'In the past, trying to listen to everything has almost destroyed my desire to listen to anything' - David Toop*
We went to the clubs, we read the interviews, we listened to the relevant shows. And we admired the artwork. One day, in a fit of enthusiasm, we decided to send a fax to Openmind, the mysterious creative hand responsible for all of Ninja's artwork. You know, just to tell them how much we loved their stuff.
That the fax never made it to him didn't stop a friendship forming that was to last longer than our early-twenties imagination was capable of envisioning back then. Kev Foakes was Openmind, and my fax was full of clever plays on words, praise for his typographical trickery and unashamed admiration (read and replied to, with gentle amusement, by Openmind the children's TV company). Kev Foakes was also, it turned out, Strictly Kev, one half of DJ Food, and responsible for the music as well as the art.
On Thursday 19th January we went to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich to take part in the launch of his latest album, The Search Engine. As one part of DJ Food he's made many albums with collaborators DK and PC, but this album is entirely his own, and has been gestating for eleven years - a period in which he's not only become a father (twice), but taken an entire year off from his own music to design the enormous amount of collateral generated for the Ninja Tune XX 20-year anniversary (which yes, does make us feel our age). It was also a period in which the quote by David Toop above, taken from his album sleeve, became very relevant in our musical lives. Breathtaking changes to the way music was bought and sold, discovered and shared created a period of uncertainty and anxiety in which physical releases were no longer a 'given', promo releases stopped coming through the door and record shops on which we depended for new gear (and to which we sold our own goodies) closed. Factor in the loss of John Peel and dramatic changes to radio programming, and you begin to sense the slow panic induced by the loss of the structure on which we depended for our musical life blood.
Unless you lived through this dramatic shift in the landscape it might be difficult to communicate the joy and warmth of a creation delivered so thoroughly, so carefully and with such consideration as The Search Engine. Against a backdrop of thousands of pushed-out digital releases, faceless tracks composed only of pixels and megabytes (of which we have plenty), Kev's beautifully considered offering of CD LP, lovely-quality book containing CD and gold-and-silver Flexidisc, sticker and poster, along with music postcards and a show of original artwork at a London gallery, is breathtaking. He chose the Planetarium to launch it, perfect of course for the space theme of the album, an elegant venue which saw Kev 'making their stuff do things it wasn't designed to do'.
Using the Planetarium as screen, viewers sat with upturned faces, mouths full of flying saucers as familiar images hoved into view. Slices of Henry Flint's detailed space-machine illustrations were kaleidoscoped, chopped and woven across the circular screen, appearing to move up, away and then bearing down on us with sometimes horrific intensity, all the while playing to the now-familiar tracks of the album. Since this album was created one EP at a time, released a few months apart, hearing the album was like Skypeing a friend for a couple of years - when you finally get to meet them for the first time, you feel already know them, even though there are still some nice surprises. The nearness of the screen and the handful of seats made it feel all the more like it was put on 'just for us'.
Images of moon, stars, nebula, dark matter and space dust placed our tiny existences firmly into context with the certainty of Carl Sagan, but also gave the whole thing the sense of a man who's had time to reflect on his life and his creations, and is gently pleased with both. There's a generosity to this release that we're not sure we've encountered before, even in the heady days of flamboyant vinyl releases full of gimmicks and treats - because it goes further than just the products themselves; an appropriate venue, nice staff, a considerate release schedule, and careful, rich artwork, combining state of the art technological experiments with a rebirth of one of the oldest, the Flexidisc. The show wasn't perfect; the little flaws were still there, just enough to keep it organic and away from being an Amon Tobin style smoke-and-mirrors-behemoth (brilliant as that was). it had an otherworldliness, you could say.
I recommend a listen. The album features in this mix by Pinch, Strictly Kev and DK, with an interview with Strictly Kev at the end:
The offical review of the actual show:
Details for his forthcoming show at the Pure Evil gallery:
Footnote: *David Toop (born 5 May 1949) is an English musician and author, and as of 2001 was visiting Research Fellow in the Media School at London College of Communication. He was notably a member of The Flying Lizards. A prominent contributor to the British magazine The Face, he also is a regular contributor to The Wire, the UK based music magazine.