What's that noise? | Music Feature | Indy Week
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What's that noise? 

Seven of the Triangle's eminent noiseniks answer the question.

When Washington, D.C.'s Orthrelm played at the Wetlands Dance Hall in February, their guitar-based, prog-rock brutalism seemed quaint compared to the local opening act, a collaboration between Boyzone's Ryan Martin and Chuck Johnson (aka Pykrete). If Orthrelm's sleek engine clung to the tracks by two wheels, then Martin and Johnson represented this same vehicle coming completely unmoored and careening out of control. They whipped raw feedback into a deep, pre-conscious roar.

click to enlarge Feb. 10, 2006 at the Wetlands: Oh My God I Just Had the Most Amazing Year's Ryan Martin - PHOTO BY ROSS GRADY/TRIANGLEROCK.COM

Martin was down on all fours in a mound of cords and exposed electronic guts, grunting with a contact mic in his mouth and frantically mashing effects pedals, his face a rictus of transportation lit diabolically from below. Depending on your sensibility, the performance was either startlingly audacious or laughably infantile. It's the sort of thing you can see frequently at Nightlight, which, in recent years, has become a lightning rod in the Triangle for noise and avant-garde performance.

If the performance sounds unfathomable on paper, it was surprisingly moving in the live setting, speaking in the dark language of the blood that we spend our buttoned-down days unlearning. Hello, reptile brain? This is rapturous stupor calling.

This isn't an isolated phenomenon: across the world, musicians are putting aside guitars and amassing technology like junk collectors, modifying, circuit-bending and recombining their equipment in pursuit of ever more deranged effects. Noise has its own message boards, record labels and emerging genre tenets (e.g. improvisation, pedal-hopping and an outré performative bent--it is, in other words, a bona fide scene, one that can be ignored with relative ease, but not dismissed by anyone striving to truly understand the modern musical landscape.

The idea of noise as music isn't new. The avant-garde composer John Cage introduced disharmony into his compositions and debunked the concept of the mistake, "for once something happens, it authentically is." Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music scandalized listeners in the '70s with its amorphous, punishing clangor. But where these were aberrations, noise has now reached a critical mass, and it's hard to conceive of any unbreached extremity.

Even at this advanced stage, it's a difficult genre to understand--released by record labels and performed in indie rock venues, it simultaneously begs comparison to traditional music while violating every tenet of the concept. With these ambiguities in mind, the Independent invited some of the Triangle's noisiest musicians to participate in this forum, which convened at Carrboro's Open Eye Cafe on Monday, April 24. The formative question: What do we talk about when we talk about noise?


BRIAN HOWE is a music critic and poet.

Participants (in order of appearance)

DREW ROBERTSON makes music and sound art in the band Phon and as a solo artist.

JEFF REHNLUND is in the band Boyzone and records sound collages under his own name.

ZEKE GRAVES plays in the band Cold Sides and makes a racket with various solo projects.

CROWMEAT BOB likes to knock on streetlamps and listen to the hollow, metallic ringing sound. He may or may not ply a musical style known as “death-jazz.”

ANNE GOMEZ has been playing in Triangle bands for more than 15 years, including Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan.

ROBERT BIGGERS plays in the band Cold Sides and books RECESS, an avant-garde music event at Nightlight.

RYAN MARTIN is in Boyzone, Boner Machine, Secret Boyfriend and numerous other bands. He co-owns and books Nightlight, and organizes the No Future Fest.

Independent: A lot of you don't think of yourselves as noise artists, and I'm not out to pigeonhole anyone. But you do have certain things in common. I'd like to try and get at those, and to figure out what we mean when we talk about noise in a musical context. Can you discuss what noise means to you, as a genre, a tool or an ideal?

Drew Robertson: It's funny that you say "in a musical context," because to me, noise is anything outside a standard musical realm. What actually makes it musical is the same thing that makes a lot of artifacts art: taking them out of a normal context and placing them in a performed or recorded context.

Then you perceive noise as something extra-musical, invasive and disruptive. Would the rest of you agree with that characterization?

