Summer Scum Offers the Noise Scene a Family Reunion
Courtesy Summer Scum
Justin Lakes has some advice for people who don't get to see the music they love. "If you live in a place where the stuff you like [isn't] represented, take things into your own hands," he says. That's what he did, anyway, when he got tired of the lack of an experimental noise scene in Buffalo, where he lived at the time. So in 2012 he started Summer Scum, a festival he hoped would kick-start a local community around the genre.
By year three, Lakes was struggling to break even and planned to leave the festival behind when he moved to Brooklyn. But friends he'd connected with along the way encouraged him to try again here, and in 2015 he did, at Ridgewood's Trans-Pecos. The venue, which showcases left-of-center experimental musicians on state-of-the-art sound equipment, plays host again this year. It's quite a change from the abandoned building in Buffalo that hosted Summer Scum in 2013 — which had no running water. "It was a real marathon gantlet of, like, how much can people take," remembers Lakes of those earlier years. "But everyone was really in a good mood in spite of it."
Even with running water amply available, the music itself is still something of a gantlet. Noise artists employ homemade instruments, unintelligible howls (if there are vocals at all), and a tangle of electronics to create unpredictable, highly abrasive compositions. There's not much to look at, either — usually it's a single person hunched over a table of gear. But noise continues to appeal to an enthusiastic niche audience; similar events like Burning Fleshtival in the Rockaways and Carlos Giffoni's legendary No Fun Fest proved that years ago, and paved the way for Summer Scum.
Courtesy Summer Scum
The lineup this year includes sixty bands. Pharmakon's confrontational industrial soundscapes represent Brooklyn; there's the dirtier, bleaker "No Coast" sounds of Midwest acts like Paranoid Time, Evenings, and Magia Nuda; and, for the first year ever, a handful of acts from Europe. Lakes is fitting them all in by limiting their sets to fifteen minutes or less, a typical length for the genre. What audiences look forward to most are the unpredictable, unrehearsed collaborations, like one combining the slower, bass-heavy drudge of Minneapolis-based Gnawed and the spastic, controlled blur of Chicago-based Deterge.
Performers are happy to travel the distance to pummel audiences for such a short burst because the relationships they've built by enduring and embracing the cacophony are fast and genuine — the glue that holds the musical chaos together. Roman Leyva, who's played every edition of the festival and appears this year as Plague Mother, says Lakes himself is also part of the draw. "Justin has always had a very deep sense of commitment to the noise community...to protect, foster, and grow it. I would go pretty much anywhere [he] asked me to." Leyva's set this year explores "uncomfortable sounds" drawn from field recordings, junk-metal abuse, and feedback.
This is the last time Lakes will ask his friends to play the festival, though: After this weekend, Summer Scum is over. Though he's enlisted a collaborator, Christopher Hansell, to help with logistics and booking, it's still a lot for Lakes to pull off with only modest crowdfunding to supplement his own finances. "I get a stomachache for the two months leading up to it," he says. "I'm a bartender. I don't have a lot of money as a cushion; if for some reason nobody showed up, it would be devastating."
Though willing to leave the stress behind, Lakes is proud of what Summer Scum has accomplished. He programmed the final year to be a grand send-off, paying out of pocket to fly in bands like Alleypisser, Puce Mary, Lettera 22, and Mercury Hall from Denmark and Italy, and inviting artists he felt presented a perfect cross-section of the scene he loves so much. "We really tried to go all out, getting people to come from all over [for] a roster [that's] a definitive picture of this time in American noise."
This snapshot will be memorialized on tape and released online as a free Bandcamp compilation, something Lakes has done for every year of the festival's existence. Noise is rooted in the visceral improvisation of live performance, but tapes — which never went out of style in the scene — are the trading cards of this tight-knit community. The releases are a way to commemorate a great show and sometimes get reincorporated as samples in future sets.
Although the end of Summer Scum marks the loss of something special, it hardly spells ruin or a lack of interest in the scene. Noise artists — many of them fans themselves — will keep experimenting for as long as they have access to a power outlet. "I think noise is pretty inaccessible for the most part — by design. And that's OK," says Leyva, of Plague Mother. "But the possibilities are endless. You can do pretty much anything, and at least one other person will dig it."
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