Steph Kretowicz discovers how the reactionary politics of the Berlin-based producer feed into his trope-subverting dance music.
On Heatsick’s most recent EP release, ‘Convergence’, there’s a scratching in the run-out groove saying, “never knowingly understood”. It’s a play on the John Lewis tagline “never knowingly undersold”, but there’s more to it than a pun on the long-running British advertising campaign. Because for the Berlin-based, English-born artist, otherwise known as Steve Warwick, music is an ongoing examination of the complexities of the universe, with a cheeky sideways glance.
The thing about Warwick is that he thinks a lot, is rather well read and there’s a lot that pisses him off. If it isn’t DIS Magazine’s in vogue “aesthecisation” of critical theory or the tedium of deliberate provocation in art (“like marmite or whatever”), then it’s the “solipsistic universe” of online interaction or the ghetto-isation of “gay music”. “Being gay, it’s like…of course it affects how you grow up and how you are, so you’re going to have a different take on the world but at the same time you’re more than that,” he says about the “necessary evil” of choosing an identity at the risk of becoming it. “It is and isn’t interesting, or it is and isn’t important at the same time.”
“Being gay, it’s like…of course it affects how you grow up and how you are, but at the same time you’re more than that.” Heatsick
There’s a lot of thought about shifting constructs and ideas that Warwick explores as Heatsick. Monophonic feedback loops drive his propulsive compositions through a passionless groove, navigating a gauntlet of indifferent signals and samples on Ice Cream on Concrete, and a rare monotone vocal describes an impression of a high speed drive through Paris in C‘était un Rendezvous. It’s a repetitious, almost mundane forward motion that we’re both unconsciously mimicking as even we speak, having seized the only opportunity to chat while walking along Krakow’s Vistula River in Poland during Unsound Festival, getting lost in the meantime. Even this very basic action of said stroll has relevance to Warwick: “You know it’s a whole comment of playing around with that flâneur idea,” Flâneur idea? “From Baudelaire, when Modernity started.” Of course it is.
We’re on our way to V/VM’s self-proclaimed “abomination of a performance” at the city’s Kijów Cinema. It’s essentially a chance to watch an eccentric James Kirby get drunk and make an arse of himself while miming karaoke to Bryan Adams at frighteningly high volume levels. But here is Steve Warwick, rushing to see it while explaining architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann and the Paris Commune, modernity and Baudelaire in relation to his work as Heatsick. “It’s basically the individual alienated in the modern consumer society and all this. But at the beginning of modernity it was a way of rebelling. Of course you came from a privileged background, but you could observe and that’s what I really like about Edgar Allan Poe and all these people, when they’re describing movement in a form. The book is obviously a static idea but when you’re reading, you really get the sense of fluidity and movement. I find that extremely interesting and it’s what I try to do with music. You have all these restrictions, like 4/4 and everything, but by feeding back on itself there’s a potential desire that pops up, bubbling under. That’s the thing, and also why I was bringing Paris up, because you have this idea of this structured experience.”
“The book is obviously a static idea but when you’re reading, you really get the sense of fluidity and movement. It’s what I try to do with music.” Heatsick
It’s those very structures that Warwick is continually seeking out and playing with. If it isn’t flux and expanding forms of sexuality and music in ‘INTERSEX’, then it’s the grids and privatised experience of the online in ‘Convergence’, and, of course, French city planning (with a consciously gauche nudge to sexuality) in Déviation. “Obviously, the idea of Déviation is French for a diversion sign. We were driving around Paris, when I was touring, trying to find a parking spot but then I was thinking about the city loop and the feedback loops. You get out at the underground mall of the Louvre and you see the palace, the gardens, the Arc de Triomphe and on the left you see the Eiffel tower. It’s just this ‘boom!’ That’s when it really clicked for me. I saw that and I was like, ‘God, it’s so fucking ideological’. It’s just that moment of real realisation and it freaked me out.”
