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Jun 132010

In keeping with our Nashville Venue Spotlight, tonight we profile Betty’s Bar & Grill, an unassuming little cash-only sports bar on the west side of town.  In the last few years, with no web site and no advertising, Betty’s has managed to attract a loyal audience for noise, experimental, lo-fi folk, and rock shows.  I was first introduced to the bar a few years ago when T.I. participant Anderson Cook called me to say, “Thurston Moore is playing a noise set at Betty’s!”  I rushed over to find a swarming mass of people surrounding a guitar-wielding Moore.  Next to him wailing on a am/fm-radio-embedded Fender Squire stood the woman responsible for the Thurston Moore booking, largely the force that transformed the little sports bar into an experimental mecca: Leslie Keffer.

Leslie began making noise music in Athens, Ohio in 2002.  Her instruments include cassette tape decks, guitars, and various forms of electronics.  Leslie has opened for Sonic Youth and played New York’s No Fun Festival, All Tomorrows Parties, International Noise Conference and festivals around the world.   She’s released albums on Thurston Moore’s label Ecstatic Peace, Lost Treasures of the Underworld, GMBY, ijustlivehere, Tangled Hares, Tusco Embassy, Scumbag Relations, and many more.  She moved to Nashville a little over three years ago, got a job bartending at Betty’s, and started booking shows there.

In the Theatre Intangible interview, Leslie and I chat about Betty’s, the Nashville noise scene, the creativity behind experimenting, and more:

T: What was your general impression of the noise/experimental scene when you first moved to Nashville?  How has it changed since then?

L: I chose to move here because when I was touring and I would play here, I always liked the laid back vibe.  I also was into how many ladies were doing stuff here.  I’ve met a lot of different people over the last few years who I didn’t know when I moved here.  I guess the only thing that is really different is that I feel like I am more involved.  Also when I moved here, Ruby Green stopped having shows, so everything was happening at houses.

T: Where are the best house shows for noise and experimental?

L: I know Kelly Shay Hix still has house shows. The Green Womb and Sean Collins used to have a ton of shows. Maybe when Val (Unicorn Hard On) and Ren (God Willing) move back in July, they will have some junk pizza throwdowns!

T: How do the noise scenes in Athens and Nashville compare?

L: The Athens, Ohio noise scene when I lived there was really small.  It was me and a hand full of other people who worked really hard to be able to have shows and bring people in.  We weren’t well received, and I think a lot of people thought our music was a joke.  Since I’ve left I hear they even have an Athens Experimental Music Festival now!  So I guess our hard work there was worth it.  In Nashville there seems to be wider range of people who really appreciate this kind of music.  Everyone works really hard to make these shows happen.  There’s a lot more teamwork going on here then there was in Athens.

T: How long have you been booking shows for Betty’s Bar & Grill?  What types of music are you looking for?

L: I would say I’ve been helping with shows for a year and half or more.  Before I worked there I helped set a lot of things up.  As for types of music. . . any really.  I prefer the weirder, more obscure.  But i don’t want to shut out other types of music. . . I’ve been there.  So I may hate your band, but if you are nice and want to play, I will set something up for you.  I don’t want Betty’s to be a place that only has certain types of music or people playing there.  I think when a bar or club does that, it starts to suck.  I like to interact with people from all walks of life.  I like the fact that at Betty’s you can do almost anything.

T: If a band wanted to perform at Betty’s, how would they go about submitting their work?

L: I wont listen to your CD or check out your Myspace.  My pet peeve is when people call the bar asking about booking because they heard it was cool or an easy place to get booked and they have never even been to the bar.  It’s the first thing I ask!  Come down, meet me, check out the bar, get a PBR and a burger, and feel the place out.  So, yeah, just come down, introduce yourself, and we ll see what we can do.  I always tell people the crowd I’ve built up isn’t going to be into your singer songwriter stuff or your metal band or your this or that.  I tell people we do more experimental/noise/improv than anything, so if you want to have a good show, you need to bring your friends!  Betty’s feels packed with 20 people.  I want you to have a good show, so if I come off harsh, that’s why.  I’m just not going to book someone locally whose never made the effort to come in.  Touring bands usually contact me or a friend, and that’s how that happens.  Chris Davis, Bridget Venuti, Scott Martin, and William Tyler set up a lot of shows at Betty’s.  We all work together; its never just me.

T: I don’t think I’m being controversial when I say that Nashville is not a forward-thinking music town.  Is that a benefit or a hindrance?

L: Honestly, I really only surround myself in Nashville with people who are (forward thinking), so I can’t say.  Even the old school regulars at Betty’s who aren’t into the stuff I book still support us and are glad to see the bar doing well.  It’s probably a benefit because I like how its still seems ‘underground’.  It’s a lot of friends just coming down on Tuesday night and playing for each other.  I’m more into that than anything.

Leslie Keffer, Feels Like Frenching, Ecstatic Peace

T: I’ve seen you play a few times, and I’ve heard a few of your recordings, including Feels Like Frenching on Ecstatic Peace.  Each performance was unique to itself.  The show you did at Betty’s with Scott Martin for example seemed to lean on the prettier, more delicate side of noise.  The Buzz & Click performance at The End on the other hand was pure, overlapping walls of dirge & drone.  Yet I do see a few common threads.  The texture of a sound seems very important in all your work.  Superficially, your work might seem repetitive and non-changing, but on closer listens, there’s a great deal of intricacy and change hiding in the corners.  Your thoughts on all of this?

L: I really strive to keep changing and growing with my music. I used to play all am/fm radios before moving to Nashville.  When I moved here there were no static stations!  I had to reevaluate how i was going to play.  That’s when i started prerecording things on tapes and playing the same way I did with radios — just with these different sound tapes I made.  This led me to realize I could compose and arrange pieces instead of just improv-ing.  (There is still a lot of improvising in my work.)  Then I started working with beats.  My next Ecstatic Peace record is a dance record.  I feel like I keep developing my music even though i think my sound/style is pretty recognizable.

T: You work with both new and old technologies.  I’ve seen you play Moog synthesizers and cassette Walkmans coupled with Kaos pads and other electronic digitalia.  What attracts you to certain types of equipment over others?

