Stood in the darkness, with only the occasional sighting of a silhouette or a small stream of light through the cardboard covering the windows, I found it hard to believe that I was in a room filled with people. The crowds outside of the hidden coffee shop in the South Lanes of Brighton insinuated otherwise, but the audience seemed invisible.
Within moments, the deep, crisp sound of a double bass started to glide its way through the room. After a few runs through the simple riff, a woman’s voice began singing over the top. It was soulful and raw, yet carefree. She sang with great diction, locking us into her stories of ex lovers, and questioning why they acted in such foolish ways.
The only sounds from the sea of people around me were of laughter and applause. When her songs became dark and sinister, you would be able to hear a pin drop, I could feel her sorrow in the pit of my stomach.
It was an awakening experience.
The name of the artist was Laura and The Bass. When the lights turned on at the end of her set, she was nothing like I’d expected. No stage makeup, no dazzling clothes, no fancy hairstyle, and, contrary to what I had believed through the whole set, she had played all by herself.
I listen to a lot of undiscovered music – it comes with the territory of running a new music blog – but tucked in a corner, with my eyes closed, lost in the music, I wandered how often I judge artists by appearance first. I’m a little scared to know the answer.
A few weeks later, I sat in a craft beer pub in the early evening with local musicians Alex Gruz and Joe Cherry. They are the founders of ‘Pitchblack‘, the conceptual promotions team who organised the gig that Laura had played at. Accompanied by a small team, they put on these gigs in the dark every other month, with the latest show in collaboration with indie label Killing Moon, taking place on Friday 15th May.
The idea of Pitchblack came when Alex was travelling back from Open’er in Poland, a festival that he goes to every year. “I found it really annoying that people were chatting over the bands. Then I thought: ‘What would happen if I turned off the lights? What if I heightened people’s senses?'”
Alex approached Joe with this idea, who had been wanting to put on a night for a while. “The initial idea that I had with another friend was the opposite end of the spectrum. We wanted to put on a gig similar to those found in Berlin, where bands were playing amongst a bar filled with distractions.”
“When the Pitchblack idea came along, going the other way, it was really interesting. It had to be extreme,” Joe explained.
Alex and Joe wanted the Pitchblack shows to be as original as possible. “We came up with the idea of making video invites,” Alex explains, “we wanted to only give out video invites, no facebook or anything – because we were annoyed that everything goes through facebook.”
“But we freaked because we didn’t know how many people were coming,” Joe admits, “that’s what the facebook invite gives you comfort with.”
“The video idea’s stuck with us though. Every gig comes with a video. It’s become part of our identity,” Alex explains.
“Every video is based on a philosophical idea to do with Pitchblack,” he continues. “The most recent one is based on distractions, and for the last gig we did one where we resembled the idea of being caught in a time vacuum – where you go to Pitchblack and it’s like you’re in a different time dimension.”
Why did they decide to promote a non-visual event with visual promotion? I asked them, intriguingly.
“On the internet, everything gets lost unless it’s visual. Pinterest, tumblr, facebook, every social network has a strong visual aspect. It was mostly for promotional value,” Alex replies.
“But we’ve also really loved the idea of combining different art disciplines and different sensory experiences,” he continues.
“We’ve found that there’s something really nice about embodying something you can’t see, it makes it quite abstract,” said Joe. “The videos are really provocative, we like to think it sets the tone for what’s going on in people’s heads.”
We move on to talk about the greatest challenges of organising Pitchblack. Is it mostly the health and safety issues that they inevitably face? A little, they admit, but finding the right artists to play takes up the most energy and has proven far harder than first thought.
“It needs to be chilled enough that you can sit and listen and not want to jump around, but it’s also got to be exciting enough that you want to take it in, like a good book or a really great album,” Joe explains. “There’s such little music that combines music and chill in that kind of way.”
“We’ve found that it has to be more live. We tried DJ sets but they really didn’t work. On face value, you can’t see it, so why would it be an issue that it’s not live? But the people that really thrive are the ones that play with their instruments,” Joe continues, “I think for a lot of them it’s because that’s how they write, and it’s comforting to perform in that environment.”
“There’s always a comment in the messages we get from people who want to play on how they close their eyes when they perform, some of them even record in the dark,” Alex explains.
In the two months between shows, Alex and Joe release a mixtape made up of new music by the artists who play at their gigs and the undiscovered artists that they like. These mixtapes are carefully put together to fit a certain purpose. The last playlist, for example, was for train journeys.
“We wanted to create a community of like-minded people,” Alex explains. “These days, people follow hypes, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but as a result, there’s a lot of exceptional artists who disappear in the noise because they don’t fall into the bracket of what’s currently being hyped.”
Alex and Joe took the simple idea of stripping live music back to basics, challenging the ways of the music industry, as we know it. Taking away the sense of sight heightens and empowers your ability to listen to what the artist is creating. My only wish is that more people get to experience it.
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