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.

 

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.

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.

The Universe doesn't exist, but it is still here.

 

Perhaps St-Germain also perceives the world in such a gnostic way. Or maybe if you don't understand his logic, you become his punch line.

"With Matthew, it sometimes takes you a long time to get used to the joke," observes Kurt Sorem, who has known St-Germain for a year and helped him design Freedom From's Web site. "I definitely feel like he's fucking with me all the time. He's kind of like that with everyone. There was this show that Matthew organized last Saturday night. It was scheduled to take place somewhere else, but Matthew brought it back to his house. No one was collecting money outside, so like 50 people went inside to see the show.

"As soon as they got inside, Matthew shut the door and started collecting money. Noise crowds don't like to pay for anything, so no one really offered any money. So Matthew and his friend Andy just started really yelling at the audience. He was pushing them around really hard and causing all of these fights. It was all supposed to be in good fun, but like I said, some people just didn't get the joke."

Sorem sighs. "Matthew can be borderline abusive sometimes, but he's also my good friend. That makes things hard. But once you really listen to him, you start to understand him. And a lot of times you realize that what he's saying is right. His car is the perfect metaphor for Matthew and his music. It's incredibly dirty--like this big moving garbage can. The back window's been busted for over a year. And the car's all broken inside, so these fumes come out of the back of the car and right through the busted window. You ride in it with Matthew, who's driving all fast and reckless, and you have to hold your shirt over your face in order to breathe. To the outside observer, it's dangerous and it's an unorganized mess. But Matthew somehow makes it work."

 

The idea of me (w/ Beck!) releasing a cassette entitledKill Any/All Spin Personnel seems like commercial suicide and I'm sure Beck's management at the time (Gold Mountain Management) and his management now (Silver Phalynx Mgt.) would never let a release like this exist...All I know is the Minneapolis brigade of noise has an infamous history of prankdom which I suggest you be wary of.

--e-mail from Thurston Moore
discussing Freedom From's Kill Any/AllSpin Personnel release; Tuesday,
November 13, 4:54 p.m.

 

Matthew St-Germain lies back on his ripped couch, flipping through a battered issue of Signal to Noise, a journal of improvised and experimental music. The issue, published last summer, includes an interview with St-Germain.

"The most popular pastime for people who purchase underground music is rarely listening to it," he notes in the article. "We [at Freedom From] just like music. We wanted to say to the guy who only buys a record because it is an edition of 200 and none of his friends know how he found it, 'You asshole, why didn't you listen to it?' And the best part is, he can't, because we didn't send it to him. People think we kept all the orders they never got. No, we sent them out, just maybe not to the person who made the order, but instead to a random name picked out of the phonebook. People call us liars and thieves; I say we're musical Robin Hoods."

Looking over this quote, St-Germain laughs. "I don't really do that," he says. "I just told them I did. That part's not true."

"He's really calculating and almost Machiavellian at times," says Andrew Morrow, who plays in the band No Doctors. Morrow reports that after meeting St-Germain in 1999, he started providing moral and financial support for Freedom From, working for the label at one point, and reluctantly allowing St-Germain to move in with him. "He'll just constantly provoke you in as many ways as he can," Morrow continues. "I think he thinks that through provocation, he'll lower your inhibitions and have a more intense relationship with you.

"I have one memory that totally explains Matthew St-Germain," Morrow laughs. "We were on tour with No Doctors and we ended up in Rochester, New York, at some house party after a show. Matt was in the kitchen with this group of people and he was getting really antagonistic. He kept trying to figure out how he could annoy everyone. He was demanding that this one girl kick him in the ass. She was really reluctant about it, but he kept insisting that she do it. Finally some other girl said, 'I'll do it!' and then all of these people were taking turns kicking him in the ass as hard as they could. There were like 40 or 50 people doing it, and some of them seemed like they were kind of upset about it. But maybe that's why they were doing it. For Matt, it's a type of performance. I don't know if he's testing them or something, it's just that he loves confrontation."

This type of trial seems to most excite St-Germain, who is the Andy Kaufman of noise rock. "My cousin and I went to play at the U of Madison's beer gardens and there were like 400 people there," St-Germain remembers. "We started off playing this drone, it was just a short-wave organ. I'd play one note and it would sound like whooooo and ten minutes would pass and it was still nothing but whooooo. This one woman brought her family backstage and she said, 'Could you please stop? My children are crying.' But I kept playing. People were throwing things onstage, lots of change, and someone hit me with a cup. So finally I just got so mad that I mooned the crowd. It was an extended moon. I just stood there and held my butt open in front of the crowd.

"They gave me this huge round of applause, and I thought it was because they understood what I was doing. But then I saw that it was because the security people showed up. And they put me in handcuffs."

St-Germain got out of the mess by reporting that his dad was a famous lawyer who would not be afraid to sue the university.

