If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
1 Corinthians 13:1
Joseph "Scotty" Irving III is accustomed to bringing religion into his act, but taking his act to church is a different story. He's nervous.
The church, which sits on a flat stretch of rural highway, is classic Southern Protestant—lancet windows and a white steeple outside, red velvet and blonde wood inside. Stained glass glows in plaster walls. Lights hang from a vaulted ceiling.
All that's out of place is an ornate metal cross, leaning against the chancel rail. Clotted with neon plastic toys and draped in a white shawl splattered with red paint, it looks like a horror-movie prop. Topped with a placard that says "King of the Jews," it terminates in a wicked-looking appendage that evokes a battle-axe and an electric guitar.
Scotty goes to church at Mizpah United Methodist, but his pastor also preaches here at Lowe's United Methodist in Reidsville. She has invited him to perform the experimental music he makes under the name Clang Quartet. Several dozen people—mostly older, with a few families and kids—sit in the nave. Wearing a black muscle T-shirt that reads, "Then God said let there be drummers and the Devil ran in fear," Scotty stands out. Sitting in the front pew with his parents, he leans over with his hands clasped between his knees, his legs fidgeting.
As the service begins, the pastor warns the congregants to move back if they don't like loud noise. A necklace of novelty license plates that Scotty uses in his act hangs on her pulpit: "John 3:16," "God Loves You," "Jesus."
"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" the congregants sing. It's Good Friday, and this is a Service of Tenebrae. Latin for "darkness," it originated long ago as a nocturnal meditation on the passion of Christ—an actual dark night of the soul. Now, in Protestant churches, it means lighting candles around dusk, extinguishing them one by one while reading verses about the crucifixion, and then exiting in silence.
"Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?" the singing continues. A congregant snuffs a candle after each reading, leading to what the program describes as "DRAMATIC PRESENTATION: Scotty Irving, Clang Quartet."
Scotty is a harsh noise musician, a genre often devoid of melody and rhythm—loud, visceral, abstract sound produced with electronic devices. Like industrial music, noise is often anchored by nihilistic, transgressive concepts. He is an internationally noted figure on the underground scene, with dozens of releases on niche noise labels. He has toured as far away as Japan from his lifelong home in the rural Triad. Still, after 18 years, other noise musicians ask if he's serious about the Christian thing.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time and still function, which is a fine description of Scotty's peculiar genius; how he balances his animating contradictions by embodying their best aspects and disregarding their conflicts, finding equilibrium.
Scotty's pastor asked him to perform because she "wanted to do something that would make us feel the crucifixion." His current set explicitly depicts it, crown of thorns and all. Still, putting the darkness back in Tenebrae in this way seems daring. As much as he stands out in the agnostic world of noise music, Scotty is even more out of step with traditional Christian music, whether solemn old hymns or bland "praise songs" designed to insulate the senses from the wilder regions of spiritual experience.
While his set evolves with his sins, which it confesses and purges, it always retains the core elements of grotesque visual drama, emotional performance, elaborate props and furious drumming. It's a darkly ecstatic passion play that seems like it could fly in a flame-tongued Pentecostal tent revival.
"Were you there when the sun refused to shine?" the congregation sings. Only one candle still burns. Scotty lurches from his pew. Above him, dusk shines in a window where Jesus kneels with his hands clasped and his face upturned. A footlight sends Scotty's shadow looming over the altar as he gets down on his knees and takes up his cross.
A soft, eerie shriek picks up in the dimness.
Two weeks before Easter, Scotty is performing at Spazz Fest in Greenville, North Carolina. It's late-afternoon when he arrives at the sleepy commercial strip near East Carolina University where the festival's experimental music module is underway. A guy carries a deer's head strung with Christmas lights past a café where someone is rolling around on the floor and ranting through a vocoder. Unsuspecting window-shoppers whip around at the blood-curdling screams coming from the genteel café.
Scotty runs into some noise-music friends from the Triangle, including Bryce Clayton Eiman, who curates the experimental series 919 Noise, and Silber Records proprietor Brian John Mitchell. A droning duo from Winston-Salem sits in folding chairs; one appears to be playing an iPhone. Scotty puts in earplugs and goes up front to listen, falling silent for the first time in hours.
Scotty is a born raconteur with a rapid-fire, eloquent Southern baritone that combines the stentorian thunder of Foghorn Leghorn with a wily tinge of W.C. Fields. His rhythm is somewhere between a brimstone preacher and a wise-guy carny. He likes decompressed metaphors and folksy circumlocutions. He tumbles through well-rehearsed anecdotes—usually about hard-rock concerts (AC/DC: best band of all time), Japanese monsters and superheroes, and times he did something just so "Scotty."
On the three-hour drive to Greenville, he stops talking only to pause politely whenever someone interjects. He is elaborately courteous, all my good mans and humble bows. He accepts compliments with intense humility and sincerity.
At 47, Scotty looks like a retired wrestler—not heavy, but solidly built, though he has an administrative day job. He has a fin of pushed-back hair and a lantern jaw. His manner is so brash that you can't help but picture him with a sweaty tallboy of PBR in each hand. Yet he does not drink, or use drugs, or even curse.