L: I decided to try a synth…I got a Guitar Center card.  I play other things too that I don’t play live because i record them to tape. . . like an Akai MPC or guitar or air organ.  I never learn how to really use the equipment.  I think my lack of knowledge leads to more creative channeling of the instrument, like the drum machine for example.  My beats make no sense, but that’s what makes ’em sound good to me.   I’ll try to play anything.  I just feel it out.

Leslie Keffer at INC2009

T: Cassette machines are a big part of your work.  Can you talk about how you incorporate them into your sound?

L:  I just play in my room, make a loop I like, record it for ten or fifteen minutes on a cassette, and that’s it!  When I have a bunch of tapes made I sit down and play a set.  That’s where the composing or organizing comes in.

T: When I hear your work, I’m reminded quite a bit of Japanese noise innovator Merzbow and also of Negativland‘s the Weatherman in his fascination with the sound of lawn mowers and Roto-Rooters.  Can you talk about a few of your influences?

L: My main influences are Kate Bush, Madonna, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Bjork, Fleetwood Mac, Lady Gaga, any popstar like Britney, Mia, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Ke$ha.  God, I wish Ke$ha would play at Betty’s!  If you play at Betty’s, I will play this kind of music between bands.  Beware.

T: What noise/experimental/avant-garde artists really excite you right now?

L: Emeralds, No Compasssion, RJ Remington’s super villian skits, Hobbledeions, the Xists.  The Spokane, WA Scene, Unicorn Hard On, Form a Log, Cock E.S.P.

T: What advice can you give to young performers just starting out?

L: Tour as much as you can, put out your own stuff as much as you can, don’t black out at shows.

T: Many of the experimental artists I’ve talked to aren’t necessarily making music as a reaction to their influences or as a path to fame and stardom.  Instead, they are often motivated by a real fascination with sound or a maker’s urge to create — be it original instruments or new sonic structures.  Would you say experimental music is generally more creative than other genres?

L: I don’t know that its more creative; I think maybe it just allows more room for it.  There’s no label to please or radio audience to win over.  It’s just a little bit more raw or in your face than a super pop song.  But top 40 music is getting weirder….i mean Ke$ha?  When did the music industry start making number one hits with ‘I like your beard’ spoken at the end?  It may seem dumb, but i think its awesome.

T: When I first moved here, I had a very hard time finding other experimental artists; and when I did, they seemed to exist in little patches unaware that the other patches existed.  That seems to be changing with more venues such as Betty’s, Open Lot, and Little Hamilton booking challenging works.  Do you feel Nashville has yet built a real noise/experimental community?  Where do we go from here?

L: Our community is real and big!!!!!  My band The Laundry Room Squelchers do the International Noise Conference tour every year here or in Europe. 15 min sets, no drone, no laptops.  We’ll see 30 bands a night.  Basically, we see every city’s scene.  Nashville had as many people playing and hanging as anywhere else.  We should be proud!  As long as we keep supporting each other and coming to shows (paying for shows and playing for free!), our community will continue to grow.

May 172010

This is part two of a two-part article.  Part one covered the Chihuly art exhibition in Nashville.

On Friday, May 21st at 6pm, Aaron Hoke Doenges will perform his sound installation “SeaSounds and Other Forms” at the Frist in response to the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly.  There will be a second performance at 7pm.  Aaron is the founder and co-director of SoundCrawl: Nashville, an artist in residence at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, and a graduate in Music Composition at Belmont University.  You can listen to some of his fascinating compositions and sign up for his mailing here.  Last year’s premiere SoundCrawl event at the downtown ArtCrawl was an ingenious method to showcase new experimental works.  Attendees visit various galleries to sample alternating sound art pieces, curated by Aaron and Kyle Baker.

In the Theatre Intangible interview, I talk with Aaron about the Chihuly performance, SoundCrawl: Nashville 2010, and the state of music in Music City.

T: How did the Chihuly concert come about?

A: The Chihuly show came by invitation from the Frist.  I had originally contacted them as a potential host for SoundCrawl:Nashville last year and, though they weren’t able to host that event, they were interested in having something at some point.  Having heard some of my work, they felt that it would coincide well with the Chihuly exhibit because of the ambient nature of the audio I use and produce.

T: The concert is described as a sound installation and performance.  Can you elaborate?

A: My main interest is primarily sound installation (though I am still looking for my first extended public installation).  Unfortunately the major installation portion of this show probably won’t work out. I was working with a local artist to create a sculptural backdrop made out of scrap metal and speakers to incorporate into the show.  We just ran out of time for this one, though we are hoping to work on something for one of the galleries in town for sometime in the future (I love the cross pollination between the sonic and visual arts).  I’m still trying to figure out an alternative. The majority of my creative work comes in the studio, so there really isn’t much that is technically performance-oriented.   It’s mostly monitoring the mix to make it appropriate for the space, throwing in a few effects here and there, and maybe panning things for a specific speaker set-up.  Other shows I have done have leaned a little more heavily on the performance side of things because they included live acoustic instruments as well as electronics.

T: Will the Chihuly sculptures around you inform your piece in its composition or performance?  How so?

A: A while ago Chihuly started a project titled “Sea Forms” – a series of pieces that were reminiscent of under-water landscapes that were installed in various locations.  They are very organic pieces – incredibly vibrant and layered.  This was my first introduction to Chihuly (several years ago in Columbus, Ohio) and has been the main informant in my new piece “SeaSounds” that will be premiered Friday.  The Sea Forms projects help highlight the beauty of parts of this world I rarely get to see – I hope to be able to do that with sound. It seems especially important to me now in light of the oil spill in the Gulf – we can often seem so removed from such things, and I want to make it a little more tangible.  I think that’s what art should do – highlight things in our every day worlds in a way that helps us see them.

T: There is a great range in your work, and you seem to enjoy experimenting with form.  In your piece “Lude: To War,” you take a narrative track of an Iraqi war veteran and provide a soundtrack to it made entirely with the narrative itself (Do I hear a Casio SK1?).  In “The Suicide of Freddie Mac,” you tell a story with carefully-arranged non-vocal field recordings.  A piece like “Divergence” finds room for melody, structure, and composition.  But I get the sense that even your most experimental pieces are carefully structured and composed.  Your thoughts on this?

