Unknown location, Salford, 4 February 2012
Salford, England. On this winter’s night we find ourselves in a landscape sculpted by war, in a part of town that was ravaged by the Christmas Blitz of 1940 and that has never recovered. Hidden away from Lower Broughton’s commuters, M.E.N. arena-goers, prison-leavers, takeaway-eaters, broken-dreamers, street-wanderers, drug addicts, sari-shoppers, Jewish mothers and chanting Sikhs, in spitting distance of Strangeways Prison, this is a wasteland strewn with rubble and scraps of metal, pock-marked by bomb craters. You’d think that nothing ever happens here. A few derelict warehouses create a stark and jagged skyline, their roofs steaming like sleeping animals. Sheets of ice slicken the ground beneath our feet. It’s the sort of night where cats cry for hours on the broken slates … In the cold distance, people stand round a bonfire, swaying from foot to foot, drinking wine from the bottle and smoking cigarettes. The scene is like Glastonbury set against the backdrop of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
When SWAYS records rose from these ruins in 2011, one of the first projects was to create a video that would pay homage to this otherworldly place. The actor Steve Evets, best known for his lead role in Ken Loach’s film Looking for Eric, was an early convert and leant us his services. When he arrived at the SWAYS bunker in his battered Volkswagen, he stood outside smoking a roll-up and meditatively described this landscape as ‘beautifully desolate’. He told us about how he’d just got back from Hawaii where he’d been filming the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film with Johnny Depp. We asked him to lie down fully clothed in a puddle on the street. He didn’t bat an eyelid. We know where he felt most at home.
People file into a nondescript corridor lit by a single naked light bulb that might lead them to heaven or maybe to hell. At the end of the corridor a menacing barred door is propped wide open. A man wearing a bobble hat hands out hymn sheets, which is odd. We are then deposited into a large rectangular chamber in a disused bag factory where a wooden cage has been erected, with a canvas sheet spread across the back to receive images and projections from mind and machine. It is unclear what this cage is or why it was built. Maybe it’s some kind of Kafkaesque torture device designed to imprint music onto our naked skin, or meaning onto needy souls. It brings to mind Francis Bacon’s screaming pope paintings. The agony and the ecstasy of the human condition, the way we are all most artfully caged …
We walk past the wooden scaffold and are confronted by a barricade made from blocks of rock wool. This is as far as we go … There’s a jet engine in the corner blasting fire into the room. It’s the kind of machinery that’s normally used to heat hot air balloons, not people. The chances of carbon monoxide poisoning seem quite high. Nobody really knows what’s about to happen. Now Wave have had something to do with it so a gig seems to be on the cards but perhaps SWAYS has just created a gas chamber for hipsters. If you’ve ever seen Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Biutiful you’ll know where I’m coming from. Dark.
It’s still bloody cold though, so we warm ourselves with cheap red wine and huddle into the night, the expectation palpably growing in the face of the unknown … It doesn’t feel like we’re in a real place, it feels like we’ve crept into a hole in someone’s head, Malkovich-style.
Welcome to the Führer Bunker.
Finally, the wait is over. The first band to be exhibited are SWAYS originals the Louche FC, who take to the cage wearing long overcoats. They mean business and immediately take the night by the scruff of the neck, launching into their particular brand of Phil Spector 1960s girl group pop as vandalised by Sonic Youth, with the fragments finally shorn against their ruin thanks to the rhythms of Wild Beasts.
When my companion first discovered the Louche FC practicing in the backroom of the bunker, there were just two of them, Luke and Kyoko, creating reverby dreamscapes to the cheap pulse of an 80s drum machine. My companion secretly recorded them on his mobile phone. He played it back to me one night but it was pretty much inaudible. I found it hard to share his excitement. But thank God he has better musical judgement than I do. He has a way of identifying the seeds of greatness even when a band is far from being the finished article. To be honest, the only SWAYS band that ever enthused me on first listen were Womb and look how that worked out …
In the Louche’s early gigs the drum machine was joined by some idiot on bass prancing about in a baseball cap. If anything, he was slightly less talented than the ZOOM MRT-3. He had to be liquidated and the drum machine was confiscated too. Eventually, new alliances were made and Kyoko and Luke were joined by Dave and Adam. The rest is history … The band before us now seem destined for elevation and in ‘Romantic’ they have created what will hopefully be the first in a stream of modern classics. Their sound has evolved into something more aggressive, pissed-off and fractured than before, the beautiful, psyched-out, shoe-gazy soundscapes now wrapped round a fistful of broken glass like a bandage … These are defining performances they’re giving, right now.
What more can we ask for? Where do we go from here? Everything is perfect … Kyoko sang like a sweet black angel and Luke set forth demons from his glowing amp, while we stood and listened to what the thunder said.
My companion overhears someone saying that of all the gigs happening anywhere in the world right now, this must surely be the best. Berlin, New York, Paris, Tokyo, step aside and make way for Salford. But he’s still disgruntled. ‘Why didn’t they say “of all the things happening”?’ he asks.
This is shaping up to be one of the best nights of my existence. I still have 1.5 bottles of wine in my rucksack and two of the best new bands in Manchester are about to play late night sets in an abandoned warehouse. In a wooden cage. PINS are here, accompanied by a good old-fashioned hard man who you wouldn’t mess with, and I’m still not dead … But something is rotten in the state of Denmark. All is not well. I have an uneasy feeling, a rising anxiety, as though I’ve been cut loose from the normal order of things. I’m wearing a wide-rimmed black Pilgrim hat and I’m more conscious of the way that my skin forms a thin, flimsy borderline separating my insides from the outside than I normally would be. All the lights turn low then suddenly get very bright and I’m pretty sure that there’s someone or something rattling at the windows …
Photography © Magnus Aske Blikeng at www.mabvision.com and Pat Hill. Bless them, for they are visionaries.
Next up … The Führer Bunker Exhibit B: Great Waves