Dec 29, 2010, 05:00AM

Peter J Woods Is “The Henry Rollins of Noise,” Part III

The third part of an interview with the ambitious, Milwaukee-based noise artist.

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The first portion of this interview with Peter J. Woods focused on his indoctrination into noise rock, his performance process, and his day job, while the second portion dealt with Woods’ composition techniques, the inherent futility of political action, and his forthcoming Songs for Nothing LP. In the third and final segment of the interview, Woods expounds further on Songs for Nothing, explains how Samuel Beckett has become a major influence on his work, and holds forth on his musical influences.

Splice Today: The Songs for Nothing post-recording origin story to this point is kind of this weird boomerang thing. You were going to press it, then the money you had slated for pressing got eaten up when your car and bike both went kaput, then you made a Kickstarter appeal for donations for pressing, then after you sent out the email announcing that, a label offered to press the record. That's a whirlwind of ups and downs in a short span of time, which must have been emotionally insane. What was that like for you? What label will be pressing/issuing Songs For Nothing?

Peter J Woods: Yeah, the whole thing was totally bizarre. I’m the kind of person who always keeps busy, always tries to do something. I'm currently performing regularly with four different music projects—one of those being my solo work—and have just started working on a fifth, along with the occasional collaboration that pops up. I set up a lot of shows in Milwaukee and have been acting as the curator for both the Milwaukee Noise Fest and the St Louis Noise Fest, although this was my last year doing that. I also will occasionally write, act in, or direct plays, though that has always taken the back seat to music. I haven't really touched the theater stuff for close to a year, but my live performances have started to blend the line between the two and I will be traveling with a strictly theatrical piece this summer, performing a monologue entitled "Pity" that I have been working on for two years.

Moral of the story? I usually have about five things on my plate at one time, so when everything went down with my car and bike totally crapping out on me, I had to take it in stride. I'm incredibly lucky that I had the money to fix both of them, and beyond that incredibly lucky to just have a job. With this in mind, I couldn't really do anything besides say. "Oh well, that sucks, guess I'll have to wait" and then attend to whatever else I was working on.

I had known about Kickstarter for a while, and decided that I should give it a try. I really like the concept behind the website. It’s a very honest and transparent way to raise money for something like this. If people want the project to exist, they put in money. If they don't, then they don't and the project lays low. It can turn into a popularity contest of sorts and can also be a measure of who is good at marketing, but the root idea can still come through.

I get the whole thing together, send out a bunch of emails so people know about it, and it totally worked! The page raised the entire amount of money I need! It didn't go through Kickstarter at all, but it happened. It was actually doing pretty well (got about half way there), but the label, After Music Recordings from Minneapolis, decided to foot the bill and help distribute, which is great.

It took me a doubletake or two to realize what had happened, though. I was still very busy while putting this together and kind of had it on the back burner, waiting to see if the Kickstarter campaign would come together, and out of the blue this offer came through. I'm grateful for the whole experience, although I would have liked to not have had to drop $900 on my car.

ST: What can you tell me about the impetus/conceit behind "Collapse At A Distance"? For some reason it makes me think of a wizard, shaman or chieftain figure emerging from a pile of rubble and sort of voicing these operatic/James Maynard Keenan from Tool-esque incantations, imploring dark spirits to heed his call. But instead of the prototypical dark spirits, it's broken, buzzing machines that respond instead.

PJW: Never thought I would get a Tool comparison. Weird! The track, for me, is a narrative about what will happen when everything finally collapses. The whole thing starts with a very organic set of sounds: guitar, vocals, cymbal. Slowly, a sample of the highway by my house comes in, then a distorted bass loop, and finally the static stuff builds into a climax of intense wall action.

I think we are on the rise right now. We're past the organic, and getting close to that apex. I don't think we will see it in our lifetime, but it's coming.

After the climax, the whole thing dies out again and the organics remain, but they are completely bastardized. Choked, experimental vocal techniques and using the cymbals as a means to play the guitar. So we build and build and build, and eventually it takes over and completely overwhelms everything and dies, but when it goes away, what’s left is what we originally had and, for better or worse, it can't exist like it used to. So yeah, there is a sense of emerging from a pile of rubble, but completely destroyed.

ST: What effect were you striving for with “Once Removed And Never The Same”?

