I'm not a regular denizen of the club scene. Shakin' my booty to slammin' beats is not the manner in which I usually absorb music. But tonight, I find myself at Whirl-Y-Gig, one of the UK's longest-running and most eclectic dance clubs, and, many would insist, one of the coolest.
On this occasion the club has taken over the converted church in Hackney where I previously saw Knifeladder and assorted neo-industrial reprobates play in starkly minimal surroundings. But there's absolutely nothing stark or minimal about Whirl-Y-Gig.
Tonight, the old church has been tricked out with drapes and lights, creating the surreal effect of walking into a psychedelic Bedouin tent. It's as if someone had slipped Colonel Gadaffi a disco biscuit and told him to get on one, matey. Welcome to the Whirl-Y-world.
This event represents something of a departure from the usual Whirl-Y-experience, because Swarf are lined up for a live set at midnight. This is also something of a departure for Swarf, for the band have never played in a full-on dance club before.
Now, that might seem a little strange, for on the face of it you'd think Swarf's ice-cool and insistent grooves would surely go down a treat in the dance scene. Surely the clubbers would've picked up on Swarf long before this?
Ah, but it ain't so simple. Swarf are a live band who have come up through the rock gig circuit - an entirely different world to the club scene. Creating some sort of crossover with clubland, no matter how danceable or club-friendly the music may be, isn't easy. The two worlds just don't collide. The club crowd doesn't go to rock gigs, and no dance promoter would put a band in a club. That is, until now. Because things are changing.
From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, club culture ruled. But no longer. Today, the club scene remains strong, but it's been pushed onto the back foot by a resurgence of interest in ye olde rock 'n' roll, and a growing feeling among clubbers themselves that things have got a bit stale.
Fortunately, Whirl-Y-Gig is weathering the decline better than most. It has a loyal core of supporters who appreciate the way the club has always stayed true to its friendly, unpretentious, underground ethos, and it has always wisely avoided the superstar DJ syndrome that has become such a tiresome feature of the big commercial clubs in recent years.
Monkey Pilot, principal DJ and main man of the Whirl-Y-experience, is so resolutely un-superstar that he DJs with his back to the audience, guarding his anonymity under under a vast hat. In the Whirl-Y-world, it's the music that matters, and an easy-going, come-as-you-are atmosphere is regarded as far more important than celebrity personalities or contrived glitter. So, Whirl-Y-Gig has retained its following, but here, as elsewhere in the club scene, there's a feeling that something new is needed, a fresh element to revitalise the clubbing experience. With resounding irony, it looks like the fresh element is likely to be simply this: live music.
Now, that might not sound like a radical new move to you or me, but in the context of clubland, where DJs have reigned unchallenged for years, the simple act of putting a live band on stage counts as cutting-edge stuff. Granted, Swarf's appearance tonight is not entirely without precedent. Acts such as Astralasia, Banco de Gaia, and Transglobal Underground have all played to the Whirl-Y-Gig crowd before now.
But these artists are, basically, DJ/producer projects without any real live incarnation, typically employing samples to create a vocal focal point rather than featuring a lead vocalist. In the context of the club scene, where instrumental music is the norm, all this fits in pretty seamlessly. But Swarf - uneqivocally a live band, emphatically geared to delivering a performance, and very definitely led from the front by a real singer - represent a major break with the usual scheme of things.
How will the clubbers react? Nobody's quite sure. Monkey Pilot has been playing Swarf's 'Subtext' in his DJ sets, so the chances are the crowd will know at least one tune. Nevertheless, both the band and the Whirl-Y-crew are taking a risk. Will Swarf's set pack the floor, or will it bring the momentum of the night to an abrupt halt? Tonight, we find out.
Showtime approaches. Swarf appear on the makeshift stage to set up their stuff. And I'm nervous. Not because I'm worried that Swarf's music won't hit the spot with the clubbers: on the contrary, I have boundless confidence in Swarf's ability to get a good groove on. I'm more concerned about the presentation - pitch it wrong tonight, and the battle's going to be lost from the start. I can't help recalling the sombre, funeral-style flower arrangements with which the band decorated the stage last time. Here at Whirl-Y-Gig, where you can't step onto the dance floor without tripping over a positive vibe, that would strike entirely the wrong note.