A: Good ear!  I tend to think of myself more as “composer” than anything – I’ve been trained classically in both piano and composition which gives me a lot to draw from.  Even in contemporary experimental work, where the idea of “form” is often rejected or based on alternative foundations, there is a deep history of theoretical ideas to pull from.  Range, texture, volume, rhythm, line, counterpoint, theme, etc.  The great thing about digital work is that we get to add things to it – space (both size of space and movement within that space) is, for the first time, a function of sound as we play with speaker placement, surround sound, reverb manipulation, etc.

“Lude: To War” is one of my earliest pieces that I have posted and probably ignores most of the traditional ideas of music in favor of the more conceptual ideas I was using with at the time.  (It comes in the later part of a period of my work that I lovingly refer to as the “John Cage Phase” because of a heavy focus on concept more than sound.)  The story that Zach recorded lends the entire piece its form.  It seemed to have three distinctive parts of the plot, each one treated metaphorically with the background audio.  In “Operation,” the audio in the background works to “prepare” for the upcoming movements by a sort of gathering.  The highlighted terms and phrases, and especially the word “war”, repeat successively until it’s just utter chaos at the end of the movement.  In “Strategy,” the word “war” makes this sort of “Left, Left, Left Right Left” form, mimicking the trudging of the soldiers in Zach’s story – movement without engagement. The final movement, “Engagement,” uses the word “war” in a way that imitates the patterns of machine guns and bombs, as if the word war were the weapon itself.  Toward the end of the movement it all fades away, as does Zach’s story, to focus on one of the really intense experiences he faced on the front line…it sort of drifts into his mind.

“Freddie Mac” and “Divergence” are much more based in traditional forms and theories than “Lude,” and it highlights my growth as a composer over the years.  Moving from purely conceptual ideas, like those in “Lude,” to a combination of concept and craft (hopefully somewhat improved craft!) allows me to tell stories and create pieces that, even if they are pretty intense, are less daunting to listen to.  “Divergence” is actually a piece composed for vibraphones and electronics – one of the rare occasions when I actually use notes. It’s probably one of the pieces in my portfolio that people are easily ready to label “music”, though the form on that one kind of melts away at the end.

I don’t think that makes “Lude” unimportant. I think the intensity of Zach’s autobiography needed an equally intense treatment and I didn’t want to take away from it with pretty sounds.  I think it gets the point across pretty well, which has been evidenced by several responses I have gotten from a few veterans and family members of those currently serving.  My only wish is that there were some way to get the piece out there to more people, but I don’t think many would be willing to listen all the way through.  I also don’t think that makes my current work any less experimental – it just gives the experiment a better chance at succeeding.  The process is often “hey I wonder what THIS button will do to this sample!?…huh, that’s interesting. Let’s put it here and see what happens,” and then I respond to it.  It’s a process of trial, failure, success and response.  If I feel the experiment fails, I try to turn it a different direction and see what happens.  Fortunately I have an undo button if it just falls on its face and fails miserably!

T:  Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures feel ethereal, frozen in time; yet each piece takes many hours of careful design and painstaking glasswork, involving whole teams of specialists.  Do you identify with Chihuly’s method of working?  How so?

A: The many hours I definitely identify with!  I am slow and methodical in my work (and am often slowed down even further by my nearly four year old processor trying to run too many effects).  I do have a dedicated studio space that I spend most of my writing time in, but working on a laptop lets me go just about anywhere.  It’s both a blessing and a curse.  Sometimes (like those times getting ready for a show) it can become consuming.  I also identify with his influence from the natural world.  I am an avid outdoorsmen, and that is reflected by the natural sounds used as the foundation of many of my pieces (I also like socio-political influences as heard in Freddie Mac and a few others).  That’s probably the extent of my ability to relate, though. I’m not even sure how having a team of specialists would help create my work, though I know there are composers who do have teams of people for various reasons.  Maybe I’m just a control freak.

T: You are the founder and co-director of SoundCrawl:Nashville, which premiered in October at the downtown Arcade Artcrawl.  What really worked about last year’s SoundCrawl, and what would you like to do differently this year?

A: SC:N got a lot of great attention from both the local community and the global sound-art community last year.  Hearing the responses from the the people I met made it a really fun event to be a part of.  I think Nashville, being an industry town, was and is thirsty to hear something new and, fortunately, sound-artists are always looking for a place to share their work.  It’s a genre that’s really coming into it’s own in both the music and art worlds and I’m excited to see and be a part of that.  Those responses and the submissions all worked really well for us – we were overwhelmed with over 300 contributions from around the world.  The spaces really worked well for us, too – the two rooms at Downtown Presbyterian Church were the most popular and the gallery’s were anxious to try something new and really worked with us to get some good installations.

Because of budget constraints our gear list kind of struggled and, due to some miscommunication, I think we irritated some of our hosts with the size of most of our PA systems (we went with what we could get and some of them were pretty large and overwhelmed the space).  We also didn’t anticipate the volume of the crowd.  One of our participants had come down from Chicago for the event and someone saw him literally on the ground with his ear to the speaker because he couldn’t hear at one point.  So the sound stations will change this year – probably to include headphones instead of speakers.  It’s unfortunate because I like the communal listening experience of such works but it’s not really feasible in the gallery settings and headphones will block out some of the noise from the crowd.  We will still have the church spaces, which is good.  We have a small entry fee this year (a measly 5 bucks) to help us with costs so we will have some better control over the gear we use.  We’re also anticipating an installation space with video components.

T:  How can local composers and musicians get involved with this year’s SoundCrawl?

A: Our call for works is at http://soundcrawlnashville.com/call.html and the submission form is all online this year at http://soundcrawlnashville.com/submit.html.  Everything is paperless! Spread the word, I would love to get a load of local submissions this year – we just didn’t get the word out to the community soon enough last time.  I know there are engineers and tinkerers out there who have a little sonic fun in their downtime (we’ve received a few already)…  We may also need some volunteers at some point.  They can email us at crawl@soundcrawlnashville.com if they’re interested in helping out.

T: What are you looking for in submissions to the SoundCrawl?

