Your personal voyage through Sacramento’s avant-garde music scene in six chapters
Amid the Hipsters
Soundtrack: My Whole Hand Was Wet, “Butterfucker”
My Whole Hand Was Wet (Weird Forest 7-inch vinyl, www.weirdforest.com): garbled digital glitches looped, folded, distorted and assaulted. You’ve never had a dream this terrifying, but that’s a good thing. Listen to a sample.
In a way, Dr. Phil brought you here. The television psychology guru always has struck you as somehow being too caring, too peaceful, too normal. Something about him managed to creep slowly under your skin, nesting there like some misshapen, dormant thing, ready at any moment to take control: a beast of normalcy ready to make everything bright, polished, polite and ultimately meaningless. You found yourself waking in cold night terrors, your teeth chattering, your heart thumping in your chest as half-formed visions of Dr. Phil faded from your mind. Something had to change.
So it is that you find yourself on the sidewalk outside your favorite record store, facing an abundance of people with beards and horn-rimmed glasses. A scattering of hipster T-shirts from the 1970s. The occasional tattoo, although it appears tattoos are on their way out again. No one seems particularly excited. In fact, like tattoos, excitement also is on its way out, replaced with a kind of world-weary, seen-it-heard-it-done-it boredom that permeates everything. The best reaction you’re likely to get is a tired nod of the head. All the men sport hairstyles that look like they were cut with dull razor blades.
That’s about the time the first squall of sound erupts from inside the record store. The display window glass shakes. A few of the bearded hipsters stumble back inside. You follow them like a good sheep follows its bearded shepherd.
The band—if two people writhing around on the floor can be called a band—is called My Whole Hand Was Wet—a name that makes you somewhat uncomfortable although you can’t quite understand why. The music, if it can be called music, is pure, unadulterated noise—a screeching, painful, sometimes even maddening wave of sound without rhythm, beat or clear intent other than, perhaps, to irritate and challenge the ears of those listening. Tone Vendor’s CD racks have been pushed to the sides of the room, and a young man with a microphone clutched in his fist sits on the floor near the cash register, screaming and moaning into it repeatedly. Behind him, also seated on the floor, another man attacks a Casio keyboard. It’s violent but also controlled, almost as if he wants to destroy the keyboard but doesn’t want anyone to know that.
Dr. Phil would not approve.
It’s difficult sound. In some cities—Chicago, for one—this might not be a particularly interesting performance. Talking with the Casio guy later—his name is Chad Stockdale, and he runs a local record label called Weird Forest—you will find out that the duo didn’t find it particularly noteworthy as a performance. Nonetheless, in the context of Sacramento music, it is rather remarkable, particularly if one takes into account the narrowness of local live music at regular venues: rock bands, singer-songwriters, folk music, jazz here and there, punk, even classical. But outside of Sacramento’s annual early-fall Noisefest, it’s pretty difficult to find much that could be classified as avant-garde. And that’s exactly what My Whole Hand Was Wet’s performance is: an avant-garde, noisy performance without rhythm and without any apparent songs. In fact, the performance is completely devoid of anything the average Sacramentan would likely think of as music. Maybe that’s what makes it great and definitely anti-Dr. Phil. The truth is that you’re not entirely sure if it’s great, or even good. You’re not sure what to do with it at all, which is one of the reasons you find it so interesting. You may have just stumbled upon the door to your own personal grail.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Soundtrack: Faulouah, “Inro”
Faulouah, Crew of the Good Ship Grace / For Rest and Moss (Scenery Audio Archive double CD, http://scenery.i8.com): Local songwriter and drummer Zac Nelson’s release is a bit like listening to Buddy Rich and Ginger Baker performing a drunk-ass drum duel while Icelandic singer Björk wails a random elfin melody in an adjacent bathroom stall. Muddy, awful and great all at once. Listen to a sample.
There was a time when quests were holy, brought to knights errant by dint of their king, the latter of whom received the quests directly from God. The most famous is the Arthurian knights questing for the Holy Grail, according to legend the magical cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. Knights searched for a relic that would directly connect them to their God; it was a holy quest and an important one.
