Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Noise in the Midwest:
Part One, the origins of noise

I was watching an interview on TV once with artist Chuck Close and something he said made me think of art in relation to the avant-garde. His teacher once told him if you truly want to stand out from the crowd, when you come to a fork in the road, take the harder path. Everyone else will be taking the easier ones. If you have the choice between working with crayons or working with lead, pick the lead. After choosing so many difficult paths, you'll soon find yourself standing all alone.
Perhaps this was how the avant garde was born? It's music that definitely brings out the best and the worst of people. It can clear a room faster than a fire drill, or fulfill the lowliest soul of the hipster elite.
But any article on underground music like this can easily become overblown, gigantic and incomprehensible. So I'm going about it vaguely. If you're looking for an "insiders" view of indie noise, you won't find it here.
I can barely describe the weather right now, let alone an abstract form of art. So think of this as your Midwest Noise Rock 101.
Thankfully, the culmination of this underground culture may get more attention this winter when a few Ohio experimental musicians hold the first Noise Fest, to be held Nov. 30- Dec. 2 in Columbus. I hope to write more about this festival as it unfolds. Until then, I can only say that I've heard it's being planned and that Swordheaven are involved in setting it up.
Just know this: For every rock band that exists in your town, I found there are often just as many experimental and noise rock bands that you have never heard of.
At the outset of this article, I was told about dozens of noise rock and experimental bands currently existing in the region. I had never heard of any of them. Not one.
So as I went around each state in the Midwest doing my People with Animal Heads underground music project, I asked about these bands and found that people not only knew them, they knew them personally. One might think there is some sort of, dare I say, avant garde community going on.
It seems that no regional town is devoid of the art-form. There are dank run-down venues in Cleveland, Minnepaolis, all over Indiana, Chicago, Detroit, Kentucky, Cincinnati and more, where people get together to smash shit up with a Speak N' Spell, crank up their guitars incomprehensibly, bring their drum kits made of pots and pans, or blast a few squealing saxophones for good measure.
Historically, jazz went from 1920s ragtime to Sun Ra, Rock n' Roll went from Buddy Holly to Creation and Velvet Underground. Even punk went from The Ramones to any black t-shirt feedback garage trash being created down the block. So what happens when it's not enough. What is there to say after you've already said it all?
"I think 'noise' is supposed to be something that you can't categorize," Cincinnati music space owner Jon Lorenz said. "It's the catch-all of weird music."
Lorenz used to run Skull Lab, a venue which opened up a national stage for unique and avant garde music of all kinds. The venue closed up shop in September, leaving a bit of a vacuum in southern Ohio, until he quickly replaced it with the Art Damage Lodge venue.
"I have high hopes for noise rock and what it may become," Lorenz said. "Maybe someday it will have a punk rock style revolution or something. It's weird because many people come from different backgrounds and find noise. Many people have many different reasons why they like noise."
Tom Lax and Roland Woodbe, the guys behind the Siltbreeze Records, also weighed in on the concept of noise rock.
The label has historically been one of the punk/hardcore/noise movement's highest proponents and has come back after a long hiatus. More recently it released the Psychedelic Horseshit LP on Oct. 23.
Lax has said in previous interviews, "The semantics of who's the first punk band is really beyond my comprehension … The Midwest had, arguably, the best hardcore scene back in the day. There are folks today that will swear by Midwest noise bands over other locale's. That said, there's a big difference between Wolf Eyes and Lambsbread, though they both fall under that umbrella."
Lax definitely has his ideas of how noise rock started.
"I'm sure a lot of bands just did what they knew, or could do. Some beautiful mistakes. But there are others who knew exactly what they were doing. Hard to say which is better. A little of both, I suppose," he said.
Lax and Woodbe said they both think the origins of noise rock stemmed from the genesis of punk and hardcore music in the Midwest.
Of course, everyone has their opinions. The art form has been documented as far back as the early 1900s by painter Luigi Russolo.
"Personally I don't think noise came out of this punk hardcore movement," Lorenz said. "Obviously, people were doing noise way before the 1990s. I think noise rock came from the 1960s - I guess with Nihilist Smasm Band and the first Red Krayola record, and of course what the Velvet Underground was doing. But it has changed over time into something pretty new. It has been taken in many different directions since then, or combined with many different genres."
Lorenz sees a kinship with Magik Markers in newer bands such as Wolf Eyes or Hair Police.
Ohio avant garde guitarist Larry Marotta sees a number of reasons why noise rock has its appeal.
"Well noise, like all rock and roll or punk before it, is a medium which readily embraces and openly celebrates the untrained, the unskilled, and the disenfranchised. If you have a mixer or guitar, a distortion box, an amp, and some interesting artistic ideas or a point of view, you can immediately get started setting up shows, touring, and playing. But once you get involved, you immediately start meeting all of these interesting and eccentric characters. You become a part of a wonderful and supportive community of people. Also, there’s such an fantastic variety of styles and approaches within the noise community. For example, I have more of a traditional music background. I can read music, improvise over chord changes, and play a wedding. But in the noise arena I can very easily work with someone who has no traditional musical training and make music with him or her. In fact, the challenge for me is to not let my training stifle my own creativity when I’m performing. Working in the noise community of musicians forces me to stretch beyond my comfort zone," he said.
Marotta said when he started playing music in the late 1980s in Miami, FLA. there was a lot of experimentation going on.
"You’d see bands taking a lot of chances with instrumentation – like you might see a band with just five guitar players, or just a guitarist and a drummer, etc. Also, in the pre-Nirvana period there was a lot less emphasis on commercial success, so people weren’t worried so much about writing commercial material or weren’t concerned about clearing our a room of people once in a while. Once Nirvana hit, and I think for much of the early 90s, any band could suddenly make it. I think there were talent scouts all over the clubs in Ohio at that time. In short, the current noise climate is a throwback to a time in the 80s in which people were doing more music for its own sake with no particular concern about being liked or being commercial. And if you record your own CDRs and sponsor shows in your basement or living room, you’ve pretty much detached yourself from any business concerns (like selling enough beer, or getting enough money at the door to pay the sound guy). You can literally do whatever the heck you want."

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