Snapped Ankles, live at a different show in 2018. (c) Susana Martins

Snapped Ankles Unmasked

Snapped Ankles are a band who make an impression on you right from the start. They’re artists,  questioning convention, questioning the basics of what it means to be a musician, a performer. Musically the four-piece make dance-infused, post-punktronica which channels the improvisational spirit of Can into the visionary efficiency of Devo and delivered with relentless energy. It’s the sort of music that makes you want to move, but that’s not the main reason they’re best known for their incredible live performances. It’s not a rock show, it’s the immersive experience of entering their electronic forest. Dressed head to toe in ghillie suits and playing self-made synthesisers built from rotten logs, they create a visual spectacle on whatever stage they occupy. They create an atmosphere that stimulates all senses and is like nothing you’ve seen before.

2017 debut Come Play The Trees was a triumph of innovation which captured their style in succinct melodic tracks without losing the creative spirit of the project as a whole. It’s rare that a band with such a jam-like sound can create interesting studio recordings without sacrificing some of what made them unique in the first place, but that’s exactly what Snapped Ankles did. Combined with their head-turning live experience, it’s given them an organic yet ever increasing growth in popularity which feels apt for their aesthetic. The follow up Stunning Luxury is due 1 March, promising even more focus on songcraft, something which is reflected in lead singles Drink and Glide and Rechargeable, both of which have created a justified level of excitement. After being booked for Grauzone Festival in The Hague, they took the opportunity to play a few more dates in the Netherlands, including Nijmegen’s Merleyn the night after. Before they took to the stage, and still slightly suffering from the night before, I sat down with frontman Austin to talk about the band, where they’ve come from and what’s coming next.

I love the fact that you’re wearing a Snapped Ankles hat.
We got a load of these things when we started the band but then no-one wanted them. They’re kind of vintage now.

This is a nice hotel they’ve booked for you!
Yeah, we just rocked up. We’ve had a few accommodation nightmares on this trip with some Spinal Tap stuff going on. We got to Utrecht and the hostel had fucked up and couldn’t put us up. It was all fine in the end though, we got looked after by ACU which is the anarchist punk venue there. They were amazing, it was 2 in the morning with everyone drunk and partying, and they organised it so that we were all billeted to someone’s house to meet their brand-new friends.

I love that, I’m imagining the reaction someone might have if they’d been woken up to find a new touring musician houseguest at 2am.
I think it was like that for some.

How’ve you been?
We’ve had fun. This is our first tour of the year so we’re just winding up. We’ve had a couple of months out.

Getting everything ready for the new album Stunning Luxury?
No, that was all recorded and mastered in October and is coming out on March 1st. We’ve only just been getting to try it out live. The first album was played and played for years, resulting in there being about ten versions of each song before recording. Stunning Luxury is the first time we’ve actually been commissioned to do this. The label said “If you can make us another album, we’ll get it out” and we were like “Woah, this is the dream!”. The first album took years to get out. We’re having fun playing again, and also there are some different people in the band. Our drummer’s wife had a baby and they moved to Sweden.

Are you guys really close, are you friends first?
Obviously! Living in the forest, like we do. We’re all parts of the forest! Different forest devils come and go. No, it’s good, we’ve got a good crew. Zampirolo still plays drums on the new album, but now we’ve got a new drummer and she’s called Russell.

Are you guys keeping to the anonymity? What’s the motivation behind that?
I don’t know, we never quite really decided that one. We hadn’t quite got to the point of making up names, so we’re still just sticking to surnames at the moment. I’m Austin and there’s Chestnutt, Harry and Russell. That’s the current line up and Zampirolo has had to take a sabbatical. A babyatical. A baby vacation of some sorts.

That makes it sound like it’s a relaxing experience.
It’s not, I think he’s itching to get back. He’s regularly messaging us asking “What are you doing now??” so he’s still quite keen. I originally started the project with another guy, Sol Haim. It started with Zampirolo, Haim and I, then Chestnutt joined us. We were playing in warehouses and were sort of a noise band really. We were living in these warehouse spaces in East London where we weren’t really meant to be living, they were meant to be commercial units. I personally wasn’t living there, but my friends were and that’s where we had our studio. They’d be hiding their mattresses which is what everyone has to do in London, it’s so bad. We built the group up from those spaces, playing at parties and tried to develop a dance groove and stick to it without any embellishment of rock. Then someone pointed out “but that’s what post-punk is” and we were like “Oh yeah, I suppose it is really”. We’ve always been compared to a post-punk scene, but to us it’s live, handmade dance music without drums and guitars.

