KRAAK FEST 2022 HIGHLIGHTS: Petronn Sphene
Rounding off this year's artist highlights is Leeds' own sonic terrorizer Petronn Sphene::::: known as one half of explosive insectoid rock duo Guttersnipe, Petronn Sphene’s No Wave Rave is a frenzied force of drum machine chaos, xenomorph shriekings and shards of noiseful synthwaves coming from every which way. Here she gets the juices going on the eve of her performance at our fest ~ unfiltered and unhinged utter realness, just the way we love 'er!!
First off: how’s life treating you these days?
Haha, wow, I mean, that's a hard question to answer. I've survived this far but that's more than I can say for others. I feel like every day the world gets more insane and appalling and the cognitive dissonance of attempting to remain active in the world is dizzyingly intense at times. I also just lost my good friend Tom Smith recently and I'm still processing the grief. It's been very strange in how I have sought comfort and respite from that traumatic experience, as I have been making a big effort to see my friends a lot and make amends with people who I had strained relationships with, but navigating the world is still quite challenging. I am glad that it is possible again to spend time with people, but it is continually infuriating how a lot of people now are just acting like the coronavirus pandemic is "over" when it really isn't and many people are still highly at risk, but I can empathise with the frustration of for instance younger people who probably feel like they're missing out on some important years of their lives. It's difficult to sum it all up really. Dark times. Despite the darkness however, I feel really close to my friends and very proud of my community in Leeds for organising shows that are safe for medically vulnerable people. It has made existing here a lot more tolerable!
Can you tell us about the genesis of Petronn Sphene? What kind of experience are you seeking to have and deliver through your music?
Okay this a long answer but I think it's important information for people to be aware of so here goes! I actually came up with the initial idea for this project in a flash haha, whilst walking down to my friend's house to play a basement show super last minute after someone had dropped out. I had tried to do a solo performance for a show some time in 2018 where I used the name Petronn Sphene but it was more like a kind of... coldwave/synth-punk type thing with some rave elements. However the show was a bit of a mess; I had too many devices, too many sequences and patch changes to keep track of, the PA was sort of busted... So I abandoned that project until this day when I was asked to fill in on the bill at my friend's basement show in Leeds which I really wanted to play cos obviously house shows are the best! I had been really getting to grips with my then newly acquired MPC1000 but I had been slow to put what I'd been learning into action so I thought, fuck it, today is the day. For a while I had wanted to make some music that was drawing from sassy, sci-fi, annoying punk music like Nervous Gender along with the rave-punk of Atari Teenage Riot (and to some extent local underground legends Petrol Bastard), plus I was particularly obsessed with this Drainolith song "Sevens" from his first LP, so I wanted to do something that combined all these different energies which felt to me as though they pointed towards a common expression of alien identity that was very performative and also live, without any computers involved. I just have a real bee in my bonnet in that I resent the idea that I have to become a fucking software engineer or programmer or some other kind of computer toucher in order to make electronic music (haha!), so I wanted to use electronic sound in a way that is still highly physical and tactile, using rhythms that could not easily be programmed or quantized.
I am still very much a child of the No Wave ideology as I see Punk to be necessarily Future Music if it is realised in accordance with the radical queer political and philosophical ideas that for me substantiate its enduring relevance and potency as a mode of expression. This is the thinking that has driven the music of Guttersnipe, working within the Rock Music idiom, but I wanted to apply this same No Wave thinking to electronic dance music, because that is something which has been a big part of my life since I was about 16-17. I am very much invested, in my crusade to re-shape the world in accordance with my principles of psychedelic radical xenofeminism, in addressing the problem of paucity in the conception of rhythm in music that particularly afflicts the West. In Electronic Music, people are very much tied to the "grid" and seem to be unable to work with electronic dance music ideas outside of that framework. This was definitely an "elephant in the room" for me, with regards to the often-pessimistic conclusion of many in today's world that "everything has been done" and "there's no point in doing anything original and so you're better off just replicating the past" etc etc. which I think is complete nonsense and merely evidence of a lack of imagination.
