Mark Beasley: In 1977, the composer and writer R. Murray Schafer described “noise” as any unwanted or unmusical sound. What do the terms “noise” and “experimental music” mean to both of you?
Mike Kelley: I’ve always thought of experimental music as music where the outcome isn’t predetermined. Like in a scientific experiment when you have an idea about something and then you see if that idea plays out in practice, but you don’t really know what’s going to happen. Whereas noise, traditionally, would be something outside of music, a sound that’s considered unpleasant. And it’s also generally considered transgressive.
Lee Ranaldo: The term “noise” is a funny one, because when Sonic Youth was first getting started in 1980 and ’81, club owners were using the word in a derogatory sense to describe the downtown scene. One club owner was quoted in the SoHo Weekly News as complaining, “You know, that downtown scene is all just noise.” (Shortly thereafter, Thurston [Moore] copped the term and turned it into a cause célèbre, staging a “NoiseFest” for nine nights at White Columns in 1981.) I would say that “noise” is not really a very effective descriptive term when applied to music. Maybe it means something more dissonant, or unpleasant, or un-harmonic . . . but if you take as your basis that music is all about various textures and how they’re structurally arranged, noise is just another element that one can use.
Mark Beasley: So Mike, how did you first become interested in this kind of music? On the Noise Panel at Artists Space, didn’t you say that you weren’t allowed to take vocal classes in Catholic school because they thought you had a bad voice?
Mike Kelley: Yes, they wouldn’t let me sing—even in the classroom. There were no music classes, so occasionally students would sing religious or folk songs in a regular class, but I wasn’t allowed to sing because I did not have a “harmonious voice.” And then later, when I switched to public school in ninth grade, I wanted to take music but wasn’t allowed to because I didn’t have any background in it. And it was the same when I went to CalArts to attend graduate school. I wanted to study with Morton Subotnick, but because I had no music training, I wasn’t allowed to take music theory courses. So basically, my whole life, whenever I’ve tried to get involved in music, I’ve been institutionally denied.
Lee Ranaldo: It’s a Catch-22: you have to be trained before you can study music, and you have to study music before you can be trained. That’s why one might turn to experimental music—because you don’t need any qualifications, really. It’s a very level field. Anyone with an idea is in. It’s the ideas that are most important, rather than any sort of technical skill.
Mark Beasley: So how did you first become interested in these kinds of music?
Lee Ranaldo: I was exposed to a lot of music at home. My mother was a pianist, and I sang in choruses all through grade school and high school and played guitar and piano. But when I started to get serious about the idea of making music myself, it was separate from the moorings of my training. I was more inspired by what was coming out of the radio: first AM radio pop music, and later rock and roll music. Yet even at that time there were certain formal codes and structures to making rock music, which—in my limited capacity as a player—I was unable to hit. So I was forced to branch out to try to create my own language.
Mark Beasley: Do you think there was a generational discord, or moment, when the meaning of “noise” changed?
Mike Kelley: Well, I think that in the beginning, electric rock music was considered noise music because of the volume and the distortion; at first, the whole point of electric rock was to be noisy, so there was a generational split right there.
Lee Ranaldo: That’s true. All amplified music was once seen as transgressive by a large section of society, especially as it got louder and weirder. “If it’s too loud, you’re too old!”
Mike Kelley: Exactly. Then things started to go in a more psychedelic direction. And once you hear someone like Jimi Hendrix, with all of the feedback and distortion, it’s not a big leap to start playing the electronics themselves. For anyone who grew up in an industrial area, these sounds were already very common; for me, coming out of Detroit, it was natural to go in that direction.
Lee Ranaldo: A lot of people have talked about noise music being heavily influenced by environment, saying that of course noise came up in New York and Tokyo because those are big loud cities with lots of noise everywhere, and it’s true. There are times when I walk around New York, and if there’s a lot of construction going on—with the sounds of pile drivers and whatnot echoing off the buildings—you start to hear these amazing rhythm tracks. I’ve got tons of recordings of stuff like that—showing how “noise music” came about as a reflection of the city around us and the social situations it contains.
Mike Kelley: Definitely. William Burroughs’s tape experiments were very influential on me because they started with recordings of environments. To him, sound was a kind of weapon. He took ambient recordings, cut them apart, and re-pasted them together to reveal the world by shifting its syntax, and bringing to the foreground all of the background noise that we normally filter out—a very radical idea that John Cage had already been working with.
