Accidents happen to Usurper, the Edinburgh-based performance duo of Malcy Duff and Ali Robertson. It’s like when they were asked to be featured artists at this year’s Counterflows festival of experimental music and sound, which runs at various Glasgow venues this coming weekend. The invitation to play across several events in what is now one of the major festivals of its kind in Europe came last year after they bumped into the event’s co-director Alasdair Campbell. Campbell previously ran the Le Weekend festival at the Tolbooth in Stirling, and now programmes Counterflows with Fielding Hope, late of the Glasgow-based Cry Parrot operation, and currently overseeing Café Oto in London.
“It was a bit of a funny day, actually,” says Robertson. “We were at a gig, and it was the day of the surprise general election, but the result hadn’t come in yet, and I was really really bummed out, because I thought this Tory landslide was coming. Then we bumped into Alasdair, who blurted out this invitation to be the featured artist at Counterflows, so I was totally elated, but totally stressed at this impending new age of full-on Toryism. And then it didn’t happen and I woke up with this big grin on my face.”
As he talks while sat at his living room table opposite Duff, Robertson’s face bears the scars of another accident, after he fell onto the pavement following a performance in Newcastle the previous week. While it looks painful, and necessitated a trip to A&E, it also seems to fit in with Usurper’s gonzo-like persona. Over the last fifteen years, this has seen them grow out of a fertile experimental noise scene in Edinburgh to operate in far quieter territory to their previous alliance in the band, Giant Tank.
“We were frustrated with the ways we could play,” Robertson explains. “Giant Tank was so loud, and you very quickly had nowhere else to go, so I wanted Usurper to be the other extreme, completely limited – limiting itself to free itself, I guess. Pulling away safety nets. That was a thing we both wanted to do. Trying to find a way to play where we had to genuinely experiment instead of doing things you know how to do, whereas we wanted to put ourselves in a space where we had no idea what we’re going to do.”
Duff too was looking for something less bombastic.
“I’d got very bored of music,” he says, “and wanted to do something different, and that happened with Usurper. At that first show, we just went and did what we’d talked about, but at the same time there was still things we didn’t know were going to happen. I was getting a lot of electric shocks from my guitar lead at the time, and I ended up having to wear purple rubber gloves for a period of time. It wasn’t thought out about how it would work or where it was going to go, but we had a feeling we would just try it out. There was this big thing as well of actually dismantling the instruments we’d normally play.”
This saw them strip down instruments to play the bits you’re not supposed to alongside an ever expanding table-top of marbles, springs and assorted household detritus, punctuating such a racket with bursts of idle and sometimes word-free chatter.
As Usurper played more, their performances developed into increasingly comic narrative routines. These recalled classic double acts down the ages, from Morecambe and Wise to Reeves and Mortimer, but possessed with the deadly absurdism of characters created by Samuel Beckett.
There are echoes in Usurper too of the sound poetry of the late Bob Cobbing and the vocal splurges of Phil Minton. Such a lineage can be traced all the way back to Dadaism, in which the likes of Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball developed an explosive form of sound poetry. In this way, Usurper’s act resembles a living cartoon. This undoubtedly stems from a shared love of comics – Robertson’s shelves are lined with works by Robert Crumb and such-like – while Duff is a respected comic artist, whose numerous publications offer a similarly off-kilter world-view to that presented by Usurper.
Duff and Robertson met as teenagers more than twenty years ago, bonding over a mutual love of weird music and comics. Both played separately in various local bands, before Duff briefly joined what turned out to be the final incarnation of Giant Tank. Robertson has retained the Giant Tank name for a micro-label that puts out CDrs and cassettes by themselves and others in their tight-knit circle of collaborators.
“I think our wee pool of friends that we grew up jamming with has always been really cool,” says Robertson. and I think with Counterflows we felt we wanted to go back to that a bit, but at the same time I think we were both sure that there was somebody out there who we hadn’t worked with yet.”
In Duff’s mind, “I think we were celebrating that in a way. For me, I always think that any sort of collaboration that happens is a celebration of people being together and playing together, and there’s a lot to that.”
For Counterflows, Duff and Robertson will take part in three events across different venues. The first will see them team up with Belgian fellow traveller Jelle Crama to perform together and launch a new publication at the Stand comedy club. The next day the pair will take part in a conversation at the CCA with Joyce Whitchurch, aka Susan Fitzpatrick of Usurper’s contemporaries, Acrid Lactations. Usurper’s final Counterflows appearance will see them perform as a regular duo.
“Like a lot of stuff we’ve been doing more recently, there are links with narrative, and threads going through the performance and the book,” says Duff, “and they’ve really given us free rein. It’s been kind of surprising to have no barriers to any of it.”
Usurper have previously been championed by Ilan Volkov, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conductor, who programmed the duo for his Tectonics festival, which saw the pair perform in both Glasgow and Reykjavik. They recently performed in the upstairs room of the recently re-opened Waverley Bar in Edinburgh as part of an event produced by the Collective Gallery.
“Somebody might have forgotten what he was doing that night,” says Robertson, mock-accusingly, “but it worked out fine. I think we often put ourselves in a space where nothing can go wrong. Early on we said that we wanted the whole of the music to be made from the sounds that would normally be edited out of music. The whole noise would be the incidental noises of making music, so when nothing go can go wrong, you’re always winning. We just roll with it. We like accidents. Apart from the one where I smashed my face on a Newcastle pavement. But who knows? Something great may come of it.”
After fifteen years of accidents, both halves of Usurper have numerous projects ongoing. While Duff will be performing in his solo guise of City Vegetables as well as working on his book, Robertson is collaborating with sound artist Duncan Harrison and working on a role-playing game project with fellow improviser Ash Reid. As for Usurper, “It’s hard to say,” says Robertson. “Our lives have changed, and the world has changed, but Usurper is kind of the same as it always was.”
“Part of me thinks that we’ve trundled along in a way we were always going to trundle along,” he says. “There’s been times when we’ve played more and other times we’ve played less, but it keeps going on.”
Robertson puts it more bluntly.
“Usurper is not progressive,” he says. “We’ve not got an end goal. I can’t see a point where we’ll ever split up the band. It’s not done till one of us is in the ground.”
Usurper appear at Counterflows, Glasgow, from April 5-7; in performance at The Stand Comedy Club on April 5 at 5.30pm, when a new publication with Jelle Crama will be launched; in conversation with Joyce Whitchurch at CCA on April 7 at 11.45am; in performance with Jelle Crama at Queen’s Park Bowling Club on April 8 from 6pm.