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.

He takes a record out of its jacket and puts it onto the record player. It's Milovan Srdenovic's Songs from West of the Pelvic Girdle, the first album that St-Germain ever released on his label. This record, like most of Freedom From releases, was sent to St-Germain by the artist. When he started the label, he solicited musicians whose work he'd heard on other labels. Now, through the connections he's made as a musician, booking agent, and tour manager, St-Germain simply receives cassettes in the mail along with permission to release them.

St-Germain says that last year he made $20,000 from sales of records like Srdenovic's, every dollar of which went directly back into the label. To date, he has sold more than 10,000 albums. Many of his titles have been reviewed in publications like L.A. Weekly and The Wire, suggesting that Freedom From's works are often critically noticed and widely available in circulation. Yet St-Germain estimates that of the 180 albums Freedom From has released, 20 to 30 percent have never sold a single copy.

But back to the Pelvic Girdle: As a crackle rises off the record, a voice somewhere between Jandek and Tom Waits starts singing as if moaning for help. There's a circuslike oompah coming from the background. It's a chilling sound.

"Milovan Srdenovic is some English guy's pseudonym," St-Germain explains. "He tried to kill himself a while ago. That means he'll probably sell more records."

Doesn't that bother St-Germain? Doesn't it feel weird that people will only buy something because of somebody else's mental instability? "No," St-Germain shrugs. "That's just how it is."

He pauses, then. "My family has a history of mental illness, so maybe that's why I'm drawn to this sort of stuff. Here, let me show you," he offers. He digs through a crate of videos--Benny Hill episodes, concert footage of Freedom From bands, random movies--and comes to a documentary about St-Germain that was made by his friend CansaFis, who plays in the band No Doctors.

The video is filled with beautiful and haunting images that seem fit for a Harmony Korine film. St-Germain, wearing large 1970s sunglasses and a blazer, dances with a broom, jabbing it at some unseen predator. Two girls with large, sprayed hairdos sit in a car, passing a bottle of Mountain Dew back and forth between them. All of the shots are filmed in slow motion. In between them, St-Germain recounts stories about his extended family. He talks about a relative who shot her son, zipped him into a suitcase, and left him at a bus stop in Mexico. He speaks about another relative--a heavy drinker--who would disguise his voice and call his son, earnestly begging the boy to sell him his liver. He delivers countless tales about people he knew and loved who one day just went mad.

"I don't mind if you write about my family," he says matter-of-factly. "It's the truth. Why not print the truth?"

 

Would that it were so easy. Sitting in a gigantic house in Lake Elmo with high-vaulted ceilings and not a trace of dust visible in the brilliantly illuminated sunroom, Leigh Ann St-Germain--Matthew's mother--makes "the truth" harder to discern. On an unnaturally warm Saturday in November, Leigh Ann--who underwrites the vast majority of Freedom From's endeavors--flips through a small pile of loose photos of her son. There's one of elementary-school Matthew in a football jersey, holding onto some sort of trophy. There's one of teenage Matthew in a suit and tie, performing on the high school debate team. There is no sign of Matthew, the damaged little boy. This is an all-American childhood, and Leigh Ann St-Germain, by all appearances, is an all-American mom.

"He was always such a good kid," she says, smoothing back her blond hair and sitting up straight in a smartly attired outfit. "He was really well liked when he was on the debate team at his high school in Edina. He got along well with everyone. He even got along well with his family."

Were there ever problems with other relatives? A history of depression or mental illness in the extended family? "Oh, no," she says. "I'm pretty sure that Matthew had a very happy childhood. He got along really well with his cousin."

 

One of the more conventional bands on Freedom From--and perhaps the most prominent one primarily associated with St-Germain's label--is an Argentinean outfit called Reynols. The band's frontman, Miguel Tomasin, has Down's syndrome, and the rest of the band believes him to be a saint. The band's information page on Freedom From's Web site (www.freedom-from.com) is filled with koans gleaned from Tomasin's insights:

 

Reynols is not a music band only because Reynols is a music band. Reynols doesn't exist and doesn't have any record. In fact it could be possible that Reynols doesn't have any record available on Earth since the band considers that the only real record of each record is located inside a Parallel Mind. If there is no way to guarantee the access to this Parallel Mind, then [it] is not possible to suppose you have a Reynols record even if you have a record physically there.

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