Mark Beasley: The art historian and theorist Branden Joseph has written about the political dimension of noise—for example, New York City’s EPA once published a pamphlet called “Noise Makes You Sick,” and some have argued that noise control guidelines have been abused to control African American neighborhoods like Harlem and Brownsville, to prevent more housing developments from being built—the idea being that noise is this scary force to white middle-class people in urban areas. Living in Detroit, Mike, did you feel that noise was used politically in any way?
Mike Kelley: Not politically in a conscious way. In poor areas, loud motorcycles, cars, and boom boxes are statements of identity—they function as a kind of audio graffiti. Similarly, raucous popular music generally functions as the voice of disenfranchised people—including youth.
Mark Beasley: What were the politics of Destroy All Monsters?
Mike Kelley: We developed out of a specific late-’60s Detroit music scene where noise—loud rock music—was used in a confrontational manner and linked to the politics of the New Left. Concerts organized by the anarchist White Panther Party mixed populist rock and experimental music in an attempt to radicalize local youth. But that scene died at the end of the decade with the collapse of the local economy.
Destroy All Monsters addressed the failure of that utopian dream by doing a more nihilistic version of it. We were very exploratory—we didn’t have “one sound.” I lived in a house with jazz and rock musicians, and often our recordings were jam sessions with very different kinds of players, just exploring sounds without any particular focus (though I was particularly interested in avant-garde music, psychedelia and free jazz).
Mark Beasley: And Lee, what politics do you think were informing Sonic Youth?
Lee Ranaldo: Well, I’m actually thinking pre–Sonic Youth, when I was a teenager starting to play rock music. At that time the sociopolitical element was basically that you didn’t like your parents’ music. Young people were looking for more challenging stuff to listen to. By the time I left high school, my interest in rock had changed into an interest in twentieth-century music of all sorts, from the Futurists through John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Henry Cowell. There was also the influence of the later, more experimental tracks by the Beatles, and San Francisco psychedelic music, for example, which pushed the boundaries of what the listening experience could be. I think young people wanted to feel like the field was wide open, so that you could do whatever you wanted.
Mark Beasley: Then, to connect your and Mike’s practices—I understand that Sonic Youth provided the sound track for Mike’s piece Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile at Artists Space in 1986. How did that collaboration come about?
Lee Ranaldo: I think Mike and Kim [Gordon] had become friends in L.A.. Mike was coming to New York to do this piece at Artists Space and asked us if we would work with him. Steve [Shelley] had just come aboard as our permanent drummer, and we were at the point where we were past just trying things, and had really formed a language that we were all comfortable working with.
Mike Kelley: That’s right—I knew Kim in L.A. before she moved to New York. At that time she was not yet a musician; she was a visual artist. I watched the development of Sonic Youth, and I liked the music and I liked them as people. In that particular performance I wanted to have a live sound element modeled on Kabuki theater, where there are musical sections that play off the language in a quite disjointed way. I also wanted to play with the idea of rock staging. A lot of the audience was there to see Sonic Youth specifically, because at that point they were a known band, so I had some parts where the band was really foregrounded and others where they were completely hidden—behind a curtain, for instance. And it was great, because they sometimes were doing music not at all typical for Sonic Youth—at one point, for example, I asked them to repeat a riff from “Train Kept A-Rollin’” over and over.
Mark Beasley: Moving forward in time, would you say that noise could be described as a transgression that changes with each generation?
Mike Kelley: Definitely. I’m hearing a lot of music now that’s obviously a reaction against the noisiness of punk and post-punk—like psychfolk. That’s a generational transgression.
Lee Ranaldo: There’s a whole category of what I call “noise-icians”—people who are dedicated to playing pure noise music—that started getting attention in the ’90s with Japanese bands like Violent Onsen Geisha and Boredoms. So today there’s a whole group of younger people for whom this is their background—it’s like their Beatles. When Sonic Youth was developing, we were integrating pop structures with very abstract, or noisy, sounds, trying to figure out ways to meld them both. We were children of AM radio, and grew up listening to pop music, but also being exposed to all sorts of avant-garde movements like I was talking about earlier, so we didn’t want to abandon one for the other.
These days there are so many young people who are specifically noise musicians that it almost puts them into a ghetto. It’s become a genre, so for young people it’s not transgressive anymore: you’re just into it or you’re not.
Mike Kelley: Exactly. I was really surprised when I first went to Japan with Destroy All Monsters—we played in front of an auditorium packed with teenagers. They’re so fascinated with obscurities there. To them noise music was like punk was for American kids—but they were mixing, like, John Cage with hardcore. It was all exotic music to them, outside of their culture, so they didn’t have the same inherited inhibitions about crossing these musical borders. I was so shocked by this, I found it hard to believe that noise music could be popular teen music.
