Monthly Archives: September 2016

Kelly Lee Owens’ Of Techno Daydreams

In 10th grade, Kelly Lee Owens’ class unanimously voted her “Daydreamer of the Year.” Today, her pride in the achievement is undiminished. “I was like, ‘Yes! Someone understands me,’” the 28-year-old beams, perched in the café of Rough Trade East, the London record store where she worked a few years ago. As if to welcome the ascendant producer home, staff are blasting out Radiohead’s “Daydreaming,” soundtracking shoppers’ Tuesday-evening daze. Owens, though, is anything but distractible. Were you a genuine daydreamer, I ask, or actually—“planning to take over the world?” she says, grinning. “Mixture of both.”

Since then, Owens’ global domination prospects have broadened considerably. Last February, Alexander McQueen picked up her track “Arthur”—an Arthur Russell tribute that merges lush dream-pop and austere techno—for a runway show. After seeing the event, the Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound signed Owens for an EP,Oleic, as well as her debut album, due this year. The self-titled record is a confluence of enveloping club tracks and underwater transmissions—roiling currents, sonar bass pulses, and a sense of chaos teeming beneath a pristine veneer. A few songs nod to the underground dance sounds of her sometime collaborator and mentorDaniel Avery; with others, such as the Jenny Hval collab “Anxi,” you could be listening to Broadcast in a floatation tank.

Owens has a penchant for the aquatic. Her ancestry, which encompasses a series of tiny Welsh villages, spans the epic mountains of Snowdonia along the country’s northern coastline. The region’s dramatic land- and seascapes exude serenity and mystique. In London, Owens says, “We have the River Thames, but where my mom lives is on the cusp of the Irish Sea. It opens up into another place. There’s always that prospect of: What is out there?

That uncertainty, and awe, informs Owens’ songs, as well as her exploratory path through life. At 19, she moved from Wales to Manchester to work at a cancer treatment hospital; as she trained for a nursing career, terminally ill patients urged her to cut loose and chase her dreams. Needing little encouragement, Owens used her 12 weeks’ paid leave to help run local indie festivals, selling merch for bands like Foals and the Maccabees on the side.

Then, instead of returning to the hospital, she interned at XL Recordings in London and took a job at the record store and dance label Pure Groove. She fell in with a circle of record-store clerks moonlighting as DJs and producers—Avery, Gold Panda, and Ghost Culture—but Owens, then embroiled in Shoreditch’s indie-pop scene, still hadn’t embraced electronic music. “Björk would walk into [Rough Trade] and ask, ‘Where’s the techno section?’” Owens recalls, gesturing to the counter. “And I’d be thinking, Why does she listen to techno?

When Avery began recording his debut album, the lysergic techno opus Drone Logic, Owens hung out with him and Ghost Culture, eyeing the controls. She came away with a new fondness for techno and a cracked copy of Logic, as well as her first credits: a handful of frosty vocal features and a co-write on the closer, “Knowing We’ll Be Here.” In the ensuing months, she played bass in the indie-pop groupthe History of Apple Pie but found herself drawn to electronics. As her confidence grew, she learned to sift through her techno-head friends’ pointers and, where necessary, preserve the more cloistered sounds crystallizing in her mind.

The identity she advances on her upcoming album—dreamy yet involving, with a melancholy undercurrent—reflects her interest in emotionally nuanced techno, as well as her newfound immersion in the world of healing music. She has explored gong sound baths, a kind of aural massage involving tremendous gong reverberations, and the solfeggio frequencies, a sequence believed to reconfigure spiritual energies. “Certain frequencies can unblock things within you,” she says, finishing off her red wine. “I’m trying to bring these worlds together and open the idea of allowing yourself to be healed.”

Pitchfork: You started as a nurse before getting into music, but when did the worlds of sound and healing converge for you?

Kelly Lee Owens: There’s always a connection between healing and music. When I worked at the cancer hospital, I started doing research. It turns out that people have been researching resonant frequencies for a long time and they’re finding that specific frequencies can shatter cancer cells. There’s a TED talk about it. The dream is that one day there’ll be this beautifully lit room with wonderful colors where children just play with their toys on a soft carpet—and above them would be these machines they didn’t even know were there, curing their cancer in a non-invasive, non-intrusive way.

Have you thought about exploring that side of things yourself?

I might be doing an exhibition next year on the relationship between sound, healing, and resonant frequencies. An immersive installation, perhaps. So I’ve been doing loads of research about this geeky stuff. I’ve always been obsessed with frequencies. I have this weird thing, when I’m looking at an EQ, where I can see the frequency before I actually start to look for it on the grid. It’s not synesthesia, it’s not colorful, it’s just a sense.

Is that something you learned?

No. A lot of what I’ve done has been intuitive. I didn’t even know what production meant until I started working with Dan Avery and Ghost Culture. I learned by doing, which I think comes from my Welsh background; you have to get stuck in. People have mostly working-class jobs, and the only way to survive is by going out and working. I had a part-time job waitressing when I was 13. I was supposed to be studying, but it was like, “No, Kelly, you’ve gotta get out there and know what it’s like to earn money.”

Were you into the Welsh landscape as a kid?

I used to be such an emo. I’d go to the top of my mom’s fields and write poetry, sit on the windowsill and stare at the moon, which is why I’m obsessed with astronomy and astrology. That connection with nature was very much part of who I am as a sign, mixed with a bit of fire. And [the isolation] gave me time to write.

Do you feel like that kid staring up from the windowsill is still in your music? The vocals sometimes sound like a satellite orbiting the song, and there’s a sense of being isolated or underwater.

Yeah, subaqueous—I like that word. It’s about immersion. You want the music to give you a bit of a hug, even if it’s techno. When I first heard Arthur Russell, I was like, “Oh my god, I can literally float here.” I sometimes imagine myself as an astronaut, floating along. I’m obsessed with seeing the Earth as one collective living thing. I feel like everyone should watch [the space documentary] Overview, just to have that perspective [of seeing Earth from above]. To look down and see that we’re all here in the same boat. What is that Carl Sagan quote? “We would wonder why all the rivers of blood were spilled, to become momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” I’m inspired by that bigger picture. We live in a culture of the self, but if you can look up every night at the stars, just to remind yourself of your place, that’s very powerful.

You’ve talked about becoming interested in psychoanalysis lately—what have you learned about yourself?

If you can embrace your shadow’s dark sides, you’re loving your whole self. I’ve been really getting into psychiatry and R.D. Laing, whose books were revolutionary in the ’60s and ’70s. He didn’t believe in giving medication to people who suffered schizophrenia—he didn’t even believe that schizophrenia existed. [He thought] it was derived from experience and family, from birth. He didn’t believe in shock therapy and all that bullshit. He’s a fascinating creature. It’s about being real, and embracing your whole self.

Are there any parts of yourself that took longer to embrace?

Maybe the ego, in general. I was always giving to other people; I struggled for a long time to look at myself, my family, my history—to look at things that have affected me in a negative way. And there’s a thing, when it comes to being female in a very male-dominated industry, that the male side of you comes out a bit more. You feel like you have to stick up for yourself and not be feminine. I had to go through that, the aggressive side of me being more upfront, before realizing: No, I’m comfortable having both within me.

You’ve spoken about hoping to launch music production workshops for women.

