Cover Story: Violet & Photonz, And The New Sound of Lisbon’s Underground

Few DJs have impacted their local communities like Violet and Photonz. April Clare Welsh hears their story, and the story of how the Portuguese couple have helped radically transform the Lisbon underground.

20 min
Dec 10, 2019
April Clare Welsh

At an industrial park out near Lisbon’s Portela Airport, hundreds of sweaty ravers are twisting their bodies to the sounds of slamming techno, mutant electro and brain-scrambling breaks. In the same building sits a low-key, self-styled chill out room — a smaller, darkened space with sofas and a table, which is littered with condoms acquired from the nearby “ravers’ care corner.” Inside, people swap stories, phone numbers, cigarettes, chemicals and saliva.

Meanwhile, bug-eyed party-goers huddle outside in groups to smoke, chat and inhale gulps of fresh air while aeroplanes fly jaw-droppingly low overhead, their hypnotic drones blending surreally into the beats pumping out of the club room. This is mina: Lisbon’s permissive nocturnal playground, and a queer safe space for clubbers wanting to party hard and outside of the mainstream. It’s April 24th, and tomorrow marks 45 years of democracy in Portugal following the Carnation Revolution of April 25th 1974, a military coup that overthrew the Estado Novo regime after 41 years of fascist rule. Brazil’s DJ Cashu and America’s Kiernan Laveux are the night’s special guests. And the 12-hour party takes on a fighting spirit of global queer solidarity, with the event page reminding: “as we celebrate here, elsewhere autocratic regimes emerge.”

mina first launched in March 2017 as a collaborative effort between marum, the founder of Lisbon performance art platform Rabbit Hole, Rádio Quântica co-founders Violet and Photonz, and Rabbit Hole member Viegas. “mina was the first party in Lisbon to create a truly liberating clubbing experience and include a queer door policy,” says Viegas. The core group has since expanded into a larger collective with a number of resident DJs, including BLEID, ketia, Violet and Photonz. 16 mina nights have now taken place in Lisbon, with other iterations and showcases happening in Porto, Brussels, Germany, Greece and London.

When I meet up with Violet, born Inês Borges Coutinho, and Marco Rodrigues, AKA Photonz, seven months later for lunch in a local restaurant close to their home in the Junqueira neighbourhood of Lisbon, they’re enthusiastic about the mina community, and about the future of the club night they both helped to conceive. “In Lisbon, mina is the crowd,” declares Rodrigues.“It really validates the party; it is the party,” adds Coutinho. “Our main thing for mina is Lisbon and to be able to maintain the space that we all created from the get-go.”

Coutinho and Rodrigues had both spent the previous night at Lisbon’s Lux Frágil club watching Naive (Violet’s label) producer BLEID and Principe Discos’ DJ Nigga Fox play until the early hours. They’d just returned from Melbourne, where Violet played a Boiler Room gig, and they should be exhausted. But their weariness is either well hidden, or eclipsed by the sheer excitement they feel for the subject-matter. Over a few carafes of red wine and delicious plates of fish, meat, salad, chips and rice, we cover everything from politics and raving to occult literature; Coutinho’s wit and Rodrigues’s deep thinking are a dynamic combination. “We get natural space from each other when we go away anywhere as individuals, which is healthy for our relationship,” offers Coutinho. “But, essentially, we just love hanging out with each other; we have so much fun together. I often get sad touring alone, it’s so much more fun when Marco’s there.”

Violet single

Together, the pair construct a rough timeline of Lisbon’s electronic music scene, which first began flourishing in the Bairro Alto area of the city during the ‘80s at Frágil, a trailblazing bar that would later move to the riverfront, balloon in size and become Lisbon’s best-known club, Lux Frágil. Lisbon in the ‘90s nurtured a fertile scene, with raves, free parties and mainstream clubs all thriving. The era was immortalised by the Alcântara-Mar compilations, which Coutinho and Rodrigues hold close to their hearts. “I was always just dreaming about those raves; I was too young to go,” recalls Rodrigues. “I think the whole romanticised idea of raving comes from that disconnect that I always had.” At the time, he was “completely obsessed” with veteran Portuguese DJs like DJ Vibe and Luis Leite. “I’ve literally known those mixes — the transitions — by heart since I was nine,” Coutinho offers. “Maybe Marco would idolise the DJ, but I would always idolise the mix. I knew it was Luis Leite, but I wasn’t so bothered about the DJ at the time. Then later on, through Marco, I kind of got obsessed with the DJs too, and we got to meet them.”