So when I got the call from my buddy K.Delineate (from Phantasy/Crush Zone Recordings) about this show, something sparked in my head like, right, this project has to be extremely practical in that there are no fiddly GUI abstractions requiring a computer, the equipment I use has to be as minimal as possible and all playable in the moment (which in this case would be my friend's tiny basement) but it is going to use classic rave drum sounds such as the TR-909 and 808, synthesis from my Korg Minilogue and my voice, but I want to be able to have the ability to loop/repeat phrases, so I decided to route the master out from the mixer into a looper which could be at my feet. This was all without ever actually having tried doing this haha! I decided on the gear and just thought okay, I'm just going to see if this works because it is a low pressure and familiar environment with an audience of friends, so I went on down, set up my stuff (on top of an ironing board which was the performance table!!) and just improvised strictly within this set of ideas I'd mapped out in my imagination - adhering to the "elastic temporality" concept we use in Guttersnipe (which we inherited from no wave bands like AIDS Wolf and listening to free jazz and non-western folk music) and with this specific kind of, cartoon queer punk expression of my identity. My weird pals loved it so the first outing was a successful proof of concept haha!!
Since then I have developed this sound of this project in a highly scientific way; I really sat down and studied my aforementioned influences like Nervous Gender, Atari Teenage Riot, that Draino tune and various no wave/noise rock bands, along with the 90s-00s hardcore/gabber/breakcore records (as I feel that not much in the last 15 years + is so interesting) and contemporary stuff like Jlin + Bamba Pana + SOPHIE + Rian Treanor, referring to queer theory texts... Each composition I have made adheres to an attempt to apply a specific formula to tonality and rhythm, trying to deploy the critical psychoacoustic effects of dance music in a way that is maximally impactful and summarises the lineage of those sounds whilst also pointing to the beyond - e.g. what is the "kick drum" object?? Can the features of a bangin' rave tune be collapsed down into a single tonal/rhythmic event? I use the specific interaction via MIDI between my two primary machines to explore the possibilities of gestural generation in that system, wherein the direction of control between the synth and the MPC determines the synchrony/asynchrony of elements, permits rhythmic acceleration/deceleration (the "concertina" being the primary temporal envelope of PSphene) and allows the modulation of specific parameters to become the focus of the composition. But the end result has to be 'avin it, each composition is a fixation on a rhythmic gestural construct which I find physically intuitive or scratches a weird neurological itch that makes me want to dance with as much excitement as would be elicited by a classic Rotterdam Records banger, but where that music leaves negative space between the components of the "beat", I try to probe that zone really intentionally. It's also a highly embodied kind of expression where you can't extract my physiology out of the music. I call the style No Wave Rave because it's assembled in the same way that the No Wave of the late 70s and 90s was an experiment in the deconstruction of Rock Music, but here I'm undertaking that same investigation with Dance Music.
You seem to have cut your teeth playing in bands and partaking in collective musical projects, obviously Guttersnipe and also briefly (?) as part of To Live and Shave in LA. How does playing with people differ for you vis-à-vis your solo pursuits?
It's certainly a different experience in some pretty key aspects, largely relating to practicality. Although the world has largely experienced my arrival into their consciousness as something along the lines of what you describe (with Guttersnipe as the starting point), I actually made solo music for a long time before that, as the world will soon learn with the imminent release of a record from my much older solo project called The Ephemeron Loop which took me around 13 years to finish (a long story that will be told closer to the time!). But one of the major challenges with that project has been its reliance on the computer and studio based engineering techniques... as much as I really appreciate - and for particularly complex sound design applications, rely upon - the possibilities a computer offers a musician, I also find it extremely overwhelming and stifling. This is certainly in some part a reflection of my neurodivergent cognition, as I have challenges related to attention, decision making, other areas of executive function and generally an overactive imagination, but it is also a reality of how this interface is designed. Evermore I feel that the technology we are surrounded by - and this very much includes the technology aimed at musicians - is trying to supersede the physical and visceral world; make the body and its possibilities of communication obsolete. Well, call me old fashioned, but I'll go out kicking and screaming in all the indignity of physical incarnation before my consciousness gets transferred into a digital prosthesis - which is absolutely by no means an argument against prosthetic technologies which actually help people, but rather a resistance to the false freedoms offered by contemporary technology, which I see largely as nihilistic neo-liberalism attempting to supply a bullshit alternative to actually fixing inequalities in access to our basic human rights. I see this happening more and more these days, especially in communities I am quite close to such as disabled and queer communities, where the simulated world of one's own personal digital fantasy is ever more enticing to those who are ever more brutalised by the world they try to exist in. I understand the reasoning, but I am not satisfied with this alternative where the future can only be accessed through the computer, alone in one's bedroom.