At a glance, his savant-like religious devotion to building props makes him seem like a textbook "outsider artist," but this is misleading. He has a keen awareness of his own mythology, a narrative he constantly shapes and reaffirms. He is media-savvy and craves critical canonization alongside noise musicians he idolizes, such as Merzbow and Z'EV. In Greenville, he frets about his ongoing inability to get a review in the British experimental music magazine The Wire, which baffles him.
Though he has found his place in the noise scene, he has sometimes had to deal with being pigeonholed by his peers.
"Since people in the noise scene are at least somewhat odd by 'normal' people's standards, I think there is a more accepting attitude about differences in people," he says. "Yes, I do come across some negative attitudes about being a Christian, but I can deal with that. There are also those who cannot accept anything outside of 'normal' Christian music as Christian. Jesus broke the mold, and the religious leaders of his day came down on him. I have never had to deal with opposition of that magnitude, but I wonder if I will."
Scotty says people feel comfortable talking to him about his religion because he is a believer, not an evangelical.
"I want to stress that these are my problems," he explains. "I don't point fingers at the world. There's enough people doing that without me."
Mitchell, who released the Clang Quartet album Jihad on Silber Records, is a rare Christian ally on the noise scene.
"I look at Scotty as the hardest-working musician I know, and a really under-recognized talent in the music community," he says. "I think in part that is because of his open Christian stance, and I feel that stance is awesome. I openly call myself a Christian noise musician, but I don't really have the guts to show it on stage in the same way."
The opening set at The Scullery, where Scotty will later perform, is truly harsh noise. A young man sits at a table covered with electronic consoles. The sound is deafening, a mass of sickening rhythms and hostile frequencies. It cranks up without warning, and the unsuspecting baristas look like hostages who have been ordered to carry on as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
It takes Scotty more than half an hour to put together his set pieces, which have small microphones hidden inside. A shield covered in Mego action figures has an electric fan and several whistles housed in a Jurassic Park T. Rex puppet. A mask has a mouth-whistle and a ribbed plastic sound tube like an elephant's trunk. Scotty transforms physical actions into torrents of electronic noise through a chain of distortion, phaser, reverb and pitch-shifting pedals.
"Since my main instrument is drums, pretty much all the things I build wind up being used as percussion instruments," he says. "All these instruments are put together in a way that I can get certain sounds from them only if they are shaken, which means I really have to fasten everything down securely and plan on giving myself a workout."
His props provide the narrative elements of his set, an arc from sin to salvation. It centers on the cross. Made of crutches, it includes springs and a washboard necktie, which produce an astonishing variety of screams, rumbles, roars and drones when probed with a drumstick. It's densely decorated with toys from his personal lore, most notably the back-plate from a late-'70s Mattel Godzilla.
Scotty got to visit Toho Co. Studio, which made Godzilla films, when he toured in Japan in the summer of 2013. Ads described him as "the only Christian noise artist." The trip was a pilgrimage.
Before he got into noise, Scotty was a hard-rock fan who liked the electronic power of industrial music and the improvisation of groups like Sonic Youth. In 1996, when he was still a drummer in an indie band, he came across a VHS tape of Japanese noise music in a Texas store. He liked its intensity and freedom, and it led him to a compilation called The Japanese/American Noise Treaty, which showed him that noise wasn't just happening in Japan. He has now played shows with many acts featured on the compilation.
"I remember thinking, 'I could incorporate some spiritual ideas with this,'" he says. "Christianity is pretty intense, man. We believe that over 2,000 years ago, a man was sent here by God, as his son, to die for our sins. That's about as extreme as anything I can think of."
At the café, Scotty's cross leans in the corner of two streetfront windows. A placard at the top says "My Sins." They are listed as pride, envy, lust, hate, anger, doubt, apathy, worry and unforgiveness. He straps on his kneepads and dons a melted-looking mask with a placard that says "Wretch." A cloud of electronic distortion fluctuates as he drums his fingers on the mask and whips his head as if possessed, stumbling around blindly.
He drops to his knees and shakes two shields that say "My Demons," adding to the threnody, which increases yet again as he beats and stabs the cross with drumsticks. He grinds a plastic knife against an electric fan in another prop labeled "Depression," an element that was not present in the "Armor of God" set that occupied him for most of the '00s.
In 2010, Scotty's grandmother, aunt-in-law and mother-in-law passed away in a six-month span. He got very depressed, and he wanted to fight it alone. He changed his mind after he burst into tears at a church luncheon. His minister, his wife and others encouraged him to seek help, and he now takes an antidepressant.
"When I found out it's like a chemical imbalance," he says, "I said, 'You mean it's a medical thing?' That made me feel better. I thought it was all in my head."
After the "Depression" segment, Scotty vigorously drums on broken cymbals on the floor—the exorcism before the redemption, and a staple of his set. When the corroded rumble of electronics picks back up, he dons his necklace of inspirational license plates and pounds stakes into the arms of the cross, making it howl. Throwing back his head in exultant submission, he puts on a crown of thorns and lifts the cross onto his back. The storm passes as quickly as it began, as Scotty hangs words of salvation over his sins, wearing a red hood and a sign that says "Renewal."