A: Kyle (Baker, my co-director) and I tend to lean more towards the experimental/sound-art stuff than things that are more traditionally based, even if they are electronic in nature.  We received some really great electronic music pieces last year but, even though they were really good works, we didn’t end up selecting them for the event.  Other than that it really depends on the pool of submissions that we get.  We listen to everything and try to group pieces in ways that will make for an interesting evening.

T: What do you like about the local music scene?  What puts you off about it?

A: I love the talent that is around Nashville.  I’ve been to some pretty amazing shows and have been surprised to see the people who were playing back-up!  There are a load of musician’s musicians here and it raises the level quite a bit.

I tend to avoid the things that put me off musically – mostly it’s the people who are out there “networking” for the sake of “networking.”  I haven’t run into too many of them, fortunately, but the times that I have I felt like it lacks respect for human dignity and genuinity (is that even a word?).  I don’t have the patience for it.  You’ll have that in any industry or town, though.  I think it’s a plague of my generation.

T: What local composers, musicians, and sound artists really excite you right now?

A: Dave Madeira is probably one of my favorite local composers.  His command of the percussion section is strong, and his choral work is just brilliant.  We’ve talked a couple of times about the possibility of working together on some sort of choral/electronics piece, which would be sweet.  I’ve honestly been listening mostly to americana artists recently – Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet (I love their eclectic, cross-cultural melodies and progressive harmonies), Kane Welch Kaplin (for their rhythm and stories), and a couple others (sometimes I wonder if I’m some sort of Electro-folk artist. Folk-a-tronic?).  Most of the electronic stuff I’ve been listening to lately is from the 90’s, and I’m still really personally studying some of our SoundCrawl submissions from last year.

T: Thanks for your time!

This is part two of a two part article.  Miss part one?  Check it out here.

Mar 192010

DaveX is a busy man.  He hosts a weekly experimental radio show called It’s Too Damn Early on WDBX in Carbondale, Illinois.  He runs the popular experimental music blog Startling Moniker.  He is the founder of the micro-label Naked Arrival.  Starting April 4th, he’ll be hosting ANOTHER experimental radio show called Sounds Like Radio on the long-reaching WSIU at Southern Illinois University.  As if that isn’t enough, he’s also the brainchild behind the second annual Southern Illinois Noise Summit, a festival of noise, avant-garde, and experimental bands set to take place April 18th at the Carterville Civic Center in Carterville, Illinois.  And yet, he managed to find the time to answer some questions from his former ~ORE~ co-host and college friend, me.  Here’s the Theatre Intangible interview:

T: Tell me about your new show.  How will it differ from Its Too Damn Early?

D:  Sounds Like Radio will be heard each Sunday morning, from 3-5 a.m., starting April 4th. Like It’s Too Damn Early, it is a program of experimental music, but I’m intending to present more academically-oriented works than I would ordinarily play. This extra two hours is basically going to let me focus much more deeply on the areas of experimental music that I already air by splitting them up somewhat. I’m sure there will always be some crossover, but I’m already starting to identify albums mentally with one of my shows or the other. “Sounds Like Radio” is pre-recorded, so some of my randomness in programming will have to go out the window– but I’m hoping that what I lose will be offset by the ability to present more complex shows. I’m actually very happy to have adopt a new method, I wouldn’t have wanted to do the same thing twice.

T: Southern Illinois had no experimental scene to speak of when we started ~ORE~ in 1998.  How have things changed in the last 12 years?  What part have you played?

D: I still doubt we have enough going on to claim in as a “scene,” but that might just be my discomfort with the word. Mostly what’s important now is that people who are interested in odd sorts of music and art are more likely to be talking to one another than in years past. I think my WDBX broadcast It’s Too Damn Early has played a significant part in accomplishing this, but there’s definitely a lot of credit to be shared for where we’re at. Once you have good communication going– and not just “top down” communication from radio hosts or promoters, but from from one artist to another, it’s pretty hard to kill the sense that things are moving forward.

T: I distinctly remember the first time I ever heard the phrase “circuit-bending” was out of your mouth in the late 90’s.  To demonstrate, you pulled apart an old toy keyboard, stuck your fingers on the circuit board, and created otherworldly sounds.  Since then, circuit-bending has become an underground phenomenon.  You had a real dissatisfaction with the world around you (a trait which some didn’t quite know how to take, if I remember correctly.)  But it disguised an almost-boyhood sense of wonderment for the hidden, the untried, and the mundane things that others took for granted.   What is it about your personality that leads you to the bizarre, the difficult, and the innovative?

D: Well, I certainly didn’t invent circuit-bending– and I know YOU’RE aware of that, but I’ve got to make sure your readers do as well. Do some digging, and you’ll find Reed Ghazala in that particular nexus. It’s worth your time! But yeah, you nailed me. If I was dissatisfied, it was because I kept waiting around for other folks to see all these incredible things that are off to the side of our normal path. I’ve been called “easily amused” more than a few times, which also seems appropriate. The world is just full up with amazing things! But in regards to circuit-bending, I think what was most appealing to me was that it was a convenient concept for a lot of my own scattered ideas to group around. Sort of like mental kitty litter, with clumping action. For me, circuit-bending was a physical incarnation of how I’d always looked at things– broken into their elements, free of a designer’s impetus, raw. So I took circuit-bending and applied it to everything; like I said, it helped me think about other ideas more clearly. Try it with anything!  Look at my auto-art with the Wordle program.   That’s basically circuit-bending, if you take it outside a circuit. I’m using various online software to do something it wasn’t designed for at all, just breaking it apart into the elements I find useful. It might be that circuit-bending is just folks getting back to our tool-making caveman roots.

T: You released a do-it-yourself cd-r of experimental works back in the late 90’s called Electric Kitten Vomit at a time when cd-r releases evoked impressions of amateurishness.  Nowadays, cd-r releases almost seem like badges of honor, handmade curios, and prizes to be collected.  Can you talk a little bit about EKV and the works you’ve made since?