I find it extremely important to continue to make music with other people, to preserve the dynamic of The Band and resist the assimilation into the computer world. But it's a difficult balance to strike when I, as a marginalised person, have a lot of really specific things to express about my personal experience of being alive, that come from deep in an esoteric part of my psyche that I know I can't really entrust another person to be able to capture accurately. This is what pushes me towards a more solitary, introverted state of making music and it makes these frustrating technologies seem very appealing and useful - which they are, but I'm always very conscious of how I'm not really a super tech oriented person or especially that good at using computers. Like, I'm alright at using them, but there's so many ways in which I feel almost too embodied to be as good as I would need to be to make the sounds I hear in my head, or it would take having to dedicate myself entirely to cyberconsciousness to make that jump, but there's just way too much embodied causal psychodynamics of like, immediacy and gestural feedback that I'm fundamentally built on which get in the way of the abstract thinking required to be really capable in that environment. Of course some people might read this and say, well, why don't you just use hardware? And my response is that I do, but I'm an unemployed and largely unemployable disabled queer woman who makes highly uncommercial music so I can't really afford to buy the hardware I'd need to do away with the computer entirely, given a limitless scope of personal invention with regards to making music. That's another thing that making music with others offers - constraints and limits to how far your mind can wander and how wide your scope can be. I have definitely spoken to other musicians who have this problem of driving themselves crazy when trying to make solo music due to there just being too many options, too many ways to second guess yourself. This goes back to my thinking when Petronn Sphene came into existence - I had to set really strict constraints to keep it feeling the same as how it feels to play in a band. Because I'm always gonna be a rocker, a raver - I thrive off of kinetic energy, I'm not really a studio hermit. Although I am continually sort of forced to attempt to be one hahaha!
With elaborate and flashy song titles such as “expression chromesquishy cuntviolence” and “ovary now secretes exoskeleton”, wording feels very important in the Spheneverse. What are the links between the titles and the music?
It's the agenda I'm pushing, the alternate reality I'm trying to manifest in this reality, or tear out a rift into. It's the same with Guttersnipe and any other music I make really, the lyrics and the song titles are as important as the music almost. I'm a big fan of lyric sheets!! With this project though, it's probably the most "up-front" and prosaic (by my standards!) of any music I've made before, because I wanted to express certain concepts very unambiguously, to a degree of directness that is outrageous and, to be honest, hilarious to me. The dynamics of lesbian sex and desire, the experience of being a post-op transsexual woman, my somewhat disastrous attempts to navigate queer/rave culture as an autistic/ADHD person, xenofeminist alien feelings, etc. I always loved the unabashed "fuck-you" attitude of queercore like God is My Co-Pilot and Limp Wrist and hard rave music, where the lyrics would be really overtly advocating for gay sex or drug use, I love how "degenerate" and completely not "respectable" that approach is, I really relate to it in a big way. I'm pretty autistic and synaesthetic with language so I generally tend to be highly abstract and surreal with how I write lyrics, but I think sometimes that goes over people's heads. It's one thing that has bugged me about how people have received Guttersnipe (despite my deep gratitude for the largely very positive reaction we've had) - the fact that people sometimes don't realise we have a really strong radical queer political message in our music and that we aren't just trying to make a big incomprehensible racket - we arrived at our sound through intentional omission of those elements of the Rock Music lexicon which we feel uphold the imaginal arm of the oppressive and exclusionary ideology that aims to keep power in the hands of the straight, white and able bodied. Obviously any attempt to try and push way out into an unarticulated realm of possibility beyond the familiar dominant ideologies is by definition Futuristic, but I think people confuse the indescribable with the abject, which is how you end up with people comparing Guttersnipe to Swans or Whitehouse when really we couldn't have less in common. So when this project was coming together and I felt I had the sound and persona of the music worked out, it seemed like the right thing to do, to be more upfront and punk and cheeky with the political stance of the lyrics, so that there is no question as to what I'm getting at. It's definitely a distinct conceptual world from Guttersnipe though.
