Kosh Spice

At a Turkish music festival with Kosheen. Again, messy. First published in Muzik Magazine.

Stuffing Turkey with the trio putting drum & bass on Top Of The Pops

“Oh, look,” says Kosheen singer Sian Evans, pointing from the window of the minibus.  “There are loads of really random people on the road.”

Indeed there are.  Following the direction of Sian’s finger, it seems there are plenty of people on the road, all of them random.  Imagine tooling along the M1 and seeing groups of blokes strolling up the hard shoulder, hands in pockets, probably whistling.  It’s like that.  Sitting on the verges are similar pockets of idlers, relaxing with fags, looking for all the world like they’re waiting for a brass band to come on.  Strange: of all the places you might choose to spend your days, by the side of a motorway would figure just below abattoir in most normal folks’ thinking.

But this is Turkey and, like the past, it’s another country.  On the one had it’s lent its name to a delicious sugary sweet that’s “full of Eastern promise”; on the other, it has an approach to human rights that can best be described as ‘slapdash’.  So slapdash is its approach to human rights that at the time of writing several people outside Finsbury Park in London are on hunger strike in protest.  By the time you read this, of course, their protest will probably be over.

So, strange indeed.  Kosheen should fit right in.  They’re the two-blokes-and-a-girl dance thing you’ve seen on Top Of The Pops and heard on the radio, and whose drum & bass crossover single ‘Hide U’ you’ve been humming despite yourself.  And who will probably sink without trace after releasing a follow-up single that sounds exactly the same and then a laughable album with 12 different versions of that same song.  Aren’t they?

Well, no.  But that’s what we’re here to find out anyway.

Well, that’s not quite right.  We’re not simply in Turkey for Muzik’s benefit.  In actual fact, Kosheen are due to perform at a one-day festival in the nation’s capital, Istanbul.  With an admirable economy of imagination, this event is simply called ‘Techno & Dance Festival’ and features hordes of Turkish acts you’ve never heard of as well as a smattering of big names.  Old warhorses like headliners Orbital, battle-scarred veterans like Slam and Luke Slater, and new pups on the block Kosheen.

The trio of vocalist Sian and producers Markee Substance and Darren Decoder (yes, that’s Substance & Decoder, drum & bass heads) arrive on site about hour before they’re due on and disappear to do whatever it is bands do before they go on stage, vomit probably.  Whatever, Muzik takes the opportunity to have a gander at the pristine-looking site.  It soon becomes clear that Kosheen have something of an uphill struggle ahead of them.  Firstly, there are not many people here.  Later they’ll arrive in huge numbers but it’s only 7pm and everybody in Turkey is either sleeping or sitting beside a motorway.  The site is barely a quarter full.

Secondly, the band on before Kosheen have effectively emptied the main stage.  They try, bless them.  They probably donate to charity, love their mums and never make off-colour jokes about members of the opposite sex, but the fact is they wandered into a Whirl-Y-Gig tent in 1991 and forgot to leave.  If they were a 70s rock singer, they’d by Snoozy Quatro.

And thirdly, everyone not studiously ignoring the band on the main stage is glued to a game of basketball being shown at a stage opposite.  Apparently, basketball is hugely popular in Turkey and this is like their FA Cup or something.  In any event, as uphill struggles go, this one would have Chris Bonnington forging sicknotes.

But then a startling thing happens.  As tumbleweed blows across the main stage and Muzik and Kosheen’s PR officer dutifully take their places, Kosheen come on.  Decoder & Substance assume positions at decks towards the back of the stage and Sian decides to stage a musical incursion of Turkey.  The bass goes wah, the floor shakes, she opens her mouth and people begin arriving.  No joke.  As if programmed, the audience suddenly sweeps before the stage, and not just to gawp either – you couldn’t blame them, the presence of Sian is gawpable enough – but to dance.  If the festival had been in a state of hypersleep before, when Kosheen arrive, the party starts.

They play ‘Hide U’, of course, and while it’s one of the highlights, it’s by no means (i) the (i) highlight.  That honour goes to ‘Slip And Slide (Suicide)’ which sees bass being drilled to subterranean depths and Sian at once dancing wildly and fending off a cameraman with potentially amorous designs.  If any cynical members of the audience (ahem) had been expecting a brief, lacklustre PA – say, two songs as a perfunctory warm-up for ‘Hide U’ – they are swiftly made to feel ashamed of their doubt.  Kosheen rock.

And then, having slain the audience with their drum & bass crossover hybrid, Sian leaves the stage to Decoder & Substance who play a DJ set just to remind everyone that they’re the ice-cool mack daddies of the underground scene, and you’ve seen Kosheen, now look at their roots.

This uphill struggle followed by conversion at a small Turkish music festival is a microcosm of all that Kosheen have and will go through.  And the problem, ironically, is ‘Hide U’.  It’s a little black dress of a tune, a track so versatile that its Stephane K and John Creamer mix scored them a Top 10 hit, while the original – and superior – mix found its way into Oakenfold’s box.  “It’s certainly earned its money,” says Sian, with commendable understatement.

