The free festival DJ talks raving on the hoof in this latest edition of Eleanor Bickers’ Biodegradable Soundsystem series.
It’s been over thirty years since the second ‘Summer of Love’, the inauguration of a youth culture movement grounded in egoless, ecstasy-fueled unity that still remains an unequivocally unique phenomenon in countercultural history. This extraordinary period captures the minds of cross-pollinated generations, a subcultural martyr of archival material that interests as broad a spectrum of individuals as it did bring the party people that created it.
As the acid house and rave scene splintered into subterranean micro-pockets, one particular free party crew stood out beyond the masses, notably for their commitment to keep the party going. “Make some fucking noise” and “rush your fucking bollocks off”, a sample from an early track “Do et” (apparently a slang term for a concoction of speed, ketamine and LSD) were their mantras according to esteemed music journalist Simon Reynolds. So much so, that he dedicated an entire chapter from Energy Flash to them. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about Spiral Tribe. The collective is perhaps most widely known for their ‘verdict not guilty’ trial of the dancefloor devastating Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that was passed in 1994, following the largest rave in British history: Castlemorton Common Festival 1992. Yet they are most loved for their endless ‘Teknivals’, squat raves and dedication to life outside the system. Spiral Tribe embodied the second wave of New Age travellers, picking up voyagers and ravers along the way who were disenfranchised with mainstream society and craved a fresh perspective. Attracting large convoys every weekend via their Deleuzian hardcore sound, they transported party goers to a neurobiotical hypnotic state via pulverising soundwaves and a magnetic interdependence with Mother Earth.
The following interview traces the steps of DJ, producer and long-standing Spiral member Ixy, aka Ixindamix. Having left home in the west country at seventeen to join a cavalry of horse-drawn travellers, her path spent foraging for work was intersected by an abundance of free parties taking place up and down the country. A ghetto blaster at Cissbury Rings was all that was required to propel a hedonistic lifestyle that most only read and dream about. Ixy responded to my questions from her studio in Berlin, where she now resides with her kids and continues to spread the Spiral energy. Rave on!
Eleanor Bickers: Spiral Tribe embodied travelling and partying at its core. Which of these aspects came first for you growing up?
Ixy: I was a traveller before I became a raver. You have to understand that techno parties and electronic dance music as such did not exist at the time I left home to go on the road, although I had been a keen attendee of free festivals as they were called. These were mostly organised by travellers where the travelling community and others would come together to party to bands like Hawkwind, Culture Shock and the Rhythmites. Anyway, growing up in the west country these were the ones I remember. Festivals such as the annual Avon free festival which I first attended in 1988 at Wick Quarry and later became Castlemorton, morphed into the first free festivals where electronic music was played, side by side with the live music stages such as Wango Riley’s.
I was part of what may have been seen as the second wave of New Age travellers, a rush of young people who, disillusioned by life and influenced by BBC news reports of the peace convoy after the Battle of the Beanfield, flocked to try and join up with the travellers. I left home at seventeen to join up with a group of horse-drawn travellers and before I met Spiral Tribe, spent my first three years on the road walking round England looking for grass, farm work and free festivals.
EB: How did you come to meet the originators of Spiral Tribe and what were your earliest experiences of it developing? What did it mean to be a Spiral?
I: It was May ’91 and following the Avon free festival which was held on Chipping Sodbury common that year, after a heavy weekend with sounds courtesy of Circus Warp and the Free Party People, we headed our horses towards Wookey Hole with the intention of earning some money picking strawberries. Thankfully, no work was forthcoming and after a few days we came to our senses and realised that there was a summer of festivalising ahead of us. We turned east with the eventual goal of picking apples in Kent in autumn, and as if by magic, or at very least the power of the vibe, free parties seemed to keep cropping up in our path to the extent that wewere dubbed “the horsedrawn hardcore, who travel to raves by horse and cart” by i-D magazine.
