In the 1990s, the term “intelligent dance music”—the resulting acronym, IDM, is probably better known—was coined; “IDM” referred to electronic sounds that weren’t concerned with generally-accepted (at the time) notions of what electronic dance pop should attempt to accomplish. The likes of Jega, Autechre and Aphex Twin upended the idea that techno’s raison d’etre was crowd-pleasing pleasure-point triggering by definition, making room in the hearts and minds of aural adventurers for busted, arrhythmic beats, daring, minimalist propulsion, and vintage-synthesizer hyperactivity—and, eventually, the unorthodox cross-hybrid stylings of Antipop Consortium.
Is noise/noise rock in need an equivalent sub-genre classification? The answer, I’d argue, is a resounding yes, because the aim of noise is not, universally, to merely melt listeners’ faces; sometimes, noise endeavors to inspire discussion. Noise collagist Aaron Dilloway vacillates between visceral uber-decibel gut-check and a wily archival mischievousness; controversial gradualist Jason Crumer splits his time between near-orchestral bone-crush and eardrum-smashing compositional calligraphy. Yet the more considered approaches these artists sometimes pursue—see Crumer’s Ottoman Black and Dilloway’s A Foxhole Point of View—are what examples I’ve come to think of as Idiosyncratic Contemplative Noise, or “ICONO” for short: sculpted, strategically conceived noise that eschews purposeful randomness and chaos en route to making a larger, more complicated statement than, say, “I emphatically reject this culture/paradigm/state of mind with extreme prejudice and an extra large helping of botulism-infected distortion.” Representational noise, if you like, created by circuit-smashing insurrectionists weaned on fifth-generation Wolf Eyes and Hair Police bootlegs.
Does Milwaukee noise artist Peter J Woods jam ICONO? Certainly. He’s frequently recorded and performed as part of groups over the years, but recent solo releases like Fairweather Mask and Creation Death Machine draw from and simultaneously transcend musique concrete, post-Prurient power electronics, and severely calculated noise bursts with announcements to embrace a deliberate theatricality that emphasizes the use of silence as much as it does precise, studied underwater sound. (In contrast to his albums, Woods’ live sets owe more to hardcore punk’s penchant for confrontation than, say, Scott Walker’s Drift.) One might reasonably argue that Woods’ forthcoming Songs For Nothing—a starkly astringent conversation piece that explores what Woods sees as the futility of political action—isn’t a proper noise album at all. Below is the first part of a wide-ranging, early December email interview with Woods; two additional segments will follow.
Splice Today: On your last.fm page, you identify yourself as “the Henry Rollins of Noise.” Where did that come from?
Peter J. Woods: I was given the Henry Rollins title from a friend out in Washington after he first saw me perform. I'm pretty sure it’s a combination of stage presence—lots of power stance, beefy neck flexing, and always shoeless—combined with being straight-edge that got it, but I've never been sure.
ST: How and when did you first become aware of noise, and realize that noise music was something you wanted to pursue artistically?
PJW: Senior year of high school, the fall of 2003, was when I first became aware of the genre. I was playing in a band that sounded like a poorly put together Radiohead with about one more distortion pedal, and we all thought we were a noise rock band. We hopped on a huge noise show called "The Great Milwaukee Earfuck," thinking we would fit right in. We were wrong. Some of the projects blew me away, one of them being an early project from Alex of Climax Denial, who I started hanging out with that summer after running in to him at shows about every three days. When fall of 2004 rolled around, Alex booked a show with Emil Beaulieau, Prurient and Crank Sturgeon, and after that night I knew I had to do this, so I started plugging pedals in the wrong way, and the rest is history.
ST: There's a tendency in noise—a knee-jerk tendency, I think—to record and perform solo under an alias, or a whole bunch of aliases. So it's almost startling when soloists like John Weise and James Ferraro and Aaron Dilloway and you make it a point to go sobriquet-free. Was there ever a point where you used a stage name, or did it always make sense to present your work as directly from you?
PJW: From 2005 until 2008, I performed as Raperies (Like Draperies) which is a name that has gotten an incredible amount of praise and disdain over the course of the years, but when I started performing under that moniker my output had a very different focus. More purely about the noise being made, very much improv-based. As I started progressing, though, I started to realize that what I was doing was far more personal, using compositions to speak my mind and create themes and ideas I have been engaged with. Eventually it just seemed silly to perform under a stage name. I understand the mentality of it, how people want to base projects around certain themes, but performing under my own name allows the project to move to wherever I want it to go. I have been developing a few very specific projects—i.e. xALLxFORxTHISx, which is strictly straight edge power electronics—and have been using stage names for those, but for the most part I enjoy the freedom to jump both sonically and thematically from album to album.
ST: "Rape" is a very powerful word; it carries serious clout, even more than some profanities. Remember the furor over that Nirvana song, "Rape Me" and how Geffen wanted to change it to "Waif Me" on the In Utero record packaging? And a lot of people weren't happy when Steve Albini decided to front post-Big Black/pre-Shellac trio Rapeman, which was named after a Japanese comic book. What was the worst flack you took for using "Raperies" as a band name?
