The conceptual fusing of sport and pop music has often presented a poisoned chalice, demonstrated painfully by the now customary biennial pop effort to inspire our nation’s footballers to victory (a tradition that has never really recovered from New Order, Coach Barnes and that rap). While the news that Underworld have been installed as Musical Directors for this year’s Olympic Opening Ceremony brings welcome encouragement – I can’t wait to see Renton and Spud, jumpers stuffed with loot, chased down by a pack of security guards around the track of the Olympic Stadium – if you ask me, they’ve missed a trick. I’d have suggested Seb Coe and the boys hopped, skipped and jumped aboard the Virgin Pendolino and headed up to Liverpool to meet DOGSHOW, a set of musical triathletes intent on Olympic glory.
For those in the dark at this point I should explain. Dogshow are not your regular band, in fact the term ‘band’ feels wholly inadequate after experiencing Triathlon: a live spectacle like no other; an exercise in musical stamina; a fusion of nightclub and theatre; a triumph of ideas and vision. For Triathlon, the group – made up of brothers Sam (Keyboards/Gadgetry) and Laurie Crombie (Drums/Triggers/Treadmill), along with longtime visual collaborator Venya Krutikov – essentially dissected the most demanding of endurance sports, composed a new collection of music to soundtrack it, and fused it with live performance in a way that only they and their colleagues at The Kazimier know how.
“Originally I was thinking about the Olympics in general, then it got narrowed down to athletics, before we settled on Triathlon,” Laurie explains, when he and Sam meet us in an empty gallery space above Mello Mello. “With it being in three parts, each one has got a good initial inspiration: swimming being really dramatic and wet with hundreds of people all jumping in together; cycling has got a definite visual, mechanical and rhythmic thing to it; and running is just pure endurance.”
“I think our sets generally take that kind of form anyway,” Sam confirms. “The idea with Triathlon was that we took elements of what we try to achieve with our music, like power and repetition and endurance. There will be a section initially where we’re trying to find our feet: you can’t try to do anything too intense to begin with; you’ve got to create the intensity.”
Musically, Dogshow have been described as live trance. Though overly simplistic, it’s a solid starting point, into which the Crombie brothers add various elements of dub, trip hop, psychedelia, even show tunes and the music hall. It’s a naturally theatrical sonic fusion, made even more so by the group and Venya’s visual explorations and their adventures into lighting and set design; adventures that were pushed to the limit during Triathlon.
Upon arriving at The Kazimier, athletes (or, more conventionally, audience members) were encouraged to take part in side-by-side bike races aboard two pushbikes wired up (Doc Brown style) to huge Victorian-style clock faces. Participants were ‘encouraged’ by Howard Be Thy Name (if you’re not familiar with him hit YouTube, trust us!) courtesy of a megaphone, who took the demeanour of Alex DeLarge meets Willy Wonka on sports day. Gatorade cocktails were served and a baying mass of vests, shorts and tennis rackets were treated to a visual display that included searchlight-style swoops of the venue by a digital stop watch, seemingly floating in mid-air; and what looked like UV tube pushbikes, spinning and whizzing along to the music. This was after a hilarious opening film depicting the group’s training regime in the run up to the event, and before Laurie stepped aboard a treadmill rigged with drums, cymbals and triggers, on which he simultaneously ran and drummed (there was even a microphone beneath the treadmill, picking up the pounding of his feet in time with the music). “Drumming out of time with your feet becomes really difficult,” Laurie recalls. “I mean drumming on a treadmill is difficult anyway because you’re moving at odds to your feet, but if you’re not at the same speed as well it’s even more confusing.”
And the concept was not only reserved for the performance itself, as Laurie and Sam tried to adopt the training practices of a triathlete in the run-up to the main event. “We tried to apply the whole concept of a Triathlon in the run up to it with our training, with our rehearsals; getting in every day at ten and having structured sessions,” says Laurie. “At one point I sliced open my finger and couldn’t use my right hand. So I had to train my left hand and spent ages playing everything the other way around, which worked out really well and made my technique loads better. I think the idea of musical training is really interesting.”
“I was doing warm-up scales until my hands just couldn’t play anymore,” Sam assures us.
So where does a band like Dogshow come from, and how do a group of musicians reach the stage where drumming live on a treadmill, as Laurie puts it, “seems like an obvious thing to include in the music”? Well, it starts in Sam and Laurie’s hometown of Oxford and a childhood listening to funk, obscure jazz and a heavy helping of world music, courtesy of a musician father and an artist mother. It also starts with a learned scepticism of the traditional music industry, as Laurie explains: “With Dogshow there was always an aim to create something more multi-dimensional than a straight-up band. With the last band I was in, we were doing quite well, reasonably successful and all that. I used to make these kinds of top hats with little windows in, looking through to little worlds inside. We had a kind of manager geezer, who was supposedly helping us out and when we met him he went off on this big rant about how I shouldn’t be spending my time messing around with these stupid top hats. I was fuming, and knew that if this was the way that the music industry was going to try and dictate my life then I can’t be fucked with it.”
Musically, Dogshow is somewhat of a positive response to the labours of a regular band, something Laurie and Sam had “had enough of being in and all the issues that come with them; we wanted to strip it right back to us two.”
“With us working with The Kazimier in the music industry, as it were, it seems like there are just too many bands in the world, too many bands doing the same thing,” says Laurie. “The amount of bands that email the venue everyday saying the exact same thing… I suppose from very early on we knew we wanted to do something different and more multidimensional. I think that’s potentially what a band needs to be doing now.”
“When we came to Liverpool we got a practice room in the old Big Issue building on Duke Street,” says Sam. “We had a space there in the basement; it was like a dungeon, totally damp. We just spent the first six months in there, working it out, forming the band. Then Loka moved out of the ground floor, so we took over that and it became a workshop, and was where the first Kazimier-vibed nights were.”
Indeed, the links between Dogshow and The Kazimier are intrinsic: Sam, Laurie and Venya, together with Laura Brownhill and Mike Lill, are the driving force behind the venue and work collectively on Kazimier projects and productions. The fusion of theatre, dance and spectacle which is so central to The Kazimier’s work and aesthetic is also at the core of Dogshow. And with Triathlon, the group pulled together around the band to glorious effect, as Laurie explains: “For this show, more than ever we worked to have the whole collective involved in the production. Laura directed the opening film (along with filmmakers Sebastian Brueckner and Jack Whiteley), Venya as ever was on projections and lighting, with Mike helping across everything, really. Previously it’s been like Dogshow has fitted into the bigger Kazimier theme, so we may have done something specific for a Kazimier night or an individual piece. But this was very much the same ingredients with the focus the other way around: Dogshow was the theme.”
At a time when the UK’s musical compass is set towards Liverpool, and our music community subject to a national focus, it seems wholly essential to celebrate Dogshow. The group are conceptually, practically and, most importantly, creatively operating in a different sphere at present, beyond the imaginations of many conventional bands. For some, that may seem convoluted or far-fetched, but surely that is precisely the point: to create something new, to challenge yourself as an artist, and to blow the roof off in the process. Suffice to say, Dogshow are miles ahead of the field. The Gatorade cocktails are on us.