Of course, your quest stems not from duty to God or country, but from that most 2005 of maladies: a deep and abiding sense of boredom. You love music more than anything else in your life, but lately it’s begun to feel like you’ve seen and heard the same three or four local bands over and over again under different names. And while many of the bands you’ve seen have been good in their way—a handful perhaps even great—the fact of the matter is that they’ve all started to somehow sound the same. At first, you stemmed off the boredom by going back to the roots. You went back to John Coltrane, to Bob Dylan, to Chet Atkins, to Django Reinhardt. But then the ennui of musical normalcy crept back again.
You suspect that’s where your mild obsession with Dr. Phil originally developed. After all, Dr. Phil is the perfect articulation of a cultural obsession with being normal. Everyone cries, everyone laughs, everyone smiles, and in the end Dr. Phil pronounces health, but only if the guest follows his carefully worked-out plan for success. Dr. Phil provides the psychological map to the status quo. When he appears in your dreams, he’s like a shining everyman, a godhead for supreme equality under the banner of individual well-being. In other words, the very embodiment of normal.
Sometimes you even dream that you are on Dr. Phil the show. The last time, you told your earnest, balding host that your personal malady was akin to a hole in your ears—a vacant gap that needed to be filled with a sound of some kind: something new, something different, something truly of the now. Dr. Phil nodded and said something about setting proper boundaries and then set you on the path to auditory recovery, prescribing a steady diet of John Tesh and Garth Brooks.
You might have actually heeded that diet had you not stumbled upon Tone Vendor when you did, although the Dr. Phil dreams have continued unabated. The tiny record store on J Street provided that first nudge away from the world of SUVs and corporate coffee shops: a drifting crash-and-burn away from normalcy and into something else. You had always thought of yourself as relatively well-plugged-in to the world of music—your CD collection makes your friends drool—but the CDs at Tone Vendor were mostly by bands you had never heard of. It was enough to shake your self-confidence and to open the door to a whole set of new possibilities.
Those possibilities have extended to Sacramento’s avant-garde music community as well, for although the record store certainly didn’t create the local avant-garde scene, it has provided something of a central location for it. Of course, there were predecessors, particularly the Loft (mostly for punk-oriented art rockers and noise bands), the old EMRL Media Group location (the original organizers and promoters of Sacramento’s annual Noisefest), occasional shows at Espresso Metro, and various house concerts’ highlight bands that just don’t fit into a normal club-scene environment. With Tone Vendor, local avant-gardists had a central location not only to sell their wares, but also to perform and promote their performances. And so, a steady diet of shows appeared—most promoted only by word of mouth and by fliers on the walls of the record store—featuring musicians who probably wouldn’t normally be able to find a booking at a regular bar or record-store venue, or, in fact, wouldn’t be interested in such venues to begin with. Musicians who are just too different. Tone Vendor may not have created musicians like Faulouah, the local avant-garde drummer/singer-songwriter, but its presence has helped foster the support network necessary to sustain him as a musician. (Good luck developing such a support network at your local Borders.)
Of course, there are musicians who fit the “Not Normal” mode everywhere, and Sacramento is just a small part of that global community. Brian Faulkner and other present and former DJs at UC Davis college station KDVS tirelessly have brought national touring acts, like Texas-based Charalambides and psychedelic folksters Six Organs of Admittance, to town to mingle with local performers and fans unafraid of new sounds. It has helped put Sacramento on a different sort of musical map: one that eschews the status quo completely.
You were looking for music that challenged you in ways that the average rock band at the local bar did not. You needed something to push your ears, something that would force you as a listener to think and to reconsider what sound is and what sound can do, to reassure you that Dr. Phil was not the only solution to life’s various ills. It felt like the new sounds you had uncovered in Sacramento could do that, and in the live shows you saw at Tone Vendor and in various living rooms around town there seemed the possibility that Sacramento music ran deeper than you first thought. There was a well of music running down through Sacramento bedrock and into the rest of the world—a well filled with crazy; moving; interesting; and always, always challenging waves of sound.
Soundtrack: Delayed Sleep, “The Bed Tripped Me”
Noisefest 2003, Noisefest 2003 Commemorative Coaster (Noisefest CD, www.noisefest.com): All the Noisefest CDs are good. This one features 16 tracks, including noise artists Pedestrian Deposit, Delayed Sleep, Stimbox and Instagon. All noise is difficult listening, and this one is no exception. Listen to a sample.
