The Night Before Lockdown… With Serum & Inja
Behind every set, there’s a story. Behind the set Inja and Serum performed for Inhibit in Perth, Australia on March 14, there’s an epic tale that captures one of the last weekends the world was able to rave together.
Filmed for posterity, this set turned out to be one of the very last shows the duo would play for the foreseeable. The latest show in our ongoing D&BTV: Locked-In series, watch it here and read the full story below…
“We’ve been doing this for years, but never at any point has there been the feeling that ‘this could be one of your last shows for a very long time…’”
Even the most legendary sets can become a little blurry for international touring artists as their careers clock up a few years, but some will never be forgotten. For Serum and Inja, three of those gigs happened between March 13-15.
10 weeks ago at time of writing, a lifetime ago in terms of world events; the shows took place in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne and would form one half of a 10-day Australia/New Zealand tour.
Unfortunately the NZ leg never happened; events escalated so quickly, the Kings Of The Rollers members weren’t sure if they’d even be able to continue the tour or get home without experiencing two weeks of quarantine thousands of miles from their families at home in the UK.
“Hour by hour things were changing,” explains Inja. “I was in flight-or-fight mode. Do I stay and risk it? Or do we get the hell out of there? I didn’t care what the cost was. To ever not be able to do a show breaks my heart, but that’s how intense things were.”
The intensity of the weekend was shared globally across the industry as clubs and raves around the world were shutting up shop. Some countries had responded a week earlier, restricting travel and banning large gatherings over 500 people, but this was the weekend when people began to appreciate how severe the situation was.
A watershed moment happened just days before. 4pm CET, Wednesday March 11; the industry started waving the summer goodbye when Rampage became the first major event to be affected by COVID-19 and announced their postponement.
At that exact moment, 10,000 miles away, Serum and Inja were landing in Sydney. Having the left the UK two days before, where the government were still blindly (and irresponsibly) insisting that no lockdown restrictions were necessary, and clubs still remained open for at least another 10 days, they were unaware at just how quickly things would move over the next few days.
“There was a weird vibe, for sure,” says Mark of their flight to Australia. “Singapore had Predator-style temperature vision cameras. I really wanted to do the Total Recall ‘two weeks’ thing but didn’t think it would be appropriate. Then when we got to Australia they reckoned we’d have a few weeks ahead of us before anything kicked off. It was just normal. During that Sydney show I wasn’t thinking about it at all. Then we got to Perth and it was like ‘fuck! Shit is happening!’”
Big Down Under
Their Sydney date wasn’t without remark. Few shows in the city’s infamous Chinese Laundry ever are. A classic sweaty, dank rave den, famed for its full-strength crowd, the show set the tone for what they hoped would be a very successful tour.
“I came off stage, took off my shirt and rang it out! It was that soaking. It was amazing, the vibes in there were great,” says Inja.
Unlike Serum, however, the virus was on his mind during the show. It had been a concern of his for some months. But, as a working artist, he couldn’t not tour unless the government advice became such that it was dangerous or risking others.
It’s the risk a DJ, or anyone who has to fly as part of their job, has to weigh up from time to time. The heightened sense of terrorist danger in the wake of 911, when security ramped up at airports at a similarly rapid pace to the COVID restrictions, was one particular period where things changed massively for DJs. The outbreak of previous viruses such as swine flu, bird flu and SARS are other examples. The language used in the build-up to the pandemic was just the same as it was when these viruses broke out years before.
“It’s on your mind but this is work, right? The show must go on. But bruv, that Sydney show. It was so sweaty. In my head, I was out on the frontline thinking ‘boy, if there’s a virus in this building we’ve all got it.”
Fortunately there was no COVID-19 at the Chinese Laundry. But behind the scenes decisions were being made that would drastically change the pace between the first and second date of the tour.
“While they were in the air from Sydney to Perth, that’s when the event ban came in,” explains promoter Geoff Shrapnel.
Geoff is the man behind Inhibit, the longstanding Perth event Serum and Inja were heading to play. He’s also the man behind their entire tour and is, in fact, the main booking agent for a great deal of international tours of Australia and New Zealand. In the weeks prior to Serum and Inja’s arrival he’d had Dillinja, Current Value and Wilkinson all touring and was just about to run tours with A.M.C, Culture Shock, Turno, The Prototypes and DC Breaks.
While the UK summer / Aussie winter is a little less busy for bookings traditionally (as most artists are touring the festival circuits in Europe and North America), this season was looking like Geoff’s busiest in his 13 year career. Now, like all promoters, he’s at something of a loose end… And he knew this would be the case the minute the Australian authorities announced the closure of all venues on March 14.
“As I picked them up from the airport I knew it would be the last event I would host for some time. I imagine it was the same for the guys in terms of one of their last performances. We were in the middle of this very surreal moment.”
“We were!” Inja exclaims. “The first thing was to make sure everyone was alright at home and I remember being in the back of Geoff’s car on the phone to our agent and working things out. By then knew the New Zealand shows just weren’t going to happen, our agent was being a hero, sorting things out on that side, so my brain started ticking… I was like ‘yo, can we get cameras? If we’re going on and the world is going to pot, we need to capture this.’”
“The look in his eye when he said ‘we have to do this’ was something else,” laughs Geoff. “I wasn’t going to argue with him.”
“It just felt important. We were going into a flight-or-fight situation and we needed to do this.”
On the M.O.V.E
The flight-or-fight vibe was also compounded by the lure of the second leg of the tour. A much bigger, more high-profile and ultimately lucrative side of the tour, the New Zealand leg was where the biggest crowds were thanks to NZ’s current infatuation with D&B.