Born and raised in São João do Estoril — a seaside town on Lisbon’s Estoril coastline — Coutinho honed a love of music from an early age. She was promoting parties in her hometown by 14; undergage, alcohol-free events with names like Endless Summer (a hat-tip to the Scooter bomb of the same name). “The music was amazing — house classics, No Doubt, and hip-hop like the Fugees, some trance hits as well. I was actually exposed to good music there. Before that, as a kid, I had horrible taste. I was listening to things like Limp Bizkit. The first CD I bought was The Simpsons’ original soundtrack; it’s so sad. I was bound for lunacy. Marco had amazing taste though.”

Photonz single

“I was introduced to music through my older brother… I was more of a techno kid,” Rodrigues says. Rodrigues was brought up in Corroios, on the south side of Lisbon’s Rio Tejo. He began DJing in 2006 at club Incognito, a favourite amongst indie-rock and synth-pop fans, where he currently hosts his No UFOs club night with friend and Paraíso label boss João Schuro. There were also spots in Bairro Alto, and Lounge, a popular bar and club in the Cais do Sodré district. Coutinho started her musical career in 2006, forming DJ/rap duo A.M.O.R. with her cousin Maria. Coutinho and Rodrigues eventually crossed paths in 2009, the year after the financial crisis hit and the year before the country entered into a deep, four-year recession. Years of severe austerity followed, and Rodrigues and Coutinho eventually left Portugal for London in June 2013. “Lisbon was quite different back then,” remembers Rodrigues. “We were going through a really hardcore economic crisis, and also the scene was a bit suffocating and same-y… things weren’t changing, it wasn’t exciting.”

The pair enjoyed a formative stint together living and DJing in London, putting on parties in east London pubs. “Our preferred way of self-promotion for many years was being really goofy and making fun of ourselves, because that’s all we had — we were literally no one,” laughs Coutinho. “London taught us so much — seeing the way it was so normalised to think in terms of community and the underground, and how you have to create space and opportunities for marginalised bodies,” says Rodrigues. The pair were inspired to start the community-minded online station Rádio Quântica largely after experiencing the success of London’s NTS radio. “Seeing the effect it had, and the scene, and just being around ideas that you couldn’t find here,” Rodrigues says. “Very simple structural things like feminism, or just being more community-based or focussed.”

Elsewhere, Quântica’s eclectic programming is committed to broadcasting the myriad of producers, musicians, and activists living in the city, with regular shows including the weird and wonderful oddballs and soothers of Anxiety Antidotes with Onya Dev, and Will Grant and Joe Delon’s monthly Flamingo show, which British transplant Delon describes as “a casual stroll through afternoon soul, uptown boogie and laid-back dub and disco, with the occasional payday party starter.” Viegas is responsible for the day-to-day running of the Quântica studio, helping out with everything from organising the weekly schedule to assisting with live sets. “For me, it’s a very special place where I get to meet amazing people and listen to stuff that I most likely wouldn’t. Without Quântica, it would have been much harder for most of us to have access to DJ [equipment] that is quite expensive.” This month, the Quântica studio’s tired arsenal of gear received a much-needed update, thanks to a successful GoFundMe that raised over €500 more than its intended goal. The future is bright indeed.

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The impact of Radio Quântica is also felt outside the studio and on the dancefloor. Quântica’s Thursday night takeovers at Lux give the station an opportunity to bring leftfield names and rising talents to a wider Lisbon audience, while also uniting the wider Quântica community IRL. “These nights are so important because the lineups are full of locals that would never enter that space or would never normally be booked there,” Odete says. “Bringing people who would not necessarily be welcome to play normally due to their class, identity or musical genre.”

It’s this commitment and desire to improve representation in dance music that powers the thinking behind Coutinho’s Naive and Naivety labels. Violet is always ready to extend a hand to other DJs and music-makers, offering her support for burgeoning and underrepresented artists through the various platforms she co-helms. Her club-focussed label Naive launched in 2017 and has since put out eight releases, largely by female, queer, or trans artists, including the essential Devotion EP from Eris Drew & Octo Octa and Violet’s own Togetherness EP. The next Naive release is a split 12” between Gayphextwin and Pépe with Jacktone Records, out December 13th.

Naivety, which Coutinho launched last September, makes room for more experimental-leaning, non-standard, four-to-the-floor music, like Odete’s lush debut EP Matrafona, and Violet’s dreamy In the name of the mother EP. However, there’s no definitive sound to either label. “I’m just trying to put out really beautiful music by people who haven’t had so much visibility,” explains Coutinho. Earlier this year Violet released her debut album Bed of Roses via Dark Entries. It’s a collection of synth-led jams inspired by her teenage years (and the eponymous Bon Jovi track she loved as a child), which worked as a “healing device” on a number of levels — particularly after she broke her leg last year in Barcelona. “My leg still gives me pain. It might hurt forever. But I don’t take painkillers for it as I would have to take them all the time,” she tells me.

