BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM corresponds with Grayson Gilmour and Mark Leong of So So Modern on their turn to the dark side and escape to Europe.

SO SO MODERN have inspired a lot of hype and hysteria in Wellington over the last few years, almost single-handedly and unwittingly creating a ‘scene’ in the process. All of a sudden Wellington seemed awash in electro-bands, fluoro-colours, and keyboards. Which is a bit reductive, and unfair on So So Modern themselves – they’ve approached their craft with far more musicianship than most other local artists. Their music, which straddles a number of different styles ranging from synth to dance to hardcore, has justifiably built up a strong following, but it was their unpredictable live shows which really caught audiences’ attention. But they’ve disappeared from Wellington in recent times, heavily touring around Europe, with sporadic New Zealand appearances. They’ve also seemingly procrastinating with the release of a debut album, but reports suggest it’s on the way soon enough.

So So Modern’s show with !!! in May, their last Wellington show, unleashed a darker sound onto the audience. More bass, jagged riffs, and unpredictable noises, the music seemed to signal a dystopian shift in the previously celebratory sound. Gilmour says “I wouldn’t claim that So So Modern is an ‘unconscious’ band, but in saying that, not a lot is premeditated or planned when it comes to the band, we’ve always done what comes naturally and which pleases everyone in the band.” Leong says “yes, there are changes going on, but its hard, for us to even speculate on those things and discuss them because we’re very much caught up amidst the whole process.” But they don’t deny something darker is perhaps going on. Gilmour says “I’d say a turn to the dark side, in a sense, is our collective reaction to the months and months we spent together touring overseas, through living out of each others pockets you get to know a greater spectrum of friendship and emotion, the rollercoaster jadedness and euphoria of touring. We’ve found our new material to be at times more contemplative, more frenetic but overall more honest and satisfying.”

Leong elaborates on the darker elements of the band’s sound in relation to the band’s performances. “I think all music is dark, and all good music has some sense of darkness to it. Depending on your assumptions on what this quality of darkness is, I hope we’re simply just being true to the notion that music can be an incredibly moving experience, that it carries the weight of the world, and transcends it into another world. Music is dark because the experience of listening always evokes a sense of blindness. We’d like to articulate an intimate relation to the world, and to simply remind people that the world is heavy, and that sound too carries mass.”

The so-called indie scene in Wellington (or in a wider sense New Zealand) is something that is thrown at the band, and I ask if the new ‘direction’ reflects, in some respects, a desire to escape the totalizing effect of that label. Scenes, that problematic and reductive term, has been thrown at so-called independent musicians throughout popular music history, and connotes, for the music’s detractors, exclusivity and tribalism. Though, it is hard to deny that a number of bands have followed So So Modern’s electronic lead in New Zealand, though for the most part without the same rigour. Gilmour says “from an insider’s point of view, I’d have to say that the ‘impact’ of So So Modern within New Zealand goes relatively unnoticed. If in some way we’ve inspired others to pick up instruments and express themselves then this to us can only be a good thing. The notion of a scene however is something that I don’t think really exists here... our populous cannot sustain this kind of exclusivity, rather, I feel we’re more a community, which is why So So Modern has always been a non-exclusive band, collaborating with hardcore bands, noise artists, electro producers, MCs, dancers, designers and visual artists. Our new direction is in no way headed to distance ourselves from these people. They are a part of who we are.”

Leong suggests “it’s more productive to be more specific about the social status of a musical context.” He argues things that personally concern him about specific contexts include “social or personal disenfranchisement, fragmentation in communication (artistic and otherwise), the respect (or lack of) for artistic continuity, the level of hospitality, engagement and encounters (performance and participation), the role of media, the level of organization demonstrated by people to make things happen, diversity, and the ability for people to respond to local conditions.” Leong asks though, “the imperative to constructively, and lovingly challenge each other should always be welcomed right?” Gilmour also says “the community is an open one. Cast the speculations of totalisation and tribalism aside and come share some ideas!”

“I think all music is dark, and all good music has some sense of darkness to it. Depending on your assumptions on what this quality of darkness is, I hope we’re simply just being true to the notion that music can be an incredibly moving experience, that it carries the weight of the world, and transcends it into another world. Music is dark because the experience of listening always evokes a sense of blindness. We’d like to articulate an intimate relation to the world, and to simply remind people that the world is heavy, and that sound too carries mass.”

