Bat Sound Weekly—single and album reviews
Moth Death—The Neighbours are Bats: ‘Five-piece known for their chaotic live shows produce a messy, noisy, squelchy and distorted sound of attics and basements. We would say catch them before they make it big but that’ll probably never happen.’
Hanna Tuulikki and Tommy Perman—Echo in the Dark: hospitalfield.org.uk/v… shares its name with The Kooks most recent album, which was described by fellow reviewers thus: ‘The band’s incorporation of 80s synths is probably as close to experimental as you’re likely to hear […] largely inoffensive, occasionally toe-tappy’ and, ‘There are no specific commentaries, no tracks that feel too deep or heavy-hitting.’
Jeremy Deller & Adrian Sherwood—Freetail Dub: ‘We haven’t heard the whole track because it was only released on limited-edition vinyl in a screen-printed sleeve and cost £100. An otherwise contented Discogs buyer notes that the record has ‘loud inherent volume’.
The Neighbours are Bats was a project that began in 2015, a collaboration between myself, Yasmine Akamune Miles and my sister, Esme Armour. The project centred around a band called Moth Death, a band formed by five bats. The improbable bat band was embodied sometimes by us and sometimes other performers or the public, varying between improvised performance and open jam session depending on the venue. It was a mix of chaotic noisemaking, learning how to reprogramme Guitar Hero guitars from teenagers on the internet so they played bat sounds instead, touring charity shops to find the right garments to make into ‘bat jackets’ sewn on my sister’s West Princes Street kitchen floor, speed-walking to Maplin, writing The Neighbours are Bats in Sharpie on a mighty collection of extension cables, folding zines on the train, blinking into daylight after hours jamming in semi-derelict and dusty rooms. One of the instruments wasn’t programmed quite right, and one button would start looping all the echolocation samples at once but wouldn’t stop them. We put a bit of tape over it but someone would always press it.
The last time Moth Death had a proper gig was in 2017. It was at Summerhall, at a club night, in the early hours of the morning. We’d spent the afternoon finishing the edit of a film we’d made to use as a backdrop, depicting our friends buying late-night takeaways wearing bat costumes. We’d deliberated over which species of bat would frequent which takeaway. Daubenton’s Bats went to all-night pie shops because their preference for ex-industrial canal and quarry pond habitats had led us to characterise them as working-class punks. Brown long-eared bats bought sushi because their roosts in old buildings and long pre-flight routine made them bougie New Romantics. It was the end of summer—Es had moved back to Nottingham and Yas was about to move to Italy to teach English. For ages I thought I’d lost completely lost the files for the finished film but we rediscovered it recently as an unlisted YouTube video. That was characteristic of the project; elaborately planned and scrappily documented.
There’s only one bit of footage of the ‘band’ itself. It was filmed in the basement of Bargain Spot on Lothian Road, on someone’s point-and-shoot digital camera—the type that at some point around 2010 you took on a night out for what you didn’t realise would be the last time, which seems fitting although the sound quality is abysmal. Bargain Spot was a short-lived artist-run space, named after the shop that had inhabited its two floors. The basement, previously the stockroom, was lit by a single, bare lightbulb in a hazardous rather than trendy manner, so the costumed figures in the film aren’t identifiable as people but as shadowy silhouettes of Central Belt bat species.
Over the couple of years we ran the project, it seemed like pretty much everyone who was involved in Edinburgh’s (and some of Glasgow and Manchester’s) DIY scene put on a bat costume and picked up one of the instruments at some point. The ‘band’ was inhabited by all our friends, collaborators, partners, exes, vague acquaintances, friends of friends. It fitted into the nightlife we were already creating for ourselves—’we’ in a loose sense, anyone who was trying to find ways of doing things, between the 2015 and 2017 general elections, in the weird cycle of optimism and grimness.
Nocturnal, sometimes weird, mediated by technologies.
In a 2018 blog post by the Wildlife Habitat Council titled, ‘What a bat monitor can teach us about inclusion’, the organisation’s president, Margaret O’Gorman, describes how she was taken to task by bat experts concerned about how the ‘layman’s’ bat detecting experiences she excitedly shared online could compromise the data collected by bat professionals. She writes ‘I do this to raise awareness about the species around us, whether we are in pristine wilderness or an urban setting. I do it because a bat “sighting” makes me happy. I do it to encourage others to participate in nocturnal wildlife watching […] Increased knowledge and ease with the natural world becomes a contagious enthusiasm for conservation.’