But it’s also the reason we have to tell you what Kosheen are not.

They are not two producers who fancied being on Top Of The Pops and hired a bird to sing their song; they’re not overnight chancers with an eye on a trillion compilation album licences, and they not puppets for a record company keen to buy themselves a bit of cred.

They’re not all this because, though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, the Kosheen story began some three years ago, when Decoder & Substance hooked up with fellow Bristolian Sian Evans, fresh from a stint living in a teepee in Wales.  All were veterans of the free party scene of the early 90s (“We probably stepped over each other a few times,” says Sian) and all found themselves looking for a new direction.  Mixing desks were duly manned.

“I’ve got this image of us being stuck in the studio,” says Sian, “tucked away like animals, poking our heads out of the burrow after 6 months going, ‘Er, look what we’ve got, do you like it?’ And the response has been phenomenal.

With good reason.  The result of their work was a new sound, a song-based direction which shackles drum & bass and breakbeat to a pop/soul sensibility.  Not the coffee table torch song beat-fiddling we’re used to from Bristol, but songs with their feet on the dancefloor and hooks in your head.  It’s at once fresh and familiar sounding.  Unashamedly pop but with the kind of depth that demands repeat visits.

For Decoder & Substance, in particular, Kosheen was a reaction to their disillusionment with a drum & bass underground they’d been instrumental in creating.

“Drum & bass was getting fucking boring,” says Darren Decoder (Beale to his bank manager).  “I’d been writing it a long time and I need to keep doing different things.  You need to move on, you know?  Drum & bass is so disposable.  It gets played for a month and then it’s gone and forgotten, but there are tracks on the Kosheen album we did when we got together three years ago that are nice and fresh now.”

“Yeah, we were getting pissed off with this drum & bass quick turnover,” adds Markee Substance (Morrison on his tax returns).  “And the thing is, a good song or a good track can last for years. That’s what we’re trying to do now.”

The danger was of course, that the drum & bass cognoscenti, a fiercely underground, isolationist group at the best times, would turn their backs on Decoder & Substance.  Not that they seem to care unduly.

“We got some gyp,” admits Darren.  “People were saying, ‘What you playing that for – that’s not hard and dark, who’s going to play that?’  But when we started writing this, we did it because we were enjoying writing and doing something different.”

“I don’t want to fuck off the hardcore purists,” adds Markee.  “But there are people who like songs.  For us, you’ve got to have the bollocks to do what you want to do and not get caught up in all that dance bullshit, all that purist – it’s not hardstep it’s two-step it’s not hardbag—“

“Hardbag?” interrupts Darren.

“Yeah. Techno hardbag trance,” says Markee.

“Electro breakbeat hardbag.”

“Trance breakbeat hardbag acid psychedelia.”

And with that, Decoder & Substance invent the best pub game since Shove Ha’penny, simultaneously making the point that a tune is a tune and names is for tombstones, baby.

But the ironic thing about this discussion of the underground is that Kosheen’s music is now reaching an audience who wouldn’t know drum & bass and breakbeat from semolina.  And it looks like that’s going to be the case from now on.  ‘Hide U’ (their third single) may have taken them out of Muzik’s Trainspotting pages and into the charts, but they’ve got an album’s worth of tracks that are just as good.  The album, Resist, was recorded in Substance & Decoder’s Bristol studio, and on hearing it, the suits at BMG signed them to a five-album deal.  ‘Hide U’ may be their first assault on the charts, but they have the heavy artillery to back it up.  Still, the sudden whirlwind of activity around the single must have taken them by surprise.

“Of course,” says Sian.  “A drum & bass tune that goes Top 10?  But then, it’s only got one verse that goes round and round.  It’s catchy.  It’s very accessible.  It’s quite tribal and spiritual and protective.  There’s a lot of depth to it.

Nevertheless: “We didn’t set out to be crossover,” says Markee.  “We knew what we were doing, we knew it had the potential to do that, but ultimately you just concentrate on doing fucking good music.”

“But we’re not going to do another ‘Hide U’,” adds Sian.  “Because we’ve pushed the boundaries now and not really considered them, we can keep doing that and people aren’t going to say, ‘Oh they’re re-designing themselves.’  We can keep changing.  And I want people to get on the Kosheen vibe and come on board long-term with us.”

So they’re not chancers then, not puppets and certainly not two-blokes-and-a-bird miming along to their ‘Ibiza’ hit.  They don’t need to carve ‘4 Real’ into their forearms for that to be the case.  Even so, writing accessible, commercial music means having to rub shoulders in some fairly alien environments for three ex-Spiral Tribe ravers.

