Jan 14, 2011, 04:20AM

Burning Star Core Stirs Old Jams Into Fresh Slams

An interview with C. Spencer Yeh about the midwifery of Papercuts Theater (No Quarter).

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Dear Reader,

This isn’t just an article, or an interview; this is actually an interactive media experience that will require some real effort on your part. If you’re not down with that, maybe come back a little later. Before you go any further, check the six YouTube videos embedded throughout this article. No, go ahead; take your time. As long as you need. I’ll wait.

Okay, are you back now? Are you ready?

Good, good.

You just spent the last 10 to 20 minutes listening to C. Spencer Yeh—and, in some instances, a complement of likeminded fellow travelers—wrest teeth-grinding, curious (and in at least one case, fairly nondescript) sounds from traditional and unconventional rock’n’roll gear. The Cincinnati-based electronics interrogator/violinist/noise plumber records solo; with Hair Police members as Burning Star Core; and in a sometimes baffling number of regular and irregular projects and collaborations. His throw-downs with John Wiese and Hototogisu are always deconstructive delights, and his fierce colloquy with Ryan Jewell, Chris Dadge, and others as Storm of Corpses (see 2009’s Bite Your Tongue on Bug Incision) deserved more ink than it garnered. Sometimes the Yeh sound is that of a maniac caught in a tape machine. Sometimes the Yeh sound is a squeaking, high-pitched, nails-on-chalkboard violin whine. Sometimes the Yeh sound is a squeaking, high-pitched, nails-on-chalkboard violin whine swallowed up by a coruscating blare. Sometimes the Yeh sound is cracking, mysterious malfeasance that’s just beyond the bounds of description or explanation. Sometimes the Yeh sound is simply a burst of distorted rock noise.0

But let’s get back to those YouTube clips. There was some of all of the above going on there, wasn’t there? You could get a grasp on it, though; it wasn’t overwhelming or exhausting or anguish inducing, right? Just some good old fashioned New Weird American DIY jammin’-on-the-none. Now I’d like you to do one of two things: (1) imagine all of those YouTube videos playing simultaneously, or (2) open a bunch of tabs in Firefox and play all those YouTube videos simultaneously. It’s a cacophony, isn’t it? A glorious clusterfuck. And if you’re down with that sound, it may be time to get to know Papercuts Theater (No Quarter), where Yeh took this recombinant/mulching idea beyond the nth degree by painstakingly collaging 66 live Burning Star Core recordings into a single teeming, steaming cauldron of noise. (I can’t, unfortunately, find any Theater excerpts online.)

If Burning Star Core studio recordings are typically interstate highways—minimalist, experimental studies—Theater is an entire metropolis or ecosystem, a propulsive unfriendly occupation of sonic space that comes across as uncannily cohesive, intoxicating, and invigorating. In my opinion, it was the best album released in 2010. In an email interview last autumn, Yeh clued Splice Today in, at length, on how he made his masterpiece.

Splice Today: Clearly, a lot of time, concentration, and sonic pruning went into Papercuts Theater; it must have been a labor of love for you. When and how did you initially realize that you wanted to create an amalgamation of Burning Star Core live recordings?

C. Spencer Yeh: Papercuts was originally conceived the same time as Mes Soldats Stupides, this collection of various tracks from CD-Rs, tapes and compilations. Kinda weird, I think, to preemptively propose a sort of odds and ends collection before there was even a bunch of official BxC recordings released, or anyone really even knowing about BxC, but the idea was to do one two-CD "retrospective" and an official two-CD "live album." This was around early 2000s when it was first planned; I had pretty much decided on this idea in person to my friend John Fail, who runs Cenotaph, the label that put out Mes Soldats. He offered to put out some Burning Star Core, and I think I literally just said, "Okay, well, I'm going to do two things and they'll be really overlong etc." I suppose the idea of this massive double live album was premature as well, at least at the time of its conception, and seemed like a really funny thing to commit to.

