They dress as trees and play wooden log synths, and yet London’s subversive Snapped Ankles are living proof that you should never judge a book by its cover…
“We’ve done forests,” says Paddy Austin, guitarist and vocalist with London three-piece Snapped Ankles. “Epping Forest at night in a dogging car park. We did a hairdressers, and a skate bowl…”
He’s talking about the unconventional settings where this extraordinary electronic post-punk group play.
“We like to avoid normal gig venues,” adds keyboardist Mike Chestnutt. “If we do play them, we like to play off the stage or in a procession coming through the audience, or with more live drummers, trying to make it interesting for the gig goer and for us as well.”
These weird live shows are just one way in which this trio are refreshingly different. Dressed in forest monster outfits somewhere between ‘The Mighty Boosh’ and some 1970s folk horror curio, and joined by Giorgio Zampirolo on drums, they look like they’re going to perform some ancient pagan rite on stage, while they bash away at homemade ‘log synths’: primitive DIY electric instruments secured to chunks of wood.
Their music is unorthodox too, soldering together bits and pieces of jagged guitar, spiky synth, analogue arpeggios, heavy drums and dreamy krautrock atmospheres. More than just the product of excellent record collections, the Snapped Ankles sound is a highly individual meld. It’s heard best on last year’s debut album for The Leaf Label, ‘Come Play The Trees’, where ‘Jonny Guitar Calling Gosta Berlin’ (which featured on our new artists Reader Offer CD from Issue 37), is a sinuous neon snake of synth, propulsive Neu! rhythms and Paddy’s evocative voice. ‘Tuesday Makes Me Cry’ is an intense burst of cymbals, beats and sulphuric electronics, but ‘Outro’ shows their mellow side; an emotive drift into instrumental ambient territory.
Named after a bone-crunching scene from the Stephen King film adaptation, ‘Misery’, much of what motivates Snapped Ankles seems to be a desire to disrupt notions of what you’re supposed to do as a musician.
Accordingly, their new release, ‘Violations’, a Record Store Day special, is an EP of four altered cover versions, which take the original songs and subvert them in some way. Their choice of bands and tracks says a lot about them too, with tunes by iconoclasts Can, techno producer Joey Beltram, punk progenitors The Fugs and obscure 1980s new wave outfit Comateens, all up for the Snapped Ankles treatment.
“They’re all punk in their own way and also outsiders,” says Mike. Can’s mythic ‘Bel Air’ has its near 20-minute run-time shorn to a slightly more pop-friendly six minutes, and its decidedly psychedelic vibe is intensified with a more astringent quality. The most striking thing about it though is the new lyrics, which Paddy wrote in response to the song, but also to a more contemporary issue that seemed to fit the subject matter.
“There’s no point in doing a carbon copy,” says Mike. “You want to make it completely different to make it interesting, which is what Paddy decided to do by changing the lyrics of the song.”
“It comes from loving the originals so much and then looking at what the original intention of the song was,” adds Paddy. “So I was having real trouble with ‘Bel Air’, because it’s an epic track, and we went, ‘We can turn it into a pop song’. But that’s a pretty rude thing to do to an epic track. Then at the same time we were recording, they had the big forest fires [in the well-heeled LA suburb of Bel Air]. And I thought, ‘Do you sing like Damo Suzuki, or do you do what Mark E Smith did and talk about being in Can?’ Do you make it a homage?
Well Bel Air had just burnt down and from what I could make out of Damo’s lyrics, it’s about people in dressing gowns. On the news literally that day, as the houses were burning, they were all in their dressing gowns trying to get their expensive paintings out of their houses. So I said, ‘That’s what it’s going to be about then!’”
Similarly, the lyrics of The Fugs’ ‘CIA Man’, in Snapped Ankles’ Fall-styled, metallic-tasting ‘NSA Man Violation’, addresses modern concerns about the mass surveillance revealed by former CIA employee and whistleblower Edward Snowden. Its new words offer an amusing and novel take, especially relevant after the recent revelations of Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting and political targeting: “Who follows you through every app / Collecting your photos and crap? / NSA Man.”
With these radical reinterpretations, the band pass comment on how the meaning and cultural significance of music changes over time, and how we can view things differently with the benefit of hindsight. This idea is especially well-realised on their delirious cover of Joey Beltram’s classic techno tune, ‘Energy Flash’, a hugely influential dance track that helped lay the foundations for the UK rave scene, and was memorable for its kinetic motion as much as its creepy intonations of “Ecstasy, ecstasy”.
