Interview: Test Dept

The rest of the album deals with the consequences of the worldwide spread of the neo-liberal consensus and these days of it’s seeming end-game; illegal wars waged not in our name (FSD); consumer frenzy in a climate of fear (Information Scare); Europe, borders, neo-fascism and the rise off the far-right (Gatekeeper); historical injustices that need resolving such the campaign by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign (GBH84); and lines of connection, activism and protest against these issues.

More socialist art collective than conventional band Test Dept originally took shape in south east London releasing History-The Strength of Metal in Motion in 1982, the next fifteen years saw Test Dept keep up a ferocious work rate releasing, on average, an album a year until 1997 when the band decided to call it a day with the release of Tactics For Evolution. One of the early industrial bands, Test Dept utilised discarded industrial detritus in the creation of their music and alongside their writing and recording curated several large art events. Throughout the 2000s Test Dept members stayed active in the arts and in 2014 core members of the group reconvened producing DS30 to commemorate the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5, a political sound and image collage(1) containing film of mining communities and the group’s Fuel To Fight Tour in support of the striking miners, the film going on to tour cinemas in the north of Britain (1).

In 2016 Test Dept:Redux played a series of concerts including Raw Power, these concerts continued into 2017 when material for a new album started to be played. Also in 2017 Test Dept’s name appeared as co-curators with Aaron James of the ‘Assembly of Disturbance’ in partnership with Ernesto Leal of The Red Gallery. The three day festival explored ‘how one hundred years on from the Russian Revolution’, and the accompanying utopian art, ‘the current socio-political climate is also engendering a need for a profound shift in governance’ (2). As part of the festival Test Dept presented an exhibition, talks, DJed, performed a live soundtrack to film, performed as Test Dept and also, in collaboration with other artists, as Prolekult. There were also other speakers, artists, DJ’s and performers in this prototype event.

Last year saw more news coming through that long term Test Dept members Graham Cunnington and Paul Jamrozy were working on a new album Disturbance set for release in March this year on One Little Indian Records! In November the first new Test Dept track for 20 years, ‘Landlord’, was released prompting one excited reviewer to comment that they have ‘pick(ed) up where they left off: melding face-melting industrial proto-punk jams with no-filter political vitriol’ (3). Excited by reports of a new Test Dept release and blown away by both ‘Landlord’ and the album it promises I contacted Graham and Paul to see if an interview was possible. Despite very busy lives they kindly agreed.

(((o))): What lay behind your decision to reconvene and reactivate Test Dept? The music, friendship or was it a response to external factors like Brexit, the overt class war of ‘austerity’, the mainstreaming of nationalism and xenophobia, the lethargy of any meaningful response to climate change? Internal or external reasons?

It started with the re-investigation of our archive and projects such as the DS30 Installation and film and the Total State Machine book. This led to us looking at the audio archive and on to re-imagining early material and its relevance to today’s political and social situation and climate – the link between the start of the neo-liberal consensus during Thatcher’s reign, its spread worldwide and the consequences of those policies’ end-game today.

(((o))): Your last album Tactics For Evolution came out in 1997, were you able to stay involved with music/art in the 20 years between that album and Disturbance?

We have been involved in various individual projects, and some collectively, from art and sound-art installation, through film, dance and theatre soundtracks, to theatrical performance and DJ/live electronic work. Paul has a project C.3.3. which focuses on concepts of incarceration and re-created a sonic rendition of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, recently put out by Cold Spring Records. Gray wrote and performed in PAIN – a one-person play about his lifelong battle with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Angus Farquhar, a founder member and one we are still in touch with, created the NVA Organisation in Scotland, which produced large-scale environmental projects and the PAIN show.

(((o))): Test Dept seem to have always been far more than just a conventional band and more like an art collective-have those collaborations played a big part in your artistic growth-that constant exposure to other ideas, to negotiation?

We have always been interested in working in a collective sense and the collaborations have been an extension of this approach. Our work with artists as diverse as Brith Gof, Diamanda Galas and Alan Sutcliffe (Kent NUM – from the mining community) have given us enriching experiences and created some of our finest moments. We find the investment and expansion of new ideas that derive from collaborative practice an inspiring and transforming experience and we look forward to future possibilities in this direction.

(((o))): Picasso talked about art as “an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy” (4)-that it can play an active role in political struggle. Would that sum up TD’s approach?

Indeed; and Brecht said “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”. That would sum up our approach too, which is why we use that quote at the front of our epic archive book Total State Machine.

(((o))): In Inventing the Future Srnicek and Williams write that political change often has to be preceded by cultural change (5), have you been encouraged by the emergence of bands like Sleaford Mods, Gnod, Idles, mainstream books like Revolution and films like The Hunger Games. Do you think there is an artistic challenge to what Gramsci called ‘cultural hegemony’-in our time of the neoliberal right?

