Karen Reilly is lead singer of Norwich-based experimental sound artists, The Neutrinos. Ahead of a Dinner in the Dark event, in collaboration with supper club chef Tom Oxley, Karen explains why they are looking forward to performing in complete darkness
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Karen Reilly, I grew up on a pig farm near Woking in Surrey, I went to the art school in Norwich, graduated then moved to London and studied at the Royal College of Art. I returned to Norwich after two years. I love London, its energy, its mix of people, its galleries and gigs, but I also like space to live and friends and colleagues on your doorstep.
As an artist and musician, I’m always looking to find new ways to present sound, music and visual art. I’m lead singer with a band called The Neutrinos and one of the KlangHaus Collective, a group made up of The Neutrinos and visual artist Sal Pittman.
KlangHaus makes immersive sound and light shows which take note of the buildings we are performing in. When I say, ‘take note’, I mean, use the acoustic, the history and the ghosts as inspiration and fold them into the show.
We love smells and incorporate smell into our work. In the latest shows in our house called InHaus: HearthandHome we used smells called garden shed, church cloisters, hot apple pie and coal fire. They are hugely evocative and add an extra layer of stimulation and wonder.
In the beginning we made our own smells by burning things like boot polish, but quickly realised how dangerous this was and moved to bought smells.
How long have you been lead singer of The Neutrinos and how would you describe your music?
I have been a singer with The Neutrinos for over 25 years. We have toured Europe and North America and I would describe our music as ‘Art Rock’. Some of our post-show comments cards by the audience have described our music such as, ‘If David Lynch had a band’ and ‘this must be what Warhol’s factory was like’. We are essentially drums, bass and guitar and play very loudly and very quietly.
I was saying last night, one thing that I find a complete privilege in our KlangHaus shows, is to be able to sing using a microphone one minute and be off mic singing acoustically the next. It means we can share a level of intimacy and authenticity with audiences that is challenging in traditional venues.
You seem very open to performing in unusual settings and mixing different forms of media?
Yes, we thrive on making our shows and our encounters with an audience, as playful as we can conjure. When we became obsessed with buildings, the seeds of KlangHaus were sown. This initially happened when we went to Berlin to record an album, couldn’t afford a studio and rented a space in the Nalepastrasse Funkhaus, a 1000-room old DDR radio station. We were thrilled by snooping around buildings, like a Scooby Doo gang, but rather than solving crimes, we were making songs and films and creating new worlds to play in. Our first official KlangHaus building was a small animal hospital at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014 and our songs drew upon themes of anaesthesia and altered consciousness, loss and leaving and we used an old operating trolley still present as a drum platform, wove the animal names on whiteboards into the songs, all the material we needed was there in the rooms and on the walls. This model for creating songs, films and ultimately live shows was fun, nourishing and with the pay-off that the audience gets to nose around a building they aren’t normally allowed in, we knew it was a ‘win-win’.
Do you consider Norwich to be a good place to be a creative, and, if so, why?
Norwich is like a small village rather than a city. It’s fed by art students from Norwich University of the Arts and students from the University of East Anglia so the cultural life is constantly stimulated by new people coming and going. In 2008 the ‘credit crunch’ slowed down the outward movement of graduates to the big metropolises and our street-life became more visibly rich. Jonty Young and his galvanizing of The Lanes, independent shops and makers is a great asset to Norwich’s creative spirit as are the arts collectives and music and poetry folks who continue to put on events. The size of Norwich and its walkability means you bump into each other sometimes daily and communities can thrive. A strong arts community is the key to a thriving creative life. We are all lending and swapping equipment, skills and moral support.
How has Dinner in the Dark with Tom Oxley come about – and how did the trial go down last summer?
Tom suggested the idea to us as a way of contributing to the Edinburgh crowd funder. We’d experimented a little with offering sense-heightening drinks in previous shows and always understood it to be an interesting and useful dimension to incorporate, and so to have someone suggest something on this scale felt very generous and instantly right.
The trial was excellent in many ways with a very supportive range of diners/audience. It is a very gentle, and as you can imagine, sensory experience – playful, disorienting and funny… As performers, we found it to be a rich and nuanced environment in which to “play”. We use a subtle range of sound design, some totally acoustic interactions with songs, words and sounds as well as our ongoing presence as waiters!
The audience seemed to really enjoy the experience, obviously an adventurous bunch (eating food in a room, full of potential strangers in a blindfold is not for everyone) they were also very generous with one another, these strange conversations sparking up across the two tables as they tried to identify a particular scent, or spice or texture in the dish before them. Although the blindfolds were not compulsory, people were encouraged to wear them throughout, and as they relaxed into the experience, this is what they chose to do, with the occasional peak to locate a utensil or to notice their empty plate had been silently whisked away.
And how did Darkroom go down in Edinburgh?
Most days, we were running seven Darkroom shows at half hour intervals, before the three InHaus shows in the evening, so it was very intense! It’s a show for one person at a time, run by three or four people, so a ratio of 4 to one, which we think is probably quite rare! It all serves to heighten the audience experience and there is a level of care in the process that those who experience it find to be very special. For us as performers working in the dark and using repetition can be disorientating but it is also very grounding and focusing. One of the most important things was making sure that we took short breaks outside to get a little bit of light. And, because of the format of the show, two or three of us would always get to talk to the individual participant in some depth about their experience, a very direct form of feedback, and very nurturing.
What is happening in January, and how can people get involved?
We will be building on the previous Dinner in the Dark experience, expanding to some degree the use of sound design, more thoroughly integrating the service and performance elements but most importantly, creating a space in which those present can enjoy intense flavours, curious sound, sweet song and the company of other diners in a way they’ve probably never done before.
Any future collaborations you can share?
We have been chosen to be part of a retreat called Hypothesis Retreat run by Norwich’s very own Curious Directive Theatre Company. Chosen from international applications, we were surprised and delighted to be selected. We look forward to working with them in late January.
We’ll be further integrating our sound as The Neutrinos with Sal’s films and looking into how we can prepare for some shows abroad – Istanbul is in negotiation. In March we are working with academic Sam Haddow from St. Andrew’s University on his novel about the end of the world. He came to Darkroom in Edinburgh and realised it was the inspiration for the closing chapter of his book. All I can conclude is that that’s encouraging because Darkroom offered the spark of hope.
Dinner in the Dark takes place on January 12 and 13, 6pm, at 90 Upper St. Giles Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1 LT. Five courses plus treats – vegetarian, mainly vegan – and a night that’s a forever memory, with surround sound and song. You can tell them about any food allergies. Bookings: tickettailor.com or visit The Neutrinos website.
Featured image of Karen Reilly from Dinner in the Dark film