Interview: Nomadic Female DJ Troupe

Interview: Nomadic Female DJ Troupe

What is meant by nomadic here? Perhaps it’s referring to how Francine Perry, Lisa Busby and Ruthie Woodward aren’t tethered to the traditional framework of performance, free to roam away from the stage into the crowd, beyond the reaches of mains electricity, detached from all consideration of timetables and set durations, eschewing the preparatory ritual of the soundcheck. Or perhaps it’s the fact that their improvisations are devoid of a sonic centre, spilling outward through spools of tape and old records, bounding across guitar strings and synthesiser keys, transient and unpredictable in their selection of each sound and the manner of its manipulation, clogging the journey back home with hazes of noise and reams of knotted wires. Then again, it could be the ecstatic aimlessness of this music: the omnidirectional seep of intention and energy, taking refuge in the process rather than in any climactic end state.

Earlier this year they released a double cassette titled Mix One. And of course, it’s one of those records that seems to defy the laws of audio recording, refusing to fulfil the identity of its documented self by sounding completely different every time I hear it. Below, we discuss malfunctioning equipment, pilates pumps and Anne Hilde Neset’s “Tangled Cartography”. Follow the Troupe on Facebook right here.

How did the Nomadic Female DJ Troupe originally come into being? I understand that your first performance was at Supernormal Festival back in 2015, which seems like the perfect inaugural location for this project.

Well, we were all friends first and foremost and all part of the same music making scene in south east London. We knew we wanted to work together and when we saw the open call to submit a project for Supernormal it felt right because it’s such an amazing, supportive and exploratory space for new music. After a bit of brainstorming, this seemed like a nice way to bring all of our practices together. We think we owe a lot to Supernormal because that call made us form a band.

I’ve read that Francine has a particular interest in “placelessness”, but it seems that all of you have a personal curiosity for sounds without a home (Lisa’s use of outdated playback methods, Ruthie’s fascination with malfunction/degradation). What is it you all enjoy about practices and sounds that defy comfortable categorisation?

The various sounds and practices we use do not defy categorisation in and of themselves, albeit quite a niche categorisation in some instances. There is possibly something less easily categorisable about the actions and sounds in combination. We are not EDM DJs, nor are we free improvisers—both worldviews come to bear and yet we’re not trying to propose what we do is a fusion-y “genre-mashing” thing either.

It’s definitely right to observe that we all have an interest in methods, objects and places for music making that might be considered outside the normal narrative in some way. Using outdated or malfunctioning equipment, or playing in unusual locations, for example can be for sure a headache, but it also means there is no right or wrong way to do it. And if you make those sorts of choices, then you’re always going to find yourself somewhere quite liminal, but in the best possible way we think. Being between ‘places’ or ‘without a home’ for us is an open space, and as there are three of us we can give each other confidence and support in that empowering yet daunting scenario.

You mention the fact that you often play off stage and without mains electricity. Is it important for the project to be portable, adaptive and self-sufficient? Is there something liberating about residing outside of timetables and fixed stages of a festival programme?

We do often play off stage and without mains electricity, but there is a spectrum of ways in which we opt into and opt out of that initial self-set manifesto. We’ve performed on stages too, and we’ve performed in venues off-stage and in the middle of the audience – with varying levels of reliance on electricity. Whilst it is important for the project to be portable, adaptive and self-sufficient in certain scenarios (and for exactly the reasons you suggest – we’re allowed to make our own rules!), broadly it’s more about being part of a situation, and not centering an audience gaze on us.

We definitely feel like residing outside of a timetable reduces pressure and allows freedom to genuinely improvise without worrying about how to start, how long to play for, spatial or physical restrictions of a stage. We can arrange our bodies and our instruments how we like, and because we provide the portable PA there is no need for soundchecks, no need to worry about how it sounds “front of house” or rely on another person to make it sound “right”. It is totally liberating.

Aerobics plays a part in your live interventions, which is great. Personally I’ve thought about exploring the intersection between live performance and physical exercise at some point. How do aerobics feature in your performances, and what’s the thinking behind incorporating them?

The only time we’ve actually ‘performed’ aerobics onstage was when we were in Sheffield (supporting Blood Sport at one of their Hybrid Vigour events) and the PA cut out. In place of silence, we started doing pilates “pumps”. As you do. We hardly did anything really but people were a bit weirded out we think. So it’s something we like the idea of and seemed to make sense to the project for some reason.

There’s something interesting about aerobics – it’s guided fitness but it’s also guided dance, giving you a direction to your movement. It’s both aspirational and everyday, explosive and mundane somehow. We loved the D.E.E.P. Aerobics opening acts on The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual tour, and of course the whole DIY dance element to those Knife shows themselves. We guess we’re just trying to find our own way to explore a similar interest.

Given that your live appearances are so site- (and situation-) responsive, how much planning goes into them? Do your they always pan out how you envisage them, or do surprise/good fortune/the unexpected play a big role in the outcome?

We definitely prepare much more for the practical aspects (scoping out the locations and sites, making the homemade portable backpacks, buying tonnes of fairy lights, screen-printing t-shirt uniforms, checking the weather!) than we ever did practicing the actual performances!

But of course you can only prepare so much even on a practical level, and all sorts of considerations can mean the location or the shape of the performance has to change in some way. Being open to embracing chance as it relates to the site or situation plays a big part in what we do, as do the audience. The first night time performance we did at Supernormal in the woods turned out to be a really heavy and beat driven set – we were just maybe a bit overwhelmed and excited people turned out to see us; it was a Friday night, everyone was up for a good time.

