Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Noise, DIY and the rebirth of Modern Lo-Fi

A rebirth in the roots of Indie Rock has been inevitable. Bands have begun redefining the concepts of modern Lo-Fi and avant garde rock has been steadily bubbling up to the surface.
I'm talking underground surface, mind you. Sort of like a pond caught down in a cave somewhere. They aren't exactly hitting the ballrooms yet.
So what is so special about the Midwest? Why has it proved to be such a fertile ground for people turning their backs on tradition?
While there seems to be no clear "center" in the Midwestern culmination of noise rock, I talked to many noise and avant garde artists who agreed that a hell of a lot of it is coming from Ohio - hence the motivation behind the recent Ohio Experimental Music Festival announcement.
Looking at the concept of avant garde or experimental music, you kind of have to look deeper into what has essentially become the Midwest DIY Culture Boom.
One cannot talk about avant garde music without paying homage to the DIY culture, a spirit which came to a head in the 1980s. But the spirit could even be traced solidly back to the field recordings of 1940s folk musicians, perhaps to messy Velvet Underground recordings, or even Daniel Johnston committing his obsessions to tape. There is no clear origination, but DIY releases just keep getting stronger. That is why the avant garde and DIY cultures go hand in hand, like two girls in a park. One fuels the other.
With the advent of The Internet, The Myspace, The Itunes, The Internet Record Label and more, the concept of pure DIY is not only a reality these days, it's a good business decision.
Regional blogs, such as "I Rock Cleveland" have even described Columbus, OH. as the "center of an exciting lo-fi movement in indie rock" during it's recent review of cassette tape rockers The Dolby Fuckers. The site has also defined the term as "New Noise," to describe these current pop/rock/noise bands - which seems pretty spot on to me.
But Columbus, Ohio just seems to be the starting point these days. With the signing of the town's Lambsbread to Thurston Moore's Esctatic Peace label, followed by pop-trash band Times New Viking signing to Matador, one might think something's up. Word on the street is that more Columbus experimental bands are expected to follow - although the new rumor is that Lambsbread may have already broken up. So take this information with a grain of salt.
musician Ryan Jewell, drummer of both Terribly Empty Pockets and various experimental/noise projects, has his own thoughts about the fertile spirit of experimentalism in places like Columbus.
"At the risk of over generalizing, there are certain things that are unique about bands from this area. Part of it is the whole run down post-industrial 'rust belt' thing, part of it is the conceptual art/process influence of having so many art schools in the area, part of it is the down to earth cowtown thing. In the Midwest, people have backyards, but they aren’t pretty by many peoples standards. But we learn to love it and even prefer them that way. People come from these smaller, isolated towns with nothing to do. But in the Midwest, even if you don’t have a lot of money you can move to a city and only pay $50 a week for an apartment, while in somewhere like New York you're going to be paying six times that amount for the same apartment. This opens up the community to a lot more freedom financially and artistically. People give up on wanting nice things and what you do becomes infinitely more important than what you have. There’s less focus on 'making it' in the Midwest because your expectations are lower from an industry point of view in a way that I think is amazing."
Jewell's point is interesting because the Midwest is largely ignored by national labels. The main reason is because A&R people are lazy. They usually live in LA, New York or Nashville and sometimes Chicago. They may check out a few unknown bands at CMJ or SXSW, but that's about it. You're not going to see a dude from Capitol Records at The Union in Athens, OH. on a Friday night, unless they are visiting a friend, or their car broke down on the way to Nashville.
Generally speaking, Midwestern musicians are not looking to be rock stars. They don't seem to care about the future, rarely venture out of their home towns and aren't about to hire on a publicist. They make music and live comfortably, with a day job in between.
I just thought of this reason too: It's so cheap to live in the Midwest, musicians end up playing in bands for longer periods of time. It's not about teenagers or college bands so much around here. You get many older musicians, who know their craft and are trying to develop that as far as it can go. This could be another reason for the progress of experimentalism.
Jewell had another point regarding the forced creativity of the Midwest bands.
"For the most part, the industry might as well be on an entire planet, but in somewhere like LA it’s constantly shoved down your throat. I grew up in Portsmouth, OH, a small, shitty run down town on the Ohio River where the only jobs were a shoelace factory and carry-outs. You’re so bored, that you are forced to do something, make something to make your life worthwhile. Hence the strong DIY aesthetic that’s so strong in the Midwest. Then these same people eventually get to a city with cheap rent with art schools, and weird venues with touring acts, and other people from shitty cities and cow towns just like theirs that might actually appreciate this weird thing that they used to do in their bedrooms and basements back home. Also there is the whole issue of people in smaller towns being influenced by something but getting it completely wrong and making it their own. Like, you hear some records or read about something, but since you don’t get the opportunity to see it live when you're younger, it comes out all wrong, but with the same spirit and vitality. It’s like playing AT music instead of playing music which I think is so much more interesting. It becomes something uniquely Midwestern."