So it was never a conscious aim to create post-punk?
No, not at all. We didn’t talk about it and we’d just try and keep on one note when playing and go from there. When we had the space we’d had a few parties and got a few noise complaints so we were told they were going to kick us out. We had this huge church-like room and next door there were houses, so they’d complain when we had big parties. One guy there was making these laser instruments, another guy was a composer, one was a contemporary dancer, a whole group of people all with different disciplines and we all got together to work out what to do. “Well, we can’t have a rave-up, but we could put on events where we all show a piece of work and then invite other people who we know have good work to come in” so we set this night up called London Topophobia. Topophobia is fear of a certain space.

What sort of artists did you end up hosting there?
The group knew dancers, sound artists and performance artists and with our group of friends we’d all be recommending stuff to each other. There’d be a transvestite with a cello playing techno or a bit of minimal dance. There was this guy who makes all these weird musical instruments. There’d be a toy car hanging off a piece of wire over a violin just swinging back and forth, installation stuff. With these nights we realised that we couldn’t put the band on, it didn’t fit. If we put our band on, then all of the other bands will want to play, and you can’t say no to your friends and then it’d be shit. That’s where Snapped Ankles got involved.

Ah OK, so you’d already started building the instruments before the band became a thing.

The band was already going. I like to think we took post-punk literally and made posts. I’d made these little instruments and we did a few sessions where we were breaking down a different sound without using traditional instruments and trying to use very primitive oscillators. Think of the Silver Apples and what they did in 1968. It was one out of tune synth.

It’s like a pioneering feel then, capturing that spirit of electronic music becoming a new thing and breaking down assumptions.
Yeah. It’s like “Where are the rules? Where are the boundaries?” in a world where everything’s in tune and sequenced. We wanted to start with instruments that were really hard to play. These instruments would make a single sound. You can’t play a tune on them but if you start playing them with other instruments you have to find a way to tune them. We’re only getting good at it now and that’s taken ten years. They’re the basics of what’s in every single modern synthesiser. You can put these triggers on anything and hit it and it’ll make the noise. They’re very powerful. We made a forest of these things using combinations of rotten old logs symbolic of guitars and the modern instruments that rock uses, but using rotten wood. Then roughly the same time I found the suits and thought “Suits! Oh wait, no-one’s going to wear the suits” but the band tried it and everyone got into it. We made a little forest and then we played it in our costumes and it became this whole forest ritual thing. Out of messing around with that, we had three new songs. If you tried to write those songs a different way, we wouldn’t have done it, they’d be different, something more traditional. A lot of our songs follow the format of pop songs, we love soul, funk, jazz, and whatever, but we always try to fuse a little bit of our writing using performance. It takes everyone out of their comfort zone.

That’s incredible, I love it when an artist finds a new way to force themselves out of what they’re familiar with. I remember when Liars started their electronic phase not knowing anything about synthesisers, but knew that if they did more of that rhythmic horror stuff then it’d just be a diluted version of what came before. They learned to play electronic instruments and through the learning created something they’d never have otherwise made.
That’s it, the band is a human machine that locks in on a groove and then it’s about how those people interact to create something new. All of these formats are at least 60 or 70 years old, the amplified stuff at least, and we want to get over those barriers and aim for something a little bit different. I mean, we’re not trying to be art rock, or divisive, or make gabber.

There’s a clear thread of melody and tight structure that runs through what you make.
We’ve got some hooks hopefully. I’ve got friends who are modern composers and know everything about music and I’m like “Yves Klein had his own colour, I want my own tone.”Then they’re like “You can’t do that, everyone wants their own tone”, but I want a note! I want a frequency, I want my frequency.

It’s like a grasp for immortality.
Well Yves Klein’s an interesting one, he started the whole concept of conceptual art really. Each project he did is now an area of art. He did postal art, fire art, he made paintings using gas and burning. I think concepts are good, and high concepts are even better.

