A Diet of Quiet: Surveying the Soft, Soothing and Soporific Susurrations of Sleepmist

The astonishment one feels on learning of the success of the movement takes second place only to the astonishment that this success has been achieved almost without notice from the mainstream and the underground press alike. Nation-wide weeklies like the NME [New Musical Express] haven’t condescended as yet to feature a single band even vaguely affiliated to the movement, and the fanzines that spring up like mushrooms around any spasmodic “new genre” emptying of popular music’s overclogged bowels have found little nourishment in the only truly fresh development in the field since the earliest days of rap. So far only one or two of the bands on the very fringes of the movement have received any serious attention. Yet Dwaal, who by their own admission are one of the “baby” acts in Quiet, have sold nearly 20,000 of their debut album Slow Hearts in the eight months since its release; the really big boys like Morpheus and Dark could expect to shift this amount in the first week of release of their next albums. Tickets for tours by either of the last mentioned have been known to sell out within an hour of going on sale, and rumours of an imminent ocean-hop by Murmur, the Chicago band seen by many as the kings of Quiet, had the telephones at the offices of London’s GigWise booking agency tied up solid for nearly two days.

So, how has Quiet not merely got off the ground but got well on the way to the outer reaches of the Solar System without collecting a write-up or a review worthy of the name? Why do the names of the most important bands in the movement still mean nothing to the majority of music fans? Well, for a start, Quiet — in every sense — lives up to the name bestowed on by Hank O’Dowell, Murmur’s lead guitarist. To see how this is so, it’s necessary to take a look at its history.

Until O’Dowell stepped in with a definitive label for the movement his band had helped to create, Quiet was known under many names, the most popular (and still clung to by the purists) being “haze”, a shortening of the name of the Slumberhaze record company that was formed by the Swansea group Sleepmist in early 1989 as the only means of getting their music onto vinyl. Sleepmist, who broke up in 1991, are universally recognized as the first pure Quiet group. There’s no doubt that they had roots in what went before them, with the second album of Australia’s equally short-lived Zephyr held up as a strong influence, but Sleepmist were the first to consciously aim for the Quiet sound, and the first with the technology to achieve it.

Two-thirds of the group, drummer Adrian Millhouse and lead guitarist Garry Pleckett, came together in a semi-punk group called Screwhead, which saw out several months of occasional pub’n’club gigs in mid-1986 before changing both direction and name to surface on a compilation of the Aberdeen indie label Hammerhoos as the melodic hardcore Tranq. Band members and changes of style came and went through 1987 and Tranq would probably, in Millhouse’s words, “have spluttered to a halt only a few months into 1988”. However, in the January of the new year, the line-up was boosted by the addition of Joe Vickman, a school-friend of Millhouse and Pleckett who’d actually played on the Hammerhoos track and who’d recently pulled out of an electronics degree at Bristol University, hoping to set up his own business.

Pleckett would later say: “Joe had always been interested in the progress of the band and we’d often got together and talked about what we were going to do when we were famous. Sometimes, however, we talked about how you got famous, and Joe always said you had to do something different. We tried that alright — Tranq must’ve played just about every kind of cross-over there was, thrash-reggae, acid hillbilly, glam blues, you name it. I forget what we were playing when Joe actually joined the line-up, but he didn’t like it. Goulash, he called it. Throwing bits of everything old together and hoping you got something new, which you didn’t. You just got bits of everything old.”

