The shuttering of Twitter’s API and the mind-numbing prevalence of bullshit ads on that platform has basically killed any interest I have in posting on there for the moment. I’ve cashed in a Bluesky invite, joined Threads, all that ship-jumping, but much to my own surprise, I am spending way more time over on Instagram right now, which feels like a far more interesting(?) place to share not only links to writing and notes but images and video. For better or worse, I’ve really leaned into it as a novel “new” outlet for exercising my unending capacity to earnestly overshare… I don’t feel like I’m alone in that.
Maybe this is a sign of how awful a lot of other platforms have become. Instagram hasn’t suddenly changed, but maybe the bar is just that low right now. Musk has a lot to answer for, but maybe it also has something to do with the pandemic making people a bit more sentimental when it comes to sharing their personal lives. Less of the ironic detachment of Twitter, more of an extension of your IRL communities. Maybe Instagram is now just Facebook for millennials.
Whatever this phase-shift might be symptomatic of, over the last couple of years the Xenogothic Instagram page has generally been more reserved; I’ve used it primarily as a space for sharing more artful photographs of life being lived. But as tends to happen to me every few years or so, it is now becoming a space for nostalgically sharing a lot of my archive and other fleeting activities, particularly on the disappearing 24-hour stories.
The hard drive that sits connected to my Wi-Fi router, digitally sagging with almost everything I’ve produced since the mid-2000s, is a real treasure trove — to me, if no-one else — of previous lives and ideas and projects that never developed into anything but still linger on in embryonic forms. No one ever saw any merit in the vast majority of it, and plenty of it is embarrassing to me now too. (Call it “juvenilia”.) But taken as an unruly whole, it shows the tread along the path that led to here. Things could have gone very differently. At times, that was even the conscious intention. But here we are, nonetheless.
I think, in many ways, what fascinates me about the terabytes of material hoarded over the last fifteen years or so is that it highlights the contingencies of life in a wonderful way. My frequent (and present) nostalgia isn’t a wistful look back on things I miss (or missed), so much as it is a way of reckoning with the vast differences and surprising similarities visible between these people I have been and the person I am now.
In thinking about this recently and trying to justify my nostalgia to myself, as I shut off the cringe meter and inundate Instagram followers with dozens of clips from memory lane or late-night living-room experiments, I’ve returned to Grafton Tanner’s recent book, The Hours Have Lost Their Clock.
In the conclusion, Grafton discusses the tragic death of his sister-in-law and her husband during Hurricane Zeta in 2020, as well as the nostalgic grief that overtook him and others in the aftermath. He identifies and elucidates a tension that is central to so much of his work, but here emerges with a new immediacy and emotive weight:
If you had told me to stop feeling nostalgic, I wouldn’t have known how. I couldn’t just suck it up and deal with the loss. We wanted nothing to do with the future, and why should we? What good is a future without them? Of course, we’ll go on. We have to go on. But the nostalgia will follow us, soothing and aching in equal measure, for years to come. It is already so bound up with my feelings of grief and sorrow that there’s no way I can just excise it. And this is crucial to remember.
[…] Nostalgia is an unavoidable reaction to the traumas of the modern world. We don’t need some reality check to awaken us from the emotion. What we need is a livable world, one that supports real people when crises happen and that doesn’t exacerbate them through selfishness, greed, and the thirst for power. Over the next century, plenty of people are going to experience loss — loss of loved ones, their homes, their way of life — and they’re going to feel nostalgic, too.
Here the political significance of nostalgia is writ large. The contingencies of an unfolding present are writ large also. The ruptures of a receding past highlight the choices to be made in the future. A freak weather event like a more-extreme-than-usual hurricane season might be dealt with stoically by some, for instance, but as we hurtle towards climate catastrophe, we are also made aware that there are things we can do — things that we must do — to ensure that these sorts of events do not get more frequent, or at least plan to support our currently existing communities when they do. Our nostalgia, then, can reorient us towards new futures.
