by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

In November 2021, as Glasgow swirled with police, delegates and protesters during the COP26 conference, one sound art gallery was hosting a unique performance. There, Norwich band The Neutrinos performed Darkroom, their lockdown-inspired, one-audience member soundscape show which takes place – as the name suggests – entirely in darkness. I caught up with vocalist Karen Reilly about the show, the band’s partner project Klanghaus and their dream Darkroom performance venue.

How did the Darkroom project come about? How did you end up taking the show to COP26?

We developed Darkroom in Norwich [during] lockdown – we were like, okay, we’ll perform to one person at a time! We performed it at my house. We played around with the darkness and it seemed to work quite well – I had quite a lot of control and time to figure it out. We were packing in three shows an hour with breaks in between to make sure it was all COVID safe. 

We realised the show was very powerful. We’d been trying to work out how to get to COP26, what show we would do, what form it would take. So we played [Darkroom] for 30 individual climate scientists at the Tyndall Centre in Norwich. They said, ‘you’ve got to take this to COP’. So we did. We didn’t know we could go until about 10 days before. We just kept asking different people [when finding a venue]. 

How exactly does the show work? Did you have feedback from the Glasgow audience members? 

[Audience members] booked a slot. Mark (guitarist) was on the door checking to see if there were any potential triggers from their past, how they were, if they were anxious. It’s quite a skill to check in quickly that way. He’d do an introduction [to tell them]: ‘you’re gonna be safe, but it might be weird’. (Laughs

There’s a safety light, which they can put on if they feel anxious. Mark sits them down in a very comfortable chair, the lights go off and the soundscape starts, lasts about 12 minutes but people feel they’ve only been there a couple of minutes. It gets really loud quite quickly. 

We sat down with [the audience members] afterwards. Some people said they felt completely consumed and enveloped by it. [The show brought up] memories they hadn’t thought about for a long time. Your nervous system gets set off. Many said it was really frightening, but they knew they were safe and would stick with it. Nobody put the light on! It’s happened before. (Laughs

The guy from the garage next door came in and had no words – he just grinned. Many of the delegates said, thank you for taking me from my head into my body. They all said they’d never seen anything like it.

Was the audience mostly delegates, then – or activists? 

It was a mix – delegates, artists, students, people who were just curious – a whole age range. We did go over to COP. One of the climate scientists from Tyndall was on his bike giving out flyers – he knew quite a few delegates. On the Saturday, the day after COP, we got [more] delegates, and they all had the same type of tangible exhaustion.

How do you think the darkness and restricted audience shaped Darkroom? 

As an artist, when you’ve got an endless palette, it makes you go, ‘I don’t know what to do’. But I think when you have restrictions, it can make you even more creative. 

I think it’s part of our charm really, that we can look after people and take them on a journey through lots of different types of feelings.

Because [Darkroom] is in complete darkness, you make up all the images yourself. It’s like some people say radio’s got the best pictures. [The audience, too, is] so much more involved, because of their imagination.

I remember a show during the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, where me and another audience member had to go into a caravan with glass between us and heard a story. I still see them around, we’ve still got this connection. You don’t connect [so deeply] over gigs. Maybe one-on-one art will save the world.

What type of sounds does the soundscape consist of?

The recorded stuff is natural sounds – some of which are made by slowing things down, adding extra stuff – but there’s live stuff as well. Mark and I walk around in the dark doing things, there’s air movement, smells being put in the room. […] What’s interesting is because we’re a band, we’re not frightened to [also] use music. So it finishes with a song. I think people are always surprised because we appear all discordant and experimental and then we’ll just put a song in there. I think it’s part of our charm really, that we can look after people and take them on a journey through lots of different types of feelings.

I like that touch. I think it’s about accessibility. The soundscape might provoke people – but music, they’ll connect with. Do you explicitly mention climate? 

The only words we use are to calm people down, so they don’t freak out during the show. We don’t tell them anything – it’s for them to experience. It’s a bit like how you can’t tell an alcoholic not to drink. They have to come to the decision themselves. We create the environment for people to have space to feel, and although it’s quite hands-off, it seems to have impact. 

Tell me more about the band’s history. How did you form Klanghaus? 

We’ve been playing together for over 20 years. I think it’s lovely that we can just keep building on our experience. Because we got bored around 2008-9, we came up with Klanghaus, which is this promenade gig with small audiences – the audience is within us. We’ve got films projected over us and the audience. We did two seasons at the Southbank in the Royal Festival Hall, up in the ceiling and roof space. There’s nothing like being really close to your audience and having a similar experience. We got fed up with the hierarchy of being on a stage and talking down. [In past gigs] we’ve moved the stage into the middle of the room, so people can be near the drummer. They’re so good and interesting, and they’re at the back! 

When we started the band, there seemed to be only one choice – get a record deal, ‘make it’. [We saw] friends that were signed to major labels having a horrible time. It’s a funny path – it’s exciting to be able to tour in big venues. But the pressure [to conform] is really heavy, from when you get signed up. And those that don’t want to […] like Prince, people think he’s a bit crazy.

Klanghaus has given us permission to make really crazy shows. On our 20th anniversary show we got lots of guitarists and popped them around the room. It was Mark’s birthday, and he ran around with a megaphone pointing at [the guitarists] like ‘You!’ We could just muck about. 

Climate-wise, how do you think we can bring about the most effective change?

We know [the climate situation] is bad. We don’t need any more data. One thing we can all do – and I still have to do – is look at how and where we spend our money. There are small things that are very much within our power, as individuals and as a community. The most important thing we can do is talk to each other, [and] start where you can. It does have an impact. 

Absolutely. But I think people are also starting to recognise how this is a top-down structure. 

Yeah. We just started a new project in King’s Lynn with young people called Manifesto, finding out what [aspects of climate change] they want to talk about. We, the organisers, asked each other: what would you do to help the world if it can’t fail? I’d get rid of the military. I really like thinking beyond the realms of what we normally think [is possible]. 

Abolish the monarchy.

Yeah, time to move on.

Do you see the Neutrinos as politically inclined, beyond focusing on climate?

I recognise that by creating a show about climate, there is a danger that you’ll be known as ‘the climate band’. [But] I feel like it’s so present and can’t be ignored. 

I hate capitalism. It’s bonkers. And it’s really hard not to bring it into what we do. [But] we’re not overtly political. We’re just edgy and difficult, and a bit different. I don’t see myself as an activist. I want to connect with people through language and sound.

Some might see that as activism though.

Yeah […] I probably am an activist. I’m a pacifist! (Laughs)

Are you performing Darkroom in Norwich again?

I’m not sure if it will be in Norwich. We’d like it to be at the Houses of Parliament.

Read more about The Neutrinos in Rowan Gavin’s review of their recent Norwich Arts Centre performance.

All images via neutrinos.co.uk

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