Vickman started to work on his own towards a new sound, and a mysterious pile of electronic equipment began to assemble in the old storeroom behind Pleckett’s father’s newsagent’s shop where the band used to meet for rehearsals. Pleckett takes up the story: “Anyway, one day me, Adrian and Jez [McDonald, the drummer] were jamming in the storeroom with some old Jam and Sex Pistols numbers and Joe came in and said he was ready to let us in on his ideas. He told us to go on playing and started fiddling with the electronic equipment he’d set up. I don’t remember much about it except there were a lot of wires and three or four really big speakers. Anyway, all of a sudden we started to lose volume on our instruments. Adrian wandered over to the amps to see what was the matter and then shouted something to me. Or at least he tried to. His mouth moved but nothing came out. By then our instruments were about as loud as wet farts, so we should have heard anything Adrian shouted. I tried to shout to him and I couldn’t hear anything. It was really weird, y’know, really weird. I mean, we weren’t deaf, coz we could still hear our instruments, but when we tried to say anything, nothing came out. But one look at Joe, who was grinning like a fucking Cheshire cat, and we realized it was something to do with the gizmos he’d been fiddling with.”

This was the first introduction of the band to anti-noise. Vickman had worked on the technology behind anti-noise during his short-lived electronics degree, and the idea of applying it to music had come to him while he been clearing out some old exam papers a month or so before. Anti-noise, basically, is what its names says: a noise that acts to cancel out another noise by being the mirror-image, as it were, of that other noise (rather like putting the negative of a black-and-white photo over that photo). Sound consists of waves, so if you can produce a peak in response to a trough, and vice versa, and match them exactly enough, you can make sound become nothing but silence, which is, after all, just a completely flat wave. If, on the other hand, the peaks and troughs of the anti-noise aren’t as high and low as those of the noise, all that happens is that the noise gets quieter.

What Vickman had done was to program his gadgetry to silence speech while only quietening the band’s instruments. The possibilities of the gadgetry became apparent very quickly. Pleckett again: “Like I said, at first it was weird, but after a coupla minutes it started to feel cool. The thing was, we could play as quiet as we liked and you could still hear it. Joe had adjusted the settings so that everything but the instruments was turned into silence. Later on we heard that Adrian’s father had been shouting for him to come and help in the shop, and he weighs about fifteen stone and played rugby for Cardiff when he was younger. You could probably have heard him for miles when he really let himself go, but we didn’t hear a thing when he was shouting from the bottom of a short flight of stairs. After a while we started to see how quiet we could go. Like I said, it was really cool.”

The group left their first session with anti-noise bubbling with ideas. One of the many musical flirtations they had had in the past had been with the soft-edge New Age music put out by Australia’s 5-ZS label. Prominent on the roster of 5-ZS had been the group Zephyr, whose explorations of a very soft, breathy-vocalled sound were, Tranq now realized, a perfect starting point for their own excursions into the realm of low decibelage. Millhouse: “We met again the day after and started jamming with some Zephyr numbers we’d picked out overnight. Joe re-adjusted the settings on the anti-noise so I could do my vocals, though with sharp cut-offs above and below a certain octave range. It was liking singing on a tight-rope, y’know. If I sung too high or too low, my voice just disappeared completely. Weird as hell, but cool as hell too, y’know. All of us had to re-adjust our ideas towards playing or whatever pretty drastically. Completely, I suppose.”

After a week of experimenting with the new sound, the band decided to devote themselves to it full-time. A name-change was in order, and Sleepmist was settled on in a band meeting at the New Victoria pub, one of whose back-rooms the band had now hired for rehearsals. Millhouse: “One of the immediate benefits — no, make that the only immediate benefit — of our new sound was that we could get somewhere to rehearse a hell of a lot easier. Adrian’s dad’s storeroom was OK, but even though we never played as loud as we wanted he still got a few complaints from customers and neighbours. When we went full-time ‘hushcore’ [as the new sound was christened by Vickman], we could rehearse anywhere we wanted, because no-one heard a fucking thing! The back-room of the pub was the most convenient for us — and I don’t mean just for the beer. The only problem was that if we had the anti-noise speakers turned up too ‘loud’, we quietened things in the pub quite a bit.”