D: That particular CDR was pretty amateurish, as I recall. Still, it had a lot of heart, and I’m happy I put it out there. Electric Kitten Vomit was pure experimental music. Just my unfiltered creative efforts, almost like proto-art, or primitive work. As a listener, I have a good appreciation for this sort of thing, but it’s harder to be objective when it’s your own work. I’m looking forward to seeing it on Mutant Sounds someday; I’m sure it will have some overblown description, which will tickle me pink. The funny thing is how much of an afterlife these little CDRs have. You run into people who’ve heard it, or find one staring out at you from a thrift store shelf. I think of them as little crumbs, but I’m not certain where they lead.

T:  Tell me some of your favorite memories of hosting It’s Too Damn Early for the past  9  years.  Any particular favorite in-studio improvs?

D: One of my favorite shows so far was  an in-studio performance by saxophonist Randall Hall. In addition to some marvelous work with processed saxophone, Hall took the time to demonstrate some extended techniques with his instrument, even soliciting ideas from us for how to prepare the bell. I wish more people could have up-close encounters with music like this– music is almost totally a pre-packaged experience for people now; I suspect that our collective appreciation and understanding of sound suffers due to this remove.

The first annual Noise Summit was a pretty big deal for me. Fifteen musicians and a handful of half-stack amps, drums, pedal gardens… all crammed into the front room at WDBX. It’s not a very large space to begin with. I also enjoy my odd, latenight callers. We have a love/hate relationship– we love to hate each other. I get drunk-dialed at least once every show, and they’re usually a riot. Requests for Primus, complaints about dance-ability, genuine concern for my mental well-being. But some of these people keep calling back, so I know they’re listening, and I accept them as part of what makes It’s Too Damn Early what it is. I hosted two separate teams of ghost-hunters live on the air, performed live mixes with sounds mic’ed up around the nighttime neighborhood, and recorded albums live on-air as well. There’s really too many neat things that have happened to begin numbering them. When I look back through my STARTLING MONIIKER blog, I run into stuff I’d forgotten about. Dan Godston playing trumpet with two birds flying around the room; doing a whole show with a single jambox during the master control remodeling; or just the many early mornings I spent alone, blowing my mind with some obscure LP, watching the sun rise through the window.

T:  Who is one of your favorite avant-garde artists from the old guard, and what lesson can modern day musicians learn from him/her?

D: I bet she wouldn’t appreciate the “old” tag, but I’m going with Joan LaBarbara. I love her work; everything I’ve heard from her just resounds with her own joy at doing what she loves, and having fun doing it. I won’t set up a complete dichotomy between generations of musicians on this issue, but I will say that I think that this sense of joy should be apparent in anyone worth listening to.

T:  Who are some of the modern avant-garde/experimental artists that really excite you?

D: Let’s just pick three, or we’ll be here all day playing “memory.” Right now; I’ll say Frank Rothkamm, Bryan Day, and Tom Nunn. Day and Nunn both build instruments, and I suppose one could include Rothkamm in that category if virtual instruments or programming thereof is accepted. But again, it’s their total devotion to what they’re doing that excites me. I’m also usually happy to find that they’re all quite good at exploring ideas and sounds that just don’t seem to exist anywhere else. It also helps that each seems to have a terrific ability to fully grasp what they reach for– particularly Rothkamm, whose command of music is simply astounding. Oh! And George Korein. He’s as full of ideas as I am, and also talks a mile a minute. A kindred spirit! This video sums it up.

T:  What about on the local scene?

D: No question here. Karthik Kakarala. He’s got a zillion side projects, but I suspect that they’re all slowly converging on a single “ground zero” target. With any luck, it will be a Karthik vs. Karthik split LP. Another Southern Illinoisian of note is Courtney Cox, who records the occasional tape as Trash Ant. I’m firmly convinced that his stuff is genius, but I’d be damned if I can completely explain why.

T:  How long have you been blogging on Startling Moniker and where does it fit within the larger experimental community?

D: I think I’ve been blogging since November of 2006. You’ll have to do the math on that. Right now, I’m mostly using STARTLING MONIKER as an addendum to my broadcasts. You could think of it as the “required reading” for all the shows. Naturally, there’s some local promotion that makes its way in, and the occasional review. I’ve been back-and-forth on reviews for some time now, but I think I’ve mostly given them up. If I’m playing an album, it’s worth picking up, okay? I’d much rather read a well-written critique of an album any day, personally, but I don’t have enough time to write these in a regular manner. Caleb Dupree does a great job with these at Classical-Drone … and of course, there’s Paris Transatlantic … I’m not certain how STARTLING MONIKER fits into the overall community, to be honest. Hopefully, I’m bringing some awareness of Southern Illinois and small-town experimental art to the bigger cities.

T: Tell me a little bit about your micro-label Naked Arrival.

D: There have been 3 releases, the last of which is an ongoing free cassette release of “Mystery Tapes,” cassettes that feature random ITDE programming and improv sessions. These are all unique, but cannot be ordered directly. Instead, I am leaving them in various places slowly over the course of the next couple years.

T: You released a recording by your daughter. What’s that all about?  Do you see that same mix of impatience and fascination in your kids?

D: The Style City CDR is my daughter’s first release. It’s free online, but also available in a trades-only edition of 10. She surprised me with some minimal synth drone recordings; about half of which is paired with lyrics about sickness, death, and giant robots. I knew that it had to have a proper release, so we worked up a really nice package for it. I helped with burning the discs and assembling the packages, but she was in full control of every artistic decision. For anyone who digs outsider art, this is a good disc to look into.

She also has a track on Dictaphonia vol.6, as “Golden Roses”.

I think all kids are pretty much a mixture of impatience and fascination. It’s adults who tend to lose these qualities.

T:  This is your second year putting on the Southern Illinois Noise Summit?  What’s different about this year?

D: Last year, I promised a bigger venue, which I have delivered– we’re going to be at the Carterville Civic Center on April 18th, at noon. It’s still free, but now you don’t have to cram in a tiny room with a bunch of sweaty people and sit on an amp.

T:  What do you look for in players for the summit?

