Noise music gets a bad rap as being too volatile and oppressive. It's often maligned as an out-there genre pursued only by those lost souls who've completely forsaken conventional rock 'n' roll in favor of routinely locking their heads inside an autoclave, or envisioned as some horrible, scary cauldron that boils with the bloody discharge of 10,000 ruptured eardrums. Lou Reed can probably be blamed for some of that. In 1975 he released Metal Machine Music, a clanging run-on sentence of feedback that can still trigger mortal thoughts if listened to in its entirety.
But while the noise scene definitely has its proponents of the extreme Japanese noise legend Merzbow has never issued anything that wasn't singularly focused on destroying your senses that doesn't mean there's only darkness at its core, or that all noise is meant to breed fear alone. It might not ever be warm and fuzzy, and what's at its core can be mysterious. But noise can definitely excite on a visceral level, and lately it's been offering some of the most creative music in Detroit. Obscura from the fringe of modern music? Only for those that haven't discovered it yet.
On a recent Monday night in Detroit, about 25 twentysomethings spill out of a rambling inner-city brick colonial, hunkered in the shadows of a seedy stretch of Woodward Avenue. This is the Half-Crypt, also known as Dan Dlugosielski's house, and tonight it's hosting a performance by Boston-based noise artist Donna Parker. Dlugosielski, an eager kid in a bright-red vintage T and smudged horn-rimmed glasses, flits about here and there. He's the doorman, collecting $5 from each guest, as well as the bartender, happily proffering cans of domestic beer from the fridge. But he's also the soundman, spot-fixing problems with the connections between an iMac set up on a rickety card table and the enormous black amplifier that squats like a vacuum of negative space in the center of his living room.
The stage is nothing but a cramped open area between the hearth and the low-slung couch, and the scuffed hardwood of Dlugosielski's front room is the only viewing area. The opening act is coquettish San Diegan Naomi she gets some use out of the iMac, but she isn't doing noise. Singing little improvised songs over beats and almost-melodies, her act is more like guerrilla karaoke. Soon enough it's time for Parker to get set up, and she and collaborator Mike Wilkinson dole out the lengths of patch chord they'll use to link an unruly throng of mixers, microphones and effects pedals. These are their instruments.
A husky guy with a considerable shock of inky black neck beard stands nearby. He's Greh (no last name needed), a prolific Detroit noise artist who's released numerous CD-Rs and cassettes under the handle Hive Mind. He also runs the underground label Chondritic, and is the proprietor of Behind the Green Door, his Eastern Market loft space that's also hosted some legendary performances after Sonic Youth's Aug. 4 performance at State Theatre, Thurston Moore surfaced at Green Door to jam with Aaron Dilloway, another Detroit-area noise vet who until recently was affiliated with genre heavyweights (and Ypsilanti's own) Wolf Eyes.
Gesturing at Parker and Wilkinson, who are still wrestling with their tangle of gear, Greh says that necessity drives people like Dlugosielski and him to convert their living spaces into noise venues.
"If they [the bands] want to do a show in Detroit, where else are they going to do it?" Greh says. "There's not a lot of bars that want to have this kind of thing in their place. We miss the Art Space. It was such a great environment, such a comfy place, and that's kind of what I hope our places are like."
Shut down by the city in 2004, the Detroit Art Space had been a haven for noise and experimental music. But it was only the latest, preceded as it was by such venues as the Gold Dollar and Zoot's Coffee. The noise continues, surfacing today at forward-thinking venues like Bohemian National Home and Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (home this year to Noise Camp, the long-running noise and improvisation event run by artist and musician Davin Brainard, who also did the cover art for this issue of Metro Times), as well as a network of basements, living rooms and loft spaces provided by guys like Greh and Dlugosielski. It's a network similar to any underground music scene, from punk to hardcore to kids playing bluegrass tunes they learned from their parents. But in the noise scene, by and large, the walls of those spaces are usually trembling.
Greh doesn't have to worry about the scene being less than inviting. The Half-Crypt tonight is part house party, part live venue and part live-action message board. Kids trade gossip about out-of-town groups so obscure they barely have a name, or local projects just bubbling up. "Dude, I heard they're working on a band that's like punk rock, only played entirely on drums!" Conversations are peppered with references to science fiction and David Lynch films. Beers and bottles of whiskey are shared; it would be a typical college party, were it not for the 6-square-foot amplifier and the two people crouched over a table strewn with electronic equipment. With all the random colored wires and winking LED's, their equipment resembles the droid scrap heap in the depths of Jabba the Hutt's Tatooine hideout.
