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Nobody was really coming to Nate Rulli's Abandon Ship showcases at Cake Shop, anyway. Maybe 100 people at most, and many were Rulli's friends, hotboxing the back room and decidedly not buying many drinks. "They were having a little trouble bringing people in," Rulli shrugs a few weeks after the Lower East Side venue dumps him. "And the noise nights weren't helping too much." Rulli is 28 and bearded. A bro.
Abandon Ship, his bedroom-based label, has released nearly 60 cassettes and CD-Rs since 2007, usually in runs of 50. At the showcases, Rulli featured bands like TwistyCat, a baritone sax/bass clarinet drone duo, and Panopticon Eyelids, a Canadian psych-thrash trio. Telecult Powers was a staple, lighting Jesus candles, kneeling on the stage floor amid home-manufactured electronics, and emitting dark, wondrous soundscapes.
"No one gives a fuck besides the artists, and that's the fucking problem?" promoter Todd Brooks posts on Facebook after a sparsely attended night at his second NY Eye & Ear Fest (Rulli had deejayed sets to a mostly empty Knitting Factory). "If that's a problem, then I would say we are all in deep shit."
Brooks, who runs the nonprofit, noise-championing Pendu Organization, estimates that there are 60 similarly prolific New York labels like Abandon Ship: Long on creativity, with nearly every participant responsible for some combination of band/imprint/'zine/venue, the scene is also short on paying customers.
The next day, Rulli's band, Towering Heroic Dudes, plays in the Knit basement. Rulli crouches, looking almost bored, holding contact mics to his tongue, casually twiddling pedals. Behind him, Neil Vendrick (who founded the band in 2006) does an old-fashioned amp-hump, also with contact mics. Paul Haney drops a 45 on a turntable, leaving the middle hole unfilled so that it spins wildly beneath the needle. "A Scottish choir," he clarifies later, as Rulli packs pedals into a paper Whole Foods bag.
Afterward, Rulli passes out the first copies of Oceans, a new THD CD-R. Or possibly the last. Only 60 were made. At Eye & Ear's record fair, held at 92YTribeca, Rulli does a brisk business. He sells 15 or so tapes/CD-Rs/records. He trades another 10.
"I think I sold, like, three tapes at the first Eye & Ear," says Nat Weeks (label: Little Fury Things, band: Christian Science Minotaur), sitting behind his table. "But I came home with a big Santa bag full of tapes, though!" Around him, exchanges are plentiful. One popular item is David Gerhard's Soloing Over Alanis Morissette, which is exactly as it sounds.
"I have two minds," says Brooks (label: Pendu, bands: Ghost Moth, Chaos Majik), sitting in his tiny, tidy South Williamsburg walk-up. "I love to trade. I think everybody who's ever been a music fanatic loves trading. But I also find it upsetting in another way, because it means we are all forced to do something else to make money in order to look forward to something we think is great." Brooks, 35, is one of the few who believes noise musicians can survive full-time. "But you can't even walk into a New York record store and find half the tapes, and yet they're all being produced here in New York."
The next week, Rulli bikes from Bushwick to Crown Heights to hang with Telecult Powers (label: Temple of Pei), a duo consisting of Witchbeam Jones and Mr. Matthews. They are holding a meditation session in Jones's cement backyard. Rulli and a half-dozen others sit around the slab. Inside, Telecult Powers throw on a strobe light in the bedroom and play. Warm analog weirdness drips from the window. Sister Jillian, Jones's wife, leads the meditation. Helicopters, reggaeton, and sirens wail in the Brooklyn near-distance.
"I live all the way up here in No-wheresland," says Jesse DeRosa, 25, proprietor of the Washington Heights–based Baked Tapes. "But when Telecult Powers is playing a show on a Tuesday night and don't go on 'til 11:30 at [Bushwick's] Goodbye Blue Monday, I'll still get myself down there." (He missed the meditation. Jones forgot to tell him.)
DeRosa, a conservatory-trained trumpet player (band: Grasshopper), is also the scene's resident bootlegger, standing in the front row with a Sony TCS-580V. Like Rulli, DeRosa has a tape duplicator in his room. "I found it misspelled on eBay," he says. "Pretty cheap." (Rulli won his for $75, before realizing it was pick-up only. From a Texas church. He sent another $100.)
But, besides the tape manufacturers—Rulli uses the National Audio Company—nobody really gets paid. The norm is to record for everybody, oral contracts only.
The tapes are calling cards, personal reactions to a world gone ephemeral. The noise is psychedelic and diverse. For DeRosa (as well as acts like TwistyCat), it comes from academia, music Bang on a Can could program someday. (In December, Grasshopper wore tuxedos and performed John Cage's Radio Music at Ridgewood's Silent Barn.) Telecult Powers, meanwhile, come from '90s Ohio, where—for years before they made music together, Matthews says—they "skateboarded around, drove the car down the middle of the road and pretended we were Pac-Man." Rulli saw his share of Disco Biscuits shows.