No Sikth Please, We’re British

What happens when a nu metal band wanders on to the stage of a prestigious festival focusing on art and experimental music? A little bit of pandemonium is the answer as an appearance by rockers Sikth at Fuse, a five-day jamboree of contemporary and jazz music in early March, held in the northern English city of Leeds.

Fuse, the event, was meant to stand for musical marriage: the coming together of styles, the fusion of contrasts, the intermingling of voices. On this occasion it had more to do with sparks followed by fireworks as some members of the crowd threatened to sue for damages after Sikth turned the amplifiers up and shattered the relatively mellow calm.

Apart from a mass walk-out within the first couple of numbers, the management of the West Yorkshire Playhouse had to deal with a volley of criticism, even litigious threats, even before the group had completed their set. By the interval the bar was buzzing with the fall-out from a performance that reminded the gathering that rock’n’roll has rarely toed the line of discreet convention.

Sikth comes from Watford, close to London, and has garnered a reputation for a tight, taut rock style that incorporates both spoken word and precisely syncopated tempo changes. Their sound is reminiscent of jazz rather than rock, but with an emphasis on volumes at the upper end. Sikth came to the attention of Fuse¹s artistic director Django Bates, a prodigiously talented jazz composer and arranger who was keen to ensure that the festival’s doors were open to as many musical shades as possible.

In the end, scheduling saw Sikth allocated as the support act to Bates; own showcase gig with his band Human Chain, a highly acclaimed four-piece augmented by a string quartet and a dazzling vocal talent, the Swede Josefine Lindstrand. The headline act’s music moves smoothly from chamber music to swing, pop to bop, chart to art, in a manner that is both ambitious, adventurous yet strangely accessible.

The furore that accompanied the Sikth performance could have been predicted, perhaps, but the storm in the teacup was more interesting for what it symbolised than the brief eruption of anger it triggered. The dispute vividly exemplified the enduring gap between different musical terrains: that cultural no man’s land where high meets low, art meets popular, establishment meets street, funded meets fundless.

Britain was once dubbed the land without music. The nation that gave the world Shakespeare has long been regarded a literary oasis rather than a symphonic one, but there has been, nonetheless, a post-war tradition of supporting composers who work on the innovative fringe. The Arts Council, the UK’s public grant-awarding committee, has backed the cause of experimental in music with reasonable dedication, certainly since the 1960s. Not that it’s efforts turned British audiences on to ground-breaking musical works en masse. Orchestras remain tied to more traditional repertoires — the classical, the romantic, the Beethovian, the Mozartian — and, no matter how far a conductor wants to break with the ties of the past and showcase challenging new pieces, there is an all too fine line between imaginative policy and the harsh facts of the box office. Just as modernism was the sophisticated obsession of a minority, its stylistic heirs are fawned over by a minute percentage of the population.

However, there are places and spaces when the shock of the new can be experienced. The best example is the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which happens each autumn and gathers composers, musicians and their followers for a concentrated taste of this highly refined elixir. Work by Cage and Reich, Luciano Berio and Gavin Bryars often features on the menu. Jazz has also latched on to Huddersfield’s coat tails, and Tim Berne’s Science Friction opened the 2003 festival.

Meanwhile popular music — particularly rock and pop — almost inevitably falls outside the parameters of regional or state backing. Would-be indie acts and punk combos, metal groups and funk outfits, even girl groups and boy bands, are regarded as sturdy enough to stand on their own feet without the aid of government coffers. This may be the result of fierce economic reasoning or mere historical snobbery. After all, the UK is reckoned to have 40,000 bands at any one time looking for a deal. Even if a group signs on the dotted line, major labels tend assume that only one out of 20 will make any kind of profit. So rock, in itself, is actually no licence to print money.

While bands with an ethnic dimension — say, reggae, maybe, bhangra — occasionally attract some subsidy, possibly for a festival or carnival with a black or Asian theme, the pop styles that have littered the charts and concert halls for the last few decades are regarded as unworthy of funding as they are expected to operate under the harsh rules of sink-or-swim capitalism. But there are anomalies to this received wisdom. The night after Sikth generated a rumpus among a small portion of the gathered customers, an American band, with impeccable indie credentials headlined. Sometimes, an overseas act can convince even the establishment that rock values and experimental ethics are not mutually exclusive.

Yo La Tengo, who have been spreading their eclectic gospel from a base of New Jersey for almost 20 years, turned in a storming set to a packed house, with Ira Kaplan’s spell-binding leadership taking his trio and the audience through a dizzying tour of punk, funk, rock and jazz, suggesting Hendrix one minute, the Velvets next and New Order the minute after. This tour de force, sometimes polemic, sometimes richly comic, was not destined to be lost to the ether of a Yorkshire Saturday night. BBC Radio 3, the nation’s bastion of serious broadcasting, was not only a key sponsor of Fuse but it was also on hand to record the Yo La Tengo set for future broadcast.

For Gorky’s Zygotic Minci, the support act of the night, it came as some surprise that Radio 3’s branding was evident in the theatre. The lead singer of the long-serving and reputable Welsh indie group expressed some shock that the BBC’s high art station had anything to do with the evening’s proceedings. Not that this homegrown band were to be featured for transmission; only the visiting Americans would enjoy that accolade.

In short, the excellent Fuse festival drew attention to the contradictions that continue to haunt the British arts. Popular music, occasionally a useful political hook — for example, when Prime Minister Tony Blair pinned his colours to the Cool Britannia associations of Britpop during the mid-1990s — is generally relegated to the shadows when so-called “real culture” is being assessed. Django Bates had the courage to give Sikth a shot on an alien stage, but the feedback from the customers confirmed that the canyon between high and low practices remains, sadly, wider than one would hope..

*The title of this column is a play on a popular play, No Sex Please, We’re British.