Alex Johnston, are sitting side by side as we FaceTime, half of each of their faces filling my screen, framed by thick, green leaves. ‘The word naked can be very bodily,’ Agnes explains, ‘but also very perverse because of our society generating meaning about the word.’ Perceptions that get played with and warped is a theme that filters throughout their work. Things appear conflicted or distorted from how we think they should be. Having just readied their debut LP, Zone, out on Glasgow label LuckyMe, you hear how these ideas get auralised through a process of heavy distortion. It’s raw and primitive, even brutal at times, but still has elements that are very human and soft.
It’s their live performances where these ideas really start to make an impact; ephemeral shows where taste and smell are equally important as sound and sight. ‘We wanted to create a world,’ Alex reveals, ‘so when you come to the show, it’s a fully engaging experience.’ Vicious lighting, taste augmenting pills, dense smoke machines that give the illusion of isolating you from the crowd. On the one hand it’s an incredibly personal experience – you’re alone with your own thoughts – yet there’s this collectivity of all being there together – sort of like a cult.
…if you don’t keep informed, you kind of get kicked out the game.
Thinking about how society is creating us, where it’s trying to push us, makes the pair realise that now is the right time to bring back, not only collective experiences like this, but also experiences which are particularly unique to the situation you’re in. An experience that you have to be part of and ones which you can’t share by digital means. Although, exploring the effects of technology has come with the often-misunderstood notion that they’re anti-technology, ‘which is not true, I love it,’ Alex assures me. ‘But, on the other side of things – the part that we are interested in – is the anxiety that comes with it. The fact that I can see all these people doing certain things, and feeling I should be a certain way.’
‘I think that was our main thing,’ continues Agnes, ‘that there’s almost this constant fear, a feeling of being over connected, and if you’re not – if you’re not part of the network – and you want to achieve something nowadays, or be someone, or say something, well, you have to use these platforms. At the same time if you don’t keep informed, you kind of get kicked out the game.’
Technology is a big part of their lives, and it’s relied on heavily for their sound, especially with the distortion you hear on the new album. ‘It’s almost like a digital distortion, so it’s like a digital distortion of reality – of the way that we saw it.’ You see this in their social media presence – if you’ve already seen their Instagram you’ll know the characteristic hyperaware photos of photos on phones. ‘It’s quite interesting to see it from the point of how information gets transmitted, and what knowledge is: like knowledge doesn’t really exist anymore, it’s more a chain of opinions from one person to another. I feel like, especially with our Instagram, it’s really looking at our connection to the technology. It’s become almost like a ritual, you know, like a repetitive movement which becomes a part of our nature in this animalistic sense. Which it’s not at all, because we don’t have to do it; but it’s interesting to think about how our bodies change and evolve, and will change and evolve over time.’
…you don’t really know what to choose from and people can get really anxious feeling that they have to be a part of it.
‘It’s like shouting online,’ laughs Alex when I ask about their Twitter. They’ve reduced it to only function as a promotional tool. They don’t take part in its wider social conversation. They choose not to: ‘There’s no need’. They recognise the value of its immediacy and connectedness though, the way it becomes a way of putting your work out there, your art, your music, without having to be in a ridiculously privileged position: ‘It’s an amazing thing,’ Agnes admits. ‘I guess there’s two sides of the internet, everything being really interconnected, so overwhelming, so much information that you don’t really know what to choose from and people can get really anxious feeling that they have to be a part of it.’
Thinking about this anxiety, and especially the sound of it, is one of the things the pair were considering when writing Zone. Taking off from the work of French Philosopher, Paul Virilio, Agnes talks with ease about the ways in which traditional values become replaced in a commercialised world; how a lot of values like the church, family and social unions – communities which offered protection and comfort – have been replaced with an isolation and a fear that’s lead us to purchasing protection – seat belts, vitamins, insurance. Our everyday landscape is seized by a constant fear that we are attempting to navigate and manage. It’s something they try and explore more in their performances. They used the smell of a church in one of their shows as a one-off; ‘but mainly we use the smell of a new car,’ they tell me. ‘It seems to be quite a comfort; a car is a sense of safety, but also… you can die soon.’ They also tried out the smell of antiseptic in earlier days – ‘a much more romantic period,’ they say, a period that was slightly more hopeful and healing.
That’s the positive element then, isn’t it? That someone might find something in our rubbish, in our trash.
Another thing that Alex in particular has been thinking about recently, is how a lot of the music today feels utopian or escapist, but isn’t necessarily enjoyable. ‘Noise and distortion: it’s meant to be unwanted – unpleasant – but I just see it as realistic. I think noise is a pretty good marker of how I feel these days. It just didn’t feel right in my gut to make something else, I didn’t feel it was me.’ Instead, he hoped that, in putting this representation of himself forward, they’d be people who would relate: ‘That’s the positive element then, isn’t it?’ he adds, semi laughing, ‘that someone might find something in our rubbish, in our trash.’