Nothing is empty
“Steve Goodman as you may know him doesn’t exist anymore,” says Steve Goodman.
His glassy pupils shoot past the table where he is seated. He allows his fingers to tap nimbly in the silence as he revises his words. Goodman’s existence, he explains, is severed in two.
For years, he has been counter-balancing disparate lives. Counter-characters independent from each other. One is Steve Goodman, the academic, the university lecturer in music culture, the author, the regimented intellectual in sonic thought. The other life is Kode9, an omnipresent pilgrim of electronics, a tastemaker among leftfield club music and owner of London-based record label Hyperdub.
The attentive and mild-natured Steve Goodman in his Camberwell flat today has relieved himself from the mechanical academic protocols of his former self. He has now fully succumbed to being Kode9. “There’s only a certain kind of discipline I’m interested in,” he explains. “I don’t like to be told how to discipline myself. I’m an independent researcher. Teaching in a university for the last decade wasn’t pleasant. Cuts to departments made everyone paranoid, academics had to take on administrative roles. The space for research was getting squeezed out.”
Since Goodman has left the classroom, he no longer feels the burden of his academic status. “I don’t see myself as a scientist or a philosopher anymore, which is liberating. I’m now happy to discover inspiration from wherever and I won’t be criticised by disciplinarians telling me I’ve done something wrong. I just don’t give a fuck anymore.”
Following a wealth of mixes and two collaborative albums with poet and MC the Spaceape, Kode9 is prepped to release his debut solo release. Titled Nothing, the record features thirteen tracks of bass-stewed polyrhythms, stark corridors of percussive clacking and crystalline ambience that’s altogether sobering and hostile. Long segments of the record sound empty, almost ghostly. This, Goodman reinforces, is a premeditated homage to his longtime collaborator and friend the Spaceape, real name Stephen Samuel Gordon, who died in October last year to a rare form of cancer.
Originally composed as a follow-up collaborative record to the pair’s 2011 release Black Sun, Nothing is a haunting reminder of the Spaceape’s lack of vocal presence. Goodman was alone, venturing into unknown creative territory as a solo artist. “It was the easiest album I’ve ever made,” he concedes surprisingly. “I think all of the negative energy from 2014 really helped. And it’s not in the sense that I was trying to cleanse myself, but I certainly felt a sense of starting again… without Spaceape. So that’s where the original idea of ‘nothing’ comes from. I assumed it was going to sound empty without him in it. That’s what the nothing is; an expectation that there would be a big gaping hole in the album. I didn’t want to try and replace his voice with other vocalists or fill in gaps where he would’ve otherwise been.”
Yet this idea of nothing Goodman alludes to branches further than a lack of vocal accompaniment. It’s an idea ingrained in science, the concept of nothing being something, an equation equating to zero. Goodman laughs, “It’s a complicated nothing. It’s a weird story starting with the album sounding empty. I was so overloaded with emotions that I didn’t have words for that the concept of nothing was going to be the replacement for having an album concept. It’s almost like an anti-concept, a non-concept. Like a placeholder.
“This nothing sat in the place where a name for an album would be,” he continues, “I knew I needed a concept to finish the album and towards the end of creating it. So it started literally as nothing and then I just started noticing everything concerned itself with nothing. Everywhere nothing. I started reading these articles about nothing. Everything from quantum theory, philosophy, mathematics, physiology, experiments of what’s going in the brain when people are doing nothing.”
Having explored nothing, Goodman found himself in a position of practicing the act of nothing. He outlines how important doing nothing is to making music. Little things he had never noticed before, like waiting for a track to render, staring into space, “Or just the process you have to go through in making music where you go into this trance of listening to a loop over and over again. You’re literally doing nothing. You’re listening but actually you’re not even consciously listening anymore. Ten minutes later you’re like ‘Oh shit, I’ve been stuck in a loop.’”
As Goodman started reading about zeroes in mathematics, vacuums in physics, voids in quantum theory and astrophysics, he realised that zeroes, voids and vacuums are not empty in different disciplines. Unlike academia, this discipline Goodman can relate to. “I’ve always been interested in the idea of the number zero not being empty,” he says. “Almost like this full thing that’s overflowing with everything. Zero was established along with the idea of infinity, which supports the idea of nothing not being nothing. So a couple of tracks on the album were named after this concept in quantum theory where a vacuum that tends towards its degree zero energy state has this thing called zero point energy; also referred to as the Casimir effect. That really influenced Nothing.”
In order to illustrate Goodman’s existential theorising, he has teamed up with artist Lawrence Lek to deliver an immersive audio-visual experiment entitled The Notel, set to be toured early next year. Loosely based on the album, the performance concentrates on the idea of a hotel manned by automated robots built to serve humans. However, they have no humans to serve. The Notel, Goodman suggests, is a dystopic depiction of what machines do when their primary function is useless. “There’s a sample in the first track that says something like ‘This is the Zero Hotel 9, 0 over.’ So when I met Lawrence and looked at his work, which is loosely about evacuated neoliberal architecture, it immediately resonated because I had obviously been living in this idea of nothing for six months.”
￼“The music I find progressive goes back to go forward”
It’s hard to calibrate how Goodman has persisted with this notion of nothing considering his asphyxiating work schedule. Somewhere in the calm of his psyche, he maintains a sturdy equilibrium between collaborating with Lek, touring extensively and managing his Hyperdub imprint. And despite the label’s fertile timetable of releases, Goodman retains his cool as if suggesting that without Hyperdub, Nothing may not have even existed.
From its inception, the label blossomed out of what music critic Simon Reynolds refers to as ‘the hardcore continuum.’ Prior to 2004, Hyperdub was an online webmag for specialists such as Reynolds to be given free reign over their word counts. Long, unedited transcripts with pioneers of the continuum. The label itself pawned from the evolution of jungle and hardcore, becoming a hub for artists and DJs experimenting with grime and early dubstep.
Today, Hyperdub is an international base for fringe artists. With a recent catalogue that includes Cooly G, Kyle Hall, DVA, Fatima Al Qadiri, Jessy Lanza and the late DJ Rashad, it’s a label which represents experimentalism in electronic music without neglecting the dancefloor. But does Goodman still find solace in what he does? With all of this nothingness, is he ever shocked by music’s progress? “The music I find progressive usually goes back to go forward,” he says. “To me, that’s more futuristic than music that is self-consciously branding itself futuristic in order to use synthesiser soundscapes. I’m inspired by a different kind of futuristic that doesn’t fit in to the technocratic model of men with their machines in isolation.”
With widespread anxieties about a lack of innovational spirit across musical genres, and serious concerns about the politically sedated nature of retro culture, you could argue Goodman’s musical explorations are driven by a thirst for new sonic possibilities. “From around 2009 onwards I’ve had to look further afield for influences,” he explains. “I wasn’t really getting it from Britain. America and South Africa offer something else. America seems like its been going through a second summer of love with rave music with EDM being the genre everyone knows. But interestingly, similar to Britain in the 90s, there are all of these local variants of scenes essentially fusing techno, house and hip-hop in the form of jersey club, Baltimore, footwork, juke, and so on. In a sense that’s what early hardcore and acid house were doing. It’s the fusion that I find myself interested in. That rhythmic collision in hardcore, in garage, in grime, in dubstep.
“Today, the music world is fragmented and influences are coming from here, there and everywhere,” he ponders. “There’s no single sound unifying everything. It’s a messier landscape. You can take it or leave it. Whether it’s a good thing or not, I have no idea. We’re all just going to have to wait and see.”