This was the summer I met Spiral Tribe, and from the first time we encountered their rig at a small festival at Stoney Cross where they were the only sound system on site, to becoming a crucial part of finding sites for raves and following them nearly all the way back to London in order to keep on attending their raves over the winter to come, I was hooked. It was on the way to Cissbury Rings that Debbie and Simone stopped off at our roadside camp. Impressed by my enormous truck battery that was wired up to a ghetto blaster pumping out the latest rave tracks I had recorded off the radio, Debbie invited me up to their squat in London to have a go on their decks.
EB: Am I correct in thinking you were the only female musician in the Sound System?
I: No, there were a few female DJs in the crew, most notably Sanchia and Tamsin. Although the core crew did change over the years, there was always a strong female element in all sides of the operation. No one really had DJ names back then, we were simply the spiral tribe DJs, in fact everyone was encouraged to have a set of records as our philosophy of keeping the party going for as long as possible meant that everyone eventually got a turn, and as the parties emptied the less proficient DJs would get a chance to spin.
EB: How did you develop the alias Ixindamix . . . perhaps there is a story behind it?
I: It was only several years later when the Tribe was no longer together that we were forced to find DJ names. Ixindamix was what I had been called by Sanchia who used to call out “Ixindamix, Ixindamix” in a jokey way mimicking the many MCs who would be queueing up to try and get on the mic in England. It became necessary to have a DJ name in order to continue to be a part of the scene and it seemed an obvious, if not the only choice. It was hard to come to terms with the commercial world after having been so proud to have just been a nameless part of the “Spiral Sound”.
EB: Can you explain what drew you towards the music side of things, becoming an active participant in developing your own and the tribe’s sound?
I: The original idea, as I mentioned previously, was all due to the ghetto blaster spotted hanging in the doorway of my horse-drawn wagon, and after that first visit up to the London squat (The Greenhouse) to try the decks, the idea of being a DJ was firmly fixed in my head as if my fate had been decided and I had no further choice in the matter. On my 20th birthday there was a Spiral party at Tubney Woods in Oxfordshire. My present from the tribe was to be allowed to play on the decks at a sort of after party when most of the ravers had gone home, although by this point there was only one deck left so I had to mix into a tape deck which made me sound rather better than I was! At the party, much to the annoyance of the DJs, I’d been running up to the decks and writing down the names of the tunes I wanted every time I heard one, and birthday money had been collected from contented ravers persuaded that it was a good cause. After the weekend we went up to London and Tim took me on a tour of the record shops on his motorbike where I bought my first tunes. It was not until a few years later that I had the opportunity to use the Spiral Studio and start to develop my own sound.
EB: What was the first gig, mixtape or track you did for Spiral Tribe? That tape before the ’94 Mutoid Waste New Year party in Berlin springs to mind. What was the usual reaction from the crowd when you played? To me the sound seems fierce but introspective.
I: As I started to DJ and collect my own records, I was desperate to practice. Still living on the road between the horse-drawn travellers and Spiral Tribe, I was constantly on the blag for time on the Technics. I remember one time turning up on site in London and the Tribe starting the ‘genny’, putting the decks on and all going to bed leaving me there all night on my own spinning away . . . using the 3 second sampler on the vestax to sample “Insomniak – I must Sleep by DJ PC” and playing it back over and over again.
People would often ask me for mixtapes and I would happily churn them out, but my friends were not impressed, the mixing was terrible! Eventually I worked out that a proficient back to backing of good tunes was much preferable to bad mixing and reached a level where I would be allowed to play at the Spiral raves; at first in the day when less people were there, and graduating to better sets as I went along. My first proficient tape that I was very proud of was lost after Torpedo Town ’92, where the sound system had been run only from tape decks and all DJs were asked to submit tapes. When I went to get my prize mixtape back on Monday morning I was informed that it had already been returned to the Tribe, but later on realised that they’d returned the other DJs tapes and mine was not there. Several years later I visited a squat in New Cross [South East London] and heard the tape playing but was too shy to ask for or about it and a part of me always regrets that.