However, though the band themselves were more than enthusiastic about their new direction, they found that none of their usual venues was prepared to let them play their hushcore. Pleckett: “It was kind of schizophrenic at the time. Here we were, really getting into something completely new, and not being able to play it to anyone. Pub owners and so on thought there was something wrong with our equipment or that we were just taking the piss, so if we wanted gigs we had to go back to being Tranq. By then, though, we couldn’t stand playing things loud. For a start you really begin to notice how it damages your hearing when you’re playing very quiet some of the time and, besides that we just found it really crude and unsubtle after Zephyr and some of the other soft-edge New Age stuff we were seriously getting into at the time. In the end we wound up wearing industrial ear-protectors when we played as Tranq. The punters thought it was a good gimmick and for a bit we started to get pretty well known in the Swansea area, which really pissed us off, because we wanted to put Tranq behind us.”

Slowly, however, Sleepmist began to find gigs in their own right, even if it occasionally meant travelling well beyond Wales to find them. The band began to build small but enthusiastic followings in Birmingham and Manchester, and found that they were gradually becoming the centre of a hushcore scene based in the Swansea and Cardiff areas, though only a couple of bands, Aeolos and Breeze, members of which were friends of one or another of the Sleepmist lineup, were able to play with the anti-noise equipment. But thoughts of getting anything down onto vinyl were frustrated by the very uniqueness of the sound they were forging. Vickman: “Although there was a lot of unofficial stuff by Sleepmist circulating — amateur gig recordings and so on — there just wasn’t any point to it, because unless you had the right equipment to reproduce it, practically everything was lost in tape hiss or just the everyday noise around the equipment playing the Sleepmist stuff. Ordinary recording equipment just wasn’t sensitive enough to capture anything properly.”

The band would later discover that bootleg recordings of their gigs had inspired bands around the world, principally in Italy and New Zealand, to invent a style of music called “hiss-core”, which is today a Quiet genre in its own right but which was originally based on the completely wrong assumption that the very low hiss and crackle on Sleepmist bootlegs was the band’s real sound. A solution to the problem of vinyl or tape reproduction of the band’s unique live sound came when Vickman was finally able to start the business he’d quit university for. JV Electronics opened for trading in mid-1990, and found immediate custom in the fringe bands of the Sleepmist-inspired hushcore scene, who’d been unable to play true hushcore without the anti-noise equipment used by Sleepmist themselves and by the couple of other bands Sleepmist were friendly with.

More importantly than this, perhaps, Vickman’s company started to manufacture home hushcore systems on which definitive recordings of the Sleepmist sound could finally be played. Based on a standard home stereo system with a built-in anti-noise facility and well above average noise-reduction, the systems began to sell briskly to fans of the hushcore scene inside and outside Wales. It was at this time that Sleepmist formed Slumberhaze, having found not a single existing label prepared to offer them a contract. Vickman: “Hushcore was too new, I suppose, and there was never any ‘buzz’ around it. I mean fans of it were real fans, but they tended to be fairly quiet people in themselves and just didn’t talk about hushcore to anyone who wasn’t also a fan. Plus, people outside the scene were just ignorant about it. They either didn’t understand it or thought it was some kind of joke. It’s going to be a long time before hushcore or haze or Quiet or whatever you want to call it is going to break through in a big way. It probably won’t be played on the radio for years because the technology just isn’t there at the moment. I mean, I’m proud of what Sleepmist did, coz anyone who knows anything about this music knows we were the first, maybe still the best, but I don’t think we’ll ever be mega famous or rich out of the music itself directly, even if we re-form. Bands like Murmur or Dark may be, though, and good luck to them.”