The names of the works came from messing around on Friendster at the time with Fail, just sort of making up these fake movies and television shows to list in one's profile—so Mes Soldats Stupides was a made-up French movie (political comedy most likely) and Papercuts Theater (short-lived British sketch comedy TV show). You know, because you were what you consumed on those social network sites, and Fail and I were pretty much signing up for every single one that had popped up at the time—Tribes and Virb, amongst other things.

Soldats was pretty light on any live recordings, the only exceptions being ones that had made it onto early CD-Rs and tapes, in anticipation of Papercuts. So Mes Soldats made it out, came and went on 2xCD, but Papercuts took a longer time later to happen as it turned out, changing labels in the process. I had done Operator Dead for No Quarter, and while lugging equipment from one place to another during SXSW one year, I proposed the idea to Mike Quinn about No Quarter doing it as a follow-up to Operator.  He agreed to a double LP and CD, and so after a long spell of "it's almost done" I finally just decided to finish it and move on—otherwise, you know, I'd still be working/reworking it right now. To me there was also a pretty clear changing point in the Burning Star Core live approach at the time, so it seemed convenient to draw a line there, too.

I think it's been mentioned elsewhere, but I was pretty inspired by various works which had messed with the idea of a live album; my go-to list of works referenced included Flying Saucer Attack’s In Search of Spaces, where Bruce Russell was asked to collage various FSA live recordings from a particular tour, Sonic Youth’s Sonic Death, and John Oswald’s Grayfolded, with multiple Grateful Dead performances of "Dark Star" layered together. So I had heard and checked out these works when I was in college, and something about them stuck with me, particularly in their concept. Especially with Sonic Death, which was collaged together on two tape players—there was something attractive to me about keeping a certain amount of integrity to the live recordings, not running them through effects or too much processing. Sort of a "whole foods" approach, I guess you could say: "whole sound," with the exception of the various qualities of the varied recording mediums, but, you know, that's as raw and elemental as one can get in those situations.

Yeah, I would say I was just inspired to kind of take this general concept and see how I would go about doing it for my own project. Maybe it got a little too much cut-and-paste, but at the time there was a bit of reaction to the cassettes I had been putting out, which were pretty much whole sets from live shows, as well as the odd bootleg live LP or two. Thought I had to go a little bit more overboard for something considered a bit more of an official statement.

ST: Paul Romano's artwork is a perfect conceptual fit for this album: mysterious, gothic, irradiated, photo-negative, indicative of infinity. How'd you come to work with him on this?

CSY: Paul had been a long-time collaborator with the label; he had done the artwork for the Operator Dead...Post Abandoned CD on No Quarter previously. I had contributed a couple of thoughts and we exchanged some preliminary ideas, but really, he just took the title/idea and ran with it in a way I never expected, but am blown away by. Even he realized the literality being manifested—building this large diorama of a theater out of cut paper—but the actual result is totally great, but way more impressive than the bare concept. Basically, every piece of art was created from cut/etched paper—including using this computer-controlled paper-cutter he was very excited about—a very literal approach, but one which he obsessively followed and carried through without, hmm, cutting any corners.

This "taking the hard way" I can hang with, the same way I suppose I could feel about having to sit and comb through hours and hours of live recordings. His very elemental and physical approach also reminded me of my own guidelines for working with all the live recording sources: basically no effects or manipulation beyond just edits and EQ. Letting the "natural" feel of the recordings, varying from lo-fi to board sources, come through as much as possible.

At first glance, most everything you see nowadays you just assumed to be all computer-generated, as with movies, but there still is a very real method of using "practical effects" employed—even if to the casual eye the difference isn't noticed, at least we go to sleep at night knowing what went into it. Really deep and visceral work he did on this, and I feel very spoiled.

ST: This an album where, when I listen to it, I sort of have to turn off my conscious mind because I find that if I think too much about the fact that it's comprised of 60-odd different recordings it becomes overwhelming, a distraction. Did you ever fear, while putting Papercuts Theater together, that the process would literally drive you insane? Did you have nightmares about it? Listening to it now, are you able to sort of hear the seams, where different parts were connected or soldered together?