Lee Ranaldo: When Destroy All Monsters was around, did you feel like you guys existed in a kind of void? Now noise bands can go out and get tours all over, but then, it was either being part of the established music scene or nothing.
Mike Kelley: Yeah, we couldn’t even play in a club. They’d kick us out.
Lee Ranaldo: Sure. It was the same thing when Sonic Youth was starting out—we had a hard time getting gigs because people didn’t understand the music.
Mark Beasley: Were you accepted by the art world? Could you play in galleries?
Mike Kelley: No—we weren’t accepted by the art world or the music world, so we operated in a kind of guerilla way. We would crash house parties and play there; or we’d play at loft parties for three or four people, after the rest had fled. We existed in more of a conceptual way, rather than as part of a scene. But that really changed with the rise of punk. When I moved to California, I tried to move into the punk scene with my band the Poetics, which included Tony Oursler and John Miller. Some of the musicians associated with the Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS) were attempting to do the same thing, but it was a very odd marriage. All of my attempts to fit into different music scenes didn’t work. At a certain point, I lost interest and decided to do solo work that was specifically geared toward the performance art audience, keeping out of the music world entirely.
Lee Ranaldo: I had a band in college called Black Lung Disease, a kind of psychedelic abstract music combo, that reminds me of what you’re saying about Destroy All Monsters. You guys only played a few gigs the whole time you were around. I remember that we played a lot—but we didn’t play for a lot of people. It was almost like we were alone in a laboratory experimenting, and the laboratory happened to be someone’s living room, or wherever you could set up a drum kit. Only an incredibly tiny group of people—the players and a few friends—ever heard us. It wasn’t a scene; it certainly wasn’t a profession or a career.
Once it gets to the level of these noise bands today, touring all over and playing in clubs, it’s hardly even experimental anymore. There’s something very codified about it at that point: audiences coming to see it know exactly what it is. Maybe experimental music is something you’re only afforded the opportunity to create when you’re young and unknown—when you’re trying stuff purely for your own edification, to see where it goes.
Mark Beasley: Mike, it was an honor and an education to work with you on the noise music festival. Could you tell us about creating A Fantastic World Superimposed on Reality—the title for which came from Luigi Russolo’s “The Art of Noises” manifesto—for Performa 09?
Mike Kelley: Sure. The noise festival was a dream come true. I had the opportunity to put together, on one bill, a selection of performers that I really admire. I kept it to a particular generation to provide focus, but I also wanted to include the kind of classical avant-garde pieces that influenced these people. So, it was a mix of musicians and artists primarily associated with the downtown New York scene of the late ’60s and ’70s along with improvisational and experimental musicians of the same generation from other locales—especially Los Angeles.
Mark Beasley: And what about your take on the West Coast scene that you came out of?
Mike Kelley: A good history of American improvisational music of Lee’s and my generation has yet to be written. The West Coast scene, in particular, is poorly documented. There are many written histories of punk, but no one has written about the art band phenomenon. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1976 I became acquainted with the LAFMS—improvisational artist/musicians my age who were producing their own records. The West Coast was one of the most important centers for what has come to be known as “industrial” music, with artists like Boyd Rice and John Duncan, and “synthpunk” groups like The Screamers. The Screamers were very popular in Los Angeles, but they refused to release studio recordings of their music. Few recordings exist of many of these groups. That’s why I felt it was important to include groups like Airway in the festival. It was the first time, to my knowledge, that any LAFMS-related band had played in New York, and the first time that Destroy All Monsters played in New York.
Mark Beasley: Which is incredible. Lee, what did you think of the festival?
Lee Ranaldo: I performed [in the re-creation of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music] and watched everything on the first night. I loved the fact that it was drawing on a very specific time period because I think that if it had extended further, it would have moved into a place that was much better known to the crowd that was there. I liked that it presented stuff as varied as throwing potatoes at a gong and the Steve Reich piece. In a way, it was like Mike’s diary of musical pieces from that period that had an influence on him, which I thought gave it this really nice sense of focus.
Mark Beasley: Yes, it was woven together by Mike’s personal narrative. And it was also provocative in suggesting that at a certain point, true “noise” ceased to be—it’s something that future generations will have to define anew.
Mark Beasley is a curator, writer and artist based in New York.
Original text from the publication Performa 09: Back to Futurism. Photos from A Fantastic World Superimposed on Reality, 2009. Part of Performa 09. All photos by Paula Court.