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The ddr. Radio Logs – Entry #4: Cosmetic Plague x Sources of Uncertainty

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In the fourth installment of the ddr. Radio Logs – a monthly series by Dublin Digital Radio residents, exploring their practice and the craft of radio-making – Decy Synnott of Sources of Uncertainty and Karen Browett of Cosmetic Plague delve into everything from multimedia practice + participatory engagement to Ireland’s frankly punk af DIY community

Decy: Hey Karen! Thanks for agreeing to do this. I figured we’ve had versions of this conversation in person multiple times over the years. You chat to a friend about what they’re up to, accidentally go off on an existential tangent for an hour, and try get back on track before all sense of time and space disappears. So in the interest of getting that conversation down in writing, can you tell me about your ddr show Cosmetic Plague? When and how did it start? What were the ideas behind it, and what do you see the show as now?

Karen: I started the show on ddr in 2017. At the time I was sort of filling a gap on Dublin Digital Radio. The existing show ‘Dublin Punk Radio’ was ending and I thought oh hey I could fill that genre gap. I had been doing a lot of sort of soft DJ slots at gigs or after parties, and had put up a few DIY podcast mixes like ‘best of the year in DIY punk’ etc so it seemed a good thing to jump at. In my memory, under those guidelines, I thought that perhaps the show used to be a little more prescriptive in relation to genre but I actually just looked up my first ddr show and the blurb pretty obnoxiously says ‘Playing everything from punk (and all its ugly sub genres), post-punk, death rock, goth, industrial, noise, avant garde to free jazz. Whatevs, if I likes it it goes on. Don’t care, get your own damn show haters. It’s the soundtrack to the months work here in the print studios!’ … haha lol cringe at myself, I dunno that sounds potentially like a stressful listening experience, maybe I thought acting indifferent and cool was how to make a show that played Albert Ayler more ‘punk’ acceptable. 

It continued having some sort of platforming for independent and DIY punk/punk adjacent bands, festivals, labels, DIY spaces, activist causes and the like but always used that as a sort of loose anchor for the show while oscillating through ambient, noise, power electronics, drone, synth, jazz, avant garde, power pop, northern soul, bedroom indie from yesteryear or whatever else I felt suddenly compelled to gravitate towards. I think over time I went through the initial internal turmoil of a genred show being at times restrictive. Then I realised that the only person holding me to that notion was myself, no one else was going to exactly be devastated if I did whatever I wanted instead of what I thought people expected. I think that’s the difference between DJ’ing live at an event to having a show on the radio. I have had more fun with the show since I learned a few things about myself through doing it. One was that I have now validated it as part of my multimedia practice and allow it to flow more freely.

Within that I let go finally of the idea that I was taking over a show with a specific line of enquiry. Two was that I’ve accepted my attention deficit and resulting multiplicity as something exciting, rather than something that shows you up to be quote unquote ‘untrue’. I think people with attention deficits spend a lot of time growing up trying to prove themselves within their scenes by doubling down on singular interests out of fear that people will think they are fake. Like a lot of the kids around you have encyclopaedic knowledge of everything bands have done, and I’m like ‘uh I like the green colour album with the dooo doop song and eh, oh look, a bird….(wanders off)’ Now I love that I listen and create by instinct rather than intention. I’m not capable of singularity. I think a lot of people out there also need shows that reflect multiplicity! Sometimes I hyperfocus for a week very intensely on a theme, like the recent ‘Italian Cinema’ episode. Sometimes I go in and start at The Undertones, move through Pharmakon, Sun Ra, 20 minutes of field recordings, and end on MF Doom or something and get left on the other end of the show like ‘wha ha happen’ haha

What about you Decy, what compelled you to start doing a show, did you have it in mind for a while before you started? If so was there a plan? When I was a child I had a double tape deck and I used to press record on samples from the radio or other tapes and then record myself introducing the tracks through the gettoblaster inbuilt mic in full radio voice haha who knew DIY was in my future. Do you or did you ever feel a pressure to play a sort of prescribed type of mix or do you worry ever about this? 