CSY: Yeah, I tend to sort of get these ideas stuck in my head and I suppose the ones which stick the most I sit on for a while, thinking about them, working and reworking them. I think I had a few different “sketches” for what Papercuts was going to be, until I finally decided to just sit down and start putting it together. I busied myself with gathering and going through all the live recordings I could find—files on random drives, CD-Rs people had passed me, tapes—and sort of "re-archiving" them, just for the purpose of this project. These relatively menial tasks kept me busy and thinking I was making progress on the project—and indeed, all that is crucial stuff—but you know, when you're promising yourself this huge grandiose final product, it's hard to not think and want to act solely in huge, grandiose gestures and ideas.

I find a satisfaction in other aspects of this general practice I have, and really, just setting myself on the course of doing all these small tasks, that's where the true progress is. For example, with running a label, one could imagine and aspire for their catalog to be "amongst the greats," whatever greats they think, and can only see the end result of years and years of effort. I like mindlessly putting together tapes and stuffing LP jackets and all that; it's a pain in the ass, but it also gives a certain feeling of productivity that I personally think is good to experience. Of course, time-wise, after doing it DIY for a while, maybe it's best to look towards other means of manufacturing and assembly, but the initial experience of having to deal with it all yourself is something to experience for sure—either that or I'm just rationalizing my own inefficiencies in these matters, and really, could've gotten a lot more done in the time it's taken me to, say, make 100 tapes.

I think it's quite a challenge and a burden to be surrounded by so many bodies of work which exist already, but to be surrounded by the immediacy of communication and satisfaction; it's hard to not want to just wave one's hand, and have everything magically appear the way you want it. I think as much as it can inspire, it can also scare many people away from really trying anything out. I look back on the crap I've left in my own little wake, and of course I do want to go back and change this and alter that, and wish I had been way more consistent in certain matters, and you know, maybe there's an opportunity out there. I kind of call it "George Lucas-ing" the work, I suppose.

I forget, but there are artists who play with the idea of revisiting and reworking their own works, and I think about some really popular examples. I don't know though, the other part of me feels that you just get one shot at this, really, and best to just let the time and place really sort of inform the work, and move on.

So much of my recent work in Burning Star Core has been about the particular time and place, and fucking around with that, sometimes a few months, sometimes a year or two after it has happened, and I find some really interesting connections between that and my solo activity of late, which has been more about improvisation, live, being in the moment: playing a show, having a decent recording, and having that be the document. Or, as it has been the case more often than not, no recording surfaces—but you just play and move on. Let that moment hang with yourself, whoever you played with, the organizer, and the ten people in the audience.

Obviously, Papercuts sort of plays with all that, in the improvised music arena, as well as within the rock n roll "live album" context, where rock albums are still usually about fucking around with being in the studio—recording a rock album in a weekend vs. taking a year in a villa in France and calling in session musicians—all sorts of post-production, but then you have these live rock albums, of the same songs being performed, but having the performances very much informed by the time, place, and circumstances. And once you start chopping all that up, things really get complicated. With Operator Dead, I thought about that as my Bitches Brew, because even though it was recorded live and with "the band," there was a bit of editing and other studio trickery involved.

With Papercuts, though, I don't necessarily think it gives a reasonable view of what BxC was like live over those 10 years, but that wasn't it's purpose either, really. I mean, you take a particularly lonely electronics passage from 2002 and lay it over some drum-driven track from 2007, and the drum-driven track just sorts of swallows the electronics up. So yeah, maybe that's the case—those were part of the instructions I gave to Carl Saff in mastering it, for sure: “just “bind” it all together, make it all sound like one piece of music.”

