Label to artist – body Work Talks toCvnt
Strap yourself in tight, this is one hell of a big interview. You might want to get a cup of tea ready for reading this. Maybe some lunch too. Actually, just cancel your plans and indulge yourself in this interview between John Power of Body Work and CVNT(aka Niall Connolly).
Fusing the bass heavy sounds of the UK with those of New Yorks Ballroom House scene Niall CVNTs recent Statement EP on Body Work has been picking up all manner of accolades including being hailed as one of DJ Mags Killers of the Month. Body Works John Power caught up with Niall to discuss the EP, Ballroom Culture and just where Niall fits in with it all
John: Hi Niall, so what I really wanted to talk to you about was Ballroom House and your relationship to it. But I guess the best way to start might be for you to explain for those whose only knowledge of Ballroom Culture might be Madonnas Vogue what exactly it is?
Niall: Well as you say Im sure most people do know Madonnas track Vogue so at least they have a starting reference, but whats important is that the whole Ballroom scene didnt just die off when Madonna got bored of it and its still going, what, 23 years later.
But a lots changed in those years technology, life, everything has gotten faster and in a way the music reflects that. Its a lot more, what you might say Turbo-Charged than before, It has become faster and the dancing styles, you can still tell its Voguing, but the styles have progressed.
J: Yes, Ive noticed that from watching recent videos [of Ballroom events], obviously when you think of Voguing you think of people dancing in a very angular way, throwing shapes, but a lot of modern styles look like, for want of a better term, throwing yourself around a room
N: Well you see Voguing as a dance form has gone through several phases, progressions and developments both before and after Madonna and the dancing style that is most popular right now is termed Vogue Femme. This involves a lot of dramatics, that throwing themselves around, with the signature move being The Dip, where the dancers fall on their bum. Completely fall on the back, generally in tandem with that crash sound from The Ha Dance.
But of course there are still a lot of other styles around, and you can see Voguings influence in a lot of other non-Ballroom dances as well. Even though its still probably new to a lot of people now, it has a very strong history, reaching back well beyond Madonna.
J: What has surprised me most is the music, youve played me stuff, the first few mixes you sent me, and I was just amazed at how hard the music was. To me it sounded almost like UK Hardcore, those kind of 92 era breakbeats, lots of energy, perhaps not technically perfect, very rough and ready, pure club music really.
N: Yeah, both the music and the dancing has got a lot faster over the years, the Vogue Femme style really puts an emphasis on dramatics, where when youre looking at a dancer and theyre doing something its very easy to see lots going on as theyre whipping their hair back and forth, theyre falling on their ass, theyre rolling around on the floor.
That is where Voguing is at right now, its the most popular thing, and the music reflects that, its got a lot harder, a lot faster. Rather than the smooth, deep house, New Jersey sound that was most associated with it in the early 90s, now its a lot choppier and takes more of its production cues from Hip-Hop.
J: Actually I was quite surprised when watching some recent videos at how much of an influence Hip-Hop was
N: I think its just unavoidable; Hip-Hop has been the main currency of American Popular Culture for the fifteen years now so its inevitable that would make its way into Ballroom Culture.
Also it probably has a lot to do with how the producers have made tracks over the years, especially using MPCs. Thats how they work, chopped up samples spread across pads that you just bash out, so when I listen to the majority of American music, electronic or whatever, you can just tell that its being made by producers who have grown up using MPCs or have been influenced by the aesthetic it produces.
Lots of little samples, all broken down and bashed out rather than when I was growing up it was more about finding a loop and building a track from that and creating something a lot smoother. I think thats styles gone now, everythings a lot more broken up and the use of samples is a lot more percussive, and that is reflected in Voguing.
J: Within the scene is there a lot of controversy over how both the dancing and the music has changed over the years?
N: There is tension within the scene between some of the older dancers and the younger ones. The older dancers perceive the newcomers as perhaps having lost some of the original skill of Voguing. Its now got so fast and dramatic, with an emphasis on certain keynote moves, like The Dip, a lot of the older dancers feel like the younger dancers are missing some of the specific skills that actually defined Voguing, the fashion influence, the posing, being able to hit a mark and make it look really good and using your arms and shoulders to express upper body movements.