Yes, once I have the funds and support. I hope, for now, young females and producers will just be inspired to get in touch. Sometimes you just need a mentor, someone to give you advice or an opening. Personally, I’m very self-critical, to the point where I wouldn’t even begin something because I’d think, That’s gonna be shit. But then you’ve got certain people going, “No, this is good.” “Oh, really, OK.” There are guys out there who can’t plug in a synth, hook it up to the box, and make it record, but pretend they can do it all. It’s just stupid. Let’s be real and learn and help each other.

Kraus Makes Some Noise Rock for Anxious People

A bedroom can say a lot about a person: their passions, their priorities, their preferred thread count. Will Kraus’ bedroom, a small, orderly alcove nestled above a Mexican restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, is no exception. With two guitars hanging beside his bed, a few drawings leaning up against a wall, and some scattered articles of clothing on the floor, the bare room suggests both minimalism and possibility. When he opens his laptop and a barrage of noise escapes the speakers, it becomes clear that this cordial 22-year-old has the ability to transform his otherwise calm demeanor into a frenzy when given the chance.

I’m in Kraus’ domain on a freezing Friday in December to conduct his second-ever interview, which is occurring only a few months after his second-ever public performance. It’s all happening in the wake ofEnd Tomorrow, Kraus’ debut record under his surname. The album is loud and hectic, with cooing vocals set over spazzy drums and unceasing blasts of dissonance made up of sampled piano, keys, strings, and drones. It’s a carefully crafted attack that clobbers the listener with effects until, eventually, the chaos unifies and opens into a meditative expanse.

As a kid, Kraus dabbled in pop-punk goofballs like Good Charlotte before becoming obsessed with Linkin Park, even signing up to be a member of their fan club. Though Kraus now kindly describes the rap-metal pioneers’ music as “non-nuanced,” he allows that their brand of hyper-angst—served with a side of melancholy—helped him define his formative identity. His Linkin Park fandom encouraged Kraus to make his own music, in the form of electronic and hip-hop beats. Growing up in Dallas, he felt unable to connect to the local music scene—but he had his computer. Around 2010, a YouTube magic tutorial video introduced him to Sigur Rós, broadening his aesthetic scope. Following a breadcrumb trail of blog links, it was only a matter of time before his mind was blown by the likes of Odd Future, Danny Brown, and A$AP Rocky.

Kraus decided he wanted to pursue music as a career and put all his hopes in one envelope—namely, an acceptance letter from the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. He pulls out a second laptop to show me the beats he submitted to the school four years ago. They sound exactly like what you would expect from a teenager listening to the internet circa 2012: jittery percussion, stoned and scattered Panda Bear vocals, the distinct feeling that the sonic sunshine is covering-up a deep-seated anxiety. He giggles over its predictability and moves on to the music he was making as a sophomore in college. These songs are heavier, more complex; one features a sample of Future’s “Honest.” And then he went through yet another fast metamorphosis to get to the gnarly textures that make up the music he’s making now.

As it turns out, an existential crisis of sorts catalyzed Kraus to stop waiting around for bandmates and create a record on his own. While he was finishing up at NYU, he looked back at his musical output and felt defeated. “I just needed to make something and not care if it was too crazy or weird,” he tells me. He started drumming in earnest his junior year and began working on what would become End of Tomorrow in early 2016.

When the album was finished, Kraus emailed it to several record labels and music writers, looking for an honest opinion. About two weeks later, Brian Justie from Terrible Records, which has released records by Solange, Blood Orange, and Porches, among others, listened to two minutes of the album and sent Kraus a gushing email. “It struck me as something that was made, either explicitly or implicitly, with total contempt for so much other new music that had been coming out of late,” Justie says. “It felt full of conviction and seemed to induce a peculiar nostalgia.” Indeed, even though much ofEnd of Tomorrow can feel like slamming into a wall of sound, the blow is cushioned by a collage of noise that recalls early Flaming Lips, or My Bloody Valentine at their most ethereal. In the apartment, Kraus hands me a copy of his record and tells me his mom thought Justie’s offer was a scam.

Kraus currently works as a tech dude at an insurance firm, a welcome diversion from the hyper-focused musical attitude of NYU. “All of a sudden music is a nice counterpoint in my life and not the sole focus of it,” he says. Though Kraus is in no rush to release a new record, he does have a playlist on his computer titled “Album 2.” He clicks on a few of the new sketches, and they contain more of the ambitious instrumentation and ambiguous yet heartfelt songwriting that’s becoming his signature.

Earlier this month, Kraus played his third-ever show, at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge. Before taking the stage, he doesn’t seem particularly nervous even though he’ll soon be attempting to recreate the sound of a roaring full band in real-time by himself. He eventually clambers behind his drum kit, awkwardly positioning his lanky frame behind the bass, slips on his pop-star headset, and takes a deep breath. With no warning, he transforms into an unstoppable machine, hitting drums and triggering samples at a dizzying clip. At one point, a stick flies out of his hands and he has to chase after it; when he sits back down, he plays with even more force than before.

Pitchfork: How do you get yourself in such a frenzied state for your live performances?

Kraus: Well, so far I do not like performing live. I find it incredibly anxiety-inducing. This thing is me being so wild and crazy, and when you’re at the onset of it and you’re trying to do something ambitious and different and you literally just have your five friends there, it feels silly. I start wondering, Is this just a vanity project? What are you doing up here, dude? I mostly just fend off panic attacks and then go onstage. And once I start playing, I can’t go backwards anymore.

Do you feel like playing the drums is cathartic?

Yes. That’s why I like them a lot. I’m definitely more of a music-maker than a drummer per se, but that’s the instrument I connect to the most. It feels nice to have a really controlled way to express that side of my personality. I think the music is very melodically and lyrically sentimental, but there’s also the rough element of it. That’s what feels really good about performing live—you can just say, “fuck it!” and the drums are a great instrument to do that with.

You mentioned your songs are “lyrically sentimental,” but I honestly can’t understand anything you’re actually singing.

I am saying words in the album but they weren’t very thought-out. It’s about half just kind of saying stuff into the microphone and half words. I don’t feel like good enough of a writer right now to really have too many lyrics be front-and-center. Honestly, when I was making the record it was during such a confused, anxious time, and I couldn’t even think of stuff to say when I picked up the microphone. I’d just record anything and throw it at the wall.

Even though you can’t quite decipher what you’re saying, the songs have a comforting element, even though there’s all this chaos happening in the background. It’s like when you’re on the subway and everything is so loud but you’re listening to something and you can just zone out.

That’s totally what my album is designed for: When you’re thinking too much or you’re in a stressful situation, to just forcibly batter it out.

Wow Save the Last Dance

e endangered Corsica Studios crouches under the railway arches of Elephant and Castle Station, a clubbers’ hideaway in southeast London. The neighboring district lays low on weekday evenings, populated by commuter traffic, bored teens, and the occasional clan of city boys ambling by from a pub on the roundabout. But when I arrive one Tuesday in the fall, the DIY performance space is aglow. Inside, gloriously profane rapper Princess Nokia is inciting a riot amongst art students in chokers and drawstring backpacks, tropical shirts and sports shorts. “Children, are you having fucking fun?” she enquires, as purple spotlights dance in the fog. The couple hundred in attendance scream their approval.