Grafton expands on this by quoting Mark Fisher:
“The past has to be continually re-narrated, and the political point of reactionary narratives is to suppress the potentials which still await, ready to be re-awakened, in older moments.” Nostalgia, too, can be a re-awakening. It has the emotional power to conjure up the potentials of the past that are constantly being paved over by capital. The past is a kind of battleground, where the fight over memory is waged. One of our nostalgic goals should be to return to the front and listen to the ghosts who roam the graying battlefield where the smoke still hangs in the air. To open the radical potentials of the past from those cruel enough to suppress them is “less an act of remembering than of unforgetting,” as Fisher wrote.
A reappraisal of nostalgia in this light is, of course, not so “straight”-forward for all bodies. Grafton expands his discussion further in this regard and quotes Alison Kafer, who discusses a “[c]ompulsory nostalgia [that] is driven by the ‘cultural expectation’ that one must yearn for a ‘before’ version of oneself in order to be ‘permitted to exist as part of a desired present or a desirable future'”, noting how disabled people are often encouraged to “yearn for a nondisabled self, imagined or not, [which] splits them into before and after selves, when they really occupy ‘both the before and the after at once.'”
Queer time is also related to this, of course: time that is “bent, odd, not ‘straight time’, which flows in a linear direction through past, present, and future”, as Grafton writes. “Straight time is ‘foundational to the production of normalcy.'”
People are supposed to follow certain paths, meet certain goals in a specific order, and clearly demarcate past from present from future. You go to school, get a job, marry, bear and raise children, retire, and die. Queer cultures, on the other hand, have long lived according to “strange temporalities,” as Jack Halberstam has argued.
These are queer times. Time feels very much out of joint — a queer experience indeed, as is feeling nostalgia. A Union soldier in the Civil War, choking up with nostalgia when Union bands would play “Home, Sweet Home,” said it best: “I don’t like to hear it for it makes me feel queer.” Union armies ultimately banned its performance. There would be no queer feelings, no falling out of straight time, but only an order from the top brass to march straight forward into the blazing, deafening cannonade of the future.
It is this sense of time in particular that has me preoccupied at the moment — very specifically, in fact. The musical example is perfect: a sonic queering of the atemporal self.
My two (recent and not-so-recent) posts on wrestling with a convoluted and repressed gender identity — 2021’s “Bad Queer” and 2023’s “Better Queer?” — are laden with regret at not discovering (or allowing myself to accept) the self that I am until the age of 31. But a growing acceptance of this disjuncture has been surprisingly musical in nature, which feels like a marked shift from a prior nostalgia that has been predominantly underlined by my own grief.
There have been both positive and fruitful aspects of this experience, alongside the more anguished parts. When initially coming out last year, for example, I essentially regressed to being 18 again for a few months. Though it did not last long, looking back I can see a sort of post-traumatic return to the last time I felt somewhat content and secure in my own existence. This is a sad realisation, on the one hand, as who in their right mind would yearn for the chaos of late adolescence (and in my right mind I clearly wasn’t). But on the other hand, it is notable because I suddenly found myself able to start again from where I’d previously left off, all those years ago.
Hull Pride, 2010.
Though failing to self-identify as anything in particular for the entirety of my twenties, I had nonetheless been most at home in a solid community of queers from 2007 to 2010 (ages ~16 to ~19). Then, when I left home for university, having my first experience of a social blank slate, I went through a sort of self-reinvention that wasn’t particularly edifying; I think I lost more than I gained that year, experimenting and trying to be something I wasn’t. (The universal freshers’ wobble.) But now, in 2023, I feel like I am once again living in a community like the one I have missed for so long.
The nostalgia that has gripped me at present, then, feels a lot like the sort of unforgetting that Grafton and Fisher describe. After a minor blip, I no longer feel like I am reaching for 18 again, but rather rediscovering the potentials that lay around me at that time, which were left un(der)explored.
The queer-political implications of this are perhaps obvious, but something that has truly caught me by surprise, and which seems a lot lower-stakes than the political implications of nostalgia discussed above, is a resurgent interest in making music.
In 2008, my Dad bought me a guitar for my birthday. For a few years, I had been making a racket in my room on a child’s-size acoustic guitar that was acquired from a charity shop. It sounded terrible, and the more I played it, the worse it got. The body of the guitar had no pick guard and so, after years of thrashing at its flimsy body, the wood directly below the soundhole had been chipped away and started to warp the sounds it made.