It’s the band’s performativity that has the most utopian feel, ever since the band’s beginnings in 2004 – early shows involved the handing out of baked items for example – and that’s something the band also admits has proven difficult to capture in the studio. Gilmour says “the performance of music is an amazing spectacle, but we’ve realised its not simply instant gratification, it’s something that you can feast on with not only your eyes and your ears but your brain!” These shows have attracted a lot of hype; hype being that double-edged prospect of free publicity and a way in which to get knocked down. Gilmour says “So So Modern has always felt grounded, and the dynamics within the band are still the same as always. I wouldn’t say we take ourselves too seriously but we do speak of our actions with philosophy and intent. The risk of hype and its backlash is there, and it has been experienced in small doses, but such is being in the public eye.” Leong says “after seeing the world I’m not really sure what to make of this hype business. That’s right, in many cases ‘hype’ is very much a business and it’s somewhat instrumental to the science of music corporatism. The forces behind what we may call ‘hype’ here in New Zealand I think come from a much less insidious source. Yes, people talk, word spreads. I just hope the talk doesn’t overshadow the concern for quality! And again, we’re quite happy to challenge what people may assume or expect of us. We hope our audiences will reciprocate in a similar manner!” Gilmour adds that “personally I still think we’re a relatively naive band, still without a manager, or tour manager, still without a multi album deal, still without a mountain of promotional debt. These are the decisions we’ve made and feel work best for the band. They make us more humane, real, approachable, responsible.” Which, Leong suggests makes the band accountable for just about everything they do with the So So Modern moniker – achievements and mistakes.

The band’s anticipated debut album has been a long time in the making, and the touring throughout Europe and the States, playing with some hugely regarded bands has seeped its way into the band’s consciousness. Gilmour says “we’ve been lucky enough to share the stage with a lot of acts that have just blown us away, Dirty Projectors, Health, Why?, Deerhoof, Errors, James Chance... to name a few, and its always a good thing to feel like running off to a practice room and not coming out again until you’re as good as what you just saw.” However, the two emphasise that there’s no preconceived direction to the album or their musical noodlings. Leong says “I think our current situation is not really a search for ‘direction’. Again, maybe it’s because it’s hard to speak objectively about where we are headed, about directions and destinations. I think it’s probably more suitable and relevant for us to talk about the search for orientation. That’s more of a human way to think of it and we prefer a more human model for the band to work from. We’re very much walking into the future blind.”

The band have been fiercely DIY, and embarked on a big overseas tour with little institutional and commercial support. What would be empowering for some could just as easily be frightening for others. Gilmour says “let’s just say we’ve learnt a lot of things the hard way, or the faced the ‘hardcore reality’ as we like to put it. As musicians I think its important to make the industry work for you, not the other way around and while the term DIY is all good and well, I think our case is more DIT, ‘Do It Together!’ When you go abroad with touring and releases you truly experience the power of friends and networking, you also experience the pitfalls of touring, poor promoters, bureaucratic rip-offs. Whether DIY or DIT, the experience is both empowering and scary.” Leong suggests that the DIY label is potentially a problematic label too. “The last thing we want to do though, is turn this whole ‘Do It Yourself’ into a convenient catch phrase. We’ve seen it turn into a nonsensical status quo on one hand, and on the other hand, an excuse for poor conduct. We’ve never really labeled ourselves in that manner, and just hopes our actions would speak for themselves.” This approach to music making, he suggests, comes more from “necessity and the will to keep decision-making power and quality control with us.” Though, to be fair, the band has been assisted in this respect with technological shifts and home-recording abilities.

This means music/careers/vocations become hard balancing acts, especially for a band who receives only a little institutional backing. Gilmour says “we like to think of touring / releasing material overseas as part of a 'band adventure'. Money comes and goes, but this is simply the nature of Western life, regardless of it being associated with music. We consider our lives outside of the band as instrumental to the way we work, and important to have, so that the band doesn't become an entity or means to an end.” Leong says “the question of ‘career’ is a weird one. We live in a day and age where someone can build a ‘career’ by doing many things in their lives. The idea of a perfect job for a person doesn’t apply any longer. Our parents may have worked no more than a few jobs in their latter adult lives, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t be that way now. However, I would consider what we do to be work. Being in a band is work for us simply because it’s more than the survivalist nature of labour. Of course we do what we do for self-gratification, but we also hope to make a wider contribution to something else.”

Their second tour around Europe has been making a bit of name for the band. Gilmour says “I’d say we’ve been melting brains as opposed to making splashes. So many people are bemused by the fact that we’ve come all the way from the other side of the world to make the kind of noise we do, we’ve definitely been challenging the idea that a lot of Europeans have of lil’ old exotic New Zealand tucked away in the corner of the earth.” The threat of some recorded material, and the unpredictability of their musical directions suggests there’s plenty to be excited about an imminent return to the country, and the development evident in the band’s inter-European tour period all point to a band who’s not going remain staid for any period of time.