At midnight, friendly clusters split into squadrons of solo dancers, carving out space with fluid hips and fast limbs. As the DJ’s baile-funk rhythms swell, a succession of women twerk and belly-dance onstage. Beside me, a man and woman suddenly become entangled, hands delving as they back onto a carpet of crumpled craft beer cans. An hour later, everyone streams through the exit and past a series of billboards on the backstreet. The glimmering triptych of signs, streetlamp-lit and mounted on construction fencing, herald a multi-billion pound makeover for Elephant and Castle, including a handsome new housing project opposite Corsica. For clubbers, the corporate enthusiasm tells a familiar story: One of London’s last surviving underground clubs now stands next to the most ambitious renewal project in the capital.

“There’s a sense that we’re being surrounded—and there’s probably stuff going on behind the scenes that none of us are aware of,” Corsica’s Adrian Jones tells me, leaning into a table in the club’s operations room. Hanging over his head is a nebulous social vision determined by councillors, developers, and inflating rents. In the last 10 years, London has lost roughly 50 percent of its nightclubs, many due to developments like the housing project opposite Corsica. In typical cases, developers locate underfunded areas set for “activation”—that is, glamorized to prospective residents by lifestyle industries, particularly nightlife. But the social good of extra homes is undermined by shady deals between developers and local governments.

Thanks to government cuts, local councils such as Southwark’s—whose remit includes the Elephant and Castle district—are under-resourced and notoriously pliable. In rebuilding the Heygate Estate opposite Corsica, developer Lend Lease convinced councillors that the project required a 94 percent cut in apartments for “social housing”—the category of cheap homes reserved for those most in need—compared to the project demolished to clear its path. Such schemes have been described as class-cleansing, with low-income residents displaced to remote boroughs while wealth fills the luxury flats. Rents shoot up, as do business rates for clubs. Councils juggle new tenants’ demands with the borough’s existing nightlife ecosystem. When in doubt, they prioritize residents, and clubs vanish.

“I don’t want young and creative Londoners abandoning our city to head to Amsterdam, to Berlin, to Prague, where clubs are supported and allowed to flourish,” Sadiq Khan, London’s new centrist mayor, announced on the campaign trail last spring. His basic plan, based on a rescue document for London venues commissioned by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, is now in place: As well as opening 24-hour tube lines, Khan has pledged to implement the Agent of Change principle, which stops residents challenging noise that predates their arrival. In LGBT advocate Amy Lamé, he’s also appointed a new “night tsar”—a title contrived to swerve the “night mayor”/“nightmare” homonym—who will work alongside a newNight Time Commission to represent the night economy. Contributors to that economy are still skeptical, though.

“What worries me is nothing’s being done fast enough,” Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, who Khan has invited to discuss nightlife at City Hall, tells me. “We’re gonna lose everything, and then everyone’s gonna wake up and be like, ‘Oh well, we don’t have any nightlife, we should try and build some up now.’ That doesn’t come out of nowhere—it takes years.”

Benji B, a stalwart club DJ and BBC Radio 1 presenter, says London clubs have incubated a “particle collision” of dance styles in recent years, producing vanguard work by the likes of Floating Points, Joy Orbison, and the Hyperdub label. It’s these established spaces, Benji and Hebden argue, that foster London’s diverse subcultures. “When people use a space creatively, there’s an invisible impression that’s left behind,” Corsica’s Amanda Moss says. “You can’t see it, but you can feel it.”

“We’re gonna lose everything, and then everyone’s gonna be like, ‘We don’t have any nightlife, we should try and build some up now.’ But that doesn’t come out of nowhere—it takes years.”


The predicament facing London nightlife dates back to the turn of the millennium. By then, rave had long since returned from the countryside, shepherded into regulatable venues by the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which clamped down on outdoor parties and the attendant mood of national anarchy. In the capital, superstar DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Sasha commanded enormous crowds (and fees) filling superclubs like Ministry of Sound and Home. Metalheadz, Goldie’s drum’n’bass night at the Blue Note in Shoreditch, became an incubator for forward sounds. “That period of innovation is unparalleled in my experience of clubbing,” Benji B attests.

But the big-club boom was a bubble, and by 2002, DJs were declaring an end to the superclub era. This was a transitional period for nightlife: The 2003 Licensing Act gave pubs permission to set up dancefloors, hire functional DJs, and stay open until 2 a.m. Their gain was a major loss for clubs, whose captive market when pubs closed at 11:30 p.m. disintegrated overnight. It didn’t help that barely any London councils supported the act’s other revolutionary factor: the possibility of 24-hour licenses for clubs.

Regardless, as the superclubs fell, new midsize spaces and warehouse parties rushed into the void. After cutting his teeth at superclub the End in the mid-2000s, Hebden turned his attention to a poky new sacred space called Plastic People. Over a two-year residency, he developed Four Tet’s club-focussed 2010 album, There Is Love in You, breaking out of a creative rut in the process. “I was making records to play in that club, to play to that audience,” says Hebden.

Plastic People remained supportive even when only a few dozen fans were turning up—for Hebden, but also, crucially, for pioneering experimental nights. With FWD>>, where DJs such as Skream andYoungsta advanced dubstep before the term was synonymous with big-tent EDM, Plastic People earned a reputation as “the last bastion of credible club culture” in rapidly gentrifying Shoreditch, Benji B tells me.

In 2010, the club survived a license review, but 2015 saw new restrictions on alcohol sales and opening hours hasten its closure; although the club denies developer pressure, Benji believes authorities meted out harsh licensing rules because planners wanted the space. “There were people getting ambulanced out of the bar [across the road] and having their stomachs pumped in the street,” he says. “And yet the one safest and most mellow and music-dedicated space—with the friendliest, non-druggy, non-dangerous crowd in the whole of Shoreditch—was the place that the council attacked the most.”

In the early ’80s, a poignant mission statement printed on flyers for the legendary Manchester club The Haçienda read: “To restore a sense of place.” The line remains a pithy summary of the challenge facing Sadiq Khan and London’s save nightlife initiatives—but now it’s the sort of doublespeak familiar from signs promoting new developments, on which every erected high-rise is heralded as a gift of utopian vision. As PR wars rage around London real estate, nightclubs have become symbolic battlegrounds for the future identity of London. And no club has been more tightly entangled in that battle than Fabric.

The London club Fabric stands at the epicenter of the city’s overall conflict with nightclub culture.

Since opening in 1999, Fabric has survived rampant gentrification, encroaching pseudo-nightclubs, and the epidemic of superclub closures. Founders Keith Reilly and Cameron Leslie set their stall by rejecting superclub status, snubbing bold-name DJs to promote diverse bookings like Asian Underground pioneer Talvin Singh and international crate-digger Gilles Peterson. “It was brilliant, madly exciting, on a bigger scale to other new clubs,” says Hebden, who first attended Fabric in its opening week to see Daft Punk. That same night, he recalls dreamily, he saw Boards of Canada, Autechre, and Roni Size play sets elsewhere around London. “Where’s the equivalent of that now? We’re miles away from it all of a sudden.”

After years of friendly relations, Fabric’s first major clash with police came in 2014, after the club’s fourth drug death in three years. At a review, the Metropolitan Police argued the council should revise Fabric’s license to include a string of tougher measures. The council agreed, but at Fabric’s appeal, the magistrates’ court rescinded two key conditions: ID scanners and sniffer dogs. Speaking to BBC Radio 1 this year, Cameron Leslie said he believes the decision “put some noses out of joint” at the Met, causing them to launch a “vendetta” against Fabric.

