NorCal NoiseFest is noises on
The experimental music festival celebrates two decades of alarm bells, power tools and other weird, loud sounds
Floyd Diebel, co-founder of the NorCal NoiseFest, remembers one act at the premiere event 20 years ago at the Guild Theater, when a guy set up a bunch of old fire alarm bells all over the theater and just let them ring. And ring. That was his set.
And that’s hardly been the festival’s most extreme performance in the years since. William Burg, one of the festival’s current organizers, also performed that year. He formed a band specifically to play the inaugural event. His group Uberkunst had a couple people improvising on electric guitars while the rest of the band demolished some old computers with power tools and sledgehammers.
Joe Colley, who performed under the name Crawl Unit, that year brought a bunch of special Braille tape cassette decks. The machines played tape at unusual speeds and even backwards. With it, he created a symphony of weird tape loops, which he combined with the sound of manipulated hunks of metal.
“It’s sound art—an outsider approach to sound art. It’s obviously not for everyone. It’s a genre unto itself. It has subgenres, but it’s not a subgenre of any other scene,” says the singularly named Lob, who plays in the ever-shifting, consistently improvised Instagon.
Lob, along with Burg, is a current NoiseFest organizer. Both have performed at every NoiseFest since that first one. This weekend, NoiseFest turns 20, and they’re celebrating with three days of sound including a handful of bigger names such as Big City Orchestra and Monte Cazazza. There will also be many old faces from the early days—including Colley, who hasn’t played the festival in several years.
“Everything was cobbled together by us. We were all junk hoarders, thrift shop salvage hoarders,” Colley says of that first event. “Some people used guitars, but I preferred nonconventional instruments. I had a prejudice against guitars and drums.”
Things haven’t changed much since. Noise artists still experiment with sound using traditional and nontraditional instruments, and because of the very nature of the music, are doing so in consistently new and unusual ways.
“If you strip away all the other elements, like melody and lyrical structure, what’s left? That’s what a lot of noise musicians are still searching for,” Burg says. “It still isn’t a popular form of music.”
These days, most major cities have a noise festival, like the popular No Fun Festival in New York, which started in 2004, almost a decade after NorCal NoiseFest.
The Sacramento event grew out of a small underground noise community with loose connections to the basement punk shows and the industrial scene. Diebel and Jay Truesdale threw the first one in 1995, held over two nights at the Guild Theater and Sacramento State.
“I wanted to break out of the whole ’We’re just a bunch of punk rock kids’ aesthetic. We were welcoming all different kinds of audiences,” Diebel says. “The main thing was that everyone was there to have a spirit of play and experimentation. Sometimes that leads to bad art, but sometimes it leads to really cool stuff.”
The aim is to keep its DIY spirit intact—and retain the freedom to keep it a purely noise festival.
“We want to keep it low-key, that way it’s like a convention where [people] are coming to meet friends and just have a good time,” Lob says.