Fortunately, tonight no such embellishments are present. Monkey Pilot fades down his final tune, and Swarf hit the go button. It's as instant as that. In the club scene, it's axiomatic that the music must never stop. The traditional delays and farting about of a rock gig won't be tolerated here. The music simply has to flow.
Swarf ease things in gently, with a sleek but slightly tentative rendition of 'Grey'. I'm looking out over the crowd, and I can almost see the thought bubbles rising out of people's heads: what's this? Realisation dawns: there's a band on stage.
Not everyone's happy - some of the diehard dance-heads take umbrage and flounce in the direction of the bar. But most of the crowd sticks around, curious, intrigued - and, little by little, they start to move. The motion spreads through the crowd like a rumour. A few exploratory jiggles here and there gradually swell to full-on booty-shaking, and as Swarf hit their stride with their second number - a confident, get-this-in-yer-face 'Supine' - the whole place is in motion. Even the flouncers-out start trickling back in, lured by the music, eager to catch this new cool thing, and probably feeling rather sheepish about their over-hasty exit.
On stage, the band can barely hide their delight. It works! The Whirl-Y-crowd simply plunge headlong into the Swarf experience - it doesn't matter that they barely know the band, or indeed that the whole idea of a live band is so alien in this context. The music bridges all the gaps and makes all the connections.
A new one comes next - 'Not Enough' - but just about everything is new to this crowd, so the dancefloor action doesn't let up. 'Drown', a guaranteed hedonist chariot of a song in any situation, works its magic again tonight.
Swarf have remodelled their palette of sounds somewhat, adding a touch more detail, clubbing-up the tunes a bit, and generally ensuring that every number is a guided missile aimed straight at the dancefloor. 'Drown' actually sounds rather good in its new, Whirl-Y-friendly incarnation, but what seems to impress the crowd more than anything is the way Liz takes the vocal on a swooping, soaring flight, exhibiting efortless, controlled power all the way: this audience, for whom the whole idea of a singer is a vague concept at the best of times, are clearly knocked out by the spectacle and the sound of someone doing it for real, right in front of them.
It's last song time already. Swarf only have a half-hour set. So, bring on the anthem. And, of course, it has to be 'Subtext', the song Monkey Pilot has been giving heavy welly at Whirl-Y-Gig for a while now, the one song the crowd know, the song that got Swarf here in the first place.
The one slight problem is that the version of the song that's been doing the business at the club is one of the Weirdo remixes, which Monkey Pilot has been playing off a DJ promo CD. This version, of course, while being undeniably cool and danceable, is loaded with sounds that aren't actually Swarf's. So, in order to give the clubbers what they want, Swarf have elected to perform a live take on the remix version, which more or less amounts to the band doing a cover of one of their own songs. Now, is that post-modern or what?
Naturally, it works. The dance floor instantly erupts into a hands-in-the-air frenzy. I sneak up onto the stage, behind the keyboards, and the band's eye view of massed clubbers giving it loads under the lights is genuinely impressive. That's some action out there, all right. Whirl-Y-Gig is certainly whirling. I think we can safely say that as far as this crowd is concerned, Swarf have arrived.
Band off, fader up, and the DJ set seamlessly takes over. Swarf look a little shell-shocked, but exhilarated. The risk paid off: the dance-heads dig the Swarf experience. A door has opened tonight, a potential new way forward has suddenly appeared. Swarf get a whole new audience, while the club scene gets a cool new concept - a live band, integrated into the DJ sets so neatly you can't see the joins - but nevertheless absolutely live. Simple? Of course. But definitely effective.
We should, I suppose, be a little cautious here. It's probably too early to say if the addition of live bands will become the saving grace of a waning club scene - and, conversely, I certainly don't think every synthpop outfit should suddenly assume that the club audience is there for the taking. The Whirl-Y-Gig crowd would probably find the simplistic sounds and hand-staple-forehead lyrics of VNV Nation, for example, laughably crude.
Even an outfit like, say, Covenant, who arguably have a more sophisticated musical vocabulary, would simply come across as a cheesy boy band in the Whirl-Y-Gig setting. It's Swarf's genius and good fortune that their music, with its killer combination of space, relentless danceable detail, and warm, soaring vocals, fits so neatly. Whatever the future holds, something new and cool happened tonight. Where we go from here is going to be interesting.
For more photos from this gig, find Swarf here.