No doubt fed up with this racket but wanting to encourage my musical interests, my Dad took me to a guitar shop in town and let me pick one out for my birthday. Much to his surprise, as I strummed a few chords on different kinds of guitar, I fixated on a large twelve-string acoustic. This was certainly not what he had in mind when buying me my first guitar proper, but I was so clearly obsessed with the polyphonic sounds it made that, a few days later, he agreed I could have it.
That guitar went everywhere with me for years. Unfortunately, it later suffered some pretty serious structural damage when I moved to Huddersfield in late 2020, and it later ended up at the local incinerator. I cried a lot when I dumped it unceremoniously into the giant skip there, but so much work needed doing to it, I imagined it would cost more to repair than to replace. I’d also hardly played it in recent years anyway. Having taken it around the city of Hull committedly during the late 2000s playing cover songs in dive bars and coffee shops and DIY venues on the open-mic circuit, when I moved to Wales for university, picking it up to play became an increasingly distant pastime. Eventually, this beautiful instrument became little more than an ornament, propped up in various rooms and never played. In hindsight, I think the guitar felt like a detached limb in the end, which once connected me to a community I was no longer in touch with.
My ex-girlfriend, aware of how much the loss of my twelve-string pained me (despite my neglect of it), later bought me another guitar before we broke up. This was a standard six-string, entry-level guitar, black-finished wood. Acoustic goth. It was a deeply touching gesture, but it was neglected too, nonetheless — until this past month. Now living alone in a flat in Newcastle, in a building that is thankfully well soundproofed, I picked it up again and tried to teach myself the song “Last Goodbye” by Jeff Buckley.
The song choice was unconsciously significant. I just loved the song for what it was at first, but soon found a deep catharsis coming from my playing of it, as the lyrics resonated with the rapid farewell I’d experienced eighteen months previously, saying goodbye to the woman I loved and who had bought me the guitar not that long ago.
It unlocked something in me. Feeling like I’d very much lost any capacity to sing and play from lack of practice, I surprised myself. I thought I sounded pretty good. Over the days that followed, I started recording snippets of the songs I was reacquainting myself and uploading them to my Instagram stories.
Instagram story. Playing along to Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”.
27 June 2023.
Having not shared anything of this nature online for over a decade, I went back into my archive to see if there was any other evidence of an old life lived, now being reclaimed. At first, I found nothing. I’d broken a hard drive in 2011, during my second year at university, and so had always assumed that a lot of my adolescent digital footprint had been lost. But it turned out that all of my old bedroom recordings had ended up tucked away with the terabytes of other people’s music, which I’d taken much better care of.
The vast majority of these tracks are far too embarrassing to share. Bad songs, bad covers, bad recordings. The earliest recordings, dating back to 2007, played on that sad charity-shop guitar, feature a horrendously nasal singing voice that is totally unlistenable. But things start to improve over time. Vocal control moves down to the diaphragm, the harmonies of the twelve-string come to the fore, there is an occasional and unfortunate American twang to some of the songs sung, but a sound is nonetheless starting to settle. I was fascinated to hear even the minutest progressions.
The best recording from this time, and one notable for its content too, is a cover of “Doggy”, the (retroactively assigned) Animal Collective song from their beautiful early album Campfire Songs, originally released before they’d settled on the group moniker. My version is much more stripped-back, played on that charity-shop guitar, making it even more naive-sounding than the original. But I quite like the sparseness of it.
That’s not to say I think it is “good”. It has none of the atmosphere of the original, wherefrom its magic unfurls; the living quality of the album, recorded in one take on a porch in Maryland in the winter of 2001, is entirely singular and feels almost unrepeatable. But my version still retains something similar, to my ear at least: it sounds like my old room, which I barely left, and the dulled sound of my strumming and singing took me back immediately to sitting cross-legged on the floor, a rudimentary Noughties video-call headset and microphone clamped precariously onto my knee.
