“I’m Probably More Interested In Keeping the Themes—Not Just the Technology—Contemporary”: An Interview With Kode9

Michael McKinney speaks to Kode9 about leaning into video game inspiration on his two newest projects, what he's been reading, embracing new technologies and more.
By    May 31, 2023

Show your love of the game by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon so that we can keep churning out interviews with legendary producers, feature the best emerging rap talent in the game, and gift you the only worthwhile playlists left in this streaming hellscape.

Michael McKinney understands the cultural importance of Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci.”

Steve Goodman is reimagining the future, but what else is new? As Kode9, he has spent the past few decades casting electronic music into new territories. In the early 1990s, he discovered jungle via cassette tapes, falling deep into the well of rave-ready electronics; since then, he has devoted his career to reshaping and pushing against the contours of club music. In 2004, he founded Hyperdub, which has become one of electronic music’s most vital hubs; it is just as restless as its founder, with a roster of artists that consistently twist genres and forms into alien shapes. (Among many other records and names, Hyperdub is responsible for introducing the world to Burial’s Untrue, DJ Rashad’s Double Cup, Laurel Halo’s Dust, and Babyfather’s BBF.)

Goodman’s debut record was presciently titled. Memories of the Future, in retrospect, encapsulates many themes in his career: a vision of the future as a collage of what has come before, mangled and reshuffled in the process; a thoroughly uncompromising sonic vision that balances moody experimentalism and bass-heavy sound design; and a heady approach to synthesizers that ensures every beat is laced with thematic intent. That record, and his next, Black Sun, were both recorded alongside Stephen Gordon, a.k.a. The Spaceape, a dub-poetry wizard who synthesized science fiction, George Clinton, and spoken word into something downright apocalyptic. In 2010, Goodman published Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, a book about the use of sound for purposes of fear, dread, and disorientation. Taken as a whole, Goodman’s career lays out a clear modus operandi: push sound into new territories, comfort and tradition be damned.

So: where does that leave him now? In 2022, Goodman released Escapology, his first album in five years, as well as Astro-Darien, a long-form audio essay that acts as a companion of sorts. Astro-Darien is an audio essay about an imagined video game, and Escapology is something of a soundtrack: think Grand Theft Auto set in 2093 and you’re on the right track. Sonically, these records act as a neat continuation of Goodman’s broadening interests. They’re sound-collagery for the club: tilt your head just right, and you’ll hear shards of amapiano, footwork, jungle, techno, and PlayStation 9 sound-card start-up sounds.

In the midst of his US tour, we got a chance to catch up with Kode9 via email, digging into the texts that inspired his recent work, his introductions to dance music, his relationship with futurism, and where he’s going next.

How are you doing?

Kode9: Right now, I’m in Denver recuperating and catching up on sleep and life for a couple of days, in the middle of my North American tour. In the last week, I’ve played live in Mexico City, San Francisco and LA, and DJ’d at Infrasound Festival near Minneapolis. This week I play in Denver and Washington, D.C., and then I’ll finish with the live set in Brooklyn on Saturday night.

What art was most formative for you when you were growing up? Does that work connect to your current practice? If so, how?

Kode9: I’m not sure; it’s such a long time ago. But I remember being struck by Salvador Dali when I was a teenager. It was like a premonition of hyperreal CGI and psychedelics before I’d experienced either. To be honest, I haven’t thought about Dali since I was about 15, but I suppose a lot of his paintings had the appearance of melted digital reality.

How did you first get involved in electronic music?

Kode9: I was too young to be involved in acid house when it happened, but it was all over the UK charts in the late 80s. In the early ‘90s, I took ecstasy for the first time at a psychedelic jazz and funk club called Chocolate City in Edinburgh and bought turntables the next day. A year or so later, I heard jungle and then that was that.

How has your relationship with UK electronics changed since the launch of Hyperdub? How have the label’s goals and practices evolved over the decades?

Kode9: I listen more widely than I used to—not just UK music, not just US music. There is a whole world out there! To some extent, that is reflected in the evolution of the label.

What forms the core of your current practice? Are there any key philosophical ideas that you aspire toward?

