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Fargo: Noise-rock city?

Venue the New Direction will host the first-ever Fargo Noise Fest

Venue the New Direction will host the first-ever Fargo Noise Fest Facebook

[Editor's note: Minneapolis musician Thomas Boettner informed City Pages of a thriving noise music scene in Fargo, North Dakota. We asked him to shed some light on the unlikely DIY community ahead of the first-ever Fargo Noise Fest that runs August 19-20]

Once you head west on I-94 from the Twin Cities, the drive is uneventful. High-tension power lines run symmetrical to the softly rolling farmlands of Middle America. Perhaps it's the physical manifestation of ennui that makes Fargo, North Dakota, seem all the more inviting after three-and-a-half hours in a car (that and the promise of cheap tobacco products).

Minus a few pit-stops over the years, the only things I could have told anyone about Fargo is that the Coen brothers named a good film after the city, and it's earned the title of “Drunkest City In America” three years straight.

However, last year I got invited to perform under my solo power-electronics moniker, Straight Panic. I took the opportunity because ... why the hell not? That initial invitation spurred the rapidly solidifying relationship between the established but ever-changing noise community of Minneapolis, and the expanding group of noise artists in Fargo and sister city Moorhead, Minnesota. 

But why Fargo?

“Why not Fargo? It’s cold half the time, I’m surrounded by elderly Christian Republicans, half the drugs suck, and there’s a cop on every block," says musician Chris Hoffman (Professor Whiskers, Geyser Brain). "It’s perfect. Take all these ingredients and throw them together, and you’ve got a recipe to inspire me to make loud, ugly shit.”

STRAIGHT PANIC at The New Direction

STRAIGHT PANIC at The New Direction

In Fargo, a city of roughly 113,000 people, noise is not just something else to do -- it’s something to do, directly inspired by and in reaction against the rural surroundings.

For those who aren’t familiar, the “noise” musical genre reaches back to the early 20th century, when Luigi Russolo and a bunch of artists/poets/weirdos in the Italian Futurist movement got together and jammed with homemade instruments. Think feedback. Think atonal melodies. Think aggression and dissonance. Russolo wrote a pretty straightforward manifesto, The Art of Noises, which helps anytime someone has the gall to say something to the effective of, “You’re not making music, any idiot can do that.”

Well, yes, but wasn’t that always the argument against punk rock, too? Anyway, from there noise has been latched onto, expanded upon, and toyed with by the fine arts, academics, and basically every other musical genre out there. You like hip-hop? Here, have some Clipping or Death Grips. Oh, you’re a pop person? Try Xiu Xiu. You only listen to classical? Have some Stockhausen or Penderecki.

Here's Fargo noise vet Andrew Johnson (Manchester Bulge, Edwin Manchester, Still, Concrete Skirt) on the genre's recent explosion in his city. 

“I've been making noise and playing shows in Fargo since about 2002, and it wasn't until Brandon [Wald] started playing out as Monowolf and, more recently, booking shows and releasing albums that the scene coalesced into what it is today.”

Brandon Wald serves as the leader of the pack, whether or not he'd admit it. Between his various projects -- Monowolf, Support Unit, Concrete Skirt, Piss Enema, Dakota Magick, Slave Society -- he also maintains Black Ring Rituals, a weekly noise/industrial radio show and cassette label.

“I don't mean to sound coarse here, but hardcore and pop-punk have dominated this city for at least a decade,” Wald says. “I think a lot of people are over it, so they are turning to noise music.” 

For a town Fargo’s size, the group has managed to gather enough interest and participation to make the noise shows semi-regular events. In venues the Aquarium and the New Direction, plus a few basements, Fargo noise-makers have carved out their own fertile stomping ground in the city.

“Fargo is purgatory,” says Michael Carrier (Suspicion 疑惑). “Most people who make noise have a cynicism that is so out of place with how Fargo presents itself, a picturesque suburban American dream. When you tell someone in Fargo that you make noise, they give you a certain look ... a look of fear. It’s so beyond the scope of what people here can even imagine. It’s not repressive, or judgmental usually. It’s usually just confusion, followed by dismissal and revocation of its existence.”

The New Direction serves as the main venue for the noise scene, and I've certainly grown fond of the spot. For a dozen years, New Direction -- which is set to shut down next month -- has served as an all-ages, substance-free subterranean venue space for Fargo. Plus, since the space is unbeholden to bar sales, the strange, aggressive, and experimental are more welcome. Punk, metal, and noise are typically on the menu. The New Direction feels just as familiar and welcoming as any underground space in Minneapolis.

Things have been going so well, in fact, that noise musicians in Fargo are hosting the first-ever Fargo Noise Fest from August 19-20.

“Well, Cock E.S.P. was coming out,” Wald says of how the fest was born. “Someone said, ‘Why not make it a fest?’”

And there you have it. Between short regional tours and running a label, Wald has managed to gather 20 acts from around the Midwest. Six of the 20 are Minneapolis names, but the bulk of the fest features North Dakotans, with a small contingent of on-tour Nebraskans.

Whether it’s something in the water or a festering sense of disillusionment, Fargo is quickly establishing itself as a noise town, providing a destination between the Twin Cities and the West for touring acts, as well as an easy weekend jaunt for eastern Minnesota artists. This weekend should be Fargo's noisiest yet.  

Fargo Noise Fest
With: 20 acts over two days
When: Fri. & Sat., Aug. 19-20
Where: The New Direction, 14 Roberts St. N., Fargo, North Dakota
Tickets: $10-$15; more info here