D: I’m looking for a balance of things. On the one hand, Southern Illinois is growing it’s own experimental music from seed. So I can’t be as picky as someone who’s organizing a festival in New York, or San Francisco. It’s appropriate to accept a certain level of artistic growth, and not worry overmuch about the overall professionalism of the artist or band. The Noise Summit is as much a concert as it is a chance for us to inspire and inform each other, and also the audience. So I’m looking for people who want to explore these outer edges of music, not just folks who already have a pedigree. If there’s someone down here who’s never played out, but just spent the last few weeks recording tapes backward in their closet and banging a mic around, I want them here– performing or not. We can all be inspired by one another, and I think we all have something worthwhile to share. Come, and bring your curiosity with you!

T:  When the summit is over this year, by what criteria will you define it a success or failure?

D: I will declare it a failure if, at any point in time, a new-age drum circle breaks out.


DaveX’s discography:

Electric Kitten Vomit – Self-titled
Electric Kitten Vomit – The Avant-garde Revolts
DaveX – The Only Motion Is Returning
DaveX – The Resurrection of Body and Song
DaveX – Tenex
DaveX – Improv For Folded Signals
DaveX – Gimmie More (Chopped and Screwed Media Defender Remix) http://www.mediafire.com/?6edxtmes5y0

Appears on:

Theatre Intangible Podcast Volume 4 – The Sound of Teeth

~OrE~ Prefab Audio Extrapolations – Various, appears throughout
Microcassetor 2 – Ekevee – Improv with Audience
Ekevee – Improv with Pearlcorder
Eld Rich Palmer Off-Line – Electric Kitten Vomit – Track 1
Eld Rich Palmer Off-Line – Electric Kitten Vomit – Track 2
Southern Illinois Noise Summit, 2009 – DaveX – Solo    (part 1 of full comp) (part 2)
Southern Illinois Noise Summit, 2009 – DaveX – w/Karthik Kakarala
Dictaphonia vol. 1 – DaveX – Keeping My Hand In
Dictaphonia vol. 4 – DaveX – Wire/Recorder
Mystery Tapes – Series of 41 Randomly-released tapes, appears throughout

Mar 152010

Nashville, Tennessee is considered to be one of the world’s greatest live music cities.  We didn’t get the moniker “Music City USA” for nothing.  Yet in a town with more stages per-capita than anywhere else in the world, homogeneity rules the roost.  And not just country music.  The indie rock scene is equally guilty of an unfortunate combination of whatever-it-takes ambition, scarily-good chops, bang-up presentation, and an almost-complete lack of soul.  It can be very hard to find musicians willing to take real chances.  When I started the Theatre Intangible radio show just three years ago, I went in search of venues that regularly booked avant-garde artists.  I couldn’t find a single one.  The only place that came close was the art gallery Ruby Green, but they stopped booking music performances just months before my show began.

So to find performers for my show, I had to do some leg work and go directly to the artists.  At first, I was pessimistic about my prospects.  But soon, a whole new world opened up to me of artists on the edges doing really incredible things, completely off the radar.  There were artists making their own instruments, noise/drone bands, avant jazz-improv-ers, music collectives, psyche-folk minimalists, sound-artists, and acts that defied categorization.  They were written off as “pretentious” by the town hipsters; yet they created their music with a sincerity and focus unseen in the indie-rock world.  When they got the rare chance to play a show, the crowd reaction was split between disinterest and derision.  Sadly, most of the performers I talked to didn’t know the other performers even existed.  There was no community.

But things have gotten better.  In the last three years:  Charlie Rauh started the Nashville Fringe showcase at The BasementJohn Brassil‘s Buzz & Click electronic festival at The End increased it’s lineup of experimental electronic artists.  Little Hamilton cornered the market on noise bands.  House shows at places like the Sky House often drew crowds larger and more passionate than those at the clubs.  The Muse took risks on hard-to-categorize bands, even if their audiences wouldn’t.  Leslie Keffer at Betty’s Bar & Grill turned a little hole-in-the-wall into one of the top places to see experimental.  And Jonathan Lisenby and the crew at Open Lot turned an old warehouse into the premiere space for visual and performance art in Nashville.

This is the first in a series of articles about local venues that support the avant-garde and experimental community.  Today we’re taking a look at Open Lot Nashville.

Open Lot is an artist space and performance venue in East Nashville.  Having only been open for seven months, Open Lot is already booking near-capacity shows and doing so in the most unlikely of venues — a converted warehouse that has no liquor license.  (It’s BYOB, which for beer snobs like me, means I can bring my Founders or Dogfishhead and not be overcharged.)   I sat down with Executive Director Jonathan Lisenby to discuss Open Lot’s place in the Nashville community.  (Well, ok, we didn’t exactly sit.  It was an e-mail interview.  Call it an e-sit.)

T:  Open Lot first began in St. Louis in October 2007. What brought the group to Nashville?

J: Open Lot St. Louis began with a small group of recent graduates from Washington University in St. Louis looking for a group studio to work on art and architecture.  Myself and another native Nashvillian, Blake Besharian, were a part of that project with Jordan Hicks (who is managing programming at Open Lot St. Louis now) and four others.  It has always been Open Lot’s intention to spread the Open Lot idea to cities other than St. Louis, and I got my chance to bring it home to Nashville in March of 2009.  My sister, a songwriter in Nashville, would come to St. Louis and say to me, “this is great and all, but I think Nashville might need this more.”  I spent about four months and viewed 75 buildings looking for a space to house the studios and project space until I finally found the space we’re in now in East Nashville.  It was extremely difficult, and much more difficult than it was in St. Louis, due to Nashville’s high real estate inflation and Nashville property owners lack of understanding about the project and the arts in general.  After ditching several brokers, I found the perfect spot on Craigslist, of all places.

Open Lot started having meetings before I found a permanent space, usually meeting at restaurants to talk about our ideas for curating new shows for Nashville.  The space we have now was built-out by those artists, many of which are still active in Open Lot, to make studio spaces and make the gallery space for our first show, ART.EDU.  ART.EDU opened Open Lot’s public programming in the beginning of August 2009.

T: The Open Lot website states that you showcase compelling and contemporary art that is underrepresented in Nashville. Could you elaborate?