“We’re all grown-ups,” says Sian.  “We’re ready to take on whatever.  We made a pact that we’ll see it through and we’re going to.  I’m not going to go on a crash diet or have plastic surgery to sell records.  This is what we are, what we’re like.  I don’t think they’d ever let us on Ant and Dec.”

“We’ve done a few things where some pop act has been on and we’re on after them,” says Markee.  “It’s funny because we don’t really fit in, but we can hold our heads up high.  These are tunes we produced ourselves on the cheap in our studio and it’s up there with the massive tunes that they put together.  That gives us an internal buzz.”

“And the kids go just as crazy for us as they go for Ronan Keating or someone like that,” smiles Sian.  “And I didn’t even have to wear a lip ring.”

“A clit ring?” says Darren.

They’re off again.

PANEL 1

//headline// “Hello Turkey?”

//standfirst// Who are Kosheen

Sian Evans

The red-haired, spiky singer with the voice and stage presence providing the key to the band’s strength.  Evans cut her musical teeth on the free party scene before retiring up a Welsh mountain to raise her son.  She later bumped into Substance & Decoder at a Ruffneck Ting night in Bristol and Kosheen were born.

Says: “I think when you listen to our music you can tell we’ve had a dubious past.”

Swears: a lot.

Markee Substance

Real name Mark Morrison, but not at all like the Leicester-born ‘Mack’.  Glasgow-born Markee moved to Bristol in the early 90s to create the Ruffneck Ting nights with Darren Decoder, as well as setting up the Breakbeat Culture record shop.

Says: “We get a lot of groups of Japanese tourists who come and take pictures of Breakbeat Culture.”

Swears: a lot.

Darren Decoder

Real name Darren Beale, Decoder was a punk before Portishead’s Geoff Barrow introduced him to the delights of an Akai.  Trips to free parties like Spiral Tribe and Bedlam inspired him to write hardocre and from there drum & bass, Ruffneck Ting and Breakbeat Culture with Substance.

Says: “There are only three or four drum & bass producers writing stuff that I think is any good.  Nah, I ain’t gonna say who they are.”

Swears: an awful lot.

PANEL 2

//headline// Turk hard, play hard

//standfirst// Codes of conduct at a Turkish music festival

Don’t: take drugs.  Or ‘take’ drugs.  Don’t even think about drugs.  If you find yourself thinking about drugs, think about something else.  If this doesn’t work, wear a woolly hat to prevent your thoughts escaping into the air.  See the Oscar-winning film Midnight Express for more information.

Do: leave your Manchester United shirt at home.  Burn it to be on the safe side.  Why not just burn it anyway?

Don’t: bother taking a cushion.  The thoughtful folk behind Istanbul’s Techno & Dance Festival provide J&B-branded cushions for guests.  Big Chill, eat your heart out.

Do: smoke a lot.  Like a Turk, in fact.  But not drugs, obviously.

Don’t: expect to stand at the back making sardonic comments from the side of your mouth like, “Orbital playing the same set, (i) again (i).”  Turkish people like to party and you will be trampled to mud and guts by people less cynical than you.

Do: drink spirits.  The bars are better stocked than your average High Street boozer, and being as the festival is sponsored by J&B it’d be rude not to indulge.

Don’t: expect to eat crap junk food.  Quality barbecues are the order of the day.

PANEL 3

//headline// Underground, overground

//standfirst// The drum & bass moles who have emerged blinking into the light

Goldie: fending off jokes about the Blue Peter dog, the man with the teeth got Q readers into a lather with his debut LP, Timeless in 1995.  A high-profile relationship with Bjork followed during which she reportedly told him to change the name jungle to drum & bass.  Under the thumb or what?  A second album, Saturnz Return, saw him fending off jokes about his music, while a part in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough saw him fending off jokes about his acting.

Adam F: Alvin Stardust’s son tickled the fancy of Britannia Music members with his first album Colours in 1997 before briefly admitting himself to the Where Are They Now? file.  Lazarus-like, Mr F has since reinvented himself as a hip hop producer, tweaking the knobs for Redman and launching his insane, Muzik-recommended ‘Kaos’ album on the world.  Tim Westwood says it’s, “blazing up the streets right now.”  He should know.

Alex Reece: welding his love of early Detroit techno to drum & bass, Reece produced a d&b standard in Pulp Fiction, which found itself just as welcome in the homes of committed trip hoppers.  But by the time of his So Far album in 1996, the drum & bass community were accusing him of commercialism and refusing to talk to him at supermarket checkouts.  Unlike Adam F, his entrance to the Where Are They Now? file has proved to be a one-way ticket.

Roni Size: Popping his head over the parapet with his Mercury judge-impressing Reprazent album ‘New Forms’, Size decided the air was too thin up there and disappeared back underground, reappearing with the impressive Breakbeat Era project in 1999.  The Mercury Prize notwithstanding, Size has retained his d&b don status, and last year attracted the likes of Methodman to his ‘In The Mode’ album as Reprazent.

 

 

 

 

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