Zero Work Outruns Us All: An Interview with Kode9

This was originally published in AdHoc Issue 9. Order a copy of the issue here. Also: catch Kode9 at Palisades, Brooklyn on Friday, November 20 with M.E.S.H. and GENG.

The London-based electronic music producer, DJ, and Hyperdub label owner Steve Goodman, a.k.a. Kode9, has built a career on encountering music as though it were a physical force—an object infused with amassed data and the contingencies of its entering into various sonic and intellectual situations. His label, which fills out and defines his musical and tangential theoretical interests, is now ten years in age, surrounding Goodman with a revolving cadre of musicians and thinkers from disparate genres and geographical locations. Spreading out more and more beyond his initial focus on dubstep, Goodman’s label as well as his own output has an ever-changing, sharpening view of today’s musical and technological landscapes. From Senegal-born, New York-based Fatima Al Qadiri’s excursions into appropriation and doomed civilizations; to Michigan-born, Berlin-based Laurel Halo’s manipulation of techno’s mechanistic take on temporal form; to various Chicago- and elsewhere-based Teklife affiliates bringing their own brand of street-style dance music, Goodman has built a label that reflects his own interests in music’s ability to give life to one’s experience, be it through the banal rituals of daily life or grand philosophical gestures.

On Nothing, Goodman’s fourth release as a producer, we see him using cold synth work, circular juke percussion, and dry, reverb-free production to explore voids, zeroes, and the capacity to be productive while at rest. In the following discussion, Goodman meanders through subjects related to and beyond Nothing—a multiplicitous concept that houses both philosophical and religious meaning. He also explains how he used production as way to cope and recover from the loss of his dear friends DJ Rashad and the Spaceape, both of whom passed away in 2014 and the latter of whom has a co-credit on each of Kode9’s previous albums. We discuss music—its labor and inspiration—as a means of extending the material idea of one’s emotional state and artistic intentions. For Goodman, “Nothing” and its integer of zero are not empty, but a point of beginnings.

AdHoc: I suppose we should start with the idea of nothing.

Goodman: I started the record on the 31st of December, New Year’s Eve last year, and I had a bunch of music that I had scrapped. There’s so many reasons why it’s called Nothing. The first one is… last year was very intense for me. I was very angry and pissed off last year, and I was asking myself, “What is the album even about?” And the way I was at the end of last year, it wasn’t easy to put anything into words, so it’s called “Nothing.” Nothing was this key that enabled me to hang on. I can make tracks, but I can’t bring it together into an album unless there’s a concept. It doesn’t matter what the concept is—sometimes it’s just a word, a phrase, an idea, an image. The way I was at the end of last year, it was enough to have a concept that was completely empty as a starting point. It produced a sort of umbrella that contained all the different song ideas. And it worked because I was jamming super fast in a way that I had never made music before. Emptiness as a concept really made this normal baggage into the music. I also knew that this album would be empty to me, because there would be no Spaceape.

I finished the record in January, but I spent the next few months tweaking and refining, and during that process I started reading about nothing, voids, vacuums, emptiness… I read this book called Zero Living, which is about the history of zero and mathematics. There wasn’t the number zero. It didn’t exist in Western science or mathematics until the Renaissance. It came from Babylonia, it came from Indian mathematics; different aspects of it came from different places. The West always saw it as demonic. It’s like an agent of secularization. The reason zero was such a threat is because it is at the limits of knowledge. There are all of these tendencies towards zero: science has the degree zero, the freezing point of matter… Obviously all science was doing in the last few hundred years was undermining God—chipping out, keeping away the foundations that hold up monotheism. And I was like, “Oh, shit! Nothing is something.” Nothing is much more complicated than I was thinking.

In Quantum theory, vacuums are not empty. You have invisible photonic energy, and energy that’s hard to identify but is still very active, kind of like dark matter, black holes. Energy can pull something into a wormhole and destroy it. And I’ve always been interested in zero as being full. Nothing is something.

AH: It’s interesting that you mention zero in the sense of calamity, or an end for humans. There’s the suggestion of freezing points and all of these things that sound like the Day After Tomorrow.

SG: Since I started the album, I’ve been attacked by what’s call a “zero virus.” Having come outside of the idea of nothing as an empty, or anti-, concept allowed me to make music without too much baggage, in a more democratic way. Very quickly, I started seeing zeroes everywhere. I just started to realize how often zero is used in phrases: ground zero, year zero. The former is usually the end, and the latter a beginning.