Now its all hair being twirled around and people slamming their heads to the ground, [Laughs] so yeah theres definitely a bit of tension with the scene itself.
J: So when did you actually first get into the ballroom scene?
N: I guess Ive always known about it, I wasnt very old at the time when Madonna brought out Vogue but I remember it, so it was always there in the back of my mind. Then I guess when I first watched Paris Is Burning, about seven years ago or so, that was very instrumental. It really explains what this scene is about, then off the back of that I just started searching out clips on places like YouTube.
I put on the first Glasgow Ball in 2010, and I remember writing up something for the website of our clubnight, Menergy, explaining what Voguing was. So I guess its always been an interest of mine but I yeah I really got back into it after seeing Paris Is Burning that time,
J: When you did that first party up in Glasgow were there many people in the UK into Ballroom?
N: Not really, and to be honest, its still very fresh in the UK. I actually think that the UK is, surprisingly, compared to some other countries a bit behind when it comes to Voguing. There are some amazing Houses in France, Germany and Holland at the moment.
J: Can you just quickly explain what a House is?
N: The traditional definition of a House is that its a gay street gang and instead of fighting these gangs would have dance-offs. The concept is taken from fashion houses and so a lot of original big American Houses are named after famous fashion brands or things that relate to fashion.
Ive seen at gigs Ive been doing recently, especially in [Mainland] Europe there are some amazing Houses emerging but I dont feel like theres the same culture of dance here in the UK that you get in Europe
Still I think that the scene is growing here and there are some wicked dancers in the UK but we need more balls and more places for these dancers to show up. You see thats how other people get into it, they go to a club and see someone Voguing and think that looks amazing. I think theres just not enough of that happening in the UK yet.
J: Is there a kind of a clash, a dilemma within the scene, where on the one hand you want to grow and encourage new people to get involved but at the same time still protect itself and provide a safe space?
N: I think it is changing and the scene is becoming a more open place where anyone can get involved, anyone can join in. Obviously Voguing is traditionally a black, gay art form, and certainly there were a lot of Trans people, a lot of Transgender women involved when it started, but today youll find a lot of biological women and straight women involved in the scene. In fact I think its just becoming a lot more of a female thing.
At the same time though I guess it depends who you speak to and there are some people on the scene who are very protective of what it is, and for good reason. Theyve seen it being exploited before; theyve seen it move so far away from its roots that they feel that it is not the same thing anymore.
So there is a certain element of protectionism and exclusivity within the scene, which I think is understandable, but for the most part its moving towards being more accessible and now youre seeing countries that dont have much or really any relation to New Yorks black and gay scenes turning out amazing dancers.
So the scene must be moving ahead and I think thats a positive and healthy thing as long as people remember and respect the roots from where it all came from, why theyre doing it and who the original legends were. In the end you cant stop it, its all progress.
J: You talk about Ballrooms roots, now obviously over the past few years and right now house music as a whole has never been bigger but it also feels like its never been further away from, or more really in denial of, its own black and gay origins. You can quite easily argue, and many do, that EDM has been a whitewash but even then it feels like dance musics black roots are still more recognised than its gay roots
N: Yes I think that is a thing and I definitely feel that there is still a bit of a sniffiness around Ballroom Culture, especially trying to get people that are into more traditional House Music to engage with Ballroom. Now there could be many reasons for that but from my point of view I feel that sexuality has a lot to do with it.
J: I feel like weve seen over the past few years not just an editing of House musics history to maybe remove some of the more overtly gay aspects of it but a kind of bowdlerizing of the music too. Something like the Nu-Disco revival was very much driven at the start by some great gay clubs, Horse Meat Disco, places like that, and I feel that it was very much co-opted by straight, white, bearded guys (like myself but without the beard), who kind of took over in some respects and certainly when it came to the flood of re-edits that appeared from the early 2000s onwards it felt like a lot of them were taking out anything that was too gay from a track. Actually Im sure years ago I read something by Daniel Wang complaining about that in a much more considered way
So you end up with a situation were you have this music that becomes stripped of so much of what originally made it what it was and you end up with well, kind of Cosmic Disco, which is great, I love so much of that music but you cant help but sometimes feel its in denial of its roots when it presents this kind of sterile spacey music that isnt too raunchy, is quite safe really.
