Globs and Monsters

After 18 years, Crawling With Tarts is still throwing musical elements at the wall to see what sticks

"There's a music of everyday life for people who are kind of removed from external life in some ways," says Michael Gendreau from his garage in Daly City, which is more avant-Romper Room than rock studio. Surrounded by gongs, bells, toy instruments, and antique electronics devices, he reluctantly attempts to summarize Crawling With Tarts, his lengthy musical endeavor with his wife, Suzanne Dycus-Gendreau.

"When Suzanne and I got together, it was in the context of playing in a band. We quickly split off from that, and our greatest interest at the time was to be alone. We never wanted to go back to being a pop band, but we never threw away any possibilities. Our interest in doing music has mainly been about feelings and emotions. It's a ritual for us."

For 18 years, that ritual has created some of the most diligently collected experimental records in the underground world, while keeping the band faceless in the eyes of the public. The group's releases typically feature abstract art for covers, its songs veer wildly from genre to genre, and live performances are about as common as three-sided toast. Even high-profile gigs at the Oakland Museum and Fillmore seemed more like freak blips on the radar than plotted points on a career trajectory. But now, after three years of little activity, Gendreau and Crawling With Tarts are coming out of self-imposed isolation. How far out remains to be seen.

Michael Gendreau met Suzanne Dycus in Santa Monica in 1983 when he joined her punk band Youth Camp, which also included her boyfriend. After collaborating on a punk fanzine called Youths Gone Camping, the duo fled town (and her boyfriend) and ran off to Mexico. When they eventually returned to California, they decided they had no interest in creating another rock band that was tied to conventional song structures and instrumentation.

"For us the musical expression was way more important than any kind of style or instrument," says Gendreau. The love-struck couple immediately started recording at home, incorporating self-made noisemakers, old records, and an odd assortment of percussion into standard guitar, bass, and drum tracks. The results ranged from noisy collages to almost free-jazz clatter to the occasional primitive pop number. Dycus-Gendreau's unaffected voice and poetic verse swelled amidst the duo's minimalist chord progressions and Gendreau's proggy drumming. (Madeline, released in 1995 on S.F.'s Silent Records, compiles the best of these songs.)

Over time Crawling With Tarts dispensed with its tenuous links to pop music, preferring to tinker with tape decks and xylophones instead of rehearsing a live set for clubgoers. "Once you start playing this kind of intuitive music, it's really hard to go back to "1-2-3-4, sing the song, play the guitar.' It just doesn't seem as fresh and exciting," says Dycus-Gendreau. As a result of their methods, the Tarts seldom played out; however, while Gendreau was attending UC Santa Cruz in the late '80s, the twosome got its own radio show at KZSC-FM. On the air, the pair indulged in songs, sounds, and absurd theme shows such as "The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots."

"We found that between the two of us, we didn't need the rest of the world, and if we had this form of music, we had the best form of expression in the world," Gendreau explains. "So we were hidden for many years."

The couple often chose to live in isolated locations -- a seven-acre ranch outside Santa Cruz, a house in the forest near Felton -- where they could concentrate on music. Dycus-Gendreau began populating these places with 3-foot-tall sculptures of colorful stick figures (now they line the walls of their garage). "Suzanne made these in a lot of ways to keep out evil spirits, protecting our isolation and our ability to live and work in peace," Gendreau says without irony. "We ran into a lot of little conflicts with neighbors who didn't really like us putting these strange totems in our front yard!"

Fearing that no "real" label would release the rustic and eclectic material the pair was creating, Crawling With Tarts formed ASP, a cassette-only label, in 1984. The two spent many hours crafting art for each release, silk-screening, block printing, Xeroxing, and painting the sleeves. Through OP magazine (later known as Option), the group discovered a growing number of home-recording artists who traded tapes across the globe. By joining this network, the Tarts had an outlet for a music far removed from the record industry.

"The first contact I had was with people from Europe, and then Japan," says Gendreau. "Now it's expanded to other parts of the world with participation from places like Russia and South America." The friendly response from overseas was a big encouragement, and the first Tarts cassette was quickly rereleased in Holland, with various labels in France selling subsequent albums. By the early '90s, ASP still remained the chief purveyor of CWT product, although the label switched to CD releases to meet the growing demand.

"A record company doesn't trust a band that isn't able to hold onto a particular style," Gendreau says in explanation of his continuing self-distribution. "That doesn't rule what we do, but it's important for us to have this freedom of trying different styles without people having expectations."

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