PJW: Yeah, it’s incredibly powerful, but that's why I wanted to use it. It was supposed to be an obvious jab at people who use noise (or any form of art) as merely a means to be shocking. People that desperately try to push the envelope for no apparent reason other than to just be shocking.
I picked the stupidest pun involving the word I could think of, then explained the pun in the name, so it would sound like I was desperately trying to make sure people realize how edgy I was. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people thought I was trying to be straightforward with it. Just goes to show how stupid some people have gotten with naming bands and also how risky of a proposition using irony in a creative situation is.
The worst flack I've gotten is from a message board based out of Minneapolis on the Modern Radio web page. A friend of mine was trying to hook me up with a show there on my first tour with the project, and the whole thread erupted into a an argument about how appropriate the name was, which then shifted into a huge argument about noise in general. They continue to poke fun at the name and the stuff I do, usually using older videos from when I was in more of an "emo" phase. The usual Internet stuff, and a lot of it is actually funny; the first thread included about 50 parody versions of the name including "Pincones (like Minds Blown)." Made for a really good show, though. About 100 people packed into a basement. Started something of a love affair with the city. Some of the very best shows I have played as a noise artist have been in Minneapolis and some of the very best people and performers I have met are from there.
ST: What do you do for a living?
PJW: Currently, I am a student supervisor at a high school. I watch study halls, the library, the cafeteria, etc. I'm in charge of keeping kids in order. On top of this, I fill in as a substitute teacher for the math and chemistry departments on occasion and also act as the head coach of the school's Forensics team (not CSI forensics—competitive speech and debate, so somehow nerdier than police science). Recently I have also been helping an emerging charter school develop a math and chemistry curriculum.
ST: Does it ever strike you as ironic that while you moonlight as a noise artist—noise being a medium that thrives on chaos to one degree or another—your day job involves maintaining a semblance of order on that most chaotic of populations: teenagers?
PJW: Ha! Actually, I see both of them as the exact same thing: reigning in chaos. It’s a problem I see with a lot of artists. They like to get on stage and just be completely chaotic and make this incredible auditory (and usually visual/physical) mess, but I personally don't care about that. It's sloppy work that doesn't hold much point. People hitting pedals hoping something cool will come out.
The best harsh noise artists out there are the ones that make you think absolutely everything is out of control, but it never is. There are usually elements of unpredictability, but it never overtakes the work or, more importantly, the artist. The Rita is a perfect example of this—every single sound that guy makes is studied on a meticulous level. He knows exactly what every single distortion pedal he owns is going to do and how it will affect the sound. As for non-"harsh noise" noise artists—P.E., drone, weird stuff—that chaotic element is lessened even further.
ST: I've watched some of your YouTube clips, where you're on the same level with a clustered audience and you're singing and manipulating electronics. What's it like in that first few moments, at the beginning of a performance? Are you nervous, or do you go into these shows confident and entirely sure of yourself?
PJW: It depends on what I am doing at these shows. I'm pretty fervent at practicing, usually running the same set for weeks before I actually get to the performance, but that first time performing the piece usually has a nervous energy about it. I'm also very particular about sound checks, usually setting my gear up hours before the show and then refusing to touch it until I perform, just so I know that everything is dialed in. As soon as the performance starts, though, that nervous energy gives away to something else. When it comes to performing I can zone pretty well, become very focused. I often lose track of the crowd. When I do more free form, improv stuff that energy sticks with me because I don't know what’s coming next, but solo performances are so rigorously planned, I don't have that stick with me usually.
ST: When you perform live, is it all improvisation, or a mixture of pre-recorded sounds manipulated on the fly?
PJW: Combination of the two. Some performances have been completely pre-recorded, others have been completely created at the performance. It all depends on the piece and what I need to do with it. Everything I do is very much composed and each piece demands a different set up.
ST: What's the most unusual or surprising reaction to your music that you're encountered in a live situation? Has an audience ever erupted into hardcore-show violence?
PJW The closest I’ve ever come to violence was when I performed at a bar down the street from me a few years back. Total "townie" bar that a friend had managed to sneak a show into. The guy was doing gameboy hardcore type stuff, so he asked if I would open. The bar was half people interested in the show and half regulars. One of the regulars got up in my face, screaming at me to stop, and when I did he gave me shit for the rest of the night. "No, seriously, are you done yet? Look, I've heard a lot of techno before, but that was just awful" sort of thing. I also got ran out of a park in Dubuque, IA, when I performed in a bandshell there.
I don't think I have really gotten any really unusual or surprising reactions, but I love when people tell me about the visuals they experience. I played a show a few summers ago in Vermillion, SD, and a girl there explained about this incredible journey she went on during my set, where she was reborn into a post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland where she was raised by machines. I don't remember the rest, but it was incredibly detailed and included the entire life cycle of this person. That's the stuff I really love hearing. I often get so hung up on the images that I associate with the music that hearing about others imagined imagery forces me to really reconsider the music I am making and think about how it all relates.
After Music Recordings will release the Songs for Nothing LP on February 14.