N: I agree completely about the disco thing, its like a lot of those disco edits. Even going back to when a lot of that first started in the mid/late nineties, there was a lot of stripping out the campness, stripping out the glittery over the top moments that defined those records as being gay, just taking them back down to being about the groove.
Which at the start was cool but I definitely felt like it reached a point where you could go to a club playing Nu-Disco and its just a lot of middle class, middle aged, white people politely nodding their heads and you feel like this isnt how this music was supposed to be consumed. I think thats why its a brilliant thing when you go to a club like Horse Meat Disco and it brings a lot of those records to life, youre actually hearing these records in the kind of environment they were meant to be played in, loads of screaming queens, loads of trans people and just a really mixed crowd where the atmospheres really good.
I think theres a definite seriousness about the way that a lot of people approach dance music in general nowadays, which is kind of nerdy and detached from the actual purpose of it, which is to make people dance, and dancing is of course for want of a better phrase, its a sex substitute. Thats what that rhythm is, ultimately a lot of it is just about simulating sex without getting naked as such.
So I think theres an element of white dance culture at the moment that has been de-sexed, and I think Ballroom is still very much coming from that Black, Gay place and possesses an overt sexuality. So I think there might be a reluctance to get too involved with it as the reality of the black/gay clubbing experience is very different to the reality of a lot of middle class, middle aged, white people nodding along to Fleetwood Mac b-sides and the like.
J: I think the other reason Ballroom perhaps doesnt get the attention it deserves is the way a lot of music journalism works. Theres a kind of hierarchy of music journalism, at the top you have the highbrow rock critics and serious indie writers writing about serious music made by serious artists. Which in a way is understandable, as Id say rock music is probably easier to write well about, and often Ill admit more enjoyable to read about, than dance music.
So I think in that light dance music, and those writing about it, can be a bit defensive and the electronic music that does get serious coverage often tends to be the kind of more experimental, and sometimes lets be honest quite boring, music where its a bit easier to make a case that this is important music and my writing about it is by virtue important too.
So a lot of the stuff that gets the most coverage is music that is divorced from the dancefloor, or certainly from the dancefloors that the actual majority of clubbers, gay or straight, spend their time on. If youre a writer and you want to sound clever its easier to do so writing about Aphex Twin than it is say Tony De Vit, so too often actual real club music gets looked down upon even by those into electronic music.
Its like with Body Work, the very reason I called it that was I didnt want it to be in any way cerebral, I just wanted to release music that had an immediate impact on the dancefloor. Music that we could push out, make people dance and then move onto the next record.
Ive always loved what may people would probably consider cheap disposable dance music, but then a lot of what was once considered cheap then goes on to become the classics. A lot of the classics that people love to this day are really fairly basic tracks that no one thought too much about.
N: Totally, at its best dance music is often cheap music, music that can be made on a quick turnaround. Originally it was like get hold of a 909 and just make a track, go to Marshall Jeffersons bedroom in the two hours hes got free from being a postman or whatever and knock something out.
Before I started doing the CVNT stuff I was making this kind of trippy cosmic disco and it was really liberating to just go you know what I just want to bash out some dancefloor shit, something thats heavily percussive, and just really functional. In fact that was something I remember speaking to Daniel Wang about, what was really inspiring to me about when I started producing Ballroom is that it really reconnected me with the dancers, which was always a big thing for me.
I love dancing and dance a lot, so asking myself Can I dance to this? has always been a hugely important part of the music that I make and Ballroom is a brilliant example of music that is functional and directly connected to the dancefloor.
What annoys me sometimes is that theres a lot of lip service within serious dance music communities to the black/gay experience and how these are the roots we all share, everything came from this but then I feel like this [Ballroom] is the lived experience, this is what Black Gays are doing now and youre ignoring it.
