Constant Flux is a rad organisation that puts on punk gigs by musicians with learning disabilites.
Its founder Rich Phoenix – formerly of cult punk bands Captain Everything! and The Steal and current drummer of Sauna Youth – was inspired by the plethora of music he was hearing in his day job working within disability arts and music and frustrated by the lack of support these artists received.
With a mission statement to help start a movement in learning disability music away from learning disabled events for learning disabled audiences, towards integrated shows for everyone in accessible venues, Rich is revitalising the DIY scene and helping to demarginalise an often overlooked community at the same time.
We caught up with Rich to find out more.
What exactly is Constant Flux?
Put simply it’s an organisation I’ve set up to create more opportunities for musicians with learning disabilities. I’m trying to do this through putting on gigs, releasing records and supporting bands to go on tour.
Why did you start it?
I started it because I had been working within learning disability arts and music for around seven years, while also having been involved with DIY/punk music in the UK since I was about fifteen, playing in bands, putting on shows, touring, releasing records, etc.
I was in contact with a lot of musicians who had the desire to do all of those things but unfortunately required additional support needs, which created a barrier for them. What I saw was a scene of musicians and bands whose passion and ability was beyond a lot of what I was coming in contact with in the underground music scene and I felt more inspired and excited by a lot the music there and the performances I got to see than I had by a lot of the gigs I was going to. However it was almost completely hidden.
The prevailing attitude I encountered within learning disability music though was one of trying to infiltrate the ‘mainstream’, something that when I was growing up I had learnt to actively avoid and work around. It was one of things where I realised that having the attitude of being able to do something yourself was not always the obvious thing to do for many people.
These musicians are making music which they want people to hear but the DIY methods that exist for you or I were not really accessible to them. I’m hoping in some small way that I’m supporting these musicians to achieve those things that they had previously been denied and at the same time raise awareness over the issues around the barriers some people face in making music.
How do you think it has an impact?
There are a few ways I think it has an impact, one of the biggest and hardest to quantify is awareness. Awareness about access, as disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. So if the gig that you’re organising doesn’t have flat access to the venue or accessible toilets then you are responsible for not allowing anyone with mobility issues to attend.
Awareness that people with learning disabilities shouldn’t be on the sidelines of society. Awareness that with adequate support someone with a learning disability can be in a band and that band can be a hundred times better than your band!
One of the biggest things on the last tour was the feedback about how natural the events felt, that they just felt like gigs… they didn’t feel like charity events, or that people were there just because it was a ‘good’ thing to do. They were just there to have a good time and watch some bands. In an ideal world this organisation shouldn’t exist and hopefully one day it doesn’t have to.
Is the punk scene supportive?
Yes! Very much so. I have been overwhelmed by the support I’ve had so far. The very first integrated show I set up, with help from Bryony Beynon, at the Shacklewell Arms in Dalston ended up being such an amazing experience, despite the fact it was a Sunday and there had been torrential rain all day tons of people came out to see Zombie Crash, Sauna Youth, Good Throb, No & Daniel Wakeford play and the atmosphere was amazing… the amount of people who commented on how the usual sense of an aloof coolness that seemingly goes hand-in-hand with many shows in East London was completely absent. Everyone was just there to have a good time.
When all this started I knew so many people from the punk scene that already worked in some kind of care, therapy or whose work reflected their social conscience that for it me it felt like it would be totally receptive to it and be the logical place help get this music heard. So far this has been reflected around the country at how eager promoters and bands have been to get involved.
Who’s involved in Constant Flux and what does everyone do?
At the moment in an official capacity it’s just me. This involves doing a lot of things, including putting in funding applications, organising events, booking bands, lugging equipment around, talking to people, going on tour, doing the accounts, never really having the same day twice… it ranges from the very exciting, to the very boring, however I do now have a newfound love for Excel documents. I have had a lot of help along the way so far though, with advice and help from organisations I have worked with such as Carousel, Heart N Soul, Club Soda, Attitude Is Everything, Stay Up Late. Also many of my friends and musicians I know have been super supportive. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to involve so many of my friends with the tours, like my friend Bryony from Olgeta Projects who helped evaluate the last tour, Murphy from The Positive Press who printed up posters, Chris at We Three Club who designs the print, Oliver from Frontwards web design who invested an extraordinary amount of time into researching and designing the website to ensure it was as accessible as possible, Liv from One Beat Digital who helps try to get all the work as much exposure as possible. All of these people I know personally and trust, and I know them through touring and playing music myself. I feel this could be a neat way of explaining why I feel it is so important not only to have the opportunity to make music but also share it. It’s not to try and achieve the abstract notion of ‘success’ but to create paths for your life to head off onto that otherwise might never have existed.
