The Basement Tapes
The Netherworld of Iconoclastic Music
illustration by Nathan Jensen
Unless they're really good grant writers, the artists who are the most provocative also tend to be the most impoverished. This is abundantly true in the realm of pop music that isn't quite so popular. Even in today's leisure culture, the conscious decision to devote your life to creating music outside the marketplace is easily as big a leap of faith as getting married or accepting Jesus as your saviour.
In the netherworld of iconoclastic music, artists usually have to cut their own unique paths toward substinence. As a result, there's no "correct" way to go about doing it. While this notion is a lot more romantic than surviving on caffeine and water cooler jokes, it actually creates a lot of extra work and decision-making that others take for granted.
For example, how does someone without the support of a multinational media corporation promote their music to a select audience dispersed throughout the planet? What if you can't afford the losses likely to be incurred on a tour? Hell, what if you can't even get regular gigs in your hometown?
These questions have added relevance in an age of increasingly tenuous political and economic outlooks for traditional musical forums. At the same time, the gradual adoption of new technologies such as improved home recording units, MIDI, and the Internet present a whole new set of potential opportunities and pitfalls for the musician in the shadows. Such changes also dredge up philosophical land mines about the role of music in our society and the ever-present schism between art and commerce.
But what do the musicians think? To gauge the sentiment, I spoke with a handful of local and national artists who've attempted to carve out their own rarefied niche in the outer realm of the pop music universe without constant gigging, touring, or big-time support in the mainstream media. Though each artist had their own perspectives on taking the road less traveled, it was interesting how the same themes crept up time and time again.
Los Angeles-based icono- clast Zoogz Rift (The Liquid Moamo) has devoted almost 25 years of his life to creating music that challenges the casual listener to either give themselves up or get the hell out. Rift and his band, His Amazing Shitheads, orchestrate sweet bursts of mind-bending cacophony by doing things like having each instrument play the same melody one half-step from each other. Meanwhile, Rift is bellowing out bizarre and profane dadaist rants that evoke Zappa, Beefheart, and early-Eighties L.A. hardcore all in one breath. To top it all off, Rift has an alternate identity as pro wrestling manager in the Universal Wrestling Federation.
You don't have to look much further than one of Rift's 34 album titles (e.g., Kiss My Bleeding Dork, Island of Living Puke, Fuck God Fuck Your Mother Fuck All Your Bullshit and Fuck You) to realize that he's an artist of limited commercial potential. Yet instead of resigning himself to that fate, Rift has gained personal strength and built a respectable following (especially in Europe) by positing himself at war with what constitutes commercial potential.
"Frank Zappa once told me, `Don't give up. As soon as you give up, you lose.' And he was right," affirms Rift. "Regardless of whatever's happened to me and my career, good or bad, I made the decision that I was an artist, and that art was what I was going to do. Practically nothing can stop me, as long as I have my health.
"As the years have gone by, I've managed to put out 34 albums, many of which have been distributed around the world, and today literally hundreds of thousands of Zoogz Rift fans are out there -- still getting into it. There's a war going on, a war against mediocrity and bullshit, and I'm one of the generals in charge. There are a lot of people who lend their moral support to that."
On a different front, Negativland's many challenges to the status quo have been hot enough to embroil them in lawsuits. The Bay Area-based collective is best known for being sued by Island Records (and later their own label, SST) in part for splicing a snippet of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with a foul-mouthed outtake from "Casey Kasem's Top 40" radio show to create the 1991 12-inch "U2 Negativland." While the ensuing controversy furthered their position on the absurdity of the U.S. Copyright Act, it didn't exactly put food on the table. Their summer '97 release Dispepsi isn't likely to improve Negativland's standing in corporate America, either -- especially with the folks who make their favorite soft drink.
The questionable legal status of their cut-and-paste artistry has made Negativland an anathema to the corporate music world, which is one reason the band handles virtually all stages of their music's production themselves. "I wouldn't do it any other way," explains Negativland singer/multi-instrumentalist Mark Hosler. "I wouldn't want to work with anyone at a record label, I wouldn't want to have lawyers at some company telling us, `Gee, we don't think you Negativland guys should be using those Pepsi commercials chopped up on your new record. You might get us in trouble. Can you change that?'"
