Ryan Martin sits at a picnic table outside the Looking Glass Cafe in Carrboro, his eyes searching the middle distance. He's trying to decide how to encapsulate the third annual Savage Weekend, which takes over Chapel Hill experimental music stronghold Nightlight this weekend.
The wind ruffles a stack of black-and-white posters that advertise the 60-something acts that will play the two-day festival. Many have teasingly provocative names such as Moth Cock and Diamond Hymen, not one of which will be familiar to anybody who isn't immersed in the underground culture of ... well, what do you call it?
"I've kind of accepted 'noise' because it's shorthand for music people don't like," Martin says, laughing. From North Carolina's Clang Quartet to Texas' Dromez, this year's Savage Weekend indeed welcomes the dramatic racket most people associate with the term.
But there's also the "nerdy synth-dub," as Martin fondly describes it, of Sagan Youth Boys and the sort of dance-based music that has become so entwined with contemporary experimental fare, such as the grouchy minimal techno of Toe Ring. Some acts, such as Florida's i_like_dog_face, are best described through the accretion of odd details. Martin says it's some of the weirdest music he's ever heard, which means something coming from a dedicated out-music performer (his duo with Jeff Rehnlund, Boyzone, opens Night Two of Savage Weekend) and house-show host (at Carrboro's Meadows of Dan).
"It's electronic, and she sings in a very high voice," he says enthusiastically, "demented but sweet. It sounds like clutter talking to you."
Rhode Island's Russian Tsarlag, whose music Martin has issued on his dizzily eclectic Hot Releases label, translates something distantly recognizable as guitar-based pop music into serenely demented performance art. Meanwhile, Far Rockaway's Ciccio Boy has promised what Martin calls "a coffee-shop weed-brownie rap-rock show" that will "really push the limits of taste and coolness."
This sounds like Martin's ultimate seal of approval. But who are the headliners—you know, the big gets?
"I don't really go for shit like that. I'm so out of touch with what people are into," Martin replies. "I do think if you have a passing interest in weird noise or weird pop, weird performance or weird techno—or even good, solid techno—you'll find something to appreciate."
Savage Weekend resembles another Chapel Hill noise fest, No Future, which ran at Nightlight from 2005 to 2007. Like No Future, Savage Weekend features local and visiting acts scrumming short sets for two packed nights. Martin co-owned the club then, but he says he had only slight input into No Future's curation. Instead, Jason Crumer—a former local with a strong national profile within the harsh noise scene—knew and booked the bulk of the musicians.
Savage Weekend, however, distinguishes itself with the same mercurial, wide-eyed sensibility that informs both Martin's record label and his solo performance style as Secret Boyfriend, which pivots between grating noise and dreamy electronics, cracked singer/songwriter pieces and karaoke pop.
"No Future was about a certain style of noise—harsher or darker stuff," Martin explains. "We have that at Savage Weekend, but I wanted it to be more open." The biggest inspiration for Savage Weekend was the decade-old International Noise Conference in Miami. Martin has performed there for the last four years.
"INC is held in this excellent dive, Churchill's, with an amazing PA and a lot of space," Martin says. "Sets are 15 minutes or under, back-to-back. It's a really inspiring experience and I'm kind of fresh to it, so I'm super-pumped."
Again, however, Savage Weekend parts ways with INC, which forbids drone music and laptops, in its laissez-faire attitude toward the standards of noise. The fest embraces a wide definition of the term and is essentially booked on a first-come, first-serve basis. "I sent all the emails in February," Martin says, "and within two days, it was full. It's a collection of different personalities I like, real distinct sets by people trying to do things on their own—something I also try to do with [Hot Releases]."
More than two-thirds of the acts performing at Savage Weekend are from out of state, which presents considerable logistical and financial challenges for Martin, its sole organizer and financier. Some performers will play for free; others will get paid a bit for travel costs.
"I've lost money both years," Martin says offhandedly. "It's a really good fucking deal, $10 a night or $18 for both to see all this stuff. I think people should get paid what is feasible, but there's a lot of love involved. People come because they want to play and be here."
The performances begin at 6 p.m. on Friday and 5 p.m. on Saturday, with more than 30 sets rolling until last call each day. But this isn't a haphazard collage—a methodical hand has traced a line through the diverse madness, carefully distributing the dance music and setting up stimulating genre contrasts.
"Just like on albums and mixtapes," Martin says, "flow and sequencing are super-important to me. Last year, everything ran on time because I got a watch." He points to a cheap digital watch on his wrist—a necessity when wrangling music that tends to compress or decompress time.
"Andrea Pensado's vocal-heavy noise set last year was one of my very favorites," Martin says. "It felt so full and powerful and intense. But when I listened back to a recording, she played for under five minutes, which was totally shocking."
Just as Martin struggles to summarize the sounds of Savage Weekend, Pensado seems momentarily stumped—or at least wary—when asked to describe her music: "I create sound with a computer, OK?" she concedes from Salem, Mass. "The sound tends to be quite complex, so you can call it noise. I always compare it to sculpting rock."
The Argentine-born Pensado, 47, is a traditional classical pianist and composer by training, but she became fascinated by the edges of academic music—Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez—at the Academy of Music in Krakow. In the late '90s, she attended the ongoing Audio Art Festival in Poland, which plunged her from the academic world into the DIY one of electronic and noise music performance.
Pensado is eager to perform at Savage Weekend again this year after her experience last year. "I could not believe Ryan's mind," she says emphatically. "He's so young. What can happen at a festival so dense is that people cannot absorb any more, even if the most interesting person in the world starts playing. But he did the sequence so well that did not happen."
If anything binds together the diversity of Savage Weekend, it seems like a concept of noise as something inclusive rather than exclusive, something that contains all music rather than serves something outside of it.
"Many people now associate me with the noise background," Pensado explains, laughing, "but I come from playing Chopin as a girl, and I still like classical music! They don't exclude each other. This is honestly what I love and learn from in younger people: I think because they were exposed to everything, all the time, they compartmentalize less. With the attitude that everything is basically the same, they do whatever they feel closest to, the best they can—a freedom my generation is learning to have."
Corrections: See comments below. The shows are Friday and Saturday. The photo was incorrectly credited.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Savage designs."