The music itself is almost always entirely unrehearsed. We bring a selection of equipment and records, tapes and so on, as much as we can reasonably carry and then it’s just a case of making the sets happen. It’s not that we are against practicing per se, but it just doesn’t seem appropriate for this project. The first time we played together we realised we improvised really naturally, really intuitively together and it was so enjoyable – practicing just never became a thing. We always just play, nothing is a rehearsal.

I understand that your actions are inspired by feminist activist histories. How does this inspiration feed into your approach to performance?

We’re not historians or experts on feminist histories, but many of the feminist activist actions we do know about, and we do admire have a focus on the collective rather than the focus on the individual, and are inclusive to difference and celebrate multiple perspectives. Perhaps the most literal way our approach might be seen to reflect feminist strategies, or other strategies of resistance, is in the fact that we tried to create our own space, when the options available to us “did not allow” or did not fit.

There is a great essay by Anne Hilde Neset on women, feminism, and sound on the Her Noise Archive website, called Tangled Cartography where she talks really clearly and accessibly about what it was like to curate a project about women in experimental music and sound art. Many of the issues she tackles, like the value of messy aesthetics, of networks, of collective ways of making, all feel “close” or connected to the same things we are grappling with.

You recently released an excellent double-cassette on The Lumen Lake, which consists of eight improvisatory pieces. Could you tell me a bit about the recording process? 

We recorded in Lisa’s house with John Harries, the founder of The Lumen Lake, but we each used our own mixers, then connected to the main mixer as if we’re just three different instruments. Despite obviously having access to electricity, other than the mixers we each brought the same equipment we usually use; Fran’s Korg Volcas and pedals and Ruthie and Lisa’s walkmans, record player and pedals.

It was totally improvised and we all played together in the same room, on the floor – just like our performances. We recorded across two sessions, one with collaborator Chloe Owen (with a singing bowl and loop pedal) and one just the three of us. Plus wine.

Given that your activities extend beyond the boundaries of pure sound, how did you find the process of capturing the spirit of the project on cassette? Somehow it seems appropriate that your music would spill over one cassette and onto two…

A cassette felt right for a number of reasons; they are a big feature of the music itself, along with other physical media, and the sound is suitably “grotty” or imperfect, which is an important part of our sound and improvisation process. It’s also long-form improvisation so we really did just need two cassettes. Spillage is the right word. We intended to edit, or to only use some of the recorded material, but somehow when we listened back this just didn’t seem right, so we kept everything that we recorded with only minimal mixing afterwards. There is something about the uninterrupted “whole” that felt wrong to break into.

I hear little traces of all sorts of records on Mix One: vari-sped punk tapes, muffled ballads, orchestral and choral works, spoken word…are these existing materials carefully selected, or is it a case of chucking in whatever happens to be close by?

There’s a mixture of both here; obviously we can only use what we have anyway but the collecting process is also varied. Some items in our collections are carefully curated and sought for, others are found by accident. The same happens with choosing what to play in a piece; sometimes you consider it carefully, other times the element of surprise can be fun! Sometimes we find ourselves just wanting to hear some “disaster” sound effects, or a pop song by a local favourite is needed. Even if we do feature some of the same materials across improvisations, it never sounds the same as anything we’ve done before.

Given that you have the ability to set up and perform pretty much anywhere, are there any locations/events that you’d particularly love to play?

We would have loved to play at the Silver Road Tank in Lewisham when it was open as a venue for a short time last year. Its unusual acoustics would have been a lot of fun to play with. Hopefully it will return. We’ve also never collectively played in the street in a city, although this feels like something we should and want to do.

Of course we would love to return to Supernormal as well! It certainly feels like our “home”, if you can have one and be ‘nomadic’?!

Have your performance experiences so far reshaped your perspective on what the project is trying to do, or what the project could do next?

The first time we ever got in a room together we set up and were about to start, and we all looked at each other and asked – do we need mics? We all agreed we did but were not entirely sure why, none of us would have one when we DJ-ed solo, in more “standard” situations. And so it came about that we vocalise within mixes – sometimes speaking, sometimes making sound but with no words, sometimes lyrics and melodies are improvised. It’s always spontaneous, most often one person instigating but the others joining in rapidly (so we almost always sing together), and we continue to do other mix activities while singing. It’s hard to explain why this is important – it feels amazing to sing together of course, but it is one of those unusual combinations of actions we talked about earlier. This is something we want to try and do more of and “unpick” for ourselves a bit more in the future.

Aside from that: MORE KARAOKE AND MORE AEROBICS. Lisa has just acquired about four new 1970s fitness LPs.

I understand that you’ve been bringing in guests on recent collaborative works. Who’s been joining the Troupe as of late?

We were so happy to have Chloe Owen who collaborated with us on Mix One using singing bowls and pedals. She was also there at the Rye Wax launch of Mix One, and joined us live for some of our set. This was such a success for us that every time we record we plan to have a different guest artist – we all know many talented musicians we’d love to invite to play with us. We’ve only just started thinking about the next mix so we’re not sure who’s the next guest…

What music are you all listening to at the moment?

Ruthie is listening to a lot of Brazilian music at the moment: Astrud Gilberto, Marcos Valle. Fran is listening to Karen Gwyer, rkss and discwoman mixes whilst Lisa’s revisiting Jenny Hval and Grimes and enjoying the most recent Noname album. We also all get to listen to a lot of music via our day jobs – as a label manager, producer and music lecturer.

What’s on the horizon for the Nomadic Female DJ Troupe?

We’re not quite sure but we’re hoping to play a bit more soon. We’re particularly keen to take the “nomadic” element further and find new places to play and record; maybe a residency somewhere – any excuse for a holiday together. We have discussed recording Mix Two at Butlins, Minehead. That seems like a suitable place for us.