St-Germain's father is, in point of fact, a schoolteacher.

 

Is he a 'saint'? Is what he does 'germain'? The clever arcanity of this outfit is so super-postmodern I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

--Thurston Moore discussing Matthew St-Germain's identity; Friday, November 16, 1:48 p.m.

 

The liner notes to Kill Any/AllSpin Personnel list complaints about Freedom From that are posted to a Sonic Youth newsgroup. "Did anyone actually go to this show or even know of its existence?" one user wants to know.

The search for an answer to that question led to an e-mail exchange with Thurston Moore. It is Matthew St-Germain who provides Moore's e-mail address. Upon being reached at that address, Moore immediately denies knowledge of who St-Germain is.

St-Germain says that Moore personally gave him the tape of the Cooler performance. He says that Moore recently e-mailed St-Germain his own personal reviews of dozens of Freedom From albums. But when these reviews are e-mailed to Moore, he seems perplexed.

"Migod I wish I had the time to actually spend listening to such a bounty of Americana," he writes. "But alas, as a dad, a musician w/the hectic, always hectic, and constant traveling, recording, writing (everything: music, poetics etc.), the idea of sitting down, listening to homemade noise cassettes and actually pontificating on such, as utopian as that would truly to be [sic] for me, is, I assure you: 'impossible.'"

A seemingly clear answer, there. But a smirk lurks in the margins. Why, for instance, does Moore put the word "impossible" in quotation marks? Could this all be some sort of elaborate joke? And if it is, who's in on it? Perhaps St-Germain has provided a fake e-mail address for Moore, and the questions meant for the New York guitarist are actually being answered by a certain Freedom From representative in North Minneapolis.

And so a call goes out to Moore's publicity company, Nasty Little Man. A representative there confirms that the e-mail address in question belongs to Thurston Moore.

Now if St-Germain knew that Thurston Moore would deny having ever met him, why would he even consider forwarding his e-mail address to begin with? Another message goes out to Thurston Moore: Is he positive that he has never met St-Germain?

"Well if I have met him it certainly didn't stick with me. Is he a businessman type? If so, chances are I would've shut him out. Is he a punk? If so, chances are he was not allowed near us, as we have been threatened by punk violence...maybe [drummer] Tom Surgal is releasing music as Matthew St-Germain--something to investigate."

If Moore knows St-Germain, then why does he feign ignorance? Did Moore record this album and hand it off to St-Germain, disavowing any association with it because he feared that his label would protest? This seems unlikely, since Moore has released any number of albums on smaller labels like Father Yod and Lo Recordings. Is this some sort of prank to get back at City Pages for trying to expose an underground label to the masses instead of leaving it to thrive among the hip and the elect? Also unlikely, since Moore and partner Kim Gordon happily did an interview with the hardly underground women's mag Jane this past year. Did St-Germain put Moore up to this for no reason at all?

Or could it be that Thurston Moore genuinely does not know--has never met, has never corresponded with, has never even heard of--Matthew St-Germain?

 

I really do believe there is no ONE person named Matt St-Germain.

--e-mail from Thurston Moore;
Tuesday, November 13, 1:40 PM

 

Whether for reasons of economics or aesthetics, the vast majority of Freedom From's recordings are exclusively available on tape. The cassette tape is a lost medium of art. Now we have CDs. CD-Rs. MP3s. MIDI cables. MiniDiscs. When you play a CD repeatedly over the years, the music still sounds the same. After years of playing the same old cassette tape, the melodies start to warp. You won't hear the instruments or voices play the same way twice. They sound deeper, slower in sections. But the music doesn't necessarily fall apart.

Sometimes it just unravels a bit. And perhaps that is what makes this medium the most apt testament to the power of Freedom From's releases: It gives form to music's ephemeral delights. It embodies the way the sound of damage can make the most affecting and heart-wrenching music. And just when you're starting to understand the method to the madness, the tape tricks you. With the wear of extended play, the music gets quiet for no apparent reason and then returns to its natural volume just as inexplicably. This is precisely its charm.

Like the trajectory of a worn-out cassette, Matthew St-Germain himself is a bit of a mystery. Rewind the tape in your head. St-Germain's actions were recorded as memories. They're recent recollections. But as you play them back again, notice: They're already beginning to change. Not a damaged boy, not a prankster. Maybe he's not knowable at all.

 

On Sunday, November 18, Matthew St-Germain forwards a message to City Pages. It's originally from someone named Robert Price--apparently, a designer who contributes album covers to Freedom From--and it is addressed to Thurston Moore.

Price tells Moore that they will be using a Sonic Youth track for an upcoming Freedom From compilation and asks him if he wants the label to print publishing information in the liner notes.

"Yes," Moore responds. "Print this."

At the end of the note, Moore has appended his collected e-mail messages--there are ten in all--denying any knowledge of Matthew St-Germain.

The universe doesn't exist, but it is still here...

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