Last August, Fabric closed voluntarily after two more ecstasy-related deaths at the club. Sadiq Khan’s office panicked—as emails obtained by Mixmag show, the deputy mayor for culture, Justine Simons, worried closure would discredit Khan’s pro-nightlife campaign. But at a hearing in September, the Met stood firm. They insisted there’d been more deaths at Fabric than any other London club. (Leslie has blamed the rise in drug deaths on a “massive increase” in MDMA purity, a claim backed up by the 2016 Global Drugs Survey.) During a string of undercover visits to Fabric, named Operation Lenor after a brand of fabric softener, police observed people “sweating profusely and staring into space,” which they believe implied widespread drug use. The Met argued Fabric was already ignoring conditions—they claim staff overlooked unconcealed drug deals, for instance—so adding additional restrictions wouldn’t help.

Islington police superintendent Nick Davies said that, while he accepts clubs like Fabric will always have drugs, “You can’t honestly think I’m doing my job with six dead bodies that the police do nothing [about].” Reading details of the deaths, one Islington councillor broke down in tears. Committee chair Flora Williamson concluded Fabric had incubated a “culture of drug-taking.” After hours of deliberation, the council revoked the club’s license with immediate effect.

The scene outside Fabric days after it was forced to close down last September. Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images.

Two weeks after the decision, Fabric advocate Nathalie Wainwright welcomes me to her flat in east London, apologizing for nonexistent mess. A few days earlier, alarmed by the verdict, she had cut short her travels in southeast Asia to join the club’s sizeable resistance. We chat on the mezzanine, sipping Becks as the last daylight bleeds through the windows.

Born in 1983, Wainwright was the second child of middle-class parents. She grew up in North Lincolnshire with her brother, Jean-Marc, a promising artist. At school, she piggybacked on her sibling’s social cachet, despite their nerdy preoccupations: Jean-Marc buried in sketchpads, Nathalie in the ballet studio. “The thing with being a popular kid is you can do what the fuck you like,” Wainwright recalls, smiling, as she taps a Marlboro Gold into an ornate ashtray. “But he wasn’t like a mad painter—he made pen and ink drawings, things like that.” She rolls up her sleeve to reveal a floral tattoo based on one of her brother’s incomplete sketches.

On June 7, 1997, Jean-Marc and his friends descended on a happy hardcore rave at the Zoo, a nightclub in an amusement park roughly an hour’s drive from home. Like his friends, Jean-Marc dropped his pills early and kept going. Nobody is sure what happened in the club, or when Jean-Marc consumed an extra batch, but Wainwright believes, at around 2:30 a.m., he had taken eight pills and “a load of speed.” By that time, his friends were urging venue staff to call an ambulance, because he’d fallen ill after an apparent overdose.

There’d been a similar incident in the Zoo the week before, when Daniel North, a 16-year-old from York, collapsed after taking ecstasy and died 12 hours later. Local police, who had arrested nearly 50 ravers in a previous raid at the club, urged them to tighten health and safety. But the threat from law enforcement proved counterproductive. Wary of the Zoo’s image, staff refused to call an ambulance for Jean-Marc, reassuring his friends he’d recover shortly. Without cell phones, they had little choice but to trust them.

Half an hour later, as a friend cradled him in his arms, Jean-Marc had a seizure, then another. Alarmed, the friend noticed Jean-Marc had swallowed his tongue, which he extracted from his throat. Wainwright says the ambulance took 40 minutes to arrive. By the time he got to the hospital, Jean-Marc had suffered lung failure, which led to blood clotting. His cause of death was fluid on the brain.

Wainwright pins much of the blame for Jean-Marc’s death on the club’s amateurish health and safety protocol. “There’s no way that fluid would’ve developed if he’d been responded to straight away,” she says. “I know it must’ve been really, really bad, because—and I should never have looked but I did—when they returned his stuff to our parents, his jeans were cut all the way up here”—she points up her leg—“and his top was cut all the way up here”—she runs a finger along her stomach and chest, to her throat. “And it was covered in blood.”

While Wainwright fiercely fights for new drug policy, she’s sympathetic to bereaved families who rally against club culture. But she’s also found a community for whom losing loved ones prompted a conversion toward liberal thinking on drugs. Wainwright recently wrote a letter urging politicians to reconsider the Fabric decision, and her own dad offered testimony. “To shut down cultural institutions in the name of families like ours, who have lost loved ones in such a tragic way, is shameful,” he wrote. “You do not do so in our interest, you dishonour the names of those who have tragically lost their lives by no longer providing them with a safe space to enjoy the music and culture they love.”

The Zoo closed days after Jean-Marc’s death. Owner John Woodward, the millionaire behind several caravan and entertainment sites, invited press to photograph him smashing its quirky driftwood sign. The tragedy sparked a local press campaign against ecstasy, which police unquestioningly cast as the villain—despite claims from Jean-Marc’s friends that the club had switched off cold taps to sell bottled water. “Our message to the young people is that you are playing Russian roulette with a 50-chambered gun,” detective inspector Martin Bontoft told one paper. “How many more times do you have to be told about the dangers of the drug? If you take ecstasy you are dicing with death, you are going to die.”

Fabric, which employed two trained medics a night and a respected security firm in Saber, was held up nationally as the gold standard for club management. The club’s diligence could be seen in 2014, when a security guard found a student named Keith Dolling seven times over the limit for recreational MDMA use, with a life-threateningly high body temperature. The club’s medics packed his body with ice, suctioned his airways, monitored oxygen levels, and, when his breath shortened, ventilated him and prepared defibrillators. They couldn’t save Dolling, but the incident forced the Met to acknowledge Fabric’s above-average medical care. “I’m tremendously impressed by that,” senior coroner Mary Hassell told an inquest. “It was really quite advanced care. Care like that gives a person the best chance they could have. … [It’s] quite extraordinary that a nightclub would have that level of expertise and would be delivering that level of care to the clubbers.”

When I read the report to Wainwright, her eyes widen. “That’s fucking incredible, if you ask me,” she says. “If Jean-Marc had been in Fabric, this would never have happened.”

Nathalie and Jean-Marc Wainwright as children. Jean-Marc died after an apparent overdose in a UK club in 1997; Nathalie now advocates for clubs like Fabric. Photo courtesy of Nathalie Wainwright.

Wainwright now believes in policies of harm reduction to make drug culture safer. Advocates argue that authorities should accept that drugs aren’t going away and, instead, use methods like drug testing—whereby experts analyze powders and tell you exactly what’s inside—to promote safe practice among users. In 2013, then-Home Secretary Theresa May spoke about the possibility of introducing drug testing in British clubs, after a teenager died at Manchester’s Warehouse Project. May, now prime minister, said, “If somebody has purchased something that the state has deemed illegal, it is not then for the state to go and test it for you.”

While opinions collide over how and where drugs should be tested, nightlife hubs across Europe broadly agree that harm reduction saves lives while zero-tolerance endangers them. “The first obligation of a government is to keep people safe,” Mirik Milan, the Amsterdam night mayor and self-proclaimed “rebel in a suit,” tells me over Skype one afternoon. “I understand people say, ‘It’s illegal so we’re not gonna test it for you,’ but the outcome is that people will do it anyway, and that people are dying.”

