By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
By Ray Cummings
By Nicholas Pell
In 1991, improvising percussionist-about-town Weasel Walter launched ugEXPLODE. Then based in Chicago, the label documented his projects like "brutal prog" ensemble the Flying Luttenbachers and his intrepid foray into experimentalism with his myriad collaborators. But since then, the now-Brooklyn-based ugEXPLODE has taken on a roster of maverick musicians from all over the country. From the radical guitarists Ava Mendoza (Oakland, California), Sandy Ewen (Houston), and Mary Halvorson (Brooklyn) to chamber-rock terrorizers Normal Love, Pittsburgh noise-rock duo Microwaves, and electronic composer David Earl Buddin, Walter has amassed a stable of avant-gardists to die for.
Mastering releases, drumming in improv collabs, and serving as guitar overlord in Cellular Chaos, he remains immersed in the action. During a recent set at Long Island City's Uncanny Valley, that no-wave-decimating nihilist quartet (rounded out by drummer Marc Edwards, bassist Ceci Moss, and vocalist Admiral Grey) incited a sonic riot: Walter, flailing and sweat-soaked, rattled off huge, hyper-distorto licks while the tie-dyed-out Edwards bashed living hell from his drum kit. Meanwhile, Moss squirmed on the floor and bled thunderous noise from her bass. A Bay Area transplant whose roommate was bandmates with Walter in noise meisters XBXRX, she moved east in the mid-aughts. Walter followed suit shortly thereafter, and Cellular Chaos soon took shape as a trio.
Edwards soon joined permanently, yet the group needed a singer. "We really wanted vocals, and I was singing since the beginning," explains Moss. "But the thing is, it's really hard for me to play bass [and] sing at the same time and entertain. It's hard to try to concentrate on those two things. I can still roll on the floor if the part of the song is really simple, and I don't have to focus on bass as much. But sometimes, I do have to focus on what I'm doing. We really wanted a lead singer and tried out a bunch of people. We also wanted another girl in the band."
Enter Admiral Grey, a leotard-wearing, makeup-smeared, whooping provocateur. [Editor's note: Ladies Of Experimental Music, or LOXM, is the project of artist Thermos Unigarde (aka Kate Henderson) and showcases boundary-pushing female musicians across a wide range of styles.] "I was missing heavy music, and my drummer from my old band started the Ladies of Experimental Music NYC Facebook page after a conversation we had," Grey says. "People would just find us, and we'd add anyone in experimental music—and not always ladies. So Weasel ended up joining that group and posted about needing a vocalist, [writing]: 'What the fuck? Why can't we find a cool vocalist?' My initial thought [upon reading Weasel's post] was probably, 'Well, your music probably sucks.'"
It didn't. "Weasel and I were just in totally different spheres, different scenes," Grey explains. "We have a million friends in common, but for some reason, never heard of each other. Just different worlds totally."
Walter is no stranger to colliding worlds resulting in visionary music. His reach extends to the thriving experimentalist city of Houston, where bassist Damon Smith recently moved and where guitarist Sandy Ewen is an omnipresent force. Ewen's singular method of playing—her ax flat on her lap, dragging raw sonics from her six-string using random items found on the street—went well with Walter's brisk percussive clangs and crashes and Smith's beefy phraseology, as evidenced by this year's Ewen/Smith/Walter (ugEXPLODE).
"Friends know that I look for these things, and if they find cool pieces of metal, they'll save it for me," Ewen says of her found sounds. "If you're improvising with people, you have to improvise ways to make cool sounds and fit into stuff. So it just seemed natural to raid the closet. One of the main techniques that I discovered was playing the guitar with sidewalk chalk. So I figured that out just because I had some one day, and I tried it on a guitar. It sounds really cool, like an EBow. It sounds like a rusty piece of metal, but it works way better. It's like the ultimate rusty piece of metal."
Survival Tricks (ugEXPLODE/Public Eyesore), the massive second LP by the Brooklyn/Philly art-rock quartet Normal Love, weeds its way through the chaotic orchestral-damaged percolations of shrieking alien vocals, amplified violin skronk 'n' scratch, delirious stop-start clangor, gnarly and futuristic electronics trashing, and disemboweled-guitar-string fuckery. "The amplified-violin sound I bring to Normal Love is actually an extension of some solo work I began creating in 2009 for violin and delay, which in part explores using the violin percussively and texturally," Anthony Braxton disciple Jessica Pavone explains via e-mail. "It was a great coincidence that a year later, I was asked to join this band. Kind of a perfect sonic fit."
Pavone also works with Brooklyn-based guitarist Mary Halvorson, whose abrasive, conversational beauty with Walter is in full throttle on 2008's Opulence (ugEXPLODE) and 2011's Electric Fruit (Thirsty Ear). (The two are accompanied by ace trumpeter Peter Evans.) "Weasel is a unique musician, and his playing always pushes me in new directions," Halvorson says. "He is an amazing listener and a great propeller of energy. He manages to be completely manic and extraordinarily sensitive at the same time, which is no easy feat."
Whether people are citing his tendencies toward being a manic and sensitive improviser, "secretly rock and roll all the way" (as Admiral Grey puts it), or a consistent damner of music and the business, the shared sentiment is "Weasel just puts out music he likes." Which is why he demurs when he's asked about the overblown topic of "Women in Experimental Music."
"I never implicitly thought of ugEX as a pro-female label, but I guess it is in a way. I am certainly interested in nonwhite-male perspectives in experimental music. I think it's crucial," Walter said in response to an e-mail I sent proposing this article's original, loosely based, concept: "ugEXPLODE's iconoclastic female-musician movement."
Walter's bandmate in QUOK, Oakland's avant-jazz virtuoso Ava Mendoza, had a slightly more humorous take: "It sounds like we had picket signs or something—Let us on the brutal, weird music label. We're equal!
"My sense is that the new influx of women on ugEXPLODE isn't because of an idealistic shift or anything on Weasel's part. It's just a continuation of what he'd already been up to. Women!"
Cellular Chaos play Zebulon on August 16.