January 17th, 2011 | Published in Articles
Trish Keenan’s unexpected death this week leaves, overall, a devastating sense of incompleteness. Eloquent obituaries have been written elsewhere, by people with far more personal experience, but this is something different, probably more selfish than personal. I find myself contemplating a pair of gigs which are now, unfairly, bookends of an abruptly ended body of work. I last saw Broadcast eight months ago, at the Ether Festival, a performance that had, even at the time, made me contemplate, in a haze of happy nostalgia, the first time I saw the band, over ten years ago, at the Scala.
The Scala gig stuck, particularly, in my mind, because it was one of the first gigs I saw after moving back to the UK after a decade in NY. I felt displaced, come unstuck, out of time and culture, neither British nor American. The London music scene confused me, I had never quite seemed to find my place the way I had in NYC. Milling about the Scala, I had the sudden, distinct sense of *homecoming*. That I was not a disconnected individual, but a Type. All of the boys were dressed like my date, black turtlenecks, chelsea boots and earnest intellectual sideburns, while all the girls were dressed like me, vintage dresses and thick black tights. Horn-rimmed glasses, record bags, handcrafty jewelry – these things are cliches now, but at the time, they created a sudden realisation, both awful and oddly reassuring, that I was not alone, but part of a youth tribe.
It’s easy to forget now, in these days of social media and pattern matching algorithms which instantly and insistently bully you “if you like X, we predict you will like Y” – the sense of discovery, in which you sought out your interests in solitary pursuit, then slowly, painstakingly, found you were not alone. I would never turn back time; the instant transparency and research opportunities of the internet are too valuable to be denied. But that sense of individuality implicit in “I’m the only one” and then the joy of discovering a secret world where others shared your passions… I miss it.
And my first Broadcast gig was one of those moments. There we were, the diaspora children of Stereolab, who loved the 60s, not the peace-love-hippie bell bottomed end, but the weird, experimental electronic frontiers of 60s music. But where Stereolab were Internationalist Marxists, Broadcast were as resolutely English as Betjeman or a Beam Engine, not in an reactionary nationalistic pose, but an older, deeply eccentric sense. This was our landscape: Public Information films and National Film Board imagery, science textbook graphics, Radiophonic Workshop soundscapes, retro-modernism, witch cults and EVP, the Wicker Man and Quatermass, the shipping forecast and Shell Guides as rewritten by T.C. Lethbridge. They created a tapestry of old uses for new things, marrying the concrete brutalism of urban motorways with pastoral rituals of stone circles. All of these odd things – strange obsessions we always thought we were the *only* ones who knew about – found a home in Broadcast’s art. We weren’t being marketed to – they were revealing the darkened corners of our own souls.
And there amidst the psychedelic maelstrom, stood Trish Keenan like a priestess in a white vintage robe. The music was cold, smooth, glacial, intricate frost-patterns of electronics, crackling with distortion like elemental slabs of submerged ice. But Keenan’s voice was warm, inviting, soothing, her tone pure, clean, slightly folky, as familiar as your mother’s voice, as welcome as the reassuring tones of the prerecorded train lady announcing your stop, followed by the swish of opening doors. No matter how far you have been, you are home now. If it was once written of Nico that her voice was so deadpan it could flatten a coffee jingle, Keenan was the polar opposite – her voice could make the speaking clock sound like your childhood best friend. No matter how weird, how strange, how *out there* the music swirled, her voice was a reassuring presence – come in, you are welcome, and safe, and loved here.
Fast forward through line-up changes and albums steadily refining an aesthetic, pushing further inside by wandering ever further out, to that last gig in April,a gig I thought at the time was just one of a string of pearls. Sitting in the great hall of the South Bank Centre, I cast my eye over the crowd, many of them familiar faces, and thought how we’d aged, grown up with this band, our bohemian clothes giving way to paunches and bald patches. The band were whittled down to a two-piece, Trish Keenan and James Cargill facing each other across tables piled high with mounds of electronic equipment, the experimental films still flickering across their faces as they worked.
And this is the image that stays with me, a serene woman all in white, with long black witchy hair hanging into her face, with her hands, up to the elbows, buried in the guts of vintage electronics. And how powerful she seemed.
It was at that moment I realised precisely how much of an inspiration she was to me, on a personal level, as a female electronic musician. In the 90s music scene, in the aftermath of Stereolab, we were almost common. And over the next 10 years, as I watched the drone and experimental and electronic music communities splinter, I watched the gender balance of weird music in this country tilt, polarised, back to one side. It had always been disappointing enough being the sole female in the front row of gigs. With Keenan onstage, I didn’t have to feel like the only female in the building.
Watching her, up to her elbows in electronics, I felt inspired. A knob-twiddler of mine own gender, up there on the stage! Listening to her mixtapes, I recognised a female crate-digger! A female archivist! It wasn’t just me and Delia Derbyshire, in this alone. She shone a light on obscure, forgotten female artists. Yet her gender was never pushed as a selling point. It was never a big deal, she simply was – the unremarkableness of it felt refreshing. It felt, for a moment, like what *true* equality would feel like. Female and male present, feminine and masculine in balance, like their music had balanced the past and the future, the scientific and the esoteric, nature and technology. She provided the missing information, filled in what we had lost. And now she, herself, has been lost. I mourn for the human being, but I mourn for so much more.