It’s very clear that concepts are so pivotal to Snapped Ankles, but now you’re on your second album does it ever start to feel like a restriction?
At these Topophobia nights, there was an installation called Come Play The Trees, and then five years later there was an album called Come Play The Trees. That all comes from that one performance. It isn’t a concept album, but it’s top and tailed by the concept. It’s a greatest hits of those five or six years of us warming up, changing venue and trying to get a party going with guitars and bass as well as learning to play these logs, riffing on themes that were a state of intention. There were some early sketches where we basically wanted to be an agricultural Kraftwerk. We love the bootleg tapes from them in Bremen in 1971. It’s when Kraftwerk were a rock band. Then they lost the drummer.

Sounds familiar.
It’s a magic period that still sounds really fresh, and there are these bootlegs of that time that are sort of rock, but they don’t have the drama and the tone is all different. I always thought that was really interesting, the way they saw the future with computers coming in and they thought they’d dress up as robots. That was the theatre that informed their music and which made them make more robotic music. With the Come Play The Trees project I thought “What if we can have a rock band that plays just one note?” like they did. You break up the drums and get this weird sound, but it can be heavy. You want the heaviness of rock or the grooves of funk, but what you can’t do is chord changes. You can go loud and quiet, high and low, but you can’t start doing major scales, though now we’ve found ways with harmonisers and pitchshifting and things like that. That project was fundamentally “We love Kraftwerk, we love all that shit”.

It sounds like there was a distinct high-concept approach you had in common.
I think it was more of a low-concept, a foundation stone of the band. We saw it as the future is going to be organic, back to nature. We’re ruining it fast but science is heading in that direction. That was our resolve. Rock music is primitive, we’re not doing some technotrope which has its own codes of futurism, we’re in the woods and the swamp. That’s our world.

(c) Steven Morgan
(c) Steven Morgan

I’ve heard in past interviews that there’s a motivation to instil fear into what you do.
That’s the masks basically. I suppose it’s a bit like Kraftwerk showing the world a spooky future with the shop dummies. The basis of the masks is inspired by African carnival dresses, it’s almost like a clown but weirder. Like, there’ll literally be a box on their head with a couple of holes and some stuff attached. We also used European traditions like the Krampus and other monsters. It’s all about playing with these different inspirations. There are these guys in the Tyrol who put goat skins on a wooden mask and bells on their back while moving around the village asking, “Have you been naughty?”. No-one remembers why or where this tradition came from, but it does all stem from fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of stepping out of line. “Don’t go there, don’t go into the woods!” My analogy with the costumes and this notion of fear is always Elvis’ hips. Elvis’ hips shocked the nation, it was the scariest thing. Kids loved it, the kids went wild because they were told not to look at that. That’s exactly the same as the Krampus pagan stuff. The band discussed all of these notions of costume and masking. I love rock n’ roll and its history where there is always a performance. Even if you’re a slacker in your t-shirt, that’s a statement of its own. When Snapped Ankles put these masks and costumes on it’s really interesting, they get straight into their characters. The fear is that fun fear, we’re not a Slipknot nightmare, we’re open to interpretation, it’s just a veneer. It’s so when you see us perform live, you listen to the music, and you start dancing. You’re not focusing on how good looking someone is or who you fancy. Our sniper suits are not that original, you’ll see them in pop videos and every gun owner in America probably has one. For us they represent this long, long past that manifests itself in the rock show.

It’s interesting how much you draw from the past and look at so many different cultural spheres to find inspiration.
It’s the only thing we’ve got to inform us really.

True, but usually people do it subconsciously and don’t admit to it.
I’m sure there are bits of our songs that are derivative too. We try to avoid copying. We take thought processes and then run them in a line. If we think like this then we can end up with something fresh.

Tell me about the new album Stunning Luxury.
The whole of the UK and Europe has seen a rise in investment in properties. A prosperous forty or fifty years in European cities is now being capitalised on. The value has gone up enough that it’s worth investing. We’re not a political band. We’re not banging a drum, but for us it’s an echo that gives us something to frame what’s happening and have a discussion. I mean, there are some benefits of gentrification, run down areas can be full of poverty, misery and low-cost housing.