Though lacking the pleasurably swampy atmosphere of a backyard locked-groove, where a mournful song about a dead dog is given a new half-life, as if it was taken a psychedelic adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery, my version travels in the other direction, becoming a jaggedly static and utterly dead thing. But it is an apt soundtrack for anxieties of another kind; a different, more adolescent and less supernatural kind of interzone.
Cover of “Doggy” by Animal Collective.
13 January 2009.
If I am being even slightly generous toward my own lo-fi sensibilities, it is because the naivety of all these songs was very much intentional. As has been the case throughout my life, I have always had a punk pick-up-and-play attitude to all creative endeavours, refusing to consciously learn any sort of technique, instead figuring things out through an unabashed process of public trial and error, perpetually resting upon something fleetingly mine that is allowed to shift how it pleases. There is a sense of “you have to start somewhere”, and so this beginning feels enchanting for that reason. No sense of pretension, just creation. A few initial marks made on a blank canvas. Utterly childlike, free of worry or care.
I remember thinking about this a lot, when I’d occasionally get embarrassed about my pride in things making things that I didn’t think anyone would consider good. But it felt like a real achievement for me to make something regardless. I felt anxious enough already in daily life, telling myself I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something, overthinking the implications of everything. The time spent making things was instead a time of thinking very little, of just seeing what emerges without the self getting in the way. I had ambitions and I had a desire to improve on my own terms, but I also didn’t want to be the kind of person who simply told others they were doing things and then never show their hand. I wanted to share every attempt at anything.
In my eyes, all of my favourite artists did the same thing. They seemed to conjure up other worlds in their bedrooms with whatever was immediately to hand, and my recordings — there are over a hundred of them — are my initial, fiercely underdeveloped attempts to do the same. The experiments of others were more considered than my own — that seems undoubtedly true — but regardless of the fact I was nowhere near to being on par, that drive to share experiments all the time, as if this precious time of juvenile experimentation never had to end, remains so important to me. No sense of professionalism, but a dogged desire to retain the sense of creative abandon; “lines of flight”; “life-experimentation.” (I’d like to think this blog stands as a testament to that teenage mindset still today.)
If my intention was to rise to the productivity and freedom of my favourite artists, the songs chosen for these early recordings are perplexing. They are so often twee and innocent, even terribly saccharine. They hardly reflect what I was listening to at the time. But what I remember thinking and affirming back then was that they were simply the songs I knew I could play. They didn’t reflect my overarching music taste at all, but they maybe reflected my autodidactic approach and lack of ability; the songs were all accessibly folksy, singable and playable, like the nursery rhymes often taught to students just picking up an instrument for the first time.
The songs do, intriguingly, get more technically complex after a few years have passed, as do my attempts at making multitrack recordings. One that sticks out is an original song called “Be Mine”. The lyrics are awful: it’s a cringe-inducing song of adolescent yearning. It slips out of tune occasionally too, but hearing the outro’s vocal harmonies fourteen years later gives me a sort of Proustian thrill. I remembered how utterly proud of it I was, not so much as a good piece of songwriting, but at least as a bedroom recording that somehow sounded “big” and emotive, despite being made with nothing more than an old headset mic and a free download of Audacity.
Excerpt from demo for “Be Mine”.
19 August 2009.
Hearing it again opened up a door long thought closed. I was potentially on the verge of doing some more interesting things in that moment. I could have taken this surprisingly big sound into some interesting new places. I could have kept working at it, written more original material, really played with multitracking in the DAW, continued exploring the kinds of lo-fi recordings that I loved from others.
(It feels significant that 2008, when many of these initial recordings were made, was also the year that both Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and Grouper’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill were released. I was an early fanatic about both projects, acquiring them and heading to empty gigs played by both artists before both albums garnered more widespread release and significant popularity. Suffice it to say, this hipster sense of discovering some sort of treasure earlier than most amplified its impact on me in each instance, and if I had any idea how to achieve it, I’d have probably tried making music that was sonically somewhere in between the two.)
Sadly, “Be Mine” was also where my experiments peaked. I left home to go to university two months later and never sang in public or recorded music ever again. I’m not entirely sure why. Living with other people for the first time, I was certainly far too self-conscious to again spend hours thrashing out the same song in my room, driving everyone else insane. (My parents were, of course, fair game when living at home.) My mental health was also bad in my first year at university, and I was there to focus on photography anyway, presuming I was only allowed one real string to my bow. (As mentioned above, I certainly felt like I lost more aspects of my self that year than I gained.) These were likely all factors in never again picking up my guitar with any real intent.