It’s at this point that it occurs to me that Warwick is precisely one of those idealists he so admires; he’s a man driven by an impassioned cynicism resulting from a life of disillusionment. There was an angry university transfer from a Film and Video degree at Derby to Fine Art at Nottingham Trent after his faculty was closed and sold to HSBC, while his frustration with England led him to relocate to Berlin six years ago. “I wanted to go there because I just wanted to get out of the UK. I couldn’t stand it anymore. It wasn’t a calculated move. I just exploded,” Warwick laughs, continuing that, in having moved at 25 years old, it was still about four years too late. “It was more like this brimming. It was a critical point where I just had to leave.”
It’s not the first time Warwick has used the word “brimming” and it’s one that aptly describes the overwhelming sense of movement and primal sensation that a live performance by Heatsick evokes. All these heady concepts and reactionary politics reduced to the ebbing rotations of askew house, wedded with a background in experimental noise. Played through an effects pedal and decrepit Casio keyboard, Warwick keeps an exhausted Unsound audience convulsing into the wee hours for a three-hour set. That’s because he also wants to harness all the energy spent on critique toward his own creativity. “You have this frame of saying what your opinion is and I’m always like, ‘I don’t want to take the ‘anti’ position’, but then, I was talking to Holly Herndon last night, we had a massive conversation about all of this and she was like, ‘well, you know it’s good to actually talk’. And I thought, ‘actually, yeah you’re right’… You could just sit around and get really angry about it or you could actually make some work from it and force it back into the world.”
“It’s like that whole bullshit when some fucker goes up to you and they’re like, ‘where’s your website?’ It makes me really angry. It’s really fascistic in how you’re being told how to operate.” Heatsick
And what better way to be creatively subversive than with humour? Warwick’s work is littered with the sharp witticisms only someone with a hypercritical mind like his own could pull off. Because rather than allow for his contrarian nature to devolve in to some sort of “analysis paralysis”, he’s met the aversion to sub-cultural trends with his own capitalised and italicised type font for HEATSICK on ‘Déviation’, even engaging with a form of music commonly associated with queer culture. “When I did ‘INTERSEX’ it was just basically, ‘yeah, I’m gay and a lot of dance music is queer’, or whatever. And there’s all these hyper-straight people doing it, and not just in a sexual sense, but also rigid people who are being very formalised; ‘I am this and this is my thing’. It’s just so boring.” Warwick laughs, adding that as easy as it is to avoid the associations with a particular genre by eschewing the style completely, these days it’s more fun to screw with those very tropes. “It’s not even now. It’s just that I’m actually just explicitly saying it. Even with the ambient stuff I was doing… I’ve said this before but when I went to see Scion it was completely ambient. It was just on at three in the morning. I was like, ‘this is exactly what I was trying to do. It’s just you play it later and that’s how you make it work’. If anything, that’s what I wanted to do. Actually, that’s how I wanted my music to be heard. It’s about finding the ideal location and time. I’m into the whole spaciotemporal displacement of it; the brimming over of the senses, which would happen at that time.”
Perhaps better known in the UK for his early work with avant noise duo Birds of Delay, along with HELM’s Luke Younger, it’s a wonder that Warwick didn’t get into producing dance music earlier. But for anyone familiar with British dance-at-large, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate a style that was still fairly heteronormative in scope. “That’s a lot of the reason I didn’t really get into it when I was younger. I’d listen to it at home but I’d never really appreciate it in a social context because it’s so fucking alpha male and macho. Now it’s a bit more interesting but you’d go to a club and there’d be elbows, weed paranoia and aggression. It’s typical high street violence,” Warwick chuckles. Nowadays it’s almost in reaction to that idea that he’s turned back to embrace it. “It’s like that whole bullshit, when some fucker goes up to you and they’re like, ‘where’s your website?’ It makes me really angry. It’s really fascistic in how you’re being told how to operate. That’s really how I feel with what I do as Heatsick. It’s really that idea of an enforced perception of genre. If anything, it’s like a conscious way to kink it or smash it or play with these notions.”
Plus, if you missed it, here’s Heatsick’s Dummy Mix from back in May.