J: Almost all of Open Lot’s exhibits are thematically curated with a clear conceptual thesis in mind.  We treat the showcasing itself as an artwork.  It’s important that we consider the cultural climate of Nashville before we decide to put on a show.  If the statement of the exhibit is saturated in the Nashville audience or — more likely in a typical Nashville exhibit — just plain vacuous, we won’t do it.  It would be a waste of our time.  This reveals the very practical concern that motivates our exhibits.  Because Open Lot members are volunteers in this effort, we can’t afford to put on bullshit programming.  But there is such an amount of work that needs to be shown in Nashville, the worry of running out of things to “say” in our exhibits is an unrealistic one.

Open Lot doesn’t sell art or rely on sales to fund its day-to-day operation, so the members are freed-up to show whatever type of work they’d like to show, regardless of marketability.  Despite this, Open Lot Nashville has been a surprisingly popular destination in the last 6 months, simply because we’re showing different work, un-buyable, sometimes obscene, different work.  Most Nashville-based galleries can’t show what we do because they can’t pay their overhead with it.  If it can’t be displayed over a couch or sit in a corner, then it won’t appear at Rymer Gallery or Gallery One or one of the many others.  Zeitgeist Gallery is the one true exception to this over-arching statement, and they can show more progressive music and art because they’ve combined the gallery with an architecture and design practice that takes a bit of the overhead financial stress off.  This isn’t a criticism of these galleries in any way; they are doing what they have to do to survive and, in fact, they play a role that allows Open Lot to respond.  We get to have all the fun.

A good example of underrepresented work in Nashville is video and performance art.  The Concrete Comedy exhibit only showcased video and performance as a contrast to the sculptural objects that the artist community associates with concrete comedy.  Contemporary cinema is often critiqued in the vein of meta-narrative and contemporary sculpture is often critiqued in the vein of pun-y one-liners (“concrete” comedy), but what would happen if video were looked at simultaneously as meta, concrete, and meme-ready?  You can tell that this kind of exhibit hits home when the audience, albeit a small crowd of 60, stands in the cold for two hours to watch the performances in their entirety.  Concrete Comedy is a perfect example of Open Lot’s curating sensibility in that it served as a double-dose of different: video and performance art are underrepresented in Nashville, ignored really, and non-sculpture concrete comedy is passed over in exhibits in bigger cities.

Several months ago we also showcased some of Nashville’s up-and-coming filmmakers in the Heap Us ‘Round Our Ruins film screening.  There are a ton of young filmmakers coming out of Watkins film school or coming here to work on music production work that are not being represented to Nashville appropriately.  The Belcourt is doing what it can, and so are we, and of course there’s the Nashville Film Festival, but this is a quickly growing scene that we’ll have to adapt to meet.

Open Lot pushes collaboration as much as possible, which is a strangely absent element in a town as full of talented musicians and artists as Nashville.  Two heads are usually better than one, and the collaborative curation at Open Lot shows it.  Open Lot uses collaboration as a kind-of marketing tool as well, letting the distinctness of the collaborating artists bridge the gap between cliques of art-goers and scenesters.  For example, the last Collaborative Performances Series installment, Session 4, featured Barry Jones and Kell Black, two video artists and musicians most native Nashvillians would find too envelope-pushing for their taste.  But pair Black and Jones with accessible, yet profound, Nashville musicians Stone Jack Jones and you get a double-layered, meaningful performance that any music-lover can get into.  These collaborations are often great introductions into newer forms of art, like circuit bending, aleatoric, and video art.

T: What types of musical performances are you most interested in booking? What excites you about the Nashville music community? What, if anything, do you feel is overrepresented?

J: Open Lot is committed to showing underrepresented work in general, and that representation changes from city to city.  What’s shown a lot in St. Louis – noise, punk, dramatic & melodic pop, hard rock, and St. Louis-style rap (it’s not hip-hop, don’t let anybody tell you it is) – is fairly underrepresented in Nashville.  This is great for both cities, because Open Lot only has to use the network set up between the two locations to book great music.  For example, Raglani (Kranky Records) played an impromptu set in St. Louis that would have a much bigger cultural impact if played to a Nashville audience.  JEFF The Brotherhood (Infinity Cat Records) sounds good in Nashville, but blew away the Open Lot St. Louis audience with their subtle southern sensibility.

Of course, country and pop singer-songwriters flood the streets of Nashville.  We can’t even consider showcasing that kind of work; what would be the point?  I’m personally most interested in showing the cutting-edge of music and to treat Open Lot as a kind of experiment room or project space, but we have to be realistic about who our audience is.  If no one comes to hear the most amazing show, to me that lessens the communicative impact of the music.  For Open Lot to be an effective showcasing venue for new things, we have to bring Nashville along with us on the ride.  We have to transition from the mundane to the new.

There is very little in the Nashville music community that is exciting.  Nashville hasn’t been about being “exciting” for as long as I’ve been alive.  Nashville is about polished, composed “everyman” songs, usually executed by technically amazing musicians.  Pit Nashville’s quality of musicianship against any other American city and there’s simply no contest.  As a conceptual artist, I see this as a great thing, a city full of talented musicians, a painter might think of them like brushes, ready to record or perform difficult music for cheap.  It’s a visionary’s dream, the most awesome workshop, but the vision itself might come from somewhere else and not Nashville.  Hopefully it will come from musicians collaborating at Open Lot.  The fledgling electronic artist can learn a lot about composing according to systems from an architect.  Circuit benders need to be talking to sculptors.  Even country songwriters can learn heart-rending emotion from the pacing of local graphic novelists like Eric Powell.  That kind of interaction can only happen at Open Lot.

T: How does Open Lot fit in with the overall Nashville community? Is there anything in the general Nashville attitude towards contemporary art that you find frustrating? Refreshing?

J: Nashville’s general idea of contemporary art seems to be abstract painting, and there is a lot of it hanging around.  There are some spaces, like Twist Gallery and Tinney Contemporary, that are putting up non-paintings, but these are not challenging.  Again, Open Lot needs to transition the Nashville audience to the new, but I think most of these spaces showing contemporary art are taking the principle of graduation and caution too far.  In general, the work I see in Nashville’s galleries is not pretentious, and I love that.

Open Lot has had an easier time interfacing with the academic community, art schools like Watkins, Vanderbilt, and Austin Peay, to name a few.  I think this is because of the financial structure of the academic institution: they don’t have to sell the work they show.  Many art instructors are waiting to show work at Open Lot because they can have more freedom, not needing to sell and not required to please donors.