With such inconvenient truths in mind, Amsterdam provides daytime drug-testing facilities in labs around the city. In late 2014, when a bad batch of “Superman” pills circulated, Amsterdam caught it and issued a televised warning. There, nobody died; in the UK, only the fourth “Superman”-related death prompted authorities to issue cautions. In the liberal Swiss city of Zurich, where festivals provide on-site drug testing for attendees, seven years have passed without party drug deaths.

Recently, UK charity the Loop, which offers to test drugs for deadly adulterants like PMA, has been installed, experimentally, at Manchester’s Warehouse Project and festivals Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling. Outside of the Met, which says drug testing sanctions drugs, London authorities have some appetite for such facilities. After Fabric’s license was revoked, Islington Council leader Richard Watts told BBC Radio 1 that front-of-house testing in clubs “would be pretty sensible. As a council, we would consider those kind of approaches. I am personally pretty convinced that the current approach to drug laws isn’t working.”

European cities including Amsterdam and Berlin acknowledge that a certain level of drug tolerance can lead to a safer nightlife culture.

Berlin perfectly illustrates that drug tolerance and political common sense can revolutionize an ailing club scene. To discuss how, I meet Lutz Leichsenring, a leading nightlife advocate, at a café the German capital’s Mitte district. As his dog Lola runs laps around his ankles, Leichsenring, an affable firebrand, fluently criticizes Britain’s focus on so-called “night time industries.” “It includes a lot of bullshit,” Leichsenring sighs. He argues dedicated clubs define a city’s nightlife identity.

In Berlin, Leichsenring adds, “We just know young people in the music scene take drugs. You don’t want to criminalize people who go into clubs, even if they take drugs—they’re not criminals. We want to make it hard for the criminals to sell them drugs.” When I ask about the chances of security parading sniffer dogs along Berlin club queues, he laughs into his lap.

Berlin’s ascent as a nightlife superpower began after reunification, in 1991. Radical artists and squatters swarmed into abandoned banks, warehouses, power plants, and shopping centers in the East. In 2000, a spate of zealous police raids struck the club scene they’d established. Six nightlife figures allied and formed the Club Commission to protect their culture. Leichsenring, a former promoter and club owner, was elected spokesperson in 2009. “We haven’t had any raids since the Club Commission was founded,” he tells me, “because the police know now that there is a voice—somebody who can work on problems.”

In the face of aggressive gentrification, the commission plugs clubs, local government, and developers into one network. In recent years, they’ve fought planners to preserve club heartlands; linked venues with government culture and planning sectors, via a funding body; and drawn up a map of Berlin music venues, which incoming developers must consult before pitching authorities.

The benefits of that work—enjoyed by the city’s loose workforce of artists, musicians, and other creative freelancers—provide the backbone of Berlin’s unique night culture. Financially stable venues foster experimentation, while reverent clubbers embark on sessions that sprawl across liberal opening hours.

Shanti Celeste is one of many UK-bred DJs who’s upped sticks for Berlin in the last decade. In Bristol, the twenty-something helped put on nights at the Island, a renovated court complex with underground holding cells, where she and a few mates would throw intense parties lasting several hours. But Berlin is different. “Here, there’s so many more clubs to go to, and they open from god knows when until god knows when, so your window to rave your tits off is way bigger and more spread out, which gives you a more relaxed attitude,” she says as we sit in her roomy Neukölln flat. Despite that, Celeste doubts London could adopt the model wholesale. “I don’t know how well 24-hour clubs would do,” she admits, “because it’s a hard place to live. People work 9-to-5. People struggle.”

“There needs to be a bit of edge in life, otherwise there’s no sense of individuality in civilization. It is a question of finding the balance between giving people freedom and protecting people.”


On November 21, as Fabric’s fundraising campaign hit £320,000 ($390,000), it was announced that pre-hearing negotiations with Islington council had succeeded: In a seemingly unprecedented move, the council reversed Fabric’s license revocation. But while greeted with relief, the agreement—which saved both parties enormous fees—wasn’t quite a fairytale ending. For Fabric, the price of avoiding an appeal was a strict license rewrite they might have defeated in court: ID scanners, lifetime bans for those seeking drugs, new lighting and CCTV on dancefloors, and a raise on the age of entry to 19.

A week after the agreement, Fabric’s lawyer, Philip Kolvin, welcomes me to his office in central London. He wears a suit, jacket open, and speaks with the regal English accent of a ’50s radio newsreader. While he can’t discuss the Fabric negotiations, Kolvin, who recently became chair of Sadiq Khan’s new Night Time Commission, is diplomatic towards the deal’s critics.

Club purists argue that ID scanners are invasive, vulnerable to identity thieves, and terrifying to those with drugs in even trivial quantities. They speculate that lifetime bans will encourage users to swallow pills excessively before coming in; that 18-year-olds will take drugs elsewhere, without Fabric’s gold-standard medical team; and that abundant CCTV turns a club from a pocket of escapism into Big Brother’s venus fly trap.

“I’d hate to think that Fabric set a precedent,” Kolvin admits, after sipping his tea. “I’ve picked up from the blogosphere this idea that you should be able to go to Fabric and express yourself as you want. I’ve still got some sympathy with that—there needs to be a bit of edge in life, otherwise there’s no sense of individuality in civilization. It really is a question of finding the balance between giving people freedom and protecting people.”

I ask whether he thinks Fabric found that balance, or if it was tempting to put the funds towards a full appeal. Kolvin furrows his brow and, with some awkwardness, slides a hand inside his shirt to clasp his shoulder. “Fabric was in a situation where it needed to reopen,” he says finally. “In the perfect world, would that be the prescription? I don’t know. But if somebody’s carried into the emergency room about to die, you can’t scratch over every little thing that happened by way of treatment. They were in an emergency situation.”

Fabric’s ID scanners in action on the night of its reopening earlier this month. Photo by Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

At 2 a.m. on January 6, Fabric’s reopening night thunders ahead. Earlier in the day, club co-founder Cameron Leslie told the BBC there was no “pleasure or relief” in the reopening, but punters, it seems, leave their reservations at the heavily staffed door. At one point, hundreds dance under a neon-red “#yousavedfabric” sign as the “Stranger Things” theme mixes into a drum’n’bass salvo. Men part the dancefloor, hoisting up rounds with wobbly hands; the recipients greet them like returning war heroes, all but forgotten in their absence. Strangers offer lone dancers stoic fist bumps, acknowledging their euphoria. Out a side exit, a loose-tongued clique hovers around the club’s new medical tent; beyond it beams the smoking area, which, to pupils attuned to the dark club, appears floodlit.

It’s 2:30 a.m. when I step outside, just as security lead a resigned-looking man and his friend indoors by their arms. Beside me stands Tom, a Fabric patron of 14 years. His friend Dave traveled from Manchester to celebrate the reopening. “It’s a music culture that’s not available anywhere else,” Tom tells me. “Fabric is the pioneer. There’s no club like it.”

Both drug-free, Tom and Dave roll eyes at the suggestion tighter rules will constrain clubbers. Neither seems concerned by the lighting or ID scanners, saying longer queues were tonight’s only quibble. “If you can’t have a good night without drugs, then you’re here for the wrong reasons,” Dave says.

