The monthly party in a smoky South London railway arch conjures a urgent atmosphere like no other.
“Well, nine times out of ten you go and see someone famous play, and the resident DJs before and after are a lot better than the person who has been flown in from Detroit or whatever.” Joe Hart is chatting in a pub in Camberwell about World Unknown, the club night – and now label – he runs with Andy Blake. Taking place in a railway arch in Brixton each month for the past two years, it’s one of a handful of nights that has managed to maintain its momentum without booking guests. Of course, Joe and Andy are brilliant DJs anyway – Joe’s mix for the other more house-oriented night he runs, Body Hammer, is definitely a high point of the Dummy archives, and Andy ran the renowned, now-folded Dissident label. They don’t play the latest 12“s everyone else does. Instead they send the crowd falling down a rabbit hole entirely of their own shaping: old acid house, EBM and early ‘80s European dance records that hardly anyone owns all make their way into the kind of mix you wouldn’t get in many other places. “We want people to go for a certain experience, a type of music, and not really worry about who’s playing. There’s not really a music policy, it’s just anything we think will work in a really dark railway arch. That’s it.” The music played at World Unknown is generally older records, but it doesn’t feel retro. The selection is impeccable, the blend urgent and vital – it’s about playing what’s good and what adds to the experience of being there, nothing more or less.
The location is definitely part of the allure. A smoky arch in Brixton, low on lighting, with an anything goes kind of atmosphere, bar staff periodically dashing out to pick up more Red Stripe, people queuing for the tattered remains of a toilet, an incredibly over-zealous smoke machine. Running something people will loyally go to again and again, completely sure that the music and the place will be exactly what they want, isn’t easy. There’s an overwhelming amount going on pretty much every weekend in London, with big name DJs popping up at any number of clubs. The Brixton arch that World Unknown takes place in isn’t your typical club environment, and it adds to the feel that this is a night which exists in its own sphere – literally out on a limb. “There was a night I used to really love in London called Lost,” Joe remembers, “It was in Canning Town, so you had to get the tube to Canning Town, and then you had to walk along a dual carriage-way for ages and go over a sort of bridge, and it really felt like you were going somewhere, you were going to get to something special at the end. I think that’s something that’s lost a little bit in club nights in London now. Everybody goes to things that are perhaps within a two square mile radius and no one really bothers to travel anywhere. Why bother living in such a big city if you can’t be bothered to travel?”
World Unknown is expanding; it’s now a record label as well. Joe’s reasoning was simply that he couldn’t hear a lot being released nowadays that would fit into a World Unknown DJ set, and so they decided to put some out themselves. Like everything about World Unknown, the label is tight-knit, distinctive, and just that little bit of an enigma. Joe and Andy approached people they knew to ask if they might have something that would fit with the feel of World Unknown: “We just gave a very vague brief and would see what people would come up with.” It’s an interesting approach, the label dictating what the music sounds like rather than the other way around. “It’s about making music that throbs. If that makes sense,” Joe says, when pressed to try and define the kind of music he’s looking for.
Each release is vinyl only and a split release. Alongside more established names like Neville Watson and Naum Gabo (a project of Jonnie Wilkes from Glasgow’s Optimo), you have someone like Apiento, the person behind the brilliant Test Pressing blog. His The Orange Place from ‘World Unknown 2’ is one of the best of the bunch, in fact: a sleazily grinding track, filled out with ghostly flourishes of oriental-ish synths that darkly slink like they’re crossing a desert under a full moon. Franz Underwear’s track from ‘World Unknown 1’, Grauzone (named for the ’80s Swiss new wave group) chugs along on taut acid tight ropes, dizzy and filled with dynamism and bounce. ‘World Unknown 3’, out next week, is strong too. Featuring Timothy J. Fairplay’s Cleopatra Loves The Acid, a heavy acidic bludgeon infused with some playful Ancient Egypt-inspired sounds, linking him to the hard-edged and mythic Chicago house sound of Hieroglyphic Being, and comes backed with the bubbling analogue space metropolis that is Kalidasa’s Bursting Through.
Rather like the music played at the night, World Unknown’s label releases take their elements and textures from the past rather than the present, but it’s all infused with an energy and spirit that is entirely here and now. They are releases that feel dipped in the sweat of the club night they’ve come out of, and it’s one powerful night out – and world around that night out – that can inspire this kind of stuff. Joe Muggs has spoken about about how the best kind of clubbing is the kind that spills out beyond the confines of the actual event, the kind that makes you tell hazy, half-remembered stories and carries on far after the lights go up. The kind of atmosphere World Unknown induces generates stories. Joe Hart puts it well: “It’s all about coming out at 6am and not really knowing where you are, and having to go get a banana milkshake from a garage or something while you work out how you’re going to get home. That’s clubbing!”