Of course, the lack of label support (not to mention widespread radio airplay) usually doesn't equate to a sunny financial outlook for the marginal artist contemplating a tour. Negativland hasn't toured in three and a half years, and Rift hasn't mounted a major U.S. offensive since 1986's "Shitheads Across America" tour. Although financial realities play a starring role in a band's decision to gig and tour constantly, others have eschewed the live music route altogether based on philosophical grounds.
Austin's Craig Ross has done time on both sides of the fence. After years of a predominantly live career with Stick People and Storyville, Ross settled into the more comfortable world of home-based songwriting and recording. If the critical acclaim that greeted his 1996 MCA solo debut Dead Spy Report is any indication, the switch from stage to bedroom has done Ross well.
"I haven't really made a conscious effort not to play gigs or anything like that," asserts Ross. "I think it's more along the lines of trying to stay focused on what I'm doing."
During his stints in Stick People and Storyville, Ross found it difficult to maintain an unbiased songwriting perspective when constantly confronted with trying to please a live audience. "If you start getting out there and playing in that circuit, it's hard for me to sit down and try to write songs," says Ross. "When I'm constantly out playing, I find myself trying to write for reasons other than the fact I like a song. A lot of times, it's writing because we need another up-tempo number for a gig or that kind of thing. I seem to be able to find out more about where I want to go by sitting here and working.
"It's probably also a control issue. That was the downfall for me in Stick People and Storyville because I was usually the control freak. I get something stuck in my head that I want to do, and if I can't, I get frustrated. I can tell myself what to do -- that's easy. And I can tell my drum machine what to do."
Control is also a major issue for Joe Newman, the everything man behind The Rudy Schwartz Project. "Home recording creates a completely different set of irritants, but those irritants are in my control," says Newman. "You don't have to worry about when the other band members will show up or what state they'll be in. Also, I am a dictator when it comes to music. I don't give a fuck what other people think."
Under the guise of Rudy Schwartz, Newman used his home recording and MIDI equipment as a Zappa-style bully-pulpit to deliver surreal, cynical, and hilarious attacks on complacency, Christianity, and the Dallas Cowboys. Although most Austin music fans probably never heard of albums like Moslem Beach Party, Bowling for Appliances, and Günther Packs a Stiffy, Newman managed to build a small international following for the Rudy Schwartz Project through a loose-knit network of underground media outlets and old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Playing live never figured into the equation.
"I don't have any respect for live music," says Newman. "To me, it's just like a big circle jerk. There are some bands like Brave Combo that are always doing mind-blowing stuff with a high degree of musicianship, but that's rare. There's too many idiots who learn two chords and decide they need to be in a band.
"Live music is really more of a social opportunity than anything else. It's not really about the music. I play music that makes fun of people, and for most people, their idea of a good time isn't going out to a club to hear what assholes they are."
Whatever the reason, it's becoming harder and harder to deny that live music is undergoing some kind of seismic shift due to any number of economic and cultural factors. When standing on unsteady ground, the gut reaction is usually to not take as many chances -- which in live music, translates into fewer forums for the more outlandish acts exploring commercially unproven genres.
Veteran Austin drummer/guitarist Dave Cameron has shared his talents with a number of stylistically diverse bands like Brave Combo, Glass Eye, Three Day Stubble, Moist Fist, ST-37, and Dizzyluna. He believes Austin has forfeited its role as a mecca for nurturing creativity in favor of music industry visibility. "It killed the whole idea of having fun," says Cameron. "It used to be fun around here. There was never a chance of someone like the Hickoids or the Offenders making it. Making it for them was getting 300 people at The Beach and having a big party afterwords."
Ross points to the rapid rise in Austin's cost of living as a culprit. "Remember when you could live here and get a good house for $425 a month?" asks Ross. "You could totally slack and play music. You could work not even 25 hours a week and totally survive. You can't do that anymore, so it's attracting a totally different group of people. I don't know how people can afford to do what we used to do 10 years ago. How can you write songs, practice, and record when you have to work 40 or 50 hours a week? It's really amazing. It's sad, too, because one of the things that attracted so many people to this town is gone."
Amid all the economics, however, there's also an artistic reason behind not playing out regularly. "I want every show I do here in town to be something worth seeing," says Ross. "For me to pull off the kind of show that I'd like to see, I'd like to work on it and come up with something interesting and make each show something special rather than a monthly obligation."
illustration by Nathan Jensen
The real difference between then and now is the advent of home recording technology that doesn't necessarily sound like it was recorded on a jambox or four-track. "The technology has changed a lot of stuff," says Ross. "It's put recording studios in the hands of people who couldn't normally do it before. In that respect, it's pushing the envelope of what sonically can happen on a record. I think that's good.