AH: I suppose those could be the same thing.

SG: Yes, different different sides of the same thing. And in economics, I was coming across phrases like “zero marginal cost,” which are ways to deal with information economy where the cost of manufacturing something tends towards zero, like the replication of MP3s. It doesn’t cost anything to reproduce an infinite amount of MP3s.

Then there’s “zero work,” which is this old Italian economist’s idea that if machines are doing all the work and the enterprise is purely profit-driven, then there is no reason for us to be threatened by the idea of machines making humans redundant. All it does is open up a pile of free time for humans to do something else. So that’s obviously what we should be pursuing at this point.

The problem with old Leftist movements is that they make this big issue out of the dignity of labor. Fuck that! We shouldn’t be working, we should be opening up as much free time as possible. The idea of zero work is often looked down upon, like humans are being lazy. But what I realized while making this album is that doing nothing is a fundamental part of the research and production.

AH: It’s a very larval state. It’s an interesting thing to do nothing and come to this laptop, to all of this hardware—it’s very cybernetic or circular in thought and approach.

SG: That’s why one of the tracks is called “Wu Wei,” which is actually this [Taoist concept based on the] inaction of doing nothing—not in a negative sense, but as a way to do things in the most efficient way. You want to follow the grain of matter. It’s a tangential process. In other contexts, people may call it “flow” or “oneness.”

AH: It makes me think of Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time, where she explores the ritual of dance.

SG: Purely through following rules, you can activate something.

AH: I hear that in a lot in the sounds that you use on the record, actually. Nothing feels really ecological…

SG: This process started with a concept. It didn’t come from nothing, and for me that’s an important distinction. I can only finish a record with a concept; I just need something in the end to glue it all together. You have to sequence the tracks, know how they relate to each other… sprinkle cosmic dust over it to give it a façade of unity.

AH: What exactly is the “façade of unity”? I suppose that edges into the idea of person ecology, the “engineered situation.”

SG: All of the albums I’ve made are just making tracks. You’re constantly selecting through a group of material. And I always find that towards the end of an album, I get in involved in making this “façade of unity.” It might be a finish, it might be a sheen. It might be a textural thing that goes over the surface. For Burial, it’s crackle that provides the “façade of unity.” He always talks about crackle being a way to paint over the cracks, to hide the ugliness. I don’t use crackle, but on this album, for me it was this weird quantum spark. Those kinds of synth sounds. Threads that you find running through accidentally. I don’t know why, but with this album I did this kind of bombastic sound that’s later a snarl that runs through the “Notel” track. It’s like this snarling pitched-down horn and cello. It’s like a scream from your stomach: a geological drone.

I noticed that it had that thread that I didn’t intend; I didn’t deliberately take that sound and use it in other tracks. What it did was create an internal thread.

AH: The soul.

SG: Even the anti-soul. It’s a quite inhuman sound.

AH: You keep coming up with these fascinating phrases, like “geological drone.” That immediately takes me back to [Goodman’s 2010 book] Sonic Warfare. Where does that come from?

SG: It’s in the album because I was angry and pissed off. Somehow that deep, high bass sound embodied the anger, and was very cathartic for me. Ultimately, it was my way of saying “Fuck you” to the world. I put myself in solitary confinement to make the album. I made lots of music, but the tracks with that sound stayed with me. It’s more than just a personal groan; it’s a cosmic one.

AH: Your use of juke is very fascinating to me as well. Your use of it seems to be about linking together these hauntological sounds.

SG: There’s nothing consciously hauntological about what I was doing, but there’s an aspect of Spaceape haunting the album. Though, I deliberately didn’t use delay on the album; I wanted to do something I’d never done before. Reverb and delay are often used to create a “façade of unity.” Sometimes I get tired of the clichés… I wanted a much drier album. I was trying to make this kind of airless vacuum space, make it a bit more airtight. It’s deliberately architecturally sterile.

I see footwork in a similar way to how I saw jungle. It’s a sort of anti-gravity device. If you just watch footwork dancers as they go on, their limbs are trying to escape off in different directions. Like jungle, because of speed and polyrhythmic density, there’s the potential to rewire the way people move. Both are engines for upgrading human organs.

AH: Footwork as how we became posthuman.

SG: Exactly. Black music isn’t just a presentation of the streets or the soul. And while people always talk about the club, the ghetto, and the street in relation to juke… All of this is true, but it’s also doing something much more interesting, which is upgrading the human organ, which is much more serious!