[October 2002 for alternativeworship.org]
The concept of the chillout room has been around since the early days of rave culture. As dance events turned into intense all-night affairs it became necessary to provide quieter areas away from the main dancefloor, where clubbers could rest their ears and feet, talk without having to shout, and come down from drugs. Chillout rooms had comfortable seating, soothing ambient video, and softer downtempo music. Sometimes there would be New Age therapies on offer or art of various kinds, and the general effect was womblike, calming and vaguely spiritual.
It didn't take huge amounts of imagination to see the potential as a new kind of church environment, particularly as raves and clubs often played with Christian references and imagery in both visuals and music.
But the kind of music being played in chillout rooms in Britain at this time [the late 80s - early 90s] could best be described as ambient, in the sense of rather abstract electronica derived from Brian Eno's work, mixed in with a gentle psychedelic form of dance music designed for stoned or tripping listening rather than dancing. The genre of music now called 'chillout' had a rather different pedigree.
Ibiza [pronounced ibeetha] is a small island in the Mediterranean Sea, part of the Balearic Islands which belong to Spain.
Ibiza had quietly developed its own unique style of club culture, mixing disco hedonism, beach party, the drug Ecstasy and a highly eclectic approach to music. In 1987 a handful of London DJs and promoters visiting the island for the first time were completely blown away by their experience, and in attempting to recreate the Ibizan club vibe back in London they triggered the cultural explosion of 'acid house' out of which all subsequent British dance culture emerges. Ibiza itself became a place of pilgrimage, the major holiday destination every summer for thousands of clubbers and DJs.
On the west coast of Ibiza, in the town of San Antonio, is a beachside bar called the Cafe del Mar. In the early 90s this was the place to go on a summer evening to watch the sun set into the sea, while then-resident DJ Jose Padilla played appropriately laid-back and atmospheric music. In 1994 an album was released called 'Cafe del Mar', compiled by Padilla, which is generally considered to be the first 'chillout' album. Its success led to a still-continuing series of 'Cafe del Mar' albums, plus many others in a similar vein with titles like 'Real Ibiza' and 'Ibiza Chillout' whose quality has become more variable as the genre has become commercialised.
So chillout might be described as 'music for watching sunsets on the beach'.
Following Padilla's blueprint, musical categories are less important than mood. Downtempo mixes of dance tracks, Spanish guitars for that Ibizan feel, orchestral pieces, light jazz, soulful pop, world music - whatever's cool, sunny, relaxing, gentle, laid-back. Nothing too heavy on the beats, too uptempo, too obtrusive or harsh. Mixing music by mood allows for selections far beyond the normal boundaries of cool or taste - the album in front of me ['Sunday Best 3'] includes 'Fly Like An Eagle' by Steve Miller Band, 'Wichita Lineman' by Glen Campbell, and 'Albatross' by Fleetwood Mac, alongside obscure electronica and Norwegian jazz-funk. And chillout albums are treasuries of obscure but wonderful gems of music that would otherwise have been lost in the bargain bins of history.
In the mid 90s the idea took root, of club music which was pleasant, warm, unhurried, suitable for talking and drinking and relaxing to.
Away from Ibiza other DJs were picking up the notion of chillout and creating their own mixed flavours and compilation albums. An organisation called 'The Big Chill' began a series of annual events and festivals wholly devoted to chillout music. The chillout room could become the whole show.
You need only spend five minutes at a Big Chill to realise that it is all about people. Everything - the setting, music, art, healing - is there in order to create an environment in which people can breathe, move, meet, and ultimately, simply be themselves.
As the genre crystallized musicians began to make new music specifically to suit the mood. Clubbers at this time were travelling further and further across Britain in search of the perfect night out, so a market was emerging for post-club music, something calmer to listen to on the two-hour drive home, which would then be listened to in the car or at home during the week. And as the clubbers and ravers of the early 90s grew older and couldn't get out so much, chillout music became the background to daily life, a way of keeping the vibe going in the face of babies and careers.
We found that a less dance-orientated environment is also one where more spiritual emotions can often come out and people have always been looking for that.
[Pete Lawrence, The Big Chill]
Meanwhile, many in the alternative worship movement had been using chillout music from its first emergence, as a broadening of their pallette away from pure dance music and abstract ambient.
Chillout embodies alternative worship's rejection of loud, hyped-up worship in favour of a more reflective spirituality. Music designed as a background to speech and activities, with a warm and positive mood - what could be better? While chillout is largely instrumental, such lyrics and vocal samples as do appear can seem startlingly Christian:
"How I am blessed on this day,
today and every day
Now that your light is in my heart,
I shall hunger and thirst no more
You're bringing me back to life"
[A Man Called Adam, 'Easter Song' on 'Cafe del Mar vol. 2']
"Do not be afraid. There is nothing to be afraid of."