The SP23X tape that you mentioned was recorded in the Spiral bus before Blast Off ’94 and is probably the most famous. It was particularly memorable to me as I’d given birth to my son only a week before and this had been the only time I’d really got out of bed in between the birth and the big new year party a week later that I was saving my strength for.
EB: You were some of the originators of this rougher and tougher techno that was branded as ‘tekno’, repurposing breakbeat and acid. How did you evolve the slower tempos to suit this new style that typically operated at 160 bpm? I read somewhere that some of the crew began by playing acid house records at 45 rpm?
I: The music evolved with the travelling. When we reached Berlin for the first time in ’92 we were converted to techno preliminarily by a Dutch DJ who came to play on our rig at the Charité site where we were parked with Mutoid Waste. We had arrived in Berlin full of enthusiasm, setting the sound up every weekend on the site but the contrast from the UK was immense. We’d come from a scene where hundreds of cars packed full of ravers would follow us pretty much the length and breadth of the UK to party with us, to a scene where nobody really cared. There were very few DJs with the original crew that left Britain after Castlemorton, which meant we played long hours to few people. At the start it was my dream but with a lack of new tunes it got boring fairly quickly. So when Circus Warp proposed a DJ to us, we jumped at it, dropped some pills and raved on. The sound which was then called ‘techno trance’ influenced us massively and after the weekend we went to the record shops to look for our own techno tunes.
Over the next few years the sound got gradually harder especially when we reached Austria where they liked it banging, although certain members of the crew, notably Simon and Kaos did play house tracks on 45 [rpm] which became a bit of a thing. It really evolved in the live sets where putting the kick drum high up in the mix and using distortion we created our own harder sounds, still using breakbeats but layering them over the harder kicks and speeding up the tempo. I guess this sound developed partially as a soundtrack to our lifestyle on the road which could be very hardcore.
EB: The Castlemorton Common free festival of 1992 was a turning point in the British justice system and is perceived as the rave that changed the law. It has been documented that the Spiral Tribe Sound System was the last one standing at Castlemorton. Can you break down whether this was a political message and if so, why were politics such an integral part of your collective?
I: We were the last sound system running at Castlemorton and that was our philosophy, to keep the music going as long as possible. But we weren’t the first there, and despite being blamed by everyone for organising it and bringing it on top for the scene, originally we were not even going to attend and had headed to Wales with the convoy to chill out, take mushrooms and get away to have a break from the relentless party organising. I can’t speak for the rest of the crew but I for one was not at all motivated by politics, I was in it for the party and the music and searching for a different more meaningful way of life than the ones promoted at school.
EB: I think it would be interesting to talk about the development of free parties to sound system culture that developed as “illegal” raves, the former being run by the travellers and the latter being run by the ravers. As a travelling community, you promoted the message “leave no trace” which suggests that you had a socio environmental conscience when it came to hosting parties. Was there a turning point where this became more difficult?
I: We always cleaned up after events and of course as the parties became bigger this became more difficult. At some point you could say that the scene had become a victim of its own success, with clearing up after some of the biggest teknivals becoming almost impossible.
EB: Do you think we are seeing history repeat itself with the rising number of illegal raves taking place during the pandemic lockdown? Recently there have been parties branded on social media as ‘teknivals’ in France, where a supposed 10,000 ravers showed up at Cévennes national park. What similarities and differences can you identify here?
I: Whether you agree or disagree, the rise of illegal raves due to the stopping of legal parties and clubs is inevitable – people need to party and they will – dancing is something that has been part of the human race since time began and is a natural and necessary instinct that cannot be stopped.
EB: As far as I am aware, the term ‘teknival’ was invented by the free party travellers. Can you explain the difference between a free party and a teknival?