Decy: I remember Dublin Punk Radio being one of the first things I saw on ddr and being glad the station was open to everyone, and by everyone I meant punks I know, of course. It was great seeing you and other people I knew getting going on ddr. I started my show in 2018, after Ellen King telling me to definitely get in touch, me delaying for ages, and then ddr being extremely accommodating as soon as I finally emailed them. I think in part it was me trying to be less insular and just reach out more, every few years I get frustrated by how closed off people can get in their scenes, music, art etc. And despite thinking it’s nice to just work with your friends and do what feels good, I’m always wary of it getting cliquey, so hearing ddr were very open, and then having them be enthusiastic about my show idea was great. It’s felt freeing to have this place where there’s a focus on participatory engagement, like just sending a show pitch and doing what you can, so it’s not really curated but operates on who wants to do what. My initial idea for Sources of Uncertainty was to do something that focused on the odder ‘outer reaches’ of experimental music. I still use the term ‘weirdo’ too much, as I like the light hearted connotations, rather than get bogged down either in intellectualising someone else’s work too much or in defining things too strictly. People just being comfortable with being abnormal in some way is often what attracts me to things.

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Karen: Yeah I sort of slipped into ddr under the radar by covering another show till it morphed into my own. Now that I finally let myself own that space it’s really become apparent how amazing it is to have a non-curated creative outlet. I think you put that brilliantly, it’s a really defining part of the ddr experience. I get exhausted living in the so called creative professional space where you continually mould your vision or ideas in order to fit a brief in the hope you can eek out a living. It dilutes art. Perhaps it sounds grandiose to say art, but having the platform to put out an hour or two of unsteered freedom is a really special thing. It gives a pure, honest and instinctive output. ddr providing the space for this across an infinite spectrum of audio or voices is absolutely invaluable. I love not having to feel bound to format, and that the grounding basis for my show is more of a playground of loose ideas.

Decy: I definitely also put a very strict definition on the show for a while when I started, tried to make sure there was the right kind of weirdness there and all that, but quickly enough I had to accept that if I’m representing what I’m enjoying in the month since my last show, it’s quite possible I won’t be listening to loads of experimental music. That’s where the doom special came about, or dropping Gasp in the middle of a more ‘traditional’ show of mine. Usually, being honest about what I’m listening to makes for an enjoyable show. And then on the other hand, it’s useful to have some kind of theme or style to follow, as making decisions is hard. Lately, I try to just pick something that sounds nice from my very long list of new music, and I often try throw in something older I think is worth reminding people of. Thankfully labels like Oxen, Fragment Factory, Mondoj and local ones like Nyahh and Krim Kram give me tons to listen to and wedge into shows. I also try to put in music I don’t see people talking about, as I always enjoy getting recommendations of things, so I suppose I’m making radio for people with the same disposition. I did a more punk focused show for a little while during lockdown, including an online class on punk, as suggested by my faithful producer, Michelle ‘Rising Damp’ Doyle, and a show dedicated to music we used to play in my brothers old Peugeot estate. I enjoyed making more light hearted stuff, and doing more messing on the mic, but I don’t need two radio shows, probably. I also try to get guest mixes in to change up the selections, and to greedily enjoy someone else’s tastes.

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Karen: I relate to all this hard haha, I also flit between quite a serious show and then one that’s pure messing. I worried that it should be two shows for a while but also, like, who has the time. Plus initially I tried to banter every show but some months I felt like a sham, my mood didn’t always fit the character. I teach various art stuff often which I love but I have sort of a character that I put on when I’m not in the mood, one who’s good at anecdotes and light jokes and the like, and in work it’s just a part of the job, but to start getting those feels when approaching one of my shows, it started to feel performative or inauthentic so it was unsustainable. Now I just love to chop and change. I loved your themed shows, especially Dr Punk! In lockdown everything changed didn’t it? I mean the experience of putting out a show or listening to a show was entirely about connecting or feeling involved and communicating in some way with the great big world out there. One of my favourite shows I did over lockdown was the Cork take over, with updates from Rebel Reads, Ridiculous Radical Fitness, My Goodness, Urban Soil Project. Having those community connections at that time was so essential for all of our mental health! The significance of all our online connections and the organisers who facilitated that during that crazy mini apocalypse was enormous. To be so isolated yet still feel part of a global family in some way is a big thing for an independent radio station to provide. I listened to so much digital radio in that time to stay afloat.

