Skoal Kodiak, Squid Fist top list of local bands bringing the noise

Living loud: A local history of experimental music

But no one had seen anything like Cock E.S.P. Their shows rarely exceeded five minutes. Often, they lasted only three. By the end, the stage was a catastrophe of overturned amps, smashed props, stripped costume pieces, and sprawled, nude bodies, the audience a daze of numbed ears.

Talk to Hagstrom now and you'd never believe it. He's meek and sedentary, so soft-spoken you have to lean in to hear him. Look him in the eye, and he seems to wilt from the attention. But the noise and the performance that came with Cock E.S.P. revealed a savage dimension in his calm character.

"I like to push myself as much as possible," he says. "I'm introverted. It doesn't come easily. And I don't know where it comes from. I have to push myself to do it, and when I do, I want to push myself as far as possible."

Cock E.S.P. toured exhaustively with noise-rock pioneers like Harry Pussy and Tokyo's Melt Banana. They were mentioned in zines like Bananafish and Muckraker and scored blurbs in the L.A. Times.

But though the door was opening for noise music nationally, the local booking opportunities remained lean, eclipsed by a rock 'n' roll boom from bands like Babes in Toyland, which squeezed noise artists onto the sidelines.

"Now, it's popular as hell," says Matt St-Germain, who in 1999 founded Freedom From, a notorious and prolific label for noise, free jazz, and experimental rock. "But back then, fuck. No one would book your show. You couldn't get any reviews. City Pages and Radio K, you couldn't get them to sniff this shit."

While Babes in Toyland played the First Avenue Mainroom at will, experimental bands were shuffled to weekday nights at the 400 Bar. When Radio K overtook WMMR and abolished its free format in favor of major market programming, the radio waves went noiseless.

By winter of 2002, established acts like Wolf Eyes and Animal Collective were regularly skipping the Twin Cities on their incessant tours. The ecosystem was drying up. And Matt St-Germain's patience with resistant newspapers and radio stations was at an end. Something had to be done.

"In a sense it sucked," he admits. "But in a sense, it was important. It fomented me to make a change."

IF YOU DRIVE by 26th and Chicago now, you'll gaze out on a gape of ruined infrastructure, a nest of girders and exposed pipe and open earth. You might never guess that a temple once sat here.

They called it the Church, and at one time, it was. But for decades, it was a spoiled paradise, a mecca of music and art whose tenure stretched back to the 1960s. By the time Matt St-Germain discovered it, it was a rock venue where an in-the-know minority could play in relative obscurity, where the underage could see music of the 21-plus world and get a taste of misspent adulthood.

In 2001, when St-Germain found the Church, he was poised to take action. The music he loved was drowning in a saltwater sea of booking agents unwilling to throw good money after strange music. In the Gothic, vaulted architecture of the Church, in its narrow wooden staircases and basement chambers of crumbled mortar, St-Germain saw a venue that suited the music, and could be repurposed with wise booking to be an Eden for experimentation in sound and space.

In the winter of 2002, St-Germain performed his first experiment. The band was called 25 Suave, and within minutes, the entire crowd was onstage with them in a fury of dancing.

"It was unlike any show I'd ever been to," St-Germain says. "Within six months, if you were going to the Church, you knew something interesting was going to happen."

In a year's time, Wolf Eyes played the Church twice. Months after, Animal Collective played to a capacity crowd. Local press was taking note, and Radio K was lifting its ears. But the Church's success was also a liability—promotions had to be curtailed to keep the place hush-hush enough to avoid the law.

Across the country, the internet was in homes and dorm rooms, and the routes to find the arcane and the experimental in all art and music were suddenly telescoped. Noise bands were making it into bold type—in 2004, Wolf Eyes signed to Sub Pop, sparking a massive proliferation of their music. One no longer had to scout out the obscure cassette in a second hand music shop, nor tune into a feeble AM bandwidth to hear the sounds. By mid-decade, a market that had been slumbering for over 40 years had awakened. The mountain was coming to Mohammad.

"Ears are more democratic now," says John Vance, who ran noise shows on WMMR with Emil Hagstrom before the Radio K merger in 1993. "We have access to so much, and everything is influencing everything. People don't have to be part of some counterculture, or hunt down the zine, or get that tidbit for the secret show that no one's attending. When they hear noise now, they don't go 'eew.' They listen."

ON A JUNE EVENING, Markus Lunkenheimer slings a Clorox bleach bottle around his neck. The bottle is bejeweled with rows of brass bolts punched through its threadbare label. Within its guts lies a naked circuit board, from which a craze of wires spins like the strands of a thinning wig. At a touch of his fingers, the bottle is alive with a chilling moan that pours from its small speaker, planted where the Clorox rainbow would be.

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