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Thru the Eye of Obscure

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Interview by Jonathan Milne for Lava magazine, 1997

29 Apr 2000

Simon Swain has cropped bleached hair. Simon Swain has a nervous energy probably founded in coffee and insomnia. Simon Swain is one of the Generation X dynamos behind the New Zealand dance party scene.

Simon Swain's white-haired grandmother bustles into her parlour to draw the blinds and rearrange the antimacassars. "Oh Simon, I didn't know you had a friend here. Dinner will be served in a few minutes. I'll set a place," she says.

Any journalist knows if you want to interview a swimmer, you meet them at the training pool at five in the morning. You meet a ballet dancer on the set of Swan Lake.

You should meet the dance party man behind the mixing desk and still-warm speaker towers, while around you the cleaners deal to the glitter and discarded light-sticks of last night's 'rave'.

Not that Swain, clearly the apple of his grandmother's eye, is out of his element in her Christchurch sitting room. He could discuss the alternative dance music scene in the most mundane and mainstream of settings. It is his passion, and his life.

Swain is the main man in Obscure, a Wellington outfit that does everything from record releases, to internet, to dance parties.

In Christchurch for the weekend only, he is a little cagey about the town's nightlife.

"I was talking to DJ Cyrus and he said Christchurch were up for it. They love it! There seems to be a good hardcore scene here.

"But the kids all look the same -- the same fluorescent clothes, the same light-sticks. I don't mean that in a deprecating way."

He could probably offer insight from the perspective behind the mixing desk -- but he won't. He is much happier talking about general trends in dance than he is about his own involvement.

It is hard to separate Obscure from the general trends in the New Zealand dance scene, though, because they have been at the forefront.

With the first Psurkit dance-party in Wellington's Bats Theatre, Obscure initiated a generation of parties that moved away from the often crass R20 commercialism of nightclubs and their mass-marketed music.

Two strobe-lit, bass-heavy, all-night Psurkit parties later, Swain has discovered a large niche for the Obscure brand of dance music.

"We were never mainstream," he says. "But now we're established with a good following, we can play what we want a bit more. We can push the limits and throw in the odd curve ball.

"The Psurkit parties used to be minimal techno, but now we've moved to a stripped-back sonic, Chicago-influenced jackin' sound. In the clubs, you won't get the same music we're playing. They have a lot more drum n' bass, and a bit of trance.

"The clubs are definitely going off in one direction and Psurkit is chugging off in another."

While the clubs and parties are certainly moving apart, it is not just in the style of music they play. The focuses of the different venues differ. While the clubs are business ventures which turn a profit by selling alcohol, dance parties are funded largely through the ticket price.

All of the Psurkit gigs have been unlicensed, which is as much reflective of a culture based around the music and the dancing, as it is influential in creating that alcohol-free atmosphere.

Swain says, "the dance scene around New Zealand is definitely stratified. There is an older club crowd, who drink and do other bad things. But on the other hand there are a lot of younger kids. I've talked to them about what they're doing, and a lot of them are actually straight. They just get off on their sugar and water products and the dancing."

The current hysteria about teenagers at outdoor parties on Auckland's North Shore is difficult to understand.

Swain doesn't know what is going wrong. "There is a lot of fear through ignorance out there. The previous generation always get alarmed about what the kids are doing.

"Anyone who has ever been to a dance party will know that it is probably the safest place for a kid to be."

"The vibe at some of the big outdoors dance parties is magic, something you never forget. But I'm not preaching any peace, love, and happiness thing. Dance parties are about playing loud music and flashing lights. There isn't much to get scared about."

Some of the fears of the previous generation may be allayed by one of Swain's ongoing projects. Again at the forefront, he and Obscure are putting together a comprehensive record of the Wellington dance scene, in a multimedia compilation of video footage, still pictures, written accounts and compact discs. And much of this is available to the concerned parent through the Obscure website.

Not that placating the parent is Swain's motive. Rather, it is the realisation that Obscure is at the cutting-edge of New Zealand popular history.

"I really believe in documenting what is happening. And people want to be able to see and hear where they've been. So last year we took a video camera around a whole lot of parties a put a bunch of pictures up on the website."

"And now, with the cost of making CDs so low, it is quite viable to do local releases."

Last year Obscure released Skankatronics, a compilation of the work of several Wellington DJs.

"Skankatronics was a bunch of gigs last year, and they seemed to gel. We funnelled money from the parties back into making the CD. The real difficulty is distribution. Skankatronics has paid for itself, but it's a hell of a job."

In a few weeks Obscure will release its second CD, this time an album from DJ LRS, who also featured on Skankatronics. But Swain aspires to even greater things for his local music.

"As material comes in, we'll try to make more compilations. What we're really trying to do is get stuff on vinyl, and off-shore."

Obscure has also worked at raising the exposure of artists outside the main current of even alternative music. The Psurkit parties have contributed to the reasonably high profile of women DJs in Wellington.

"Techno is often pretty testosterone driven -- 'I can play harder and faster than you, mix more records per minute' -- and it would be nice to try and get away from that side of it," Swain muses.

"There are only a few women -- Audrey, who plays some pretty slamming techno, and Halogen Girl, to name a couple. They're just starting to come out of the woodwork. I don't want to make a big thing out of it, but the DJ groups can be pretty cliquey and hard to get into.

"Some people will push for what they want, others won't. But it is often the people who don't push who really need to get in. It is people in their bedrooms with cheap shitty equipment who are doing the really innovative stuff."

He sees New Zealand electronic music as a mixed bag. "New Zealand artists need to stop trying to be what is happening now, because what they perceive as happening now has already happened. Maybe they need to bury themselves, to not listen to anything, and just write from the heart."

"To find the good music, you've got to dig deep, and get right into it -- that's always been the way."

As a shortcut, Swain has some recommendations, such as drum n' bass exponent Short Fuse, Auckland techno artist Pedestrian, and Wellingtonians Polarity, 50 Hz, and Isolation.

"Drum n' bass burnt itself out a bit earlier this year, but it'll come back. House music is really exploding right now. Deep house is worth watching out for. House has a lot of beautiful subtlety in it, a lot of soul, but people can still jump straight into it. It is accessible."

An important theme of the Psurkit parties has been making the alternative music and culture of the dance scene accessible to Wellingtonians and any others who are interested. But like antimacassars, Psurkit may have had its day. The PsurkitBreaker party in August will probably be the last of the series.

Simon Swain isn't getting all sentimental. "There'll be other dance parties," he says. "Most of us have given up on the idea of trying to change the world. Really what it is down to is just enjoying yourself -- it's no big deal."