By Steve Weinstein
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Now he works in another windowless roomthere's not even a door, reallywith what little ventilation that manages to trickle through provided by three tiny desk fans. He still works eight hours a day, and (until very recently) about seven days a week. He could even keep the job title "record specialist" if he wanted.
To get to Hospital Productions, you have to find Jammyland, the all-reggae joint on 3rd Street. Go past the outdated show posters and lazily spinning ceiling fan, the rows and rows of worn Augustus Pablo LPs and back issues of Let's Catch The Beat, the makeshift office space where manager Malcolm Allen runs their tiny eBay store, and the cardboard boxes full of overstock clogging the back. Squish through the wooden dividers to the trap door in the floor. Slowly descend down the eight steep ladder steps (if you go toes first, you'll probably have to turn around after the fourth step). Be sure to duck under the Thurston-daunting low ceiling.
At the bottom, you'll find a stuffy basement hotbox packed to the ceiling with the most elusive items in the noise underground: cassettes affixed to shards of vinyl or slipped into fuzzy pouches, CD-Rs packaged in seven-inch sleeves, seven-inches packaged in tin foil, a record where the grooves are lathe-cut onto a coke mirror . . . everything from mutant monoliths like Merzbow and John Wiese to obscurants like Cream Corn Barf Extravaganza. There's plenty of black metal too, but no death metal, hardcore, or punk. "In many ways I would say it's a real punk store in that it's more about celebrating the individual instead of the genre," Fernow says. "Noise is the real punk. It's not about the haircut, it's not about politics, it's not about an agenda. It's personal. That's the key for me. And that's an intimacy."
His customersalmost exclusively drawn to the hidden shop through friendly word-of-mouthare searching for intimacy as well. "The more obscure, the rougher the packaging, the more handmade, the faster it sells," Fernow says. "The irony is that in getting away from trying to be mass-produced, you created an even more desirable consumer product. The CDs trickle. The vinyl? Pfft. Gone. I can barely keep that fucking thing full. The tapes? Gone. It's the personal touch, it's the feeling of the individual putting their mark on it."
Fernow wears black pants and black combat boots that match his shiny black floor; his snug red tee blends into the red walls. The stock is organized by disregarding subgenre and scene, turning everything into alphabetized columns of individuals, exactly how Fernow sees them. Is this store an artistic interpretation of Fernow's inner workings, no different from, say, an especially detailed album or a sculpture? After a pause and an embarrassed smirk, he admits, "Totally. Exactly."
Back in Madison, Wisconsin, when Fernow was in the eighth grade, some new friends invited him to hang out while their death/grind band practiced. The emotional intensity he witnessed was unlike anything he got from Aerosmith or the Chili Peppers. There were no gateway bands, no Metallica, no Slayer, not even Cannibal CorpseFernow just dove straight into tape-trading bands like Fleshgrind and Anal Blast. Around 1997, an appropriate distance from the time when computers and CD-Rs would become ubiquitous, 16-year-old Fernow started Hospital Records to release his home-recorded, organically made noise cassettes.
His knowledge of the noise underground was gleaned from tidbits snuck into metal magazines. In an epochal article in Resound, Joe Roehmer of Macronympha declared, "Everyone who's listening to noise should be making noisesend me the tapes." Fernow did. But more importantly, he attached a letter that said, "Tell me everything." The list of addresses and phone numbers he received in return started his lifelong obsession with connecting the old-fashioned way: "Searching and looking and finding and touching and feeling . . . and breathing."
The search, of course, is harder to find these days. "That's why things like MySpace and file-sharing turns me off, because it takes the sweat out of the underground," he says. "It just makes everything so fuckin' easy. There's no passion, no pursuit. You might as well be checking your fuckin' bank balance." Fernow estimates that 15 to 20 percent of his stock was acquired through trading; the community even helped him with donations of time, money, and advice. When he points around the store and says, "This is not a loan," it sounds appropriately enough like "This is not alone."
Situating the store in the East Village instead of the obvious noise-geek biodome of Williamsburg helps Fernow build connections (it's easier for tourists to find), but he's had Manhattan in mind ever since he dreamed up the store in high school. "I do romanticize the city," he says. "I like the dirt. I like the contrast. New York literally and iconically represents [the contrasts Fernow lives for]." His store is as meticulously clean and ordered as a library inside a government building, but to get there you have to climb through a dirty hole in the floor. Prurient's full-body feedbackery is a hatefucking fun-crush, but Fernow emphasizes that it always comes from love and passion. The word hospital represents a place of death and a place of birth. And the records Hospital Productions stock feel like they don't deserve to share space in a room that fits about eight people.