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Rodrigues also released a debut album via Dark Entries this year. Nuit, named after the Egyptian Goddess of the Stars, is an exquisite collection of dark, driving, silvery electro rollers and bangers. Rodrigues’s label, One Eyed Jacks, which he has been running for a decade, has released key EPs from artists like RoundHouse Kick and Pal+. Photonz’s DJ sets often showcase his love of sci-fi-ready electro and techno. To say Violet and Photonz are an industrious pair would be an understatement.

“I really value the human side of giving a hand — personal relationships between people inside of the music business,” Coutinho says. And this sense of connectivity and generosity spills over into her social media activity, where she is constantly praising colleagues while offering advice to younger acts, and taking the time to nurture and maintain networks and connections online. Violet’s Instagram AMAs recently saw her offer lengthy advice to someone “trying to start DJing (on top of a full-time job).” Coutinho’s kindness is a breath of fresh air — a warm counterbalance to the regular toxicity of online dance music culture. This type of life-affirming energy is mirrored in her DJ sets, which are quite often transcendent journeys that flit effortlessly through a kaleidoscope of dance music styles with ease and skill. They’re the work of a tolerant, sensitive person; a party-loving DJ at play. “I like having some human contact, even with ravers. Some DJs hate to interact with ravers, but if it’s just a nice interaction, I’m good with it. I’ll fist-pump a raver, I’ll high-five a raver, I’ve shared joints with ravers,” she admits.

Violet photonz MATT

As the sun starts to set over the Rio Tejo, we take a stroll along the waterfront, stopping for a photo break on the steps of MAAT, Lisbon’s striking Museum for Art, Architecture and Technology, which opened in 2016. During the shoot, Coutinho quips that some passerby seem bemused by professional setup and ‘are probably wondering who on earth these nobodies are!’ These outbursts of dry humour make Coutinho instantly warm and likeable, but her comment also reminds one of the pair’s eagerness to stay just outside of the limelight. Coutinho and Rodrigues are always extending a helping hand to younger generations of music-makers, and throughout our meeting stress the importance of Lisbon’s sprawling network of artists. The pair may have carved out a space for these artists by co-founding mina and Quântica, but to them, it’s also the promoters, label owners, fans and DJs who are pumping fresh blood and boundary-breaking music and ideas into Lisbon’s underground scene. It’s about the community as a whole.

For all the positive shakeups happening within the music scene, Lisbon is grappling with the scourge of over-tourism and gentrification, where skyrocketing rents are pitted against an official national minimum wage of €700 a month, and local residents are fighting constant evictions. Venues and businesses are being shuttered and sanitised. A Facebook post from mina in 2018 articulated these sentiments, lamenting the volatile state of Lisbon nightlife. “We all know that to the outside, Lisbon seems like a real dream: cheap and bathed in sun all year,” it begins, before decrying evictions, rent hikes, and “strict urban policies that benefit big businesses serving a short-sighted ‘new economy’ delusion. We genuinely worry that soon there will be nothing but the lofty promises and a disgruntled city that is killing a lot of its community-run and underground projects by asphyxiation.”

But in the spirit of continued optimism, vital, paradigm-shifting collectives like Troublemaker, queer “trans-aggressive” crew Circa A.D., and queer collective and party kit ket are making space for marginalised bodies on and off the dancefloor. Activism is gathering momentum too, with new groups like Coletivo de Ação Imigrante e Periférica (“collective of immigrant and peripheral action”), aka CAIP, and INMUNE, doing vital work. The first far-right politician to win a seat in Portugal’s parliament since 1974 may have creeped worryingly in this year. But for the first time ever, three black women — who were involved with Portugal’s anti-racism movement before taking office — were elected to parliament: Joacine Katar Moreira, Romualda Fernandes and Beatriz Gomes Dias. Change is afoot.

“We’re trying to change the game by having openly queer black artists be vulnerable and open up about subjects such as mental health, being biracial and even being openly gay in church households, which are big taboos in our community,” say Troublemaker. “With that said, we are trying to build a big platform for other queer artists of color to be who they want to be with no fears to open up about their struggles.”

“It is changing, but at a slower pace than big cities like London,” Coutinho says about Lisbon’s changing cultural and sociopolitical landscape. “It’s met with a lot more resistance. There’s more of a small-town mentality here — it’s a smaller country.”

“The thing that gives us more hope is hanging out with younger people,” Rodrigues says. “Especially at mina where everyone is so young. You can really see the kids are alright, because it’s not gonna be the same shit anymore.”

April Clare Welsh is a freelance journalist living in Lisbon. Find her on Twitter.