It's just another night of death and rebirth on stage.
Scotty lives on the county line between Guilford and Forsyth with his wife, Patti. Even when she's not around, he often mentions her contributions to his art. "I love her to death," he says. "Man, I don't know what in the world she sees in me, but until she wises up, it's party time."
Patti first encountered Clang Quartet the way many people did—through Jim Haverkamp and Brett Ingram's 2001 documentary, Armor of God. In the 13-minute film, he talks about not doing well in school, being prescribed Ritalin and tested for learning disabilities. And he tells his conversion story, the keystone of the Clang Quartet mythology.
Scotty was raised Christian, but he didn't embrace it until he was 17.
"I fought it with every fiber of my body," he says. "I love my parents, but it just did not work for me at that point."
He had just come back home from the beach when he felt an invisible presence in the room with him. There was a blinding white light, and he felt something on his shoulder, pressing him to the floor. Then a voice said, "Don't you think you've waited long enough?" He thought he was dying, but he wasn't in pain.
"Either I've got a very, very vivid imagination, or that just happens to be the way that God felt he needed to get my attention," Scotty says. "But I refuse to believe it was my imagination."
On the advice of a minister uncle, he started reading the Bible, beginning with the four Gospels and the Book of Revelation—the good news followed by apocalyptic visions.
"For the first time," he says, "playing music started having a purpose."
In his sixth-grade band, Scotty was drawn to trombone, but his mother advised him to listen harder to the music he liked and choose the instrument he heard most. He had seen Ronnie Tutt drum for Elvis. It gave him an outlet for all his restless energy.
"The first time I learned how to play a roll, I thought my hands had exploded," he says.
After his conversion, he started playing Motörhead and Top 40 covers in bands. Then, in 1989, he joined a Greensboro band, Geezer Lake. They were a locally, if not quite nationally, popular contemporary of the Triangle indie bands. Though metal-influenced, they also experimented with tape manipulation and samplers.
"I never would have been able to do it if I hadn't played in Geezer Lake, because I had no idea how to do what [they] did with electronics by myself," Scotty says. "It eventually took on a life of its own. My confidence has gotten a lot bigger over the years."
By the latter days of Geezer Lake, Scotty was more interested in its improvisatory and experimental aspects. He thought his bandmates and manager were more commercially inclined, and he wanted to do something more spiritual.
"Geezer Lake's biggest problem was that we started caring too much what people thought of us," he says. "So I uttered the words that have become infamous because I've said it a million times since then. I said, 'I'll do it without you.' My show is percussion, harsh noise and performance art—that's three, played by one. Some people think Clang Quartet's supposed to be me and the Holy Trinity. How I wish I could have come up with that, man!"
Scotty played his first solo show in January 1997. While there is now a thriving noise scene in the Triangle, there was not at the time. Few people had much context for experimental noise performance, and some didn't get what he was doing. It took him a while to understand the urge, too.
"It looks like I'm struggling with God, like, 'Let me drive,'" he says of his early performances. "Eventually, I said, 'You're doing this for God. Let God do the driving.'"
His conversion experience provided the creation myth of Clang Quartet. Two decades into the project, his performances still seem like an attempt to recapture that moment of divine intensity.
"Oftentimes, when I'm performing, I can feel that presence within me," he says.
The congregation sings, "Sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble."
At the church on Good Friday, Scotty turns his amp very low. The roar that shook the café in Greenville now sounds more like ambient music—a distant, unearthly call, or noise as prayer. But he performs the pantomime with a terrible conviction. He dons his crown of thorns, pounds the stakes into the arms of his cross and lifts it onto his back. He shakes and pants.
The congregation's reaction is inscrutable, though the children are rapt and amused. Scotty's mom films him. It's over in less than four minutes. The pastor reads, "They will look on him who they have pierced," and the last candle is snuffed. All depart in silence.
"I wanted to do something different, and I thought, 'I have someone in my flock who can do it,'" the pastor says on the church steps after the service. "It's neat to have a performance artist in our midst. He could have been a little louder for me—rumbled more, like in rehearsal."
Scotty's parents are also chatting as he breaks down his cross. They've seen his set at full volume and remark on its meekness tonight. Scotty says that his family has an appreciation for his music he never thought they would. Patti's mom heard it a few times, and said it changed her listening habits, making her hear things she never noticed before. His grandfather, who saw videos and Scotty playing at home, said it made him pay attention to drums on the radio.
"It's different, but he reaches people that would not come to church," his mom says.
His father is mostly silent except to volunteer driving directions, something he is always doing in Scotty's stories. Then Scotty comes out and takes over the conversation as a middle-aged congregant walks up, a little shyly. She says she thought the props were interesting and cool. She starts to describe how "when he got up there and he was trembling, it really made me feel the emotion you might have had if you were there."
"That's the biggest compliment you could have paid me," Scotty interrupts. "This isn't the Scotty show, it's the Jesus-died-for-your-sins show. Ain't got nothing to do with me."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Abrasive grace."