The Provocateur

He obfuscates the present. He fabricates the past. His record label has released 180 albums in the past three years. Agitating for a new aural order with Matthew St-Germain.

Matthew St-Germain does not exist. Or so Sonic Youth's guitarist Thurston Moore insists. The avant-garde avatar and current Mr. Kim Gordon notes by e-mail that he suspects the Minneapolis noise-rock connoisseur is not a real person--even though St-Germain claims to know Moore well. St-Germain, Moore hypothesizes, may not be one actual human entity. He may be a fictional character. He may be a subversive music collective. He may be the artistic alias of experimental drummer Tom Surgal. Hell, he might even be the living embodiment of a saint.

St-Germain, who owns and runs the noise label Freedom From, claims to have met Moore four years ago at a Sonic Youth concert. He says they spoke about Ally McBeal. St-Germain says that after this meeting, Moore purchased the entire Freedom From catalog--some 180 releases--and wrote capsule reviews of the lot.

St-Germain professes that Moore next sent him a copy of a show he played with Beck and Surgal in September of 1998 at the downtown New York club the Cooler. After Moore gave St-Germain his permission, the album was released on the Freedom From label as Kill Any/AllSpin Personnel.

Moore, hearing St-Germain's story, is perplexed. "Matt St-Germain released a cassette by me?" he writes. "I've never heard of Matt St-Germain."

 

Here are the known facts about Matthew St-Germain. He goes by many pseudonyms. Some days he e-mails customers under the name CEO Coke Limo or Cold Mike Haberman. In his personal online diary, he's Baby Too-Much-Doom. He and his friends (or possibly, he and his other aliases) have infiltrated and inundated practically every online experimental-music newsgroup in existence, posting under names like Bon Motts and Tommy Tough.

That said, he is--or certainly appears to be--a single individual. We know this because St-Germain has a driver's license, which lists his birth date as May 24, 1977. He has white skin, stands approximately 5' 8" tall, and has blue eyes and dishwater blonde hair.

And on a rainy October night, sitting at a dimly lit table inside Sursumcorda, St-Germain looks as real as he'll ever be. "I've been awake for days," he yawns. The dark circles beneath his eyes are marked with the light blue traces of what will soon be bruises. "My cousin beat me up last night because I wouldn't share my clam chowder with him," he says.

His cousin, it seems, won't work for St-Germain's Freedom From label anymore. Neither will Freedom From's three other former employees, all of whom quit directly after returning home from a recent tour. (According to St-Germain's friend and former co-worker Andrew Morrow, helping with Freedom From "was just too much work.") St-Germain, battered and worn, is all that the label has left.

"It's been a bad couple of weeks," he shrugs.

Since 1996, this has been St-Germain's typical workday: He wakes up around midday in his unkempt North Minneapolis apartment. ("1:00 p.m. for me is like 1:00 a.m. for Joe Q. Job-Security," St-Germain explains.) This is his place of residence. It is also Freedom From headquarters. Around 2:00 p.m., he hunches down over his computer and takes e-mail orders from all over the world for his releases. These are lo-fi works of intrigue that range from the sonic rantings of an Argentinean prophesier with Down's syndrome (Reynols) to the macabre yawp of an English folk artist who sings sweetly about slashing his wrists (Milovan Srdenovic). This catalogue of music--about 150 of the 180 total are available solely in cassette form--sells better in Japan than it does in Minneapolis.

To a mainstream fan who's never heard noise music, many of these releases might sound as if someone mistakenly left a tape player on record while screaming along to the hum of his broken blender. To the Freedom From aficionado, they are meticulously structured and aurally challenging, teaching listeners how to defy their own conventional notions about sound. These are releases filled with long bouts of loud amplifier drone, or cassettes with such quiet distortion that they are hardly audible to the human ear, or recordings of tone-deaf screamers raging against their musical machines. If the tape sounds broken--if listening to it gives you the simultaneous chill and secret pleasure of breaking a drinking glass--chances are you're listening to a Freedom From release.

This is the story of Matthew St-Germain: Damaged Man, Keeper of Broken Music. But that is only one persona. This is also the story of Matthew St-Germain: Mischievous Prankster. And the story of Matthew St-Germain: Misinterpreted Distributor of Noise Tapes. And the story of Matthew St-Germain: Man Who Likes to Have His Ass Kicked Incredibly Hard in Public. And later, we might discover that this is the story of the Damaged Music itself, and that Matthew St-Germain is merely a messenger--a conduit.

But if that happens, it won't be until later. Right now, we're at the beginning. And in the beginning, there is only Thurston Moore and the e-mail. There is only St-Germain and a sense of confusion.

 

I seem to remember "St-Germain" used as a name for a collective Fluxus/Dada-like enterprise of [Minneapolis] noise-icians....Have you actually spoken to anyone named "Matt St-Germain"?

--e-mail from Thurston Moore;
Tuesday, November 13, 1:02 p.m.

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