A lot changed then, you could say, but a lot also stayed the same. These recordings were all uploaded to old blogs I had. Indeed, at that time, the blogosphere in general felt truly interdisciplinary. Attempts at writing one day, photographs another, some lo-fi bedroom EP made in a few hours the next. It’s how so many people approached this relatively new frontier online. Everything was decentralised, and at the same time so much more centralised than it is now. Whereas these days you write on Substack or WordPress, upload demoes or more polished releases to Soundcloud or Bandcamp, post pictures on Instagram, market it all with other miscellaneously subjective detritus on Twitter; in the 2000s, you’d find everything on Blogpost or MySpace (or on some independently hosted server, if you were more savvy).
It was, of course, around this time that I became an avid k-punk blog reader, but the blog archipelago was populated by far more than just writers at that time. Bradford Cox, for instance, of the band Deerhunter, used to regularly update the world about his various activities on a Blogpost page (now shuttered and open to “invited readers only”). There, you could hear demoes of forthcoming Deerhunter releases, but also much more frank and vulnerable demoes and experiments related to Cox’s other projects, such as the solo venture Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza, featuring fellow Deerhunter bandmate Lockett Pundt.
Cox would post artwork alongside Mediafire links and occasionally some text about whatever he was releasing. Sometimes this was hardly necessary, as the stream-of-consciousness releases told you everything you needed to know. 2007’s unassuming “Weekend EP”, for instance, consists of three tracks, all orbiting around 10 minutes in length. The titles are as follows: “Friday Night We Took Acid and Laid on Matt’s Bedroom Floor Staring at His Ceiling Fan While His Parents Watched TV Downstairs”; “Saturday Night We Went Swimming And There Was a Light in the Water”; “Sunday Evening We Relaxed in our Rooms and Called Each Other on the Phone”. The songs themselves are a mixture of ambient sound-baths and a droning chopped-and-screwed vocal affair, with the latter laden with barely decipherable lyrics that provide only snippets of description and affect. Regardless, it sounds like a really nice weekend.
There was often a frank confessional element to these releases too. The songs that haunt the most, and which were the first to come to mind on this nostalgia trip, were the songs “Screaming in the Face of Death” and “Children’s Hospital (Screaming in the Face of Death #2)”. The latter, in particular, is a deeply affecting sonic journey into the sounds and silences of a children’s ward, where Cox spent time due to complications from Marfan syndrome. The song is a molasses fever dream; a teenage interzone of pain and trauma. It woozes as if overmedicated, but Cox begs timidly for relief; the other side of a medicalised delirium.
It was an approach I deeply admired, and I soon began following Cox’s blog obsessively, alongside k-punk. Their combined influence was so strong that, when I left school with some GSCEs and a striking lack of concern about how I’d survive and what I’d do for work, I told myself I’d just blog forever. (And here we still are, thankfully now a little more responsible when it comes to financing my own existence.)
My own blogs, from 2007 to the present, have long felt like a pastiche of the two, with the primary focus (for many, many years) being my own photography, but little “virtual seven-inches” (as Cox called them) were also frequent uploads once upon a time. It is a love of this kind of blogging that I have never really lost, even if so many of the blogs I used to read have themselves waned or fallen out of algorithmic fashion, and it is here that the sense of blogger’s continuum is most pronounced.
Indeed, it is strange to think that, in so many ways, my approach to the documented life hasn’t changed one bit. The impulse is the same, as are the methods deployed to satisfy it — thankfully, I’ve become a bit more articulate with age. In amongst my own archive of bedroom recordings, for example, there are even some early attempts at “podcasting”. These are even more embarrassing than the songs, and so I won’t share them in full. To do so would also feel slightly unethical, as it shocked me even now how utterly candid my friends and I were about the mischief we got up to, sharing stories of acquiring alcohol underage, doing drugs and openly regaling each other with stories of our various queer-sexual encounters.