Interestingly we invited Srnicek to speak at our Assembly of Disturbance event although it wasn’t possible at that point. Srnicek and Williams note the absence of Utopian visions in current thinking and it is true that we seem to have created a world-view that can only predict a dystopian future. The rise of Corbyn and Saunders with increased political engagement from younger people in the UK and US have given encouragement to an agenda for positive change, however the spectre of Brexit, Trump and Bolsonaro in Brazil has also given rise to many reactionary forces within society and we are becoming consumed by contemplations of a dystopian future with the fear that we are moving into ever darker terrain. Hopefully this period in our history will pass and we can once again look to a bigger world-view, which looks to tackle critical issues of poverty, corporatism and climate change.

The emergence of critical voices, whether Sleaford Mods, GNOD, Gazelle Twin or others, are essential as counter cultural forces against mundanity and commercialism. In the cultural expansion of Grime we find the use of industrial sounds, and protest writing as a reflection of street life in the UK, It’s polar extreme is drill music depicting and documenting violence highlighting the negative impact of social media as an instigator. All are manifestations of hip hop/rap culture, which in it’s gangsta mode could be argued as being a prime example of DIY entrepreneurialism or an egocentric celebration of ultra-capitalism, such are the polarities within culture as in a wider society. A lot of thought-provoking ideas are expounded in Revolution although not too sure about Russell Brand’s egocentricity. The Hunger Games is possibly not quite so relevant but if it gets people using critical thinking to question their environments at an early age that is a positive outcome. Black Mirror (UK) is possibly a better reference, glimpsing future technology, which always has a dystopian reflection. This conjures up the figure of Dr. Dee (TD track on Tactics for Evolution album) and his obsidian mirror.

(((o))): In Resilience and Melancholy (6) Robin James seems to be saying, if I understand her correctly, that certain pop music structures parallel values within neoliberalism. The Dadaists wanted to create non-bourgeois art by drawing on non-bourgeois values and cultural resources. Have those sorts of ideas and tensions informed your approach, trying not to reproduce capitalism and capitalist cultural norms via your music-did that lead you to the musical styles and sounds you use? Or do you think it is more organic, that if you have internalised an alternative narrative that will affect the structure of your music because that alternative worldview is an integral part of your creativity?

In some senses this could be about rejecting the ‘rock n roll’ hegemony of guitars, etc. But the music industry has changed dramatically as has the political economy of music. Our surroundings in the docklands being the inevitable consequence of the destruction of the heavy industry and manufacturing economic base in favour of a service economy. ‘Use your environment’ became our mantra; our utilization of societies debris of industrial waste and found objects could also be seen as an unconscious manifestation of Arte Povera (Poor Art) a European counter cultural movement attacking the values of established institutions of government, industry and culture. So our development was organic born from necessity and our own personal conditions living in a South London squat but we were reflective on this; Dadaism, Russian Constructivism and Futurism were all inspirational influences that fed into our developing artistic practice, which was essentially collective and therefore essentially anti-capitalist.

(((o))): Your new single ‘Landlord’ is a response to private landlords exploiting the housing crisis created by the selling off of social housing. Could you talk us through the subject matter and ideas you’re exploring on the new album Disturbance?

Landlord is as you’ve described but is also a comment on the wider issue, of the housing crisis and structure of organized society. The social cleansing that shifts people from the centre to the periphery of large cities, which can also be seen as a wider form of social control.

There is a huge problem in London with skyrocketing property prices, Councils trying to raise money by selling off housing stock or waiving regulations on private developers’ obligations to provide social housing. Local councillors making loss making deals with developers and then ending up on their boards. Homelessness across the country is the worst its been for a very long time and has been exacerbated by legislation on benefits and laissez faire property development.

The rest of the album deals with the consequences of the worldwide spread of the neo-liberal consensus and these days of it’s seeming end-game; illegal wars waged not in our name (FSD); consumer frenzy in a climate of fear (Information Scare); Europe, borders, neo-fascism and the rise off the far-right (Gatekeeper); historical injustices that need resolving such the campaign by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign (GBH84); and lines of connection, activism and protest against these issues.

We look at disturbance on a sonic as well as physical plain, as a commentary upon and an instigator of seismic social change. A reflection on the dramatic times we live in, and a warning against catastrophe through historic repetition.

(((o))): The artwork on the album is really powerful and seems to sum up UK working class experience in the 21st Century, how did you arrive at such a striking image?