Of course, on some basic level there is no Sacramento avant-garde scene. Instead, there are a variety of smaller genres of music that—in your anti-Dr. Phil quest—you are placing into a huge bucket labeled simply “Not Normal.” It may not be fair, or even accurate, but it has shown you at the very least that Sacramento is not nearly as pale and ordinary as it initially seemed.
The man sitting across from you represents one of those “Not Normal” subgenres, and he’s exactly the kind of guest Dr. Phil would never have on his show. For one thing, Bill Burg looks too much like Anton LaVey, the former leader of the Church of Satan and author of the Satanic Bible; Burg is dressed entirely in black and sports LaVey’s bald head and beard. And then there are those sparkling eyes. You’ve never seen LaVey in person, but if you had to imagine what the leader of the Satanic Church’s eyes would look like, you’d pick Burg’s: cool, blue, piercing eyes that seem to stare right through your brain and into your soul.
Burg is here to tell you a few things about Sacramento’s noise scene. He and his partners are essentially responsible for the continued life of Noisefest, the annual Sacramento festival in its 10th year. It has provided a central gathering place for performers who specialize in a genre of sound generation known simply as “noise,” a blanket term referring to what perhaps can be defined most simply and broadly as “not music”: explosions of sound often created by simple tone generators (one favorite is a small metal Altoids box filled with ball bearings and a contact microphone) that then are shoved through a variety of effects. The result is often (but not always) an ear-splitting wall of distorted, wailing, crunching sound. Again: not music, but sound. Conceptually, it forces the listener to reevaluate his or her own aesthetic foundation by developing new ideas of what is good sound and bad sound. In many ways, Noisefest (and the now-defunct underground venue known to insiders as the Loft) represents the local scene’s avant-garde grandfathers.
“Noise isn’t popular,” Burg says, sipping occasionally on a cup of coffee. “It’s not that most people haven’t discovered it; it’s that most people don’t want to listen to it.” As if on cue, the espresso machine rattles into a hissy grind of activity. “See, there’s noise all around us,” Burg tells you. Yes, you think, but would I buy a CD of espresso-machine noise? Maybe Burg would buy it. You’re not sure and are hesitant to ask.
But Burg answers even though you remain silent, almost as if he’s read your mind: “Noise is not just turning up the distortion pedal on your guitar or detuning it,” he says. “Noise is challenging. People don’t like to be challenged by their music.
He sips at his coffee. The espresso grinder winds back to silence. “People like to listen to music so they can hear their beliefs and preconceptions manifested, not challenged. Noise musicians are really trying to threaten people with sound. People who listen to it are people who want to have their preconceptions broken down.”
Sacramento’s Noisefest is one of the most well-respected festivals of its kind in the United States, drawing performers and fans every fall from across the country and around the world. It’s an interesting event—particularly in Sacramento, a town that sometimes doesn’t seem to have a particularly strong music scene in any one genre (at least not considering the city’s size). Originally founded 10 years ago by Floyd Diebel of Sacramento’s EMRL Media Group, Noisefest has continued to flourish, presenting the gospel of experimental sound to anyone and everyone who has cared to experience it.
For you, noise music takes some effort to listen to, but, of course, you blame Dr. Phil for that, too. It’s just so noisy. You’ve become accustomed to putting on music and wandering around the house doing whatever it is you do. Noise music is sometimes akin to cranking up the volume on a cable station you haven’t paid for and reveling in the distorted static. What you want to do is turn it off and call your cable provider.
Does this mean that you don’t want to be challenged? Perhaps so. Listening to a local noise band like Burg’s own Uberkunst, or the psych-noise act Delayed Sleep, or Central Valley solo noise artist Pedestrian Deposit requires more than an open mind. It requires patience and the ability to listen—to really listen—to subtleties in a field of sound that, for the most part, is anti-music, anti-normal, anti-status quo. This is pure sound for the sake of sound—not something you put on as background sound. It’s that different, that abnormal.
Soundtrack: OX,“Bad News Blues”
OX, The Black Xero (self-released cassette): a weird, spooky, solo folk album recorded up in the mountains above Nevada City with a battered cassette recorder. Don’t listen to this late at night. Listen to a sample.
