Bring in the Noise
In acoustics, noise literally means a signal that bears no information, like aural junk mail. And on first listen, that's probably what most people would take "noise" music for, even in its most musical permutations. "People think of 'noise' as Nine Inch Nails," says John Vance, co-founder of the local improvisational noise group Wrong, "and if anything goes beyond that into something with less structure, then it just sounds like nonsense. Well, I actually like the idea of nonsense. Coming to grips with the nonsense of the world is a very modern idea."
Of course, as Vance points out, "noise" has always been shorthand for music just beyond the edge of comprehension, and every new form that comes along--jazz, bop, blues, rock, hip hop--has been stuck with the epithet at one time. But a genre called "noise" by its creators is relatively new, and the people who responded to such stuff in the '70s and '80s heard something meaningful in the wash of meaningless signals, just as '20s Dadaists heard the panic of post-World War I angst in their babble chants.
My own first taste of noise came in the early '80s at a community center in Madison, Wisc., where most of the hardcore punk shows were held at the time. A Minor Threat knockoff band called Juvenile Truth had gone into hiding for some months and suddenly reappeared as something called Ribfest, which consisted of a bunch of guys violently hammering amplified sheet metal with distorted opera music playing in the background. Here, I felt, was the sound of dread that hardcore's mocking tone masked. The unspeakable roar was the most complete antithesis of Reagan's "morning in America" speech imaginable, a fearful throb evoking an industry-driven world spun out of control. Only Sonic Youth, who played the same space a year later, was as loud or as scary.
"I've always really liked that 'the world's ending' kind of sound," says Dave Sarrazin of the percussion and tool-driven quartet Savage Aural Hotbed, which may be the most accessible and popular local entity to fit under the "noise" rubric. Like Vance and me, Sarrazin first became interested in the dissonant strain of modern music in the '80s, when the European industrial noise of SPK and Einstürzende Neubauten that inspired Ribfest and the New York "no wave" that birthed Sonic Youth began to penetrate the Upper Mid-west. The extent to which local musicians embraced various forms of noise goes a long way toward explaining the persistent use of the label to describe what are essentially rock bands and the bursts of noise in even the most poppy local music.
Back in the mid-'80s, many of the important venues for local noise experimentation were, then as now, art galleries. And Rifle Sport Art Gallery became a legendary Block E center for such performances. (Both the gallery and the band were named after a downtown gaming arcade.) Chris Strouth began working at the gallery as a teenager, and the present-day Future Perfect curator recalls his noise band King Paisley banging away in the space in 1986. "It was a truly, truly hideous listening experience," he says with a laugh. "We were playing glass bottles with ball-peen hammers with microphones inside. The goal was to drive people out of the room." As a part of the gallery's commemoration this month at Intermedia Arts, Strouth has organized two weekends of videos and performances to re-create those earplug days.
Members of Savage Aural Hotbed came together through another downtown gallery called Circus to the Trade, where future Savage bassist William Melton often played with his art-rock outfit, Rendered Useless, and shared bills with Sarrazin's industrial-noise-meets-tribal-drum band Tin Kong, which also included Savage co-percussionist Mark Black.
The bigger punk bands in town liked noise; Hüsker Dü dabbled in clang-play on record. Grant Hart was reportedly a member of the Throbbing Gristle Appreciation Society, named for the founding British industrial band, and he later played in a noise group himself. Even so, performers in the Tin Kong vein had trouble getting club gigs outside of cameos during Kevin Cole's seminal Club Degenerate events, which were held in the Main Room of First Avenue. "That was a period when a lot of seeds were planted," says Cole. "In the early days, Tin Kong would play plastic tubs that we would mic. It was super primal, but it was a really thunderous sound."
"The thing about the noise circuit is it became the electronic crowd," says Strouth, speaking autobiographically. "You get older and you don't have that fire in your belly and you move away from noise." And the crossover has remained fluid, with sound-collage DJ Rod Smith keeping his feet in both camps over the years, and Strouth eventually putting out Savage Aural Hotbed's Pressure of Silence CD on his UltraModern label. Both Savage and Wrong played the Drop Bass Network's Even Further rave earlier this year. And the '80s wave of noise blended just as seamlessly with the free jazz of local drum legend Milo Fine, which certainly informs Wrong's approach to free noise.
Though the Walker Art Center, the Southern Theater, the Red Eye Theater, and the American Composers Forum have all taken an active interest in noise since the '80s, there's no current scene-building equivalent to the Rifle Sport Art Gallery or Club Degenerate. Mapping the Twin Cities noise scene requires you to shuttle around a bit. And if you wonder, quite reasonably, what's to like in "noise," maybe you should try your own tour to get the flavor of the aesthetic pleasures of meeting organized sounds halfway.
In the past month, I've taken in Savage Aural Hotbed pounding trash barrels and shooting sparks at each other with circle saws at the 400 Bar. I've caught a remarkable evening of multi-artist ambient-electro-rock headed by Skye Klad in the Entry. And I've attended the aimless and luxurious horn-driven Wrong CD release party at the unusually noise-positive Terminal Bar (where everyone except for Wrong played). There may be quite a bit of mixing between these scenes--I caught Vance, Rod Smith, and Chris Strouth chatting together at the New Atlantis Cabaret at Jitters--but there's no center of gravity.
