“Who wants beauty when you and me can make the ugly?” asks Elisa Ambrogio, guitarist-vocalist of germy Brooklyn-Montreal-Windy City trio the Magik Markers. On stage, she answers her own question in 30 rambling flavors, bequeathing her guitar to ecstatic audience members, pounding herself on the head in time to the communal feedback. “I don’t want no shit-smelling toilet in Trump’s gold and creepy tower where they look sideways at my mom ’cause she’s fat and wears sweatpants,” she continues. “I want a dark room where a little man tells me he can spin all the waste hours of my life into scratchy sounds little teenagers can goon to if you do it right.”
That goony, abrasive space can be had this weekend at the second annual “No Fun Fest,” a three-day mix curated by Carlos Giffoni, a twiddling fixture in the local noise scene since 1997. Showcasing a healthy smidgen of new-school area racket plus noisemakers from the U.K., Norway, Sweden, Austria, Australia, and the rest of the U.S., it takes place March 18 through 20 at the Hook, 18 Commerce Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
New Yorkers scheduled to perform are Giffoni’s Death Unit and his trio Monotract; upstarts Mouthus, Magik Markers, Sightings (with To Live and Shave in L.A.’s Tom Smith), Double Leopards, Metalux (part Brooklyn, part Baltimore), Young Lords (part Brooklyn, part Providence); plus oldster Alan Licht, with a Saturday-night DJ set. Creating the biggest buzz, though, are notorious ear assaulters Whitehouse, noise’s purest actualization since forming in London in 1980 and one-upping Throbbing Gristle’s destruction of civilization (additionally, chief provocateur William Bennett is DJ’ing Sunday night).
Chasing unadulterated feedback with art gallery brownnosing and fratty hardcore, not all today’s noise packs such an aggressive Whitehouse ear-box. Since Wolf Eyes’ Sub Pop leap and unhip Spin‘s scene primer created what Big Apple Svengali Russ Waterhouse termed “noise stars,” the American noise underground’s sounds/demographics have opened up, i.e., fewer bearded fat dudes in sweats. Old-timers can point to the early-’80s downtown days of Swans and Sonic Youth as true New York noise obscurity (or the no-wave No New York of DNA and Teenage Jesus, and Suicide before that), but for current crème de la noise players, the book of Genesis occurred in the mid ’90s, when Miami juggernaut Harry Pussy’s deconstructed adrenaline rush overlapped with s/m-tinged Japanese blasts, Bananafish magazine’s fragmentary prose, and the hand-screened anonymity of Harlem’s No-Neck Blues Band, nudging disenfranchised indie rockers to a more fertile, unpredictable plain.
photo: Michael Flack
Decade-long din documentarian via his Bed-Stuy zine, 200 Pound Underground, Tony Rettman was hooked when No-Neck opened for Dead C in 1995: “I was sitting in a shit-hole college town in Jersey obsessed with Peter Green and Tony Conrad, being ridiculed by Lifetime fans, so it was nice to know these hip NYC bohos were on the same level.” And Skul, shadowy proprietor of Brooklyn’s vinyl-only Skul label, agrees: “Harry Pussy, I think, is the holy grail.”
In a general sense, “noise” equals unruly clusters of shaggy-dog solitaries-collectives-bands intermingling notes into an endlessly varied squall. Recent Chicago transplant Carbon, who undertakes oscillating operatic excursions in Metalux, sees “a slew of people pushing buttons far beyond tranquility, crossbreeding effects, collaging, building and bending circuits, mutilating source material to the third degree, and transposing the superimposed.” And the lean bearded man behind some of New York’s most intriguing live blasts (insect swarm Newton at spit-shine, pre-Trash Luxx? Bellingham’s dual violin assault at Noggin’s rooftop garden party?), Kyle Lapidus, of “epilepsy-inducing, fable-espousing” projects LoVid and ORTHO and longtime label distributor Ignivomous, defines noise as “almost anything harsh . . . as long as the beat isn’t regular. Try to keep it clear of spaz or drone or improv though some things from these categories cross the line. Klang-plonk usually fits.” Robert Dennis of seminal downtown improv trio Tono-Bungay offers an important qualifier: “Noise-ish—a sop to groups that are essentially rock bands, but who might use a little more distortion than say the Jesus Lizard.”