As we speak, a group of 19-year-olds tumbles outside, angling for smokes. One tells me his name is Benny, and I offer some Extra for his hectic jaw. His friends, whose gum was confiscated on entry, eyeball the packet in disbelief, as if I’d produced a handful of magic beans. “I started coming up [on MDMA] in the queue, freaking out,” admits Benny, gratefully taking a piece. “But I didn’t want to risk a lifetime ban.”

This younger clan backs its philosophy—that government drug stigma critically endangers users—with impressive screeds on policy nuances. Animated, they wax lyrical about harm reduction, citing arguments mainstreamed in publicity around Fabric’s closure. “When people drink, they go out to get fucked,” concludes Benny. “We come out to enjoy the music—that’s what it’s all about. We’re a family.” With bowed heads, they drop their cigarette butts and approach the entrance. A faint grime beat emerges from within, and the security guard steps aside, smiling, to permit their return to the night.

This The Music of Alice Coltrane

A respected yet divisive figure who was scorned by the jazz mainstream for most of her life, Alice Coltrane was one of the most complicated and misunderstood of all 20th-century musicians. In this century‚ however‚ her music has grown in stature‚ and one can now hear echoes of her influence everywhere‚ from Björk’s juxtaposition of timbres and textures to Joanna Newsom’s harp playing to the twisted astral beats of her great-nephew Stephen Ellison, aka Flying Lotus. While her late husbandJohn Coltrane’s discography remains titanic in modern jazz, Alice’s own albums are equally compelling and mysterious, suggesting a musical form that moves away from jazz and into a unique sonic realm that draws on classical Indian instrumentation, atonal modern orchestration, and homemade religious synth music. The adventurous nature and spiritual import of her work continues to resonate through New Age, jazz, and experimental electronic music of all stripes.

Alice used a number of names throughout her career, and collectively they chart a path of self-realization. The names she adopted demarcate radical shifts in her life and her work, serving effectively as chapter headings in the story of how a bebop pianist from Detroit evolved into one of jazz’s singular visionaries, ultimately walking away from public performance to become a guru and beacon of enlightenment for others.

Alice McLeod

Alice McLeod was born on August 27, 1937, in Alabama, though her family soon relocated to the rough east side of Detroit. The two World Wars solidified Detroit’s position as a manufacturing powerhouse and by 1959 it was the industrial center of the country. It had also gained renown as a bebop hot spot and was home to future jazz players like Cecil McBee, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Milt Jackson,Yusef Lateef, Bennie Maupin, and Elvin Jones.

The McLeods were a musical family—Alice’s mother, Anna, played in the church choir, her half brother Ernest Farrow was a prominent jazz bassist, and her sister Marilyn went on to be a songwriter at Motown—and Alice took up piano and organ at a young age. As a teen she accompanied Mt. Olive Baptist Church’s three choirs, and at 16 she was invited to perform with the Lemon Gospel Singers during services at the more ecstatic Church of God in Christ. In Franya J. Berkman’s biography Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane, Alice remembers those formative services as “the gospel experience of her life,” an instance of devotional music that gave her teenage self “the experience of unmediated worship at the collective level.”

Encouraged by her half brother Farrow, Alice continued to pursue music. She formed her own lounge act, performing gospel and R&B—with touches of blues and bebop—around Detroit. The young McLeod soon became a fixture of the city’s jazz scene and found herself involved with Kenneth “Poncho” Hagood, a scat jazz singer who’d recorded with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. The young couple were wed and relocated to Paris in the late ’50s.

Alice gigged regularly around Paris, befriending other musicians like fellow pianist Bud Powell. In 1960, she gave birth to a daughter, Michelle—the joyousness of which was tempered by Hagood’s burgeoning heroin habit. It wasn’t long before she returned to Detroit as a single mother, moved back in with her parents, and started picking up gigs to support her daughter. Once again immersed in the bustling Detroit scene, McLeod began to contemplate jazz beyond the dizzying array of chord changes, scales, and standards that were fundamental to the bop era. One album in particular spurred her creative contemplation: John Coltrane’sAfrica/Brass.

While known to be a junkie early in his career, by 1957 tenor saxophonist John Coltrane had kicked his habit and begun his musical ascent in earnest. He was a sideman for Thelonious Monk and in 1959 appeared on Miles Davis’ modal masterwork, Kind of Blue. Coltrane was already an accomplished bandleader, releasing a slew of records from Blue Train (1957) to My Favorite Things (1961). Firmly established as one of the greatest tenor saxophone players of his generation, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Impulse Records—the brand-new jazz imprint of producer Creed Taylor.

Coltrane’s new deal allowed him the creative control and artistic freedom necessary to push jazz’s boundaries and imagine new musical vistas. Africa/Brass was his first album for Impulse and featured a 21-piece ensemble that included the preeminent reedmanEric Dolphy backed up by the rhythm section of pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. Cuts like “Africa”—an expansive suite augmented by birdcalls and jungle sounds—announce Coltrane as a tireless innovator, using Davis’ modal template as the launching pad for new explorations.

Alice went to see John and his new quartet when they played Detroit’s Minor Key club in January of 1962. She didn’t speak to him that night, but an opportunity to play piano in vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ ensemble brought her to New York City in the summer of 1963, where Gibbs’ group opened for John’s quartet during an extended engagement at Birdland. When her group wasn’t on the bandstand, Alice tried to work up the nerve to talk to the saxophonist.

She describes her initial impressions in Berkman’s book: “I had an inner feeling about him. … I was connecting with another message that I had perceived as coming through the music. At Birdland, that same feeling would come back, something that I comprehend was associated with my soul or spirit.” The two musicians barely spoke, though Alice described John’s silence as “loud.” A few days later, still having exchanged very few words, Alice heard him playing a melody behind her. She turned and complimented him on its beautiful theme. He said it was for her.

Alice Coltrane

John and Alice’s relationship began in July of 1963 and they were married in Juarez, Mexico, in 1965. They remained together until his death from liver cancer two years later. Alice gave birth to their three sons: John Jr., Ravi, and Oran. While the couple only began to record together in February 1966, their musical relationship spanned the duration of their romantic relationship, both predicated on mutual inspiration and spiritual elevation.

Alice had felt limited by the rigidity and orthodoxy of bebop throughout her career and, as her relationship with John bloomed, she found his influence on her musical explorations to be profound. The couple used musical innovation as a path toward personal enlightenment: “You heard all kinds of things that would have just been left alone, never a part of your discovery or appreciation,” she said. It’s difficult to gauge the degree to which her approach to the piano changed once she met John, as aside from a few Terry Gibbs albums released in 1963 and 1964, few if any recordings of Alice’s early performances exist.

John Coltrane’s discography from 1963 until 1967 demonstrates a restless urgency to expand every aspect of his horn and his music. Two Impulse albums from 1963 find him exploring ballads and collaborating with Duke Ellington and vocalist Johnny Hartman. While some critics see these albums as a response to being labeled “anti-jazz” by DownBeat in the early ’60s, in hindsight they seem to serve as a reset and resting place—a last look back toward jazz history before John and his group forged ahead into an exploration of innovative new sounds.

At the end of 1964, Coltrane entered engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio in New Jersey with his classic quartet—pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and thunderstorm drummer Elvin Jones—to record a four-part suite documenting a spiritual conversion. “This album is a humble offering to Him,” Coltrane wrote in the liner notes to A Love Supreme. “An attempt to say ‘THANK YOU GOD’ through our work.” It’s the summation of the quartet’s lyrical, evocative, and dynamic power.