Jeff Rehnlund: You have sounds in general; signals that transfer information, like me talking right now. And then you have white noise. White noise is always there, and in one sense it's the loudest thing, but for some people it's the most silent thing because you don't have to pay attention to it, like your belly rumbling, or sneezing, or blowing your nose.

Robertson: It's not that noise is disruptive, but the opposite, because a lot of the sounds that we use are things that everyone hears on an everyday basis. And taking them out of that context and putting them in a musical piece isn't necessarily what validates it as Noise with a capital N, but it's what gives it a sense of recognition and makes it into a final piece.

Zeke Graves: I think the reason that certain things sound dissonant is just habit. So maybe the noise thing is just being more aware of the whole range of sound you hear.

Crowmeat Bob: But you could describe any music making that way, taking different sounds and putting them together in a certain way.

Graves: And if you record street noise or something for 30 seconds and listen to it enough times, that can become catchy, like a verse from a pop song.

click to enlarge Aug. 24, 2005 at Joe & Jo's: Clang Octet: Scotty Irving and Anne Gomez - PHOTO BY ROSS GRADY/TRIANGLEROCK.COM

Anne Gomez: You're all talking about noise as if it's good, but most people use the term in a very pejorative way. "That's just noise!" I think it's interesting that you all are proceeding from the point of view that it's just great to make noise, but usually when people refer to music as noise, they mean it's just like a jackhammer on the street, something disruptive that they don't want to listen to.

Bob: People become socialized to not accept what they perceive as noise as musical. You can have a first experience, as a kid, with a synth that makes all kinds of noises, and just get into the noise for the noise's sake. But once you grow older and become socialized and develop habits of listening, then it becomes this other thing you're not supposed to appreciate empathetically, and if anybody does it in a performative setting, they're seen as being infantile or taking you for a ride in a negative sense.

Robertson: I think "habits of listening" sums it up perfectly. There's a difference between walking by the street sounds, and stopping and trying to actually hear the street sounds. When you actually sit down and listen to things that are noisy and become more accustomed to trying to mold those into what you're doing, then obviously your aural palette gets expanded. Who decides what is music is a personal decision.

Gomez: I don't think there's any one definition of music; that it has to have patterns and structure is just one definition of it.

Robertson: When I make these recordings, I don't care if people perceive them as music or not. I just think of them as sounds that, shuffled together, are kind of cool sounding. It may or may not be "musical," and there may be repetitive things that allude to a musical nature, but whether that mish-mash has a musical quality really isn't important to me. You can try to make anything music, but to a certain degree, I don't care if it's music or not.

Gomez: Well, then what is it?

Robertson: It's sound.

Gomez: I think it's music, in a way.

Bob: It's just that you don't have to call it music if the term offends you.

Robertson: There's definitely stuff that I really like that's music, and it has nothing to do with what I do. I've been in rock bands and I thought that was musical, but I align [Phon] much more with my studies in visual art than anything musical.

What Drew's talking about cuts to the quick of what's most fascinating about noise to me: the fact that music is traditionally distinguished from sound by its orderliness, composition and structure. The definition of music breaks down in cases of extreme noise. Is it possible that a lot of modern noise that's grouped in with music is actually something else, like sonic sculpture, that can't be weighed against the same criteria as traditional music?

Robert Biggers: Instead of these sounds not being music, it seems to me like they're no longer noise, like all the stuff we're talking about is not noise but just something we listen to differently. Most people use the word noise pejoratively; therefore, noise means stuff you don't decide to listen to. But as I understand John Cage's ideas, you can make a field recording and decide to engage with it as if it were something intentional.

Bob: I don't necessarily think noise is just chaos, because it reveals other structures that you don't necessarily notice when you treat something as just ambient sound.

Biggers: Maybe once you choose to engage with something the same way you would with rock or classical, it becomes not-noise. It doesn't even have to be that intellectual; obviously it's not noise if someone enjoys it.

I wonder if it would be possible for people to interpret this stuff as music without people like Cage and the Italian Futurists, who introduced concepts into musical composition that pushed the limits of acceptability. Is the disjunctive, abrasive stuff of today the logical conclusion of what Cage set in motion?