"I think people sitting at home and not really knowing how to operate studio gear the way engineers have been learning to do for years and years come up with some interesting sounds and really good stuff -- and it's purely by accident."
Nevertheless, there's a certain vitality to the collective effort that cannot be duplicated by machine. "It's good to have intelligent human beings to bounce ideas off of," says Rift. "It's good to make mistakes. With the new MIDI computer technology, any idiot can make what would be considered by most to be `decent' sounding music, but to me, it's mostly crap. Guys like Joe Newman are the exception, because he puts his brain first. But most so-called musicians and composers using the technology let the computer programs do their thinking for them."
For Ross, the key to avoiding the trap of pushing the button and dozing off is breaking the rules. "If anything, the downfall of technology would be preventing accidents from happening," he says. "That has nothing to do with anything but the user of the technology. If you use it for nothing other than its intended purpose, you're not going to have any nice accidents. It's those spontaneous little crackles of weirdness that push things toward progressing further and further."
Of course, promoting those crackles of weirdness without playing live or touring on a regular basis is another matter entirely. Since their inception in 1980, Negativland has traveled many innovative avenues of promotion. Since 1981, members of the group have done a live three-- to five-hour weekly radio show called "Over the Edge" on Pacifica station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California.
"It's very live and it very much has to be thought up and put together every week," says Hosler. "You're on a kind of stage -- a huge stage at a 59,000-watt radio station. It's completely live, for three hours, over most of Northern California. But no one can see you, and you can talk to one another when the mikes are potted down.
"Every week, there's a theme, and we do a lot of pre-production, but the tapes are cut up live. It's a mix of live instrumentation, pre-recorded sound, CDs, records, tapes, and then phone callers call in and they can do whatever they want."
In lieu of an actual tour, Negativland also conducted a "teletour" of radio stations in 1988. "Nowadays, you can do this kind of stuff and be in hi-fi stereo using ISDN lines, but in '88, this didn't exist," says Hosler. "So we built this box which allowed us to take the output of our mixing console in our studio and plug it straight into a telephone. We compressed it and equalized it, bringing up the high end and the low end a tremendous amount to compensate for the fidelity loss over the phone lines, and we did a `tour.' We did two shows a night every night for two weeks at radio stations all over the country and even in Hawaii and England."
Ironically, the most effective means of promotion for Negativland has often been the reaction of the very media they so deftly manipulate and criticize. Even before the "U2 Negativland" saga, the band achieved a certain degree of notoriety with 1989's Helter Stupid. That album took root in 1988 when the band had to cancel a planned tour due to its bleak financial outlook.
Instead of giving the real reason for the cancellation, Negativland issued a fake press release saying they'd been advised by "Federal Official Dick Jordan" not to leave town pending an investigation into the possible connection between their song "Christianity is Stupid" and a quadruple axe-murder in Rochester, Minnesota. Within months, information in the press release turned up in a number of music publications and eventually made its way into one of the city's two dailies, the San Francisco Chronicle. The band's purported connection with the axe-murder was even the lead story one night on the San Francisco CBS affiliate's evening news.
This hoax not only got Negativland's name in front of millions, it also allowed the band to give an explicit demonstration of the media's gullibility and called into question its power in creating our collective reality. Although the motive behind "U2 Negativland" was not a notorious four-year legal nightmare, Helter Stupid had taught the band a thing or two about advancing their agenda in the media.
"It's funny because we're dealing with millionaire rock stars and this multi-million dollar, multi-national record company, but in a way, I felt like we had the advantage over them," says Hosler. "They don't know who they're dealing with. We're five really smart guys and we're going to figure out how to deal with this and get the word out. We're approaching it all as a giant conceptual, political, social art project. They don't know that. They don't know they've suddenly become involved in this giant art project.
"With every move they made, they were just hanging themselves further with their own rope. Same with SST. And with every move we made, we were thinking, `How's this going to look to the public? How's this going to look in the big picture?' We were also thinking about narrative, drama, and sheer theatrics. Because at some point, we knew we were going to make a book out of this."
