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Henry Rollins: The Column! Noise Music Is the Real Thing

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]

One of the most prevalent and undermentioned genres of music is what is known as noise. You can find it all over the world happening in basements, small venues and even some festivals. Often blown off or belittled by critics, the form for the most part goes unheard and unnoticed. I find it much to my liking, and it comprises a large fraction of my listening. I found this extremely underground, almost secretive scene fascinating. The more I hear, the more I wanted to hear. I am several years and countless hours into it now.

A lot of the noise labels are run out of a house or apartment, quite often by the artist. No one in the scene is making much money and no one thinks they are going to get rich creating noise. These are the jams that not many people seem to want.

Tonight I spent several hours hanging out with John Olson in his Lansing, Mich., home. He's the man behind the most well-known group of the genre, Wolf Eyes, and the American Tapes label. Also in attendance was Mike Connelly, owner of the Gods of Tundra label, and the main component of the bands Hair Police and Birth Refusal.

American Tapes has well over 1,000 releases, many of them in extremely limited editions. Gods of Tundra has hundreds as well. The formats vary from lathe-cut vinyl to tapes, LPs and CD-Rs. Most of the parts are spray painted by hand, inked or hand-drawn.

The music (or sound) on these releases are everything from effects pedals bending synthesizers to more traditional instruments. Some of these releases are the most aggressive recordings I have ever heard.

There are quite a few noise labels, groups and individuals all over the world. Some of them might have some distant relation to or appreciation of punk rock or jazz, but many of them seem to be quite uninterested in the more established genres -- or seemingly in making music at all.

The fact that there is not a chance of radio play or even more than the briefest amount of recognition says to me that this is the real thing. This is more punk rock than punk rock ever was past its first year, and in that, it's bebop strong.

 

Olson and Connelly release records left and right. In one week at the American Tapes site, there will be four new releases and up to a dozen new paintings of his for sale. It's been going on like this for years.

At one point in the evening, I asked Olson if he could show me where he records. He showed me a small room in the basement with a few bits of gear, a spray-painted mixer and, I believe, a soprano saxophone. Where I was expecting some elaborate range of equipment was instead a stripped-down, utilitarian setup, designed to get it happening fast.

I have not heard nearly all the recordings these two have made over the years, but I have heard a few hundred and many are totally mind-blowing. This is not just a bunch of maniacs making an awful racket. There is structure, texture and even, at times, an almost Iannis Xenakis constructionist discipline to the work. Xenakis, one of my favorite composers, was not nearly as prolific as these two are. Also, there is a distinct openness to what these guys are doing that evades definition or containment.

I asked them why they do this phenomenal amount of work and what they get out of it. We compared and contrasted our differences in method of creation. I come from a very basic rock approach. You go to the practice room, start arguing with your bandmates and, thus, the creative process starts. Weeks and sometimes months of work renders 10 to 15 songs that you will eventually record, release, shamelessly promote and then play every night for a year, all over the world. It's all so very predictable.

At one point Olson said they see this method as stilted and unnatural. They see music and creativity as a series of chapters. They prefer to record music frequently, never really being done with it and never sure that it's exactly what they are after. In this zone of relative uncertainty, they keep pushing the ideas forward.

 

The listener, if interested, gets to check out work that is always in progress, constantly moving and morphing, rather than a set of finalized ideas. This blew my mind. This idea makes other music seem like preserves in a jar. Perhaps these noise bands have more in common with Kluster, Can and Sun Ra.

By letting the noise go free and constantly going deeper, they fairly incinerate the past as they keep moving ahead. This method of getting music to people has its upsides but can make things challenging. Being unique is never easy, and often by the time culture catches up with you there are only a few people who notice.

You have to be doing this for yourself and for the raw experience. This is another aspect of these kind of music that commands my respect. This is what punk rock should have done but it got let into the club, found a comfortable chair and ordered a drink. By comparison, Olson and Connelly are post-music sonic assassins.

It was a great night hanging out with two of my noise heroes. I was impressed by the music they kept putting on the turntable, everything from jazz, to the Doors to Argentine hard-rock bands I had never heard of. These were extremely switched-on, intense artists who, after literally hundreds of releases, seem as into it as ever. That's how the real thing is. Don't forget to turn it up.

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