The Storeroom, Letchworth Garden City, UK
Photo: Karma Please by Dugald Muir.
Founded in 1903 by the English urban planner Ebenezer Howard, Letchworth Garden City was the world’s first purpose-built alternative to the overcrowded and polluted conditions of industrialised cities. The utopian project aimed to reconnect people with nature by combining the best aspects of the city (jobs, housing, amenities) with country life. Letchworth became a model suburb, but its size and proximity to London meant that the town was culturally sidelined.
Wilbury Radio is a one-day festival designed to redress the balance by bringing experimental music to the town. The inaugural event is co-organised by the local netlabel Wilbury Tapeworm (run by Tony Venezia), Russell Walker of the Barlow Index gig series and curator Kristian Day’s Playing Fields initiative. Eight acts perform in a modest room adjacent to a local brewery. The space holds around thirty people, but it’s the perfect size for what the festival’s curators call their “pilot project”.
Jakub Rokita’s cmykscum opens proceedings with interconnected samplers and a small modular rig. Field recordings of sheep and rustling leaves are looped and morphed into crashing waves of reverb that evoke subaquatic imagery. An ambient laptop set by Anna Peaker subconsciously mirrors the marine theme, answering cmykscum’s sense of impending catastrophe by layering gentle drones on top of each other to resemble a chorus of distant foghorns.
Karma Please employs an impressive combination of near-obsolete tech with innovative software. An old Akai sampler that utilises floppy disks and self-made cassette loops emit drones fit for a cathedral. A granular synthesis app deconstructs the source sounds into decadent overtones, the stoic reveries of which are occasionally shattered by the clunking 4-track tape machine.
The drones are not limited to electronics alone. 3 Versions of Judas, a sludgy noise rock trio who formed specifically for the event, strives for obliteration. Featuring Venezia on bass, the band’s half hour set sees guitarists Xavier Marco del Pont and Hallvard Haug circling around a descending bass riff. The sound is embryonic but has apocalyptic potential. The duo Telepathic Visions, meanwhile, employs a more subtle approach. Verity Birt and Tom Sewell use loop stations and a web of effects to turn familiar instruments (guitar, recorder, keyboard, voice) into a beatific wall of sound.
The final three acts conspire to subvert indie tropes. Tom Hirst aka Design A Wave delivers deadpan lyrics over short backing tracks. The music, played from Hirst’s phone, is reminiscent of James Ferraro’s instrumentals. It’s an entertaining set, floating somewhere between stand up comedy and karaoke. The Bomber Jackets, a trio consisting of Sian Dorrer, Dan Bolger and festival co-organiser Russell Walker, perform reticent synth pop that combines alienated vocals with ironically optimistic melodies. Closing the night is The Leaf Library, a drone pop collective. Kate Gibson’s vocal delivery and the band’s dynamics nod a little towards Stereolab, but there are plenty of other subtleties, such as Daniel Fordham’s infectious saxophone blasts, that keep the sound evolving.
Before returning back home to London, I ask Kristian Day why Wilbury Radio chose Letchworth for its first ‘transmission’. “Hertfordshire doesn’t have a big city where scenes like this naturally gestate,” he explains. “What you do find though are interesting artists working alone. They develop in isolation like marsupials. It’s all about strength in numbers and collaborating in order to share ideas and amplify our reach.”
Originally published by Wire, January 2023