Gentrification that affects your lives but you accept its inevitability?
It’s actually smaller than that. With Topophobia we got kicked out of our main space. After 20 years our landlord sold it to developers to be a hotel for roughly £15,000,000. The developer then flipped it and sold it for £25,000,00 which made the previous landlord furious. It was just bang, bang, bang, a whole world that we don’t know. What it meant was that a whole community of artists had to move on or split up. There was a real scene, disparate groups, random people who’d come together and then they had to go. That’s always the way, artists will always find a new space, it’ll just be further down the road. We were playing lots of different warehouses and squats and they were always closing. Nothing is fixed. We were once invited to play a squat art space that’s since been knocked down which was a series of rooms with no roof. We’d been doing this thing with the forest stuff where we surround the audience which is something we’d like to do if we ever get more budget. It was a concept we called the Sound Vortex. The idea is “Can you make the audience dizzy?”. Which… you can’t.

Hey, you’ve gotta find out!
We placed the band in four corners of the room, with four big speakers and these log oscillator things, then put the audience in the middle. The advantage of arts spaces is that we had a week to set up, it’s not like a rock show where you have to get it done in very little time. We made projections, we made a film in the woods spinning the camera. When you sat in the middle you were surrounded by this band playing notes from each corner, like bell ringing. The idea was to make techno sequences, like a sequencer, but handmade. It was shonky as fuck because we’re human and each player has control; there’s no central person telling everyone what to do. On the first album, the songs Let’s Revel and Tuesday Makes Me Cry came from that. We did that and then we put on another Topophobia, and thought, “what can we do here? This piece won’t work”. We wanted to make something relevant to that space. We thought, “we’re the bad-ass devils, we’re the cheeky fuckers” with our carnival gear. In the realm of the world we’d created, we were the forest devils, and we wondered to ourselves, “what would they do?”. Well, we decided that you take the piss, become estate agents and sell the place. This is where Stunning Luxury came from.

Without the ghillie suits?
We’re quite keen to do some shows without ghillie suits and not be stuck in this idea. The forest monster thing is one project for the band. We’re looking at Estate Agents as the next project. Tonight we might do workmen outfits but keep the heads. We know people come to see us and want to see the costumes and there’ll always be that. We recently started wearing boiler suits, like a traditional post-punk band is supposed to. The birth of Stunning Luxury was a performance where we played in a squat. There were four of us, Giorgio, Zampirolo, Chestnutt and myself and we all had an amp and a log. Similar idea, split the band up so that wherever the audience is, they get a different thing when they move into a space. We’d practiced playing in different rooms not being able to see each other. Naturally we realised, “well we can’t play logs, what’s going to be our new log?”. So we found the posts that estate agents use and we stole a bunch of them. I mean they don’t give a shit, they love a bit of free advertising.

That’s a very good point.
We took those and we were wearing these business suits in this squat, and everyone was like “no-one wears a suit in a squat!”. It was the weapon. One song was an auction. Then we did it again in another space where this time we made a film with it, developing some of the ideas and really looking at how London is being sold off to Asian financial markets. It’s the commodification of living space. Gentrification is a broad term which you can look at as regeneration or you can look at it as moving classes, or rich people into poor areas, it’s such a messy term. It has some benefits, but then an area changes and boring rich people move in instead of the exciting poor people. We don’t hold anything to gentrification as such, more the commodification and that’s what’s going on all across the UK, especially where the pirates are taking over and trying to deregulate and get out of the EU. They’re trying to break down the rules that have been built up over the last 200 years to stop nations being developed. With globalisation, there are always people trying to find ways to rip it off. London now has 500 new glass towers, and the developers cheat and they lie while the board of directors are on the government for generating government social housing. It’s the Berkley Group, they’re saying, “we think you should demolish that estate and build a new estate. We’ll build 200 social houses but to make it viable we need about 100 luxury apartments” and then they knock it down, kick everyone out and say “oh sorry we got it wrong, and you have to agree with our new proposal otherwise we’re going to fuck off and leave you with a hole in the ground. You need to have 360 luxury apartments and no social housing”. That’s what they’re doing, so no-one’s got anywhere to live in London. They’re getting people to move further and further out. The canals are full of people living on boats, it’s a joke.

Whereabouts was the original space? Hackney?
It’s all Hackney. When you see what area’s changed the most, Hackney glows red on the charts.