Robertson: A lot of the harsh noise stuff I heard growing up seemed much more akin to metal than academic stuff. The Relapse and Release Records stuff. Relapse is like the American death metal label, and they had so many different things. That's the first time I heard of Merzbow and stuff like that, where it seems like there was no discernible core sound, but every facet of your ear was filled with some sort of sound. The noise stuff coming out of that time was brutal, an industrial, metal, shock and awe thing, much more sensationalistic than thoughtful.

Bob: I think that once it became possible to record, John Cage and Merzbow and [Lou Reed's] Metal Machine Music became inevitable, just because of the medium itself. It was going to happen regardless once the mechanism was in place; once you were able to create noise mechanically, it was inevitable as an art form.

Is it possible to characterize some noise as theoretical and some as more visceral; does it divide that cleanly along an axis or is there some crossover?

Biggers: When Drew was talking about metal and these genres I'm not really familiar with, it kind of highlighted the complex reaction I have to the type of noise that I often see at Nightlight. When I started to hear the music that might be called noise from the mid-'90s onward, I was relating it more to academic stuff, which is why I have a hard time parsing it out when I go see a performance that's so much about dominating you with sound. It's more like seeing a metal or rock band that's eliminated the infrastructure that might be used in a rock band, and just sort of hitting you instead.

Rehnlund: I don't think there's a real divide between the theoretical and the visceral, because all music is inherently visceral. Noise is even more so; it's ecstatic, unintelligible. It kind of blows my mind that I can hear phantom sounds in the midst of noise; it feels very chancy; I don't know what's going to happen next and it overloads my nerves. When things seem more theoretical it's because they're history. History can only be theoretical; you can't really feel things that happened 20 years ago.

click to enlarge Aug. 24, 2003 at the Cave: Cold Sides, from left: Zeke Graves, David Cantwell, Crowmeat Bob Pence, Neill Prewitt, Robert Biggers - PHOTO BY ROSS GRADY/TRIANGLEROCK.COM

Bob: Unless you've got a good stereo system. [laughter]

Graves: So you just mean that they've had time to be written about more?

Rehnlund: Theory is bound to happen, is all I'm saying. I guess it can still be visceral if you have a good stereo, but being there is obviously going to be a more immediate experience.

Robertson: But when I'm watching people perform this kind of stuff and it's visceral, I'm so overwhelmed that my brain is constantly moving, and I'm like, "I need to do my laundry; I'm hungry; I want another beer; I think I'm going to leave." I like this stuff recorded, but when I'm standing there, it's good to be immersed in it for 20 seconds and then my brain is wandering off. But sometimes, you can tell there's a conceptual basis for it. And when I witness something like that--I know this is going to sound kind of New Age--but I feel almost like a part of it, because my brain, in trying to concentrate and figure out what I'm hearing, is almost an extra instrument. My perception trying to digest what they're doing is as much a part of it as what they're doing. And for me, when groups have a theoretical or conceptual basis, it's almost inevitable that that's going to happen, whether you can put their finger on [the concept] or not. A lot of harsh noise is so overwhelming that it's really cool that they're up there doing it, but unless they're beating their heads with microphones, I lose interest. There's a good zone-out and bad zone-out, and for me, with harsh noise, it's the bad zone-out, and with conceptually based noise or sounds, it's the good zone-out, where I feel like I'm part of what's going on.

Ryan Martin: I'm not sure I understand.

Gomez: You're talking about mindlessness as sort of a cop out, but I think it's hard to theorize making good music. The things you're talking about that you like about noise--the undertones and things that happen randomly--none of them are possible to plan ahead of time. Billie Holiday hitting the perfect blue note can't be written down, but it's beautiful. So I think there's a difference between saying, "Just do random shit," and having some idea what you're doing without saying, "We're going to play in 12-tone scales." I think you're kind of hitting a straw man.

