It's around midnight when the DJs retreat from their decks at the club in London's scrupulously fashionable Shoreditch district.
It's around midnight when the DJs retreat from their decks at the club in London's scrupulously fashionable Shoreditch district. The venues in this area have witnessed many fads, art stunts, ironic gestures and rapidly-aborted movements in the past few years. Few, however, can match for strangeness what happens next: a performance by a traditional ceilidh band, complete with caller, that transforms the 291 nightclub into a barndance.
This is Return of the Rural, an event that, according to its manifesto, "puts the hay back into haywire; the dance back into dance culture; and the bull back into Red Bull." "The idea is to bring a community feel to an urban environment," says the night's organiser, Tom Baker. "In that whole club environment, everyone's busy pursuing their own hedonistic exploits in their own corner, but the ceilidh band gels people together, because you have to hold hands with people you don't know."
Return of the Rural, with its hay bales, bunting and tractor projections, is just the most extreme example of an ancient strain which has been infiltrating the contemporary scene for some time now. Since electronic music became pop's dominant form over a decade ago, computers have almost exclusively conjured up futuristic and urban images. It's as if people have been so in thrall to the glamour of technology that an atmosphere of anything besides science fiction is seen as illogical.
Nevertheless, club culture has drifted towards embracing more "authentic" music over the past few years. One fashion has been for acoustic performers like Beth Orton and Badly Drawn Boy to capitalise on the desire among club-goers for placid listening after a hard night's dancing – the so-called "comedown folk" scene.
More exciting, however, is the loose movement that some people are calling Folktronica – or "Idyllictronica", as music critic Simon Reynolds recently christened it. Instead of acoustic artists being adopted by the electronic music community, it sees that community adopting acoustic sounds themselves, then mixing them with state-of-the-art computer effects to create modern pastorales. Significantly, one of the most lauded releases of the past year in these circles, by Boards Of Canada, was called, with no irony, In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country. And Björk's last album, Vespertine, was imbued with a comparable spirit."It's electronic folk music," she says. "It's music for the home."
This digital approximation of folk's apparent naivety – the sense that acoustic guitar and harp sounds can be manipulated in such a way that they are at once cutting-edge and traditionally pretty – is at the heart of the music's appeal. Exactly why it's beginning to emerge so widely now, in the work of underground artists like Neotropic, Theboylucas, Fennesz, Manitoba, Bogdan Raczynski and Minotaur Shock, is less clear. "We've gone through massive areas of music that've been reissued, so people eventually pick up on stuff that has a folky angle," believes Stephen Cracknell who, as Gorodisch, released the fine Thurn Und Taxis last year. "We're eating our past at a rate of knots."
Cracknell is interested in the sounds he can scavenge from old folk records, ditching the attitudes along the way. "I find some really beautiful things in folk music," he says, "but there's masses of it which I find extremely boring ... people singing about their dogs. There's lots of twee rubbish. It's always been linked with history and tradition, and I've no interest in that. I'd like to blow it apart."
Kieran Hebden, who records as Four Tet and released the genre's exemplar, Pause, thinks similarly. A stint playing alongside Cracknell in Badly Drawn Boy's band lead to many conversations about old musicians like Bert Jansch. Looking for a new sound to incorporate into his music, Hebden began buying piles of records from the last folk renaissance, in the Sixties. "I quickly found out that I was looking for something that didn't exist," he recalls. "It had to be a whole different way of working that a folk act would never consider. I wanted it to be militantly electronic." The desire, then, is to create a bucolic atmosphere without any of the attendant social and cultural complications.
Old sounds appeal, but old values only get in the way of aesthetic progress, as Stephen Cracknell discovered when he tried to collaborate with an established folk artist two years ago: "Their idea was simply to update the tradition, to present the old songs with dance rhythms. That to me is anathema." Instead, the likes of Cracknell and Hebden create new songs, sometimes with hip-hop or garage beats, then use folk instrumentation as a way of carrying a melody over the top. The juxtaposition is crucial.
Tom Baker dreams of a regular club night called Village Mentality, where DJs will play in a barn at the City Farm in Hackney. "Coming from electronica," he believes, "people are going to hark back to traditional music." That yearning for a less complicated life – and a less uptight soundtrack to go with it – is plausible enough. But ceilidh dancing on the nation's dancefloors? Perhaps we should head for the hills.
Four Tet's 'Pause' (Domino) is reissued on 28 January. Boards of Canada's album, 'Geogaddi' (Warp) is released on 18 February. Minotaur Shock and Theboylucas play 93 Feet East, London E2 (020 7247 3293) on WednesdayReuse content