Of course, pure noise is only one rather extreme corner of the larger avant-garde experience. For one, there’s OX, a singer-songwriter whose trailer up above Colfax does not seem to include a television and hence offers no immediate way to view Dr. Phil. That in itself should be enough to scare you to death, but OX himself possesses a kind of Zen-like calm that allows your visit to continue despite the absence of television. You are on a quest, after all, and such quests are dangerous.
OX’s real name is Neil Haydon. He’s 24 years old and works an organic farm that’s part of a sprawling, forested Waldorf school. It seems like a good match for him, closely mirroring some aspects of his music: woody, grainy and organic like the fresh raspberries he offers you directly from the plant while Waldorf children play in a nearby Doughboy pool. It matches a kind of elemental innocence that OX’s music fosters.
Of course, it doesn’t quite match the overall weirdness of that same music: the howls of anguish and guitar feedback; the crashing of drums; the folded-up melodies that, at times, make little or no musical sense. At some level, it’s folk music, reminiscent of Bob Dylan jamming with Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, but it’s also akin to John Lennon’s infamous “Revolution No. 9.” This is folk music put into a blender.
His latest offering, Black Xero, is available only in cassette format with hand-assembled inserts, and the album is OX at his freaky best: a collection of acoustic guitar-vocal songs recorded on a small, boxy cassette recorder. One can hear the loud click as OX presses the stop button and then another as he turns it back on again. Occasionally, one can hear a blast of metal in between tracks, at other times a more extensive collage of recorded and edited sounds. It’s unnerving to say the least.
“All of my collected pain and unattended-to personal stuff went into The Black Xero,” OX tells you, sitting in his trailer under looming ponderosa pines. A wasp has made a small, papery nest above the rickety dining-room table. As he talks, a single wasp buzzes lazily out the window, returns to the nest and flies out the window again. “I guess I went through a crisis,” OX continues, “because I didn’t really feel like I had an identity apart from music … ” His voice trails off. The wasp returns above his head. Outside, children splash happily in the pool.
You find yourself looking again for the television. Could it be that there are people in the world for whom Dr. Phil doesn’t even exist? You want to ask him, but you find yourself hesitating. If there are revolutionary pockets of sound out there in the world, why ruin them by invoking the figurehead of normalcy? Let the wasps fly where they may, let the fresh raspberries grow, and let OX continue to make music without the looming shadow of normalcy coming to consume him. You keep silent. The wasp again flies through the window.
Weird Forests of World Music
Soundtrack: Klondike & York, “The Holy Book”
Klondike & York, The Holy Book (Weird Forest vinyl only, www.weirdforest.com): raging saxophone and blistering drums from Chad Stockdale and Nathan Beier. Klondike & York even made venerable UK avant-garde magazine The Wire sit up and take notice. Listen to a sample.
Over the course of your conversation, Chad Stockdale has handed you a stack of records. He has handed them over one by one, each title becoming part of a longer narrative that is the young history of Weird Forest, the Sacramento indie label that Stockdale owns and operates. The conversation works its way over an hour, by the end of which there is a small, important-looking stack of vinyl on the counter.
Stockdale and Weird Forest represent one of the most important facets of the avant-garde scene: offering an actual product under a consistent banner and implying that Sacramento avant-garde is something worth listening to again and again. In other words, the records themselves give the scene a sense of importance.
Stockdale himself is an avant-garde saxophone player—first with Nathan Beier as the sax/drum duo Klondike & York and more recently with the Corcoran Quartet and with the eight-member instrumental group Living Breathing Music—so, of course, his heart lies with improvisation; sonic freakouts; and pure, ecstatic noise. Such is certainly the case with Klondike & York’s The Holy Book: The music is like a physical blow—a few slow, choice notes that build slowly into a shocking series of skittering saxophone noises accompanied by a tumbling rumble of drums and cymbals. Stockdale’s instrument squeaks and squeals as if it is being strangled by an angry kid hopped up on his little brother’s ADD medication, and Beier’s drums roar off like a collection of garbage cans being hurled down a never-ending flight of stairs over and over again. It’s seven shots of espresso music. Frantic. Blistering. Manic.
This is Sacramento avant-garde jazz, where even fundamental elements such as rhythm and melody are thrown aside. “A lot of people think the art of jazz is in the improvisation,” Stockdale tells you, munching happily on a plate of french fries. “Free jazz is [improvising] with notes that aren’t in any necessary key or scale. You’re just trying to create your own instant composition. A lot of times it doesn’t work. … Failing is an integral part of free jazz.”
