Phorward into CyberSpace
This article first appeared in Internet and Comms Today, Issue 11, September 1995. Published by Paragon Publishing Ltd.
Sean Clark, designer of "Nemeton" Web site, presents an interview with leading dance-band The Shamen and finds out what motivated one of Britain's most "wired" bands to become involved in the Internet...
One thing you can say about The Shamen is that they are not your typical 'faceless' 1990s dance-band. Formed almost ten years ago by a group of Aberdonians that included current band-member Colin Angus, they started life as a sixties-influenced guitar band - developing a dance/rock sound that can be heard on early releases such as the 1986 album "Drop" and the 'controversial' 1987 single "Christopher Mayhew Says".
Then in 1988, following a move down from Scotland to a London in the midst of "acid house" hysteria, The Shamen began their gradual transformation from guitar-band to fully-fledged dance-act, releasing the highly-charged 1989 album "In Gorbachev We Trust" and the seminal "EnTact" in 1990. This period also saw The Shamen start to explore the use of "new technology" in their live performances, with the development of a live "Synergy" show that used dazzling lighting effects, projected images, strobes, and continuous DJ music to transform the live venue in to a "virtual environment" that immersed the audience in the Shamen experience.
The ongoing refinement of the Shamen sound and live performance bore fruit in 1990 when they scored their first top 40 hit "Hyperreal". This was followed by a string of hit records, including the number 1 single "Ebeneezer Goode" and best-selling album "Boss Drum" in 1992, and then the remixed "Different Drum" album in 1993. However, as Shamen fans will have noticed, since the end of 1993 the band have been strangely quiet with no new musical output.
Still, as you'd expect, the band have been using this time to work on new material and their silence is about to be broken with the release of a blistering new single "Destination Eschaton" on August 7th. Which will be followed by a double album in September and a UK and European tour in the autumn. But apart from writing and recording new music, what else have The Shamen been up to over the past 18 months?
The Shamen Get Wired...
Well, amongst other things, they have been continuing to explore the creative potential of new technology and, in particular, have been taking a considerable interest in the Internet. At present the most visible example of this interest is their "Nemeton" Web site at http://www.drci.co.uk/drci/shamen/ which has just seen a major upgrade and will be the focus of a number of Shamen Internet activities over the next few months. But the Shamen do not just have a Web site, they are also serious Net users themselves.
At a recent encounter I asked band-member Colin Angus how long he has been using the Net, he replied "For more than a year now. I'm with Demon, who might not be the most hyper-efficient provider [we all recognise their engaged tone!], but they do allow the use of both 'Talk' and 'CUSeeMe', two of my favourite communications applications - I was 'encouraged' to subscribe by Martin Kavanagh of the VirtualiTea Room." Similarly, Charles Cosh, the Shamen's manager, is an active user. He was attracted to the Net believing, "It's the coolest and fastest way of checking out what other artists, businesses and 'wired' society has to say. From the artists' point of view it gives them the ability to communicate directly with the public, and to inform people of their philosophy or attitude to greater extent than is generally possible via the established opinionated and packaged media."
And the Shamen's exploration of the Net has already gone beyond simple 'netsurfing' and e-mail. Colin has been using it as a way of participating in live events without being physically 'present' at the venue. Last October he took part in the "Soundworks" event in Glasgow via a live audio/visual/data Internet link-up which coincided with the display of new Shamen visuals and an exclusive preview of two new Shamen tracks. More recently, in February, he joined "Feed Your Head" in Derby from his London flat via a CUSeeMe video link and interactive "chat" session.
It is, though, the Nemeton Web site that most Shamen fans on the Net will be familiar with. Running as a "trial" service since the end of last year, it has just been redesigned and relaunched to reflect the new look of the band's graphics - with 3D logos, groovy backgrounds and William Latham's computer artwork all combining to produce Web pages that aim to reflect the richness of the Shamen's music.
One goal in building Nemeton was to use the Internet to spread information about the Shamen and their interests. As Colin says, "We've always seen ourselves as an 'information' band, so it was a natural step to connect to the Internet. The development of Nemeton has given us added scope for communicating that information. Unlike many musicians' Web pages which are often seen simply as an ad for the band and their records, Nemeton includes a bibliography of shamanic literature resources, a 'form' for reading and writing to a shamanic discussion group, links to other worthwhile Web sites and a prototype 'bar' to enable people to link-up and chat on-line". And why is the site called Nemeton? Colin explains, "Nemeton is an old Celtic term meaning sacred grove or meeting place."