Dlugosielski hits the lights (apparently he's the Half-Crypt's lighting guy too) and the show begins. "There was this graffiti in the men's room," Parker says into the mic. Flashbulbs glint off her geek-chic granny eyeglasses as she reads from a scrap of paper: "'I killed a lot lizard at Flying V in [scratched-out] Florida. Put her in a field; she won't get AIDs no more.' Then it said 9-02-06 with a little smiley face, which makes me think that a total psycho really did kill this poor 12-year-old." As she's saying this, Wilkinson is cranking up the dials on his mixing rig, causing a monolithic warble to shake the hardwood. Increasing steadily in volume, it starts to feel like the sound is bleeding from the walls, staining the plaster and soaking the couch cushions, and it's clear that Parker means for the noise to counteract the sick idea that the cruelly-descriptive, JT LeRoy-aping graffiti scrawl might be real. She and Wilkinson continue to manipulate their gear, and the sound they're creating grows to deafening level. It engulfs everyone from the inside out, and cocoons these kids in a comforting blanket woven from loops and static. The sound is unavoidable it leaves a monster-sized footprint. But they're safe inside the noise.
Pump up the Volume
"I grew up on rock music," Parker says later. "I've heard it. All of it." She and Wilkinson have just finished their "set," a single, 15-minute morass of scree that whooped and wailed like an algorithm being born. But while the volume was certainly punishing, and there was little to connect Parker's music to anything conventional, it wasn't threatening. The two musicians had simply turned up the volume on their creativity.
"There's only so much you can do with traditional song structure, and I think it's been done," Parker continues. "I understand that an element of music is structure. "Everybody needs structure," she continues. "They need a bottom, they need a rhythm, and they need a beginning, middle and end. I don't care how far into avant-garde music somebody says they are you still need that to be able to listen to something. But there's no reason why you can't take that extremely loose equation and bleed something completely different into it."
"We have the beginning, the middle and the end," Wilkinson adds. "But everything else is up for grabs."
It's improvisation, not darkness, that lies at the heart of noise. But there's also the sheer physicality of the music to consider, and it's as easy for the listener to revel in it as it is for the musician.
"That's the reason I have the amp in front of me when I perform," Parker explains. "It's because I'm talking to everybody, and it's coming straight out of me into you."
Everyone's not only noticing the white elephant in the room, they're riding around on its back. That goes for the thinking cap shut-ins who stand stoic, listening to the noise because to them it's the last frontier of music theory, as well as the loopy party kids with ashen skin, the ones who raise their 40s in the air with every explosion of feedback. Both types of listeners are only trying to divine something tangible from a form of music that's brutally direct but still frustratingly elusive. These fans have different reasons for liking noise music, but it's interaction with the sound on a visceral level that's central to all experiences. No matter how loud or shredding it is, a rock 'n' roll band will always be playing at you. With noise, the sound usually goes right through you; it treats your gut like a sieve.
The humble turnout for Parker's set at the Half-Crypt is somewhat typical of a local noise show, particularly those that occur in private homes, out-of-the-way loft spaces or tiny art galleries. Still, the Detroit scene is a significant part of the recent national upswing in critical gush over the genre. Elite music journal The Wire is a proponent, and The New York Times has written appreciatively of Wolf Eyes as "having something on the rest of the American 'noise' scene a feral collective-improvisation sense." Metro Times even put the band on its cover in 2004. Noise is also picked apart, considered and reconsidered alongside every other strain of independent and underground music on Web sites across the Internet, and numerous message boards teem with discussion and arguments about the genre. There's a sense in all of this from critics to diehard fans that noise is some of the most real music created today, particularly in a culture that increasingly celebrates "reality" as something to be manipulated and codified for mass consumption.
After a steady stream of furiously underground releases, Ypsilanti-based Wolf Eyes signed to Sub Pop for 2003's Burned Mind, and watched the longtime Seattle indie's distribution deal with Warner land their jagged, relentlessly hurtling noise rock on the clean and bright shelves of Best Buys nationwide. (Would you like a rusty aural shiv with your James Taylor?) According to the label, Burned Mind has sold about 5,000 copies domestically. That number's a success for such an abrasive recording, and that the band was signed at all to a major-indie illustrates the increasing interest in noise music. Human Animal, Wolf Eyes' second Sub Pop full-length, was released this week to glowing reviews, and the band will tour nationally before heading to England in December for their third appearance at the All Tommorow's Parties festival, an annual celebration of everything that's elite, fringe and important in music. (This year's ATP is curated by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, who, besides being one of Wolf Eyes' most vocal supporters, has been expanding noise's reach with his band for more than 20 years.)