Kode9: It tends to be on a project-by-project basis, so it’s hard to find an overarching theme. I’m currently in the middle of a project—Astro-Darien & Escapology—which has enabled me to bring together experimental and club-focused music, theory, fiction, video games, digital graphics, and the like. As you might expect, I’m drawn towards these kinds of extended syntheses. Recently, I finished a very short essay on popular modernism for a book on avant-pop, which might say something about that general tendency.

What have you been reading lately?

Kode9: I just finished Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents and Ken Macleod’s Beyond the Reach of Earth, which both show different takes on space and escape. On this tour I’ve been reading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which is also kind of about escapology) and Fred Moten’s In the Break.

Tell me about Escapology. What ideas, musical or otherwise, were central to creating the record? Did you have a general approach to creating its tracks?

Kode9: All the sounds for Escapology already existed in Astro-Darien. Astro-Darien is a 26-minute audio essay about a fictional video game; that video game is about the disintegration of the UK and an escape from it. So Escapology, in turn, is like the sound and music from the game’s action scenes. I found out that Grand Theft Auto was originally created by a Scottish video game company, Rockstar North, and I wondered what game they would create about the break-up of the UK instead of simulating American street life.

With Escapology and Astro-Darien, you’re leaning into a very particular thing: video games. Why this, and why now?

Kode9: The video game is a useful framing device for looking at 400 years of British colonial history, the forming of the UK, and its disintegration and demise. While I don’t have much time to play video games, I do enjoy their world-building and the way these massive narrative arcs often lurk behind the gameplay.

To my ears, Escapology and Astro-Darien recall, among other things, two aesthetic cores: retrofuturism and radio plays. Does that track? If so, would you be willing to elaborate upon your relationship with either?

Kode9: The Astro-Darien space habitat, which features in my A/V set and on the covers of both Astro-Darien and Escapology, is based on the Stanford Torus, one of the proposals for space settlement generated at a NASA study in the mid-1970s. However, the Astro-Darien video game is designed for the PlayStation 9; in that game, there is no difference between the game and reality. That’s why the game features both digital animation and live action video.

I think the only radio play I’ve ever paid attention to was Orson Wells’ 1939 War of the Worlds. I can see how radio plays might be conceived as one context for Astro-Darien, but that’s not quite where my head was at. I think that Astro-Darien was more influenced by Chris Marker’s essay films; early audio essays, like Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North; and Gregory Whitehead’s experimental radiophonic works, such as Project Jericho, which I wrote about in Sonic Warfare.

How has your approach to production changed over the years? How does your music relate to the technology it’s created with?

Kode9: I’m probably more interested in keeping the themes—not just the technology—contemporary. But I definitely think it’s healthy for artists to be challenged by new technologies, rather than being paranoid, conservative or defensive about them.

Recently, I’ve noticed you playing a lot of 160-plus music: jungle, footwork, juke, and the intersections thereof. (Your back-to-back with Tim Reaper comes to mind, as does your recent set for Sónar.) What draws you towards those styles?

Kode9: To be honest, that’s been the dominant vibe in my sets for a long time, and that’s only increased over the last five or six years. I just haven’t done many mixes or radio shows in that period, so if you don’t see me play, you wouldn’t know. It’s what I find most exciting to play: when it works, it creates a dance floor frenzy unrivaled by anything else I’ve played over the years. Tempo-wise, It’s come full circle to when I started out with jungle 30 years ago, even if jungle is just one part of it for me now.

What’s your intention with your A/V show?

Kode9: During the pandemic, I taught myself, in the most basic way, to VJ. On the Escapology A/V tour, I’m trying to find a way to remix the music from the album with scenes from the fictional video game live. When I’m performing, I’m literally controlling the video with my right hand and the music with my left. I’m interested in making my own experience of playing live more improvised, but it’s still at an early stage.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Kode9: I’ve got a remix for Venezuelan producer DJ Babatr about to drop in June, another project coming out in July I can’t really talk about, a remix from the soundtrack to the 90s game Wipeout coming later in the year, and hopefully a new EP on Hyperdub this year as well. I’m trying to make Astro-Darien into a short video essay. I’m also bracing myself for 2024, when Hyperdub turns 20 years old, and for the existential crisis that landmark will trigger.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!