Like coming at Finnegans Wake with Cliffs Notes, newbies will have trouble interpreting this monolith, but can get feet wet with the web zine Blastitude or by dropping ducats on local labels like Waterhouse’s White Tapes or Russian expat Igor Vlasov’s Psych-o-Path, whose Space Is No Place noise samplers are available via area distributors Fusetron and Tesco USA. Cost-free clamor can be heard at WNYU, WFMU, and Columbia’s WKCR. And then there are live shows, curated at subTonic’s Friday Bunker series, the free103point9 radio-gig space, Northsix’s basement, Williamsburg’s new Llano Estacado, and lofts. When making club rounds, keep eyes peeled for area bands who could easily have graced the “No Fun” stage—Excepter, Gang Gang Dance, Black Dice, No-Neck Blues Band, Sunn0))), Ones, Electroputas, Neg-Fi, Zs, Parts & Labor, and Viodre, for instance.
Bensonhurst native and head of Circle of Shit Records John Balistreri, a/k/a Slogun, is another conspicuous “No Fun” absentee. For the past decade, along with kindred Connecticut performer Sickness, Balistreri has offered a violent take on power electronics and a passion for true crime. “There sure is some ‘noise’ scene going on as far as the ‘artier’ noise stuff,” he says. “I don’t want to sound like a punk-ass, but it’s all harmless, safe. People are only willing to go so far. Then they stop dead in their tracks when they’re peering over the real underground end of the ‘scene.’ ”
Bushwick’s Dominick Fernow, who performs as Prurient and runs Hospital Productions, has managed to combine arty with evil, focusing on “malefic bands and psychological noise malaise” and terming noise “negative meditation.” Fernow relocated from Providence a year ago and provides an insider’s outside take on the scene: “New York noise has a range,” he says, “but the focus seems to be a little less aggressive and more atmospheric.”
Of course, there’s always cross-pollination and remapping. Bridging old and new, the co-inventor of UFDs (uncontrollable feedback devices) known as Ryan plays bass in a quartet with guitar general Glenn Branca and tape-based skree in Neg-Fi, his duo with girlfriend Evelyne. Elder statesman Thurston Moore collaborates with Giffoni and sunburned free-jazz drummer Chris Corsano among others, played the inaugural “No Fun,” runs the Ecstatic Peace! label, and took the Magik Markers on tour last year. “The new folks of no-wave-ish tendencies—as opposed to straight-up noise like Prurient, Wolf Eyes, etc.—all seem to exist and deliver with one real difference from the old days: The new guys know how to play,” says Moore. “Back in the day it was more interesting to me because no one really knew how to play. It was a real epiphany of new language development.”
photo: Dominick Fernow/Hospital Productions
John Fell Ryan, founding member of Excepter and No-Neck Blues Band alumnus, imagines a post-noise situation: “It’s not like no-wave where everyone is reducing things to black and white,” he says. “The current scene is much more omnivorous and exploratory. Check out the change Black Dice pulled off: straightedge free jazz to LSD orgy music in less than three moves? Indie rock died flat in 1994 and everybody knows that, viscerally. It’s not just a New York thing; there are noise scenes everywhere. The entire planet is a noise scene. You don’t have to ask why people are making visionary apocalyptic music right now. Drop It Like It’s Hot is a noise record!”
“What is the place where all the thinking and interesting ideas happen?” asks Elisa Ambrogio. “F. Scott Fitzgerald told me it was Princeton, Herman Melville told me it was a whaling vessel, Lester Bangs told me it was a record, Graham Greene told me it was in prayer, and Dan Clowes told me it was in a line—what you make alone, angry at the world that lacked all the past promised. College? All I got there was a bunch of unfucked pale girls yammering about the gender binary! No thanks! Whaling’s illegal and we fished the cod nearly out of existence! Modern music? Rolling Stone magazine? Getting close to God’s not going to get me laid! Let alone drawing pictures alone! I want a bunch of people taking drugs and making art and fucking and posting to the Internet, that’s what I want! When any group of people pursue artistic freedom for its own sake without thought of reward or backslapping is when people and a place in time become vital, as pat and cheesed-out as the phrase ‘true artistic freedom’ is. I like it ’cause it seems true, and I am so fake.”