Blow-up guys and dolls

Tree trunks, hair, rockets and glass - Project Dark show that vinyl is not the final word in record-making.
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The Independent Culture
"PEOPLE WERE putting chocolate records on gramophones at the turn of the century," says the poppy-haired 29-year-old Kirsten Reynolds, as if chocolate records were as commonplace as chocolate bars. She is referring to a German company called Stollwerck, designers of novelty toy gramophones that played chocolate discs. "A muffled sound would come out of them, but it didn't last for very long." So she and her co-conspirator Ashley Davies, 31, have instead opted for more durable materials: etched glass, human hair, Braille, a slice of tree trunk and, most extraordinary of all, biscuits.

Let me explain. Reynolds and Davies are the founder members of Project Dark, a small collective which exhibits and plays records made from everything but vinyl. John Peel was so impressed by them that he has included them in this year's Meltdown festival at the South Bank. They are bizarre, even by Peel standards.

Musicians have been smashing amplifiers and guitars for years, but it is a fairly new concept to tamper with the turntable. "I think it is the irreverence that is pleasing to a lot of people," says Reynolds. "The DJ has become this hallowed figure with ridiculously expensive equipment. We pay a couple of quid for our decks at flea markets, and then we blow them up."

Industriously bent over an assortment of clapped-out looking turntables, Reynolds and Davies emit spooky crashing, scratching and scraping sounds that are occasionally overlaid with strange samples and processed rhythms. Slabs of tree trunk on the decks look like they should be making mincemeat of the equipment while the Muppet-like `hair' discs look ready to jump up and scamper off. A film on a big screen magnifies and distorts their activities which culminate with a rocket-powered record that explodes in an exquisite shower of sparks at the end of the show.

Thankfully, Project Dark balk at the "multimedia" label - a grossly over- subscribed term - and they are reluctant to label themselves as either DJs or artists.

Reynolds and Davies met in 1995 in "a noisy, thrashy sort of band" called Headbutt, that found considerable success in Europe. Holed up in a tour bus for five weeks, they began to swap ideas. "It was just one of those crazy conversations that usually comes to nothing" says Kirsten, "but when we came back to England, we launched into making these records."

Parodying that back-slapping industry accolade, the gold disc, they began exhibiting the records in frames. They planned to sell them as limited editions with the Headbutt releases, but then wondered if they could be played. "The range of sounds they made were just incredible and couldn't be ignored." says Davies.

They are unlikely collaborators. Davies spent years working on building sites and playing in punk bands, while Reynolds went to art school - which she describes as "a dangerous environment which validates very uninteresting work". But Project Dark is "a good collision," she says, "because we are so receptive to each other's ideas. We are like one person with two brains."

Despite their anti-establishment values, day-glo locks, and predilection for blowing things up, Reynolds and Davies are remarkably academic about their work, reeling off a string of predecessors with scholarly precision. Reynolds mentions the Hungarian artist Moholy-Nagy, who used the grooves in records to develop a language of sound in the 1920s, while Davies extols the German pioneers of industrial music, Einsturzende Neubauten. They appropriated the sounds of chainsaws, pneumatic drills and cement mixers, and were banned from the ICA of all places for trying to drill a hole through the stage.

It was pure coincidence, however, that they found themselves following in the footsteps of Thomas Edison and Graham Bell, both pioneers of the gramophone who experimented with different materials.

"We had no idea that what we were doing was so similar. I don't have a lot of scientific knowledge," says Reynolds, "but it would naturally be the next step."

This does not appear to be quite the case as she starts talking animatedly about magnetic fields and stylus voltage. I am lost, but impressed all the same.

They are also mindful of their musical contemporaries, notably Richard James, better known in techno circles as the Aphex Twin, who once played a whole DJ set with sandpaper at a New York show.

Project Dark are also bringing out a "conceptual" album - on their own label, of course - which will contain processed versions of the noises created by their textured records, and the commissions are piling up for sound installations in art spaces. To accommodate all this work they are making plans for expansion.

"If someone has a good idea then we will ask them to join us and just do it. That way we get more ideas generating and we get to play with another new toy," says Ashley excitedly.

But where most live acts hungrily pursue publicity and recording contracts, Project Dark's aspirations are endearingly modest. "Ultimately, all we need is to be able to survive. The main thing is to keep the ideas flowing. It's a perpetual inspiration thing."

Ticket Offer

Project Dark will be appearing as part of `Peel Live' at Meltdown '98, tomorrow at 9.45pm, with Nought, FSK, The King, Trash and the Lance Gambit Trio at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1. For booking, and for information on other events at Meltdown - which features Cornershop, Spiritualized, Ardal O'Hanlon, Ivor Cutler, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Damon Albarn of Blur - call the Royal Festival Hall box office on 0171- 960 4242. The first 15 Independent readers who call the box office will be given a pair of tickets for tomorrow night's event.

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