then somewhere near the core of it stands Nottingham-based noise artist Aja Ireland, screaming and daubed in mud. When she performs live she seems intent on destroying all boundaries between herself and the audience. It’s not just that she tends to spend most shows off the stage, set up in among the audience, but the literal way she ropes the audience into what she does with her long microphone lead. As the music – a mix of power-electronics, primitivist techno and industrial noise – builds, she gradually loses all of her vivid stage costume. She strips completely to reveal her real costume of the dirt, make-up and paint she ends up covered in.

In real life she could be described as petite, but by the end of her live show – which she has talked about as a means of dealing with traumatic events from her past – she transforms into some kind of giant. It is as if she becomes a 100-foot-tall Ann Darrow and the audience a relatively tiny gorilla, shaking in her gargantuan grip. She admits in one sense this does leave her vulnerable and says she has to be quite picky about where she plays and who she shares a bill with (feeling most at home on LGBTQ-friendly bills). But if she’s faced any problems so far, they have come from unexpected sources. “I sometimes get a sense that promoters haven’t bothered doing any research into what I do. I played at quite a big art institution recently. I was getting ready and someone put their head round the door, saw that I was naked and said, ‘Oh, there’s not going to be any nudity, is there?’ I was like, ‘You’re fucking joking? My profile picture on social media is me naked.’ They were like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know about that.”

Hang on a second, I interrupt. We’re talking about a large public art gallery. The kind of institution that is stuffed to the rafters with paintings and sculptures of female nudes. The kind of institution which is all but founded on works of art that have been used for millennia to objectify, show ownership over and cast moral criticism on women? “Yes,” she laughs. “They threatened to call the police if I did a show with no clothes on. It was really frustrating. What did I do? I went on and did the show naked anyway. Look, I might well be vulnerable in some senses when I’m in the crowd, naked, performing right in the middle of them, but I don’t feel vulnerable. I feel strong. I feel the strongest I’ve ever felt in my whole life.”

An antlered performer is illuminated by projections during UKAEA’s set on the Vortex stage at Supernormal festival in Oxfordshire in August. Photo by Samantha Hayley

Backstage at cavernous warehouse venue in south London, Cumbrian musician Natalie Sharp, AKA Lone Taxidermist, is hard at work. The heroic queen of New Weird Britain is overseeing last-minute preparations for her show, “Trifle”. Offers of gigs are now coming in thick and fast and have been since the first of these shows in the spring, to the extent that she’s had to take time off from her day job as a make-up artist – even though she’s burning through her savings in doing so. She is sanguine about this. “If I’m going to lose money, I’d sooner lose it doing this than anything else,” she says.

The backstage area is crammed with the volunteers who are part of tonight’s show, and they all need her attention. These “arse-onists” are provided with homemade costumes that occupy the weird intersection between Jodorowsky movie, CBeebies pantomime and extremely niche fetish sex doll. They’re given some character information and an instruction to interact with the audience, but not much else. First-time arse-onists, like the audience, won’t know what to expect.

Earlier this year, a last-minute alteration to a festival bill meant Sharp had just 20 minutes to pitch a new idea to the organisers. In the mad panic she came up with “Trifle”, an interactive show with performance art that would feature live electronic reworkings of her own songs against a backdrop of films celebrating the bizarre sexual practices of crush fetish and cake sitting.

As she is applying yellow paint to her face, I suggest to Sharp that she’s not the first to use a mix of performance and art to make comment on food, sex, body image and how women are presented in the media. She’s quick to retort: “Yeah, but the others were probably doing it in an art gallery to their mates, not in a gig venue or at a festival. And I don’t want to bang on about this too much, but they were probably doing it more for a middle-class, white audience whereas we’re doing what we do in a setting that is not used to seeing this kind of thing, to people who are not used to seeing this kind of thing.”

At heart she is as DIY as the most punk rock of punk rock bands. She reels off all the things she has taught herself to do in the last few months by seeking out tutorials on YouTube: “Making giant inflatables, projecting films from a laptop onto a screen, how to use Ableton Live, how to sync to MIDI, how to make a two-metre-tall, anatomically correct vagina costume that sprays custard over people…”

It’s easy to see what audiences might get out of this, but what about Sharp herself? “I feel like I’m giving myself licence to do whatever I want with the audience,” she says, “and if that means me singling someone out and sitting on their face with a fucking Battenberg cake then so be it. I’ll do it because I know it’s not something I’ll get the chance to do at any other point in my life.”

The volunteers make final adjustments to their mouth stretchers, latex wigs and gloves, inflatable breasts, over-sized boxing gloves, wedding dresses and primary coloured boxing protection helmets before grabbing rolls of translucent plastic sheeting, aerosol cans of whipped cream and finger vibrators. They walk out of the dressing room towards the stage. Two of them help to guide a large inflatable pudding on legs who can’t see where he’s going.

The gig is demented. It’s uncommodifiable. It’s weird. It’s new. It won’t be repeated. More than anything, it’s impossible to describe. You’ll just have to trust me – you really had to be there.

John Doran is the co-founder and editor of The Quietus. He presents the Noisey series British Masters and writes for VICE, The Guardian and the BBC. Follow him on Twitter.