Although Negativland's website (http://sunsite.unc.edu/negativland/index.html) is well-maintained and full of interesting information, Hosler's enthusiasm for the new medium is limited. "It's really cool that there's all this information out there and ideas are being exchanged that totally bypass everything," says Hosler. "That's fantastic. But, it also means we're relying on it, and the more integrated it is into our lives, the more time we spend staring into a fucking picture tube. And I just don't think that's very good.
"To me, it's a kind of community, but what kind of community is it when I'm sitting in a room alone staring at a television set? Community to me is when I go down to my co-op and run into my neighbors. That's my community."
Although Zoogz Rift also has a site chock full of otherwise hard-to-find information (http://www.rlabs.com/zoogz/), his enthusiasm for the web is, shall we say, tempered. "Anyone with celebrity status who wants to keep that status and mystique should stay clear of the net," advises Rift. "Familiarity and accessibility kill the mystique and much of the interest. People start to think of you as being one of them, and take you for granted. I am not one of them -- these people are a bunch of pinhead smiling freaks and monsters. The whole outside world, to me, is like a living version of the movie Salo."
Ross sees the Internet as a double-edged sword when it comes to music. Although it does provide an artist with an outlet for extremely cheap worldwide advertising, the time someone spends looking up information on the web can come at the expense of time spent listening to music.
"Most people in this country and in the world live on a very limited budget," says Ross. "$20 less a month plus whatever the computer gear costs is that much less for people to spend getting turned onto new music. And as for the technology to listen to a song off the Internet, it takes too long to download. I've got a 33.8 modem and it still takes quite a while."
Just what the Internet's role in music is was also a fruitful topic of discussion at the SXSW '97 panel "Why Your Website Blows." Although new, richer sound formats are on the horizon that could replace current standard bearers like RealAudio, sound quality is a major issue with many artists. "A lot of our artists spend a lot of time trying to get their records to sound a certain way," noted Sub Pop General Manager Amy Seidenwurm. "Why should they have it in a format that sounds shitty? I think the whole idea of computers killing the music industry is about as valid as the idea that home taping is killing the music industry."
Yet another concern is the degree to which the Internet will even remain a bastion for the "free" exchange of information. Newman, for one, is quite skeptical. "They will find a way to control it," he says. "Right now, if space aliens came down and accessed the web, they wouldn't know the difference between IBM and the Rudy Schwartz Project. But the government will somehow find a way to wrest the Internet away and put it in the control of corporate interests."
In contrast, Hosler believes the Internet will remain open as long as the profit potential is minimized. "The good thing is that giant companies are having a hard time trying to figure out how to make much money off the web," says Hosler. "That's good. Keep them out. If you want a McDonald's hamburger, you go to McDonald's, you don't go to the McDonald's website. Who cares about the McDonald's website? I don't know. But for little weird, niche things like us, it's good. There are people interested in Negativland who live in Portugal and they can't find out anything about us, so they go on the Internet and do a search and there we are."
Negativland's approach to the expanding array of forums for music exemplifies the fact that every medium has its strengths and weaknesses. "We approach each medium trying to recognize it as a different medium and to have fun with it, and utilize it and exploit it in ways that are unique," says Hosler. "For instance, when we play live, half to two-thirds of the set is material that you'll never hear anywhere else. It's not for [a] record, it's just composed to be performed live.
"At the same time, a lot of what we do in the studio utilizes the studio to its best advantage, which means you can't perform a lot of the stuff live. It's much more fun and interesting to us to come up with original pieces of music based on us improvising and jamming together during rehearsal.
"The marketing department at a record label would think that is bad. You should play the songs off your record when you do a concert, and if you're live on the radio, you play the songs off your record, and you make a video to go with the songs. But that's never been very appealing to us. It just wasn't interesting."
So, do these new mediums offer an end-run around the dominant hegemony? Absolutely, but it's not a run that's likely to make a lot of weird musicians rich. Comedian Denis Leary has been paid handsomely to hype the economic benefits of getting hooked on the information superhighway, but for the record, Joe Newman has only sold about a dozen CDs on the web. And over at Sub Pop, Seidenwurm said the web currently accounts for "a very small percentage" of overall sales.
Nevertheless, new technologies offer plenty of potential for musical growth in the hands of the precocious. Such progressions may change the nature of live music and its role in our culture, but to say that live music is endangered ignores the unique and euphoric strengths of the medium. Remember, it's not the medium, it's how you use it. We can look forward to sonic frontiers being broken and re-invented in ways that would've been inconceivable just years before, and I can't wait to hear what lurks next in the basement.