There is a sense of riding the fine line of failure in many of the records Stockdale has released on Weird Forest—not that they do fail, but that they could as a result of taking risks the average band would never even dream of. Each of Weird Forest’s releases push the envelope of their particular genres (free jazz, noise, psych-folk, experimental, what have you), ultimately requiring real attention from the listener—attention that the average listener probably is unwilling to give any piece of music. Sacramento avant-garde asks that of its listeners in all genres: Keep your ears and mind open to the possibilities of sound. And erase the idea of normal.
Soundtrack: Living Breathing Music, Happiness Is Fabulous
Living Breathing Music, Happiness Is Fabulous (Weird Forest CD, www.weirdforest.com): a single hour-long, droning, amazing track recorded live from KDVS Studio A. Don’t listen to this late at night either. Listen to a sample.
Tonight you will have a dream. It will be the last dream you’ll ever have about Dr. Phil. In the dream, you are an actual guest on the show, and Dr. Phil is asking you why you feel the need to explore such strange music. “I just don’t understand why you can’t accept that you are normal and that’s OK.” The audience is nodding in approval. “You have to understand that the choices you make are impacting the people around you,” Dr. Phil says. The camera cuts to your parents in the audience, nodding along with the good doctor’s words.
It’s about that time that a retinue of musicians appears from the back row of the studio, a group carefully planted there by months of planning and preparation. Local freaky singer-songwriters like Danny Offer and OX and Faulouah are there; the entirety of Living Breathing Music, members of Klondike & York and the Corcoran Quintet; noise artists like KLOWD and Uberkunst; and the improv garage-rock noise of Eat the People and Delayed Sleep; and even Sacramento’s most famous music export of extreme difference, Hella. The staff of KDVS is acting as security, keeping startled and angry masses away from the assembled Sacramento noise-art-jazz-improv-freakout supergroup. Dr. Phil inhales in alarm. “What’s going on?” he shouts. His producers scramble. This is like an invasion of imbalance and abnormality, and abnormality is mental illness: the demon that Dr. Phil has spent his media life trying desperately to fight.
But when the band strikes its first note, it is not the sound of conquering, but of compassion: a long single note crying out simultaneously in voice and instrument—a note that folds upon itself and is embellished by drums and saxophones, by the keening voices of men and women, by guitars and basses and cellos that dip and swirl and crash in upon themselves. The audience collectively sucks in breath as if bodily breathing in the sound—not really music, but sound itself in tumbling, violent, beautiful motion. It has gone inside them, flooding in through the ears and into their minds and lifting them to their feet.
Dr. Phil is up on the stage behind them, preparing to shout, but even he is rendered silent as the music of Sacramento’s avant-garde presses on him like a huge hand. He stumbles, gasps for breath. This is therapy the way therapy should be: primal, vicious, violent, and healing because it opens the mind.
And the mighty Dr. Phil—king of diet plans and self-help, commander of a psychological empire and lieutenant of the good ship Oprah—falls to his knees in that swirling wave of sound, and he weeps, raising his hands up to the arc lights and asking for forgiveness as the band thunders in on him like knights on a quest for the grail.
Even in the dream it’s difficult to determine what happens next. When the sound finally dies away, and the band clears away from the stage, the only thing remaining is a brown wool suit, a pair of polished shoes, and a small piece of paper folded into a square. Chad Stockdale lays aside his saxophone and retrieves the paper. He unfolds it, and as the band and audience go quiet, he reads its simple words aloud: “I made it all up. Nobody is normal.”
The audience sighs and is silent. As for Dr. Phil himself, only the suit and shoes remain. The good doctor, it seems, is long gone.
After a time, a quiet, meek voice comes from the audience: “Play us another song,” the voice says. Silence again.
You’ve found your grail, and it was here all along. Now you’ll have to learn to live with it and with the knowledge that you are just as abnormal as everyone else. And so, in your dream you stand with an assembled studio audience as Sacramento’s avant-garde musicians—shunned by the weak of mind as being too weird, too challenging, too different—pick up their instruments again and place them in mouth and hands. And the audience sucks in its breath in anticipation.
And then they begin to play.