I must admit that this has been one of the most difficult music articles I have ever written. Namely because one of the most prevalent attributes of noise bands is that they don't like to talk about anything. They don't like promoting themselves and they especially don't regard what they do as any high form of ART. Fortunately, for my sake, there are others who are passionate about what they do and really enjoy talking about it. There didn't seem to be much of a middle ground.
It took months just to get some bands to call me back or send out that email they promised to write three months ago. Most seem embarrassed and even offended to be asked about the music they make.
One of those bands in question is Columbus, Ohio's Times New Viking. The group is a kind of anomaly in the Midwestern noise rock scene. Essentially because no genre wants to lay claim to them. Some indie pop fans think they sound like noise and yet noise rock fans think they are total pop.
But the point of including Times New Viking in a discussion about Midwestern Noise Rock is because they are among the ONLY regional bands that fill the gap between Indie Rock and the noise aesthetics.
"Being midwestern means being ten years out of the loop, at least in our case," TNV guitarist Jared Phillips said. "When you're kind of an underdog (or hillbilly), you feel you can do whatever the fuck you want because people already have a preconceived notion of you. I think Robert Rauschenberg said that."
Times New Viking especially brings up debate among rock nerds regarding recording techniques. Can a noisy recording be considered art? Can it be considered pop? Is it just noise?
But the TNV folks and the majority of the DIY culture honestly believe that it's not just about HAVING to record with tape hiss, it's about APPRECIATING the tape hiss.
"Appreciating the tape hiss - yes, that just about explains it," Phillips said. "An old wizard friend of ours (Editor's Note: I think he means Mike Rep) once said something to the extent of, 'Tape hiss is the sound of life,' or, 'Tape hiss is the sound of the comet's tail.' Something poetic like that. We just like to make records that evoke a unique atmosphere, putting our sound in a different place, perhaps one that's a little more intimate. Records, I think, are supposed to sound a little experimental - it's a completely separate art form than seeing a band play live. You know, people think distorted guitars on records are okay, but distorted drums or vocals are not. Who decided this? Hitler? The Shins? Who cares. Also with records you can listen to them over and over again and hear new things each time."
Critics of lo-fi aesthetics often bring up how you can’t hear the words, you can’t hear the details. If noise rock aesthetics are going to catch on, it's a point that needs to be addressed.
"We have nothing to say to these people," Phillips said. "You either like it or you don't."
OK, so maybe it won't be addressed.
He said that maybe someday those traditional ideas will change more toward appreciating noise aesthetics, but they want no part of carrying that torch.
"That's not why we make music, to change people. Most of the critics are people who think music is supposed to sound a certain way, or they are people who spent too much time and money at recording school - hence their panties getting all bunched up when groups like us just teach ourselves how to do it the way we want. I'm sure a lot of people who dont listen to anything remotely experimental are the same ones who believe that everyone owns Pro-tools, or SHOULD own Pro-tools. Really fucked up, in-the-red records are nothing new. 'White light/White heat' is forty fucking years old. seriously," Phillips said.
And while the avant garde scene is exploding regionally, it doesn't necessarily mean people go to the shows.
"The other day we had Dan Deacon who is on Carpark, and Video Hippos, Santa Dads, Butt Stomach, and Blood Baby who are some of Baltimore's best bands," Cincinnati's Jon Lorenz said, proprietor of Art Damage Lodge. "And only three people showed up. The very next night we had Future Islands, Moss of Aura and a local band called Pomegranates, and like 20 some people show up. Dan Deacon is way bigger than Future Islands … there is about 10 people tops that come to a lot of the noise shows, and then no one else ever comes."
Lorenz also touched upon how the culture of the traditional indie rock fan and the avant garde fan are starting to meld together. Mainly because indie rock is becoming too manufactured.
"I consider the term void of any true value," Lorenz said. "But I think there is still this true underground scene that is happening that can be appreciated by noise dudes, like Times New Viking or Time and Temperatue. It's true. Its not manufactured at all. I think you have to be careful combining a noise band with other stuff. Sometimes people just leave or plug their ears, or just don't care about noise bands. I usually try to combine stuff with the same kind of attitude. Most noise stuff has that attitude, so it can be combined with the DIY attitude."
Lorenz also pointed out that some noise scene folks have splintered even further.
"They are still very judgemental of other stuff. I think everyone that is into noise also has some other scene that they belong too," he said. "Cincinnati kind of has a separation between the metal/punk noise kids and the older noise/free jazz/ weirdos. There are two different attitudes."
For the most part, he said, just as long as the people making the music are sincere the music can be accepted on any side.
Experimental guitarist Larry Marotta said that there can be a feeling of hostility in some cities.
"My best gigs are almost invariably in the Midwest, and specifically in small- to medium-sized cities. Having grown up on the east coast, I’d say that the Midwest audiences seem a little more open to new experiences when they go to a show. I’ve done pretty out-there stuff for folk or rock crowds in Columbus, and the reaction is still pretty positive, or at the least polite. Also, unlike in some of the larger media centers, you don’t have the big-name writers or scenesters determining what is hip for everyone to like or not. When I’m playing in New York, I get much more of a feeling of 'Welcome to the world center of culture. Since you’re not John Zorn or Elliott Sharp (no slam on either of them, BTW), why are you even bothering to perform for us? Who the hell are you?' In Columbus, or Ann Arbor, or Louisville, the response is more 'Thank you for coming to our city. We’re happy you’re here. What are you going to share with us this evening?'" he said.
So for now, there seems to be a future in the combination of DIY indie rock aesthetics and the avant garde culture.
Marotta said he see a kinship between bands such as Noumena, Sword Heaven, Burning-Star-Core, Wolf Eyes, Envenomist, Lozenge, and probably a lot of others.
When it comes to the upcoming Ohio Experimental Music Festival, it may be the first time many of these regional bands will be able to meet and see each other perform.
If Swordheaven's Mark Van Fleet is right, by joining together for something like the Ohio Experimental Music Festival, it could ensure that the Midwest experimental music scene could make even more progress over the next decade.


eric yawns said...

great article!!


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Denys said...

Yeah!!!! j'aime cet article. je me sens moins seul. Joli travail. Merci.