Robertson: Billie Holiday hitting that perfect blue note is going to be more powerful than any other person who knows they can hit the perfect blue note and does it all the time. I think that's kind of the division I'm trying to make between a lot of harsh noise and stuff I'm calling more conceptual. It's the attempt to do something as opposed to doing something just to do it.

Martin: I want to talk about harsh noise a little bit. For me, when it's done right, like Jason Crumer, it's a completely live experience. It's like party music, like putting on Lynyrd Skynyrd or something like that.

Can you define exactly what you mean by "harsh noise"?

Martin: Harsh noise is like wall of sound, pedal hopping. It's constantly changing and trying to shock the ears as much as possible. It's totally fun and involving; you're drinking and pumping your fist, head banging, which was my first reaction when I saw Crumer do a live set. It's totally a metal thing in that sense.

Rehnlund: As for the concept vs. visceral thing, Boyzone has talked a few times about a plotline or story or idea that we'll drown and bring back as a ghost, in a way. We just discuss what the concept will be and when we get onstage, we follow the concept in our own ways, and I guess it turns out in all these blurred references, stories and words converted into sound and feeling. It seems like the concept is completely destroyed by sound, and that's sort of the point where it becomes visceral. It's meaningful, but the meaning is totally rendered invisible by the medium.

Robertson: But even with that blood and guts aspect, you can still tell you've thought about it. We played a couple of those shows where Jeff was out of town, and there were definitely these chaotic noise things going on, and I thought it was a cool thing. I love Jason Crumer too. But I have this bad taste in my mouth from seeing all these older harsh noise people and feeling like I was watching them jerk off for an hour.

Martin: A lot of the harsh noise I book at the Nightlight winds up being three-quarters people jerking off and one-quarter brilliant. Boyzone has jerked off a lot. [laughter]

How do you separate the jerking off from the brilliance?

Robertson: If you're going to see Gallagher, and you're sitting in the front row, and you're not wearing a poncho because you don't mind being sprayed with watermelon, that's how you know it's brilliant noise. But if you're just like, "Oh man, again?" that's when it's just jerking off.

Graves: Anything improvised is a lot like life, where there are a lot of boring elements before something interesting happens. So in that sense, it seems inevitable, the three-quarters that's not very interesting to watch.

Martin: I think that charisma goes a long way; the meaning of the performance is projected. When it's like an extension of the band's collective will to be good, and they don't know exactly what they're doing, but because they believe in themselves it's compelling somehow.

So regarding extreme noise, we talk about shock value, spontaneity, a visceral quality. I'd like to hear your thoughts on whether or not noise--as a modern trend--is in danger of becoming codified. Is it losing its capacity to shock because so many people are using the same kind of equipment in the same willfully naïve, primitive ways?

Robertson: Noise became more and more prevalent as technology became more and more available. There will always be people who'll say [in a dour tone], "It was better when it was more expensive, because now anyone can get it and do whatever they want!" And then other people will say [in a cheerful tone], "Now anyone can get it and do whatever they want!" But one thing about a genre built around sounds that are taken for granted or aren't orthodox is that there's so many different ways to put them together. Maybe in 10 years everything will sound the same, but that's already happened to rock music like three times.

Gomez: I think it gives too much power to technology to say that if you have the device you can make this music; the charisma and the idea and passion is very important.

Robertson: There is a gear fetish aspect to noise. But I would hope that people, no matter how much they love how someone sounds, wouldn't try to emulate their sound completely. If everyone tried to make noise like everyone else, of course it would get stale and boring. But if their m.o. was to use that same setup to try and make something completely unique, that's great.

So you think it's safe to say that the circulation of techniques and combinations of technology runs counter to the whole enterprise?

Gomez: It's like the kind of person who needs a certain kind of guitar because the guy in Matchbox 20 plays it; they have no talent or inspiration, but think that somehow they're going to get this magic device that's going to make it happen.

Bob: Maybe when you're making this stuff, it's not about being unique; it's about being able to completely submerse or subsume your identity into this thing that you're barely in control of, and to erase yourself. It's not necessarily about your prowess on an instrument so much as you subsuming yourself in the thing.

Drew Robertson's rig

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Illustration by Nathan Golub


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