Decy: It was such a lifeline during lockdown, and coming out of that, I felt like there was some continuity in life before lockdown and after. I found it hard to go to gigs and stuff, still feels weird to be honest! But the buzz of listening to a live show or making the time to listen to something that looks interesting is still there and reminds me of the importance of sharing music with people. I loved doing those shows, the RR/My Goodness/CUSP/Coach Winty show was so much fun, and was still in the era where every time people managed to meet up during covid there was this delirious energy. It’s amazing what that isolation did to us! I like that you see the show as part of a multimedia practice, and I think it’s great and very important to accept your own easily distracted nature. I think I have similar tendencies at times, and if I could harness that and make as many different cool things as you I’d be doing well!

So, along with knowing you as a Top Punk for a long time, you’ve also been a very active artist, making screen prints, playing plants as instruments, making brick wall themed clothing and generally being truly DIY and always making stuff. Would you have a way of describing your practice that takes everything in? I still put a lot of stock in the idea of living your ideas, living your politics and being a punk by being a person that does stuff off their own back and makes the culture they want to see, and I think everything you do encompasses that idea too. I’ve flogged the horse of defining ‘punkness’ a lot over the years, but do you think there’s something helpful in having an identity and a culture to help steer you or remind you of ways to keep making things? For me, seeing a DIY synth culture was a nice reminder that no matter what I get involved in, there’ll always be someone getting their hands dirty, and that if I spend enough time around them, their good ideas will rub off on me a bit. And of course seeing Irish music scenes bleed into each other is always a great reminder too. I think the Ecliptic of Culture is a perfect example of this.

Karen: Ah you’re very sweet, I think very much the same of you! Oh god Ecliptic of Culture is great. There’s so much DIY around us these days that defies the typical punk output and I love it. DIY synth scene? Sign me up! I think it’s impossible to see the things you put out into the world when you are in the middle of them. It’s something that we all in DIY culture just do without thinking. We make by necessity and instinct and feel. I was actually thinking about this recently and considering how blessed I was to have grown up in the DIY punk sub culture, you rarely think ‘oh I couldn’t do that’. I would say the only downside is that people often forget to validate themselves in the context of the bigger world. For example you could say to someone ‘are you a musician’ and they could genuinely say ‘ah no not at all’ but be just back from a US tour with their 12th band on the back of their 25th release haha its gas, but sort of lovely.

But yeah in terms of punkness, I think living the things you want to see and remembering that personal is political is key. I tried hard when I first started consciously making work to earnestly and directly factually point out things for the sake of activism but it never quite worked for me. It’s not accessible or relatable when I say ‘check these facts out’. The things that are the most relatable in my work are the things most directly inside my core, if I can find a way to extract that and stick it on show, whether its humour or vulnerability, people find a way in. I think that’s more effective for me when considering my practice and why I put out the things I do. I’m a big fan of when someone presents the inside of their world to you. That’s something that I think Decy in your solo music I am blown away by, especially having caught your show at Spilt Milk. You made a scenario where you constructed a fully formed universe of your own making and let us all in to see and experience it. It’s quite a different experience to the typical punk show of affronting loudness and crowd interaction. I love that you went down the rabbit hole of synth and presented it back in the context of DIY. I love the expansion of DIY cultures language and the continually evolving melting pot of multi genre DIY community driven expression. ‘Punkness’ is absolutely thriving as an undefinable extended fuzzy nebula of gorgeousness.

Decy: Ah thanks Karen! I think keeping the deeply personal part of DIY in making things is the core of what I want to do, so I’m glad that comes across, I think once there’s some degree of honesty, even if that’s honestly saying ‘I can’t share everything, but here’s a story that resonates with me’, then the art will find people who relate to it, and I think that’s everywhere in the DIY worlds we get to be a part of. And I think having platforms to share things on a participatory level, instead of as something externally curated, is a very honest way to self-actualise and have confidence in your work. You’re so spot on about people denying they’re a real musician or artist or whatever, while endlessly making things, but having places, like ddr, like the ecliptic, or the many rooms that let odd gigs happen without question, means there’s always a way for that self-actualisation to happen in a real and sincere way. I also think your definition of punkness there is so perfect it deserves to be the final word of this chat, so let me close by quoting Karen Browett, top punk “‘Punkness’ is absolutely thriving as an undefinable extended fuzzy nebula of gorgeousness”.

Keep up date with all things Cosmetic Plague and Sources of Uncertainty on ddr.

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.