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

Living loud: A local history of experimental music

 

THE PLACE IS PACKED. In the Nicollet Avenue art gallery, Bryce Beverlin II crouches before a crowded bay of benches, his face concealed by a shroud of hair that falls from the brim of his ratty Raiders cap. An overflow crowd watches him extract a fistful of rope and wire from a leather case. From the hopeless tangle, xylophone keys fall at his knees in a clash of sour chimes. In moments, the floor is a wrack of jetsam—license plates, a pair of wooden blocks, a butter knife. The lights dim.

A gurgle pours from an amplifier, and the crowd shuts up. Beverlin presses the microphone to his lips and sputters, grimaces, bares his teeth. Behind him, Tim Glenn drags a strand of Mardi Gras beads across his snare drum, and Beverlin gags. There is a flex of static noise—Casey Deming is cross-legged before an overturned wooden workbench festooned with bare wires that converge on a mixer resting at his feet. All is stillness.

Markus Lunkenheimer
Markus Lunkenheimer
Squid Fist
Squid Fist
Cock ESP
Cock ESP

Then Deming touches a finger to a metal tab affixed to his sawhorse, its solder point flashing in the track light. The room fills with an eruptive drone. Reflexively, the crowd cringes, but then bears into the sound like swimmers into the surf. Beverlin roots through his mound of scraps with the desperation of the suddenly blind. He drags his microphone across the metal scraps and flails the knots of ropes against the floor. He batters the microphone with the license plate. He claps the wood blocks together. One by one, he hammers the xylophone keys with the butter knife, and they skitter into the crowd, still ringing. He is a maelstrom of sound and trash.

It's over in 15 minutes. The crowd applauds. Beverlin rises, and thanks them. "That was called 'Middle School,'" he says softly, before kneeling and slowly beginning to pack everything back into his case.

For half a decade, Beverlin has been a practitioner of noise music, a fractal genre of sound that has spent a century in the periphery, being celebrated by a rogue minority and reviled by the status quo. It's music that knows neither rhythm nor melody. The instruments are as innumerable as matter—in a disused Speak and Spell, the members of Beatrix*Jar see a sonic city, waiting to be rebuilt. They play laptops and tape recorders, scavenged pedals and rebuilt circuit boards.

Theirs is a sound so protean and esoteric that even its practitioners can't quite agree on its terms. It was known to the futurist artists who, at the dawn of industry, built enormous sound machines designed to confront the ear with dissonance. It was foreseen by the composer John Cage, who in 1933 predicted a future wherein traditional composition would be engulfed by the freedom of formlessness. And it was practiced by John Coltrane and Sun Ra, who eschewed Ellington's lounge jazz to create improvisational soundscapes.

The Twin Cities is at the center of the new noise scene. From Squid Fist to Skoal Kodiak, from Wolf Eyes to Animal Collective, from the First Avenue Mainroom to squalid art studios in south Minneapolis, what was once a niche taste is increasingly attracting a mainstream audience.

"If you go to a show, and someone is screaming, and someone is playing pedals, and there's all these horrific sounds coming out, it evokes a response in you," says Beverlin. "It's a desired part of being human. We want evocation. And we do plenty of crazy things to get it."

AT 62, MICHAEL YONKERS is as long, thin, and spectrally pale as an elephant tusk. He speaks in a paternal baritone, as calm and as staid as oak, but sings with frailty, lifting into a panicked upper register. He's got a bad back that keeps him from performing regularly. But a career of over four decades and dozens of releases stretches back to a time in local music when "noise" was a pejorative. For the Twin Cities, noise began with Yonkers.

When he was two years old, he stuck scrap metal in a socket and spent a week in the hospital. Ever after, he would fall asleep with a transistor radio beneath his pillow tuned to Top 40, and awake with noise in his head.

In 1962, Chubby Checker and Ray Charles were topping the charts, and Yonkers was a reclusive 15-year-old, gutting off-brand amplifiers, jamming them with hand-built effects, and making a terrible racket on a Harmony hollow body. Before long he was recording himself on reel-to-reel, and, in fits of curiosity, cutting up the tape with a razor blade and reassembling the pieces into a Dadaist mess. He built rudimentary synthesizers from crude mail-away kits and crammed his effects into a portable box.

While the folk singers and rock bands that crowded the city's stages and garages talked loudly of cultural upheaval, Yonkers's sounds proved unwelcome to ears preoccupied by the Beatles and Bob Dylan. By 1968, he had recorded "Microminiature Love," a pioneer's opus of atonal noise rock that wouldn't see distribution for 35 years. At open stages up and down the West Bank, Yonkers performed to sparse, flummoxed crowds.

"When I started, no one but me wanted to hear this," he says. "But noise is nothing new. People are always listening to noise, whether they know it or not. They're listening to pink noise, and they're listening to white noise. There was a time when people called saxophone 'noise.' I don't see the cut-off point. I can't."

Despite an arid environment that allowed Yonkers's most visionary work to go unseen and unheard, he was far from alone. Deep beneath local rock's thick mantel lurked musical rabble who shared Yonkers's unwillingness to distinguish noise from music, and his talent for appreciating the nuances that united them.