Gentrification, social cleansing, brutalism, town planning, industrial decline and devastation of local communities, the Grenfell disaster and its aftermath. There are many issues we could discuss.

(((o))): Has your sound changed much since the last album? What have been the main causes of those evolutions and morphs? Society around you, situations, influences, technologies?

We are in a totally different sound environment from 20 years ago.

We have embraced both software and hardware electronics and tried to link them into the live percussive set-up, which still uses cast-off materials from our surroundings, albeit in a new, and we hope exciting, format.

Scrap metal itself is maybe not so relevant as a dominant sound provider; it has a different reference point today, in relation to our surroundings, and to younger people who didn’t grow up with the demise of manufacturing industry and the breaking down of its infrastructure (in the UK at least). Today the cast-offs are more often than not defunct electrical equipment and the scrap metal has probably become more valuable due to its relative scarcity.

(((o))): With a 20 year gap did you still have a sense of continuity with previous work when you were writing and recording Disturbance?

As documented, this album began and continues as an exploration and investigation of our archive, re-interpreting our previous work and building on that foundation. We reflect on the cyclical nature of events and in that sense the gap diminishes into one continuum.

(((o))): Test Dept’s music is embedded in conviction and wider practice, there seems to be a continuity between TD and the other parts of your lives. Would that be fair comment?

We are still politically active on many levels and individual work projects come within a wider spectrum of social engagement and activity. GC has been involved in trade union activism, helping to instigate and organise the Ritzy Living Wage strike campaign for cinema workers in the UK which gained nationwide publicity and notoriety and became an influencer in many precarious workers’ campaigns thereafter. PJ works in institutions with the incarcerated; on projects incorporating music technology, interactive media and radio production.

We keep links to the past struggles too – we regularly attend the Durham Miners’ Gala, where, even though the mining industry has been completely erased, 100,000 people gather every year to march and celebrate the communities, which still exist despite being abandoned by the ruling class, the history and the ongoing struggle for workers’ rights and a more equal and Social agenda.

(((o))): How has your politics developed? What were the influences? Where would you place yourselves politically or is it a continual evolving of thought?

Things evolve and change as society changes around us and we are open to profound change rather than conforming to the status quo, as it exists. We have been influenced by many progressive political or historical figures, moments and events but do not align with any political parties or specific creeds, although we have come from, and still somewhat aspire to, a largely anarcho-socialist viewpoint.

(((o))): Test Dept have been making music now for roughly 40 years and, judging by the single, this latest album is as angry and militant as any I’ve heard lately-what has helped you to maintain that level of concern and engagement?

We have lived and are still living through dramatic times, not as traumatic as those our parents and elders lived through but with the serious potential of uncontrollable forces taking hold. These are deep concerns about what kind of political and environmental legacy we will leave future generations.

(((o))): What bands have you been impressed by lately, any authors you would recommend?

GC: Gazelle Twin, Gaika, Young Fathers, Shelley Parker, Nkisi, Puce Mary, Sonae, Ancient Methods, Broken English Club, Bristol’s Young Echo Collective…

PJ: I don’t really like naming things as it’s all very transient but recently on my radar lots of noise, Afro beat, South African House, poetry and ambience. Imperial Black Unit, Giant Swan, Black Coffee, Ape, Map 71, Kate Tempest, Tim Hecker, seem to stick…

GC: Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare (this links to some of our own academic investigations), John Higgs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine (Making Sense of The 20th Century)Sapiens (A Brief History of Humankind) by Yuval Noah Hariri and The Last of London by Ian Sinclair have been good reads. John Higgs’ The KLF: Chaos, Magic and The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds is a fantastic read and gives interesting expansions on the art-terrorists’ wild ideas, influences and work.

PJ: Currently reading Cosi Fanni Tutti’s Art, Sex, Music.

(((o))): The new album is released on March 1 2019, will there be opportunities to catch you live?

We have just signed to Little Big Agency worldwide, except for North America unfortunately, so we hope to be getting the live show out in 2019 and hopefully we can sort some shows in the US and Canada too soon.

Thanks to Paul and Graham for time and words. Test Dept play Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms on 25/4 and Studio 9294, London 26/4 with more dates to be added. Ahead of that listen to ‘Landlord’ here

Photo by David Altweger.
1) Test Dept: DS30 tour.
(2) Assembly of Disturbance, Red Gallery, London.
(3) Smart, D. (2018) ‘Industrial veterans Test Dept return with first album in 20 years, share brand new track ‘Landlord’’
(5) Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) ‘Inventing the Future: Post-capitalism and a World Without Work’ Verso. London and Brooklyn, NY.
(6) James, R. (2014) ‘Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism’, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington, USA

Also referenced for Intro Test Dept.

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