T: Are there any other galleries or performance spaces in Nashville that you feel a kinship or “shared mission” with? Why?

J: The only space I would mention is Zeitgeist Gallery.  Zeitgeist is hosting performances and talks in their gallery space that are meant to educate the art community.  The spirit of the Little Hamilton Collective is encouraging, though not usually the place or the performances.  I think Open Lotters feel a connection with them simply because they are also a collective, dealing with a lot of the same types of problems.  Comparisons are drawn between Open Lot and the old Fugitive Arts Center.  I think this might be the most compatible space with Open Lot and also explains the connection to Zeitgeist Gallery: several of the members of Fugitive are now showing work at Zeitgeist.

T: Many experimental/avant garde musicians in the Nashville community find that booking a show in most of the local rock clubs results in low attendance and lack of support from the club owners. What would they find if they were to book a show at Open Lot?

J: Booking a music show at Open Lot will probably require some kind of collaboration, or at least, that option will be encouraged by the group’s members.  If a collaboration does occur, like with the Sessions, the audience will be made up of a combination of people there to see the art/artist and the music/musician.  The size of the audience is doubled and audience members are introduced to a new music or art in the process.  Nashville’s just not big enough to support a large avant-garde scene.  We have to work together to make a larger event that appeals to a larger audience in order to get the exposure the avant-garde needs to be effective.

T: How would local artists go about submitting their work to Open Lot? What are the most common mistakes artists make when submitting their work to you?

J: Local artists should mail press kits to 1307 Jewell St., Nashville, TN 37207 or more preferably, email electronic press kits to openlotnashville@gmail.com.  The most common mistake artists make when submitting work is to not give enough information on themselves and why they want to show at Open Lot.  Open Lot has a mission to deliver underrepresented work, and artists need to give us a clue about how their work fits into and fulfills that mission.  Also, marketing avant-garde work is difficult and takes time.  The more info an artist can give on themselves that we can use to explain the work to our audience, the better.  Submitting proposals that involve collaboration or cross-disciplinary work is always more appealing for us to book at Open Lot.

T: What advice would you have for young artists in Nashville?

J: I see a lot of young artists try to show their work at every occasion possible, at every gallery and show.  Over-exposure is bad for any artist in a town this size.  Having your work associated with everything, and so nothing, can make a young artist appear schizophrenic or at the least, unfocused.  Almost all full-time artists working in the United States must show their work in several cities.  My advice is to research galleries or spaces that show work like yours or show the work of artists you respect and target those strategically.  And apply to shows, residencies, and galleries both in and outside Nashville.

I would also recommend the young artist make only the kind of work they want to make, and not take on commissions or attempt to make commercial art right off the bat.  If the young artist needs money, they have to get a separate job and work their ass off at night making their art.  I’ve seen so many young artists sell themselves away, burn out, and stop making work at all.

T: Do you currently have any available studio spaces? What advantages do your spaces offer artists over other studio spaces in town?

J: Open Lot will have an opening soon.  Artists should email openlotnashville@gmail.com to ask about available spaces.  The first thing most artists notice when it comes to taking an Open Lot studio space is the low cost.  This is symptomatic of the community system, of several people using the building and sharing utilities cost.  The community system also allows artists to share a large communal space in the center of the complex and to share tools and supplies like the wood shop.  The best part of the deal is being able to group-curate the space.  Anyone is invited to share ideas about how to utilize the project space, but Studio Members really have the last say.  A space at Open Lot isn’t for absolutely everyone, however, because group-curation and sharing the communal tools and space are a lot of work, and require working as a team.  Some artists work better in isolation.

T: Can you talk about some of your most-anticipated upcoming shows at the Open Lot Nashville? Why are they must-see events?

J: The Sessions series is an ongoing must-see for local musicians, in that the visual  collaborations add startling layers of meaning to music and lyrics, sometimes supporting, sometimes equivocating.

April 16 features two must-see events back-to-back: Translation exhibit opens 6pm-9pm and then multi-instrumentalists Heresie Of The Free Spirit and Che Chen + Robbie Lee open for lutist Jozef van Wissem.  These guys are absolutely ridiculous and I dare any venue Nashville to top this concert this year. And it follows what will be one of the best exhibits in Nashville, Translation.  Translation is an experiment documenting the translation process from text to visual representation and from visual to textual.  Artists are asked to respond to a pre-determined written piece and writers are asked to respond to a predetermined visual piece.  More details on the show and how to submit work can be found here.

ART.EDU opens Friday, April 30th, showcasing the best art from middle TN’s recent art graduates (curated by Sara Davis & Patrick DeGuira).  And then This Is Not Art exhibit open Friday, May 21st. This Is Not Art will be an extremely controversial show dealing with “fringe” pieces or edge studies on what is, what is not, and what appears to be Art according to several popular definitions.

T: What artists in Nashville really excite you right now?

J: Comedy/music acts like Johnny Corndawg and The Mattoid are extremely interesting to me, especially in the wake of Open Lot’s Concrete Comedy show.  I am excited by super theatrical acts like Protomen, Telecommunicators, and Rae Herring because I have a strong feeling that the sensual operatic will have a role to play in forming Nashville’s new non-country music style.  Speaking of forming a new style, I am extremely interested in Nashville’s musicians’ desperate struggle to form a new Nashville brand.  In the wake of the success of Kings Of Leon, a new iteration of the struggle continues with Caitlin Rose, JEFF, The Features, Daniel Pujols, Those Darlins, etc., etc. trying so hard to create a brand.  I am not so much interested in the music as I am interested in the want for the brand.

T: Thanks for your time.


I don’t know about you, but I’m getting really excited about Open Lot’s future here.  I attended the artist collaboration series 4 a few weeks ago, and was astounded by the focus and communal-spirit of the audience.  I do wish Black & Jones’ multi-screened visuals tied in more with the music being played; but then again, that’s what experimenting is all about.  And what doesn’t work for me may very well work for someone else.    For more information about Open Lot, check out their web site.  To see Jonathan’s personal work, check out his web page.

Watch this space for write-ups about Little Hamilton, Betty’s Bar & Grill, and more.  I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions for other venues to feature!