Sound, Fury and Vision

Electronic music trio Black Vanilla were recently offered a quarterly event at Goodgod. Samantha Jonscher on the inaugural event, artistic vision and what it means to curate a space.

In July of this year, Sydney electronic three-piece Black Vanilla was granted their own quarterly event at Goodgod Small Club. They got to play two sets, pick their supporting acts and set the tone. For any artist, this is an exciting prospect. What do you do when you can (sort of) ask for anything you want; do you curate an experience start to finish? Or, at least try.

The guys behind Black Vanilla have a lot of names; I talked to them before doors opened as Lavurn, Marcus and Jarred. You may have stumbled into them on a dance floor or stumbled around to their music as any collection of their A.K.A.s: Scissor Lock, half of Collarbones, Cassius Select, Marseilles, Guerre, Lips, Lockheart, DJ Plead.

They all have a few projects on the go. Black Vanilla started four years ago as a live-only performance project. They have since veered away from that—BV has a band camp and their music is portable, they launched a single on the event’s Facebook page—but that experience driven intent is still there.

“I’m constantly thinking about what people’s experiences are like and how can we shape it. For me, it’s wanting to feel in communion with everyone else in the room and on the same page; being, feeling free of anxiety,” Marcus told me. “Being able to make stipulations ahead of time, that people will listen to, is the most attractive aspect of the event—designing the atmosphere.”

Two days before their event, Black Vanilla posted a message (see above) for their 819 Facebook event attendees to look over— “Black Vanilla Quarterly is a ‘safer space’”. In the kinds of places where they cut their teeth together, safe spaces—a policy intended to free marginalised groups from standard mainstream marginalisation—are the understood norm: DIY punk spaces, anarchist conferences, and fundraiser nights, places Jarred called “underground”. But this was Goodgod: street level Liverpool Street, the Lock Out zone, four stars on Yelp and 32000 likes on Facebook.

“I was definitely worried that we would have this event and we would ask people not to act in an oppressive way, and then we just have a bunch of bros come. But now I feel like it’s not going to be like that.” Lavurn adds, “Well, we hope it isn’t like that”.

This was the question –how do you manage these sorts of things, especially when your audience may stumble into your show unaware of the space they are entering. It’s situations like this that politicised BV– none of them feel their other projects are overtly political. They point to their Boiler Room set last year, “It didn’t go very well,” Jarred says, “but we got a lot of bad [YouTube] comments as well—racist, homophobic—from the bros who have time like to have their voices heard”.  Lavurn says it was the first time he “thought about being the only Chinese guy in the club”. 

They have plenty of anecdotes about playing to crowds of what Lavurn talks about as “young men, yelling a lot, not really communicating with us, not feeling it”. “It’s nice to see, but also not. It feels insincere,” says Marcus.

Their music is bass heavy and in their words “aggressive, but not bro-y aggressive; viscerally aggressive”. Jarred calls it “clarity” and “conviction”, a distilled sense of vision. “It’s about trying to strip back and leave what is effective and physical. Dance music is a physical experience—but that comes back to why we prefer being a live performance”, says Marcus, “But, because our music is sort of aggressive that might beget unwelcoming behaviours that are unwelcome and seen as abusive”.

The BV dance floor is certainly an energetic one. One reviewer called it “a mosh pit of excellent, angular dance moves”. The Quarterly night, in many ways, is not so different. Early birds—friends and regulars—filter in for their 10pm DJ set, the crowd dances with confidence and commits to matching the contours and intensity of the bass heavy grime and hip-hop that they offer up.

But the set list has also taken a hit; Dance support Ying Yang Dance Project have had to pull out. The guys are disappointed. “Dance performance is rare in spaces that are frequented by the general public, you basically have to go to a Community Centre”, Lavurn says.

This is starting to change. Queer club promoter House of Mince–who they point to as one of their favourite nights out–is getting a few on their lists, but it is still rare. “It’s silly because you are in a dance environment. There is nothing more satisfying to see than someone using their body in the best that they can to express sounds that you enjoy”, adds Jarred. Looking around their room at 11pm, this is the vibe, the people here love to dance, and appreciate other people dancing. My friend, a regular BV fan, says “its usually a judgment free atmosphere on the floor—people watch you, but they admire you. It’s all about fun and expression”. 

The ideals that gave birth to dance music are alive and well in the experience they hope to curate. Dance is a genre that is explicitly interested in identity and equality; its history is inextricably linked to Black America, and queer Berlin, to social movements and resistance. It offers community and an erasure of the self, it offers freedom and communion. It also has a history of having its movements, tropes and communities co-opted by mainstream tastes. 

When I ask about this utopian vision of dance music, Marcus is upfront: “we are still charging entry and we are still in control. But we would like to facilitate an experience that feels that way. I think it isn’t politically consistent- it isn’t truly socialist, it is hierarchical, but we hope you feel like you are having an unhierarchical experience”.

By 12:50, and Black Vanilla’s headline set, the venue is sold out and Goodgod’s back room is packed–the floor is sticky with spilled drinks and the room smells like sweat and beer. People have been getting into it, but it doesn’t feel very different from your average night at Goodgod. Those standout dancers from before are diluted by a different crowd.

When I had spoken to them earlier about their “safer space” aspirations, Marcus was honest: “It’s easy to say it in the branding, but we want to be active about trying to make our night truly welcoming and freeing for everyone”.

Marcus starts the set with a welcome, and then reiterates their intent—“Part of this is asking to be respectful of others. If you are a cis, straight, white, man, you may want to move towards the back to make space for other people who aren’t as naturally comfortable as you”. The very tall, white man next to me leans onto my shoulder, chewing his lips—“I’m a straight guy, are you a straight girl?” I smiled politely and then moved away through a plume of amyl nitrate. As a friend pointed out, saying “we just want everyone to have a good time and express yourself” may have been a miscommunication, it might have encouraged some behaviour that otherwise might not have happened”.

Before the doors opened, Lavurn explained “the fact that we are a live act, existing in rooms with people, makes it more political, we all move together. It’s super different to someone listening to a track alone in their room”. The way that Marcus and Lavurn move on stage breaks down certain barriers with the audience. Jarred says that he feels “closer to the crowd by the way [they] perform, just so raw, it’s so visceral”. It goes both ways, and makes them more approachable—its part of that erosion of hierarchies.

Around the stage is a halo of into-it dancers, pulling out those angular, sharp, furious moves that match Marcus and Lavurn’s shapes on stage. There was some solid communion happening, but also some other people that weren’t quite getting it. Around the edges and throughout the crowd were pockets of unnecessary aggression, a few unwelcome pokes and grabs.

On the way out I passed BV sitting around a booth. They looked tired, but satisfied. Lavurn said they were feeling good about what they had put on.