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.

 

Chris Martin, guitarist for Seattle's experimental noise rockers Kinski, is strangling his instrument. Martin, bassist Lucy Atkinson, and drummer Dave Weeks are onstage at Sursumcorda on a rainy night in October, captivating St-Germain's attention as their instruments cry out in ear-splitting decibels. St-Germain listens intently, gripping a box of some 30 cassettes and a few CDs and records that he has released on his label.

"Kinski are amazing," he says, almost inaudibly. "But you have to listen to these. You can keep them if you want to, but you've got to promise that you'll listen to all of them."

Technically, it's possible to do exactly what St-Germain demands. Inside the box are cassettes from free-improv trumpeter Greg Kelley, local drone and sample artist Rexor, and a beautiful mess of noise created by some group called 200 Yr Old Wolf Pussy. But before you listen to all of them, you should be advised as to what happens when you listen to just one.

Take Christina Carter's "Seven Songs," from L'Etoile de Mer. For the first few minutes, it's simply a single voice singing a few notes. You become impatient. When is the music going to start? Is this just some kind of vocal warm-up exercise before the actual recording sets in? You listen for five more minutes. Still just a single voice. Still just a few notes. No words. No percussion. No guitar riffs. No distortion. No hint at what the hell is going on. You get confused. You keep listening.

And slowly, your brain begins to bend. You hear the notes, but you can also perceive the sound of breath in between them. Sometimes you think you can hear Carter exhale even when the tape is silent. Sometimes you are aware of the sound of the tape threading itself through an endless loop within the cassette. And over this sound the notes seem to sing, hum, gasp, and whisper all at the same time. The voice goes on for ten minutes without stopping and you're wondering What is happening? But you keep listening. And you feel as if, when the voice goes higher, you're inching closer to something. You don't know what will happen when you get there, but you feel like some sort of frightening clarity is emerging, and you just sit there, helpless, waiting. And then it happens: The tiny hairs on your arms begin to stand on end. Your skin gets cold. It's like the music is communicating directly with your central nervous system in a foreign language that your mind doesn't understand.

Perhaps, if you're Matthew St-Germain, you understand it perfectly. Or maybe you don't understand it at all, and enjoy not understanding it. Maybe that's the point.

St-Germain's affinity for "difficult" music was nurtured through his own performances in bands like late and New Port. Ask St-Germain what instruments he knows how to play and he'll return the question with a quizzical glance. (St-Germain admits he does not read music.) Rephrase the question to ask him what he plays, and he'll answer confidently, "I fuck around on the guitar using a huge amount of distortion. Or a lot of times, I just make a lot of drone noise with an amp."

Later, St-Germain will elaborate in an e-mail. "Broken music can really mean anything: using bad equipment and recording styles, taking some type of music and changing it, whether humorous or not, utilizing cut-up sounds. Some sort of applied damage always makes it more worthwhile, systems operating uncontrollably, and there you are, trying to control them. It's a fascination thing: Taking complete chaos and trying to harness it into something that you can pump your fist to."

As this quote might suggest, noise may seem easy to execute, but the poetics behind it reflect a surprising amount of planning and deliberation. "Matthew is an extremely prolific musician," says Rod Smith, a local DJ and musician (and sometime City Pages contributor) who released a collection of drone cassettes on Freedom From. "Once, he did an installation performance at [Minneapolis art space] No Name, and he reproduced his bedroom there. There was a bong, and a bunch of his furniture, records all over the place. He brought an amp and just started playing all of this noise with it. He's a very talented musician. There's a very dramatic structure to Matthew's work--a really rigorous narrative quality to the things he does." Smith chuckles. "I realize that sounds like an odd thing to say about this kind of music, but it's true."

Smith cannot understand how some folks can dismiss St-Germain's music as unlistenable chaos and opt for more mainstream music. "I'd much rather listen to an electric fan than listen to Britney Spears," he says.

"It's really about...No, it's more about...It's not about anything."

Somehow, this makes perfect sense. Three weeks have passed since Kinski's concert, and Matthew St-Germain is explaining the meaning of damaged music from within his office/house. A Julien Donkey-Boy poster is tacked to the wall and a broken guitar hangs like a noose from the living-room ceiling. Wearing a blue jacket with "Mary" stitched across the breast, St-Germain sits on a ripped couch. He opens a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, lights a menthol cigarette, and places a cowboy hat on his head. His shaggy blonde hair and long sideburns hang from beneath the brim. Strands of the hat's fibers are unraveling at the ends. It looks as if it might fall apart at any minute.

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