Wolf Eyes are taking the recognition in stride. Sitting in the comfortable Ypsi apartment of electronics and tape manipulator John Olson and wife (and bandmate in his side-project Dead Machines) Tovah Olson, their extensive collection of records and tapes mixing perfectly with the regular items of domesticity, it's clear that no one in the band's camp is really pausing to consider what the phrase "mainstream success" might mean as it relates to noise.
"I think that when their album came out on Sub Pop, that gave critics permission to start talking about noise and looking at it," Tovah says, "because that was something that people understood, people who had maybe never heard of Wolf Eyes or noise music."
The imprint of a larger label helped legitimize the music for those who might otherwise have been scratching their heads, or plugging their ears which would have been a shame, because beyond the open-ended song structures and klaxon blasts of brass, loops and feedback there's a solid and focused rock 'n' roll band. Wolf Eyes aren't making mean-spirited sequels to Metal Machine Music. They're following the natural curve of a musician-specific ADD that demands wilder sounds and increased pressure on what's considered conventional. That could be a turboprop whining in the background of "The Driller," from Human Animal, and Nathan Young's vocals are a wordless, choked scream. But the song has a beat, and a pace, and just enough structure to make its wilder elements churn with unpredictable volatility.
Noise's current geyser of popularity might even kill off a few of those teen emo bands with three words in their names. "It's mind-boggling how many noise and experimental bands are on MySpace," Tovah laughs. She says teenage boys keep sending her offers to join mailing lists for the cassette-only labels they've started in their bedrooms, outfits often based on American Tapes, the label of limited-pressing cassettes and CD-Rs that John Olson started in 1992.
Besides, "You can't really piss off your parents with punk rock anymore," Tovah says.
Olson, wearing a Napalm Death T-shirt, gets up to change the record. He drops the needle on Roy Orbison as Wolf Eyes guitarist Mike Connelly chimes in. "It doesn't actually matter if popular interest in noise wanes or not," he says. "John was doing American Tapes when three people ordered from him, and he'll still be doing it after. For the people involved, it doesn't really matter if the attention goes away."
Parker, Calloway and the Olsons are certainly appreciative of the larger response to their work, as musicians of any stripe would be. But they're the first to admit that noise isn't for the timid. There's something comforting about its capacity to be formless, and carry the listener off to a world of gigantic hums, analog buzzes and electric guitars used in a criminally bent manner. But that's also the aesthetic that keeps it firmly planted in the underground. Critical geysers aside, you have to invest yourself in being a noise fan. In order to get stepped on, you first have to find its shadow.
Time has come Today
Along with American Tapes, Aaron Dilloway's Hanson label, and Bulb, the Albion-based imprint responsible for such regional noise innovators as Couch, Pterodactyls and even the early work of marathon vomit-metal king Andrew WK, artist and musician Davin Brainard's Time Stereo label is recognized as being integral to Michigan noise. Small-scale success is the name of the game with Time Stereo too the label usually only sells between five and 50 copies of its noise music releases. But Brainard acknowledges that any attention to noise is nice. Besides, he says, "We spend almost nothing to produce the CDs, just printing costs and blank discs and cases, so it doesn't matter how few we sell."
"I don't predict that it's going to get huge," Brainard says, sitting at the Cass Cafe's bar. "Although I'm thrilled that it's as big as it is now."
Time Stereo got its start in the early 1990s, and was quickly followed by Princess Dragonmom, Brainard's noise band with pal Warn Defever (His Name is Alive). They had been offered the opening slot for chaotic and thrilling Japanese noiseniks the Boredoms; all they needed was a band.
At that time there was already a noise scene burgeoning, blasting out of the front bay window of Zoot's on Second Avenue, and Brainard and Defever were inspired.
"Zoot's is where we discovered that you could make a band, like, in the afternoon, and play a show that night. We had never done that before, and it was totally exciting." Today, Time Stereo continues to release CD-Rs, vinyl and cassettes, along with books and artwork. Brainard also performs regularly with Ann Arbor-based musician Wade Kergan as Metal Dungeon, a project that seems to conjure its significant roar from such otherwise mundane materials as oscillators, effects units and industrial lighting systems.