Perhaps with Ballroom its easier for people to deal with it as something that just lives neatly packaged in the memory, something that just existed in the 80s and early 90s without having to deal with the reality of what is happening now.
J: Right, so people will happily write massive articles about say a Soul Jazz compilation and book that documents the history of ballroom, but arent willing to engage with the present reality.
N: Yes, exactly. This is something that Ive experienced first hand as well. Its a thing that needs to be talked about with Ballroom, how straight audiences consume it. Look I mean no disrespect to that particular Soul Jazz book, its a beautiful book, I have it myself, some of the pictures are brilliant and its really good to have that chronicle of the early scene, especially as a lot of those people are dead now.
But at the same time, and the same thing happens with Paris Is Burning, you see Voguing neatly packaged as this historic scene that only happened in the early Nineties and that makes it very easy for people to consume whilst ignoring or not giving any respect to the people who are out there now.
That culture never went away it just went back underground. When Madonna got bored of it, it didnt die it regrouped and changed and its still developing. Thats something that Im trying to do and show, that Voguing/Ballroom isnt dead, and ask why are all these people who are so obsessed over Paris Is Burning unwilling to turn around and look at what is happening in New York Vogue clubs right now?
J: Looking at your own productions, now obviously you called the recent release on Body Work the Statement EP and in the press release you very eloquently explained how this was your statement, how you wanted to take the UK sounds that are all around you and incorporate them. How do you see yourself fitting into the established Ballroom scene and how have those on the scene, especially say New York DJs and producers how have they reacted to you?
N: Well its been very validating actually, Ive played gigs recently with people like Vjuan Allure and Mike Q and they really dig my stuff. You see my aim is not to mimic exactly what they do, because for a start I dont live in New York and Im not black.
Its a big part of Voguing that the best look you can achieve is when youre expressing something that is very true to who you are, so at no point am I trying to be anything other than what I am, Im never trying to pass myself off as a black American.
So Im taking a lot from what they do but at the same time mixing it up with the sounds of the UK, music like Funky, Grime, Garage, just that kind of Bass Music thats been around the last few years, that British sensibility, which is also exciting to me as I feel like no one else is currently doing that in Ballroom.
DJs like Mike and Vjuan they have their sounds and know exactly how to kill a dancefloor with what they do. So Im just trying to develop my own specific sound and I cant deny that Im influenced by UK influences, so I just try and work that into the sound and so far its been really nice that people on the scene have accepted what I do and think its hot, they get that Im not from New York and have my own sound.
One of the beautiful things about Vogue and Ballroom is that it is an international scene now and so people will always incorporate their indigenous sounds into the music to make something that is true to them.
J: Recently you played quite a few big gigs, in places like Berlin, do you find that whereas in New York its a whole package with the music, the balls, the dancers and it all comes together as one, over here youll get a night where the focus is more just on the music, not so much the other elements
N: Yes to an extent thats true. One of the things I would say is that to hear this music in a club thats great but when you hear the music and see someone Voguing to it, it just takes it to another level. I think you instantly understand the music more when you see how moments that might throw some people, certain sounds, certain kinds of syncopation, when you see someone Voguing to it then it all makes sense. It brings the music to life.
Ive been very lucky with recent gigs, the one in Berlin for instance there were a lot of proper Vogue dancers there. So the audience was really into the music anyway but then the Voguers came out and it just really went off. I think there probably is some disconnect here in the UK and to be honest in some places in the US too. I hear from a lot of the US DJs that the sound, the Ballroom sound, is picking up in clubs but outside of New York theres not a lot of actual Vogue dancers at the clubs.
Though actually saying that the last gig I did in London, at House of Trax, a load of vogue dancers did turn up and that was really brilliant. There is one dancer, David Magnifique, who goes to all their shows, so he will start it off and then other people will join in and you really get a much better sense of what the music is about then.
So yes theres a bit of a disconnect and were probably lagging behind some of the European cities but not by too much, were getting there and as more people get into it and see people Voguing it will grow. Ballroom is just going to get bigger and bigger