PJW: With that track, I wanted to focus solely on futility in action, focusing on specific images that really personified that idea for me. Tearing pieces of paper over and over until the point where they form a pile of sawdust, grating plastic into shards and then melting it together only to grate away again, that sort of thing. I also wanted to bring back in the idea of distance, about human interaction being put into a position where you truly have to push to even be heard. So for the first half, the vocals are pushed through a mixer that is also feeding back on itself, and the sung vocals at the end are through a contact mic'd piece of sheet metal that's placed on my throat.

Both situations have these extra layers of strain placed on top of them, making the ability to communicate that much more difficult. The only voice that is clearly heard is just relaying the message that everything is a complete mess, but that's it. On top of all of this, a large portion of the sound is created by feedback, so these self-generating sound machines continue to create sound on their own, regardless of the effort I put in. All of this ties together to create the mess it ends up being.

ST: What does the title Songs for Nothing mean?

PJW: Songs for Nothing is a reference to a collection of prose written by Samuel Beckett titled Texts for Nothing. I'm absolutely obsessed with the author right now, and have been throughout the process of creating this album. More than any other artist in any medium, Beckett captures a sense of absolutely useless futility. So much of Texts for Nothing is about that immobility (opening lines: "Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn't any more, I couldn't go on. Someone said, You can't stay here. I couldn't stay there and I couldn't go on."), the absolute inability to act or move or breath or do anything, and I drew a really strong connection from Texts straight to what I was doing. Unlike Beckett's work, Songs for Nothing is very specific and very personal. Songs for Nothing is about where this immobility comes from and how we respond as people, Texts is solely about that feeling.

Beyond just the title for this album, I have used Beckett as a source of inspiration over and over again. At the 2010 Milwaukee Noise Fest, I performed a noise rendition of A Piece of Monologue—which will be coming out on a CD split, and I know, I know, I just trashed CDs, but I feel that the physical object is important here—with Bryce Beverlin II and Eric Lunde, who also recorded performances of Beckett works. On my first full length, Fairweather Mask, the last track is an homage to Endgame; "Tattered Clothes of a Former Emperor" refers to the costume worn by Hamm, the main character, and the lyrics for the second half are taken from the play. The text for one of the pieces on "New Works for Computerized Voice" is a long section from Mallone Dies. These are the biggest examples, but I have bits and pieces of his stuff sprinkled all over work outside of this.

ST: Are there any other notable playwrights who you especially admire or feel influenced by?

PJW: All of the Absurdists are huge influences on me. Love Ionesco, love Pinter, love Mrozek. I was really into Albee before I found these guys, and still love his stuff, but not quite as much. Like a lot of more political theater as well, like Churchill and Brecht. Seeing Seven Jewish Children live in Chicago at the Rooms Gallery was easily the best theatrical experience of my life. About a year ago a friend of mine loaned me a collection of stuff by Foreman and it completely blew me away. Absolutely incredible use of theatrical convention and in my opinion, did Brecht's idea of breaking the illusion of a play far better than he could ever even imagine. I would love to see something by him live.

The recent stuff I have been getting into has been very theatrical in nature. At the 2010 Milwaukee Noise Fest, I performed the Beckett play A Piece of Monologue while controlling sound elements at the same time (a video of the performance can be found here). Also, at the Eric Lunde show in Chicago, I debuted a piece where I perform behind three giant Japanese lamp-styled set pieces. I'm not really too bent on doing too much with the Absurdist works, though, as it is so heavily based in the text. It doesn't lend itself well to adding music, because that takes attention away from what’s being said.

ST: Do you do any visual arts work?

PJW: Nope. The only thing I do that comes close to this is some simple set design stuff for the theatre things I do and design for my CDs, but even then I try to get other people to do it. Horrible fine motor skills get in the way.

ST: There's a very physical, cinematic impact to your work; the word I’d use is “deliberate.” A few months ago, when you sent me a few mp3s via email, "Scott Walker" and "Jason Crumer" were the first reference points that leapt to mind. Who do you consider your biggest musical influences? Whose albums could you survive on, without food or potable water, on a desert island for months at a stretch?

PJW: My musical influences are pretty widespread, both time wise and genre wise. There are a lot of bands that really inspired me to make music as a kid that, stylistically and thematically, I don't draw influence from at all anymore.