One of them was Milo Fine. The son of a jazz and classical musician, Fine was a trained percussionist and an inveterate contrarian who played in rock outfits like the Newrotics and tried in vain to reconcile the wild time signatures of free jazz with the Doors songs his bandmates wanted to cover, and was growing rabidly disillusioned by rock's willingness to approach the precipice of new sound but refusal to take the tumble.

"I was always looking for arcane sounds," Fine says. "Not just for the arcane, but for what else was possible. What was next. I wasn't buying the hype. I wasn't buying the bullshit. I wasn't buying the liner notes. I was buying the sounds."

For musicians like Fine and Yonkers, who didn't aspire to fame and fortune, booking and recording prospects in the late '60s and early '70s were dim. When he speaks of it now, he nearly spits the words, as if their presence sours his mouth.

"It was ridiculously difficult to get gigs," says Fine, laughing bitterly. "Shouting about the man and then actually challenging his values? The folk singers couldn't make the connection. There was no audience for exploration. None."

By 1970, Fine was careening into free improv drumming, set afire by works like Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica" and John Cage's cartridge music. Yonkers's performances now included double-neck guitars. He would douse himself in talcum powder before taking the stage and affix window fans to his guitars, which would inflate enormous balloons as he performed.

The decision to collaborate was a snap. Fine and Yonkers were mutually suspicious of hit songs, always drawn to the B-side of a record. They were curators and pack rats of sounds that managed to go unheard by the listening public at large. Within a year, their musical suspicions had the force of conviction.

"It's a conditioned value," says Fine. "Say you're a baby sitting in a cradle with an AM radio. If the station gets tuned to static and an adult comes into the room, their vibe and their attitude towards that sound is that it's bad. Then they tune it to a Top 40 station. Their energy changes. What does this do to the blank mind?"

The collaboration was brief—a 1971 spine injury put an end to Yonkers's band life for nearly 20 years. But in one another, Fine and Yonkers found kinship, united in their conviction that the line separating the factory steam whistle from the 12-bar blues was an aural mirage.

"Sound is music," he says resolutely. "Music is sound."

BY 1993, EMIL HAGSTROM had been running noise shows on WMMR for a couple of years, and recording guitar feedback with contact mics. He was a reclusive kid, the kind to seek the shadowed back row in a crowd, who never raised his voice above a whisper on the infrequent occasion that he spoke at all.

But on this night, he was loading dozens of belt-driven turntables onto the 7th St. Entry stage. He'd salvaged them on the cheap from the Salvation Army just for tonight. His band, Cock E.S.P., was performing their second show, and Hagstrom wanted to make it memorable.

When it was show time, Hagstrom began smashing the turntables, throwing them to the floor and stomping them, the amps bristling with noise of the most harrowing frequency. When an amp shorted out and stopped working, Hagstrom hoisted it into his arms and threw it on the floor before a stunned audience. In five minutes, the tempest had passed.

"The first show was pretty tame," says Hagstrom. "It just felt better this way."

By the '90s, noise music was enjoying a small boom. Local labels began to sprout—Fusetron, Sunchip, and EF Tapes made the Twin Cities a depot for thousands of handmade cassette tapes that were rerouted by mail-order catalog to listeners across the country in a vast, thriving circulatory system. They called it harsh noise, drone, power violence; the sounds were apocalyptic—vast overtures of eroding guitar feedback, the shrill whine of handmade synths that grind like a lumberyard buzzsaw, and implosive bursts of oppressive quietude that approached inaudibility.

It was a time before Radio K's empire of the airwaves, when a campus station called WMMR broadcast free-form programming in a tight ring that barely encompassed the campus dorms. In a lineup of specialty shows, noise artists like Merzbow and Throbbing Gristle were piped into the headphones of anyone close enough to catch a signal and willing to leave the dial untouched. Sonic Youth was infusing punk and classic rock with endless cascades of feedback and discord, having just released their seminal album Goo for Geffen records.

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.

All around the kitchen of his Minneapolis carriage house lie hand-built instruments—a keyboard beset with toggle switches that turn the factory-programmed rumba beat into a digital, inorganic stutter; a circuit board attached to an amplifier, which produces a roar that approaches a musical note before diving into hopeless gargle.

Lunkenheimer belongs to Skoal Kodiak, a local outfit that makes danceable noise and is the elected figurehead of the local noise scene.

"Most people don't know that if something is powered by nine volts, you can touch the circuit board while it's live," he says. "I didn't know that, either." He gives a sheepish laugh and adds, "I got lucky."

Lunkenheimer is not a musician. He never wanted to be. He knows nothing more than what a year's worth of drum lessons taught him. And when he built the bleach-bottle microphone in 2000, he knew even less about electronics. He came upon noise music as a matter of instinct, working from a native need to find unheard sounds.

But does it sound good? Is it formless cacophony? Is it music? Ask him, and Lunkenheimer falls quiet. His long hair tumbles in a limp shawl that hides his face. Deep in thought, he frowns in bewilderment.

"I've always looked for something new," he says simply. "Doing something when you don't know what the outcome is going to be. Self-bafflement is my desire."

After a moment's pause, he returns to his bleach bottle. The sound is grating and raw. But Lunkenheimer bobs his head, transfixed. For him, the noise is elemental. The thoughts it evokes are wordless. He fingers the brass bolts like a saxophone's valves, and the noise fills the room.

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