Sleepmist’s first LP on Slumberhaze, Sublime Anti-Noise Ecstasy, while clocking up only a couple of thousand sales in the first six months of release, was the final push Quiet needed to become a world-wide movement. JV Electronics began to export their anti-noise systems to North America and Japan in the wake of slow but steady sales there, and the first few months of 1991 found reports of burgeoning hushcore movements in Chicago, Montreal, and Tokyo drifting back to hushcore HQ in Swansea. Ironically, this success was responsible for the break-up of Sleepmist, for it soon became obvious that there was far more money to made in selling the technology behind hushcore than in playing the music itself, and the resultant conflict of interests for Vickman himself, as well as and Millhouse and Pleckett, whom Vickman had appointed as company directors, saw the band come close to disintegration several times before the final break-up in August 1991.

Pleckett: “It was getting to the stage where being in Sleepmist just wasn’t fun anymore. Joe was working practically full-time for the company and Adrian and me were finding it difficult to keep going on our own. The ideas were still coming but without Joe to get them realized we were just getting more and more frustrated. Plus, the money we were earning on the equipment side was really attractive. We’re all from pretty poor backgrounds, so having money to throw around was a new experience. It really helped my family, for a start, so in the end we called it a day. Joe’s happy with the business, and I think we always understood that that would come first, and now that I’ve started to get involved in producing, I’ve started to lose the itch to play in a band. Adrian never got used to the business side of things though, and he was in a couple of bands before forming his own. That’s Suspiration. You’ll not have heard much of them yet, but I think they’re going to be really big. And yeah, we still talk about re-forming Sleepmist, and maybe we will, but it won’t be for a long time yet. Actually, when I look at how much things have developed since we broke up, I get a bit scared, because I think there’d be a lot of pressure on us to match the innovation of those early records, and that must be getting harder and harder to do.”

The innovation of which Pleckett speaks is still gathering speed. Although the first wave of Quiet bands based their sound around traditional instruments like guitar and drums, a newer generation, particularly overseas, is readier to experiment, drawing inspiration from the many low-decibel, mostly unnoticed sounds that surround us in everyday life — things like power-line hum, creaking floors, far-off traffic, the rustle of leaves, urban bird-song, and even the sounds produced by the internal workings of the human body: the pulse, noises inside the digestive tract, creaking joints and so on. Quiet concerts are becoming more and more elaborate, with ever larger anti-noise systems blanketing audiences in an ever more intense silence in which a band’s sound can become ever quieter. More and more bands are starting to play gigs in the pitch darkness that was pioneered by Japan’s Dark as a means of sharpening the sense of hearing.

And Quiet, like many other forms of popular music, has started to develop an associated drug-culture, with many fans taking sedatives before a gig in order to minimize the interfering effects of their own breathing and heart-beat. Aurox, a drug that drastically sharpens the sense of hearing, has started to appear at many Quiet venues, and there are increasing reports of the serious side-effects linked, it is claimed, with prolonged use of this drug.

Quiet has even been blamed for causing psychological damage amongst its fans, with the very peaceful, withdrawn period undertaken by many of them before a gig in order to calm themselves and prepare their ears starting to evolve into a definite life-style that, certain anti-Quiet groups are beginning to claim, can trigger latent socio-neurotic tendencies and lead to varying degrees of withdrawal from reality. The fact that by the end of a Quiet concert anything up to 40% of the audience can be deeply asleep has also raised questions of safety in the event of a fire, and several American states have passed legislation requiring that a powerful whistle or siren be sounded at fifteen-minute intervals during a concert in order to ensure that all members of the audience are more or less conscious in the event of an emergency. Claiming, rightly in the view of most Quiet fans, that this legislation is an indirect attack on the very basis of Quiet, the Louisiana band Slowlung, supported by an international coalition of Quiet bands and their supporters, are preparing a challenge to the legislation in the American supreme court, and there is (ahem) quiet confidence not only that it will be overturned but that publicity from the case will finally bring the Quiet movement to the attention of a wider audience, both in the States and abroad.

Until then, Quiet will continue slowly but steadily increasing its claims to be regarded as a genuinely fresh innovation in a field of popular culture that seemed to have explored all avenues of expression. The new century beckons, and Quiet seems destined to claim the first decade for its own.

Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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