So as a longtime aficionado of noise, Brainard has some theories on how such an often abrasive sound has managed to find a consistent audience, as well as build new ones. "I think you can argue either for or against how extreme noise really is," he says. "It's just different. I mean, yeah, it's really loud. But there are loud concerts within all types of music. You go to a football game and it's loud. And so it's not just that anything loud is extreme.
"Some artists want it to be the most harsh, the most extreme, the most violent," he continues. "But to me, it's about whether or not it sounds good."
And whether it's good or not at least to the noise musicians and their audience is what should help it continue, even after the cyclical nature of exposure and buzz has moved on to whatever's next.
"There's enough creative room for noise records to come out for a long, long time," Brainard says.
A Joyful Noise
As for his own adoration of noise, Brainard has a theory about that too. "Have you ever seen Ultraman?" he asks with an inquisitive gleam in his eye. He's referring to the classic late 1960s Japanese sci-fi TV show that made its way to American broadcasts a decade later via UHF, which for kids growing up in the '70s was almost better than YouTube. In the tradition of the Godzilla films, Ultraman sparred regularly with outsized bugs and other galactic villains in his quest to save humanity, and usually unleashed a torrent of sound-effect havoc in the process. While watching a new Ultraman DVD collection, Brainard realized he was listening to it too.
"When the monsters fight, you hear them bashing into each other," he says. "You hear buildings falling. A lot of monsters make electronic chirping noises, or just weird sounds from a Moog. You might hear talking or other effects going on too; it's this sound collage that's powerful, aggressive, sounds great and is completely improvisational."
In other words, the Ultraman effects track serves as a pretty apt primer for noise music.
"I couldn't believe it," Brainard says. "I've always loved "Ultraman." One of the first releases on Time Stereo was an Ultraman coloring book themed around his life. But I was watching these shows and thinking, 'Did I copy this off Ultraman? Is that what I love about giant monster movies, the sounds?"
Were Godzilla and Ultraman his formative musical influences?
He breaks into an oral montage of monster effects whizzing lasers, crashing, crumbling pavement, Ultraman roundhouses leveling intergalactic thugs and it really does sound like the raw material of a noise performance. Brainard's definitely onto something. After all, he says he's pretty sure he read somewhere that Godzilla's original roar was made by manipulating a trombone.
It's a mild night in Ann Arbor, except for inside a nook at the Gallery Project on Fourth Street, where Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani is methodically constructing a maelstrom of acoustic noise with his array of drums, cymbals and singing bowls. There's no melody here, and Nakatani never breaks into a four-four rhythm. But his performance is captivating all the same. With a deft touch and intense concentration he draws out sounds that flutter, rush, pound and even thunder. It's more avant-garde or even academic than it is specifically noise Nakatani's music mixes elements of Japanese folk music with the heady, theoretical approaches of free jazz, and he's performed at the Smithsonian. But Nakatani's set is still noise in the purest sense, and as comforting as the sheer physical force of a cranked amplifier and tangle of mixing equipment.
That's proven by the set that follows, which features former Wolf Eyes member and local noise vet Aaron Dilloway collaborating with Ann Arbor musician Chuck Sipperley. Dilloway's rig includes a modified 8-track player, while Sipperley leans intently over a mixing board. The two musicians build the piece steadily, much as Nakatani had done by using a bow against the side of an enormous gong, and slowly but surely the negative space of the gallery is consumed by a roar. You almost don't even notice that it happened one second you're wondering just what a painstaking tweak to a knob might do, and the next you're sensing what sounds like a shower of shattered plate glass falling from a very high roof. The trees in the surrounding artwork almost seem to sway.
"It seems like it goes in waves," Dilloway says later about noise's fluctuating signature on the cultural radar. "When I first started hearing a lot of this stuff it was the early 1990s, Japanese noise stuff was getting easier to find over here. Now, a lot of people are writing about noise, and more people are finding out about it because of the Internet. But it also happens through the same punk rock channels that enabled me and my friends."
In other words, it's not dark or dire or anything else, though it can definitely be aggressive. Noise is simply creativity firing in all directions at once, raining from the sky like a million un-spooled tape reels. There's a beginning, and eventually there will be an end. What happens in the middle is always undefined, but it will always agitate both physically and intellectually. Your gut will tell you it's true and your brain will agree.
Rounding up sound
by Johnny Loftus
Five Detroit noise machines you should know.
Music Blahg: Your Noise Music Toolkit
by Johnny Loftus
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.