How can people get involved/show support?
Come to the Challenging Behaviour shows this weekend, come to the dates on the Fish Police tour in April, listen to The Shut Up and Listen radio show which is the only radio show in the UK (maybe the world?) to play music solely by artists with learning disabilities, download some music from here tell your friends, talk about it, sign up to be a Gig Buddy put shows on in accessible venues, try to promote them to varied audiences, send us some ideas for what we can do or how you’d like to help! You can drop us a line at [email protected].
Can you tell us a bit about the Challenging Behaviour benefit tonight?
My friend Ralph has organised a weekend of shows in London featuring a whole bunch of DIY punk, hardcore and indie bands such as Coke Bust, Omi Palone, Hunger, Quango, Personnel, Woolf, No, tons of amazing bands are playing. It has been set up to raise money to support autistic and/or learning disabled adults in Hackney play and perform music. The money raised will go towards supporting and setting up music workshops, buying equipment and promoting a series of shows with mixed ability line-ups. The festival is primarily a reaction to a gaping hole in Hackney council’s approach to supporting vulnerable people.
Ralph works full time as a support worker for moderately to profoundly learning disabled and/or autistic adults in Hackney and his simple explanation of the whole thing is – “The aim of challenging behaviour is to offer some learning disabled and/or autistic adults in Hackney a meaningful creative outlet in the same way most of us create them for ourselves through DIY music.”
I’m really looking forward to it and am 100% behind what Ralph is doing, he has been a massive support to what I’ve been doing and the efforts he has put in to get the people he supports down to the shows I’ve put on has been above and beyond. Constant Flux isn’t directly involved in this weekend of shows, however I am playing on the Saturday in a band called Sauna Youth and also supporting two bands from the learning disabled scene to play, Rock Penguins who started late last year from a project run with a school in Norwood and The Carbonators from Croydon who I’ve been working with for around three years.
What have been the challenges in bringing Constant Flux to life?
I think the main thing was more psychological than anything else. Going from working in a fairly ad-hoc way (coming from the punk scene things are never that official and overly organised!) to trying to do things properly. I knew that if I were to have any chance of applying for thousands of pounds from the Arts Council or any other funding body and be taken seriously, I would have to set myself up properly and demonstrate that I do actually know what I’m doing.
The first tour, where I was taking a punk band and a metal band on a DIY tour around the UK with £10,000 of Arts Council money, felt to an extent frankly ridiculous but also conversely the most adult thing I’d ever done, with every penny budgeted for and the whole thing organised to a tee to reduce as much risk as possible.
Another hurdle has been the on-going discussion over the use of ‘learning disablility’ in describing musicians, artists, bands, music, etc. There are two valid sides to the argument, for and against its use. The argument against is essentially that if the music is good enough to stand-alone then the uses of ‘learning disabled’ as a descriptive tag is arbitrary and could in a sense cheapen the music. Unfortunately the terminology around a lot of that world isn’t sufficient in effectively describing things and people. A lot of people feel ‘learning disabled’ is a clumsy term in general, especially as a blanket way of describing people but unfortunately that currently is the recognised term used. After much discussion with many people, with and without learning disabilities, I’ve taken the stance that it is important, at least for the time being, to acknowledge this aspect of the music. I think due to most media coverage of people with LD portraying an image of vulnerability and pity, with regards to hate crime and receiving the harshest cuts in services and benefits of most people in the UK. Having positive and strong independent people with learning disabilities on stage and acknowledged is important not only for wider education of people who might not know anyone with a learning disability but also those who do, the parents, relatives, friends and carers that can see with the right support incredible things can be achieved.
What have been the major inspirations?
The first two bands I ever saw that had learning disabled members were Beat Express and Heavy Load and I can still remember being totally blown away. From that gig I was inspired to try and get as many people as possible to hear their music. Also Zombie Crash and Pertti Kurikan Nimipaivat are the big reason why I started Constant Flux. That whole first tour essentially was just a way for me to see PKN play.
Also two of the most important reasons for me playing music has been involvement in the local scenes I’ve been surrounded by; that sense of community and belonging can’t be overstated, and also having had the opportunity to travel and tour playing music around the world, which I think completely changed and shaped they way I viewed the world.
What’s the future for Constant Flux?
We recently got more funding from the Arts Council for a tour for an amazing band from South London called The Fish Police, which is running from April 4 – 13. All those shows are going to be integrated and we’re finding bands all over the country from the LD music scene to play alongside bands from the local scenes in each area. I’m really looking forward to it.
We just released a cassette by The Carbonators, which you can get from La Vida Es Un Mus next up is a a cassette from Daniel Wakeford who we’re also putting on tour late 2014.