I grew up playing bass, so Primus was a huge influence on me in my earlier years. Still love that band to death, but I have no intention of sounding like them. I was first going to shows around the early 2000s, so a lot of metal-core bands from around that time have a big place in how I create music and becoming DIY. Mostly these were local Milwaukee bands, Textbook Traitors being the most important, but bands like Refused also had a place. Again, I still really like both of these bands. You Pull The Strings that Make Us Dance by Textbook Traitors is an incredible album and I will still argue that The Shape of Punk to Come is the greatest album of all time, but I don't intend on sounding like them—and I also disagree with a lot of what's being said on Shape.

In recent years, I have been pulling stuff from more old school hardcore (Minor Threat, Crass, Black Flag, etc), free jazz (Brotzmann in particular), first-wave post rock (Pele, Dianogah, Mercury Program, Slint), and a lot of noise stuff. David Phillips has been on high rotation. I recently shifted my live performances to be more theatrical, and David Phillips' performance at Neon Marshmallow, along with the Gerrit Wittmer/Paul Knowles performance last year, really inspired that. It was probably the best live musical performance I have ever seen. So incredibly powerful.

In terms of influencing me to get into noise, the early years were filled with Pedestrian Deposit, Bloodyminded, and a lot of Slogun. "Tearing Up Your Plans" got listened to about once a day for a long time. Such a great way to approach power electronics; so direct and incredibly minimal.

The one album I would need on the desert island is Shape of Punk to Come, but if I had to pick an artist it would probably be C Spencer Yeh. I haven't really enjoyed the drum machine/violin drone thing I have seen him do at the past two performances I have gotten to see, but I love so much of his recorded work. The man has an incredible ear for atmosphere, both how to reach it and how long to hold on to it. Challenger was really good, Blood Lightning 2007 is definitely a favorite noise release.

ST: Speaking of Yeh, have you had a chance to listen to Papercuts Theater yet? Mind blowing and all-eclipsing—my album of the year, hands-down.

PJW: No, I haven't. I’ll have to check it out. Almost all of the new music I get is from trades—really got to get around to listening to new stuff. I’ll have to check them out. I’ve been too busy listening to the Bryce Beverlin II and Crumbling Brain LPs, along with some Diagram A stuff. Also just got the new Climax Denial CD and have really been enjoying all of it. The Beverlin is my personal pick for best of the year, but I'll have to grab that Burning Star Core LP.

ST: I'll be interested to know what you think of it; it's 66 live takes spanning a decade-plus, seamlessly edited into four 16-minute pieces of various intensities.

PJW: That sounds like something I would really be interested in hearing. Guess I know where part of my next paycheck is going.

ST: I don't think I've ever heard any Climax Denial stuff. What's the best release to start with? 

PJW: If you can get your hands on a copy of Fragile Grace, do it. It’s a really old cassette but it’s still his best as far as I am concerned. The new CD—All Of My Loves Are Like Dreams—is awesome. Great production values on it. Impulse is also a great release. Plus it’s on cassette, which is the best way to experience him; it adds to the grit that he has been compiling over years of work. As far as I'm concerned, he's the only artist I have ever heard that has done something new with the theme of sexual dominance since Whitehouse. Putting himself as the victim, completely dominated and completely controlled. It’s really powerful at its best.

ST: I always wonder about this with noise artists. Have your parents and family heard your work? Do they understand and appreciate what you do, or do they find it confusing and alienating?

PJW: They have heard my work and are incredibly confused by it. No idea if they feel alienated, but I have definitely been shying away and disliking a lot of my parents’  artistic tastes. They haven't seen me play music in about eight years now. Regardless of that, though, they are still supportive and even buy a CD every once and a while to show off to their friends.

ST: Let's end with a bleaker question, shall we? Is there any hope for humanity?

PJW: Yeah! Eventually we will all die, and all of our problems will go away.

After Music Recordings will release the Songs for Nothing LP on February 14.

  • This guy and his work really remind me of the great WHITEHOUSE...swap the graphic sex for philosophical monologues. I love that he's doing power electronics stuff without being an oblivious idiot like a lot of harsh noise people.....clearly there is something behind what he's doing.

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