Within that same year the quartet would both expand, with the addition of second saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and second drummer Rashied Ali, and fray, with Tyner and Jones leaving. “All I could hear was a lot of noise,” Tyner said in one interview. “I didn’t have any feeling for the music.” Starting in 1965, Coltrane embraced fiery free jazz, a sound that sought freedom from meter, chord changes, harmonies, and whatever else had previously defined and codified jazz. The influence of younger horn players like Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler on John is well documented, but very little has been said of the musician who replaced Tyner on the piano bench: Alice Coltrane.

Biographies of John Coltrane often reduce his marriage to a relationship between mentor and disciple, with John as the musical guru and Alice as the initiate. “Many of John Coltrane’s fans viewed her as accomplice to the so-called anti-jazz experiments of his final years,” Berkman writes, a sentiment that stemmed from “the controversial role she assumed when she replaced McCoy Tyner as pianist in her husband’s final rhythm section.” (Years later, Alice Coltrane contributed harp to Tyner’s 1972 album Extensions.) Four years before Yoko Ono allegedly broke up the Beatles, thereby earning the scorn of all future generations of rock fans, Alice was accused of breaking up the greatest jazz group of the mid-’60s.

But Alice, if anything, was the catalyst for Coltrane’s greatest music, abetting and inspiring his spiritual quest to realize a universal sound. When the couple met in 1963, Coltrane was still working within the framework of modal jazz. Soon after Alice entered his life, he started to push beyond the conventions of modern jazz, freeing himself from meter and steady tempo, fixed chord changes and melody. A Love Supreme was composed and realized after their relationship began. Seen in that light, the questing Coltrane albumsAscension, Om, Meditations, and more all stem from this relationship. Without Alice’s own roots in the ecstatic spirit of the Church of God in Christ services and a shared interest in a less dogmatic and more universal understanding of God—to say nothing of their love and devotion to each other—would Coltrane’s own spiritual transformation have occurred?

The Coltranes’ spiritual study did not take place in a vacuum, but amid a broader religious upheaval and restructuring of the ’60s. New forms of Afrocentric spirituality ranged from a renewed interest in Egyptology and the rituals of Santeria to Ron Karenga’s creation of Kwanzaa and the rise of the Nation of Islam. But Alice herself acknowledged that the new couple’s pursuit intensified soon after they came together. “What we did was really begin to reach out and look toward higher experiences in spiritual life and higher knowledge,” she told Berkman. Despite Alice’s history in the church and her subsequent life as a swamini, she still receives little acknowledgment in biographies and jazz history as catalyst for her husband’s spiritual rebirth.

Alice herself didn’t do much to correct these accounts. As the decade rolled along and music—as well as societal roles—became increasingly radicalized and questioned, Coltrane embraced her role as wife and mother. In a 1988 radio interview, she said of her marriage, “I didn’t want to be equal to him. I didn’t have to be equal to him and do what he did. That, I never considered. I don’t think like that. And whatever in the women’s liberation—that’s what they want. I didn’t want to be equal to him. I wanted to be a wife. … To me, as a result of that association, it fully manifested. There was no more question about direction.”

Once Alice joined her husband on the bandstand, they toured the world, the music going further and further out, with standards like “My Favorite Things” pushing toward the hour mark. Not that critics always noted her. In a February 23, 1967, DownBeat review of Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, Alice warrants but a single line in a 15-paragraph review: “Mrs. Coltrane’s piano support is always firm and appropriate, never overbusy or obtrusive.”

And then, in May of 1967, John Coltrane complained of abdominal pain that was soon revealed to be liver cancer. By summer, he could no longer eat, and he left his earthly body on July 17, 1967.

Alice Turiya Coltrane

In quick succession, Alice suffered the loss of both her husband and her half brother Ernest. Her account of her spiritual awakening between 1968 and 1970 in her self-published tract, Monument Eternal, is harrowing: her weight plunged from 118 to 95 pounds, and her family worried for her well-being. In her telling, her weight loss was not the result of grief and depression but due to extreme austerities undertaken for spiritual advancement. It leads to detached remembrances, like: “During an excruciating test to withstand heat, my right hand succumbed to a third-degree burn. After watching the flesh fall away and the nails turn black, it was all I could do to wrap the remaining flesh in a linen cloth.”

The rainbow-covered booklet makes no mention of her jazz music career, her husband, or her travels to India. Instead, she matter-of-factly details making a doctor recoil in horror at the sight of her blackened flesh, what occurs when one experiences supreme consciousness, the nuances of various astral planes, her ability to hear trees sing, and scaring the family dog with her astral projections. Amid this, her family feared for her sanity: “My relatives became extremely worried about my mental and physical health. Therefore they arranged for my return to their home for ‘care and rest.’” Later she adds: “Communicating with people was found to be like suffering judgment. In fact, it was almost impossible for me to dwell upon earthly matters, and equally impossible for me to bring the mind down to mundane thoughts and general conversations.”

Deep in this quest, Alice assumed control of her husband’s formidable estate and released his first posthumous album in September 1967, Expression. And while DownBeat gave it four stars, Don DeMichael wrote: “Mrs. Coltrane, while sounding somewhat like McCoy Tyner, does not have her predecessor’s physical or musical strength.” She released her first album as leader, A Monastic Trio, the following year. On it, she referred to her husband by her spiritual name for him, Ohnedaruth (“compassion”), and sought to follow his example to create a music that was free, open-ended, and spiritually questing. The album features late-period quartet bandmates Pharoah Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali, with Alice on piano as well as a new instrument for her, harp.

Alice’s self-taught playing style on harp—ordered for her by her husband, who didn’t live to see its arrival— was full of glissandi and accentuated arpeggios and took cues from another Detroiter, Dorothy Ashby, but Coltrane’s playing was decidedly more abstract. She compared the piano to a sunrise and the harp to a sunset, marveling at “the subtleness, the quietness, the peacefulness” of the latter instrument. It would figure prominently in her future albums. Such subtlety was lost on critics at the time, with DownBeat’s review of A Monastic Trio labeling Alice’s playing as “a wispy impressionist feeling without urgent substance.”

Fans and critics expecting the strength and urgency in her husband’s music were befuddled by Alice’s approach as a bandleader.DownBeat wrote of one album: “It seems incredible that a group so heavily stamped by the late John Coltrane would not be able to pull off an album, but that’s just what happens here.” As more posthumous John Coltrane albums came to market, some featuring Alice’s own harp and string arrangements on top of previously recorded sessions, critics were enraged by the perceived blasphemy.

“Black female musicians have been quintessential others, overlooked because of … gender, race and class,” Berkman writes. “Black female musicians rarely transcend difference and obtain the status of artist.” In the context of such overt racism and sexism, Alice’s early solo albums were at odds not only with jazz’s “New Thing”—chaotic free-blowing sessions that roared and shrieked for entire sides of vinyl—but also with late-’60s radicalism and black power. At a time when African American female artists from Abbey Lincoln to Nina Simone were growing more and more politically outspoken, when riots and protests were roiling the inner cities of America, Alice’s music was the diametric opposite of such trends: introspective and contemplative, gentle and impressionistic.