I'm actually quite a shy and awkward person, I find it difficult to navigate queer spaces sometimes because there can be a tendency towards hedonism and it can be really overly sexualised and youth oriented, perhaps especially in Britain because we are such a repressed nation and queerness is still so demonised, so people seem to feel like they really have to lean into what that implies... Which scares the hell out of me haha!! I'm however also quite a sexual person but I'm generally not capable of (or comfortable with) expressing that out in the world, so this persona in Petronn Sphene allows me to channel all of those parts of me which I would be way too shy to be upfront about elsewhere. I want to communicate a kind of sexual energy that is crumpling, imploding, entangled, nonlinear... An autistic dyke sexuality. Also with these songs I wanted to really subvert a lot of the common misogynist tropes like "women are crazy" and really cheerlead that vilified condition like, yeah, actually, that "craziness" makes us powerful, so every feeling I have that comes from a place of hysteria, or shrill sassy qualities which characterise the "annoying bitch" whom the macho world despises/fears, I try to amplify and exaggerate as much as possible with the sound design and with the lyrics. These feelings come very naturally to me though, I find it very empowering to unleash them!
Above all the surreal language I use is a form of Feminist science fiction. Feminism taken to it's conclusion is psychedelic. An actually radical xeno-feminism, which truly addresses the Othering of all things that are not the human white male body and the eurocentric cultural imperalism of "logic" that upholds its status as "the ideal" by looking beyond even the human species for alternative models of existence is nothing short of sci-fi, yet it intends to make that "fiction" a reality. I feel very strongly that Mankind's fear of the feminine, the emotional and the "mysterious" is connected with it's fear of the alien, so I'm trying to speak from all of those states simultaneously.
Any future projects or collaborations in the pipeline?
Yes quite a few actually, one big upcoming release is the aforementioned LP from my other solo project The Ephemeron Loop which is a kind of Ethereal sound which not a lot of people have heard me play. I think that's going to be out around May. Beyond that, me and my partner Sydney/Slaylor Moon have an experimental improv band called Two Form a Click and have also been working on making legitimate, not even especially experimental Hard Techno and other Dance styles haha! Another thing is getting back in touch with my Welsh origins and I've been re-learning the Welsh language (Cymraeg) which I half learned as a child up to when I was 12, but my parents aren't Welsh so it kinda stopped when my family moved to England in 2003. Wales is going in a really cool progressive direction lately in the culture, it's becoming substantially more visibly pro LGBTQA+ and my home town even has the world's first and only non-binary mayor! So I've been making music where I sing in Welsh, which has fostered a few collaborative projects still coming to fruition... Then there's some collabs between me and Rian Treanor which came out of our work together for a piece with Limpe Fuchs that was part of CTM last year. Guttersnipe is still alive and well but currently on an imposed hiatus because we are trying to secure a new jam space - something which is proving quite difficult, unfortunately! Last but not least there's a new weird improv rock action unit called BAND where I play drums and two other sci-fi/dark electronics duos, one with Kay Logan/Helena Celle called Preversion which is very new and another with my buddy Pete Cann called LaBrea Pulpit which has been going for a few years now... I'm sure I'm forgetting something! I'm always pretty busy these days. It's the only way I can handle being on this planet!