Dracula, rabies scares and theories on the origins of the covid pandemic are all more commonly associated with bats than their importance in ecosystems—pollinating and controlling insect populations. This amateur joy counters the fear and misunderstanding surrounding bats. As O’Gorman points out, the realisation that bats aren’t just inhabitants of castles and old churches but of a shared urban space—parks, private gardens, footpaths, wastelands, even motorway bridges—is part of conceptualising the ‘natural world’ as something we are part of rather than something other than us. The dichotomy between wild/rural and domestic/urban is false and definitely unhelpful. One of the first things I remember learning about bats is that they are fond of roosting beneath a particular style of overhanging gable end widely used on Wimpey Homes new builds in the 90s. They are also undeniably weird; flying mammals with tiny goblin faces. But that shouldn’t bother us.
For me, the joy of listening to bats in part comes from the amateur nature of the experience—the technology involved is quite lo-fi, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but on a calm, mild night I can listen to bats. Amateur joy is also central to DIY nightlife. The joy of doing something ineptly but enthusiastically, with your friends, doing something because what you wanted in the world didn’t yet exist, of learning on the job and making a mess.
The inverse of this is that misunderstanding is as detrimental to nightlife as it is to bats. Noise complaints, moral panics around drugs and sexuality, policing and a lack of understanding from developers and legislators about what keeps a city alive, all lead to music venue closures. Habitat loss, building and development are the biggest drivers of bat population decline, whilst fear, misunderstanding and misinformation mean that public opinion is often less than sympathetic to bats. Something weird is mistaken for something sinister. Maybe both music scenes and wildlife are resilient in their precarity too, but the concept of resilience as an ultimate aim narrows imaginative possibilities. DIY is often romanticised, can be problematic and inaccessible. But for many people, it’s the only way they can access cultural production, find a sense of agency—or romance, for that matter.
DIY has an aesthetic, determined by the technologies and networks of distribution available at the time, from photocopiers and cassette tapes to Soundcloud. Simultaneously, popular thinking dictates that too much technology is bad for our species and that we would be better off spending time ‘in nature’. However, is access to nature in this sense not a privilege, again, mediated by technology? If you’ve ever ended up outdoors, away from shelter, with only the cheapest waterproof jacket available, you’ll know this.
A bat detector destroys false dichotomies. Through it, ideas of nature = calm, urban ≠ wilderness collapse into each other. There’s an extract from BBC’s Springwatch we returned to repeatedly:
‘Oh, here they come.. Can just pick them up now on the thermal camera! Daubenton’s Bats! These are the water specialists […] You know it’s astonishing how that bat detector changes the mood of an otherwise peaceful evening by the river into a scene of absolute carnage. Really extraordinary stuff.’
The detector is a translation device, translating an invisible, inaudible voice into something that is not only audible but familiar-sounding—we are not of course hearing what bats hear but a synthesised sound, waveforms using approximately the same technology as synths used by musicians surrounded by the white noise of a transistor radio. I guess we zoned in on the phrase ‘absolute carnage’ as something that could also describe a night out.
If the sound we hear from a bat detector is at a remove from but also reminds us of the closeness of other species, then it makes a kind of poetic sense to manipulate those sounds further, until bat and musician are one and the same. One school of thinking considers the ‘ecology’ of art and music scenes as if we are all products of our shared environment, and our interactions with predators and prey. Any bat music project has the potential to find a space of solidarity between bats and counterculture, The Neighbours are Bats and Echo in the Dark alike. To do this, a bat music scene ought to be weird, filthy, flitting, hard to pin down, hidden, joyful, sociable.
It’s early Friday evening, the friend who was supposed to come with me to Echo in the Dark has covid, so I end up taking an intentionally long walk to Hospitalfield alone, sensing a bit of what Friday night in Arbroath might be like. I arrive and get a tiny bat stamp on my wrist—like a real club night. The new glasshouse cafe is beautiful, built in Hospitalfield’s walled gardens. There are a lot of crows whose noisy but unscheduled presence around the Victorian architecture of the big house feels like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the gothic connotations we’re trying to avoid here. I’m way too early and sit trying not to read the cafe’s brunch menu on the table, so as not to interrupt the nighttime scene that’s being constructed around us.