I haven't listened to it in a long time, but I feel like it's incredibly dense and sort of harsh, and could've really used a bit more space here and there, perhaps a bit more definition. But then it would maybe over-emphasize the collage-like aspect, and flatten something else in the process, like the organic flow/feel I wanted it to have. There are clear passages, movements, some are very brief, so in listening it's easy to miss those—so it's a wrestling match between those two tendencies. I had thought about a number of ways to revisit; maybe doing a shorter-run of a “remix” of the same material, just configured differently, or perhaps a collection of the individual stems and passages used in the recording, free from any further editing or layering. I don't think I'd want to go back and do it again though, in the same way, and have the re-creation replace the original Papercuts. There's a multitude of reasons and excuses it was done the way it was, and to not worry about having made the "best" effort from yourself while under the influence of some "clever" concept makes it more of a work with its own life.

ST: The first and fourth tracks are each 16:36, while the second and third tracks clock in at 16:27. Is there any particular significance to these song lengths?

CSY: Well, Papercuts eventually was planned to be a double LP, so I thought to aim for a reasonable length per side—somewhere between 15 minutes (maybe a little too short) and 17 minutes (bordering on too long, then causing potential issues with the volume of the cut). I don't think I really noticed the 16:36, 16:27 mirroring as I had been editing mostly for feel, so maybe that happened subconsciously. I'm very interested in these details—numbers mirroring each other, numbers of tracks, catalog numbers—but I never feel like I go out of my way to bend or cheat details to include them, because then I feel like it becomes some kind of affectation. It has to work holistically with the rest of the stuff surrounding and within the album—the music, title, imagery—and can't just be token.

I think where my interest with that lies is more just an intuitional superstition, than trying to make overt references to existing systems—maybe the system deals only with itself, and at the point at which that feels right is when the matter is settled. As the project wrapped up, these weird coincidences started to reveal themselves even more; for example, the entire running length of the album is about 66 minutes. And, of course, the source material was drawn from 66 live shows.

I guess the short answer is that there isn't any significance in the sense that the numbers are not referencing any arcane numbers in witchcraft or the Bible or anything along those lines. Though I'd be curious to find out if there was any relevance to them beyond the obvious 66:06 or whatever, as since these numbers developed from a particularly regimented working process, perhaps some divination of all these numbers could breathe extra life back into it.

ST: How, would you say, has the BxC live approach changed since Papercuts was completed?

CSY: I had set the cut-off point for live performances to be included at a particular point with BxC live—right about the time I got back into using samples. Every once in a while, I like to work on a solo version of the live set, and just take some previous ideas and rework/augment them. I had, for some reason or another, pretty much avoided the use of loops and samples for the longest time but decided to get back into that.

Right around then I felt a little exhausted from the live band line-up of BxC, and felt some things needed to be worked out on my end before I felt I could continue reasonably with live collaborators. Since I had been working on Papercuts, I had uncovered some direct-to-board drum recordings of Trevor Tremaine, who had been the live drummer for BxC for a while—I had written drum solos into the set lists at the time—so I thought about starting to manipulate and layer those live, sort of in the Papercuts spirit. After all, it would sort of sound like mic'ed drums anyways since it was going through the PA, and I could also adjust the EQ and volume so that it wouldn't bury everything else going on.

The weirdest result of this was Trevor watching a live BxC set, having his drums played back to himself. We had discussed it a little bit but I still don't know all his feelings on the matter, except we agreed it was weird—maybe a good weird. So while Papercuts was being worked on/completed, I started to see some of the ideas and concepts leak into the live show. Then it broke off and went in its own direction—for example, since then the BxC shows have expanded to include Robert Beatty again on electronics. I had written in some time for an electronics solo into the set; one tour got pretty decently documented and I ended up isolating just all of the solo segments and sequencing them into an LP for release. The tracks would start right after I would drop out, and would end when he determined the solo to be over. So you have all these de-contextualized "launch points"—it would be up to me in the live setting to feel out when the carpet would be pulled out from under—and he'd have to transition into a solo statement on the spot, and resolve it.

So, mechanically, it's all the solos extracted, but it's also a study on the same repeated moment of his life night after night. The LP was credited to his own name, and not under any other project name, because of the nakedness of the moment and his set-up.

Papercuts Theater is available from No Quarter in CD and double-LP formats.


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