That may be because plenty of noise enthusiasts seem content to bow out of the local music scene altogether. Chris Freeman, who brought Harlem's proto-Tortoise No Neck Blues band to town this summer, runs a free noise/skronk label called Fusetron that sports such internationally recognized acts as Blowhole. But he tells me he wants to keep a low profile and continue specializing in nonlocal artists (though he's made an exception in the case of Milo Fine). A co-worker at Oar Folkjokeopus, Patrick Marley, has his own label, Giardia, and enlists Freeman's help on his nationally distributed fanzine devoted to anti-music, Muckraker, which is as good a place to start as any to learn more about noise.
A mere few blocks a way from Oarfolk, a volunteer at punk rock headquarters Extreme Noise Records runs the Cities' only prominent label specializing in the abstract electro-screech known generically as "Japanese noise." Surprisingly, Extreme Noise volunteer employee Nick Grzelak can't stand any of the free noise he hears around town. "I call it 'junk noise,' and it irritates the shit out of me," he says. "I didn't like jazz to start with. I would say nearly anything that has distinguishable instruments, I don't care for."
These labels, along with Freedom From Records, Bruce McGuire's Generator, and John Vance's Sunship imprint, have put Minneapolis on the map in the diffuse mail-order world of international noise. But besides releasing old Thurston Moore projects, Vance's Sunship focuses almost entirely on local music, arguably sporting the Cities' only "pure noise" band that anyone outside Minnesota would know, Emil Hagstrom's playfully titled Cock ESP. (For the sound, imagine playing a record made of sandpaper.) While a new Cock album is due out imminently, Vance's own project with Hagstrom, Wrong, has just released a double live CD of free improv and noise that my roommate says sounds like the beginnings and ends of songs with no middles. Recorded live in Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago, and New York City, the album features various configurations of over 20 musicians, including the aforementioned electro-genius Rod Smith.
Vance named Sunship for his favorite Coltrane album, and it's clear he sees Wrong's free-form noise less as social than spiritual protest, making a distinction between his quirky musical dialogues and the planned, monolithic sound that Grzelak favors. "Japanese noise is more like minimalism," he opines. "The minimalist painters and sculptors in the '60s didn't have a signature. They would just draw a diagram and go to the hardware store. They could even have somebody else do it.
"People do improv all the time," he continues. "They just don't kick off the ladder entirely with no structure. John Cage used to say he was composing for the music he hadn't heard yet. With Wrong, the goal is to play the wrong notes. And those notes change all the time."
If Savage Aural Hotbed seems isolated from these kindred experimental spirits (the band members say they haven't heard Wrong), it may have as much to do with aesthetics as with different audiences. Where Vance's music finds spontaneous language in interactions with strangers (the basis of the CD release party), Savage is planned, practiced, and physically challenging. Like Vance, the four members of Savage Aural Hotbed were immersed in music as children, are in their 30s ("and up"), and are somewhat settled (read: have kids). But where Sonic Youth's New York guitar torture turned a rock-hating Vance on to the improvisational noise possibilities of music in general, the intricate Japanese Taiko drumming of the band Kodo inspired Savage Aural Hotbed to tighten up discipline and see their shows as performance spectacles.
Dirty words those--"discipline" and "spectacle"--in a genre that's traditionally situationist and anti-authoritarian, and it's not too surprising that noise-fiends refer to Savage derisively as a "rock" band. (They even inspire dancing!) But other, more hopelessly inaccessible noise acts could use a visual hook as arresting as the toxic waste cleanup suits Savage wear, or those giant springs they hook up between themselves and play like giant mouth harps. When I ask them about their trademark giant circle-saw blades, which they use as cymbals, the band members praise a certain salvage yard on the West Bank. "You have to pretend you're kind of a blue-collar guy," says the bearded Mark Black, who's none too white-collar himself, working in a metal shop part time. "If they think you're an arty guy, they'll charge you more."
"We're trying to record the next album without using a studio," says David Sarrazin, the band's original industrial noise fan. "We rented a portable DAT and went to a junkyard and a gravel pit." The band also found a big metal tube on Father Hennepin Bluff to bang on.
During our interview, my considerably less expensive tape recorder picks up its own found noises in the form of impromptu drum work from bassist William Melton's 2-year-old son Miles, who refers to the band as "Dave/Stuart/Mark." (Stuart DeVaan was married the day before the interview and was on his honeymoon.) Miles's dad may be the only nondrummer in the band, but he busies himself with Dave/Stuart/Mark's main occupation, drumming with two pens and a tambourine before proclaiming, "Yeah, I drum!"
"He has toy circle-grinders at home," says Melton, laughing. And so the next generation of aural nonsense is launched.
Rifle Sport Revisited features two cabarets this month recreating the kind of entertainment regularly put on by the gallery in the '80s. The Then show occurs Friday and Saturday at Intermedia Arts; 871-4444.
Wrong opens for Chicago improv-noise group Storm & Stress on Tuesday at the Terminal Bar; 623-4545.
Savage Aural Hotbed performs Saturday at noon in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at Walker Art Center; Chicago-based electronic composer Jim O'Rourke will perform at 2:15.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.