Digital technology and the instant archiving of the internet has only been widely used for 10 or 15 years, so maybe it is right that this is a time for experimentation, of artists feeling their way into the future.
"The misfortune of today is no more real than the happiness of the past."
Jorge Luis Borges.
Westfield Stratford City mega-retail mall, east London, December 2011. Two casually dressed businessmen are sitting in a Pinkberry parlour with their shades on. Pinkberry epitomises the light-as-a-feather consumerism that permeates today's "post-everything" world. The frozen yoghurt empire that originated out of West Hollywood in 2005 had an LA store feature as a location in the latest series of cult comedy and in-flight staple Curb Your Enthusiasm and has since opened up a shop in Dubai. You cannot get more 21st century than that.
The bright pinks and oranges of Pinkberry's branding typography feel like mind's-eye projections straight out of LA-based James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual, the album that caused such a stir upon its release last year for its bold sound that several critics insisted perfectly articulated the 21st-century experience.
It was such a big talking point due to the much-debated genre, hypnagogic pop. A 1980s psychedelic facsimile that grew out of noise music, with which Ferraro and the Skaters (his project with Spencer Clark) were associated, H-pop brought with it connotations of retrogression - a stalling of culture in which too much was being mined from the past. "I don't really know what the critics were on," Ferraro tells me in an email heavily peppered with LOL acronyms. "Most bands out there capture our world today amazingly well. They can't help it, they are a product of it and their branding and music reflects it. Before this project, I was wrapped up in trash culture from the '80s, '90s and '00s that kind of reflected different emotional, social and psychological phenomenon. Mythology reinvented as action movies. Jean-Claude Van Damme or Sylvester Stallone as a particular kind of alpha male deity teaching us our manhood and a Photoshopped Britney Spears as alpha woman. That was my swag back then."
But though it was conceived for the modern world, Far Side Virtual feels like it could have been made at any point between 1997 and 2012, featuring, as it does, influences from '90s digital culture and early computer music. "Google, Apple and all these corporations formulated their generic sonic characters in the '90s and early millennium into happy, sane, optimistic psychoacoustics to brand themselves as utopian."
At the mall, the images filtering past me - a teenager with Bieber hair that seems digitally-sculpted, a man in pristine Def Jam T-shirt worn underneath a high-end knitted cardigan - seem like walking examples of the "internet-driven society" that Ferraro has found such inspiration in. As an artist, he revels in the steroid-pumped thrust forward that characterises capitalism's last hurrah. He is thrilled by the advent of high definition. "We use HD cameras and digital audio to expose more layers of reality through film, music and all that," he explains. "You see the human form intensified, become more dynamic, giving us an acute, powerful, artificial awareness of it. Digital as the mediation of perceived forms, a new type of canvas. HD Michelangelo."
Whereas Ferraro sucks in the consumer lifestyle around him and spews it out in bright, polished patterns, brutal dance trio Factory Floor hide away in a converted industrial space in north London's Seven Sisters, absorbing the rhythms of the textiles factory next door, not far from where the London riots erupted last summer. Consumerism is alive and well here, too, albeit in a markedly different form. There are no Pinkberrys, but many discount stores, launderettes, off licences and the odd gargantuan supermarket hoovering up the locals. The internet cafes are full of customers, Skyping, playing World of Warcraft.
Like Ferraro, Factory Floor featured in many end of year lists for 2011, and teeter between being lauded by some as the future of music and others as a nostalgia act. The oscillations, arpeggiator, analogue beats and cowbell heard on last winter's DJ staple "Two Different Ways" (DFA Records) reference early '80s dance experiments - but these serve more as a starting point, before breaking out into new rhythmic terrain. Factory Floor's affiliations with Throbbing Gristle, in particular Chris and Cosey (Chris Carter deputised for Factory Floor's Dominic Butler while he was on paternity leave last year) and New Order (Stephen Morris produced their 2010 single Real Love) mean they are seen as a throwback by some.
But the band don't worship what has gone before, or long for a return to any imagined better days. "You can't ignore the past," says Butler, who joined the band soon after drummer Gabe Gurnsey started it in 2005. "It is always going to be printed on your own psyche, but there is a fear of looking forward with creative people you meet."
Nik Void, who joined in 2009, sees the current state of the music scene as a period of reflection. "The technology, being able to get everything on the internet, contrasts with the old school ways of record industries," she says. "It is in a weird place at the moment. It is like two steps forward, one step back."
Last year, the nostalgia discussion reached music criticism's top table with the publication of Simon Reynolds's Retromania, which has acted as a context for discussion ever since. More than anything, the book is a search for the same kind of future rush that Reynolds experienced in his youth via rave, the kind of mass musical advancement that doesn't appear to be on the cards any time soon.
Digital technology and the instant archiving of the internet has only been widely used for 10 or 15 years, so maybe it is right that this is a time for experimentation, of artists feeling their way into the future. "We're in a good position at the moment," says Void. "We can take what we want from these sources around us but also have a bit of education about the past and be involved in the future. We're in the middle, which is really good, but it is going to take a while to cultivate and for people to have confidence in it, I think."
Factory Floor's approach couldn't be more different to Ferraro's latest work, which is made purposely for iPhone or laptop speakers to segue back into the everyday from where it came. "There is something to be said for having an event," says Void. "Factory Floor shows are loud. They are intended to bring out something in an audience. We have a new song with a really awkward rhythm that is hard for the audience to get into. It's like an optical illusion that you look at for a long time and then it makes sense. They get into it after a while of it being drummed into them. Testing the audience is interesting, making them think a bit more and feel a bit more. You don't get that from looking at us on the internet."
Ferraro and Factory Floor make music from the hand they have been dealt, but in very different ways. Ferraro likens himself to an impressionist; he sees Far Side Virtual as his sonic still life of today's world. Factory Floor are romantics, favouring honesty, emotion and intuition. "If you are spending your life experiencing things via the media, like TV, magazines, the internet, the one thing we do when people come to see a Factory Floor show is to ensure they experience something more," says Butler. "It's visceral; it's not a YouTube clip, it's not a photograph. It is real and that is hard to do nowadays. Even in an art gallery people don't really engage as much as they should do. When you go to a show you are forced, it envelops you."
Gurnsey, Butley and Void crave escapism in their music. Gurnsey likens it to when African tribes move in unison into a trance. "You need to get really in it," he says. "And then it comes quite easy."
It's as if blood and earth pulse through the tangled rhythms that define their intense live shows. Theirs is music that is belligerent and uncompromising, blasting a way out of the torpor of modern life. "It's not been really intentional," insists Butler. "It is just what we can authentically do. That is just how we are."
Both acts have in common autonomy over their output, in part due to the terminal decline of the music industry. They're reacting to a 21st century that, on one hand, is in consumption hyperdrive, and on the other, in creative stasis. You could take a picture of a businessman buying a coffee today and compare it to ten years ago and only minor surface details will have changed. But it is not a vacuum. Cracks are appearing, and these musicians are just getting started. §