I: The word Teknival was created by my friend Debbie for the first Teknival at Beauvais in Paris. The idea of Teknival was to mimic the free festivals in England where Spiral Tribe had held their first outdoor raves. Although a lot of people loved us not everybody appreciated our policy of keeping the music going for as long and loud as possible and there had been some tension between travellers and ravers. Our idea of a Teknival was that was exactly what was supposed to happen, that was its purpose. We invited other sound systems to take part and our idea was to create a techno version of the free festivals we’d so loved in the UK. At the first one near Beauvais we invited French sound systems: Invaders and Techno Tanz. It was a year later that we put on the first Czech Tek, then called Hostomice free festival after the village near which it was held, and coined the expression “invitation to all underground sound systems, artists and performers” which was later printed on all Teknival flyers. Our new year parties were also massive and became a meeting point for newly formed Tribes as we gradually spread our European network.
EB: Once you moved on as a sound system to France and other parts of Europe, this sparked new developments, like the inauguration of Network 23 in ’94 as well as your own label Audiotrix in ’99. Can you tell me more about your involvement with live improvisation that led to this ‘tribal tekno’, almost psychedelic hardcore style.
I: Our music was made with the latest technology and the record deal we made with Big Life in ’92 had allowed us to obtain the most cutting edge studio of the time that we installed into an old circus ‘showmans’ trailer and with which we travelled around Europe. It was in this studio that all of the early Network 23 music was composed. I was originally encouraged into the studio and taught how to use the machines by Seb and Simon (69db and Crystal Distortion) to combat the woes of pregnancy on the road, and in turn when I had gained sufficient knowledge, I was expected to pass it on to other members of the tribe. One of the methods Simon insisted on was that I had to do everything myself, even to the point that in one of my first lessons I had to completely unplug the studio and plug it back in again. Later, when frustrated by recording live mixes, I’d ask him to help or do it for me and he’d point blank refuse to get involved. This in fact did me a great favour as not only did I understand how everything worked but came to create an individual sound that was 100% my own.
Seb and Simon were the pioneers of this style of live improvised techno and had developed a method of playing live using the machines to improvise. In each instrument, parts were pre-programmed but were put together in a completely random way: effects would add further variation. In order for this to work musically, the emphasis was on frequency modulation rather than melody so sounds worked together without using musical keys. Although later on my personal sound would develop in a more melodic way. The tracks of the time were jammed live by muting and unmuting the buttons on our large Allen and Heath mixing desk. We would record several versions onto DAT tape and then choose the best, it could be frustrating to get it right and is the reason a lot of the early Network 23 tracks tend to be long and hypnotic.
EB: How did your music and your machines interact with your surroundings?
I: At the parties we enjoyed creating a fusion of nature and technology by, whenever possible, in summer placing the sound system in idyllic situations and playing our music for as long as possible. In winter we’d retreat to warehouses and the vibe was much more industrial.
EB: Most of your time as a Spiral was spent travelling throughout Europe. Which parties stood out for you in particular and why?
I: One of the favourite times in my life was the first time we visited Paris. Not long out of England we were a small tight crew and we arrived at just the right moment, with an abundance of empty warehouses and an open minded public the parties snowballed, getting better and better each week. It’s also where I really became good at mixing as from necessity I quickly ended up playing at peak time to big crowds. I’d stay on the decks until the bitter end, honing my skills until my hands were freezing! The parties were great and we always slightly regretted our decision (mostly weather based) to move on to Spain and not stay and finish what we started that winter (’92/’93). There were also great record shops!
Another of my favourite parties was the second one we did in Vienna in a warehouse that we later learnt belonged to the bank of Austria. It was one of the first times I’d partied without my baby son since his birth (he’d stayed behind in Prague with his dad). The large warehouse was right next to the Danube and we swam in the day and went fishing with a bottle of vodka later in the afternoon. The Austrians were flabbergasted by this group of black-clad skin-headed ravers who had seemed to just appear out of nowhere. I seemed to be the only person left awake when the police turned up in the late afternoon and a record was turning around on its own seemingly abandoned by the DJ. I ran around the site manically waking everyone up shouting “we have to go” and we spirited the sound away that evening before the police returned.
EB: Was it easier to balance partying and politics than in the UK?