It's this 'meeting place' aspect of Nemeton that has seen the most development recently with the introduction of the Nemeton MOO at telnet://dougal.derby.ac.uk:7777. The MOO is the latest incarnation of the Nemeton 'bar' idea and provides a text-based discussion space where people can meet on the Net and share ideas. Earlier versions of the Nemeton Bar proved unreliable due to the conferencing software used. But it's hoped that by using standard MOO software the system will be more robust - and, of course, people can now access it via dedicated MOO software as well as their standard telnet client.
With the release of "Destination Eschaton" imminent what are the Shamen's plans for promoting their new music on the Net? Colin says, "We intend to preview the single with a special presentation on our Web site a week in advance of the actual release." Charles Cosh adds, "We are also developing some Internet only releases, to be made available around the time of the LP release."
These documents are already under development, with the Destination Eschaton 'Internet promo' taking the form of a Web page of sound samples, video clips and background material about the new single that is due to go live on August 1st prior to the single release on the 7th. The album is being accompanied by something more elaborate - an 'explorable' multimedia version of the new release that will allow people to listen to sound samples and get information about the various tracks on the record.
Nemeton Live Events
With a history of innovative live shows, such as the "Synergy" and then "Progeny" tours, it's not surprising that the Shamen are also looking at how the Net can be used to enhance their live experience. A number of ideas are being discussed, including using ISDN communication lines to feed images, sounds and other types of data from the live concert venue on to the Internet in order to allow Net users to 'experience' a Shamen gig from afar.
Clearly, if this to work for the typical Internet user then the bandwidth needed to 'view' the concert via the Net must not be to high. Hence, rather than looking to use video feeds (such as the Rolling Stones Internet video broadcast during their Voodoo Lounge tour) an approach is being investigated whereby still video cameras are used to repeatedly capture images from around the venue for inclusion in a 'dynamic' Web document of the concert - with microphones being used to sample short 'sound-bites'. Viewers will then be able to look at the current 'snapshot' of the gig or browse through earlier snapshots. This, combined with an ability for the Internet viewers to remotely influence some aspect of the performance - such as some aspects of the light show - via World Wide Web 'forms' should lead to a unique way for Shamen fans around the Internet to participate in a Shamen concert.
And the Future?
One of the biggest challenges facing any artist when presented with a new medium is to find ways of using the technology that go beyond what is available with current media. And, typically, the discovery of these new techniques often comes as the result of experimentation.
This 'experimental' approach is currently how the music industry seems to be engaging with the Internet. For example, The Stones' video broadcast, ISDN transmissions by bands including FSOL and Orbital, and the numerous band Web pages - including The Shamen's - all allude a future where the distribution and performance channels available to musicians are much more varied than those available now. It's also interesting to note, although perhaps predicable, that many of the bands most active on the Net (with the notable exceptions being the Rolling Stones and a number of heavy metal bands!) are dance and 'techno' artists who already use computer technology to generate their music.
Another important idea being experimented with is that of 'music-on-demand'. As Colin Angus says, "The Internet has the potential, now that real-time audio transfer is here, to circumvent the record companies completely, with consumers buying music direct at source from the artist on a pay as you play basis." Charles agrees but is cautious about the likely timescales of this development, "Things won't change tremendously until very high-speed modems and secure data-transfer mechanisms are available. Also, compared to cassette or CD players, there aren't that many computers installed in UK homes, and even less of these are on the Net." He sees the solution to problem of the limited - albeit growing - Internet userbase being the much-heralded "set-top box" and a reduction in telephone charges. "If someone decides to market an 'Internet computer' with 'RealAudio' at full CD-quality stereo for 200 pounds and if local call charges all but disappear then we could see a far greater impact as the computer takes over from the TV/Radio as the main Audio/Visual source in the home." As we know, this technology is coming, with everyone from BT to Apple running trials of interactive "media boxes". And when these devices reach the home one thing is for sure, the Shamen will be ready and waiting to take full advantage of them...