What’s that, dearie?
I was standing in Longs Drugs debating the merits of wax vs. foam earplugs, when a little voice in my head whispered, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” I’m embarrassed to admit that tired rock ’n’ roll ultimatum almost sent me to the 10th annual Norcal Noisefest without any hearing protection. I didn’t want to look too much like the noise newbie I was, so I bought a box and stuffed them way down inside my backpack.
As it turned out, shunning ear protection is the mark of the uninitiated. Everyone at the Noisefest wore earplugs, mostly high-end musician-quality ones. Hearing damage is a foregone conclusion without them. Throughout the 10-band opening show at Luna’s Cafe, where no one in the capacity crowd was farther than a few feet from a stack of speakers, I often found myself holding my ears closed over my earplugs and mentally apologizing to my sense of hearing.
I’m not sure I understood the Noisefest, which celebrated its reign as the world’s longest-running noise festival, with a three-day, 40-band lineup, but I loved the people I met. Noise fans are a brainy crowd—at the table next to me on opening night, a young woman read Art Spiegelman’s Maus between acts while her friend studied a math textbook with a flashlight—but they are not at all pretentious. They gamely answered my foolish questions (“Is this all improvised?” “Why is it so loud?” “Is there such a thing as pretty noise?”) without ever talking down to me. (For the record: usually, because and yes.)
This lack of pretense also manifested in a puzzling absence of stage presence. Many artists performed sitting on the stage with their backs to the audience, hunched over effects pedals. (“Have you noticed the perils of the butt crack?” joked local poet Rachel Savage from her front-row table. “That’s common at noise shows.”) No one went over his or her allotted set time. I never saw a performer acknowledge the crowd or say goodnight before leaving the stage. The overwhelming sound left no room for personalities.
The festival opened with Sacramento’s own Kristal Marimba Lounge—one man kneeling before a table of electronic equipment, creating sounds from mechanical to extraterrestrial at a decibel level that shook my chair. It was in no way melodic or catchy, but it was fascinating. I closed my eyes and marveled at the visceral effects: heartbeat rhythms soothed, thunder rolls produced adrenaline, and shrill beeps tightened my chest. It was as if the sound played me. “OK,” I thought. “I could get into this.”
The second act, Pump Kinn and Don, manipulated microphones in front of a row of amplifiers to create a feedback symphony. At first, I watched with intellectual curiosity. By the third minute, piercing feedback shrieks had me gripping the sides of my head. After five, I wanted to grab Pump Kinn and Don by their collars and yell, “Why are you torturing these good people? Go learn to play the piano!” When they stopped, the silence was like a gift from God. Then the applause broke out. The crowd loved it.
I’ll be the first to admit that my ability to evaluate a noise set is fairly undeveloped. My critical opinion is based entirely on whether an act caused me physical pain—as many did. In fact, Oregon’s Burning Indian produced a low, erratic rumbling that literally made me nauseated, as if Jiffy Pop were being prepared in my intestines.
The experience became an endurance test. Surviving the incredible sonic assault yielded exhilarating adrenaline rushes. Still, I couldn’t help wondering why a concept as wide open as “noise” featured so many similar sets—one man, a few boards and effects pedals, improvised static and shrill feedback—at the same ear-splitting volume. I intended to attend the entire event, but I couldn’t make it through the second day. I was home by 9 p.m., wrapped in a blanket, fighting bizarre cravings for smooth jazz. Maybe I am too old.