Before long, I find someone I’ve not seen for a long time, who’s come with a friend who thinks she might remember me from somewhere but isn’t sure. For a moment, the night is elevated to a night-out-with-friends-and-people-you’ve-just-met. Catching up is soon interrupted when it’s time to put on our headphones and head across a field to the copse of trees where the rave-performance will take place. (Press coverage calls tonight’s event a ‘rave’. Hospitalfield, an art institution, says ‘performance’.) The coloured floodlights in the trees and the damp grass smell are music festival sensations (though, fortunately, the portaloos are too clean to add to that particular scent profile.) If this project does anything for bats’ public image, it could be to reframe them as creatures of summer, not ‘spooky season’. A few weeks prior, I took a bat detector to a music festival in rural England and after the last act ended, a group of friends and strangers ended up sitting in the grass gathered around listening to bats, which undeniably sounded a bit like the techno act that’d just finished playing.
The whole experience of Echo in the Dark is like a club scene from a BBC drama. It is not ‘absolute carnage’. We know from the handout which order the tracks corresponding to each different bat species are going to be played. There are,people, artist and maker of the piece Hanna Tuulikki included, in the role of DJ, working behind laptops on a small stage under an awning. Hands in the air suggest they might later implore the audience to put their hands in the air. That they might only be pretending to DJ fills me with a kind of panic. The tracks and choreography of the dancers escalate, but in the manner of a narrative arc rather than a night out. Dancers move among us with the motion of finding friends in a crowd but it’s not such a big crowd as their actions suggest. Looking around at the rest of the ticket holders, trying not to look at bat-Avicii, the silent disco format feels somewhat oppressive. It’s conceptually neat—as with bat calls in relation to the detector, you can’t hear music at a silent disco without having the right device to tune into it. But, with a bat detector, you can hear whole social lives playing out, eavesdrop on bats feeding, mating calls, conversations. In a nightclub or at a gig, the sound system fills the space you’re sharing with other bodies. Not-bat, not-nightclub, the silent disco headphones take us into a interspecies hinterland, not communality. I take off my headphones for a moment and listen the sounds of rustling technical outerwear, more crows. The wildlife remains undisturbed, at least.
We are allowed to take home our UV-bat-printed bumbags that held the silent disco receiver. Costuming us with a nod to 90s rave fashion, they also serve as a generational marker, different depending on whether you wear it around the waist or across the body.
Echo in the Dark recreated nightlife in microcosm; idealised— in an overly clean sense, with dollhouse levels of detailing in the bum bags, the wrist stamps, the dancers’ tie-dye costumes, dry ice and light show. The Neighbours Are Bats, for the most part fitted into the nightlife contexts it was born out of. Any dry ice or lighting was simply what was there. Participatory art stages something for participation within controlled parameters. The level of control the artists have over those parameters seems important. Some friends came up with a phrase tailored to the Scottish context we all work in: ‘Balmoral Art’ as term for the Highland Bus Tours of the art world—experiences neatly packaged as meaningful and authentic but in actuality a form of gentrification taking up too much space.
But both projects are different examples of the same genre—bat art music can have its lo-fi and high-end versions in the same way that horror films or rock music do. Jeremy Deller’s Freetail Dub sits somewhere within this genre too. Artists Stefhan Caddick and Farm Hand used bat calls in their project Noctule, as did experimental musicians Supriya Nagarajan and Duncan Chapman in their piece Lullaby-Sonic Cradle. An home-copied CD given to us by the Bat Conservation Trust’s Scottish Officer held exquisite bat-call compositions by one of her colleagues who never performed or even had any internet presence for his music. By specifying the genre, we understand these levels of activity can exist at once.
Sometimes this ecology feels like a food chain, brutal but inexorable. But still, we’re operating in the same ecosystem. As writer and cultural analyst Jim McGuigan describes, established practices can draw sustenance from the underground, constantly revitalised by it. DIY practices don’t happen in the dark either, rather (as noted by popular music academic Ellis Jones) they share space with and borrow forms from mainstream popular culture, even if attempts are made to reconfigure or bypass them. The resulting tensions mean these projects are all comparable but not. Echo in the Dark will meet a wider audience than The Neighbours are Bats. It’s also more neatly packaged and photogenic—not weird enough for some perhaps, but if it’s the conduit to someone getting into bats, to seeing what threatens their city’s nightlife given the same logic that threatens wildlife habitat that’s great. After all, it’s a belief in the importance of coexistence that creates common ground amongst bat-musicians. The mainstream will always be a reflection of, implies the existence of, what is happening at lower levels, unseen, just as a fat bat means a healthy insect population.
Timothea Armour is an artist and writer living Leith. She is a co-coordinator of the Rhubaba Choir, bartender and gallery worker and is interested in writing about DIY intersections in art and music.
Echo in the Dark, Hanna Tuulikki and Tommy Perman, 8-10 September 2022, Hospitalfield, Arbroath, hospitalfield.org.uk/v…