Sacramento experimental music group Uberkunst is ready for war, and you’d better be too
“We must give due to Uberkunst, the headliner. They played, sang songs about evil dwarves, and we, facing a two-hour drive, got paid and took off after seeing them play half of their set. We expect that, if they did things right, by show end everyone on the stage and in the club was dead.”
—Eugene Robinson, vocalist for S.F. band Oxbow
The premise of the Terminator series of movies is based on the idea that someday our machines will get so smart and powerful they’ll turn on their creators and annihilate the human race. While having robots actually taking over someday is probably worrisome only to a handful of sci-fi geeks, a group of Sacramento musicians and performance artists have taken the storyline and twisted it into some good, dirty, noisy fun.
Uberkunst (German for “super art") is a tribe of a dozen or so experimental noise-makers who’ve placed this man vs. machine battle on the stage and proclaimed that the only way to avoid this human-vs.-robot war is through NIAD, or Noise Interface Analog Device. According to front man Jetrock (Jetrock Fuckblast, to be exact), the NIAD acts as an “interface between humans and machines that allows people to understand machines.” And vice versa.
This “interface” is a series of contact microphones that run into a box that is hooked up to various electronic effects, with the whole thing being sent to an amplifier. The contact microphones are attached to various hunks of metal and junk, which in turn get slapped and banged into noisy submission by the Uberkunst humans, who believe that by amplifying and sharing the noise of this inflicted pain (the humans are strapped to the pile and are pummeled as well), the two sides can come to understand one another.
Sound far-fetched? Trust us, it is. Very far-fetched. And Uberkunst wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I shoot for getting some sort of extreme response,” Jetrock confessed, “We’re either loved, or people run screaming from the room.”
When 36-year-old social worker Bill Burg isn’t tending to Sacramento’s mentally ill populace, he can be found duct-taping his band mates to a concrete wall or maybe disemboweling one of them onstage during one of Uberkunst’s infamous live shows. Speaking to Burg on the telephone, though, it’s a little difficult to align the unassuming voice earnestly sharing the history and philosophy of the band he’s led for past decade with the actions and image of his onstage alter ego Jetrock, who, with shaved head and devilish goatee and mustache, looks an awful lot like Judas Priest singer Rob Halford (present-day), only with ill-fitting fishnet attire in place of biker leather.
"[The typical] experimental act tends to not be very interesting, just a guy with a laptop,” Burg explained about his initial motivations. “I was wanting to do something experimental in nature … [but] I was interested in something more theatrical and challenging.”
The band was formed at the famed P-House in Sacramento, where Burg and fellow punks, art geeks and the like lived and put on backyard concerts in the midst of Sac State’s frat houses. Burg says starting up a band at the time was simply a matter of “going downstairs in the house and finding who’s watching TV at the time.”
Burg is also a longstanding member of the Church of the Sub-Genius, the ambiguous and happily contradictory anti-church/inside joke that satirizes organized religion while encouraging its philosophy of slack. Explaining that there are two types of followers of the church, “Bobbers” (named after the church’s supposed prophet, J. R. “Bob” Dobbs), who just jump in and follow along, and those who upon joining “immediately form their own churches.” Burg says that “[Uberkunst] was kind of like my heretical offshoot.”
The Sub-Genius tie-in is a big clue to what the band does. While there might be a serious philosophy outlined, the tongue is planted firmly in cheek at all times, and the apparent danger of all the smashing, burning and cutting open is diminished by cartoonish characters with names like “Collin Bhine” (like the Colorado school) or “Optimator Spaten” (a German beer) and the band’s shock-satire of S&M culture (see “Making Fun Difficult” logo above).
Burg describes the scene at a typical Uberkunst show in terms of rings. In the center there’s the band, in Mad Max fetish gear, cutting giant penises in half and banging on various percussion instruments, old computers and each other while blending in and out of the row of audience members who cross over into the realm of the NIAD to take part in the joke. From there attention dissipates ring after ring, as the fearful and the unimpressed put distance between themselves and the showers of sparks flying off Skil saws rubbing against computer housings.
The ideal show is one “where you can’t tell where the band ends and the audience begins,” Burg explained. There aren’t any sing-alongs or lighters held high at an Uberkunst show, however—that is, unless the lighters are being used ignite the road flares being tossed on a pile of flaming plastic and metal, as was the case during an outdoor show just outside of Las Vegas a few years back.
“There was at least one live concussion at that show,” Burg said, as some unappreciative “rednecks” in the audience began throwing bottles and rocks and starting fights in the audience.
As Jetrock, Burg’s methods of inclusion have included tossing firecrackers into the audience (to which Cattle Club management responded by pulling the plug on the show), catapulting vintage porn into the audience or, best of all, tossing personal body alarms into the audience, fully activated—the crowd can either live with the ear-piercing sound or join the smashy fun by pulverizing the noise away.
With a couple albums—The Will of the NIAD and 2002’s Making Fun Difficult—and various compilation tracks and live-footage videos, Uberkunst has been fairly productive. But the marginalized existence of the experimental artist, not to mention the difficulty and expense of corralling a dozen musicians together at one time, has kept the band’s activity fairly underground, with a few short tours and occasional shows in the Bay Area and Sacramento, including taking part in the Slack Fest and semi-regular Sac Noise Fest events.
Asked what Chico should expect from an Uberkunst show, Burg said, “It’s changed significantly in the past few years … actually having set music [but] still maintaining a sense of a train wreck,” adding, “We’re sort of going to put on a little play. … There are some monsters we’re going to use …”
“The only thing worse than being strapped to the NIAD by Uberkunst is not being strapped to the NIAD by Uberkunst,” is how one of group’s many mottos goes, and if you fear that your technology may some day turn into your indomitable enemy, maybe lying on piles of discarded digital detritus and, in tribal-ritual fashion, being smashed and beaten will provide some kind of noisy symbiotic relationship with the mechanized world?
Or maybe you just want to watch?