“This is a real dogging hotspot,” says Austin, lead singer of group Snapped Ankles, as he walks me through the woods. We’ve gone past a car park and deep into Epping Forest, an ancient woodland where London bleeds into Essex. You can just about make out the remains of some police crime scene pushed into the sticky mud and a single upturned plastic chair sits incongruously underneath a tree. Clearly, some weird shit happens in these woods.
“I think I hear something,” he says and begins to ring the bell on his bike as though to call out specifically for someone to hear it. Perhaps he is signalling that the ritual sacrifice can begin or to start the sharpening of knives, because for all I know I could be being walked out into a trap by some bloke I met only five minutes ago who seems to know these woods a little too well. But instead of a sacrifice or an ambush, in return a woozy series of electronic bleeps and the gentle thud of tribal drums float over, like some sort of twisted mating call. And then, behind two tree branches, two people in ghillie suits emerge. Meet: the rest of Snapped Ankles.
The group are dressed up and in the woods today to film some footage for an upcoming video, but when not dressed like walking bushes they’ve been following a slightly more conventional trajectory. Having been around a few years now – debut EP, True Ecology (Shit Everywhere), came out in 2012 – they started off playing various London warehouse parties and running their own events. Those would include a mix of film, live music and performance art, while the band itself built a groove-based sound inspired by Krautrock and post-punk bands.
The core trio of the group insist on being referred to by their surnames (in print) of Austin (vocals, guitar) Chestnutt (keyboards) and Zampirolo (drums) plus there is a mystery bass player called March, who is absent today. As Austin, currently in full cycling gear, goes off to suit up himself in the shaggy, leafy camouflage getup, Chestnutt and Zampirolo continue to play music after a quick hello. They surround a snare drum around which upright giant logs are attached to microphone stands. With every drum stick thwack of the log a chaotic scramble of electronics spits back out. They’ve essentially strapped a mini synth to a log so that when you hit it and twist all the dials it sounds like a mini rave kicking off. The whole thing feels pretty strange and even more so when you make eye contact with a passing member of the public through the trees and every single one of their faces screams, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ like we’re in some sort of LARP event for synth nerds.
“You know that band Factory Floor?” Austin says, returning in his foliage gear. “We thought we’d do something from the forest floor.” In fact creating these synth logs gave birth to the band in the first place. “First came the instruments and then came the performance,” Austin continues, “then this idea of creating a forest of sound.”
The trio then begin to lock into a rhythm as they play their logs with drum sticks. Under the droplets of rain that hit us through the large canopy of trees, they make music that feels both rhythmic and discordant, ramping up both the volume the weird factor as dog walkers look on in bewilderment. There’s little in the way of sonic cohesion that comes from these sounds but that’s kinda the point. “We like quite busy music or at least we can't help but make busy music,” Austin says as they put down the drum sticks to chat. “It's always busy even if we try to do minimal. We like the clatter of the organic.”
This clatter of the organic, whatever that means, soon caught the ears of the Leaf Label who released their The Best Light Is The Last Light EP in June before putting out their debut album, Come Play The Trees, at the end of September this year. The album is not some whimsical folk record born from hippy forest people but instead embraces the chaos of human-driven electronics, hyper rhythms, live dance music, itchy guitars and an industrial tone that all results in some sort of Devo meets Can meets Thee Oh Sees blend. Combining the head-down thunder of electronic beats, the immersive hypnotics of psychedelic grooves and the manic rhythms of post-punk, Snapped Ankles merge styles and sounds to create something that feels fresh – something that manages to be weird but accessible.
Where Kraftwerk once sought to remove the human element from electronic music by introducing robots to replace the role of people in the group, Snapped Ankles seem to want to reverse that role. They wish to bring back a personal touch to electronic music; to embrace the wonky, chaotic, messy and unpredictable. Zampirolo dubs it “Something that is sloppy and unstable and unreliable,” which Austin echoes. “A part of Snapped Ankles is exploring the human part of, say, techno,” he says. “It’s about getting off the clock and involving the human hands. We like the human element of rhythms. ”
Music aside though, I’m still staring at three men who spend a lot of their time hanging out in the woods, dressed like yeti snipers. So, why the ghillie suits? “We were looking into pagan history and the idea of the man from the forest who brought with him this fear of the forest and fear of nature. We were thinking about how that could correlate to a rock ‘n’ roll band where it's like we want to be fun but also offer up a mild threat,” Austin says, hopefully with a tongue firmly in cheek. Threatening? This band most certainly are not. Fun? Sure.
Another big part of dressing up, rather more simply, is the freedom it gives them. Whether you buy the pagan story or not, they truly come alive when bouncing around with unrestrained gusto onstage. The costumes mean “not being ourselves, so we feel more liberated”, Chestnutt says. “You're not just in jeans and a T-shirt playing a keyboard thinking, 'Oh, what shall I do with my face?' Which is always the keyboard player's greatest fear.” Austin then adds: “It creates the true notion of a group too – a troupe. It makes us a unit.”
There is, of course, a fine line between interesting concept and lame gimmick. “That's the nightmare,” Zampirolo says of potentially stepping on the wrong side of that line. Austin then adds, “You have to be careful with dressing up because you could be the Blue Man Group before you know it.”
When watching the band play live, the novelty of logs being played as instruments and the spectacle of their outfits soon subsides fairly quickly. They don’t perform and present themselves with the same degree of commitment, extremes or cultural appropriation of a group like, say, Goat. “People are realising when we play shows that it's like, 'Oh, you're not just the Wombles',” Austin offers. “The audience are into the songs and not just seeing the Super Furry Animals. They are seeing us and enjoying it for that alone – not worrying that we're wearing sniper suits that you can buy for £30 from an army camo shop.”
I am, however, slightly worried about how much it’s pissing it down. It seems even people who are this much at one with the forest can only handle so much rain and after we’re all close to sodden, we retreat into a nearby cafe. Any mystery surrounding the band soon evaporates when you see them all changing under the cover of a boot in a rainy car park like Sunday league footballers.
Over coffee and cake, and free from the ghillie suits, the band explain that all they are really doing beyond the image and the concept and looking for music in the sound of forests, is simply trying to do something a little different – like their heroes, Throbbing Gristle. “They got rid of drums because everyone else had drums,” Austin says. “If we write a song using just the logs then you can’t do things like chord changes so the rules are being completely altered and you have to figure out what to do. You have a new palate to work with. We like the possibilities that such limitations can offer.” That may be the first and last time you see playing logs referred to as a limitation, so drink it in. So, as the year wraps up, if you’re looking to hop off Soundcloud and into the eerie forest then you may want to check out these guys who dress like hedges, play logs and take you to dogging hotspots in the middle of the day in the pouring rain.
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