Soundtracking the apocalypse

Aaja Deptford have given me a monthly radio show which I’m looking forward to. It’s been a long time since I was in a pirate’s studio, at least a decade, for similar reasons for not DJing / rebirth some months ago. Radio has always been a constant presence in my audiosphere, and even though the pirate pulse has been displaced by podcasts, cloud mixes, and youtube sets, it still refuses to die, even if it has mutated more to the form of online streaming radio rather than a fuzzy FM signal. Obviously NTS reigns supreme in this arena, but the spread – you could call it viral, if you’ll permit me to be darkly facetious – of other online stations similar to Aaja (Bloop, Balamii, Netil, Music Box, Threads, Foundation, and christ knows how many others) is analagous to the golden age of pirates in the early nineties.

And all the more relevant given what is happening at the moment, as we’re all cocooned and locked down, not in the sense of “your aerial”. Cooped up in our flats like so much sweating, fetid, sardines in a tin, driving each other crazy and desperately craving the comfort of well established norms. I was meant to start the monthly show in Aaja’s railway arch physical location on March 18th, when my older kid and I were suddenly struck down by what was most likely the coronavirus. The incessant dry coughing was an irritant rather than a threat, but I could see how a smoker or asthmatic would be in trouble. For me the main problem was the joint and muscle aches. Searing, intense, white pain at times, until the next round of painkillers kicked in. Casual comments from mates along the lines of “you sure it’s not just the flu?” were met with threats of violence to be dispensed when the symptoms cleared up. It was not an experience that I would want to repeat. I consulted 111 and they said hold tight, you’re not a high risk, but you and your crew can’t leave the house for 14 days.

When it was mercifully all done and dusted, I wanted to taste the changed outside world at day and night. I needed to get out into the open, before the cabin fever turned me into one of those domestic abuse cases which have reportedly spiked – potentially either as abuser or victim, we were all straining close to the end of our tethers. I took the bike out on a Friday afternoon to a completely deserted SE1, reminiscent of Detroit, without the dereliction. Normally teeming with tourists and POETS yahoos shitfaced by dinnertime, it was deathly quiet and eerie. I ran down to Peckham on a Saturday night, passing by where we could have ended up living if we’d taken that other flat from the housing association, all the bars depressingly dark and empty, with a few plastic bags and bottles drifting around on the streets for my company. I looped around Rotherhithe Street, normally sedate but now completely apocalyptic in its inactivity.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of the lockdown (while of course completely understanding its necessity) as it’s taken all the fun stuff out of life. I miss being able to have a pint, dance with friends, eat out, do the occasional parkrun. But when I was out for my government sanctioned, appropriately socially-distant bouts of exercise, the air was clean. I could hear the birds singing in the trees. There were very few cars and buses driving around. People were out cycling, running, walking – not working. Rush hour was non existent. All perennially mindless ghoul ephemeral tat purveyors like designer trainer shops, jewellers, tanning salons, and turf accountants were gloriously shut. I could hear the few conversations I passed by with clarity. There wasn’t that oppressive flightpath hum in the sky every ten minutes. This was a glimpse of what a cleaner, greener future could be like.

Also all of a sudden there’s been a surge in the number of online ‘events’ as every musician and performer finds themselves without a carrier for their live art. All the real life fun stuff needed an outlet somewhere. Stalwart DJ EZ did another one of his marathon stints for charity, Octo Octa and Eris Drew streamed live from a forest, Sean Johnston did an ALFOS session.

Yet I haven’t quite been able to bring myself to tune into any of them ‘live’ at the time, with a drink in hand or an unwrapped pill in that small jeans pocket. I just can’t muster the enthusiam for “clubbing online” despite covid converts saying it comes close. My flat is possibly the last place on earth that would compare to some filthy sweat drenched basement in Dalston. Where are the queues, the scraps of questionable baggies on the toilet floor, the overpriced drinks, the jaw clenching twenty year olds, and the communal joyous experiences of music played at loud volume until the sun comes up?

But on reflection, it isn’t just the difference from the physical environment that’s been stopping me from tuning into those live streaming events and having a communal dance with other webcam attendees on Zoom. Given what’s happening at the moment, how life has been turned inside out, and probably influenced by my own experience of the virus, I’ve found myself dredging up records and mixes I haven’t listened to in years. Even when I was out running around SE1 – which would normally soundtracked by anything relentless, vocal, thumping, and uplifting – I either listened to the most sparse, sinister ambience I had saved onto the phone; or else just switched it off completely and took in the silence. Even though I was enjoying the benefits of the lockdown, it somehow felt off kilter and unsettling to be listening to anything remotely positive, or evocative of what the good times used to be like.

What does this mean for my debut radio show next week on Aaja then? I’m not sure. I guess it means that the show might potentially be an interruption to normal service – but then I haven’t established any normal service with them yet at all. (Guilty of watching too many films and reading books depicting entire societal collapse) What does the start of a slow burning apocalypse sound like, exactly? How do you aurally document the spread (both internal, and external) of a viral infection, and the emptying of a city? What does it sound like for the remnants of humanity to board a huge generation starship and travel across the black vacuum of space for years to reach a habitable exoplanet in another solar system? (for this surely is the only logical exit strategy from the pandemic…)

Lock in next Wednesday (15th April) at 9pm and you (and me too, I guess) might find out one interpretation of it. Here are some suitably apocalyptic photos from the SE1 run.

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