“It’s huge out there, I can’t stress that enough,” says Geoff. “Macky Gee, for instance, sold out Auckland Town Hall in four minutes. That’s never happened before. Drum & bass is incredibly well represented at festivals over there, too. It’s huge. Before the lockdown it was getting quite saturated. Some weekends you’d have up to seven shows of UK artists in one city.”
With this type of dedication in mind, the pressures for Serum and Inja to complete the tour were intense and – thank you hindsight – now seem pretty ridiculous. At this point only the Australian authorities were closing down venues. New Zealand hadn’t, but they had announced they’d enforce a two-week quarantine for all international visitors from the Monday. With Serum and Inja’s last show in Melbourne finishing relatively early on the Sunday, there was a very slim chance they might just make it.
“There wasn’t a slim chance at all,” laughs Serum. “We knew we were going to have do quarantine if we went to New Zealand. It was quite funny really, people were saying ‘ah don’t worry mate, chance it, we’ll look after you!’ Obviously we know now that would have been a seriously bad idea.”
“For a holiday, man would roam and check the country out!” agrees Inja. “But when every other country is on lockdown and man can’t roam? It broke my heart. Inboxes were going mad, ‘don’t worry, we’ll take care of things, we’ll sort you out.’ Bare fans, you know. But we couldn’t be that far from home for that long. Not when things were so uncertain.”
Knowing they made the right decision to cancel the rest of the tour, and locking their flight home from Melbourne the following night, the trio enjoyed a meal and prepared for the show under the strange and entirely unique feeling that the world was about to change drastically but yet the show still must go on.
“I remember walking into the club, seeing this giant poster of our heads and a giant poster of A.M.C and Phantom. That made me smile because Phantom’s my boy,” smiles Inja. “Geoff said it wasn’t busy and he didn’t know how many ticket holders would actually turn up, but it should be cool by showtime. For me that really didn’t matter. One, we were running around sorting cameras out. And two, we didn’t know if we should be there! We didn’t know if we were risking each other being there, or ourselves. It was unlike anything other gig I’ve played. Ever.”
“People seemed in disbelief,” adds Serum. “It was a very strange moment. It wasn’t like ‘oh shit let’s go completely mad!’ People were a bit reserved. We had a good chat with loads of punters about it. It was an unusual vibe. I was in an unusual mood myself.”
Even for two artists who’ve been no strangers to the road since the early 2000s and pretty much seen it all, this was another level of weird. Capturing the vibe of one of the most critical weekends in the global pandemic, this would never be replicated.
“I couldn’t even remember what I played until I watched the video, it was just a strange blur,” says Serum. “I just went at it and tried to get people moving and slowly we tried to whip them up into shape. We’re here, we’ll do this, let’s have fun then get the fuck home!”
The video shows this. While it’s clear everyone is in the moment and loving the set, there’s a reserved edge to the dancefloor behaviour. Everyone in the 700-cap venue knew that this would be their last night raving for some time. And while you’d assume that might encourage complete abandonment, ridiculous scenes of inhibition and serious sesh talk thereafter (and most likely did for some hearty souls), the threat of a potentially lethal virus adds a barbed twist to any party vibe.
“It was a bit sombre starting off,” Geoff confirms. “At least 40% of the ticket buyers hadn’t turned up because of safety concerns. In all my years of promoting, through all kinds of challenges and conditions, I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. Since then I watched everything I’d been working towards leave the table. And over the weeks since I’ve been through every emotion you can imagine.”
Geoff’s story is one all promoters and other workers in the live industry will recognise. It’s by far the hardest hit aspect of the club music world. Over the weeks he’s come to accept the situation and now looks strictly for positives.
“What can you do but make the most of it and turn it into an opportunity? We all live life in the fast lane, we’ve had take the time to have some downtime,” he reflects and adds a positive spin. “This could actually be good for local scenes. Clubs will open before touring artists can come over again so there’ll be a lot of opportunities for homegrown talent.”
Melbourne On Road
For Serum and Inja reflection would come later. After the Perth show they had the classic red-eye disco nap and an early flight to Melbourne for the last club show they’ve played this year so far.
Mirroring just how quickly we’ve all adapted to the ‘new normal’, the show didn’t have any of intensity or pressure of the Perth event. By its Sunday night nature, the party was always going to be more chill. But with no additional restrictions put in place by the authorities they knew where they stood lockdown-wise and – thanks to the work of their agent Jon Cook at Urban Agency behind the scenes – they knew they had a clear path home.
“The show was early so we pretty much came straight off the plane, played the set, stayed there until it shut and had a last drink with some local folk we’d met on our last tour and had a bit of time to chill before we flew home,” Serum recalls. “We knew we were heading home and would be okay. We’d lost some great gigs but we were safe. I was strangely calm about everything, for a long time. When you go to the other side of the world your regular life is long way away. Your family, your friends, normal life. So it took a while to re-settle and take in the enormity of it all.”
“When I got home, I realised that essentially I’ve been grounded,” laughs Inja. “I’ve been grounded for the summer before. And that, when you’re a kid, is a lifetime. So I’m grounded again. But this time I live where I want to live, I got all the toys I want, I can eat what I want, sleep when I want. It’s the best grounding I’ve ever had and I’ve never had this much time off in my life since school.
“While this scares me like it scares all of us, I have to try and relax and not cause myself stress. We’re so lucky, we have had years of getting to see what’s going on around the world and have friends in all these places. Seeing the ripple effects of this is mad, it’s worldwide and out of our hands. So find a way to relax, give yourself a bit of time and see how it all falls before we build it back up. Because we will build it back up… And over the years it will become stronger than it was before.”
Behind every set there’s a story. Behind every lockdown, there’s a novel. This was Serum and Inja’s last working weekend as touring artists. And while some weekends may be a little blurry in our memories, this was a weekend very few of us will ever forget…