I: I was never particularly politically motivated but what we did in Europe was completely new. We were the first traveling techno sound system to arrive in each country that we visited and this helped give rise to underground scenes as we went along. Sometimes it was hard and we’d often play to just a handful of people but more than often the next time we returned to that country the scene had been kick started, firstly with more people and later with groups of kids starting their own systems and becoming DJs. One of my main motivations for leaving the UK was to keep the party going; rather than confronting the situation that had become complicated, it seemed to make sense to just take the party elsewhere.
EB: There is quite a lot of documentation about Spiral Tribe over the decades, from Simon Reynolds’ chapter in Energy Flash all the way to Seana Gavin’s recent book Spiralled. A lot of the recent magazine publications surrounding the rave revival has almost romanticised the free rave movement. Do you think this is a true representation of the time?
I: It was a special time. In history when a new style of music is born it creates a distinct era and powers that generations’ youth movement. The birth of rave music was no exception; mix this together with the exceptional quality of the ecstasy and it brought about an unique moment in time where the music really did overcome barriers and connect people from all walks of life. Nothing lasts forever and part of the reason things did take a darker turn, I believe, is because the government was scared of the unity achieved between people from all backgrounds at events such as Castlemorton. Literally everyone was getting on and having a good time.
The years with Spiral Tribe, although hard, were some of the best of my life. I’ll always be grateful to have been a part of it and to have been a young person during those momentous times.
EB: Fast forward to today, you reside in Berlin, perhaps with some of the other Spiral crew? Can I ask why you ended life on the road?
I: Life on the road ended for me a fair few years ago when it became too much living in our Scania truck with two kids, a dog and a recording studio. My dream had always been to continue travelling around the world self-educating my children and taking my music and the party further but the reality was very different. Teaching your kids yourself is, I would say, a full time job and one requiring total dedication. It was in the year 2000 that we finally stopped travelling and with a heavy heart settled in France and found a school for the kids.
EB: You mentioned you took some time away from gigging this year to focus on your new album, The Underground Tree. Has it been refreshing to step away from the continuity of partying that has made up almost thirty years of your life?
I: It was somehow ironic that I decided to take a three month break from gigging just before the pandemic would force a much longer one. At first the break was refreshing but after a while I came to miss the two things that have pretty much been my motivation during the last thirty years: travelling and music. Now with still no signs of a gig on the horizon I am making the most of more studio time and working on my record label/shop. One of the side effects of such intense gigging over such a long period of time is losing the basic want or need to party, a feeling that was fundamental in most of my early life-making decisions, and one that lessens naturally with age. I’m hoping that this forced extended break from what has been my life mission (to make people dance) will rekindle in part my enthusiasm for going out raving!
EB: You co-run the event space The Racket Stack in Berlin. In an increasingly gentrified city, how has the event space developed and what does it strive to showcase? Are there any other projects you run?
I: The Racket Stack is already at its second location due to gentrification and at the time of writing it looks like we’ll have to move again in April . The constant uncertainty makes it increasingly hard to put energy into the project.
My dad is a historian and I have inherited a sense of duty in accurately preserving stories from the past. A few years ago we went about digitising the Spiral archives (press, flyers, photos) which were largely stored in a rusting metal trunk, in order to create an exhibition. One of the original reasons we created the Racket Stack was to display this and I’m hoping to be able to do this before we are moved on again as it seems so many people are interested.
EB: In our current climate, the dance music industry is experiencing perhaps the biggest crisis in history. What do you hope for the future of the scene?
I: I will be fifty next year and apart from as a performer and producer I do not expect to be a big part of the evolution of our scene. I do believe that the energy and creativity needed to be at the forefront of our movement is the territory of the young, who I’m sure will have the imagination and inventiveness needed to spiral it onward on its journey.
All images provided with the artist’s permission.
Listen to the sixth episode of Biodegradable Soundsystem here:
Eleanor Bickers is an electronic music enthusiast and writer based in London. She runs the Biodegradable Soundsystem series on Threads Radio, exploring the symbiosis of written, verbal, and sonic communication. In her spare time she often finds herself DJing, raving, and imagining alternate realities. You can find her on Instagram: @lnr_dj