But as noted recently, typing up debriefs of nights on the town is still something my friends know me for, even if the current approach is far more reflective and grounded in a philosophical-political interest in culture and community. Back then, we just wanted to see how close the narratives of our entangled lives could get to an episode of Skins. (They got uncomfortably close on multiple occasions.)
Excerpt from blog reading.
11 August 2010.
In fairness, the story told in this full recording is still a good one, but we were just too toxically adolescent to really appreciate the implications of our actions beyond their shock value. It’s all group sex, police visits, and me falling through a garage roof at some point. There is no real reflection on what we were running from, struggling with, as a predominantly queer group of reckless kids chasing death under the guise of unclean fun.
This reading was also recorded before another night to come, and so it is tellingly interrupted by the chirping interference of incoming text messages, as we reflect on last year’s party whilst figuring out meeting points, booze and drugs for the next one. There’s a recklessness to it all that is more than a little pathetic, but it nonetheless led me to develop and hone a habit of documenting everything that happens to me, which has surely served me well — in terms of personal growth, most importantly; only later coming to really appreciate Deleuze’s adage that we make ourselves of the things that happen to us. As such, just as the musical experiments gradually became more complex and experimental, so did a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to the morning after became more integral to weathering the chaos of fading youth and the approaching oppressiveness of adult life. The tensions couldn’t be numbed or ignored forever.
(I’ve mentioned this at some point before, but this notably all took place during the rise to notoriety of — the then legal high — M-CAT. Someone in our extended circle of friends later died by suicide after a weekend bender at Hull’s The Welly Club; different members of our friendship group eventually calmed down or went further into debauchery after that. Half of us escaping to university helped us put that time behind us. There is little real nostalgia retained for that time as a result, and so the laughing and joking about our lack of self-concern feels particularly morbid and mawkish, overcompensating for a real darkness at the core of our friendship group. Still, it was a significant time nonetheless.)
I hope that this reminiscing and reflection goes some way to clarifying my complicated feelings about a present return to teenage potentials. There is no escaping the fact I am in my thirties now, and I have no desire to regress to a time of abject idiocy. But it is nonetheless life-affirming to recall the more creative potentials felt at that time and how they resonate with those in the present. The last year or so has been equally defined by the fraught choice between being whoever I want to be and choosing not to be at all, such was the striking dichotomy that lingered under the surface of those experimental years of adolescent queerness as well.
Depression is kept more successfully at bay these days, having seen off a recent period of low mood more quickly than I’ve ever managed before, and it is always a reminder of the most obvious thing that helps: I’m a blogger. It’s what I do. When times are tough, if I give myself over to this thing I maintain in public, I feel immediately accountable to myself and to others, and so my life and mood falls into line. Writing and creating helps me regulate. The blog is thus this wonderful depository for shards of self; a surrogate for an adolescent bedroom. I may have no idea who I am in the great outdoors, but I know who I am when I’m here. And most importantly, irrespective of what anyone else thinks, I like who I am when I’m here too. There are many hard lessons being learned as I once again discover (or perhaps discover for the very first time) how to appreciate my own company.
A better indication of where my head is at is no doubt the recent “Better Queer?” post. I’m no longer daunted by the questions I need to answer. I just want to move through the world and affirm myself again, properly. That does not necessarily mean picking up where I left off, but perhaps tuning myself back into all the other things I hoped to do before.
A certain manic excitement has arisen from this sense of unforgetting and reclaiming. After spending the last year buying a lot of clothes, finding ways to experiment and feel newly comfortable in my own skin, I’ve more recently put some of the money made from a few months of overworking myself into buying a new microphone, learning the ins and outs of a new DAW, and I also bought a banjo…? As I rebuild confidence playing all the old songs I knew so well, I’d like to get back to recording some of my own. I’d like to quickly move on from these indie renditions of yore and get weird with it. And I’d very much like to take readers along for the ride.
So, watch this space…
Instagram story. Cover of “Place to Be” by Nick Drake.
28 June 2023.
Instagram story. Cover of “Been Smoking Too Long” by Robin Frederick.
28 June 2023.
Instagram story. Cover of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Sufjan Stevens.
28 June 2023.