Cecil McBee, a jazz bassist who played with Alice at the turn of the decade, says of her position and approach: “Where we were trying to come from [as free jazz musicians], with the loudness and bombast of our music, she made these statements in a more delicate, graceful, articulate, and uniform way.” She was intentionally making something softer than protest music; she wasn’t demonstrating on the bandstand. In an era when national, racial, and gender identity were highly contentious, Alice Coltrane was aiming for transcendence.

The Coltranes’ universalist view, which dates back to A Love Supreme, came into focus for Alice Coltrane in 1969, when she was introduced to a figure who clarified her spiritual path and resolve, Swami Satchidananda. Invited to New York City by film director Conrad Rooks, Satchidananda came to visit in 1967 and began to lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Church in the Upper West Side, soon establishing the first Integral Yoga Institute on West End Avenue. Within a few years, Satchidananda made the spread in Lifemagazine’s “Year of the Guru” issue and then sold out Carnegie Hall. He later opened the ceremonies at Woodstock. Alice gravitated to his Eastern philosophy of self-knowledge and became close friends with the Swami.

Anticipating a trip to accompany the Swami through India, Alice Coltrane entered the studio in 1970 to record what is arguably the most sumptuous spiritual jazz album of the era, Journey in Satchidananda. The liner notes speak of that upcoming voyage, but the music itself reveals that a stunning internal shift has already occurred, fitting for the cryptic title, in that “Satchidananda” is not an external destination to be journeyed to, but rather a place to be discovered within. Augmented by oud, tamboura, Sanders’ soprano saxophone, and McBee’s bowed bass, Alice’s assured harp playing takes on a Technicolor vibrancy, entwining with Indian overtones to create a divine music that transcends not only the limitations of jazz but of both Eastern and Western music, and anticipates the rise of New Age music at its most resonant.

McBee described the sessions to Berkman as intimate: “It was very, very spiritual. The lights would be low and she had incense and there was not much conversation … about what was to be. The spiritual, emotional, physical statement of the environment, it was just there. You felt it and you just played it.” The month after Satchidanandawas released, Alice accompanied the Swami to India for a five-week trip, visiting New Delhi, Ceylon, Rishikesh, and Madras. She brought her harp with her, an exotic sight to most Indians, and also began to learn Hindu devotional hymns.

Alice returned from the pilgrimage and recorded her next album,Universal Consciousness, shortly thereafter. It deftly mixes orchestral strings, Indian timbres, harp, and the Wurlitzer organ, an instrument Alice said had been revealed to her in a vision. It was a music she described as a “Totality concept, which embraces cosmic thought as an emblem of Universal Sound.” And while a fellow devotee of Indian music, George Harrison, might have set Hindu chants to folk-rock arrangements, Alice saw in them something both avant-garde and transcendent. One won’t mistake her version of “Hare Krishna”—with a harp and orchestral arrangement that could levitate mountains—for what you hear chanted in Union Square. Even DownBeat couldn’t deny its majesty, calling Universal Consciousness a “paragon of the new music. … [Alice] emerged as the strongest of Coltrane’s disciples. Her leadership affects everyone, consequently producing a stunningly beautiful result.”

That adoration was short-lived in the press, with her last two albums for Impulse getting dismissive reviews. World Galaxy earned two and a half stars, lambasted as “super-saccharine, often corny and terribly repetitive,” while Lord of Lords was described as being “not much more than pretty music … made up of little more than strung-together arpeggios and glissandi … a massive swaying smear.”

For Alice’s great-nephew, Flying Lotus, the turbulent and beautifulLord of Lords goes far deeper: “For me, that record is the story of John Coltrane’s ascension. It’s her understanding and coping with his death. In particular, ‘Going Home,’ that’s a family song. When someone passes, that’s the song we play at the funeral. When my auntie passed, we played that one. When my mom died, we played it for her.”

Swamini A.C. Turiyasangitananda

In 1976, Alice received a divine message to start an ashram and renounced the secular, beginning her new life clad in the orange robes of the Swamini. And while there were a few more studio albums for Warner Bros., for the most part, her music no longer consisted of original compositions but rather iterations of Indian hymns. Beginning on her first trip to India, Alice began to adapt bhajans—the Indian hymns associated with the Bhakti revival movement of India—to be sung at worship services at the ashram. Her last two Warners albums, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana andTranscendenceboth released in 1977, comprised such devotional music, and soon after, she no longer performed in public or recorded for a label. A few years later, a series of four albums was self-released on cassette: Turiya Sings (1982), Divine Songs (1987), Infinite Chants(1990), and Glorious Chants (1995). The music within reveals a private universe of cosmic contemplation, the Swamini accompanying herself on electric organ, sometimes with her students chanting along with her. It’s a disarming music, both solemn and celebratory, haunting yet joyous.

When she removed herself from the material world to devote herself to more spiritual matters later that same decade, writing four books about her divine revelations, she was called Swamini Turiyasangitananda by her devoted students, an eight-syllable name that translates from Hindi as “the Transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss.” Coming into prominence in an era when almost every rock star and jazz musician dabbled in Eastern mysticism and wrapped themselves in spiritual clothing only to drop them later, Alice embodied that change wholly, turning away from public acclaim and becoming a Hindu swamini and teacher.

As a child, Flying Lotus visited Alice at the ashram every Sunday: “It’s a very beautiful place, very musical. After my aunt would speak, she would play music. She’d be on the organ and people would bring instruments and there would be singing and chanting. The sounds Auntie would get out of that organ were crazy. I still never heard anyone play like that. It was super funky. As a kid, I didn’t have an appreciation for it. Now I have a different perspective on it.” Ellison told me that as a young teenager, he traveled to India with his aunt and witnessed strangers on the street drop to their knees to kiss her feet, realizing her divine presence.

To get to the Sai Anantam Ashram, one must drive through the entire length of the San Fernando Valley, toward the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains, before turning down a road that winds through Agourra Hills, the land brown and red with tufts of white and green brush. Past a vineyard and an equestrian center, there is a dirt road to the ashram’s gate, which is open to the public for only four hours each Sunday. The grounds are almost silent.

On a bright Sunday afternoon, there are only eight people at the Vedantic Center’s service. Plastic patio chairs line the walls of the unadorned room and marigold throw pillows are scattered throughout atop plush royal-blue carpet. The devotees, clad all in white, sit still yet sing with great fervor. Music fills the room; led by an organist situated between garlanded portraits of Sai Baba and Swamini Turiyasangitananda, the gathered sing more than a dozen hymns, accompanied by organ and the hand drums, bells, and rattles that the devotees play themselves. The bhajans segue into one another, and, curiously, these Indian hymns have a Pentecostal gospel feel to them, the blues coursing through each mesmerizing movement to suggest a place where Southeast Asia and the Deep South of America meet.

After the two-hour service is concluded, the small congregation gathers for fellowship. Since the Swamini’s passing on January 12, 2007, only seven people live at the ashram. Over carrot-raisin bread and a paper cup of strawberry lemonade from Trader Joe’s, the remaining devotees of Turiyasangitananda discuss the upcoming anniversary of their Swamini’s passing. The word death is not used. One member says that they should no longer call it a “memorial,” as that word lingers on the past. Another offers up a suggestion: The anniversary should be called an ascension, as a way to keep the blessed Swamini Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda forever in the present.