It’s funny that with all of this you guys are playing and sold out Oslo, which is a venue that would never have existed in the previous Hackney.
There’s all these arts projects and stuff that feed into the band, and it’s all really because the band system needs to be addressed. The band, the venues, we’re on an indie band circuit having to play this venue and sell it out. I wouldn’t have chosen Oslo personally, but it’s quite difficult to find medium-sized venues. Oslo was a needs must.

I wasn’t criticising the choice, it just seems like a reflection of what you’ve had to do in Hackney specifically.
It’s been a weird one, to do a London show.

What’s it like taking something that you’ve put so much thought into the performance space of and applying it to generic rock venues?
The aim is to get up the ladder high enough that we can get funding from the arts council to do a residency and an installation. We were asked to play Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival a couple of years ago and I wrote to them with the idea for a workshop with our logs to do a techno bell-ringing class. We suggested inviting the public along and then spend roughly an hour teaching them how to play them. We had twelve people and they’d hired in twelve identical amps which looked really cool, while we stole twelve logs from the local forest. I actually found a sign that said “It’s a £1000 fine to take anything from this wood”.

This is an expensive workshop!
We strapped all of the synths to the logs. We ended up having two hours with this random group, a couple of them were musicians. It was great, we had quite a lot of them doing the Joey Beltram track.

Not all of them were musicians?
No, I mean they were just hitting something, and they’re not fragile synthesisers that you have to be careful with. There’s an ambition to get towards challenging venue spaces. My background is more furniture and architecture. I’m not an architect but I’m always considering how and what our involvement is in a space and I’m a fairly firm believer that the live venue setup we inhabit is a 60s model with and 80s soundsystem thrown in it and 90s health and safety.

Copy and paste.
Yeah, that’s most of the venues and the way they’re treated in their spacial layout. Designed more for selling drinks than for music. The music is only really there to keep people drinking.

I agree that not enough artists think about the whole experience of playing live. Whether or not you admit to it, all of your senses are being stimulated when you go to a gig and it’s up to the artist to choose whether or not to acknowledge that.
There are some things we do, we move the stage, there’s the immersive stuff, and there are the Satellite Ankles which worked very well.

Tell me more about the Satellite Ankles.
We have a method in our catalogue of shows of surrounding the audience and coming in with a main focus and a separate sound coming in. We were playing the Moth Club in Hackney which has this weird vaulted roof so the sound at the front by the stage is nice and bright but when you get to the back of the room it’s quite dull, so you find people like to go there to have a chat. Since this was on our local patch, we thought we needed to do something about that. We thought we’d get another sound thing going so we got some friends who were percussionists and they wore the ghillie suits that we normally wear, and they would play at the back of the room with a light setup. Not so much a parade or anything like that, more like The Boredoms. Like just a hi-hat, or just something else, adding this layer in. The people at the back were shocked, and couldn’t get away from it anywhere. We also took extra speakers in and started rigging the room. The soundman was playing other synths and parts through the desk.

It’s funny to think that your core approach with things being restricted around the single note gives you so much more freedom with rhythmic changes and these sorts of ideas.

Yeah, though Stunning Luxury is quite traditional in terms of the songs and the grooves with chords. I think we like to give the recorded stuff more accessible to bring you in, but with performance, we can keep trying to think up ways to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes we get them wrong and some things stay and some things don’t. We saw Shellac last night. Now that is a masterclass in rock.

Did they do the Q&A as well?
I missed all that, we were playing when they did all that. Their show is almost anti-rock. All in a line, no moving lights, odd setups and then in amongst the songs you meet the band. They each have a personality that comes across. It feels more like an evening with Steve, Bob and Todd which works for what they do where they feel that an honesty is required. It’s a great conceptual thing. Shellac are one of the greatest at questioning the rock format, while still using the rock format. Anyway, we took the satellites to the Moth Club, it went off. There’s that point half-way through a set where you feel like you’ve already seen there’s a man who’s got synths, there’s one who’s got guitars, one who’s got drums, they’ve got some logs, their songs have a certain rhythm, you know where you are. After fifteen or so minutes you might start to get distracted. By having these other things happening, you start to disturb people and their settledness, they don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s the tried and tested tricks in rock of jumping on the audience and all those stupid ways, but our ideas are about thinking of ways to bring the audience in. Not just the front row people, but the tiers behind who are mildly interested or not quite sure or would rather be at a Metallica concert. It’s about the people in the space and that they might be part of something. New album Stunning Luxury is due 1 March.