On the Snapped Ankles version of ‘Dancing In A State Of Possession’, they recreate the beats and bleeps of the original with their array of live kit, the drums especially hard-hitting, while Paddy talks of sensory deprivation and over-stimulation, and the effect of lights and loud music on the listener, exploring the meaning of ecstasy and how it’s become tied with the drug of the same name.
“I felt it could do with an update,” says Paddy. “I’d been reading about states of possession, about how trance is one state of possession, and ecstasy is a different state. One piece I read looked at the difference between the two, the history of those two words and where they come from. Ecstasy has the religious background, and trance comes from a different religious background. Both are these areas where the word is coded in modern times with the drug.”
Strangely, the song took on a new dimension when the band performed it live recently. Paddy says he felt like an evangelist talking to his flock, echoing the original religious idea of ecstasy.
“I did feel a bit like a preacher once it got going,” he says. “I didn’t quite realise how the words sit over it. Although we go to clubs and dance to techno, to have a group of people in a room playing it by hand, talking about the actual situation… I walked out in the middle of the crowd, almost laying my hands on the audience, as much as I was allowed. It was quite fun.”
Performance has shaped this three-piece’s sound and attitude. Whether it’s playing bursts of cosmic rock at London’s self-explanatory Krautrock Karaoke night, attaching estate agent signs to their synths and pretending to auction off warehouse spaces at their Topophobia events, or setting new wave films to live percussion at their Drum Cinema gigs, interaction with an audience fuels their creativity.
“We come from a warehouse performance art background, where you prepare a space like a theatre,” says Paddy. “We tie performance and music together, and those things might then come out on record. A lot of the gigs we do are on big stages where there’s a safety fence in front of you, so it’s trying to find ways to challenge that rather than accept that’s the box you’ve got in terms of performance.”
Their live playing is also a reaction to the pristine, sterile nature of electronic music made on a computer. By mixing homemade synths with organic instruments, they occupy an intriguing space where humans and technology are becoming increasingly intertwined.
“Rather than disappearing into MIDI Ableton electronica, we’re trying to knit aspects of dance music ourselves using primitive instruments. We wanted our live show that echoed that, with an old dirty piece of wood and a mono synth.”
Snapped Ankles’ log synths take this whole idea further, symbolising a future that, rather than being pristine and shimmering, is a messy merging of organic matter and machine — and one where the distant past is always lurking in the background.
“I play an SH-09, a nice Roland machine that provides most of the sounds going through various effects,” says Mike. “Then, the log synths are very basic synthesisers attached to logs creating random, unpitchable, unpredictable sounds. It’s almost the worst instrument we could think to make out of a bit of wood, and the simplest. We build up the rhythms, sometimes with loop pedals, and create a sound from that. It’s so basic and limited, but sounds quite good, and we also get the sound of the wood because it’s velocity-sensitive. Visually it looks nice as well.”
“It’s our nod to the way of the world,” adds Paddy. “Our view of the future isn’t the shiny spaceship of glowing lights and colourful MPC [sampler] buttons. “For us it’s in the melding of nature with man. If Kraftwerk dressed up as robots, we’re saying actually, we’ve only just discovered that trees talk to each other through sugars in their roots. They make a sound as well — it’s all music.”
Whether it’s replaying techno by hand or carving synths out of trees, Snapped Ankles are also poking fun at the “retromania” for vintage electronic sounds, where analogue keyboards and sequencers are idealised.
“People put a synthesiser in an old bit of wood, but then they polish it up, and make it look smart like it’s a musical instrument,” says Paddy. “I suppose because now we’ve gone past the stage where synthesisers were super futuristic, in the last 20 years there’s a fetish for them, like, ‘How much dust have you got in yours?’, and ‘I need wooden sides on mine’. It was a big deal before when guitar bands had a synthesiser, but now it doesn’t matter; everything is a bit this, a bit that. So it’s really just a tool.”
Though there are conceptual and experimental aspects to Snapped Ankles’ music, at their roots, there’s also a deliberate pop sensibility with hooks galore pervading their songs, whether in the infectious punk funk of their cover of Comateens’ ‘Ghosts’ or in the earworm melody of the LCD Soundsystem-esque ‘The Invisible Real That Hurts’.
“Hopefully there are hooky pop moments in all our songs that I guess translate to a broader appeal,” says Paddy. “The working title of our ‘Come Play The Trees’ album was ‘20 Attempts At A Christmas Number One’, so maybe that gives you a bit of our outlook.”
The next step for Snapped Ankles will be to further develop their left-field live shows, along with new material.
“We want to challenge the traditional performance constraints and the spaces that live bands inhabit,” concludes Paddy.
They’re branching out and predicting growth in 2018. Turn over a new leaf, and join them.
‘Come Play The Trees’ is out on The Leaf Label