[Lazyboy, 'Nothing to be afraid of' on 'Sunday Best 3']
"No-one said it would be easy
Didn't anyone tell you the road would be straight and long?
Relax your mind and give it all to me
Cos you know and I know our love is strong enough
to weather the rain
to weather the snow
to weather the storm"
[Lamb, 'Transfatty Acid' on 'Cafe del Mar vol. 5']
It became possible to use in church the music you were hearing at home, at work, in the bar at night. Nothing sets a atmosphere as powerfully as music, and church could be given the feel of everyday life instead of something set apart. And the music was picking up sacred meanings in church, which would then be retained when it was heard in other places. Or the music was picking up sacred meanings through encounters with God in other places, which could then be replayed for others in church.
Alternative worship began, among other things, as an attempt to enculturate church into the then-new club culture at a time when contemporary churches had only got as far as the rock concert model.
One aspect of this was that the timing of church events moved into the night to suit the club audience. 8 or 9pm is also a convenient free slot in most churches' Sunday schedules after the evening service, allowing alternative worship events to coexist with unaltered patterns of conventional worship.
But as alternative worship events developed as chillout zones they found a particular niche in the trajectory of a weekend:
Bar/pub Friday night
Bar 8pm Saturday night then club at 11pm
Clubbing all Saturday night
Get home about 7 or 8am and go to bed
Get up mid Sunday afternoon...
...and alternative worship to finish the weekend off nicely at 8pm - a spiritual chillout time, a quiet moment with friends and God before the working week begins again. The music and environment are what you're used to and feel comfortable with, with added art and spirituality. It's quiet, reflective, meditative - you don't want to jump around and be noisy at this point in the weekend. It's the pause, the sabbath, before the wheels start turning again.
Our choices in music are largely determined by which story we want to put ourselves into.
Every genre of music embodies and evokes its own story of social and personal identity. In listening we take part in those identities, even if only in imagination [and rejection of music is often about rejecting the identity it weaves]. At the same time there's not a tight correspondence between music and identity, in that we can creatively appropriate music from very different storylines into our own, if context or mood allow.
By using chillout music in church alternative worshippers are placing church within a particular story, one which they already inhabit elsewhere.
The question of style in church music is about life-story - whose story does this music embody, our own or someone else's? This is why musical style and musical change are such fraught issues in churches. The music we use in church is a potent representation of our story to God. If the music does not represent us, belongs to another story, we are alienated at the point where we most need connection.
Conversely, if the music we use in church represents us then communion with God takes place within our own story. And since the music of our own story runs throughout our lives, when we discover how to make communion with God in it in one place it can, potentially, be a vehicle for communion with God anywhere, anytime else - even church. Church is no longer an event outside our storyline, but an event within it.
The popularity of chillout was always totally inevitable. Much of it is such powerful and emotional music, usually with a strong and imaginative musical content, and most of it works very well in a variety of ways. It is perfect for home listening, as background music, as lifestyle music, as driving music and it sounds totally right in beautiful settings. It was just a matter of time before enough people heard it to understand its appeal.
[Pete Lawrence, The Big Chill]
A small list of chillout albums
These are the best place to start to get a feel for the whole genre, especially the early Cafe del Mar albums and the Big Chill series. There are now a bewildering variety of commercial cash-in compilations with names that contain 'Ibiza' and 'Chillout' etc., but their quality depends on the sensitivity of the compiler. Anything compiled by Chris Coco, Rob Da Bank [sic] or members of A Man Called Adam is a good bet.
- Cafe del Mar series especially volumes 1, 2, 3 and 5
- Real Ibiza series especially volume 2
- Sunday Best series
- The Big Chill series especially 'Beach' and 'The Big Chill Loves You'
- Earth series
- Freezone series
- Fila Brazillia
- Boards of Canada
- Kruder & Dorfmeister
- Sabres of Paradise
- Two Lone Swordsmen
- Nightmares On Wax
- A Man Called Adam
- Thievery Corporation
- Zero 7
- Groove Armada
- Lemon Jelly
Since this is a genre defined by mood as much as style, it's hard to say where the boundaries lie. The following artists produce much work that can be described as chillout, while other parts of their output are too beat-heavy, uptempo or forceful for the genre. Softer remixes of their work may well appear on chillout compilations.
- Cinematic Orchestra
- DJ Shadow
- DJ Food
Big Chill quotes from the Big Chill magazine summer 2002, available via www.bigchill.net